Saturday, October 29, 2011


DVD Detail: Doctor Who – The Masque of Mandragora

As the nights draw in for the spookiest Saturday of the year, what could be more appropriate to turn to than Doctor Who’s finest and most Gothic season? First broadcast in Autumn 1976, Doctor Who – The Masque of Mandragora opened an outstanding set of stories with Tom Baker’s Doctor a freethinking adventurer fighting both mental and political tyranny in the form of terrific villains and superstition incarnate. In the rich period setting of the Italian Renaissance, the Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith face scheming, swordplay and masked monks as they’re caught in a dark world of intrigue and sorcery…

Doctor Who’s finest season so far is its Fourteenth, a year of dark religion broadcast across 1976 and 1977. It opens with Elisabeth Sladen at the Doctor’s side for the penultimate time of her original run, and this story should feel secretly familiar to you if you’ve been watching her starring in The Sarah Jane Adventures. When BBC4 showed her final story (until all the others) this May, my review of The Hand of Fear included my overview of Season Fourteen and its uncannily echoing themes under producer Philip Hinchcliffe – who wanted to expand the show’s horizons – and lead writer Robert Holmes – who wanted to “frighten the little buggers to death”. The Masque of Mandragora isn’t the season’s height, but it lays out those themes like a declaration of intent, even down to setting itself during the Enlightenment: the leading battlefield is for and within the mind, here championing rationalism against a whopping great metaphor for superstition; characters and societies strive to grow up, with Marco’s fight here to outgrow his uncle mirrored on a grand scale in Mandragora’s desire to keep humanity as superstitious children; and religion underpins the story’s Gothic setting of new and old world despising and deposing one another. After a couple of years of exploring the themes in unfamiliar framings, masses of monks coursing through secret passages in late Medieval Italy made this Doctor Who’s most flagrantly Gothic story so far – only to be topped a couple of stories later as this portion of the series reaches its crescendo… Back in September 2009, Doctor Who Magazine Issue 413 published “The Mighty 200” – 6,700 fans’ votes on all 200ish TV Doctor Who stories to that point – voting The Masque of Mandragora up to number 85. I might put it ten or so places lower, largely because the competent but uninspired director doesn’t quite fulfil its potential, but either way it’s an excellent little story that takes one of the series’ firmest philosophical stands.

While this ‘taster’ may not be short, incidentally, my policy in these is not to be too spoilery, in order than you can read on without fear of finding out too many key twists from the end.

That Golden Moment
“It takes away from Man the only thing worth having… A sense of purpose, what else? The ability granted to every intelligent species to shape its own destiny. Once let Mandragora gain control, and Man’s ambition wouldn’t stretch beyond – beyond the next meal. It’d turn you into sheep. Idle, mindless, useless sheep.”
The story’s most breathtaking moment for me has always been the cliffhanger closing Part Three, offering a memorably scary death, fabulous rolled Rs and a major turning point. But for most of those reasons, it’s too much of a spoiler to describe here. A couple of scenes from Part One spring to mind – the old Duke’s deathbed openly establishing one of the story’s key plots while more subtly setting out the other, the Doctor’s arrival at the court with a warning and quicksilver wit – but it’s a few minutes into Part Four that the Doctor muses on the philosophical battle that’s going to expand into the slightly ungainly finale. The science is a bit uncertain, but Tom’s dynamic, and the philosophy spot-on.

In 1492, “the period between the dark ages of superstition and the dawn of a new reason”, at the court of one of Italy’s most progressive Princes, two gatherings are planned: one, of the greatest scholars of the new sciences looking for that new birth of reason; the other, a bloodthirsty Roman cult aiming to climb out of its long death to hold Earth under its spell. Yes, it’s the battle of the worldviews, each with a champion from the stars – angel or alien, demon or energy force, according to ideological stance. And unlike the Mandragora Helix’s titanic booming voice, the Doctor has a sense of humour, which proves he’s on the right side. Even as he uses a primitive telescope to calculate exactly when the Helix will be in position to make its attempt, even as he asks for the simple tools he’ll need for his last dangerous gamble to draw off its power, even after he grimly tells Sarah Jane exactly what control by this alien force would mean were it to become humanity’s substitute for science… He goes to sleep standing up, steals the scene utterly from the poor discombobulated Prince and replies to his worry about putting off the (besieged) masque with gay abandon:
“You’re going to hold a dance?”
The signal for the attack – or when the stars are right – is to be a total eclipse, foretold as “When Mandragora swallows the Moon…” Though it’s much less vivid now, this story was made only a few years after we had first landed on the Moon, when that was a potent symbol of our reaching outward; Mandragora swallowing it was not just a suitably mystical-sounding way to describe the eclipse, but a metaphor for what it would do to our aspirations. The story’s coda famously predicts that the Helix will be in position to try again five hundred years later – how disheartening that by the end of the Twentieth Century, nobody was going to the Moon any more, and humanity seemed to have lost interest in going anywhere else. Maybe the Helix did come back and succeeded in putting our ambition to sleep after all?

Something Else To Look Out For

Often said to be his favourite story, The Masque of Mandragora feels like producer Philip Hinchcliffe’s manifesto for what the Doctor’s about – he’s an intellectual, and everything about it says so: setting; plot; theme; TARDIS reinvented as wood-panelled study; even the new titles font (the stylish DellaRobbia, named appropriately for an Italian Renaissance artist, becomes the look of the programme’s credits through most of Tom; luckily not the similarly Italian-named Times New Roman, for which I have an irrational dislike). And yet he’s also a swashbuckling adventurer, turning his hand to duelling as easily as engineering, dashing through a crowded market and winding terraces that you might think Italian if you’d never seen The Prisoner, racing along on horseback in exciting stunts that you might think entirely convincing if you’d never seen Tom Baker. And if you want to relaunch the Doctor as a Renaissance man, where better than in the Renaissance? The story isn’t perfect – despite the philosophical power, lush feel and obvious inspiration from The Masque of the Red Death, it lacks some of the bite of the season’s finest stories to come, and of course the edge of the immediately preceding season finale, The Seeds of Doom; but as that story was set on going as far as it possibly could (if not necessarily in the right direction, as I posted in a somewhat overlong reply to TARDIS Eruditorum yesterday) thanks to its thrilling but ultraviolent director, anything would feel like it was pulling back a bit afterwards. So it’s a good job this is moving forward, too.

The new approach is greatly aided by Tom Baker’s performance, carrying off his serious and playful sides with equal assurance as his Doctor comes out of what had almost seemed a year-long sulk. The orange is mightier than the sword; a lion peeps over an altar; he gets to tell Hieronymous, “come off it – drop all that bosh”. He gets a great scene towards the end of Part One, taking responsibility for having taken the Helix to Earth – like Adam, or Prometheus – and trying to warn Count Federico and his court of the terrible danger. That should imply a grimly serious attitude from the Doctor, yet wonderfully as the toadies first wait to see the Count’s reaction, then laugh on cue with their lord, and he’s then presented with the local astrologer to test his credentials, we see the Doctor thinking on his feet – first cheerily convincing, then sharp and sombre when he’s not getting through (“Because you don’t have a future…”), then disgustedly swatting down all Hieronymous’ nonsense just to exercise his wits (“All it requires is a quick imagination and a glib tongue”). And it’s a great scene for Federico, too, in his casual power and ability to size up a character – if not to understand anything that challenges his worldview – even down to rewarding that mocking tongue with that prize so rarely given by villains, prompt execution (and it’s not his fault, of course, that it inevitably fails).

With the Doctor so heavily featured, Sarah Jane’s role is a little more muted than in some stories, though Elisabeth Sladen finds yet another – and perhaps her creepiest – way to play ‘brainwash woman’, as well as all the usual spikiness, exploration and not really taking to being laid out for sacrifice. Pre-empting The End of the World’s definitive Twenty-First Century explanation of how the TARDIS lets its crew understand any language, this story is infamously the one where Bob Holmes decided it was time to say out loud those questions everyone put to him in the BBC canteen, as not only does Federico notice the Doctor’s peculiar clothes but also Sarah Jane – or something else through her – asks how she can speak Italian. It’s rather out of character for Tom’s Doctor (if not Pertwee’s) to object to questions, but he takes this not as a sign of her journalistic inquisitiveness but a dark portent that she’s been hypnotised. Again. Even the TARDIS gets a new start, for both practical (as revealed in the extra features) and aesthetic reasons, with the chutzpah of pretending that its new dusty wooden control room was in fact an old one we’d seen previous Doctors potter about in. It’s an evocative design by Barry Newbery, at once a Sherlockian study and a little chapel (his arched Palace corridors, cleverly theatrical temple effect and simple but inspired way of disguising the Village Town Hall are great bits of design, too). Also of note on the production side, the screaming masks of the Cult of Demnos are very effective, particularly the cruelly opulent design for their leader, though Dudley Simpson’s musical score is a little too reminiscent of several of his earlier contributions (Pyramids of Mars in the sacrifice, The Ark In Space as Sarah Jane’s bewitched), if still with some lovely deep chiming as the Brotherhood plot or spidery percussive music while Sarah Jane’s stalking the Doctor, as well as rather a beautiful arching version of his Doctor’s Theme shortly after they land.

A Gothic Story

Tom Baker’s first three seasons, led by Hinchcliffe and Holmes, are often referred to as “Gothic Horror”; this story, and this first half of Season Fourteen, is the clearest point to get across what’s meant by that (if you have a copy of Doctor Who Magazine 282, you might also read Alan Barnes’ excellent article Tales From the Crypt). Though the Gothic elements start off very early in this three-year period, perhaps disguised by the relative late-coming of dark shadows and travels back to older times, they reach a peak here in dark religion, ancient tunnels and mad monks. Gothic scholars would instantly recognise that this story is all about the Old World versus the New Age with the Renaissance itself at stake, that it cuts a fine line between exploiting the supernatural and explaining it, and that it’s overflowing with the Gothic trappings of Medieval Europe, alchemy, tyranny (even by the wicked uncle of the rightful heir), dungeons, torture, ancient passageways and rituals… Though, ironically, the force of irrationalism is named for a play by that arch-rationalist of the time Niccolò Machiavelli, in one of many crafty references by writer and Renaissance academic Louis Marks (whose earlier Day of the Daleks also explored issues of free will versus determinism).
“You mean they could dominate Earth now through an ancient religion?”
The anti-Catholic excesses of Gothic literature are here, too, if masked – which makes it ironic that I felt it was speaking to me at the time, brought up a good half-Catholic boy and as steeped in religion as this year of Doctor Who, if of a rather more modern sort than hinted at here. Of course, the evil Roman religion through which Mandragora will dominate the world is the “pagan” Cult of Demnos and not any vastly larger and more temporally powerful denomination from that city, but to ask the question ‘Why didn’t Mandragora pick the big one?’ is to realise that it’s less an opponent than a stand-in. It’s not a very opaque attack on organised religion: Federico blatantly has in place of a chaplain his “Court Astrologer” Hieronymous (named for the monkly Catholic preacher who effectively ruled Florence around this time), with a non-speaking ‘proper’ priest seen at the old Duke’s deathbed for approximately seven seconds purely, I suspect, for the producer to establish plausible deniability (the Doctor even hangs a lamp on this later with his “No priest available. Will a brother do?”); the Cult is a Latin-chanting mass of monks; and the leader of the Brethren standing in a pillar of fire from above to lay hands on his followers and pass on the unholy spirit seemed entirely plausible to my half-Baptist side. It’s tempting to believe, too, that ex-monk Tom Baker’s newly fired-up performance had something to do with his seeing exactly the same quality in the script, and understanding it all too well.

The TARDIS landing in the crystal spiral mountains of Mandragora – in the void – amid unearthly sound makes an intriguing start to the story, though if the sound design is more impressive than the visuals, they are at least memorable (and more so than the Mandragora energy on the prowl; the DVD range seemed oddly unwilling to offer alternate CGI for Hinchcliffe’s stories as it did for, say, similarly underwhelming effects on The Time Warrior). Resisting its dizzying hypnotic spell from the first by saying the alphabet backwards seems an appropriate mix of fighting it with learning and turning a catechism upside-down, too. But that’s only the prologue; it’s when we go to Italy that the story really kicks off, in the perfect setting for this battle of ideas.
“You can no more tell the stars than you can tell my chamber-pot!”
It’s all beautifully filmed, with what appears to be a medieval Italian town (and works damned hard to stop you recognising it) and glamorous wooded paths (after rain, suggesting they’re British, with exotic rhododendrons which suggest childhood holidays to me, though admittedly no closer to the Mediterranean than Watford). There are even bustling street scenes! Doctor Who seems to mix rather well with Italy – The Romans and The Fires of Pompeii two thousand years ago, The Vampires of Venice and a bit of City of Death in roughly the same Renaissance period, while even the series’ first historical, Marco Polo, had a Venetian lead character. And though several of those later stories were in fact shot abroad and one even in Italy, this is still the one which for me feels most Italian, with its gorgeous architecture, lavish costumes and a setting that’s right at the heart of the story. Though it’s amusing that the DVD picture’s been cleaned up so perfectly that while Sarah Jane calls it “Nice, warm…” you can also see Tom’s breath steaming. Oddly, only one of the actors makes a stab at an Italian accent, the others ranging from RSC to fearful Cockney.

People usually kick against the aristocracy in Doctor Who, but its casual power is everywhere here without comment, from Count Federico’s chess match to nice Prince Giuliano casually ordering his companion to fetch wine. Only the outsiders the Doctor and Hieronymous fail to defer, and both are nearly killed for it. The court intrigue is very well choreographed, with different guards crossing over each other in a physical symbol of the intercutting political plots. The scene introducing the main characters over a death is especially well-written: the Count enters late for the late Duke, prompting a confrontation between him and his nephew Marco over whether he was “enjoying some sport” which clearly sets up the two rivals for the Dukedom; but while that’s the focal point, other, more important lines from subtly different opposing sides almost toss away what the story’s really about:
“Many do not believe it – but the decrees of Fate will be obeyed. We – have no choice.”

“You’re alone, now, Giuliano. Your uncle is strong and ruthless.”
“You forget, Marco, I am Duke now… We make our own lives, Marco. Not the stars.”
Young Prince Giuliano (Gareth Armstrong) and his “companion” “dear Marco” (the now much more famous Tim Piggott-Smith) are Doctor Who’s first obviously gay couple, though the most suggestive scene is when he’s clearly rather taken with the Doctor at first sight: “A most uncommon spy…” No wonder that Marco spends much of the final episode, even after being broken by torture into awful betrayal, offering jealous put-downs on whatever the Doctor’s doing. And when he exclaims “We have weapons of our own,” his eyes flicker downwards on Giuliano. Really. With the theatrical look of a BBC Shakespeare of the time and the principal actors playing it like that, it’s appropriate that top Shakespearean scholar and Doctor Who DVD text note-writer Martin Wiggins famously compared Giuliano to Hamlet – murdered father, wicked uncle, reluctance to act – with this one stronger in rejecting superstition if generally more wet, and lucky to be in a story where Machiavelli’s Prince can lose (if not exactly by divine intervention), or he’d be deadmeat. Marco’s advice to him throughout is to be more firm – steady! – and ruthless, while the Doctor’s is to “Keep an open mind.” Giuliano has the makings of an enlightened Prince, and is certainly on the right side of the crucial fight here between free will and determinism, but you can’t help feeling that Mandragora and the Doctor turning up was the best thing that could have happened to him. Without them, there’d be Duke Federico.
“If you fail me, Rossini, you shall breakfast on hot coals!”
I loved a good bloodthirsty R-rolling villain as a boy, and I still do today – despite so much fun on offer, Jon Laurimore’s Count Federico steals the show. He’s clearly having a whale of a time from the moment we first see him torching and tormenting the peasants, and he’s not just relishably hissable but one of the series’ most competent villains, only brought down in the end by in effect not realising what sort of story he’s in and that he’s actually irrelevant to the key struggle – things come to a climax where, were this a ‘pure’ historical, he actually wins, and the Doctor would be stuffed. His excellent guard captain, Anthony Carrick, is a sort of henchman in Yes, Minster, too (and here shows how villainous ID cards are by demanding the Doctor’s on peril of his life). Jon Laurimore’s given many of the best lines and does great work with them – Richard sighs fondly when I laugh like a hyena at “Before sunrise, I want to see Giuliano’s liver fed to the dogs!” – but he also has moments of surprising quiet, while his final is not just fear, but awe, a man who finally believes in something.
“You can kill me first.”
“No… But we may kill you afterwards.”

Will We Have Any More Trouble From Mandragora?

There’s a lot more to this story than just the story. The DVD special features are rather fabulous; the novelisation a little flat, but with its moments, and reinvigorated by its audiobook reading; it’s had perhaps as many as five different sequels in different media; and it’s even inspired some rather lovely artwork (most notably Alister Pearson’s gorgeous not-at-all papal reissue book cover, perhaps best presented on John Pettigrew’s DVD and video cover site, as is Mike Little’s less technically accomplished but memorable Tom hemmed in by screaming masks, while on the DVD you can see some striking paintings from the Radio Times in pdf – just don’t look too closely at the masked Cult leader’s glowing crotch on the DVD cover).

The novelisation Doctor Who and the Masque of Mandragora is by producer Philip Hinchcliffe, and while it’s not bad, his writing style doesn’t flow anywhere near as well as Terrance Dicks’, with the scenes and lines trimmed for length making it feel a little sparse. There are a few other changes, of varying effectiveness: the ‘straightening’ of Giuliano; a tensely snapping wire; Hieronymous’ escape employing more thrilling cauldron-dashing; and though the mention of the Pope works vividly for one stream of the story (“The Holy Father himself will kiss my hand for cleansing the state of San Martino” as Federico plots to frame his nephew as a worshipper of Demnos), it works against the other by muddying the waters on religion. Tim Piggot-Smith, though, is a powerful actor, who enlivens the CD reading of the novel with considerable panache and an interesting take on the Doctor, old but deep-voiced and authoritative.

As for the sequels, the promise that Mandragora would return in five hundred years’ time inspired several writers. The first and arguably the most ambitious was Doctor Who Magazine’s comic strip (and graphic novel) The Mark of Mandragora; Big Finish’s Sarah Jane Smith series had the Helix threaded through its whole second series, the most promising and the most disappointing of the sequels (scroll down this article to find my spoilerful explanation of its climax, or anti-climax); the BBC Books novel The Eleventh Tiger matched the Helix, unnamed and anachronistically, against the First Doctor; and most recently, generously name-checking the other three, Gary Russell’s novel Beautiful Chaos brings back the Helix against the Tenth Doctor, Donna and Wilf, and is a particularly good story for the Nobles. Unlike other new series BBC Books (monogamous hetero Captain Jack of The Not-Deviant-At-All Strain, I’m looking at you), but appropriately for the TV original, it’s also got a pair of gayers among all the couples, too. That leaves The Sarah Jane AdventuresSecrets of the Stars, a rather good TV story first broadcast three years ago, a blatant sequel but with the serial numbers inexplicably filed off. I may be doing him an injustice, but though I can’t trace it I remember some years ago reading its (very talented) author Gareth Roberts snidely asking, “Why would anyone want to watch The Masque of Mandragora?” Well, to get paid for doing an uncredited sequel and a drag comedy feature on it, obviously. Which brings me to the DVD special features.
“I only found out recently that there were other Doctors.”
“We didn’t like to tell you.”
This DVD features a particularly entertaining and informative commentary from Tom (“It was a wonderful time…”) Baker, producer Philip Hinchcliffe and his assistant Chris D’Oyly-John (revealing his favourite Doctor), all thinking it looks very good, and joined by Gareth Armstrong, who Tom now calls “Devastatingly handsome” but who at the time called him and Tim “Gert and Daisy”. Bless him – my favourite moment is when Tom sighs orgiastically as Lis Sladen’s dragged into the temple, then enthuses over how wonderful it is that she now has a series of her own. Though his opinion on HD TV, except for art, or engineering plans, or neurosurgery, is also a treat:
“I was watching something in high definition, and it was so boring, that I just counted the blackheads on the leading man.”
The ‘Making of’, The Secret of the Labyrinth, is rather gorgeous, mainly shot on location in – gasp – it was Portmeirion all the time! Though, in the style of The Prisoner, you’ll soon spot that they didn’t take all of their interviewees there, with some pictured against backgrounds in the studio. It’s one of the best the Doctor Who DVDs have done, helped both by the number and quality of guests from behind and in front of the camera and by the visual style of it all. Gareth Armstrong, for example, now bearded, has aged very well, as well as being incisive; Tim Piggott-Smith still very enthusiastic about how ambitious it all is, disapproving of how young actors today don’t know how to wear a sword, and giggling at how “Tom was very naughty,” especially making him corpse under torture (and, after doing ‘his’ Doctor for the book, gives a very creditable Tom impression); Barry Newbery is great, and I think I’ve worked out that his (cleverly mirrored) detail for Giuliano’s room is taken from Carpaccio’s The Vision of St Augustine; Anthony Carrick has the best stuntman story (while the director remembers cigarettes in their codpieces); but, appropriately, it’s completely stolen by Jon Laurimore:
“It’s an actor’s delight, actually, to get hold of a part like that… Wonderful, wonderful character – he’s the epitome of all everything that’s evil in Renaissance history.”
You can also watch a Now and Then piece if you can’t get enough Portmeirion, and there’s a nice feature on the history and design of the TARDIS, with Tom Baker, designers, writers and kids, and an interesting conflict between them – acerbic writer Robert Shearman thinks “You want to explore Narnia, not the wardrobe”, while Tom and Christopher H. Bidmead want whole worlds inside there; I loved Chris’ idea that “We still haven’t really seen the TARDIS,” but are just working our way towards what the TARDIS might really be. Gareth Roberts’ and Clayton Hickman’s spoof documentary Beneath the Masque divides opinion, but I thought several bits of it were funny (and not least because, like me, they like to quote the sinister Radio Times blurbs from the time. You get all of those here on pdf, too, of course, with an excellent interview with Philip Hinchcliffe promising “science fantasy and romance” for viewers up to 90 and some fabulous pictures). I’m afraid I laughed aloud at the ’80s video compilation, “Valerie Singleton”, “Andrew Pixley” and particularly the map of Wales. But – sorry, Gareth – the best bit’s still Jim Sangster’s “Tricky Action Engels”.

I wonder if it sparks like the Helix?

Update: A week later, I engage with different arguments about this story from TARDIS Eruditorum, in which she’s astoundingly far more biased than I am; by turns ignores, misquotes and misunderstands the text; constantly repeats unfounded assertions with ever more over-the-top name-calling as a substitute for evidence; and as a result misses the point entirely. I make my case in the comments. She sticks her fingers in her ears and re-edits her own post to try and make herself look marginally less daft. I eventually decide to stop, but I suggest you simply watch the programme for yourself and decide by empirical observation rather than magic thinking that ignores the words.

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