Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The Masque of Mandragora written by Louis Marks and directed by Rodney Bennett

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor inadvertently brings a devastating power to Italy in the time of the renaissance…

Teeth and Curls: This is actually one of the more responsible takes on the fourth Doctor’s character, portraying him as both an intelligent scientist and a dazzling action hero. No wonder the fourth Doctor becomes such a nutter, he gets so many knocks to the head it probably bashed all the sense out of him (here he gets bashed really hard with a massive stone that under any other circumstance would cause serious brain damage). He proves pretty good with his hands though (like in The Seeds of Doom) when he flips one Monk over and exercises his skill with a sword (without every running any of the coven through of course). Who can fail to laugh when the Doctor sticks an orange on the end of a sword that is being pointed at his throat, produces a rattle toy to scare the guards and then nicks a horse and goes riding off? He’s just brilliant at this stage of his life, a dazzling, glittering superhero with his feet planted well and truly in fantasy (unlike Pertwee who always had one foot safely placed in reality). Later he trips over his executioner with his scarf, nabs another horse and rides off through the countryside before evading the rest of the guards in the marketplace. He takes on three men at once during the sword fight and his huge grin shows that he is enjoying himself immensely. I love how the Doctor says ‘the Count is dead’ with such relish, he feels truly alien at that moment. The Masque of Mandragora is another story where you will experience the welcoming and embracing chemistry between Tom and Lis, the two speaking their own special language at this point. There is only one other Doctor/companion combination that I personally feel that reaches this kind of level (the tenth Doctor and Donna) and their interplay makes each story more joyous to watch.

Best Friend: Only K.9 can say that he is in the opening story of four consecutive seasons and by this stage Sarah and the Doctor are so madly in love with travelling with each they are finishing each others sentences and jokingly wildly with each other. It is an effortlessly easy relationship to watch and enjoy. Can you imagine a more glorious image than Sarah wandering from the TARDIS into a forest glade and picking oranges? It still makes me smile that my two favourite companions (Sarah and Donna, with emphasis on the former) both have to suffer the indignity of being sacrificed by a sacred blade (the two scenes look very similar despite being filmed decades apart). Her very casual ‘I was almost sacrificed to the great God Demnos’ is very cute. You can see how far Sarah has developed since season eleven where she was a fairly uptight career girl (and definitely dressed the part) but travel has broadened her mind and she is dressed in very casual clothes now and relishing the atmosphere and excitement of her travels. Not many companions stick around long enough for this amount of development and I’m glad Sarah was one of the ones who did and it gives me some amount of excitement to think that this is still only the begin of her character arc. Elisabeth Sladen is so good at playing the baddie its almost a shame that she was always the Doctor’s ally. It's certainly a world away from her pantomime turn as Androvax in Prisoner of the Judoon. Here Sarah is Hieronymous’ tool and she stares at the murder weapon with unrestrained glee and then pursues the Doctor silently through the cloisters to strike him down in some memorable scenes. ‘I speaka the pretty good English’ she says mock-Italian, man she is so naughty! The last episode has some wonderful scenes between the Doctor and Sarah where he chatises her for mocking astrology and she has a go at him for treating her like an idiot and they have great fun with ‘he’s only thinking’ scene. For Sarah waiting and not knowing what is happening to the Doctor is worse than being with him. Sarah awkwardly accepts a dance from a suitor at the masque and thoroughly enjoys the experience. Just being with her makes me smile at this stage. Lis Salden was cruelly taken from us years back and yet her excellent work in the series is going to be enjoyed for years to come. That's a real legacy.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Maybe the stars don’t move at all. Maybe its we who move.’
‘(It depends) On whether the moon is made of cheese, on whether the cock crows three times before dawn or whether twelve hens lay addled eggs! I can easily teach him all it requires is a colourful imagination and a glib tongue.’
‘You can’t count, Count!’
‘Lets say Hieronymous gave him a blank look.’
‘Save me a costume…I love a knees up!’
‘Keep open mind, that’s the secret!’

The Good Stuff: Funny that entering the TARDIS corridors should be considered an event these days whereas this story opens up in them in a time when it positively passé. The secondary control room could have been a dreadful idea but thanks to some lovely design (the wooden panels are so stylish) and more subdued lighting it kicks ass of the old control room and then some. I'm not sure I would want it to be this moody and gentlemanly for the remainder of the shows run but it certainly suits the style of this incredible season. Nice to see the third Doctor was rattling around inside it, the Doctor picks up a dusty, frilly shirt to clean the console with. This is precisely in the style of the sort of gentleman's club that I could imagine Pertwee supping Whiskey in, puffing on a cigar and unwrapping a newspaper on his lap. Whilst the realisation isn't the best due to some blurred out CSO, I still love the delirious effect of the Doctor and Sarah’s echoing voices inside the Helix. This story is so expensive it stages an attack on local peasants simply to provide a little local colour (in any other story you would cheaply hear the report of such actions relayed through some lackey). The story in San Martino is staged as an adult drama with politics just as important as the supernatural elements and the stylishness of the production (expensive looking costumes and sets) is immediate, period drama proving once again to be the creme de la creme of the BBC. The sequence of the Mandragora energy leaving the TARDIS, bashing into rocks, stirring bushes and gliding across water should have been horrendous but somehow Rodney Bennett makes its progress look natural and effortless. It's only in stories like Masque where the characters are all so distinctive and well portrayed that you realise how bland some guest casts in Doctor Who can be. Here you have the scientifically curious Giuliano, his partner and loyal servant Marco, his wicked Uncle, the power hungry Frederico and the devious and manipulative Astronomer Hieronymous. A colourful, nuanced, fascinating bunch, grasping onto opportunity at the cusp of the Renaissance. Whilst having a ring of the Intalian Rennaisance regardless, the set designers dress up Portmerion beautifully to convince of the period (check out the make shift market erected in episode two that convinces that it is far more bustling and bursting with wares than it actually is) and the gloriously sunny weather adds to the illusion that this is an extremely exotic locale. I find all the masks used by the cult pretty frightening whether they are screaming mouths or smiling faces, they are all a mocking parody of human expression. Even the catacombs and temple sets look surprisingly expensive and moodily lit. No need for location work here when a staple of Doctor Who is made to look this evocative. Whilst the Doctor, Giuliano and Frederico all mock the power of astrology the simple fact of the matter is that the villain in this story is a gifted a power from the stars so his faith could be said to have been rewarded. I love the pause in the action for the Doctor and Sarah to take lunch with Giuliano and discuss the nature of the threat, it reminds me very strongly of the Hartnell historicals and their more relaxed pace. What a disturbing image Hieronymus' blank face is behind his mask and it makes for a memorable cliffhanger. There is some excellent choreography in the last episode, not only during the exquisite ball sequences but also amongst the cult members as Mandragora’s plans come to fruition. The masque scenes at the end of the story are some of my favourites from the Hinchcliffe era and rival anything you would have seen in a big budget period piece at the time – the costumes are gorgeous (Sarah looks radiant in her gown) and with candles flickering as the dancers assemble it is a memorably visual treat. It looks radiant, a far cry from the usual Doctor Who schtick.

The Bad Stuff: Fortunately most of the useless material is confined to the beginning of the first episode with some less than convincing effects work of the TARDIS being sucked into the Helix, Sarah saying the alphabet backwards like a right numpty and some very poor CSO in the Helix itself. The rock wall that Sarah is chained to wobbles precariously. Cockney guards? The Doctor says that he doesn’t know how the Mandragora Helix got into the TARDIS forgetting that he left the door wide open when they were inside it. The painted on facades of the roman temple is a lovely idea in theory but I’m not sure how well it comes off in practice. The Doctor figures that Sarah has been hypnotised because she asks the sort of question that Sarah would always ask which makes no sense. After all the build up, the defeat of Mandragora is really rather underwhelming. By earthing it into the ground it proves to be more of a mundane threat after all. The Sarah Jane Adventures story features a return invasion of the Mandragora Helix in all but name and the decision to keep the astrological intelligence anonymous baffles me (royalties?).

The Shallow Bit: Whoever said Russell T. Davies introduced the concept of homosexuality to Doctor Who obviously hadn't watched this tale since Giuliano and Marco are clearly raging lovers and blissfully in love. It is hinted at beautifully (‘my companion Marco’, their violent concern for each other, Marco’s betrayal of Giuliano being the worse thing his Uncle could have done to him) and the performances suggest a warm and gentle relationship. Tim Piggot-Smith and Gareth Armstrong never shy away from the subtext and still talk fondly about their characters and their relationship decades after the story was broadcast.

Stuntman: Poor Stuart Fell has died in so many varied and spectacular ways in Doctor Who that I like to think of a long line of characters from one family who at some point in ancient history were cursed to all come to a horrible end throughout all time and space. Somebody should have written a story telling of the woes of this family line a little like Dr Chinnery's tragic Christmas story in The League of Gentleman.

Result: Even more than celebrated stories such as Talons and Robots, Masque of Mandragora shows the exquisite visual splendour that Philip Hinchcliffe brought to the show. His 'can we do this?' approach reaches its apotheosis in a story that sparkles with the stylish splendour of Renaissance Italy. The sets look very expensive and lush, the location convinces that they really did pop over the Italy for a shoot and the costumes and props never once let the side down. Appropriately Dudley Simpson provides one of his most classy and impressive scores too to accompany the sumptuous production. Until Big Finish came along this is the closest the series ever came to mimicking the Hartnell historicals with a strong emphasis on period detail and an extremely lavish production. Even the threat is far more intellectual than usual, the danger of bypassing the renaissance and falling back into superstitions of old proving an enticing hazard if the Mandragora Helix succeeds. Add to all of these strengths a gorgeous affirmation of the dazzling Doctor/Sarah partnership and strong performances across the board and you have an extremely striking period adventure that can hold its head high amongst the outstanding trips back in time for the show. Some people find this story boring but I would disagree with that assertion strongly, it impressed me when I first saw it years ago and it still impressed me when I watched it with my good friend Paul a month or so back: 9/10


Anonymous said...

Hello Joe
as always, your reviews are spot on!

Sorry for the off-topic, but I have recently been reading your reviews of the BBC books, specially the EDAs in pagefillers.com (yep, I don't have better things to do than go through 8 or 10 years ago reviews, sigh). I love the fact that yoiu defended the EDAs, Me too I'm fan of them, more than the NAs. I would love to see your remaining critics to the first half of the EDAS on your blog

keep the good work

Joe Ford said...

Hi there (you didn't leave a name so I can't address you in person),

Many thanks for your lovely words. I have been asked by several people lately to finish off the book blog with the early NAs/EDAs and to get on wthe MAs and finish off the NSAs. I haven't reviewed in books for a while now and I think I might be a little out of the habit but now the winter is approaching I think it might time to dust some of those old paperbacks down and crack on with it. I have already written the early EDA/NA reviews, they were done years ago and need polishing up because I am not happy with them as they stand. Thanks for the prompt, I promise they will be done sooner or later (hopefully sooner).

Joey x

dark said...

On the one hand I absolutely agree with your comments on the Doctor and Sarah here. I've said before number four isn't a favourite doctor of mine, however it's seeing antics like this that makes me understand why he's had the popularity he has, his "What, I, Want! is a salami sandwich!" at the end was a hilarious one liner to a villain defeat, and the moment he popped out a rattle to avoid execution I literally laughed out loud.

My problem is an odd one. I honestly felt there was too much. The noble young duek has an evil uncle who wants the throne because he is eeeeevil! and he is being advised by an evil magician who is also eeeevil! and said magician is the head of an evil cult that guess what, is also eeeeeevil!

I usually find with stories like Androids of Tara and even the Three Doctors I can love the ranting villains and genuinely be happy at seeing them get their just deserts at the hands of the Doctor's clever tricks, however there was something in the plot of Masque and the execution that just felt a little too far.
Maybe it was the amount of speeches, maybe it was seeing Sarah for all her great chemistry with the doctor reduced to be the most damselly damsel imaginable, (was this really the same Sarah who snuck aboard the Tardis in Time Warrior and faced down Irongron?).
Maybe it was just that even though I was seeing it for the first time, this story really felt like I'd seen it many times before.

Were the performances good? yes. was it a fascinating location? Also yes. however this one just didn't particularly surprise or tantalize me sinse the bad guys were just so bad their defeat was inevitable, heck I could've guessed Frederico would've found his tame magician to be less tame than expected from the beginning.

It's odd, even though part of this was supposed to be 15th century Italy, I sort of eel this story could've played out nearly anywhere in time and space, so the historical end really didn't hold up, indeed from seeing the slaughter of peasants at the beginning this shaped up to quite a different story to what I was expecting.

I would say maybe it's just me having a Doctor Who overdose (if such is possible), accept that my dad and I also watched deadly assassin, which I also completely enjoyed, so goodness knows.

David Pirtle said...

The performances were great, the location work was terrific, and the costumes were lovely, but the threat seemed nebulous, the villains one-dimensional, and the resolution exceedingly flat. The former almost makes up for the latter, but not quite. It's also really odd, in my opinion, to see the Doctor so gleefully hamming it up right after the Masque massacre.

I'd probably still give it an 8, though.