Doctor Who C14.1: The Masque of Mandragora review

Review

The Masque of MandragoraThe Masque of Mandragora review

The Doctor: Save me a costume, I love a knees-up.

Story Code: C14.1.
Production Code: 4M.
Story Number: 86.
Countdown week: 18…

An extraordinary story for many reasons, and one that looks both backwards to the traditions of Doctor Who and forwards to a new season.

Extraordinary as the initial scenes reveal that the Doctor has need of a shaving mirror (found sitting on the console of the “second Control Room”, or rather the “old” Control Room. More than one Control Room, the idea of the Doctor with a beard. Extraordinary.)

Looks backwards to the traditions of Doctor Who – veteran scriptwriter Louis Marks (of Planet of Giants) brings a very Hartnell-era-sensibility to this (pseudo) historical, indeed the production design and costumes are as sumptuous as stories Marco Polo or The Aztecs (with the added excellence of the location work in Italianate Portmeirion.) The look of the story also seems to have its roots in Roger Corman’s 1964 film The Masque of the Red Death (the title being a tribute?), with the vivid purple robes and specifically the climactic masque, with the jester and doomed revellers. Lis Sladen (Sarah, a great playful performance here) is cast in the Jane Asher role of potential sacrifice to the dastardly cult.

Another tradition is Doctor Who (the programme, the Time Lord) siding with science and humanism over superstition and dictatorships, with the glowing Mandragora energy that the Doctor must stop symbolising the superstition that the science of the Renaissance overcame.The Masque of Mandragora review

So, this story affirms some of the basic tenets of Doctor Who – that the show should be an educational history lesson; that the show should encourage science over superstition. It’s not all dry didacticism though – the story is also extraordinary for how much the Doctor is an “action hero” – a judo-throwin’, horse ridin’, scenery-vaultin’, sword-fightin’ Doctor.

Forwards to a new season – the mahogany Control Room signals this, and the dark elements of the season-to-come are underscored by the “mild peril” of this story. Sure, the “dark” Hinchcliffe era is in full swing by this point, and while the undertones of Sarah’s predicaments and horror of the dungeon scenes may not be as pronounced as the similar elements of the Corman film which partly inspired this story, they are still there, an indicator of the tone for the rest of the season.

With this mixture of action and philosophy, stylish with a depth of content, sparkling script and sparking performances, it should be a top Doctor Who story – however, the resolution of the serial leaves a lot to be desired. To fit in with what has gone before, there should be some sort of triumph of reason over irrationality, but what actually happens at the end is unclear to say the least. Okay the Doctor has defeated the Mandragora energy with some sort of science, but it’s the kind of science-fiction science that might as well be magic. I suppose it’s possible to read this as some sort of nod to Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law – “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, but the abruptness and opaqueness of the end to the plot is not particularly satisfying.

Rating: 4/5

The BBC have recently put the whole story on YouTube, click through for Episode 1…

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