“The Masque of Mandragora” is the first adventure of the fourteenth season of “Doctor Who” classic series, which aired in 1976. It follows “The Seeds of Doom” and it’s a four parts adventure written by Louis Marks and directed by Rodney Bennett.
The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) is showing Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) various rooms inside the Tardis and at some point they reach its secondary control room. The Doctor activates the screen and see that there’s a living energy vortex, known as Mandragora Helix. The Tardis travels through it and when eventually rematerializes and lands, it brings a fragment along with it.
The Duke of San Martino is dying and passes away exactly in the day that the astrologer Hieronymous predicted. His son Giuliano becomes the new Duke but doesn’t believe in superstitions and in fact there’s a plot carried out by Hieronymous together with Count Federico to take over the city. The arrival of the Doctor and Sarah Jane, who unknowingly carry a fragment of alien energy, makes the situation even more dangerous.
This DVD contains a good amount of extras. There are typical contents such as production subtitles, a gallery of pictures from this adventure, the Radio Times Listings and a promo of the “Doctor Who” DVDs soon to be published.
There are various comments in the adventure existing episodes’ alternative audio track by the protagonist Tom Baker, actor Gareth Armstrong, producer Philip Hinchcliffe and assistant floor manager Chris D’Oyly-John.
The Secret of the Labyrinth. A documentary about 26 minutes long on the production of this adventure. Compared with the average extra of this kind in my opinion this one is better because it’s based in particular on the memories of producer Philip Hinchcliffe.
Bigger on the Inside. A documentary about 19 minutes long about the history and the evolution of the look and especially the interior of the Tardis.
Now and Then. A comparison of the current appearance of the places in the village of Portmeirion where this adventure was shot and what they looked like at the time.
Beneath the Masque. A tongue-in-cheek documentary showing the historical impact of the events of this adventure.
Trails and Continuity. Various BBC trailers of the time of this adventure’s original broadcast.
The producer Philip Hinchcliffe was pleased with the success of the adventure “Pyramids of Mars” and for the following season wanted to offer another one set in Earth’s history. The script editor Robert Holmes wasn’t convinced about that kind of choice and Hinchcliffe decided that the new adventure had to contain science fiction elements.
An inspiration came from the 1964 movie “The Masque of the Red Death” by Roger Corman, based on the famous story by Edgar Allan Poe. Philip Hinchcliffe decided to set the adventure in Italy during the Renaissance while avoiding to include historical characters to prevent the plot from concentrating too much on them. The screenplay writing was commissioned to Louis Marks, who had already written a number of them in previous seasons and knew that historical period thanks to his university studies.
A new thing for the fourteenth season involved the Tardis. The old model used in previous years went to pieces at the end of the previous season and a new one was built. For the occasion, Philip Hinchcliffe decided to adopt a new control room in order to create a set easier to handle during the shooting because the old control room always created technical difficulties. In the end, the classic middle column with the control console was maintained but the appearance of the new room was completely different.
The Portmeirion village, famous mainly because it was used for the cult series “The Prisoner”, was chosen for the filming of what became “The Masque of Mandragora” for its architecture inspired to the Mediterranean regions that fit well to a story set in Italy in the Renaissance. Generally it was easy to obtain suitable costumes in the BBC warehouses but for once that turned out to be complex, so much that some of them were sought abroad.
“The Masque of Mandragora” has a plot inspired by some Shakespeare’s works with the addition of the science fiction element. British actors always have experience with those works so for them it’s easy to get into that kind of role and play it in a convincing manner. In a plot based very much on the relationships among the characters that’s crucial.
For the audience it’s easy to follow the various intrigues that develop in the court of San Martino and also another basic theme of this adventure, that of science against superstition. The Renaissance was a period of strong clashes between the growing rationalism arising from the birth of modern science and religious dogmatism.
The astrologer Hieronymous offers his predictions for the noblemen of San Martino but young Giuliano doesn’t believe in those superstitions. Behind the alleged supernatural phenomena, there are human interventions and at some point there is an alien one, caused by the energy called Mandragora Helix. At that time, scientific knowledge was too limited to recognize an alien presence and only the Doctor can explain it rationally.
In fact, there are no real explanations about the motives for this energy living in attacking the Doctor and its actions in San Martino. It’s simply an entity functional to that plot. I think that such a choice is the main flaw of “The Masque of Mandragora”. A greater development of this element in my opinion would’ve strengthened a story that at times seemed to me a bit dull and in general derivative.
“The Masque of Mandragora” is also the adventure where for the first time they address the question of why everywhere they go the Doctor and his companions manage to speak without problems with the locals. It’s a vague explanation that will be developed over the years.
“The Masque of Mandragora” is an excellent adventure for its production values because for once the classic “Doctor Who” series didn’t look cheap. There are a few special effect that are not extraordinary but to me they all look more than acceptable in a production of the ’70s.
The story doesn’t completely convince me but I’m not a great lover of adventures set in that historical period. The basic themes seemed to me well developed and the extras in the DVD are of good quality so overall my judgment is positive and I recommend buying it, especially if you like those themes and setting.