While Count Federico’s power grab plays out, the Helix, through Hieronymus, is making its own move. I like the convergence of the two strands here. The torture of Marco (very homoerotic) is meant to force a false confession that the young Duke is, in fact, the leader of the Cult of Demnos, discrediting him and paving the way for the Count to take over. That the real leader has been lurking under the Count’s not inconsiderable nose for ages is ironic, and the final face to face (well, not quite: in a very Sapphire & Steel effect, Hieronymus’ face is now a blank glowing sphere) confrontation between the two allies turned rivals inevitably comes off worse for the human than the super-powered alien.
The dialogue sounds like it’s been given a Robert Holmes gloss: lines like, ‘The great blade of our god thirsts for blood’ and ‘You can no more tell the stars than you can tell my chamber pot’ are delivered with relish. This is all much more vivid than I remember. It also has some really good effects: not only the abovementioned sphere-face, but also the hands, smoking like Sutekh’s, as the Helix passes its power into the Brethren, and a lovely moment where the temple is restored to its former glory.
Also likeable is that Elisabeth Sladen is being given more to work with than she was getting at the start of Season 13. Here, she gets to be conditioned by Hieronymus to become his instrument of vengeance against ‘foreign sorcerer’ the Doctor, and Sladen pitches it brilliantly, making hypno-Sarah thrill in the horror of her mission, shaken out of it only when the Doctor appeals to her as his best friend. There will be more opportunity for her to do the same sort of thing in the next serial.
This all feels much more polished than normal. All the leads are leaning into the melodrama; the sets are beautifully detailed, and the overall execution is a step forward from the slightly flimsy-looking Martian pyramids, or the painted spoons of the Sisterhood of Karn. There’s a fine line between self-confidence (like answering some longstanding questions of how the regulars can speak foreign or alien languages) and self-indulgence (the opening swordfight that goes on too long) but I think this is generally on the right side of the line.
Next episode: The Masque of Mandragora – Part Four