“THE MASQUE OF MANDRAGORA” – Season 14, Serial 1, Story 86 – Written by Louis Marks; Directed by Rodney Bennett – Tom Baker’s third season in the scarf kicks off with a really good castle mystery that OH MY GOD IT’S THE SECONDARY CONSOLE ROOM!
I am a sucker for stories that take us deeper into the TARDIS.
I love DOCTOR WHO, of course, but if there was one change I would make to the series it would be to explore the TARDIS to a much greater degree. If I was the showrunner, I’d even fool around with the idea of spending an entire season inside the TARDIS – it would make a great set-up, I think, for the 50th season to have the Doctor get lost inside the TARDIS (or purposely trapped there by the TARDIS) and bump into previous versions of himself, friends, and enemies. I just love this idea of the Doctor zipping through time and space with all of this other stuff being dragged along with him.
I understand, of course, that there are metaphorical reasons why the Doctor explores the outer rather than the inner, but it’s still something I’d like to see. If nothing else, it would make an excellent trait for a Companion to be more interested than the Doctor in the inner workings of the TARDIS.
I understand, too, that Moffat has been using the interior of the TARDIS as a way to build both the whimsy and the mystery of the Doctor, with the repeated mentions of the TARDIS’ pool.
Even if THE MASQUE OF MANDRAGORA stunk, then, it would be worth taking a look at just to see the TARDIS’ secondary control room, a wood-paneled version of the familiar set that makes its debut in this serial. I love the look and feel of the wooden room, even if it does vaguely have a sense of a Time Lord’s basement man cave. I really like how the Doctor enters the room for the first time in this incarnation, and it’s always a nice prop move to have old items make an appearance, even if it’s a bit weird that the Third Doctor let a puffy shirt laying around in the room, and the Second Doctor left a recorder. The way the Doctor and Sarah Jane experience these items does make the room come off a little like a closet.
I half expected to see Polly and Ben caught snogging in the corner.
Complete tangent – no one in the States used the word “snogging” before the Harry Potter books.
As for MANDRAGORA itself, it’s a rather good castle mystery that perfectly satisfies if you’re jonesing for a Fourth Doctor/Sarah Jane adventure. The TARDIS accidentally transports a piece of the Mandragora Helix to 15th century Italy where the Doctor and Sarah become embroiled in political turmoil and a religious cult.
You know it’s a religious cult because people wear robes and masks and meet underground, but the serial makes good use of a religion vs. science angle angle to build some tension between the Doctor and Hieronymous, the royal astrologer who predicts death by day, and then creates death by night, when he’s wearing the robes and mask and meeting people underground. What I like most about this angle is how different characters tread this science vs. religion line. Count Frederico, who wants to usurp the throne and become the Duke of San Martino. He kills the current Duke and has his eyes set on the Duke’s successor, Giuliano, and while he thinks Hieronymous is a flake, he’s willing to use the belief others have in the astrologer to further his usurpation.
The plot has enough of these elements running around to make me feel like the Doctor and Sarah have stepped into a fully-realized world and not just whatever set the prop guys built for this month’s worth of filming. It’s a simple but smart technique to present the Doctor with as many as four different factions in MANDRAGORA: Guiliano’s supporters, Frederico’s supporters, Hieronymous and the cult, and the rebellion going on outside the castle walls.
There’s also plenty of running around outside the castle. It’s just a general truth of both architecture and limited budgets that castle interiors in DOCTOR WHO tend to look the same, so I love it when directors take advantage of outside locations to help add something unique to the program. This time around, we have a really nice set of stairs on the grounds and an underground entrance to the tunnels beneath the castle where the Brethren hang out and act all spooky.
There’s also a bit of swordfighting this time around, and the Doctor saves himself from being guillotined with some nice scarf usage.
The Doctor/Sarah Jane chemistry is spot on as the two of them are completely willing to both give each other a hard time and show affection. What’s really special looking back on these episodes from here in the Relaunch Era is how the Doctor and Sarah can have this kind of playful chiding absent of any sort of romantic tension. Only Donna has really been allowed to have this type of relationship with the Doctor on a consistent basis these last few years and it’s pleasant to watch two adults having an actual friendship in these classic WHO serials.
MANDRAGORA kicks off the third Tom Baker season with style. This serial does have that timeless feel to it, and I could easily see the show’s producers giving this script to any of the Fourth through Seventh Doctors. Where Baker makes this his own is in his wit and charm; this is a Doctor that can be wonderfully over-confident and concerned at the same time, and it’s an absolute joy to watch him and Sarah Jane adventure together. There is danger but there’s a bit of breeziness here, too, that doesn’t always come up as an attribute of the Fourth Doctor’s run. At times, the Fourth Doctor almost seems like he knows his life is one big adventure novel, and this is but one story of many still left to tell.