Doctor Who: The Masque Of Mandragora DVD review

The classic Doctor Who DVD series turns out another episode with epic extras, as Tom Baker stars in The Masque Of Mandragora...

The Doctor and Sarah, piloting the TARDIS from the newly-rediscovered secondary control room, inadvertently carry the Mandragora helix to 15th century Italy. Arriving in the dukedom of San Martino, they encounter the despot Count Frederico and his astrologer Hieronymous, a man of extraordinary influence.

The Doctor’s priority is to save the court from the Mandragora helix which has already begun to destroy everything and everyone in its path. There is political intrigue as Frederico attempts to wrest the dukedom from its rightful heir Giuliano. Meanwhile, in the catacombs beneath the city gather the sinister cult of Demnos… 

Sarah is captured by Hieronymous and the followers of the Demnos cult and hypnotised to kill the Doctor. The Time Lord’s suspicions are raised when Sarah asks how she can understand alien tongues, a fundamental question none of his companions had raised before.

At the height of a masquerade, the Demnos cult attacks the court. The Doctor infiltrates the brethren and confronts their leader Hieronymous, who has been possessed by the might of Mandragora. Earthing himself, the Doctor is able to drain the helix’s power into the earth and make the planet safe again, saving Renaissance Italy in the process. With Giuilano installed as the rightful head of the court, the Doctor and Sarah return to the TARDIS with a gift of a salami sausage… 

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An interesting pseudo-historical tale, The Masque Of Madragora was one of the last adventures to pair Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor with journalist Sarah Jane Smith. Elisabeth Sladen was due to leave the series at the end of the previous adventure, The Seeds Of Doom, but when she heard about this story asked to stay on.

Opening the fourteenth season in style, The Masque Of Mandragora exploits its location filming at Clough Williams Ellis’ Italianate folly in Portmerion. The ambience of the village adds an authenticity to the tale. Portmerion was already well known to cult TV fans as the colourful setting of The Village in the 1967 Patrick McGoohan series The Prisoner. It would become a popular ‘stand-in’ for Italy over time, being used a few years later in Citizen Smith.  

Written by Louis Marks, a former lecturer in Renaissance studies, Masque has a confidence about it, and stands up as a prime example of Who at its very best. This is the exact halfway mark of the classic series and the start of the third and final year of the Hinchcliffe/ Holmes vision for the show.

Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen shine as The Doctor and Sarah and are ably supported by Jon Laurimore as Count Frederico and Norman Jones as Hieronymous, both of whom relish the ripe mediaeval language. A young Tim Pigott-Smith puts in a faultless performance in a story heavy on dialogue and Machiavellian political intrigue.

Doctor Who was always famed for the ‘I’ll explain later’ moments, but for once Sarah is allowed to ask a really obvious fundamental question and gets a reply. Just how do the companions understand any alien or foreign tongue? The Doctor, whilst hardly elaborating, describes it as a Time Lord gift he allows Sarah to share. 

This story features some notable innovations. The opening titles boast a new font, a more elegant serif typeface replacing the chunky bold font used from season 11 to 13, marking out Who as a more sophisticated and adult concern. The Doctor discovers the second control room, featuring a smaller, more ornate console (complete with a shaving mirror!) at its centre. The wooden panelling gives the set a particularly opulent, almost Jules Verne-style ‘victorian-adventurer’ vibe which better suited this incarnation of the series. Indeed, the second control room pre-empts rather nicely, the rich decor of the mediaeval courtrooms, studies and ballrooms the TARDIS crew are about to encounter.  

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Philip Hinchcliffe was clearly determined to do his best to create a riposte to the accusations of ‘wobbly sets’ often levelled at the programme, a perception which (for the most part) is clearly untrue. Compare the sets of Fawlty Towers which often ‘took the strain’ of John Cleese’s energetic performances with this rich psuedo-historical drama and the whole notion of ‘wobbly sets’ seems unfounded. 

Designer Barry Newberry was tasked with creating a fresh TARDIS exterior, the previous prop having (literally) fallen apart during production of The Seeds Of Doom. This version of the police box featured a flatter roof and larger light and was slightly darker blue in colour. 

The increasing success of Doctor Who in the mid-70s made it (as now) a very valuable scheduling tool to the BBC. The Masque Of Mandragora was a major lynchpin in a very strong  BBC1 Saturday night schedule put together by controller Bryan Cowgill.

Following Who and The Generation Game, the big new BBC period drama was The Duchess Of Duke Street. Then came comedy from The Two Ronnies. Starsky And Hutch was a new cop show import from America and then there was Match Of The Day and Parkinson. Only the success of ITV’s import Buck Rogers In The 25th Centur,y transmitted against Who in 1980, and the arrival of Game For A Laugh in 1981, would eventually break the Beeb’s stranglehold on the schedule, after which Who was shunted to weekday evenings. 

The Masque Of Mandragora was to have been the representative Tom Baker serial in 1981’s  The Five Faces Of Doctor Who (a season of archive repeats). However, producer John Nathan-Turner, aware Peter Davison’s face should make an appearance to justify the umbrella title and keen to set up the forthcoming transmission of Castrovalva, selected Logopolis by default.  


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Audio Commentary: Tom Baker (on top form and as mischeviously eccentric as ever!), Philip Hinchcliffe and the late Chris D’oyly John try to recall their work on the serial. Gareth Armstrong makes a brief ‘voice cameo’. Pity Lis Sladen was unavailable, as she often brings a lot of insight to such proceedings as well as reminding Tom of pertinent facts. 

Spirit Of The Labyrinth: Candid and colourful ‘making of’ documentary. Appropriately filmed in Portmerion featuring Philip Hinchcliffe, Chris D’oyly John, Jon Laurimore, Tim Pigott-Smith, (who seems proud to have been part of such a great slice of “costume Who” and particularly enjoyed Tom’s on set horseplay), Gareth Armstrong and many more. 

Bigger On The Inside: An overdue documentary on the ever-evolving TARDIS interior. Barry Newberry explains his vision for the TARDIS’ new look (both inside and out!) in this serial and Christopher H. Bidmead once again puts forward his theory of creating and deleting TARDIS rooms as if they were part of a giant computer directory. Franscesa Gavin, an art writer and historian, has many interesting ideas, but her transatlantic tones begin to grate after a while and reminded me of the Dave Clifton character in I’m Alan Partridge, who was forever pronouncing “T”s as “D”s…  

Now And Then: Portmerion, er… now and as seen on screen in 1976! A very literal documentary which, arguably, would be equally at home on a Prisoner DVD, such is the detail afforded the Portmerion environs. 

Beneath The Masque: Mandragora-related whimsy and Who in-jokes aplenty from Clayton Hickman and Gareth Roberts. The Blue Peter “RENaissance or ReNAISsance?” sketch is a particular highlight…   

Trails And Continuities: Relive that classic Saturday night line-up with original promos and continuity announcements.

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There is the usual photo gallery, production notes, Radio Times listings PDFs and Coming Soon, this time featuring the forthcoming Hartnell releases The Space Museum and The Chase

All in all, a confident, stylish and much underrated Tom Baker adventure. The disc showcases the programme on top form with its cast and production team at the height of their powers. The Masque Of Mandragora is an excellent offering from 2entertain which does the serial justice and then some. 


4 stars
Disc: Doctor Who: The Masque Of Mandragora will be released on February 8 and can be pre-ordered from the Den Of Geek Store.


4 out of 5