Day 218 — August 6th 2021

The Masque of Mandragora Parts One and Two

Of course with the departure of the original TARDIS prop in The Seeds of Death a couple of days ago, we’ve got a very exciting (and rare!) occasion in this one; the introduction of a brand new TARDIS! Sadly I have to say that the prop making its debut here is my least favourite of all the TARDIS designs — it’s the ‘Newbury Box’, named after the designer on this serial BARRY Newbury. The box is a little too squat and a little too square for my liking, and I don’t think it looks anywhere near as impressive as the original prop. Crucially, I don’t think it looks as gorgeous parked in woodland here as the last one did in Terror of the Zygons or The Android Invasion.

I think I’m also bitter because the prop wasn’t supposed to look like this. Newbury has been designing for Doctor Who since its earliest days (he’s first credited on An Unearthly Child way back when), and his original plans were for something far closer to the original design, and even a little closer to an actual metropolitan police box. His drawings specify the return of details like the Saint John’s Ambulance logo last seen (barring a few brief model shots) in the Hartnell years. I’m not sure what went wrong between design and construction, but I think what we ended up with is a bit of a let down. With a few modifications, this box will be with us right through until the middle of Peter Davison’s first season, so I should probably stop whining and learn to love it, I suppose…!

And it’s not like there aren’t some interesting aspects of this box. The original prop was designed for use inside a TV studio with no thought given to location work. With the increasing demands on the box now apparent, this one was designed to be lighter and easier to construct, meaning that it’d be more practical for taking on the road. In spite of the ability to flat-pack the prop, there’s some great shots from the production of Shada where you can see the box fully built and strapped into the back of a lorry. As part of trying to make the box lighter, this one only has three sides — there’s no back to the box. It’s not an important fact, but I think it’s an interesting one. They hid it well on screen, so it’s only really apparent in behind-the-scenes images which show a pair of cross bars simply holding things in place.

But the TARDIS doesn’t only get a new exterior in this one, because we’re introduced to a band new Control Room, too. It’s the first truly different take on the TARDIS interior that we’ve had since the original was introduced right back in An Unearthly Child. We’ve been through some variations over the years, but they’ve all been from that same ‘sterile white’ template. This feels like a total departure from that, an attempt to create something a little more along the lines of Jules Verne.

I never used to be a fan of the Secondary Control Room. I think it was too much of a departure from the usual, but I’ve grown to appreciate it more in recent years. A friend has recently been teaching himself how to digitally model in 3D and is in the process of creating a version of this design, and every time he shows me some new pictures I think it looks really beautiful. It also fits Tom Baker’s Doctor Who perfectly. There’s some suggestion here that both Pertwee and Troughton have spent some time in here, but I’m not sure I buy it — I can’t picture them in this setting, while Baker feels right at home.

The production team clearly appreciated what a big departure this was from the norm, because they devote the first couple of minutes of this episode — of the entire season! — to establishing why the Control Room looks so radically different. I’m not sure it’s necessary, in all honestly, but perhaps I’m talking from the advantage of having seen lots of different takes on the TARDIS in the New Testament, and even as far back as the TV Movie.

In fact, the structure of this episode is slightly unusual. We spent the first five minutes or so solely in the company of Doctor Who and Sarah as they explore the TARDIS, get dragged into the heart of the Mandragora Helix, and then escape again not knowing that they’ve accidentally picked up a passenger. We then cut to 15th century Italy, where we spend the next five minutes establishing the guest cast before our heroes finally show up in the story’s main location around twelve minutes in. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but it stood out as an unusual structure, when I’d usually expect the two sequences to be more intercut.

There’s lots to like when we finally reach the forests of Italy, but this episode feels curiously slow in places. I wonder if it’s simply a reaction to The Seeds of Doom packing in so much to every episode the other day? I found myself checking my watch more than I’d have liked to. Especially when there’s lovely moments like Doctor Who sticking an orange on the end of a soldier’s sword when it’s pointed at him.

And surely this must be some kind of record for how quickly a Doctor Who companion is kidnapped after stepping out of the TARDIS? They’re in Italy all of two minutes before Sarah’s been knocked unconscious and dragged off to be sacrificed by an ancient cult! Maybe the universe realises her days in the TARDIS are numbered, so they’re trying to pack in as much as they can before she goes…

It’s a 6/10 for this one.

When my wife and I took a holiday in North Wales about four years ago, the one place I was most desperate to visit was Portmeirion — the location used for the filming of this story as well as, perhaps most famously, the setting of The Prisoner. On the four hour drive across Wales I really sold her on it as a destination. I said it was a village created to look like a little slice of Italy, right on the coast of North Wales. It had been used as a filming location specifically because of how gorgeous it was, and that it was therefore chocked full of iconic sights. I tried to interest her in watching The Masque of Mandragora before we went, so she’d have some idea of what to expect, but while it was early in our relationship, it was far enough in that she told me exactly where I could shove that idea.

We visited on a gorgeously sunny day in July and I wasn’t disappointed — it was a beautiful place, and it genuinely did feel like we’d slipped away to mainland Europe for the morning. We took a walk through the woods to try and find the spot where the TARDIS had materialised 40 years earlier, gazed out at the distant ocean across the vast sandy landscape (I tried to explain the giant bubble guards to her but she wasn’t that bothered). We had some lunch in the little café, and I raved about it as a place to visit. Tyler wasn’t impressed at all, and even now she complains about the time I dragged her to ‘that place in North Wales’. There’s no pleasing some people.

If I had one complaint about Portmeirion when we visited, it’s that it was too well restored. All the buildings had been repainted during the off season in winter, so everything looked pristine and new. The paths were clean and clear, and the lawns were perfectly mowed into a grid pattern. They had a giant chess set available to play, and it generally looked quite modern and polished. But that’s not what I wanted! I think one of the charms of the place in this story is that it looks a bit run down. The stonework hasn’t been cleaned since the place was built 50 years earlier, and the paint is all starting to peel. There’s one shot in particular in this episode where Giuliano leads Doctor Who and Sarah off to the temple of Demnos, and you can see just how run down the area looks as they pass through it.

It sounds like I’m saying that’s a bad thing, but it really isn’t It makes the place look real and lived in, and I think that really benefits it. If you were to shoot here now it would look so new that people might suspect you’ve built a fresh set on the backlot in your studio, while on screen in 1976 it looks genuinely old and real. We get plenty of opportunity to admire the scenery here, too, because the first few minutes of this episode are made up of a chase sequence where Doctor Who explores the place a bit. I was really impressed by the way it weaves in the other elements of the narrative, too; he runs right past the discovery of a guard who’s been killed by the Mandragora Helix, for example, allowing us to stay with that strand of the story while he heads off.

The gorgeous visuals extend to the studio sets, too, which are brilliantly rendered across these opening two episodes. The BBC are always absolute masters at creating period productions, and a story like this really proves that point. I think everything blends together nicely, so that it feels like we’re in a real time and place, and the cuts between location and studio aren’t jarring where they might well have been. It makes me wish that we got to see more historical stories — I make it a total of five in the last six seasons (so one per year), but of those one features a 1920s ship that’s not really a 1920s ship, and the other is set in the fantasy world of Atlantis, so I’m not sure it counts. I’d love to see them heading off around the globe more like they used to do in the Hartnell era, and this episode proves that they could do it.

There’s only one place that the sets are a bit of a let down, and it’s down in the temple of Demnos. When the Helix arrives and transfers power to Hieronymous it restores the ruined temple to its former glory… by turning up the lights to reveal a few painted backdrops of a temple. I can’t decide if this is just a bizarre slip up on the part of the production team, thinking they could get away with an effect which would have been impressive on stage but doesn’t really work here on television, or if it’s just supposed to be a vision the Helix is giving them of what the temple could look like… in which case I still don’t understand why it looks like a painted backdrop! Still, it’s a minor niggle, and I’m probably just being picky.

Overall, while there’s a lot to enjoy in here I’m afraid it’s just not quite doing it for me, and I’m sticking with a 6/10 for this one, too.

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Will Brooks

English Boy in Wales. Freelance Writer and Designer. Doctor Who Art for Big Finish, Titan Comics, Cubicle 7. TARDIS Fan. Pinstripe Counter.