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14x1. The Masque of Mandragora
Writer: Louis Marks
Director: Rodney Bennett
Script Editor: Robert Holmes
Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe

Synopsis: After a brief unplanned detour through the Mandragora Helix, the Doctor and Sarah arrive in Renaissance Italy, only to discover that Helix energy has accompanied them and has begun wreaking havoc on the locals. Meanwhile, the young Duke Giuliano faces a brewing plot from his corrupt uncle Federico and the court astrologer Hieronymous, who is also the leader of a secretive cult dedicated to the god Demnos. The Helix energy manifests itself to the Demnos cult, threatening to cast the world back into the Dark Ages, as the Doctor and Sarah are caught up in the machinations of both Federico and Hieronymous.

Review: The previous season of Doctor Who closed with a story that fired on all cylinders in terms of plot and characterization, with thematic elements that were present but not particularly emphasized. "The Masque of Mandragora" has the opposite set of strengths and weaknesses: the conflict between reason and superstition is in the foreground, but the characters aren't especially memorable and the story itself is a bit thin in places.

"Masque" places the Doctor and Sarah in the midst of a three-way power struggle in Renaissance Italy. Duke Giuliano is an intelligent and honest ruler who genuinely has his subjects' best interests at heart and rejects horoscopes and other notions that he sees as antithetical to reason and proper education. His uncle Federico is cruel and power-hungry, cheerfully willing to exploit superstitions and ignorance to get his way, while Hieronymous, though cut from somewhat similar cloth, actually starts to believe in his own powers after he and the Demnos cult make contact with the Mandragora Helix energy. In a way, the Helix itself operates in a similar fashion as well, exploiting the beliefs of the Demnos cult to gain a foothold and intending to use fear and superstition to keep the planet's populace from progressing by depriving them of a sense of purpose. The Doctor is particularly perturbed by this, as he considers this sort of assault on the pursuit of knowledge and meaning just as immoral and oppressive to humans as any standard alien invasion; as an explorer and a scientist, this makes sense for his character, and Tom Baker portrays it convincingly.

Aside from this examination of a society in a difficult transition phase, the merits of "Masque" are mostly decorative. The secondary control room in the TARDIS is an interesting change, shifting away from the "gleaming white interior" approach typical of sci-fi in favor of something a little more unique and quirky. After a number of deadly serious turns in Season 13, the Doctor's playful side is accentuated in this installment, whether he's sticking an orange on somebody's sword or doing an impersonation of the Demnos cult's high priest at the end. The set design, costumes, and dialogue are all convincing, making for a strong showing in the first real period piece of the Baker era ("Pyramids of Mars," though set in the early 20th century, isn't really specific to its time period in terms of the actual story being told). The script also throws out an answer to one of those logical questions that the more obsessive among us ponder from time to time, by explaining that some sort of Time Lord telepathy or hyperintelligence allows her to understand languages she doesn't know (in this case Italian).

Still, I can't say that Giuliano, Federico, and Hieronymous really function on any level other than the archetypal: they aren't very memorable characters, and the story is mostly just palace intrigue done competently -- nothing more, nothing less. While the Helix is an interesting idea, it feels a bit underwritten, to the point that it almost could just be an "evil spirit" and we probably wouldn't really notice the difference. Yes, the Doctor does explain it, and at the end he defeats it not through supernatural means but by causing the energy to exhaust itself because "the plasma ionization is spread thin," but the explanation feels a bit lazy and interchangeable with almost any other random technobabble, and the sense of legitimate danger to the Doctor doesn't feel as real as it does in, say, "Pyramids" or "The Seeds of Doom." Basically, this amounts to, "Well, the Doctor's really smart, so he puts the whammy on the evil energy thingy, and the bad guys, uh, all fall over, or something." It's not exactly illogical, but only because the logic is so arbitrary that we just have to take the script's word for it. "Masque" gets a recommendation from me for the thematic content and the stylistic touches, but it's not the Baker era at its best.

Rating: *** (out of four)

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