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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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Clash of the Titans (1981)

I remember the summer of 1981 pretty well. That was when I was old enough to go to the movies with a friend without a grownup. That was quite a summer for films. I remember going to see For Your Eyes Only, Dragonslayer, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Clash of the Titans several times. Five bucks would get me a matinee, popcorn, Coke, and a complaint from my mother that movies used to cost a dime.

Grown-up movie critics thought that Clash of the Titans was old hat, but not to this ten year-old. You may recall that Tom Hanks once said that Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest movie ever made. Objectively, Clash isn’t as good, but it had absolutely everything that ten year-old me could ask for. There are monsters, blood, angry Greek gods, a skeletal ferryman, and seven or eight seconds of nudity. This was the best use of five dollars anybody had ever come up with.

Honestly, this really is a little old hat, and perhaps not Ray Harryhausen’s finest film, but it’s still entertaining, and since he was planning to retire after it, it’s a high point, just not his highest. It’s another of his classic quest stories, this time drawn from the myths and legends of ancient Greece, and the visual effects are as good as ever. Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, and Ursula Andress scheme and backstab on Mount Olympus, and on Earth, Harry Hamlin, Burgess Meredith, Siân Phillips, Judy Bowker, and Tim Piggot-Smith get caught up in their machinations.

None of them get caught as badly as Neil McCarthy, whom our son remembers fondly as Sam from the first series of Catweazle. For the crime of slaughtering Zeus’s winged horses, Calibos is turned into a deformed, demonic creature, portrayed by McCarthy in the closeups and by stop-motion animation in longer shots. During their first fight, Perseus slices off one of Calibos’s hands. The villain replaces his lost hand with a small trident, and, proving that he wasn’t paying the strictest attention in the world, when we see Calibos later, our son asked “Why does he have a fork?”!

It did, mercifully, register that Burgess Meredith was playing the role of Perseus’s friend, the poet and playwright Ammon. That might be because I pointed out his name in the credits. “You know who that is, right? He’s been in three Twilight Zones and he was the Penguin in Batman, okay?” I’ll get this kid recognizing character actors, by Zeus.

But overall, he was not quite as wild about this as I was as a kid. Marie suggested that I was a couple of years older during my weeks of seeing this again and again, and it’s probably also true that the ferryman Charon blew my mind because, in 1981, I was a bigger fan of Marvel Comics’ Ghost Rider than any other boy in America. I just liked skeletons a whole lot then. Our son even protested that the Kraken’s four arms were excessive.

But another reason this wasn’t a mammoth success is that this is one of those rare films that actually opens with the scene that he loved the most. The Kraken’s destruction of the city of Argos was the high point, and the rest of the movie, even the amazing battle against Medusa, didn’t compare. He did, however, get all hunched up and worried during that fight. Then he complained afterward that Medusa didn’t use “her eye weapon” as much in the fight as he wanted.

In fairness, though, he has already seen Jason of the Argonauts.

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Doctor Who: The Claws of Axos (part three)

Since the Doctor spends this entire episode captured and imprisoned by Axos, it’s left to Roger Delgado to steal the show. The Master calmly has his run of both the Nuton Power Complex and the Doctor’s beat-up TARDIS, and Delgado is incredibly fun and watchable. He’d be even more fun had more microphones been handy to pick up all his bad-natured grumbling about the sorry state of the TARDIS console’s disrepair, because a lot of this episode is really quiet, but he gets all the best lines.

I mentioned with part one that this whole story seems incredibly sloppy and amateurish and the sound and vision issues are bad in all the studio sessions. I don’t know that it’s exclusively the actors failing to project, but it’s really hard to hear Pertwee in places in part one, which is really strange since the actor is usually bellowing. There are several shots where it seems the cameras weren’t in the right place to catch the action, like when the UNIT men spot the Master leaving the TARDIS this time, along with quite a few insanely quick reaction shots. It all feels like they just edited this story together from a dress rehearsal, not the final performance. The director definitely should have stopped recording this episode long enough to tell Delgado to speak up.

But while I was loving the Master’s dialogue in spite of the poor sound, our son was hating the Axon tentacled monsters. The director did a pretty good job filming the tentacled monster storming around the complex electrocuting soldiers, which had our boy hiding behind the sofa, but a far less good job actually staging where the Brigadier is in relation to the action. This was Michael Ferguson’s last Doctor Who serial and by far the least of them, but he would direct several much, much better TV episodes after this, including eight episodes of The Sandbaggers.

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Doctor Who: The Claws of Axos (part two)

Last time, I mentioned how seeing “The Claws of Axos” was a big letdown when I saw it, but there’s another part to the story, and that’s how we saw the Pertwee serials in America in the eighties, when I was a grouchy, cynical teenager.

WGTV in Atlanta had shown the Tom Baker and Peter Davison stories at least twice before showing the 24 Pertwee serials. I was very excited to see them, but I was also too lazy to get an after-school job and so I relied on a weekly allowance to afford blank videotapes. Good tapes cost $7 or $8 apiece then, and so for a while there, I usually ended up scrimping and getting whatever garbage brand tapes, like BASF, I could find on sale, and I had no choice but to record on the awful SLP mode. But with so many six and seven-part serials, I still couldn’t afford all the tape needed to record every story on its first broadcast. Because I enjoyed the book Doctor Who and the Claws of Axos so much, I actually scheduled to tape stories to keep around this one. I was really looking forward to it.

Because so many of the color tapes of the early Pertwee episodes were wiped by the BBC, they syndicated a package that had several black and white TV-movie collected editions. So we saw the shot-on-16mm color “Spearhead,” two black and white movies, the somewhat muted and natural color of “Inferno,” two more black and white movies, and then “Axos,” which features an alien environment which isn’t just colorful, it’s hilariously colorful.

I still raise an eyebrow over the interior of Axos, but I did worse than that when I first saw it. Axos looks like a bouncy castle with yellow curtains, chromakeyed lava lamps over the walls, and pulsing psychedelic patterns projected on the actors. You half expect the director to clear the set because Sid and Marty Krofft have booked it to shoot Lidsville. From the cold light of the late 1980s, never mind now, it’s almost comical.

I couldn’t believe it. After the gritty and believable monochrome world of “The Mind of Evil,” which, true, had a silly monster, but only for about ten seconds, it looked like Doctor Who took a quantum leap backward into the cheesiest and cheapest Saturday morning world. This couldn’t convince anybody, could it?

And yet it did: people who saw “Axos” on color sets in 1971 still tell tales about how utterly amazing it looked. They’d never seen anything remotely like that before, and with good reason. The BBC had never made an environment remotely like this before. And our son thought this was incredibly weird, and he sat riveted and fascinated, until another cliffhanger ending with more tentacled monsters sent him diving for cover.

I think it’s like this: if you’re in your forties like me, you might remember the first time you saw Dire Straits’ video for “Money for Nothing” on MTV in 1985, when that computer animation was the wildest thing you’d ever seen. Those characters were 3-D! It looked like they were popping out of the screen! But it doesn’t look like that anymore. It looks as flat as sixties’ Hanna-Barbera TV animation. Anyone younger than we were at the time, young enough to have first seen all the computer animation that came in the wake of “Money for Nothing,” never had the chance to experience what we did. Try explaining what “Money for Nothing” was like to somebody in their twenties. They will not understand what in the world you’re talking about.

So you have to grade “Axos” on a curve. I think that in 1971, most people in the UK were still watching black and white sets. The BBC had only been broadcasting in color for sixteen months. This didn’t look like a fake bouncy house to them, even if it did to grumpy teenagers in 1987.

In other news, Fernanda Marlowe’s Corporal Bell is not in this episode, but another character is. Tim Pigott-Smith, making his television debut, plays Captain Harker of the regular army, not a UNIT officer, in this and the next episode. Pigott-Smith, who died in April, went on to an amazing career, winning accolades and awards and an OBE. He’s pretty easy to overlook in this story. He’d acquit himself with a meatier role when he came back to Doctor Who five years later.

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