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Doctor Who: The Masque of Mandragora (parts three and four)

Our son says that he really enjoyed this story, which is a relief because it did leave him a little more confused than usual. In part three, the villains Federico and Hieronymous betray each other, and he didn’t get that at all. It’s not like he’s never seen bad guys turn on each other before, but we had to pause the story to help him through it.

We also had to pause it to underline exactly how serious this threat is: the Mandragora Helix’s plan is to conquer Earth during the Age of Enlightenment to keep the people superstitious and stupid. There’s a running gag that Leonardo da Vinci is around somewhere in the palace, but never in the same place as the Doctor. I have to say that the BBC’s resources never really convinced me that this was a palace at all, much less a great big shindig thrown for the coronation of the new ruler of a city-state, but the costumes certainly looked nice.

“The Masque of Mandragora” was the final Who serial written by Louis Marks, but he had a lot more work for the BBC ahead of him. For the next thirty years, he produced several prestigious series and serials for the BBC, several of which were shown in America on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. He oversaw two George Eliot adaptations, Silas Marner and Middlemarch. That one was probably one of the biggest hits for Masterpiece in the 1990s, though it seems to be forgotten today. Marks died in 2010.

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Doctor Who: The Masque of Mandragora (parts one and two)

We start season fourteen of Doctor Who with a serial written by Louis Marks. “The Masque of Mandragora” has never really thrilled me for some reason. It looks just wonderful. The location filming around Portmeiron, Wales, is great, and the costumes and the sets are terrific. The story takes place in 15th Century Italy, and the costume designer just had a ball making everything look good.

It’s got the debut of the dark wood-paneled TARDIS console room, which everybody loves. It’s full of good actors as well, including Tim Piggot-Smith and Gareth Armstrong as the Doctor’s two allies, and Norman Jones as one of the villains. Unfortunately, Jon Laurimore is stuck playing the tyrannical Count Federico, who’s one of those humorless baddies who does deeply stupid things simply because the script needs a villain to add some threats and delay the real plot. I think the writer had a similar problem with the character played by Prentis Hancock in his story “Planet of Evil” the year before.

But I guess my main problem is that the topline villain is a nebulous, formless, energy-thing called the Mandragora Helix. In the 1990s, when fanfic went pro and fans started writing Who novels for Virgin and, later, the BBC, everything synced with Lovecraft and Cthulu being trendy again, and so you had books where the Animus and the Nestene Consciousness and the Mandragora Helix and the like were all new names for what people who like that sort of thing call “Old Gods” like Nyarlathotep. The Virgin series was full of cranks like those. And virtual reality prisons. And cyberpunk. It was the 1990s. I get bored with baddies like those. I like villains with faces. The Mandragora Helix is just a boring enemy.

Speaking of faces, that brings us to our son’s principal observation, which is that Norman Jones’s bunch of villains wear some completely terrific masks. I never would have thought that “The Masque of Mandragora” was all that scary, certainly not compared to the wall-to-wall frights of the previous season, but the masks that the Cult of Demnos wear proved me wrong.

I’m not quite sure I believe his reasoning, though. He told us “Those masks made me think of the Drashigs from ‘Carnival of Monsters’,” he said, “because of the open mouths and the teeth.” Since the Drashigs remain the undisputed champions of the Scariest Thing He’s Ever Seen competition, anything that reminds him of them is cause for alarm. I don’t see the resemblance myself, but, eh, kids.

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Doctor Who and the Silurians (part five)

Another reason I think that Carey Blyton’s music for this story is the second worst in all of Doctor Who – his score for “Death to the Daleks” is even lousier – is that it completely and totally undermines the drama in a critical scene.

Here’s the situation: some of the regulars get to be bored in the conference room waiting for news from the caves, while the Brigadier, Captain Hawkins, and some men wait in a trap, and the Doctor negotiates for peace with the Silurians’ old leader. Meanwhile, a young and hotheaded Silurian decides to just infect Major Baker with a virulent plague that the Silurians used, hundreds of millions of years ago, to wipe out apes, and let him go.

The scenes of Norman Jones being cornered by the shadowy, clawed reptile-people are incredibly well-shot, especially for Doctor Who, where the unflattering and harsh studio lighting and unforgiving videotape often show off all the cracks and flaws. This should have been a scene that, like the occasional attacks in caves from Sleestak in Land of the Lost, would have had our son hiding behind the sofa.

But it isn’t, because the music in the scene tells the audience “this is a comedy.” Timothy Combe has the actors standing in menacing shadow preparing to give children nightmares, and the music is some clown with an oboe playing Yakety Sax. Our son laughed and laughed. We talked afterward about what was happening, in case the threat of the plague went over his head – it kind of did – but it was that stupid music. Nothing’s a threat with music like that.

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Doctor Who and the Silurians (part four)

Our son has grasped the main conflict in this problem very well. He even used an appropriate word: extinct. He says that the humans and the Silurians want to make each other extinct before the other wins. He sees that the Doctor is trying to make peace between the two sides, but he also has the mind of a six year-old who’s seen every other alien life form in this show trying to blow humanity up, and so he’s rooting for the Brigadier to get down there and blow up the Silurians first. But this episode ends with the Doctor thrown into a cage by the Silurians and one of them using its strange third eye to give our hero a psychic attack.

You may have noticed that my screencaps from this story show off some very woeful color. As was standard in the seventies, the BBC routinely wiped their color videotapes of stories, and this is one that was never returned in the old 625-line PAL format in color. The BBC retained 16mm black-and-white films for export, and an inferior 525-line NTSC color copy was returned in the eighties. In 1993, they mated the two, putting the color signal from the poorer copy into the better-resolution black-and-white print.

Fifteen years later, they improved on it somewhat, but it’s still notably below the quality of most of the other Pertwee serials. I believe that episode four is the poorest of the seven. There are lines of yellow across the red walls of the conference room throughout, and there’s a scene in the cyclotron room where Peter Miles is yelling at a technician, and the poor guy is under siege by a blue band of color on the wall behind him that is attacking his hair.

Episode four is also notable for introducing Geoffrey Palmer to the story. Like Fulton Mackay in the preceding episodes, Palmer was a very recognizable face to TV audiences in 1970, but his biggest roles were ahead of him. As Mackay became a big star with the sitcom Porridge later in the decade, so did Palmer, with the sitcoms The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and Butterflies. Palmer plays the first of several civil servants and government types whom the Doctor, over the course of the next five seasons, gets to chew up and spit out.

We’ll take a quick break from this story and resume it over the weekend. Tomorrow night, more mean cave monsters.

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Doctor Who and the Silurians (part three)

I wouldn’t be doing my job as a blogger if I didn’t note what an unpleasantly noisy story this is. The reptile-people – we’re still not on a species-name basis with them – gave Dr. Quinn a communications device last time. It’s the sound I’m going to hear when the world ends. It’s not only that it’s mixed so blasted loud that people on the moor can hear the thing from miles away, it’s so loud and aggravating that you can safely turn the sound down to about 1 and not miss a thing.

You certainly won’t miss the music. It’s the first of three serials scored by a musician named Carey Blyton. They’re all soundtracks of the damned, but this cacaphony is played with archaic instruments like crumhorns and ophicleides that all sound like womp-womp music from an old Fleischer cartoon.

Interestingly, Dr. Quinn is shaping up to be an interesting character, a sympathetic character who’s in way over his head, and then he goes and turns into a villain. He decides to hold the reptile-person that he’s rescued from the UNIT searchers as hostage until he shares some ancient technology. For this, the reptile-person kills him. The Doctor finds Quinn’s body at the cliffhanger, and, in a great moment that had our son hiding in terror, turns just as the reptile-person comes into the room behind him.

These three episodes were Fulton Mackay’s only involvement in Doctor Who, but the actor stayed incredibly busy and popular for many years. He starred in the very successful sitcom Porridge, and took the “Doc” part in the British version of Fraggle Rock. (The series had different human-interaction segments in different countries. In the UK, Gobo went to Mackay’s character’s lighthouse to collect postcards from his uncle Matt.) But Mackay leaving this story’s narrative leaves room for another big sitcom star of the seventies to take his place in the story…

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Doctor Who and the Silurians (part two)

This morning, I asked my son what he thought might be going on with the power losses in the base, and he had it all figured out. He decided that the dinosaur we saw in part one was chewing the power cables! So he was a little surprised to learn there are two adversaries in the caves: the big mean dinosaur and a race of intelligent reptile-people. This is just as well; I doubt even Doctor Who‘s producers could have padded my son’s idea of a plot out for seven weeks.

The director, Timothy Combe, made the celebrated decision to keep the reptile-people out of focus for as long as possible, and it really works incredibly well. Our son was fascinated by the heavy-breathing POV shots – “It has three eyes!” he shouted – and he was really frightened when the cornered creature attacks a farmer in his hay barn. It’s very effective.

This episode introduces the third captain for the Brig. We’d met Turner in “The Invasion” and Munro in “Spearhead.” His second-in-command this time is Hawkins, played by Paul Darrow. He’s best known for his role as Avon in Blake’s 7 and still commands a legion of fans in the UK and America. Hawkins doesn’t actually do much in this episode, but I really wish he’d have become the regular second banana in season eight.

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Doctor Who and the Silurians (part one)

Yesterday morning, we took our six year-old son to his first cave, a very, very safe and gentle experience called Fairyland Caverns at a local tourist attraction called Rock City. It’s atop Lookout Mountain, and, in that dopey-dad way, I said “Boy, I hope there aren’t any Sleestak in here,” and then hung back and, later, started hissing. “I know that’s you, Dad,” our son bellowed.

Fourteen years ago, our son’s older brother was also six and I took him to Rock City’s sister attraction, Ruby Falls, which is far, far below Rock City at the bottom of the mountain. In that dopey-dad way, I said to him “Boy, I hope there aren’t any Silurians in here,” and the kid started crying. I didn’t even need to shake my head around and growl “This is our planet! We were here before man!” Tears just flowed immediately.

Ruby Falls is on the calendar for a little later than age six for this boy, just in case that deep cave is too frightening. When the time comes, I still intend to hope aloud that there aren’t any Silurians in it.

Anyway, with Derrick Sherwin rushed off Doctor Who to help shore up Paul Temple, Barry Letts was moved over to become this show’s new producer. Everything was in chaos; even the format of the serial’s title “Doctor Who and…” was evidence that Letts, whose only previous Who experience had been directing “The Enemy of the World” two years before, had to hit the ground running. They promptly decided to use the 21 remaining episodes of the season to tell three large seven-part stories to save money on set and costume design.

Guest stars for the story include Peter Miles and Fulton Mackay, both of whom can safely be called much-loved character actors with credits as long as your arm. This is the first of three seventies Who serials for Miles, who made a career out of playing disagreeably intense but fascinating men with wolf-like smiles. And then there’s Norman Jones, who here plays a mostly-incompetent soldier working security at this research station. He’d been in the show before, in the largely-missing “Abominable Snowmen” in 1967, and would return as a really great villain in Tom Baker’s time.

We don’t know yet from part one what a Silurian is or what it looks like, but there’s definitely a really large dinosaur-like reptile in the caves beneath the research center. This didn’t frighten our son, but it certainly surprised him, and prompted much debate about what kind of dinosaur it might be.

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