The Masque of Mandragora

DVDFrom DWM #418, and after this one was published, one esteemed colleague texted me to say he thought I’d  found my voice. And another also got in touch to tell me how disappointed they were with one of my remarks.

DWM #418“There is a growing taste for science fantasy and romance, and I believe we should try and meet it.”

See that? That’s Doctor Who’s then producer, Philip Hinchcliffe, talking up the return of his show for its 14th season in a 1976 edition of Radio Times. Proof the dreaded r-word was bandied around the Who universe (‘Whoniverse’ isn’t DWM style, surely?) long before Paul McGann left a fleck of dribble on Daphne Ashbrook’s chin.

Fair’s fair, though. When we say romance, we – and Hinchcliffe – actually mean it in the genre sense rather than the ‘quick spot of genetic transference with the companion’ iteration of modern times. And The Masque of Mandragora – the specific story Hinchcliffe was promoting (these reviews don’t just throw themselves together) – is about as romantic as Doctor Who gets, with its yards of crushed velvet and a Shakespearean family warring with each other… plus their milliner if those hats are anything to go by.

It’s also Tom Baker’s first true historical adventure. Granted, Pyramids of Mars was set in 1911, but yomping around an old Priory and messing with a marconiscope hardly feels like a distillation of post-Edwardian England. Here the coordinates are set for Fifteenth Century Italy and an adventure that works harder than most to get out there and evoke time and place. Although it never truly succeeds in either (one soldier to another, in full-on Walford brogue: “I ain’t goin’ in there, Giovanni”) it’s not to the story’s detriment. The glorious location filming at Italianate resort village Portmerion, the declamatory dialogue, ornately coiffured men in burgundy tabards, flurries of swordplay – it all adds to the richness. We really feel we’re outside the catchment of the M25 and off somewhere in the past… albeit a generic BBC costume-drama past, but that’s good enough.

To give it some context, The Masque of Mandragora – in which the Doctor brings an evil energy helix to San Martino where it gets busy stunting the Renaissance – falls into that rarely discussed sub-set of Who tales you simply have to watch, or rather hear, in order to nail down the pronunciation of its key element. So, that’s Man-DRAG-erah. And while we’re here, let’s add further justification for DWM’s price rise and give you: Bor-OO-sah (The Deadly Assassin), Metter-BE-liss Three (Planet of the Spiders) and Log-OP-oh-liss (guess). NB: All pronunciations ratified by Doctor Who’s Gary Russell, the show’s one-man high council of Who lore. Russellon, if you will.

Masque also provided that great Doctor Who Annual stock-shot of Tom Baker brandishing a sword. And it’s surprising that, when he gets the chance, this incarnation of the Time Lord – the cosmic boho – is less about the burgeoning high culture and more about bludgeoning guards.

But it’s the Doctor at the height of his powers. When Sarah is kidnapped by Hieronymous’ rent-a-cult in episode one, the Time Lord intercedes with an impassive “Stop”. It’s a line unusually under-delivered by Tom Baker, but all the more impressive for it, the sheer weight of the Doctor’s character providing resonance. Here, indeed, is a hero who nonchalantly disarms a swordsman by sticking an orange on the tip of his blade, who’s got a football rattle stashed in his pocket just in case, who turns his back on his possessed companion even though he knows she’s set on his murder, and who defeats his foe at the end with a nifty cheat (impersonating Hieronymous, I ask you) and then declares: “I wouldn’t say no to a salami sandwich”. Such effortless cool, but never too flippant. As Mandragora’s grip tightens, the Doctor tells Sarah “things are desperately bad, but we can only do our best and hope.”

Hope, indeed, as the time travellers are pitted against a trio of evils, who are ultimately dispatched in ascending order of danger. Oddly, it’s the first of the three, Count Federico, who most impresses. Played by a fruity Jon Laurimore, he’s a man who knows his R’s from his elbow, rolling that consonant hard whenever he gets the chance (“You trrrraitorrrr!). He also essays a wonderfully ripe line in threatening banter. “If you are making sport with us Doctor”, he cautions in part one, “we shall make sport with your body!” He continues in this vein in part three, declaring: “Before sunrise I want to see Giuliano’s liver fed to the dogs” and then: “Fail me and you will breakfast on burning coals”.

There’s also a fantastic running joke where umpteen scenes begin as Federico is attended to by an old retainer, who’s lovingly daubing a warm flannel around his master’s mouth, fetching clean linen or carefully applying his boots. But, as soon as these moments are interrupted, the Count guiltily kicks the elderly servant away, seemingly fearful word may get out of their tender assignations.

Hieronymous, played by Norman Jones, isn’t quite so effective, but that’s more down to the character’s remit. When Doctor Who takes on the supernatural or the spiritual it often equates to lots of hooded folk moping around in the dark, droning out a litany of macabre nonsense. And so mote it be, as the Brethren of Demnos offer plentiful, dreary praise to their idol. Nonetheless, the astromancer does get some fun moments, even though we can safely predict his soothsayer act will eventually get a right kicking from the Doctor and his good friend, Hard Science. One such bit occurs shortly after Hieronymous has fallen in with Mandragora. The old fella sits in happy reverie. “The entire Earth, mine!” he mutters, considering treats to come… then the Count arrives to snap him out of it.

In the end, of course, we’re left with Mandragora itself. One of the series’ more conceptual menaces, we never quite get a handle on what it actually is, other than terribly threatening. But it’s generally portrayed well. Granted, the laughter that accompanies its early manifestation (“Hur! Hur! Hur!”) sounds dopey, but as an intergalactic sparkler burning up a lake, or its later incarnation as the all-consumed Hieronymous, hiding behind that wonderfully sinister ever-grinning mask, it’s very effective indeed.

Oh yes, there are many riches to enjoy in The Masque of Mandragora – from the oblique explanation of the Time Lords’ “gift” for language translation, to Sarah’s odd way of munching unpeeled citrus fruit (never ask her to compare apples and oranges – or is she just taking the pith here?). Less fulfilling are the characters of Giuliano (Gareth Armstrong) and Marco (Tim Piggott-Smith) who are almost Peladonic in terms of being wet toffs. But it doesn’t really matter. Mandragora is set to swallow the Moon, and, again, while it’s never quite clear what that means, it sounds very exciting.

One of Doctor Who’s sturdiest efforts, the tale speaks of a production team confident in their vision of the show. So confident, in fact, this season opener begins with the most low key scene imaginable – the Doctor and Sarah mooching about the TARDIS, as though giving a dinner guest a dutiful tour of the house before the hors d’oeuvres are set down. But, as we all know, that’s not the case at all. Instead it’s the slightly baffling and understated introduction to the secondary console room, of which… well let’s dip back into that Radio Times again and see what Philip Hinchcliffe had to say. “We invited members of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society to inspect the controls and I’m assured they’re in good working order.”

For this reviewer, the favourite detail about the new set isn’t the cute stained glass roundels, or Pertwee’s discarded jacket. It’s the console’s focal piece. “That looks like a shaving mirror,” says Sarah. Silly lady. Surely it’s a Xtonic sunlight reflector? Or a high intensity refractor set up to detect lurking Vashta Nerada. But no. As confirmed by the Doctor, it’s just a shaving mirror. The notion of our time travelling hero tussling with a razor while on the go – like some late-running commuter on the Victoria Line – is just another example of why this show is so special.

DVD extras

There’s some seriously good stuff here. Bigger on the Inside explores the innards of the TARDIS, and its changing design. Lurching towards ‘proper’ documentary status (as in, you could screen this on BBC Four) its contributors come from further afield than just the world of Doctor Who beards – although art writer Francesca Gavin’s attempts to link the shape of the roundels with the appearance of the Daleks is perhaps a case of joining one too many dots (or skirt balls). Meanwhile, Christopher H Bidmead sits in front of a cabinet of monster heads. Trophies, perhaps, of eras of the show (other than his own) he’s successfully savaged. While some liken the TARDIS to CS Lewis’s wardrobe, he sees it as a computer directory containing untold subfolders. The romance!

The Secret of the Labyrinth takes some of Masque’s principal players back to Portmerion for an engaging remembrance of how the story was made. Over three decades on, Production Unit Manager Chris D’Oyly-John is still fretting about the expense of it all, while Tim Piggott-Smith describes the chance of getting to appear in Doctor Who as “the best work going”.

A Now and Then featurette, revealing where various scenes were staged, is slightly marred by a disinterested voiceover, but buoyed up by the reproduction of some old paperwork, which reveals a neat little hat’n’scarf motif at the head of a memo. Moffat, take note. Turns out you weren’t first with that insignia idea.

As ever, there are also trails, continuity bits and a picture album to enjoy – plus a DVD commentary, which was unavailable as we went to press. And then…

Oh boy. What to say about Beneath the Masque of The Mask of Mandragora? A 10-minute spoof documentary, it can comfortably be awarded the prize of funniest Doctor Who DVD extra ever… but, then, with this range’s history, such an accolade pretty much over-stretches the idiom “damned with faint phrase”. It’s an alternately genius and monstrous production, although, I’m fairly certain that’s how its creators/stars Clayton Hickman and Gareth Roberts wanted it. The generic 1960s adventure bit (‘The Smoke of Foam’), the directives for the new TARDIS exterior (“Rubbish light please! Make roof wrong!”) and the mock-up of a 1980s BBC VHS Masque release are howlingly funny. But the comedy credits and the Andrew Pixley spoof (which invokes a rather dodgy cultural stereotype) are just howlers.

Plus, the sight of Clay and Gareth in drag surely merits the release’s recertification. Mandragora be damned. Now I’ve got nightmares.

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