Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Story 86 - The Masque of Mandragora


In which the Doctor takes Sarah on a tour of the TARDIS, and they come upon the old secondary control room. This wood panelled space was used previously by his second and third incarnations, and the ship can be piloted from here as easily as from the main control room. Opening the scanner, the Doctor is horrified to see that they are approaching the Mandragora Helix - a whirlpool of sentient energy travelling through space.
The TARDIS materialises and they venture out into a black void. A fragment of Helix energy enters the ship, unseen by them, and they hurry to leave. The ship arrives in the Republic of San Martino, Italy, in the latter years of the 15th Century. The Helix energy bolt leaves the ship soon after they have wandered off to explore. Anyone who comes into contact with it is incinerated. The Duke of San Martino has just died (secretly poisoned by his brother, Count Federico, who craves his title). The young heir - Guiliano - suspects his uncle's treachery but can do nothing as he controls the army. Federico determines that his nephew will follow his father in a few days - and orders court astrologer Hieronymous to compose a suitable horoscope.


Sarah is captured by followers of the ancient Cult of Demnos - who worship the Moon and conduct human sacrifice. The Doctor goes to the city for help but meets with a frosty reception. Federico orders his execution, but he escapes. He rescues Sarah from the Cult, who congregate in the old Roman catacombs. They are befriended by Guiliano and his friend Marco. Guiliano is an enlightened prince, who favours science over superstition. The Doctor is shown the corpse of a guard and realises that he has inadvertently brought the Helix to Earth. He warns Guiliano of the threat from Mandragora. The Helix has made contact with the Cult of Demnos, and has established itself in their temple. It grants special powers to the Cult's leader - Hieronymous. He abducts Sarah once more - this time sending her under hypnotic influence to kill the Doctor.

The Doctor realises she has been hypnotised when she questions why she can understand Italian - a gift of the Time Lords she has never queried before. Many great rulers and their entourages are due to arrive in San Martino to witness Guiliano's accession to the Dukedom - amongst them men of learning such as Leonardo Da Vinci. Federico seizes control and imprisons Guiliano, Marco, Sarah and the Doctor. The Doctor convinces him to come to the temple where he sees Hieronymous - now fully possessed by the Helix. The old astrologer destroys him. The Cult plan to attack the palace during a masque ball, and sacrifice everyone during a forthcoming eclipse. The Doctor returns alone to the temple and drains Hieronymous' power, after hiding a metal breastplate under his coat. He then sabotages the altar. The Cult members bring their captives to the temple and when they have assembled under Hieronymous' direction, the Helix descends. The sabotage causes the coven to be consumed by its energies and the Helix is ejected back into deep space. Hieronymous removes his mask and robes - to reveal the disguised Doctor.


This four part adventure was written by Louis Marks, and was broadcast between 4th and 25th September, 1976. It is the first story of Season 14. The new wooden TARDIS control room is introduced - designed by  Barry Newbery after producer Philip Hinchclifffe asked for something that would take up less space in studio. Newbery decided on an antique Jules Verne feel.
Also new is the use of the serif font for the titles.
The story has elements of Hamlet in the family politics of the Dukedom. The Prince of Denmark is a young rationalist, forced to confront superstition and the supernatural. There is also the hint of Edgar Allan Poe's Masque of The Red Death in the story title, and the attack on the ball in part four. Writer Louis Marks was something of an expert on Renaissance studies. He graduated from Oxford with a Doctorate in Philosophy. The word Mandragora is Latin for Mandrake - the plant root with a vaguely human appearance which was thought to have magical properties.
The story was filmed at Portmeirion in North Wales - the idiosyncratic creation of architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. It is most famous as "The Village" in Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner.


Hieronymous is played by Norman Jones, who had previously appeared as the warrior monk Khrisong in The Abominable Snowmen, and as Major Baker in The Silurians. The villainous Count Federico is John Laurimore. He gets some wonderfully rich dialogue with which to curse the incompetence of his minions. The unnamed High Priest of the Cult of Demnos is portrayed by Robert James, who had played Lesterson in The Power of the Daleks. The rather wet Guiliano is played by Gareth Armstrong, and his friend Marco is the great Tim Piggott-Smith, whose TV d├ębut had been in The Claws of Axos. Anyone who thinks Guiliano and Marco are just good friends is, I strongly suspect, deluding themselves.
Episode endings are:
  1. The Doctor finds himself on the scaffold, surrounded by soldiers, and about to have his head lopped off... 
  2. Sarah runs into the catacombs to warn the Doctor - only to be recaptured by the High Priest, who vows she won't escape again...
  3. In the temple, Federico pulls the mask from Hieronymous' face, and is horrified to see only a blaze of alien energy under the hood. The astrologer destroys him with a bolt from his fingers...
  4. The Doctor and Sarah bid farewell to Guiliano, and the TARDIS dematerialises.


Overall, an excellent story. The 12 year old me wasn't impressed at the time - boring history and no monster as such. Disappointing for a series opener, especially as I saw Episode 1 whilst on holiday in Blackpool and had just made my umpteenth visit to the Doctor Who Exhibition. I have since come to love the richness of the story, dialogue, design, performances - and that historical setting.
Things you might like to know:
  • The Doctor states that the Mandragora Helix will be in a position to attack Earth again in about 500 years - so sometime in the present day. No producer ever picked up on this and so there has never been an on screen sequel. The closest was with the Sarah Jane Adventures story The Secret of the Stars. RTD envisaged it as a proper sequel, but then had a change of heart and all references to this story were dropped. To be honest, it is the Mandragora Helix in all but name.
  • Williams-Ellis visited Portmeirion during production and was impressed by a mock temple ruin that had been set up in the woods. He asked for it to be left behind after filming, but it had to be pointed out to him that it was only a flimsy prop.
  • We know that the Second and Third Doctors used the secondary control room as the former's recorder is there, as well as one of the latter's frilly shirts.
  • Apart from stories set during the course of Season 14, has anyone ever employed the secondary control room elsewhere in fiction - such as when it was used by the Second / Third Doctors?
  • This is the fist time that it is explained how everyone in Doctor Who speaks English. 2005's The End of the World will fully explain it as a function of the TARDIS (the telepathic circuits). It isn't purely down to the TARDIS, however, as it doesn't work whilst the Doctor is recuperating from his regeneration in The Christmas Invasion - so why don't the companions suddenly hear only alien / foreign languages every time the Doctor gets knocked out?

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