The longest running show in sci-fi history is widely have considered to have hit its peak in the seventies and Tom Baker was playing the title role of Doctor Who. Baker's run was a lengthy run, with some high points and some low points, but The Masque of Mandragora four part storyline from 1976 is up there with some of the best episodes that the good doctor has to offer.
The episode begins when Doctor Who and his pal Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) show up sometime in the fourteen hundreds, smack dab in the middle of San Martino, Italy. What the pair doesn't realize is that they've brought along a stowaway in the form of an energy alien from the Mandragora Helix way out there in the far reaches of space. As the doctor and his lady friend set to exploring the area, the sneaky alien too sets out in search of a host to suit its symbiotic needs. Who does the being target? Hieronymous (Norman Jones), a man who just so happens to be the personal astrologer to the Duke of San Martino Giuliano (Gareth Armstrong) himself. Hieronymous proves to be the perfect host, however, as unbeknownst to most people, he's actually the leader of a secret cult who worship an ancient Roman god named Demnos. The alien figures it can use Hieronymous and his cult to remove purpose and ambition from all mankind, basically dooming them to spending an eternity in its current state and unable to evolve or make any sort of technical progress - thus preventing humans from ever reaching outer space and eliminating the possibility of any potential problems for his race. It's an odd mission, but a fairly nefarious one when you think about it.
It doesn't take too long for Doctor Who to figure out what's going on, and of course, he's got to stop it before it's too late. He and the Duke team up, and despite constant interference from Count Federico (Jon Laurimore ), who would love nothing more than to eliminate the Duke, they make a pretty good team. But they'd better hurry up, because the Mandragora alien plans to set everything into motion permanently on the next lunar eclipse, which is right around the bend.
Cribbing quite liberally from Edgar Allen Poe's The Masque Of Red Death and Roger Corman's AIP funded adaptation thereof, The Masque of Mandragora is pretty entertaining stuff. The storyline mixes up the science fiction elements with some more traditional horror and gothic aspects and it comes together quite well. There are even moments in the story that approach some legitimately eerie atmosphere and which border on reasonably frightening - the scenes with the robed cultists, for example, are pretty creepy even by modern standards. The set design compliments this well, enhancing the more gothic aspects of the production and affording the feature some nice period detail in terms of props, costumes and settings.
As far as the acting goes, Baker is in fine form here, playing the lead role with all the enthusiasm and charm that he brought to his better offerings. He's got the charisma and the confidence you'd expect and handles both the more dramatic aspects of the storyline and the periodic comedic ones with equal amounts of skill. He's a goofy hero, but a hero none the less and his interaction with the more serious minded characters in the storyline, such as The Duke, are handled really well. If the storyline isn't consistently engaging and periodically feels maybe just a little bit padded, so be it, the good absolutely outweighs the bad when you factor in creep cultists, evil aliens, a few good chase scenes, and assorted mayhem that ensues over the course of the story. It's a bit predictable and most of the supporting cast is surprisingly poorly defined but most fans of the series won't mind that so much as it delivers plenty of good entertainment regardless of its sometimes obvious flaws.
This installment of Doctor Who arrives on DVD in its original fullframe aspect ratio. Now, a lot of the episodes from the seventies were shot on 16mm film stock when taking place outside and on tape when shooting took place inside, which resulted in some fairly noticeable cuts between the two formats. This episode is one of those, and the switching back and forth is fairly obvious to those who know to look for it. On top of that, all that existed for this transfer were tape masters, so the image is a fair bit softer than some of the other seventies era releases that the series has enjoyed. There are moments where the picture is muddy looking and fairly murky and detail is generally below average throughout playback. It's all watchable enough and scenes shot inside tend to look cleaner and clearer than those shot outdoors, but this isn't really a great transfer even if it's obvious that the powers that be have done their best with the material that they had available. The disc is well authored in that there are no problems with compression artifacts and as soft as it all is, at least it's clean in that there aren't any nasty issues with print damage.
The sole audio option on this release is an English language Dolby Digital Mono track that comes with optional subtitles available in English only. The quality of the track is fine in that it's always easy to understand and there are no problems to report in terms of hiss or distortion. There isn't a whole lot of range - this is an older mono mix after all - but the levels are well balanced and the feature sounds just fine.
The best extra on the disc, and there are quite a few goodies in here for fans, is the commentary track by cast members Tom Baker and Gareth Armstrong, producer Philip Hinchcliffe, and production unit manager Chris D'Oyly-John. Baker and Hinchcliffe seem to be having the most fun of the group, happily discussing the time they spent working together while Armstrong and D'Oyly-John chime in when they feel the need. It's a relaxed track that sometimes veers a bit off topic but never to detrimental effect. While the discussions never reach encyclopedic proportions, they do manage to cover most of the bases of the production and often times with a sense of humor.
From there we move on to the featurettes starting with The Secret Of The Labyrinth which is a strong making of documentary that clocks in at just over twenty-five minutes and which gathers together the bulk of the cast and crew members to discuss the making of the feature. It covers some of the same ground as the commentary track does but it's always enjoyable to hear these guys stroll down memory lane particularly when they do it as affectionately as they do here. Bigger On The Inside: A History Of The TARDIS is a great nineteen minute look at the TARDIS itself. With plenty of welcome input from writer Robert Shearman this featurette does a fine job of covering the different versions of the device and in explaining its history and importance to the series. Now And Then is a fun eight minute location featurette that compares the locations used in the film when it was made to how they appear now in the modern day, while Beneath The Masque brings together Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman to discuss the feature by poking fun of the era in which it was made and generally goofing on the series in a good natured way.
Rounding out the extra features are a still gallery, a selection of production notes, and some PDF material for those who are DVD-Rom equipped. Menus and chapter selection are also provided.
Doctor Who: The Masque of Mandragora isn't necessarily the cream of the series' crop but it definitely comes close. It's amusing and entertaining in the way that the best entries in the series are known for and the BBC have done a fine job bringing it to DVD. If the transfer isn't amazing, the audio is solid and the extras are very strong. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.