Over the past 10 seasons, the Tardis has generally steered clear of travelling to the past, with very few exceptions. I suppose sci-fi is easier to do when it’s futuristic or present day, and to be fair, most of those early historical episodes were bloody awful. But this is a new era of Doctor Who, under new writers, new talent, in what is allegedly Doctor Who’s “Golden Age”, and so this four-part serial set in 15th century Italy actually turns out to be pretty good after all!
By now, Tom Baker is really settling into the character of the Doctor. Not just settling in, but actually making the character his own. The way he faces down death with a joke, perfect comic timing, mockery and an undercurrent of threat, is just masterful. There are moments in this story that had me genuinely laughing out loud, in particular when the clan of cultists are about to sacrifice Sarah Jane to their god, and the Doctor casually slides her out of the way of the falling dagger. He regularly looks death in the eye with an insane smile on his face, and he escapes believably because he does what nobody would expect. It’s brilliant.
This could have been a fairly run-of-the-mill story – certainly, cultists worshipping an alien they think is a god is nothing particularly new – but it’s raised to something far better simply because of how good the Doctor is throughout. It’s also pleasing to see a sympathetic character in Giuliano, someone who embraces scientific reasoning over superstition and actually trusts the Doctor’s judgement – however this is undermined somewhat by the alien being a big ball of magic fire. The Doctor can call it “helix energy” all he wants, it’s basically a fiery ghost thing that possesses people.
There’s a running theme of identity and disguise. The Mandragora alien possesses Hieronymous, blanking his face; the cultists all wear elaborate masks; there’s a masquerade party that the cultists infiltrate; and of course, the Doctor saves the day by dressing up as their leader. In one scene, he even wears a lion head and growls, it’s rather amusing.
A noteworthy opening scene shows, for the first time, a tour of the Tardis interior corridors, leading to a second control room. This is the first indication that there even are multiple control rooms, that the Tardis is effectively infinite inside, and the scene is played out with a sense of humour too. It’s nicely done.