The stars will not be mocked!
Typically, the Doctor arrives in media res, the disaster at hand already set into motion. Louis Marks’ “The Masque of Mandragora” (Story Production Code 4M) instead posits the Doctor as the proximate, though unwitting, cause of all the story’s problems. The series to date has rarely employed this technique, and seldom with such drastic consequences; one must go back to the First Doctor and “The Ark” for an analogous example of the Doctor being so directly responsible for so much death and destruction.
While the Doctor gives Sarah Jane a belated tour of the TARDIS, complete with stop in a Victorian-inspired secondary control room, a mysterious force pulls the wayward police box into the Mandragora Helix, a vortex of conscious, malevolent energy. When the TARDIS finally thuds to a stop against a pitch black backdrop, the Doctor and Sarah step out to explore, allowing a mote of Mandragora to sneak aboard unseen. That bit of Helix energy then directs the TARDIS to the pseudo-historical city-state of San Martino on the Italian peninsula in the fifteenth century.
The Doctor dismisses the detour as an interesting side effect of their stop in the Helix, occupied as he is by the fact that robed cultists kidnap Sarah and knock him unconscious scant minutes after landing. It’s not until the Doctor sees a peasant roasted by a glowing red orb that he realizes that he has brought sentient Mandragora energy to Earth. He’s rather aghast at the prospect.
If the kidnappy cultists and the scarlet orb of doom weren’t enough, the Doctor must also contend with courtly intrigue. Giuliano, the young heir apparent, struggles against his uncle, Count Frederico, for control of San Martino in the wake of the Giuliano’s father’s death, which had been foretold (and caused) by the court astrologer, Hieronymus. The first of four episodes, having established all these forces, ends with a double cliffhanger, Sarah about to be sacrificed by the cultists and the Doctor captured and facing beheading on orders of Frederico. No pacing problems in this story, as season fourteen starts with drive (and doublets).
One scarf-assisted trip of the executioner later, the Doctor leads Frederico’s guards on a slapstick caper through a Renaissance marketplace outfitted with all the Italianate costumes in the BBC wardrobe before winding up in the abandoned catacombs beneath the city, where he stumbles into Sarah’s star turn as a sacrifice to Demnos, an outlawed pagan deity. After slipping Sarah from the altar while the cultists are in a trance, the Doctor escapes with his companion thanks to the appearance of the Mandragora energy, which restores the Temple of Demnos to its original, gory glory.
By the time the story stops to catch its breath, the Doctor and Sarah have teamed up with Giuliano, a budding man of science who has invited the greatest minds of the era to attend his coronation, despite the fact that one of his guards has been charred by the Helix energy. Thanks to an observation by Sarah, the Doctor realizes that the Mandragora energy intends to use the nascent Cult of Demnos to take over the Earth before humanity has a chance to fully enter into the Renaissance, a task eased by having the most learned scholars in the land all in one place.
Once an intergalactic energy force bent on world conquest enters the stage, it’s easy for the more banal human villains such as Frederico and astrologer/secret cult leader Hieronymus to fade into the background, but Louis Marks and director Rodney Bennett manage to keep their menace intact. Absent Frederico in particular, the Doctor and Giuliano would have a far easier time investigating the cult; Frederico represents in human form the ignorance both the Doctor and the young prince fight against. His ruthless demeanor proves a force against which the Doctor simply cannot fight with logic and reason. And as Mandragora requires time to channel all its energy through Hieronymus, the power-mad cultist must suffer Frederico’s insults and demands. Until, of course, Hieronymus turns into a being of pure energy and disintegrates the haughty count.
Indeed, after Frederico is dispatched and the more immediate threat to Giuliano, the Doctor, and Sarah has been removed, the story loses something. Other than kidnapping Sarah twice (and brainwashing her once), the cult mostly sits in the catacombs, biding time. The final episode devolves into the Doctor thinking real hard, lots of dancing at the eponymous masque held in Giuliano’s honor (despite the town being surrounded by masked cultists), and a trick reveal at the end that doesn’t make much sense.
The Doctor essentially wraps wires around the cult’s altar to channel all the Mandragora energy back into space (or some such thing). The Doctor drains the energy from Hieronymus with this trap but then needs to remove the remaining Mandragora power from the rest of the cultists, whom he lures back to the altar after they apparently electro-roast most of the finest thinkers in Italy at the masque. Given that he dons Hieronymus’ purple robes and golden mask to order them to return to the altar, one wonders why he didn’t do so prior to the massacre.
At best, he was simply too late to save everyone, but it’s a clumsy ending to a story imbued with much promise, especially as everything wraps up on a high note, with Giuliano escorting our time travellers to the TARDIS, gifting the Doctor with a large salami in farewell. (No, really.) There’s time for joking, plenty of long shots of a jester juggling flaming batons, and enough elaborate courtly dances to require a dozen extras, but seemingly no room for even a throw-away line about how those people were really just stunned or something similar, suggesting that they probably were killed. Not the Doctor’s finest day, then, but one wouldn’t know it from all the smiles.
And smile Tom Baker does, imbuing the Fourth Doctor with ample quantities of that particular brand of manic energy that has come to define his regeneration. Almost six months have passed since the final episode of season thirteen’s “The Seeds of Doom” aired, and the break in production has paid dividends for our Time Lord. He throws himself into the fight and chase scenes with gusto, and his verbal delivery is on point. Tom Baker is in full command of this character.
Elisabeth Sladen, in her penultimate adventure, fares far worse, with Sarah Jane spending the better part of the story captured and tied up. Her portrayal of being hypnotized works well, however, giving Sladen the ability to shade her usual portrayal of Sarah Jane just enough to seem off to regular viewers. Having her trigger the insight the Doctor needs to understand Mandragora’s plan also fits in nicely with the character’s established role as a critical observer. She even gets to preside over the first use of the word “companion” to describe the Doctor’s, well, companions, since Jon Pertwee’s era:
Hieronymus: “Now, we must return you to the Doctor’s side. How glad he will be to see his young companion.”
Not to be left out of the character development, the TARDIS itself features quite prominently in the first episode, giving us the longest extended look inside in several seasons. A number of William Hartnell’s stories used an extended control room for staging, unveiling food banks and beds, but “The Masque of Mandragora” is the first story to take us on a walk through various corridors in the TARDIS, including a look at a giant room used, says the Doctor, as a boot cupboard and the dusty secondary control room festooned with remembrances of the Second and Third Doctors. Building the extra sets took money that in prior stories almost certainly went toward the main action, but the expense here goes a long way in suggesting that there are adventures that took place off screen, deepening the series’ lore without having to actually come up with the adventures. It’s the sign of a series that is confident it will be around for some time to come, making a long-term investment in sets that are used but briefly here.
The “Masque of Mandragora” opens with the notion of the Doctor’s fallibility, a point Sarah makes implicitly as she notes that the Doctor has guessed wrong more than once in her time with him. His whole purpose in staying to help is driven by the need to correct his error in bringing Mandragora to Earth. By the end, though, Marks backtracks, with Mandragora, speaking through Hieronymus, declaring that had the Doctor not fallen into the Helix, it would have used some other traveller to carry out its plan to prevent humanity from ever reaching the stars and posing a threat to Mandragoran dominance in the universe. The further refusal to dwell on the disaster left in the wake of the Doctor’s visit takes away from his protestations that the danger this time is as bad as it has ever been. It’s clear, then, that the series, for all the mature and occasionally dark story lines since the start of the thirteenth season, steadfastly refuses to allow its hero to be the same, to be flawed in any deep—any meaningful—way.
(Previous Story: The Seeds of Doom)
(Next Story: The Hand of Fear)
Post 89 of the Doctor Who Project