The Masque of Mandragora

Written by:
David Fisher
Directed by: Rodney Bennett
Starring: Tom Baker
Year: 1976
Video Availability (NTSC Version): Try Amazon

The Masque of Mandragora is a commendably well made story and is harmless and inoffensive. Yet apart from small gripes of padding, I'm always struck by the total absence of narrative compulsion. While what plays out before me on screen is watchable enough, there's not a single part of me that needs to know "what happens next" or feel it a necessity to keep on watching. Maybe it comes down to the villains, an esoteric, intangible bunch, headed by some faceless Spaniards. People always talk about "The one with…". The one with the Mummies. The one with Davros. The one with the Krynoid. As far as I'm aware no child in the country has ever wet their pants over "the one with the sparkler from last bonfire night."

Anyway, to the start. If you ever get to see the first episode of The Goodies, made six years before this, there's a joke where a single room has a series of unconvincing CSO backdrops. Sadly - and, remember, this was made SIX YEARS afterwards - the "boot cupboard" of the Tardis is far less convincingly realised. The first three or four minutes actually scrape by on charm alone, the inauspicious introduction of the new console room sidelined by possibly the most irritating performance of Sladen and an alien landscape so feeble it makes Krono's lair at the end of The Time Monster look state of the art.

Thankfully we're soon back in history; something the BBC can do in their sleep. Yet while it all looks quite nice, it's oddly uninvolving. In fact, it's about as interesting as a bag of sugar, not helped by the lack of incidental music. Normally Tom can't even blink his eyes without Dud-ley putting the sound of a randy wild boar humping a concertino over the top, but here he's oddly quiet - moody, even. Not "moody" as in ambient, but moody as in someone's told him how crap he is and he's taken his ball back and refused to play.

There's a special effect taped on video and badly dubbed onto film, Tom flipping a monk in a somersault and an irrelevant chase sequence with a poor stunt double. I bet Pertwee was at home getting his rocks off over it. Season Fourteen is one of the greatest seasons of all time, but it really doesn't get going until The Deadly Assassin greets us. Sad to say, The Masque of Mandrabora really is a little bit poor.
* * ½

Look, they can't all be good 'uns. It's as simple as that. For his last two seasons, Hinchcliffe managed a hit rate of 4/6 stories, which is not bad going when you consider it seriously. This one though… it's a run-around in search of a plot. Tom asking to take his scarf off before being executed so he can "look my best" is just pathetic and unrealistic, and him getting away on a horse is just asinine action-adventure gubbins with no point.

"This is intensely interesting," says Tom in this one. Yeah, right. Save it, Tom, you're not fooling anybody. There's a sparsity of material here, with the regulars given little to play with. I don't know quite what it is about Mandragora. It's boring, sure, but not in a mind numbing, lose-the-will-to-live way like Underworld or The Monster of Peladon. It's just that whenever it's on I suddenly become intensely interested (to steal Tom's phrase) in a speck of dust on the wall. What's the story about? Couldn't really say, I can never focus long enough. A bit of power bargaining amongst relatives in renaissance Italy… I mean, who gives a toss?
* *

You can see Tom's ego really starting to take hold here, and he's not so much acting as performing. It's just little things, like the artificial body language or lack of eye contact with other actors in scenes. It's quite effective for this one season, but for the first two Graham Williams seasons he went from disaffected drunk to self-pleased hammeister with frightening regularity.

I was going to chart how many minutes of this story are dedicated to gratuitous action sequences, but then I realised I just couldn't be arsed. But most moans of this story are purely subjective. Okay, all views are subjective, but here you're got something that's reasonable well made and performed (accept for some of the guards, who are awful) but it just fails to engender my personal interest on any level.
* * ½

You almost imagine a friendly rivalry between Who and Blake's 7, almost like the Goodies/Python relationship. Had it not been until the following year when Blake first aired, you could imagine Paul Darrow popping up unexpectedly in the middle of this and shouting "kid's programme!" The political set-up is well constructed but wet, and with Tom's pun-a-minute interpretation you suspect this is still aimed at the kiddie end of the market. Season fourteen takes the series up another level in maturity, but that won't happen for another five weeks yet.

This episode is the best of the four, maybe because you're comfortable in the knowledge that it's going to end. This is actually Tom's most manic performance in a Hinchcliffe story, something it's easy to overlook when you're in a semi-catatonic state. Paraphrasing Shane, being embarrassingly silly with a lion's head and generally hamming it up like a mad bastard. The Doctor claims that it's because things are so serious he's overcompensating, but this really detracts rather than adds to the tension. So is he worried about the situation? Course not - The Drunk's tanked up again, innee? A quick bottle of gin in his side pocket and he's steaming, talking crap like there's no tomorrow. In that horrible scene where Hieronymous dishes out a chunk of exposition he's two whiskey chasers away from asking him if they want to set up in business together.

The resolution hangs on twin climaxes so contrived even Pertwee would have winced. Firstly, we have to be thankful that Hieronymous was wading in with body shots like Foreman and catching the Doctor's pre-planned armour. All it would have taken is an Ali headshot and he would have gone down. Then we're supposed to believe that the Doctor is an outstanding vocal impressionist - even better than Les Dennis doing Mavis Riley, if such a feat is indeed possible. It all ends - thank God - and The Drunk is paralytic, practically telling Sarah "you're my beshhhhhht mate, you are…" while she has a broad grin on her face. No wonder - did you see the size of that Salami she was given by Giuliano? Dirty minx!
* * *

Many of the moans with this one are entirely subjective - if the plot and characters are appealing to you, then you'll enjoy it - it's just not my thing, that's all. However, the plot contrivances, padding and Rodney Bennett's customary cold, clinical direction do disturb. The best I can personally say about this one is that it's mediocre.
* * *