Doctor Who complete reviews: The Masque Of Mandragora
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Enough of the future. The Doc gets retrospective again...
Period dramas. The main staple of 90s BBC output - well, apart from cheap ‘n’ nasty docusoaps. Seems there was no escaping the period dramas, especially since I had to study the wretched things at university. Perhaps this accounts for why I dislike this genre so intensely. Or perhaps it’s due to the fact that they always seem to be the same: Simpering, lisping slip of a girl falls in love with some arrogant cad. Slip of a girl pouts endlessly. Cad broods. The two play endless, uninteresting mind games with each other until the inevitable end when they fall in love with each other. In a way though, I wish I enjoyed period dramas more, since the production values always look so sumptuous: The sets, costumes and locations have that glossy, expensive feel to them, almost as if they’re trying to distract the viewer from how samey the pedestrian plots are.
Now if the period dramas were a bit more like The Masque Of Mandragora, then I would have been interested. If The Time Warrior and Pyramids Of Mars dipped their arms in the pseudo historical water, then Mandragora really dives right in. It’s the perfect combination of historical melodrama, science fiction and horror, and launches season 14 in fine style.
A lot is demanded of season 14. The previous season was as close as you can get to perfect Doctor Who. However, this didn’t daunt Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, who not only matched the quality of the preceding season (the last part and a half of The Hand Of Fear aside), but raised the bar even higher. Season 14 is supremely confident, not only in its storytelling and production values, but also in its main man, who was to enjoy even more acclaim and success.
"The new TARDIS control room looks great, its quaint, old-fashioned style making a nice change from the usual futuristic design."
This confidence is seen in the fact that the first scene of the season doesn’t even have to try that hard. We fade up on The Doctor and Sarah taking a laidback tour of the TARDIS, finding huge boot CSO boot cupboards and discussing the merits of Sarah’s diminutive height. That’s all, but this slow-burner gradually gets more interesting as The Doctor and Sarah chance upon the oft-forgotten secondary control room, and worse still, a swirling vortex called the Mandragora Helix, which traps the TARDIS and sucks it through like a rubber duck in a gurgling bathtub.
It’s a great little sequence. The new TARDIS control room looks great, its quaint, old-fashioned style making a nice change from the usual futuristic design. It even has a shaving mirror in the middle of the console, complete with abandoned recorder and frilly shirt. The new control room is a clever little nod to Masque’s mix of science-fiction and history. And the actual sucking in of the TARDIS is well filmed with some effective distorted, rippling special effects, all to the strains of freaky Dudley Simpson music. It’s a cool prologue to the story, which sets everything up well - and before you know it, we’re rapidly transported to Renaissance Italy.
Setting the story in this time is a real masterstroke, since as The Doctor comments it’s the period between “The Dark Ages and the dawn of a new reason”. The Mandragora Helix energy needs a perfect opportunity to establish itself on Earth, and so seizes upon a brethren of hooded old fools as the conduit for control of the planet. Because the Renaissance offers a new period of learning and ambition, Mandragora does not want a rival power to its own - so it needs to “swallow the moon”. The Doctor angrily comments at one point that the forces of Mandragora will turn human beings into “idle, mindless, useless sheep”. Louis Marks’ scripts are among the most intelligent presented in the series - the setting of 15th century Italy isn’t some random whim, instead it’s a vital plot point.
Another clever trick that Marks pulls is to draw a parallel between the plans of Mandragora and the dastardly plans of Count Federico. The Count is completely oblivious as to what’s going on around him, as he’s too busy trying to kill his nephew Giuliano and seize control of the throne. The same theory applies here. If Federico succeeds, then his subjects will remain in the Dark Ages, as Giuliano offers a new, civilised way of looking at the world. He’s interested in exploring new fields of reason and science.
Marco scoffs at Giuliano’s ideas about the Earth moving rather than the stars, but we know that he’s absolutely right. Sarah later represents a more open-minded view of looking at the world, as she listens with a smile to Giuliano’s theory that the world isn’t flat. However, if Federico were to take control, any suggestion of learning would be allowed to take place - his subjects would only be educated in how to set fire to peasant carts.
"The Masque Of Mandragora is a prime example of how Doctor Who doesn’t have to dumb down or patronise its audience in order to be enjoyable."
It’s great stuff and The Masque Of Mandragora is a prime example of how Doctor Who doesn’t have to dumb down or patronise its audience in order to be enjoyable. While there’s food for thought, there’s still plenty of action and chills thrown into the bargain.
The machinations of Federico are a right laugh, especially since everyone else seems to be one step ahead of The Count. Federico is so caught up in his own bubble that he fails to see the bigger picture until the last minute, and even then he’s too obsessed with getting revenge on Hieronymous. Or kicking his luckless lackey around like a football. He’s also one of the hammiest villains in Who, strutting around with a permanent scowl on his face and bellowing over-ripe threats at anyone that crosses his path. Facially, he resembles Nick Cotton from EastEnders with a He-Man haircut, but that plummy voice can be heard from miles away, especially with the rolling Rrrrr’s. “I warn you Rrrrosssini, fail me and you will brrrrreakfast on burrrrrrning coals!” In fact, the higher the stress, the more Federico is a complete RRRRRs. It all comes to a head at the end of Part Three, when he confronts Hieronymous (who’s now turned into a shapeless glow). Stomping up to his seer, he rips off the mask with a mighty “YOU TRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!”, only to cower away in terror at Hieronymous’ new makeover. Before you know it, Federico’s on the receiving end of a Mandragora energy bolt that reduces him to an ash-flecked, smoking cape. Even if the character is a tad hammy, Jon Laurimore steals the show with a hugely enthusiastic performance full of gusto.
His nemesis is also another interesting character, and again, well acted by Norman Jones. Hieronymous cuts a rather pathetic figure - as he says to his High Priest in part two, he’s despised by Federico, disregarded by Giuliano and considered a laughing stock by the “wise fools”. It also doesn’t help that he’s saddled with a great big comedy beard, a sort of embryonic ZZ Top affair that’s presumably got a life of its own. However, Hieronymous’ faith in Mandragora is the first example of how faith and trust don’t really hold court in season 14. The Doctor and Sarah are fooled by Eldrad. Goth is fooled by The Master. Neeva is fooled by Xoanon. Chang is fooled by Magnus Greel. And so, Hieronymous, with all his lofty ambitions, is ultimately reduced to a disembodied ball of energy with no real persona of his own - that’s his reward for being a devoted disciple of Mandragora.
"The production of Masque is fortunately just as good as the script. It looks like a million dollars..."
Giuliano, a dead ringer for 70s singer James Taylor, is about the only sympathetic supporting character in Masque, along with his faithful buddy, Marco. They’re very well played by Gareth Armstrong and Tim Piggott-Smith, with the sensitive and unsure Giuliano always taking advice from the more headstrong Marco (even The Doctor shushes Marco at one point after he bellows advice in his lughole). And it’s also nice to see on the DVD documentary, that despite a long, distinguished career, Piggott-Smith is hugely enthusiastic about working on Doctor Who all those years ago.
The production of Masque is fortunately just as good as the script. It looks like a million dollars, thanks to its evocative location filming (in Portmeirion, which suitably convinces as 15th century Italy) and lavish sets from Barry Newbery. This is another well-directed tale from Rodney Bennett, too, who provides genuine atmosphere throughout the story. He really knows how to stage a cliffhanger for example. Part two’s cliffhanger is three-tiered, with The Doctor trying to drown out Mandragora noise, Giuliano doing battle with Federico’s guards and Sarah having a nasty encounter with the Brethren. Bennett manages to keep the tension going in all three scenarios, although the end of part three is just as good with its dramatic reveal of blank-faced Hieronymous and that chilling score from Dudley Simpson (who’s on top form throughout the story - I love the squeaky Mandragora motif).
For another season full of violence and scares, Masque does get a bit overlooked, but with its charred cadavers, it’s still quite grim stuff. In particular, we’re treated to frequent close-ups of the badly burned body of the gate soldier - Whitehouse presumably thought twice about having barbecues at this point. On the subject of the soldier, it does pose a question about why he sounds like he comes from Oop North. “Meeek weee for Count Fed’rico!” he bellows as his master rides past. We also get a pikeman who sounds like he’s from the East End of London rather than San Martino. “Naaaah, oy ain’t goin’ in veeer Gavaaahhhneee!” he pipes up after debating whether to follow The Doctor into the devillish catacombs. Presumably, Giovanni and - let’s call him Charlie - went to look for an East End-themed tavern to get plastered after they successfully found The Doctor and Sarah. Job daaahhhn mate.
Despite the EastEnders and Vernon Kay soundalikes, The Masque Of Mandragora is a highly accomplished launch of Season 14. It keeps up the gothic scares for the kids, while telling a detailed, multi-layered tale for the older viewers. And it is a visual marvel - not many Doctor Who stories manage to look as striking as this. For once, the period setting really does pay off, and in a story that manages to enlighten and entertain in equal measures.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.