Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Serial 86: The Masque of Mandragora

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companion: Sarah Jane Smith

Written by: Louis Marks
Directed by: Rodney Bennett

A Few Words: I know I'm not the first to tell you, but I'll say it anyways. Lis Sladen died yesterday.

It's hard to explain exactly how I'm feeling. Crushed, devastated, heartbroken. I guess that's some, but it doesn't come close. I know I've lost a dear friend and I'm sure it's something akin to that for you.

So... it's not right for me to not talk about it, so I will. But... I'll save my thoughts on that till we get to the end. For now, it'll be business as usual, so... if you haven't seen this one, go ahead and skip to the end cuz "Final Thoughts" this week is all about her, but let's be honest. No thoughts on Sarah Jane Smith could ever be final, so it's misnomery.

But first... to the business of the week, I suppose. Please to enjoy.

Background & Significance: Sometimes Robert Holmes might have been wrong.

I only say that because Holmes himself was very outspoken about history-based stories and how he thought they were away from the inherent sci-fi show that he perceived Doctor Who to be.

Now, I don't think Robert Holmes is wrong in any of these sentiments. For one thing, Doctor Who is up to the viewer to interpret what they do or do not think the show is/should be. Some people hate UNIT stories. Some people hate this Gothic era. Me? I'm not a huge fan of the campy fantasy of the Graham Williams era, but I think Robert Holmes has a point. I, personally, am not huge on the historical stories as much as I'm into pseudo-historical stories. I like them, don't get me wrong. Some of them are remarkably strong and I look forward to seeing more. They're just overall not my favourite things in the world. I'd rather go watch something that's got a bit more flair.

But about this story...

It's interesting that despite being so against historical-based stories, Holmes wrote three himself, "The Pyramids of Mars" and "The Talons of Weng-Chiang", "The Time Warrior" and oversaw the scripting of two others: "Horror of Fang Rock" and this.

What I feel like Holmes dials into with all of these stories is a definite infusion of the sci-fi we all know he loves while simultaneously blending in a healthy dose of history, aided by the lovely BBC costume department, which does period drama like nothing else.

That's not to say he didn't have reservations in doing these stories. He was really very against "The Masque of Mandragora" until the addition of a big ol' sci-fi bent, and while I sympathize with Holmes's reservations, I really do feel he managed to pull it all around to turn in a kickass historical story that fits right in his era.

Not only that, but it definitely strengthens the era and this season as a whole. In a lot of ways, "The Masque of Mandragora" is the first in a seven shot salvo that sends out this truly epic and wonderful era out with a bang. It really feels like the first in a new season of an even more refined and focused tone. We're still full of gothic horror we got in the last season. But now it's been more refined and polished so that it's looking more and more like something that they're continuing to dial in on in the best of ways.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Break out the Renaissance way-back-machine.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

As I said in the background, this is one of those stories that goes a long ways to show you the versatility of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era.

Too often, I find, we hear that the era is percolated by horror and tropes and all this violence and crazy big ol' gory insanity or whatever. But this… this story is decidedly not. This is something that feels very much like a high sci-fi adventure that just happens to take place in a historical setting, but not just any historical setting. Right off the bat, this just-Pre-Renaissance Italy feels like something right out the oeuvre that this era is going for and it just makes sense on every level.

Not only that, but it still feels like the creative team is whittling the show until it gets it just right. I mean, the relationship with The Doctor and Sarah Jane is as strong as ever, and I love the notion that one of the things they do in their spare time is wander the corridors of The TARDIS just chatting idly about whatever it is that tickles their fancy or perhaps reminiscing or talking about alien civilizations or TARDIS physics or the different gadgets and types of alien spanners in The Doctor's pockets or something like that or something… it’s just so charming and heartwarming and the relationship between Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen really sparkles and it... it really is at the strongest it's ever been or ever would be.

And then they find the alternate TARDIS console control room, or as I like to call it: “The Gothic TARDIS”.

Now, I know we talk every time it shows up, but honestly, how can I not mention it? It’s seriously the best the TARDIS interior ever in the Classic series if you ask me.

It’s also a really intriguing setup for the main evil sci-fi evil of this story which is… well... kinda lovely if I can be honest. It’s rare to see The Doctor against a natural force when it comes to the evil big bad he faces. To be honest, I can’t think of a single time The Doctor’s been up against a strict force of nature? I mean, I guess Krynoids, but those are still aliens, aren't they?

Me saying that is a bit of a misnomer, though. Sure, there are other evil bad guys like The Count and Hieronymous, but that’s not quite the same, is it? They’re all background players feasting and playing into the Mandragora energy's ultimate plot.

The thing I get most out of this as the enemy is an inherent sense of danger. The Mandragora Helix itself is just a ball of energy that flies around the countryside obliterating things in its path and killing and torching people and swords and pitchforks with no regard for anything it does. That, of course, makes for a compelling sort of nemesis for The Doctor. It’s like The Master in “The Deadly Assassin”. There’s absolutely no reasoning with it. Lack of ability to reason with something is what makes it scary.

(Inherent faults in this will come later).

We’re also introduced to the cast of players, including The Count and his court and the Duke-to-be Giuliano (and his suspiciously… shall we say fancy companion Marco) and the evil Hieronymous (who’s a total tard but also kinda suspicious and exciting because we don’t know what’s his deal or what’s happening except that he has a funky scar and some scary ass imposing facial hair). It’s all very exciting and compelling and well done because all of these characters really sparkle and feel fleshed out and strong.

And that’s not even to say anything about the level of high adventure in this story. I mean, Sarah Jane is carted away and the Doctor goes up against a couple of The Count’s men and flees on horseback.

This, to me, is really strong Tom Baker. Like, really strong. I know a lot of people love him as he was in the previous season, when he’s all alien and stuff and being all dour and bitter. But to me, this is the Tom Baker I like most. He’s the wanderer guy, trying to just explore. And there he is walking around the countryside for fun and stealing a horse and riding away and getting into mischief and cracking jokes but also coming at everything from a very real, very honest place when he talks about how the Mandragora is going to come in and screw everything up.

It’s a really good showing from him. Easily one of my favourite stories as far as it goes for the Tom Baker I like.

Part 2:

Before going any further, can I just talk about how absolutely drop dead gorgeous this story is?

Based on the cost of the show around this time, it's difficult to say whether or not this was a low budget story or not. I'd say it wasn't, but only because I know that "Hand of Fear" and "Robots of Death" were both done on the relative cheap (or they seem that way) and "Talons" and "The Deadly Assassin" were a bit more costy... But still. The budget on this episode is tremendous. I love the lush greens of these locations. It's a far cry from the typical barren waste of a standard quarry and it feels much more lived in for that reason. I instantly buy this as an actual location in space and time (as compared to the quarry which is generic and not so much).

All of this is bolstered by the BBC strength of period drama. It's no secret that the BBC has a tremendous costuming department and they do period drama extremely, extremely well. So it only makes sense that Doctor Who would play this to its biggest strengths. Everything in this feels good (even if it isn't accurate) and plays much towards the mythic and ideal version of what this might be. The corridors have the right flavor, the sets feel authentic and lived in, the outfits (from the leggings to the hats to the puffy arms) feel sweepy and regal and played just right... And then there's those masks...

Honestly, this is what it comes down to: what this story might lack in complexity or "importance" or "lifechanging" plot, it makes up for in charm and a grand sense of adventure.

None of this is clearer than in the Brethren of Demnos. The group itself is very simple in scope, not fully fleshed out, and not the most interesting of things, especially not in this serial. I'll be the first to admit that. But what it does do is capture that spirit of mystery, that spirit of adventure and intrigue that this serial is so dialed into. And besides, their motives are all solid and sound and stuff. And their masks are actually quite mad creepy. So who cares, you know?

We also have some more solid Tom Baker in this. I mean, seriously, why is he not always this good? He's just... jovial in this (but also with the serious) but also much with the high adventure and excitement. I love the runaround he gives his would-be decapitators at the top of this episode, and by the end he's stalking through the catacombs and the Brethren's HQ with not but a broad sword. I friggin love that (and we'll touch upon more of the why in the next episode). I love the way he handles the situation at hand, and his rescue of Sarah Jane is inspired one hundred percent. It's just great and well played and totally fun and super awesome.

Also, I'm pretty sure there's something going on between Giuliano and Marco. But I could be wrong. You know what I mean? Something a little... subtextual? OR MAYBE I'M JUST READING INTO IT TOO MUCH.

Part 3:

One of the strengths of this era as a whole is it very much feels like it's got Robert Holmes's fingerprints all over these stories.

That's not to say they're not individualistic or all Holmesian. But I can just tell that they've all been beefed up a little bit by the script editor's behind-the-scenes re-writes. Maybe it's the evil bad guy of Heironymous, or the sense of swashbuckle and high standard sci-fi that's all doing it... or maybe even the total sparkling of the dialogue or even the double act of Giuliano and Marco or the Count himself as just that typical Holmesian archetype... Or maybe it's the structure.

Whatever it is, it just feels like that.

That, to me, is one of the strengths of this era as a whole. The tight vision and execution from Holmes is quite remarkable and gives the feel his own. There's no telling how much he did or did not write or re-write scripts (besides that which we know of) because much of the work was uncredited. And yet Holmes's propensity to do a page one re-write (which he is known to have done on works such as "The Ark in Space" among others) gives a real consistency to the era and is the added bonus of, well, a Holmes script every week... Or if not Holmes then Holmes lite.

And to stay on the purely technical side, can I just talk about this director?

Rodney Bennett didn't really do much Doctor Who work. His only other credits are "The Ark in Space" and "The Sontaran Experiment", and both those are visually very interesting and stimulating and extremely well executed.

This is much the same. There's a particular flourish Bennett gives to the proceedings to make it more action packed, especially in the TOTALLY awesome scene in which The Doctor and Giuliano fight off a bunch of guards with swords (they make a really good team, too...) and then head back to the catacombs to rescue the captive Sarah Jane. It's all just well paced and the shots are extremely well composed and it kinda makes me sad that we never really got any Rodney Bennett after this because the guy was so talented.

Also, The Doctor totally sword fights some guards in this and it's awesome. I'm not joking, man. Everything is better with a sword fight.

That's not to say this part isn't without "faults". For one, the giant subplot of this episode, that Sarah Jane is captured by Heironymous and hypnotized into killing The Doctor is not the strongest of things, but I think it's incredibly well handled. It's odd to go from this story to the next story, a large portion of which is also about Sarah Jane getting hypnotized and such... But it's a testament to my not caring because of the way Lis Sladen composes herself in it. She really sells the hell out of these situations and I buy the actual thing more than I probably should because of how she pulls them off.

I mean, look at the scene in which The Doctor convinces Sarah Jane that she's under hypnosis and gets her to snap out of it. It's a powerful/moving scene and really speaks to the dynamic between the two of them. Sladen in particular (sorry, headspace) has this moment of clarity as she transforms from hypnotized Sarah into our Sarah which is just... lovely...

We also get some added intrigue as The Mandragora energy's plan starts to take shape, although I think this is the bit where it all falls apart. I mean, I know it's a great big ball of energy, but I'm sure it doesn't need to be acting like this. It's reckless and absorby and mad powerful. It can probably just blast the crap out of most things or everything. Does it really need so many people alive? Also, having it not act and be stuck in the House of the Cult of the Brethren of Demnos or whatever removes some of the awesome danger I discussed back in part one...

But through all this, I find I'm very much enjoying it, especially that weirdo cliffhanger and the charming relationship between Giuliano and Marco (come on. They're totally getting it on behind the scenes, right?) and the scene of "torture" which feels exotic and stuff...

Although I question the notion of manacles that have the insides of the ring lined with cushions. That's just me, though. I mean, I would do it that way because I'm kind and not sadistic and the dungeons and torture chambers of this era all have a reputation for being all Iron Maidens and kinda nasty, so I think the cushions is not exactly historically accurate. But then again, I wouldn't last very long in this world, so really, when we get right down to it, what do I know?

Part 4:

A couple things before I get to what I'll probably think of as the meat of this episode.

For one thing, this is a totally satisfying and exciting conclusion to a wonderful and exciting story. It's always good to see stories like this deliver strong in their last episode. So good on them.

For another, this might be the best of all the episodes, not only because it really accelerates the plot and builds to a satisfying conclusion, but also because everyone gets their own moment to shine. Particularly, I'm thinking about Marco, who's been mostly silent and a pretty boy and nothing but Giuliano's little companion or whatever, but when you get to him in this you really see that Giuliano keeps him around for a reason (I think there's another reason no one seems to be talking about BUT OH WELL). The scene where he tells Giuliano to not stop the Masque is quite lovely and tells us everything we need to know about his character without explicitly saying it.

I think it's also only right that I talk about the Mandragora energy and the House of the Cult of the Brethren of Demnos who are... totally creepy.

The stuff with them taking out the countryside and us only hearing about it is totally Doctor Who, but while other writers have attempted this technique on numerous occasions (telling us passingly of off stage events and pretending it matters (like Baker/Martin for instance)), what makes this different here is the level of stakes it raises without feeling like I'm missing anything. I'm so dialed into the events and lives of these characters that I feel the pain without feeling like I'm missing any action I should be missing. This story has never been about the ancillary peasant characters, so why should we see them here?

Compare that to, say, "The Claws of Axos", which is way a lot about how The Earth is accepting Axos's help, but we never see it actually happening and it both feels like we're missing a chunk of the story and like we're not doing it justice.

But here it is satisfying. And I love that all of this story is taking place on a galactic scale ish but it's also very confined and constrained and limited to just our characters. It's a really great scope thing and it shows you that while the stakes are high, the drama only works and is real because our characters and their situations are real and dire. It feels big because it is big to them, not because the writer is telling us it is big. And the stakes are good. There's always something enticingly exciting about the Doctor trying something he's not sure is going to work, and he's all right there about it. And we're not quite sure it is going to work until that last minute when he comes back around and reveals that it was all a great big trick.

And it's because of that that I can't go any further without talking how absolutely brilliant The Doctor and Sarah Jane are here.

For one thing, this is what I love about Tom Baker. As far as I'm concerned, this is one of the strongest serials when it comes to him. He's charming and fun and goofy but he's also dead serious throughout most of this. The way he jumps from one to the other is totally magnificent, especially that scene where he puts on the lion's head and then play acts and gets all silly at the situation. It's marvelous, but perhaps mostly because Sarah Jane actually calls him on the situation and says that the sillier he gets, the more dire the straits.

It's because of this sorta thing that makes Sarah Jane a great companion and deserving of that status many people like to foist on her. You know the one. The one about her as "The Greatest Companion who ever was."

The relationship Sarah Jane shares with The Doctor is truly unique and remarkable. It's one of those magnificent best friendships that The Doctor gets to share over the course of his long journey, and at this point in their relationship, Sarah Jane is starting to see through the veneer The Doctor is constantly throwing up to hide his true feelings. It's rare for the Doctor/Companion relationship to grow to that point, and yet here it is with her calling him on it and realizing that it's not the brightest of possibilities that The Doctor sees.

I mean, did you see the thing with the lion head?

I applaud it, and you can tell that Sarah Jane is truly, honestly concerned and worried about The Doctor in this story, which is always... always charming. I mean, how often do we see our Companion fretting all about The Doctor and constantly? And Sladen does a good job of keeping it as contained as she possibly can until it just bubbles over every so often. I can't even imagine how Sarah Jane must be on the inside as she's attending the Masque and waiting to see if The Doctor finally shows up. And then the immense relief and sigh of gratitude and praise as The Doctor peels off the Heironymous mask is just... it's great. Because you know she now knows it's going to be okay.

And we can all breathe with her.

It's a solid ending to a truly solid story. Oft forgotten and unrightfully so, because it's tremendously solid and exciting and well executed, truly great great stuff.

Final Thoughts:

And it's with great sadness that I have to write about this story this week, what with yesterday's news of the passing of Elisabeth Sladen.

It's strange. Just a few months back, we did the same sort of issue thing with Battlefield, where we talked about one of the best Brigadier stories on the week Nicholas Courtney passed away. And I had just finished watching this story again a few hours before hearing the news and I remember thinking about how good Sladen was in this and, after hearing the news, trying to think about which story I would rather have to do her a good service.

The truth of the matter is, any of her stories will do.

Because of the length and breadth of Doctor Who, I sometimes forget about why the established institutions are so good. Example: "Sure Hinchcliffe/Holmes was the most popular of eras, but was it really as good as we all think it was" or "I love Colin Baker, but was he really that good on TV?" Sarah Jane, I find, is much the same way and a lot of her popularity stems from being on TV at the right place in the right time. Was she really so much better than the other companions who have stretched the length and breadth of the show? Is she really, as many people have called her and will call her for a long time coming "The greatest companion ever?"

While I'm not completely sold on she is for me (gotta be aware of the grief talking, I don't know, I'll need some perspective to make that call), I think that you'll be hard pressed to find anyone who did the job better.

As I was saying just a minute ago, any of Sarah Jane's stories is a good story to pick up as a great and good example of Sladen's acting talents, but I don't think it's exactly the sort of thing that you'd realize or notice right off the bat. Sure, we like her, but we like lots of people. But what makes Sladen's portrayal of Sarah Jane so important and iconic is the effortlessness with which she carries the role. Over the past day, people have come out of the woodwork with the (honestly unsurprising) sentiments that Sladen herself was a wonderful and energetic person who made you feel like the most important person in the room.

That's part of why Sladen's death has hit us so hard.

Sladen was, in many ways, exactly what makes Doctor Who so fucking awesome. Sarah Jane Smith totally transcended the confines of her character and became someone truly epic, much in the same way Doctor Who is, to those who watch it, more than just a television show. Sarah Jane was always in the thick of things, right in the middle, bold, brave, fearless, exciting, human. And never was there a story where you could say "Sladen isn't the best in this." She gave it her all always, even when the part wasn't particularly well written or the best portrayed on the page. But turning that and making it absolute genius is what makes Sladen's role such a legendary character. Everyone loves Sarah Jane because she's cool and strong and awesome.

I remember the first time I "met" Sarah Jane in watching "School Reunion". She was the first one who got me excited to get into the classic series, the one who made me look her up on Wikipedia to see who the hell this amazing ex-Companion was, and I always wanted to go back and see her, she who had transcended all things to come back and bridge the New series with its legacy to the past. And now here I am just over a year after watching a metric frak ton of these stories and having seen most of Sarah Jane's appearances... I find it's impossible to pick a "Best Sarah Jane story" because there aren't any. There are only Sarah Jane stories, and Sarah Jane doesn't disappoint. She never did that because she never, ever could. It's beyond her abilities to ever disappoint.

"A tear, Sarah Jane?"
"Don't forget me."

Oh my dear, darling Sarah Jane. Our beautiful, wonderful Elisabeth Sladen. Lis. We couldn't ever forget you. Not even if we tried.

Until we meet again, Sarah Jane. Until we meet again.

Next Week: 5th Doctor! Costume dance party! A robe! Adric eats food! And shady logic! Cassandra's back next week for a look at "Black Orchid"!

1 comment:

  1. It is really shocking to hear about Elisabeth Sladen's death. I heard the news from a colleague and she apologised for telling me when she saw how shocked I was.

    Have to say though, I found Masque of Mandragora incredibly boring.