The Beauty Beneath the Masque

Review of The Masque of Mandragora (#85)
DVD Release Date: 04 May 10
Original Air Date: 04 - 25 Sep 1976
Doctor/Companion: Four, Sarah Jane Smith
Stars: Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen
Preceding Story: The Seeds of Doom (Four, Sarah Jane)
Succeeding Story: The Hand of Fear (Four, Sarah Jane)

Last month I started my new series of reviews of Tom Baker's season openers with his inaugural adventure Robot. His second season started with Terror of the Zygons, but as mentioned last month, I've already reviewed it. Therefore, I'm moving on to the Fourth Doctor's third season, which begins with The Masque of Mandragora.

By this point, Lis Sladen had been in the role of Sarah Jane Smith (SJS) for three years, and Baker had been portraying the Doctor for two. They are so wonderfully comfortable with both their own characters and each other, they make for fabulous, cozy watching.

It was also the third and final season of the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era, so often touted as the "golden age" of Doctor Who. Sladen would leave at the end of the following story and the second half of the season would see Baker unwillingly paired with another Companion (it's well known that he was rather horrible to Louise Jameson during her time as Leela, though by all accounts they are fast friends now). As Season 14 opens, though, Baker is clearly at the height of his powers and happy as a clam.

The story opens with SJS and the Doctor wandering the halls of the TARDIS, apparently just for kicks. They happen across a secondary control room, wood-paneled and covered with dust after long disuse. (It was used as the primary for most stories in the following year-and-a-bit.) From here they discover they are being drawn to a strange place by the Mandragora Helix before escaping and ending up in 15th-century Italy.

Helix energy (alternatively "Mandragora energy"—they don't seem to have been overly concerned with consistency there) has hitched a ride in the TARDIS, and now adds to the political havoc in process in the principality of San Martino, in which the Doctor and SJS find themselves (surprise!) embroiled.

As we watch, we realize there are three distinct factions with a stake in the future of San Martino: the newly-made Duke Giuliano and his dear friend Marco (there is plenty on screen to allow for a queer reading of that relationship if one so desires, though it's also easy to read them merely as close platonic friends); Count Federico, who is Giuliano's uncle, and his right-hand man Captain Rossini; and the Brethren of Demnos, including their creepy high priest. Court Astrologer Hieronymous plays a key role, as well; we understand his particular motivations better as the story progresses.

Though I can't honestly say the plot here is the most gripping one I've seen, it's not too shabby. Perhaps due to the fact that I've watched this story fewer times than many others, I didn't find my attention drifting as often as I'd anticipated, despite knowing where all the biggest twists would appear. Given how tired I was when I watched (recovering from five days out of town for a con), that's pretty impressive.

It was also lovely to see a few notable moments in Who history. For example, I believe Masque is the first time any Companion wonders about the fact they understand everyone (which actually becomes a bit of a plot point). And the way the Doctor is constantly hoping to meet Leonardo da Vinci (who was meant to be present at the Duke's accession celebration) is especially amusing, knowing that they're old friends by the time City of Death rolls around, three seasons later.

However, the best part of the whole story for me is the chemistry between Baker and Sladen. They are the bestest best buds ever, and it's awesome. Each clearly has affection toward and concern for the well-being of the other. To me, it is never clearer than a crucial moment in Part Four when the Doctor rushes off to do something dangerous. "Well," he clarifies to Sarah Jane, "only if I guess wrong and then it's fatal."

"Oh, look, I wish you'd stop giving me flip answers!" she counters in frustration.

"All right, listen." He explains the basics behind his plan.

"But what if you've guessed wrong?"

"When did I ever guess wrong about anything?" he calls over his shoulder as he scampers off.

Sarah Jane's face falls as she realizes she can do nothing to stop him. "Lots of times..." she almost whispers.

The final moment of that exchange, as the camera holds on SJS, shows the essence of their relationship. (It's also a master class in acting.) That vulnerability and our realization of how much she cares about him and worries for him is one heart-tugging example of why they make such a perfect pairing, and why this era of the show is so special to so many people. We see beneath Sarah Jane's metaphorical mask and see ourselves mirrored there. And it's beautiful.

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