This is Louis Marks’s fourth and final Doctor Who story, and it exhibits the same problem as the other three. There isn’t quite enough plot to stretch over four episodes. For this reason I find his stories quite hard going, with the exception of the magnificent Planet of Giants, which had its problems solved by being edited down to three episodes. His other three stories were all in need of the same treatment. He was a great ideas man, coming up with a lot of interesting stuff, but he never could get the pacing right in a Doctor Who story, so this does drag a bit.
The core idea is a good one, and you can see why Elisabeth Sladen wanted to stick around for this, with an alien entity influencing a cult in Renaissance Italy. Louis Marks studied this period of history at university and you can see the value in writing about what you know, because it is a very authentic approach, showing us a time of progression away from superstition, but with the battle not won by the end of the story. Although the theme is superficially to do with the Doctor defeating astrology-based superstition with science, Marks does this in a frustratingly hazy way.
Firstly, Hieronymous appears to have some genuine pre-existing abilities that are not connected with the Mandragora helix. I am all for Doctor Who being fantasy with a veil of sci-fi, which is why I keep harping on about it on this site, and it nearly always fits that category, but when the magic shown to be working is astrology-based, that’s when things start to unravel. As much as I enjoy one of the stories that is held up as an example of pure sci-fi being anything but that, Doctor Who hedging its bets about a superstition that relies on connections between stars that are unrelated in any way other than their two-dimensional appearance from Earth is not the kind of fantasy I can build up any enthusiasm for.
Secondly the Doctor’s defeat of the Mandragora helix is science-based, and works well when you drill down into it, with the Doctor conducting the energy safely by turning himself into a kind of lightning rod, but it is rather wrapped up in technobabble. Then, the victory is shown to be temporary, with the helix as a sort of force of un-nature that will inevitably return. So science really doesn’t defeat superstition in the end, if you look at the thematic parallels.
So the central idea is fudged, but there is more to enjoy here. It’s just that a lot of the other bits and pieces are under-developed. Everything that happens here is caused by the Doctor, who brings the helix to Earth in the TARDIS, but the implications of him being the source of death and destruction are glossed over. This would have been a good opportunity to question that more closely. Giuliano and Marco are an interesting couple to say the least; we can’t expect a clearer statement of the nature of their relationship in 1976, but there are some blatant hints and the actors obviously understood the nature of the roles they were portraying and the line they were treading here. The imagery of the cult is just what we would expect, all black cloaks and masks, and Hieronymous has a glorious evil beard. The masks are genuinely creepy, as is the blank-faced Hieronymous when he is possessed, something our brains are hard-wired to find disturbing. Elsewhere there is more inventiveness in the design, most notably the new version of the TARDIS control room, which is all Victorian steampunky and as such years ahead of its time. It is the one example of a classic series TARDIS interior that doesn’t go down the obvious futuristic route, showing a level of maturity in its approach to future technology that hadn’t even been recaptured by the end of the 80s when the original run of Doctor Who came to an end. There is no reason why the future has to be a place where aesthetic tastes depart completely, but the understanding of that in 20th Century sci-fi set design is a rarity.
And my favourite moment of the story is actually one that is set inside the TARDIS, where Sarah Jane finds a boot cupboard. It’s a large living room with one pair of wellies by the door. Sarah finds this odd, but the Doctor simply says, “I’ve seen bigger boot cupboards”. Magnificent. RP
The view from across the pond:
When I was a kid, it was all about the “monsters”. In Star Trek, I loved the Gorn and the “Salt Vampire”. Even the Talosians were pretty great. When I found Doctor Who, the Zygons and the Kraals, Eldred and Morbius… these were fascinating to me. I did not understand the allure of the Daleks, which were basically trash bins that rolled around. The things that didn’t click at all for me were the odd things like Star Trek’s Dove, which was just a spinning white light. Was that supposed to be impressive looking? As an adult, I think that episode is profound but as a kid… what was it? Doctor Who had a similar creature that I just could not grasp (which turns out to be a good thing since it would have incinerated me) in the form of The Mandragora Helix. So it was a bright light or people in masks! What was scary about people going to a costume ball wearing masks? Isn’t that the way you’re supposed to go to a costume ball?
Yet The Masque of the Mandragora is scary and it wouldn’t be until I was much older that I could appreciate this dark tale. Those immobile faces are incredibly impressive. Yes, faces where the actor can be seen might be better, but these were scary! And when Federico removes Heironymous’s mask at the end of part three and it is revealed that nothing of the original person was under the mask… that image is embedded in my memory to this day. It’s a terrifying image. Even the end of part one, where the Doctor is forced to his knees for the executioner’s block, this very real death is unnerving and surprising that the infamous Ms. Mary Whitehouse didn’t complain more about it. (It’s revealed in the next episode that during the same time the Doctor is about to be beheaded, Sarah Jane is on her way to be sacrificed on an altar. Dark imagery indeed!)
The cast of characters is great. Giuliano represents a new way of thought: science, reason. His trusted friend Marco serves a as a good advisor to him, suggesting when an action may be considered too weak. He’s a balance between Giuliano and his uncle Federico. Federico represents the old ways, using tyranny to control. Heironymous makes a great villain mixing the old ways with superstition. As despicable as Federico is, Heironymous is worse. And if Shakespeare is to be believed that there’s something powerful in a name, his pronouncing the Doctor “Time Lord” depicts a fearsome power indeed! It creates an epic quality for this villain that simply should not exist in a man of the 1500s.
Beyond the scare tactics used throughout, there’s some newly established lore. We are treated to a new console room at the start of this story, which is far less impressive than the high-tech look of the main console, but something gloriously steampunk about its design too. While I never took to it the way I eventually did to McGann’s TARDIS, there is something special about this room. And leave it to Sarah Jane Smith, our favorite journalist, to finally ask why she can understand everyone. It is revealed that the TARDIS translates! Talk about a brilliant plot device. Doctor Who is known for such creative writing and this is no exception! It may take a long time to get there, but we will add more to this idea when the series returned in 2005…
Lastly, I can’t ignore the scenery. This episode was filmed in the Village of The Prisoner: Portmeirion, in Wales. I had been there long ago, and the place is utterly magical. A beautiful place with a mystique all its own and it should come as no surprise that the Doctor would encounter something otherworldly there.
The story ends with the Doctor suggesting that the Mandragora would be back in another 500 years or so. That would be somewhere around our time. Mandragora will be back to swallow the moon! Perhaps it is here now, but instead of hiding behind metal masks, it has found a way to hide in plain sight.
I have seen the odd, unidentified toupee recently… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Hand of Fear