The Limits of a Time Lord are Discovered in Doctor Who: The Masque of Mandragora

Tom Baker’s performance is so effortless and strange that many scenes without him are forgettable. His performance is like the TARDIS -- it contains multitudes.

Doctor Who: The Masque of Mandragora

Distributor: Warner Home Video
Cast: Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Gareth Armstrong, Jon Laurimore, Norman Jones
Network: BBC
Release Date: 2010-05-04

John Lennon kept an apartment to store his fur coats. The Doctor has a room on the TARDIS for his boots. Even a Beatle would run out of space eventually, but are there such limitations for a Time Lord?

The TARDIS -- an acronym for Time and Relative Dimension(s) in Space -- is space, an infinitely unfolding labyrinth of rooms conceived in writers’ minds and cast off, never to be seen again. Boots, leather or general cobbling have nothing to do with this story specifically, but in a way they do represent what’s wrong with it. The fit is the key to footwear. Too small and the foot is constricted, it can’t expand and contract in the changing temperature of the day. Too big and the wearer might trip over their own feet, threatening the integrity of the body which relies upon them.

Part of the charm of these old Doctor Who stories is their limitations. Costumes, sets and special effects were all done with small budgets but not small ideas. There’s something of the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons in some stories, where characters walk against backgrounds that run on a repeating loop.

The Masque of Mandragora begins this way, with Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) and the Doctor (Tom Baker) wandering the halls of the TARDIS. Sarah marvels at the boot cupboard before happening upon a “second control room” for the great time machine, a wood paneled affair that looks more like a 19th century gentlemen’s club than a futuristic spaceship. It’s here that the Doctor observes the Mandragora Helix, “a spiral of pure energy that radiates outwards in ways no one understands.”

He may as well have been talking about his own crazy tangle of hair, or the ever-present scarf that’s a trademark of Baker’s tenure. Even in the first few minutes of the story Baker is incredible, alternately warm, sinister grim and aloof, often in a single line of dialogue. His shifting sensibility sets the tone for the first episode.

After being dragged into the Helix, the Doctor and Sarah emerge from the TARDIS into a void surrounded by a ring of sparkling crystal. In the distance the Doctor spots a glowing red light and he calls for a retreat. They’re transported to Earth in the 15th century, but the glowing light, a manifestation of Mandragora energy, is along for the ride.

The story alternates between the menacing specter of the Mandragora energy and the lush fields of a medieval Italian dukedom. Both unfold beside one another without coming together. It’s here where the story gets too big for itself.

Sarah and the Doctor find themselves caught in the middle of a familial power struggle between the deceased duke’s young son Giuliano (Gareth Armstrong) and the wicked Count Federico (Jon Laurimore). The “unsure young leader” is a recurring theme for the series (see both parts of the Peladon saga), but the infighting and back stabbing here is tired, uninspired. It’s a clunky bit of plot that gets in the way of the real story, which involves a cult lead by the Count’s seer Hieronymous (Norman Jones) and his possession by the newly arrived Mandragora energy. When Giuliano calls together some of Italy’s finest minds -- including Leonardo Da Vinci -- to celebrate his ascendance, the intellectual future of the human race is threatened by the Mandragora energy and the Doctor has to fight an enemy that is literally faceless.

It’s all set up for quite some time, a slow burn that’s weird and ominous in the first episode and exciting by the fourth. It’s the middle that sags. The palace intrigue and conflict between Giuliano and the Count just doesn’t play. There are many exterior scenes with Tom Baker fighting palace guards and being pursued on horseback, but the familiar world of Earth, even 500 years in the past, is mundane compared to the opening scenes in the Mandragora Helix.

The exteriors were shot on location, unusual for most Doctor Who stories, in Portmeirion, North Wales, where cult TV show The Prisoner was shot. The locations give the story a degree of believability not possible with a few wobbly studio sets, but one doesn’t necessarily watch shows about time travelers from outer space for believability.

Perhaps most disappointing is the portrayal of Sarah. At the start she follows the Doctor around like a puppy and exudes the bubbly, precious personality of a child. Throughout the rest of the story she alternates between a potential mate for Giuliano and the stock damsel in distress. It’s a far cry from the women’s liberation advocate in “The Monster of Peladon”, but the story is already crammed so full of plot points that giving Sarah something to do may have just gotten in the way.

The royal intrigue is cleared up by the fourth episode, giving the Doctor room to save the story and the Earth. Baker’s performance is so effortless and strange that many scenes without him are forgettable. He seems capable of handling all the roles himself. His performance is like the TARDIS -- it contains multitudes. There is room for action and reason and humor, but the writers were wise not to hinge everything on their leading man. I suppose a Time Lord does have his limits.

Bonus features include a nice featurette about beautiful Portmeirion, where much of the story was shot, as well as a fun odds and ends collection of BBC television spots for the show that feels like flipping through channels on a Saturday night. The standout is “Bigger on the Inside”, a featurette on the TARDIS. In it Matthew Savage, a designer for the current Doctor Who series, calls the TARDIS “probably the most British spaceship you’ll ever see.” The '60s police box exterior warps the characters expectations of what to expect on the inside. As viewers, that’s what we’ve come to love.


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