Doctor Who episode 428: The Masque of Mandragora – Part One (4/9/1976)
This Season 14 opener suddenly feels like a prestige BBC production rather than the superior quality Doctor Who of Season 13. The new, elegant serif font for the credits is the first indicator. Then there’s the new TARDIS control room (or the old one, according to the script) in wood and brass, and a new Police Box. And the amount of location filming, the number of extras and the quality of the costumes and sets mean this is absolutely the lushest-looking episode so far in the colour series.
It also feels like Hinchcliffe has finally imposed his own vision on the show. The last couple of times the series travelled back in time (The Time Warrior and Pyramids of Mars) UNIT was either involved or mentioned, to tie the series back to present-day Earth. There’s no hint of them here. This is full-blooded gothic, in the literary sense, complete with a villainous Italian nobleman, a late medieval Mediterranean setting, sinister cowled monks, devil worship (or ‘Demnos’ at least) and a deadly plot against the young duke.
It’s also written like a bit of a re-launch. The opening scenes in the TARDIS corridors (the first time anything like this has been attempted since the Hartnell years) are written almost as if this is Sarah’s first trip: ‘Just how big is the TARDIS?’ The old control room has a couple of kisses to the past (the second Doctor’s recorder and the third’s costume) which, taken with the Doctor’s implication that he wasn’t always in control when he used this room, at a stretch could suggest Robert Holmes thinking of the Doctor’s period as a Time Lord agent (he definitely imagined the second Doctor went on missions for them, e.g. The Two Doctors).
It’s absolutely gorgeously done. Rodney Bennett seems much happier directing this material than the sci-fi of The Ark in Space, and Louis Marks’ script has an authentic ring to it. It’s maybe a bit too highbrow for younger children – the Mandragora Helix isn’t the most exciting monster, and there are probably too many talky scenes and not enough moments like Count Federico terrorising peasants, or the Doctor stealing a horse.
Next episode: The Masque of Mandragora – Part Two