On a tour of the TARDIS, Sarah discovers a wood paneled room the Doctor identifies as a second console room. While smaller than the main console room, he is equally able to operate the TARDIS from there. The Doctor opens the viewscreen, only to see that they are being dragged into the Mandragora Helix by the intelligence within it. Forced to land in the Helix, they managed to avoid its power and escape, but not before an element of the Helix stows away with them. The Doctor and Sarah next find themselves in fifteenth century San Marino, Italy. As the Duke of San Marino lies dying, the Duke’s brother, Federico, is making a grab for power, even though the Duke’s son, Giulliano, is the rightful heir. Federico is assisted in his efforts by the court astrologer, Hieronymous, whose predictions of death–the Duke’s in particular–are eerily accurate. Giulliano is a man of science at the dawn of the Renaissance, so he has no time for Hieronymous’s superstition. However, the Helix has other plans. Using Hieronymous as its vehicle, the Helix wants to prevent the Renaissance from happening, driving Earth’s Western civilization back into the Dark Ages. As leader of a religious cult, Hieronymous serves as a useful vessel for making this happen, so that the Helix can then rule all mankind through this superstition. Unless the Doctor can stop it…
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
First, let’s clear up a couple of things that threw me to begin with. It’s “Masque” not “Mask.” A masque is a form of entertainment popular in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that included drama and dancing, notably with the use of masks. This kind of festivity is key to the climax of the story, since the Helix plans its takeover during the masque to celebrate Giulliano’s succession to the Dukedom. Also “Mandragora” is pronounced mandragora, not mandragora.
This serial was a bold start to season fourteen, what with a new title font, and a new console room. Speaking of the “new” console room, it was a nice change, though it only persisted for this season. That natural look has attracted a lot of fan love over the years, which may account for the return to a more organic style console room for the Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Doctors. There’s even a nod to the show’s recent past with a Third Doctor style shirt and jacket on a chair, and a recorder, favored instrument of the Second Doctor, that Sarah picks up and plays.
An underlying theme of “Masque” is the challenge to “superstition” brought about by Renaissance “science”–such as it was. I’m not sure that the distinction was quite so sharp, since Renaissance men considered themselves, for the most part, still men of faith. However, the clash makes for good drama, so I think we can live with it here. And the “superstition” that’s mocked in this story is a fictitious cult, so there’s little to cause offense (unless you’re an astrologer who regularly predicts the demise of the rich and powerful).
It’s a good story. Not great, but good solid drama, with elements of humor (unavoidable with the Fourth Doctor), and a fairly tight, pacy plot. The location shooting is particularly good, making the most of the same Portmeirion location in Wales that was used to film the popular Sixties series, “The Prisoner.” There’s a lot of Renaissance Italian architecture, so it’s not hard to fake the period and location with some careful camera work, and some oranges attached to the trees.
During the story, Sarah is drugged and hypnotized. Once again, Elisabeth Sladen’s performance is superb, giving a slight, almost unnoticeable nuance to Sarah that suggests she’s not quite herself. I thought it interesting that the Doctor knew she was under the influence because she asked how she could understand Italian, an odd question to ask now after all the places they had visited. I thought Giulliano’s mention of her dilated pupils would have tipped him off well before that. The Doctor’s answer to her question is the first time in the show’s history the subject is broached–and I’m sure this had bugged Who fans for 13 years. He tells Sarah that the ability to understand and be understood no matter where they are is a “Time Lord gift” that the Doctor shares with her. The subject won’t be broached again until Rose asks the Ninth Doctor in “The End of the World,” where he tells her it’s something the TARDIS does for her.
The finale seems a bit rushed, and you have to be paying attention to follow what’s happening. The Doctor’s plan is to use wire wrapped around the cult’s altar to draw off the Helix’s energy when the cult gathers for worship. The Helix is already stretched energy-wise by occupying all the “Brethren” as well as Hieronymous. By wearing protective armor and taunting Hieronymous to shoot energy bolts at him, the Doctor furthers weakens it. At least, that’s my understanding. The energy-bolt-from-the-fingers effect used with the Brethren looks like the same effect used in “Planet of the Spiders,” only improved.
I’m curious to know how Sarah learned fifteenth century dance moves so quickly. When Tegan launches into The Charleston in the Fifth Doctor story, “Black Orchid,” at least she says she learned it in school. Where, and why, would Sarah Jane Smith have learned popular masque dances? I’m also curious to know why the lunar eclipse seems to be happening so quickly. The episode three cliffhanger, however, is very good, where Hieronymous removes his mask to reveal nothing but light. And those masks are pretty creepy.
To sum up, “The Masque of Mandragora” is a good story, and will keep you entertained. It’s not a must-see, and not the greatest, but better than many.