Friday, July 10, 2015

The Masque of Mandragora - "The worse the situation, the worse your jokes get."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Masque of Mandragora - Details

Season 14, Story 1 (Overall Series Story #86) | Previous - Next | Index

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This is one I've never owned on VHS or DVD and, for whatever reason, didn't see it as often on TV either. So, it's one of the few times I get to say while doing these Tom Baker stories that it's one I come to remembering virtually nothing about, to the extent it's practically like seeing it for the first time (again). Happily, while not what we'd call one of the top tier stories, it's solidly above average; it's got decent pace, it looks great, and it's cheerfully dismissive of superstition and irrationality. Celebrations of humanism and the triumph of reason hit the thematic sweet spot that predispose me to be generous with regard to small flaws. Honestly though, there's not much to complain about here.

I gather the alternate control room, which debuts in this story, is a bit divisive, but I'm all for it. Critics are probably right to point out it's a bit too dark and claustrophobic to be used all the time, but it's a lovely change of pace that calls back to the sitting room of the Victorian gentleman naturalist in our (well, my, at least) imagination. An imagination shaped in no small part by the old Disney movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the interior of the Nautilus - an acknowledged influence on the design of this control room.

The dust rag the Doctor picks up upon entering the alternate control room looks like one of Three's frilly shirts -- it's a great little touch that suggests, although we never saw it, Three used this room as well. DW can do this sort of slight retcon / false memory insertion by virtue of having established the TARDIS as much bigger than we've ever seen, even in the wake of "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS," and by providing sufficient narrative gaps where we can slot the image of Three using this room that's so well suited to his aesthetic.

Never would've guessed if I hadn't watched the DVD extras, but this one was filmed at Portmeiron, a location more famous for being where The Prisoner was shot. It's re-dressed here as an Italian village of the high Renaissance, quite well to my eye, though I'm admittedly not likely to pick out incongruities or anachronisms. The costumes were recycled from productions of Romeo and Juliet, but look great. For history buffs, the DVD extras on this one are quite good; they cover some of the extraordianry attention to detail, especially in Hieronymous's lab, complete with hanging crocodile and other alchemical symbolism.

This is one of the benefits of taking on this complete re-watch of the series blogging project -- being reminded of the small gems that don't leap to mind as absolutely crying out to be added to the collection or put in the queue, but are better than my memory, or lack of thereof, would've lead me to believe, if left to its own devices.


  • Machiavelli's comedy, The Mandrake (La Mandragola) inspired the title.
  • Script writer Louis Marks was a Renaissance scholar and apparently modeled the Hieronymous on a certain Girolamo Savonarola, who was mentioned in Machiavelli's The Prince.
  • This story has Kung Fu monks! A precedent for "Tooth and Claw."
  • The translation powers of the TARDIS almost explained here, but the Doctor dodges (the hypnotized) Sarah's question. Comes up again later when he explains how he knew she'd been hypnotized.

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