THE MASQUE OF MANDRAGORA kicks off Tom Baker's third year as the Doctor in fine style. Originally transmitted in 1976, this four part story starts with the Doctor giving Sarah Jane a tour of some of the more obscure corners of the TARDIS where they "rediscover" an alternative and rather beautiful wood panelled control room. Almost as soon as have they settled in they are hauled off course into the hostile area of outer space which is home to the Mandragora Helix, from which a fireball of malevolent energy then hitches a ride in the TARDIS to a Renaissance Italy happily filmed in and around the village of Portmeirion.
This Mandragora energy then manages to inveigle its way into the schemes, plots and general evil machinations of one Count Federico (John Laurimore) who is out to bag the throne of the Duchy of San Martino for himself and is prepared to stop at nothing to achieve this aim. Which brings us to Hieronymous, a court astrologer with ambition, very attached to the old ways and suspicious of the new science, who is played pitch perfectly by Norman Jones who had featured as the barking mad Major Barker back in DOCTOR WHO AND THE SILURIANS with Jon Pertwee.
The Doctors allies, alongside Elisabeth Sladen's penultimate regular appearance as Sarah Jane Smith, include Archers stalwart Gareth Armstrong as the young Prince Giuliano, and a very youthful Tim Piggott-Smith as his best pal, Marco, who are both quite handy in a swordfight.
The conflict of science and reason with the old religions and black magic takes centre stage as Hieronymous and the Cult of Demnos (wearing effective masks very influenced by woodcarvings of that time) seek world domination from the power possessed by the Mandragora energy, and try to stamp out any hope for the enlightenment of mankind when the greatest minds of that era attend the Masque of the title.
As ever, one of the strengths of the BBC was costume drama, and so the world of Renaissance Italy is effectively realised in both production design and costume terms. The lack of any real "monster" as such means that there are no rubberised creatures to distract the viewer from the story and what special effects there may be are simple enough and pretty well executed. The only shortcoming really was the "pepper's ghost" technique used to represent the rebuilt ancient temple set, but it's effective enough in a slightly stagey kind of a way.
The next story - THE HAND OF FEAR - would see the departure of Elisabeth Sladen which was a bit of a shame, really. Here she is still playing Sarah with absolute conviction and even gets to play a more sinister version of the character for a little while.
On the whole then, a fairly solid example of mid-1970s DOCTOR WHO as produced by Philip Hinchcliffe. Not the best ever story, but well up there, and the period setting does the show a lot of favours.
The usual extras (PDFs, picture gallery, information text etc.) are supplemented this time around by a jolly commentary with Tom Baker and Gareth Armstrong representing the actors, and Producer Philip Hinchcliffe and the late Chris D'Oyly John from the production side. There are also the now usual batch of documentaries of variable length and interest. The "Making of" piece is fairly typical - not comprehensive, but nice enough, with interviews done with the backdrop of Portmeirion, which also features in a short "Now and Then" piece. The TARDIS interiors piece is at least relevant due to the design change in this story if nothing else, and the comedy item at least hits its targets as often as it misses them.