The Masque of Mandragora ****

The Mandragora Helix – a "vortex of vomit swirling down a loo pan" – heralds a renaissance for Doctor Who

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Doctor Who story guide
Patrick Mulkern
Patrick Mulkern
The Masque of Mandragora ****

Season 14 – Story 86

"A heavenly ball of fire has come down to Earth. It could consume everything in its path" - the Doctor

Storyline
In space, the Tardis is ensnared by the Mandragora Helix, a spiral of energy with a malign intelligence at its centre. The Doctor and Sarah escape but inadvertently transport a ball of Helix energy to their next destination: San Martino in Renaissance Italy. Here, wicked Count Federico is plotting to seize the dukedom from his nephew, Giuliano, while court astrologer Hieronymous is revealed as leader of the ancient cult of Demnos. Mandragora intends to use the brethren to return Earth to the Dark Ages…

First transmissions
Part 1 - Saturday 4 September 1976
Part 2 - Saturday 11 September 1976
Part 3 - Saturday 18 September 1976
Part 4 - Saturday 25 September 1976

Production
Location filming: May 1976 at Portmeirion, north Wales
Studio recording: May/June 1976 at TC3

Cast
Doctor Who - Tom Baker
Sarah Jane Smith - Elisabeth Sladen
Count Federico - John Laurimore
Prince Giuliano - Gareth Armstrong
Hieronymous - Norman Jones
Marco - Tim Pigott-Smith
Captain Rossini - Antony Carrick
High priest - Robert James
Brother - Brian Ellis
Soldier - Pat Gorman
Titan voice - Peter Tuddenham
Entertainer - Stuart Fell

Crew
Writer - Louis Marks
Incidental music - Dudley Simpson
Designer - Barry Newbery
Script editor - Robert Holmes
Producer - Philip Hinchcliffe
Director - Rodney Bennett

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
"Dr Who's renaissance" was how Radio Times introduced season 14 in 1976. Producer Philip Hinchcliffe remarked that "viewers are increasingly sophisticated" and that the programme needed to keep up. But was this truly the dawn of a new age?

Doctor Who never looked more polished. There's an air of confidence in the writing and performances. The fourth Doctor has matured before our eyes and is entering his golden age. He's surprisingly heroic: sword-fighting, flipping aside assailants and leaping onto horses - albeit much of it doubled by stuntman Terry Walsh in a dodgy wig. And Sarah's days are numbered, which will mean a clean break with the past.

There are subtle changes on screen: a brand-new police box exterior. More radically, the Doctor and Sarah stumble upon a second Tardis control room, one that better befits Tom Baker's personality: studious, mahogany, monastic. (Barry Newbery's set would sadly only survive one season, but influenced designs in 1995 and 21st-century Who.)

Some wonderful half-hours of television lie ahead, but rather than a rebirth, Doctor Who is heading for an awkward transition period, which would see the full flowering and sudden demise of the Holmes/Hinchcliffe partnership and their horror/literary pastiches.

But for starters we have another "pseudo-historical" romp, Robert Holmes having revised his opinion on this sub-genre after his success with The Time Warrior and Pyramids of Mars. Such serials could take advantage of the BBC's expertise in period drama and have stood the test of time better than their present-day and futuristic cousins.

The Masque of Mandragora is a literate script from Louis Marks, ideally chosen for his intimate knowledge of the Renaissance. It's dressed as a traditional spook-fest with skulduggery for clearly defined heroes and villains, but the peripheral detail convinces and the core concept is intriguing.

Mandragora intercedes at a turning point in history. As the Doctor puts it, this is "the period between the Dark Ages of superstition and the dawn of a new reason". Prince Giuliano represents that wisdom, but is wrong when he says, "We make our own lives, Marco, not the stars." For now Earth's fate is directly influenced by an astral force, and salvation depends on a man from the stars - the Doctor. At a time when astronomy is in its infancy and heretical, astrology holds sway. And Hieronymous's faith in the stars proves well founded.

In his third Who role Norman Jones is suitably loathsome as beardy astromancer Hieronymous. Indeed, all the supporting characters are well cast by director Rodney Bennett. With his Borgia-like profile, John Laurimore is perfect as Federico. As open-minded Giuliano, Gareth Armstrong remains manly despite a girly wig, while Tim Pigott-Smith imbues Marco with all the grandeur of an actor on day-release from the RSC.

In RT, Hinchcliffe spoke of the story being "positively Shakespearean". Well, the entire cast (bar Elisabeth Sladen) is male, as was common in this antediluvian period of Who. The court intrigue (idealistic prince realises his wicked uncle has killed his father) is lifted from Hamlet. Giuliano and Marco could be Romeo and Mercutio. Some commentators have pegged them as Who's first homosexual couple but there's little to substantiate this. (In any case, Oak and Quill from 1968's Fury from the Deep win my award.)

Hinchcliffe had caught The Masque of the Red Death (the Vincent Price horror film) on TV and decided a masked ball would lift the finale. It does. Elisabeth Sladen looks wonderful dolled up on the dance floor, although it's ludicrous that the dance goes ahead with the palace under attack from the brethren. Giuliano promises "the most learned men of all Italy, scholars, artists, men of the new sciences" including Leonardo Da Vinci are attending. To our (and the Doctor's) disappointment, we never see them.

Here and throughout, the costumes and music are superb. Newbery's intricate interiors cleverly mirror the style of Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio. The Portmeirion exteriors are gorgeous, too. We never once think of north Wales or The Prisoner.

Perhaps the only feeble note is the representation of the Helix - a vortex of vomit swirling down a loo pan, it leads to a void decorated with bath salts. Its fireballs work better and leave behind turquoise-charred corpses. But did no one spot parallels between Mandragora and the Intelligence from the 1960s Yeti stories?

In all, it's satisfying telly but I'm left wondering: what really did happen to Hieronymous? And will we ever see Mandragora's return assault on 20th-century Earth promised at the end?

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Feature

[Available on BBC DVD]

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