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DVD Review: Doctor Who – The Masque of Mandragora

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Doctor Who is a long-running British science fiction television series featuring The Doctor, a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey whose adventures see him travel through time and space. Over the years, different actors have starred in the role, and to compensate for the realities of the television business Time Lords were given the ingenious ability to regenerate their bodies when they die.

The Masque of Mandragora is the 86th story of the Doctor. First broadcast in four weekly parts from September 4th to 25th, 1976, on BBC 1, "Part One" opens with the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker), with he and his companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) wandering around the TARDIS, the Doctor's mode of transport. They come across an old console room that provides a nice couple of Easter Eggs as clothing from the Third Doctor and the recorder from the Second are found.

Inside a time vortex, the Doctor and Sarah encounter the living energy force known as The Mandragora Helix, and unbeknownst to them, the creature uses the TARDIS to escape to 15th Century Italy where a power struggle is taking place in the court of The Duke of San Martino. The Duke's death had been predicted by the court astrologer Hieronymous, which provided cover for his brother Count Federico to poison him in an effort to take the throne. Standing in Federico's way is his nephew, the Duke's son Giuliano (Gareth Armstrong). The Doctor must deal with an even great power struggle as the Helix makes a deal to give the leader of the Brethren of Demnos cult untold power in an effort to take over the Earth. As mankind is on course to come out of the Dark Ages and experience the Renaissance, the Doctor must find a way to stop the Helix's plan.

Baker's Doctor is an intelligent, engaging character. He is witty and unpredictable, and with his curly locks brings to mind Harpo Marx on occasion. Sarah Jane is a liability in this story, constantly needing to be rescued every time she wanders off. The other characters seem authentic to the period, bolstered by the cast's performances.

The BBC delivers a great deal of extras, setting a high standard for television programs on DVD. There is a commentary for all four parts by actors Baker and Armstrong, producer Philip Hinchcliffe, and Production Unit Manager Chris D'Oyly-John. It is an enjoyable listen, filled with good-natured reminiscences.

"The Secret of the Labyrinth" (26 min), which was the show's original title, is a present-day making-of with the cast and crew reflecting on the show. "Bigger on the Inside" (19 min) focuses on the history of the series' one constant, the Doctor's TARDIS. There are clips with different Doctors and present-day interviews that include Baker and series writers.

"Now and Then" (9 min) visits Portmerion, Wales, to reveal locations used and match them with clips from the episode. The narration is rather dry and it feels like watching vacation videos of relatives. Even a serious Whovian might find it a bit much to sit through. "Beneath the Masque" (10 min) is an amusing news spoof by Clayton Hickman and Gareth Roberts that relects on the episode, the series, and the 1970s. It's quite a contrast from "Now and Then."

"Trails and Continuity" (3 min) offers a very cool peek back into the past, especially for non-Britons, to see and hear BBC1 promos for the series and individual episodes. Similarly, "Radio Times Billings" is available as a PDF accessible through DVD-ROM. Also included are Production Notes and a Photo Gallery.

Influenced by Roger Corman's The Masque of Red Death and Hamlet, The Masque of Mandragora is an entertaining Who adventure that combines historical drama and science fiction. It's a good standalone episode because it doesn't require knowing anything about the series history or previous episodes.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS