More than any other colour story (even Genesis of the Daleks), this feels like a Hartnell historical brought into the 1970s. It has the same grounding in period research and interest in the thinking of the time. The Count, a tyrant of the old school, versus the enlightened despotism of the Duke plot is pretty much a straight historical so far, and it’s only the Hammer Horror Satanic cult and the sparkler from space that introduce supernatural horror into the mix.
Those Hammer Horror elements are quite well done. There is a lot of creeping about catacombs, being menaced by monks. The elaborate sacrificial ritual is quite grisly and prolonged: the camera dwells on the sacrificial knife much as in The Satanic Rites of Dracula. The purple-robed High Priest (who, to no-one’s shock, turns out to be Hieronymus) is dressed like Charles Gray in The Devil Rides Out. It all feels much more real than the stylised fantasy of the Sisterhood’s sacrificial rituals in The Brain of Morbius. Meanwhile, the Mandragora Helix might as well be a ‘fire demon’: it certainly behaves like one. The grim, blue-tainted corpses it leaves behind feature quite a lot more than is the norm for fried corpses in this programme.
The Renaissance historical elements are also very well done, and critically feel like they belong in the same story as the horror. We get to spend more time with Duke Giuliano, who’s revealed as a pretty fey young man as he introduces ‘my companion, Marco’ (a dashing young Tim Pigott-Smith) and admits, ‘I crave for contact with men of intellect and understanding.’ Don’t we all, sweetheart. He excitedly explains to Sarah Jane, ‘I have this theory the world is a sphere’ which makes me wonder how old he must have been when he commissioned the verdigrised statue of Apollo holding the globe that features so clearly in the location filming.
For a story that has never grabbed me before, this is all very well done. There is some repetition already creeping in, though. The Doctor escapes and steals a horse and Sarah Jane is captured by the cult for the second time in as many episodes,
Next episode: The Masque of Mandragora – Part Three