Monday, 27 July 2009

Doctor Who: The Masque of Mandragora

Part One

“You humans have such limited minds. Sometimes I wonder why I like you so much.”

Once again we get a tale by Louis Marks, author of a bizarrely spread out run of stories. But having seen this story for the first time (now there’s only Underworld and Meglos that I’ve never seen from all of Doctor Who!), I’d probably call it his best.

We start, rarely for this era, with an extended TARDIS scene, in which we get to see places other than the control room for what I think is the first time since Hartnell’s day, more than six years, er, months, ago. The point of this, of course, is to introduce the new and rather excellent looking control room. And it has a recorder in it, so apparently the Doctor used to spend a lot of time here when he was Patrick Troughton, but only when the camera wasn’t looking. I particularly like the new scanner.

All this is admirably rounded off before it can degenerate into fanwank, and we’re off into the plot, with the Mandragora Helix, a strange void, and a fantastic looking late mediaeval / early Renaissance Italy. I have to praise the costumes here, and also the excellent location- Portmeiron, I think.

We’re introduced to our guest characters with admirable economy, and at the same time it becomes clear that this story is about reason versus both superstition and tyranny, hence it being set at such an appropriate time and place. The pace is very fast indeed, with Sarah being captured almost as quickly as good old Babs was, way back in The Crusade. There’s definitely something about mediaeval settings and fast paced plots for some reason.

The Doctor gets a great scene putting an apple on the end of Count Federico’s sword and using a football rattle (what else?) to effect his escape.

Part Two

“They say there are places where the bat droppings are as high as a man.”

We get a case of escape by scarf for the first time in ages. A completely implausible method of escape from the executioner’s block, of course, but easily cool enough to get away with it.

There’s a lot of excitement this episode, but it’s also where the pieces start to be put into place- Heironymous is, rather unsurprisingly, revealed as the cult leader, the Doctor makes friends with Giuliano and his hot-headed boyfriend, and conflict is sown between Heironymous and Count Federico. It’s all rather neatly done, and it all looks so sumptuous too. It’s also worrying me a bit though- I’m loving this, it’s bringing back good memories of John Lucarotti and the like from long ago, but that’s because it practically is a pure historical; the sci-fi elements are thin, perfunctory, and a rather obvious metaphor to boot. What is there here to attract the kiddies? Is there enough buckling of swashes to do the job?

Part Three

“You can’t count, Count!”

Giuliano shows himself to be a damn good swordsman, and then along comes the Doctor to show us that he may have regenerated since The Sea Devils but he’s pretty handy with a sword. Perhaps there is enough swashbuckling after all.

I really like Heironymous’s beard. In fact, I think I want one. There’s nothing quite like a good villainous bit of high maintenance facial hair. He’s quite barmy, of course, but then as an astrologer he would be. But there’s one point in his favour- it must be quite nice for Sarah to be hypnotised by someone other than the Doctor for a change.

We get an important first- Sarah asks how come she can understand Italian as she can’t speak it, alluding to a problem which has been successfully brushed under the carpet by the programme for the last twelve and a half years. Apparently it a “Time Lord gift” which the Doctor “allows” Sarah to share. Well, that explains everything perfectly. And it seems it’s Sarah asking this that makes the Doctor realise she’s been hypnotised. Eh?

Meanwhile Marco gets tortured, and even though this actually happens offscreen it feels a bit nasty for a family show. And things are set up for the finale, with Heironymous foretelling Federico’s death, a “prophecy” fulfilled at the end of the episode; superstition has triumphed against the Machiavellian use of power, how will it prevail against the upcoming values of the Renaissance?

Part Four

“You know, the worse the situation, the worse your jokes get.”

It’s nice to see Giuliano’s authority being affirmed on the death of his uncle; this is the episode where he has to come of age. He’ already shown he’s intelligent and rational, but here he has to find the judgement to rule. The discussion with Marco on the need for the masque to go ahead to maintain appearances is important, and shows a rather subtler kind of Machiavellian thinking than Federico.

The ending works, being satisfying and twisty-turny enough to wrongfoot us at the end, plus everyone (including Sarah) looks great in their fancy dress costumes.

Magnificent, and not at all the sort of thing I was expecting at this stage of the marathon. Easily a 5/5. I’ll certainly be watching this again- it’s obvious there’s an awful lot going on in this script that calls for multiple viewings. I suspect it might have bored the kids, mind.

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