Friday, January 25, 2013

Doctor Who #430: The Masque of Mandragora Part 1

"You humans have got such limited little minds. I don't know why I like you so much."
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD. First aired Sep.4 1976.

IN THIS ONE... The new (old) console room! The TARDIS caught in an energy Helix! Renaissance Italy!

REVIEW: As far as number of classic seasons goes, we're passing the halfway mark, and as if to celebrate, the production changes a number of things to bring the program in line with its Gothic aesthetic. The most important of these is a new console room with a darker, more Victorian look, a smaller console with no rotor (but a shaving mirror), some railings that fans of the new series will recognize, and a better viewscreen. After 13 years of one big white room or other, it's a welcome change. I really like it. Apparently, this was the FIRST control room, which tantalizingly evokes a young Hartnell's early adventures, but by leaving souvenirs from Docs 2 and 3, the spell is broken (but see Theories). It's all part of a brief tour of the TARDIS, which also includes a jokey scene about a boot cupboard - a giant living room with a single pair of boots at the door. But the console room isn't the only change. We get a new TARDIS prop, so none of those unsightly scratches and dried paint blobs. In fact, the full-sized prop at a tendency to look like a model at times because its exterior looks so smooth. And there's a new font for the opening titles and closing credits, something with funky serifs on it. I don't mind it, but I'm not in love with it either.

New and old does become a kind of theme in this serial. In Renaissance Italy (a duchy called San Martino), ancient superstition clashes with a new philosophy called science. Unfortunately for the reasonable young Duke Giuliano, an energy creature called the Mandragora Helix is about to give his more mystically-minded opponents proof that astrology exists. The court astrologer, Hieronymous, is cheating by colluding with the evil Count Federico, predicting deaths before administering poison to the doomed individual, but he's also convinced his powers are real, and he's lately come in contact with some power from the stars. Giuliano is a new kind of man, the proverbial Renaissance Man, and is related to Hamlet in the script, a nobleman whose uncle has poisoned his father, which makes Marco his Horatio, and Hieronymous his Polonius. The language rises to the occasion with a fair cod-Shakespearean on show, and Portmerion, where they filmed The Prisoner, makes a good location for these events without immediately reminding one of Number 6's Village, even if the spark of Mandragora energy flying around (a simple but effective "monster") could be a more incendiary form of Rover.

Before the Doctor and Sarah can intervene, they first spend a bit of time getting sucked into the Helix, winding up in some surreal space filled with crystals (the dimensional pocket the Helix springs from?), and giving the Mandragora spark a ride to Earth. Sarah learns the hard way not to steal oranges from the charmingly idyllic orchard, finding herself captured by cultist monks as soon as the camera cuts back to the Doctor. The Doctor does a little better despite being knocked unconscious one too many times (twice in quick succession seems like carelessness), spiking his orange on a sword, springing a surprise rattle on armed horsemen and stealing a mount, and striking the right balance of insolence and earnestness in trying to convince Federico the end of the world is at hand. The right balance for the audience, anyway, not for the evil Count who orders the Time Lord's head be struck from his body. It's what makes the cliffhanger, and here you thought it would be Sarah Jane's sacrifice under the cultist knife.

THEORIES: Trying to win a no-prize, I'll surmise that there's a recorder in the old console room because Hartnell-Doc learned how to play. And a dusty smoking jacket that looks to be Pertwee's because in his younger days, he might have worn one on some era-appropriate adventure. When regenerating into Troughton or Pertwee, these elements of his younger days simply came to the forefront of his new personality. After all, there was a recorder on hand in Power of the Daleks, it wasn't found on the planet. And the Doctor knew how to play already. Don't buy it? Ok, how about the idea that the Doctor's junk might get shifted to one place or other in the various renovations the ship's inner dimensions have undergone over the years?

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - A nice new set is introduced and it's been a while since we've had a proper historical location too. Off to a great start. Much better than Louis Marks' previous script, Planet of Evil, Masque seems to be cast in the Pyramids of Mars mold instead, and that's a good thing.


snell said...

Well, if you accept the 5th Doctor's exclamation literally ("You've changed the desktop!"), perhaps the TARDIS is operating more akin to a computer (or holodeck?!). The jacket and recorder were always there, but in rearranging the room, they were no longer hidden. Not a new room, just new appearance (force fields? holograms? Early form of Logopolis rearrangement via math?).

Siskoid said...

The implication is that this is another room, not the same one, redecorated, and is eventually called the "secondary control room" (I'm not sure where in canon though).

Obviously, when you change desktops on your computer, your old configuration is still available as date SOMEwhere. And because the main control room currently used ISN'T the one from An Unearthly Child (we've seen 2-3 configurations since then), it may be that all that stuff was shunted out with the desktop post-The Time Monster (where the TARDIS was covered in lampshades or salad bowls).