Monday, July 4, 2016

"The Masque of Mandragora"

Aired Sept 4 - 25, 1976

4 Episodes

Story 86

Written by Louis Marks

Directed by Rodney Bennett


While travelling through the vortex, the TARDIS encounters the Mandragora Helix, a whirling spiral of energy that is believed to have a sentient intelligence at its core. While temporarily stuck inside the Helix, a ball of energy invades the TARDIS as the Doctor sets the ship in motion.

He and Sarah arrive in Renaissance Italy, in the Dukedom of San Martino, which is in the midst of a power struggle. The Duke has just died, and while his benevolent and rational son Giuliano is next in line, his ambitious and despotic uncle, Count Federico, has other plans. Federico, with the help of court astrologer Hieronymus, was behind the elder Duke's death, and has the same plans for the Prince. Though Federico and Hieronymus are allies, the Count does not subscribe to the superstitions of the astrologer, who is also secretly a member of the secret outlaw cult the Brotherhood of Demnos.

Into these machinations the Doctor and Sarah are thrust when the Mandragora energy leaves the TARDIS and becomes involved with the Brotherhood of Demnos, promising Hieronymous unlimited power in exchange for his service to the Helix.

While Giuliano's accession to the Dukedom is being celebrated by a masque, the Mandragora energy and the Brethren lay siege to the court. Federico meets his end at the hands of the energy, which has completely consumed Hieronymous, and the Doctor is forced to confront the Helix in an underground temple in  desperate attempt to prevent its ascendency on Earth.

The Doctor concocts a primitive method of draining the Helix energy out of the astrologer and dissipating it harmlessly, and he and Sarah leave Giuliano to usher in an age of reason for San Martino.


There are a number of things to enjoy about The Masque of Mandragora. It's well-directed by Rodney Bennett, making very good use of the resort town of  Portmeirion in Wales, best known as the location of "The Village" in The Prisoner. Louis Marks was very familiar with the period in question, and his theme of rationalism versus superstition is well presented and fits in perfectly with the format of Doctor Who. The period touches are all superb, and the result is a serial that is one of the lushest and most extravagant-looking of the entire era. It's a bit hard to here the odd cockney accent here and there, but other than that, the story feels almost like they went to Italy to film, which is impressive.

Rodney Bennett's studio work is great too, with great use of gauzy scenery and lighting to transform the temple set. It's a low-tech method, but it works brilliantly. And the superimposed energy stuff is all top notch, particularly when integrated with practical effects. 

The cast are all great, with everyone doing a solid job of putting a Shakespearean, BBC Classic vibe to the proceedings.

But somehow, the story never really kicks into high gear. It remains a pleasant diversion, throughout, enjoyable, but never enthralling or engrossing. It's weirdly easy to let your focus wander while watching it, and frankly there's enough padding in the story that it can wander without missing too much of the plot. 

I still like The Masque of Mandragora, but frankly it's an uninspired story, aside from the production values and some of the thematic concerns.

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