Aired 4 – 25 September 1976
‘The Masque of Mandragora’ begins its fourteenth season with Tom Baker’s first true pseudo-historical tale, amplifying the science fantasy and romantic undertones of the previous season to new heights and making full use of the BBC’s propensity for period dramas to craft one of the most satisfying but still underrated Doctor Who tales of the classic era.
At this point the staff both in front of and behind the camera are carrying a supreme confidence about them, having a distinct vision in mind and buoyed by the fact that that vision is exactly what the viewing public wants. ‘The Masque of Mandragora’ is thus able to begin its tale on a rather low-key note as the Doctor and Sarah stroll about the TARDIS while sharing some banter discovering a long-lost and old-fashioned secondary control room that plays to the show’s past and current blending of genres and, eventually, the dangerous Mandragora Helix which entraps the TARDIS and transports it to Renaissance Italy with some truly strong special effects.
As the Doctor comments, the Renaissance era is one a transition point between the Dark Ages and a more enlightened time, and, within that context, it makes perfect sense that the energy of the Mandragora Helix would choose this time to settle on and seize control of Earth as it tries to take out rival sources of power. This more supernatural and elemental threat is mirrored nicely with the real-world politics and policies of Count Frederico, a man intent only on murdering his nephew Giuliano and his near-heretical thoughts that the Earth is round and moves in space in order to keep the people in a less enlightened state and retain his own semblance of power above all else. Jon Laurimore does go quite over the top with his exaggerated performance as Frederico, and it ends up being unintentionally satisfying when his bombastic actions find him on the wrong end of an energy burst, but he does at least make Frederico a suitable human menace among the otherworldly threat at large.
Gareth Armstrong and Tim Piggott-Smith do well in making Giuliano and Marco the truly sympathetic characters of ‘The Masque of Mandragora,’ Giuliano’s plight of family and desire to learn carrying extra weight given the choice of setting and both actors bringing an intimate and believable depth to their characters’ relationship. Frederico’s other nemesis, Norman Jones’s Hieronymous, is also quite strong as a man disregarded by all others but trying to maintain his sense of self through faith and devotion. It’s quite telling that his faith gets him nowhere in the end, another example of a not-uncommon theme in Doctor Who of this time.
Filming in Portmeirion brings the script’s fifteenth-century Italian setting to life wonderfully, and the strong sets and production values give the sensation that a much larger budget was used than what was actually available. With great tension and atmosphere throughout, ‘The Masque of Mandragora’ is a suitably strong start to another run of Fourth Doctor adventures. Though some of the supporting performances seems a bit out of place for the Italian setting and there is certainly some hamminess on display throughout, this tale is one of the strongest pseudo-historicals of the classic era and another fine example of the Tom Baker era.