How Easy it Is to Be a Magician (Masque of Mandragora)


Close your eyes, give me your hand, darling.
It's September 4, 1976. ABBA are at number one with "Dancing Queen," a fact that says more about the zeitgeist than anything else I can hope to say. But for the sake of completism, it stays at #1 for all four weeks of this story. Wings, Bryan Ferry, Rod Stewart, The Bee Gees, and Elton John and Kiki Dee also chart. And The Ramones release their first album, which is the sort of thing that means we can start talking about punk when the mood strikes us.

Since The Seeds of Doom, the most obvious thing to say happened is that Harold Wilson unexpectedly resigned as Prime Minister on March 16th, and the Labour Party voted James Callaghan in as his successor. This is, as it happens, not going to end well. In other news, Apple Computer was formed, the UK actually wins Eurovision, the Soweto riots begin in South Africa, Viking 1 lands on Mars, the Son of Sam killings begin, and Big Ben breaks down for nine months.

While during this story, Mao Zedong dies, which is a kind of definitive end to an era. A fatal air collision occurs in what is now Croatia between a British Airways flight and a Yugoslavian flight, killing 176. The 100 Club Punk Special, an iconic and formative punk concert that put The Damned, The Clash, The Buzzcocks, The Sex Pistols, and Siouxie and the Banshees all on one two-day long bill, takes place, which means we can really talk about punk just as soon as Doctor Who bothers to make that option relevant. In a less fortunate rejoinder, U2 forms.

While on television, we have the start of a new season of Doctor Who, and a return to the wide world of human history. Prior to my power/Internet exploding (and off and on since then), I found myself enjoying the great time-wasting distraction of the early 21st century, arguing with people on the Internet. Or, more specifically, I found myself arguing with people on the Internet over whether or not Doctor Who is best considered a science fiction show or a fantasy show. Mostly I find the distinction not particularly worth making, but there's a flavor of the "Doctor Who is sci-fi" argument that I find sufficiently loathsome that I can be reliably dragged in on it, and that's that Doctor Who in some way supports a rationalist/skeptical view of the universe.

This is an unfortunate disease within science fiction fandom in general. I mean, I'm obviously a fairly pro-science kind of guy, and I salute the people who devote time to taking down "alternative medicine" cranks that, in a real and literal sense, kill people. But there's a second flavor of skepticism that amounts to an effort to eradicate non-scientific thinking in favor of the belief that science is the only meaningful form of truth. This is the sort of skepticism favored by evangelical atheists, anti-postmodernists of the Alan Sokal school, and other groups of people I am less than fond of (though, to be fair, most adherents to either perspective can be fairly easily brought around by encountering theists who are not theocratic lunatics or postmodernists who can speak reality when called upon to do so - most of the hardline skepticism crowd, much as they irritate me, are good folks). In fact, in extreme cases - people who take Alan Sokal seriously, most noticeably, I kind of loathe them with every fiber of my being.

So needless to say, I am disinclined to see Doctor Who dragged in as a supporter of that flavor of skepticism. Actually, for the sake of simplicity, I'll use a term inadvertently coined during a seminar I took once, in which this strong ideological form of science (as opposed to the practice of science as a method of figuring stuff out) was being called "big-S Science," which in turn got misheard as Big-Ass Science, a term I have kind of loved ever since, because apparently I am five. Thankfully, there are stories like The Masque of Mandragora that let me go on at considerable length to show why this is total nonsense. Doubly fun is that I'm sure that some of the people who insist that Doctor Who supports Big-Ass Science view Masque of Mandragora as one of the keystone episodes in their case. And they're so deliciously wrong.

To be fair, they're at least wrong in a more or less understandable way. A careless reading of the story will reveal the Doctor talking about how the Renaissance is the midpoint "between the dark ages of superstition and the dawn of a new reason," one of the two main human villains is an astrologer, and characters can be more or less defined by whether they are scientific or superstitious. And because the Doctor's end advice is basically "keep developing science." The fact of the matter is, this looks like more of a defense of Big-Ass Science than almost any other Doctor Who story. Which is why I'll make my stand here for why, whatever Doctor Who is, it's not a defense of Big-Ass Science. Because one of the basic rules of criticism like this is that you take on your opponents' best argument, not their worst. I can point out how The Mind Robber gestures at mystical thinking til the cows come home, but that's easy. No, if there's a story to have the fight with Big-Ass Science on, it's the one that, at least initially, looks like it's on their side. But it's not. You can tell, for one very simple reason: Louis Marks isn't an idiot.

One of the most important things that never really comes up when talking about the Tom Baker era is that Baker is the last Doctor to have stories written by any writers who also wrote for the Hartnell era. Marks is one of three Hartnel-era writers to write for Baker, having gotten his start with Planet of Giants. In one sense, this is actually the story's biggest weakness. Marks's sense of pacing and timing - which we should note was wonky even in 1964, when his story required Verity Lambert to hastily edit the last two episodes into one after the episodes were shot - is strangely out of step with almost everyone else writing Doctor Who in the 1970s. Even Terry Nation, with his skill at keeping a story moving (albeit without always going anywhere), does not end up with scripts as stilted as Marks does.

But underneath the pacing we have a writer who cut his teeth on Doctor Who under David Whitaker, and who is still in a fundamental sense writing for that show with a new cast, as opposed to writing for Doctor Who as it exists at this stage. This is not entirely a bad thing. Yes, Marks's scripts are a bit pokey and don't' quite hold together into the climaxes, but Planet of Evil and now this are both extremely intelligent scripts with lots of ideas in them. In fact, that's the basic difference between Hartnell scripts and Baker scripts. Both are intelligent scripts that play with the world of ideas, but in the Hartnell era, Doctor Who was simply a vehicle to explore a lengthy series of interesting ideas. By the Baker era, it's more than just that. And unlike the exploding spectacles of Baker and Martin-style idea scripts, Marks's ideas are as intelligent and complex as you'd expect from someone with a PhD in Renaissance studies.

Which is the other thing about Marks and this script - there's just no way that Marks is actually so ignorant of the Renaissance as to suggest that it is meaningfully a transition between superstition and reason. I mean, yes, obviously the Renaissance was a major step forward in numerous intellectual and artistic fields. But the idea that it was based on throwing off the superstition of the past is... farcical. I mean, this should be evident to anyone who even thinks about the Renaissance. It's most defined by the return of classical Greco-Roman thought into mainstream European culture.

The thing is, the Greeks and Romans, brilliant as they were, were not rationalists in the Big-Ass Science sense of that word. There is no sane way to argue that Aristotle or Plato were empiricists. Nor is there a good way to argue that the political institution of the Catholic Church, which dominated the Renaissance, was pro-Big-Ass Science. (Indeed, it's essentially impossible to argue that any religious institution is pro-Big-Ass Science, given that the eradication of spirituality is overtly one of Big-Ass Science's goals) To say that the Renaissance, which was about adding one set of non-rationalist thinkers into the worldview of another, is the dawn of Big-Ass Science is sloppy in a way that no actual expert in the Renaissance would be.

And all of this is compounded by the fact that, other than some speechmaking about rationality and how the Mandragora Helix is just advanced science, everything about this story looks like magic. Much like The Daemons, we're in that territory where the scientific explanation ends up being nothing more than a wordy confirmation of the underlying mysticism. The Mandragora Helix works according to a logic of astrology - it moves in to influence the Earth, then moves out again. Its goals are not scientific but alchemical - it wants to eat human nature, not some definable energy source. And in the end, the Cult of Demnos and the astrologers are basically right.

But perhaps most problematically for the Big-Ass Science crowd is the fact that the supposed scientific explanation is not so much nonsense as absent. This begins to relate back to what we were talking about last time. Quite frankly, a show that is aspiring to support for Big-Ass Science needs to be proper SF - invested in the material realities of science and technology. That is to say, it needs to not just hand wave about "a case of energy squared," but to have some actual relation, if not to a real scientific concept, at least to some sort of coherent worldview. (For all of its faults, Star Trek does relatively well with this. None of its technology makes a damn bit of sense, but they do an excellent job of having a coherent set of technobabble explanations that at least look like they come from a defined scientific worldview, even if that worldview is inexplicable to the audience.)

The show, in other words, betrays Big-Ass Science on a very fundamental level here. It flagrantly fails to actually support science or rationalism. Sure, it opposes evil astrologers, which is certainly a worthwhile pursuit, but in the end, Hieronymous isn't evil because he's an astrologer but because he's an authoritarian dick of the sort who are always evil in Doctor Who. Indeed, Hieronymous continues to have power in the narrative - largely because, as Miles and Wood point out, the basic structure of the medium is on his side. When he predicts the Count's death, he audience knows then that the Count is toast. This gives Hieronymous an irreducible power within the narrative that no amount of rhetoric about rationalism and science can defuse.

But this raises the very sensible question of why Marks makes such a big deal of the rationalism/superstition debate. But we've already answered this question. Marks is writing a script that in many ways resembles the Hartnell era. And the point of historicals in the Hartnell era was always educational. The lines about rationalism and superstition aren't declarations of the theme of the story. They're little educational nuggets - the Renaissance dumbed down for eight-year-olds. And it's not, taken that way, a terrible explanation - the Renaissance was a major moment in the history of science, and its non-rational ideas did give birth to the scientific method in the end. Yes, it's overly simplified, but a lengthy explanation about the evolution of science as a methodology and the reconstituting of classical ideas into a Christian society isn't really eight-year-old material. But, crucially, since we are not eight years old, we should not be staring at the kiddie history lesson for our sense of what is going on in the story.

But if the story isn't a rousing defense of Big-Ass Science, what is it? It's not, and this should go without saying, but since I'm doing a revision gloss right now to clear up some arguments that I got in the initial wave of comments, I'll say it anyway, a defense of Big-Ass Mysticism. Rather, it's a proper dialectical moment. Magic and science are presented as opposites, and the Doctor crafts a position that is not a midpoint between them but a synthesis of them.

Let's look at the end. We are told that the Doctor has not permanently stopped the Mandragora Helix, but has rather delayed it by 500 years so that it will arrive more or less in the present day of the viewer. In other words, the story is overtly eschatological, suggesting that humanity is again at a point where it risks losing its very identity and drive. But, equally significantly, it suggests that humanity is at the point of some sort of major intellectual/cultural leap forward that is akin to the Renaissance.

So we're left with, in essence, another variation of the stock Hinchcliffe scenario of an ancient threat that is thought to be defeated coming back for one last round. Except we're coming at it from the other end - we're seeing its presumptive defeat and getting told it has one last round, as opposed to seeing its last stand. But, crucially, there's a big piece of symmetry in place here. The idea of the past returning is, after all, the heart of the Renaissance itself.

In other words, the structure of this story is almost fractal. At multiple points and levels, we are faced with the idea of the past returning and affecting the present. Which makes sense - the idea of the past returning is fundamentally recursive. But more importantly, even though this is not a story that features the Time Lords in any active capacity, it gives us a sense of another step in the evolution of what the Time Lords are.

The last definitive statement we came to was that the Time Lords were protectors of history in a Marxist/dialectical sense - that they safeguarded the tendency of history to approach certain ends. But now, under Marks (and it's not, I trust, an excessive spoiler to say that this will be picked up on heavily in two entries time) we see an acknowledgment of the logical consequence of that. If history tends towards certain ends, this suggests that there are also common historical events - that the past does, in fact, recur. In which case we are pushed towards an interesting situation in which the Time Lords would simultaneously have to be seen as ushering the universe towards some sense of destiny and as an atavistic force that continually pulls the arc of history backwards towards recapitulating past events. (To the inevitable person who is going to comment on this: yes, I'm doing the Pop Between Realities post you hope I'm doing after reading that sentence.)

And furthermore, we should look at the particulars of how he defeats Mandragora. Here I must give particular thanks to one of the commenters on this entry (yes, this is one of the paragraphs added in the quickie expansion) - the wise and august Dr. Happypants - who observed that the Doctor's defeat of Mandragora is based on clever use of schoolboy science. This gives a particular sense of his synthesis - he commits to the pragmatic and the clever. He does not endorse either ideological position, instead committing himself to the material act of advancing history through its messy reality instead of through the sort of grand manipulative design of Mandragora. (Who is a representative of Big-Ass Mysticism)

The Masque of Mandragora, of course, does not completely go through the door that it opens. It doesn't connect the materialism of history with its circularity. But it does introduce some key concepts. First, it helps us start to understand another way in which the show can be materialist without committing to Big-Ass Science. If we accept this atavistic tendency of history then we find a new sort of materialism that can be captured - accurate depictions of recurring social forces. And so Marks is, here, paying attention to material social progress by paying attention to the nature of the Renaissance, at least once you get past the didacticism for children.

The result is, as with Planet of Evil, not one of the classics of the era. But it's also not a massively flawed number. But this is in some ways helpful, at least for critical purposes. We can see what the Hinchcliffe era is doing more clearly in a script like this than in one of the massive classics like Brain of Morbius or Genesis of the Daleks. Much like Pyramids of Mars, this is not a great story. But in all likelihood, the next one to walk through this door will be.

Also like Pyramids of Mars, however, there's one annoying bit of business to get through first.

Note: I gave this article a quick gloss early Friday afternoon based on some initial reader comments. No substantive changes to the argument were made, though some claims were fleshed out a bit.


Alex Wilcock 9 years, 2 months ago

Excitingly for those of us in the UK and watching BBC4, your introduction means your articles have now nearly synched with repeats of 1976 Top of the Pops.

And to follow your style of starting with a scene-setting quote from another scene, “Enlightenment was the choice.”

Surely Doctor Who’s preference for Big-Ass Science, as you call it, isn’t in saying we live in a completely rational universe and that every story can therefore finish with ‘insert technobabble here’ as if it were (horrors) Star Trek: The Worthy But Dull Generation. It’s not that the Doctor thinks things completely at odds with a rationalist view of the universe don’t exist – it’s that he knows they exist, but he chooses to fight them. And that’s never clearer than in Season 14, surely, where I think it was Lance Parkin who called the Doctor a point of light in a dark universe, or where I’ve written of it at length as saturated in dark religion. When you say that “in the end, the Cult of Demnos and the astrologers are basically right,” you’re right from a certain point of view, but missing the point morally / ideologically. Throughout Season 14, there are indeed religious figures – real, fake, or metaphorical – and what they have in common is that their association with mysticism and the Doctor’s opposition is entirely bound up in their being “authoritarian dicks of the sort who are always evil in Doctor Who”. Former monk Tom Baker appears to come out of his year-long sulk and really respond to striking a combative tone against his old boss, too (and the Doctor, as in this double-season’s mirror-story to this one, The Face of Evil, is explicitly Adam or Prometheus here).

Whether or not it’s Bob Holmes at work on them too, I don’t see Louis Marks’ scripts (beyond his first) as stilted – here, it’s the tension of the ‘Hartnell’ plot going on at the same time as the ‘Dark Religion’ plot and how they start to battle each other that makes this so great to watch. It’s structured not just so you’re wondering (as a child, as I was) if the Doctor will win, but which of the different baddies will beat him. As I argued in my own recent and similarly extensive analysis of The Masque of Mandragora, Count Federico is one of the series’ most competent villains, only brought down in the end by in effect not realising what sort of story he’s in and that he’s actually irrelevant to the key struggle – things come to a climax at the end of Part Three where, were this a ‘pure’ historical, he’s actually won, and the Doctor would be stuffed.

Your ideas on what the “five hundred years later” bit means were fascinating, though. Wish I’d thought of that. I was too distracted by looking at the sequels, and by what “Mandragora swallows the Moon” meant then, and what it meant by the time we’d hit that five-hundred-year anniversary…

One last thing: “The result is, as with Planet of Evil, not one of the classics of the era. But it's also not a massively flawed number. But this is in some ways helpful, at least for critical purposes. We can see what the Hinchcliffe era is doing more clearly in a script like this…” For me, this is the story in which Hinchcliffe absolutely deliberately sets out what his vision of the series is all about, and there’s evidence that it’s one of his favourites, too: not only did he novelise it, but he lobbied for it to be included in The Five Faces of Doctor Who (itself thrillingly thirty years old this very week).

Oh, and I’d have thought you’d have liked the “Tricky Action Engels”?

Link | Reply

Matthew Celestis 9 years, 2 months ago

I had a commenter on my blog attacking me for being religious and a Conservative, claiming that Doctor Who has always been against those values.

The rather wobbly science/ magic divide in Masque of Mandragora reminds me a lot of The Ribos Operation. There is a real sense of irony in that story in the way that Binro mocks the idea of battles between gods of summer and winter, yet the viewer has been told right at the start that the universe is governed by Guardians of Light and Darkness!

Link | Reply

Wm Keith 9 years, 2 months ago

I don't think of it so much a science/magic divide as a manifestation of the constant tension in Doctor Who between deism and theism. It's always masqueraded as deistic ("you can't change history. Not one line") while actually being nothing of the sort - even the line about not changing history makes clear that it is just that - a line in a play.

Link | Reply

Millennium Dome 9 years, 2 months ago

Unusually, I think I'm going to be somewhat less generous than Alex.

“in the end, the Cult of Demnos and the astrologers are basically right,”

In which case, why is this story not called "The Masque of Demnos"?

When the idiots in robes cannot even get the name of the entity that they are worshipping correct it is a real stretch to see them as anything other than gullible patsies.

And Hieronymus is a fraud who knows he's a fraud (he takes money from Count Federico to make up "prophesies" to the Count's dictation) and only turns into a monomaniac when Mandragora fixes it for his mumbo jumbo to start coming true. And THAT is only so the Helix can burn his brain out and occupy his form. It is difficult for the astrologer to be more wrong about everything that is going on.


"Big-Ass Science" might be funny *once*. Repeating it a dozen times makes you sound like a child who's just discovered the word "poop".

Rarely have you let your prejudices so distort your reading of a story.


Link | Reply

Dr. Happypants 9 years, 2 months ago

Long time reader here, first time commenter. As a staunch advocate for Big Science and Doctor Who as rationalist propaganda, I'm curious as to why you avoided mentioning what I think is a very important piece of this story, which About Time completely dropped the ball on as well.

Which is that the Doctor saves the day with schoolboy science.

He tells us that Helix energy is "plasma"--electrically charged. Like a bolt of lightning. He converts himself into a lightning rod with the breastplate and wire, and grounds the Helix energy harmlessly to earth. Certainly Marks throws in some technobabble around it, but the idea is pure Ben Franklin. I always thought that was unambiguously clear and obvious, which is part of why I like the story so much--all that dark religion space god stuff defeated by a lightning rod and some basic principles of physics every young person should know.

Yet About Time, which covers some of the same ground you do in arguing against the anti-mysticism interpretation of the story, completely didn't pick up on that. Thought the climax was nothing but technobabble. I hope you haven't fallen into the same trap.

Now, if that isn't a triumph of the rationalist and scientific mentality over superstition, I don't know what is.

When a story goes to such absurd lengths to keep sledgehammering the audience over the head with the notion that it's a battle between science and superstition, maybe we should listen?

Link | Reply

zapruder313 9 years, 2 months ago

I'd like to second Millennium Dome's disappointment over the repeated "Big-Ass Science" riff.

Despite your statement that you were using the term for the sake of simplicity, it could be argued that by choosing a clearly belittling term, you are attempting to induce the "halo effect": "Hey, this Big-Ass Science crowd have a stupid name, so why should we take what they say seriously?"

If you need a shorthand for "a strong ideological form of science", then choosing a less obviously pejorative one would not distract attention from the strength of your argument the way this does.

It just feels like a slip from this Blog's usual high standards.

Link | Reply

Elizabeth Sandifer 9 years, 2 months ago

I would think the fact that I was being pejorative was obvious from my position. I perhaps understated the extent to which I find this ideological form of science loathsome. While, in my experience, most of its advocates suffer more from having never been given a decent explanation of things, we are talking here about an ideological position that treats a very large number of things that I find very important as overtly evil and loathsome. The Sokal crowd, in particular, I find horrifying. So yes, of course "Big-Ass Science" is me belittling a side I don't like. But given that it's a side that declares that everything i do is just empty masturbations and word games with no meaning or value, I'm relatively comfortable with my level of bitchiness.

I would also point out, in response to Dr. Happypants (and welcome to the comments section), that I am not arguing that the show is anti-rationalist. Clearly science works. And you're right to observe the significance of the schoolboy science, which I did miss. But now that I see it, the significance doesn't seem to me to be another move in the direction of BaS.

First of all, it's worth commenting on the difference between schoolboy science and Big-Ass Science. The former has always been, in the series, in part an indicator of pluck, guile, and pragmatism. It's a gesture back towards the Victorian adventurer/scientist/magician archetype that the Doctor descends from. Miles and Wood flag that sort of thing as representing a specific British national mythology of their own cleverness. In that sense, there's a straightforward dialectic being played out here - magic and science come into a conflict and are resolved by the Doctor, who synthesizes both into pragmatism.

But second of all, as I said, clearly the show is not anti-rationalist. Science still works and the Doctor clearly values it very highly. As do I. But the larger story is still tremendously resistant to being an outright attack on or critique of non-scientific positions.

Oh, and Millennium Dome - Mandragoras are a known category of demon in occultism of the time. Demnos is fairly obviously a corruption of the Greek Deimos, a personification of terror. The idea that these two figures co-exist as part of one cult is not a stretch at all. The larger issue is that Heironymous has been giving fraudulent prophecies, but it's far more significant that the Mandragora Helix has been influencing him since before the Doctor's arrival and pushing him towards true prophecies as well. The fact that most psychics are frauds is, ultimately, dwarfed by the fact that apparently it's possible to not be a fraud.

Link | Reply

Alex Wilcock 9 years, 2 months ago

You think the Doctor’s on the fence between magic and science in this story of all stories, looking for some fluffy middle way? That he doesn’t resolve the conflict by coming down on one side?

I know that’s your usual analysis of the series as a whole, but for this one of all of them… Well, it’s an original interpretation, I’ll give you that.

Whether it’s a metaphor or not, mysticism is ‘real’ in this story, but as I said above, that’s not the end of it – it has to have reality, in order to be a powerful enemy. This story is about making a choice. And the Doctor makes one.

Link | Reply

Elizabeth Sandifer 9 years, 2 months ago

He makes a choice, but in the end it's a choice unrelated to that particular division: historical progress. He preserves the flame that will grow into science and continues the moment-to-moment march of history. His choice is a materialist one - he keeps the messy progress of the Renaissance on track.

The dialectic is not a case of taking the moderate compromise position, but of taking a new position that transcends both of the original categories. The Doctor doesn't split the difference - he says that the debate between ideologies is irrelevant in the face of the practical problem-solving that characterizes actual human experience.

Link | Reply

Millennium Dome 9 years, 2 months ago

Exactly what "true prophesies" does Heironymous make?

Link | Reply

Elizabeth Sandifer 9 years, 2 months ago

The Count's death. Miles and Wood have a particularly good account of this - the issue is that Heironymous's prophecy of the Count's death is functioning as foreshadowing for the audience, but it's not an announcement of Heironymous's plans either - he doesn't kill the Count according to a plan as he does his prediction of Giuliano's father's death. He kills the Count in the course of an unpredicted and chaotic encounter. And yet the Count's death is built to via a prophecy. The result is that, from an audience perspective, the prophecy has some truth that goes beyond cynical manipulation on the part of Heironymous.

More generally, there is the implication that Mandragora has been moving chess pieces for centuries to build to this - that Heironymous has been being nudged towards this court and this time through his entire life, and that this, more than anything, is why he's been wily enough to get to the position he has - because he has Mandragora directing him. Note that he begs for more powers, not powers in the first place. All of this seems most consistent with a reading that suggests Heironymous has the ability to make true predictions at times, presumably granted by Mandragora.

Link | Reply

Alex Wilcock 9 years, 2 months ago

Doesn't Hieronymous prophesy that the blow will be struck against the Count in the Palace? Whereas in fact it happens in the old Temple catacombs.

So he can't even get a prophecy right when he delivers it at his own hands, can he?

Unless 'You will die by stabbing by a tall, dark stranger' is the same as 'Oops, he was hit by a car'. But maybe only Big-Ass Science has to be accurate, and fortune-telling can be "accurate".

And Hieronymous has indeed been nudged over the years by Mandragora... But so what? The actual prophecy for how his "entire life" will end up is "you will become supreme ruler of Earth". Er...

So, to echo Millennium, what true prophecies does he make?

Link | Reply

Millennium Dome 9 years, 2 months ago

"All of this seems most consistent with a reading that suggests Heironymous has the ability to make true predictions at times, presumably granted by Mandragora."

Well ANYONE can make predictions that SOMETIMES come true - it's called coincidence. And it's exactly the kind of confirmation bias that an old fraud like Heironymous would rely on. And indeed that an even older fraud like the Mandragora Helix would rely on too.

You appear to be proceeding from the assumption that the Helix is magic merely because it SAYS it's magic. If you start from the position that it's just a thing that lives in space then you might realise that it's as much of a cheat as its astrologer stooge.

e.g. "Mandragora will swallow the moon"

Oh really? Isn't that just an eclipse?

Predicting eclipses as "proof" of magic powers has been a hoary old cliché since a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (and the viewer is probably supposed to KNOW that), so when that's Mandragora's big party piece it's rather a clue that the space alien in no more magical than the fake astrologer.

In fact, the Doctor knows when Mandragor's coup is going down because he knows how to do that trick too. He peeks behind the curtain and shows us how the stage magician is doing the "magic".

Oh yes, Mandragora wants humans to remain in ignorance and superstition - but that's to stop us invading it's "astral" realm. By which I mean developing space travel, not actualising the Age of Aquarius.

Oh, and I have to say "Mandragoras are a known category of demon" - I thought that Mandragora or Mandrake was a soporiphic drug (Shakespeare mentions it in Othelo) but I'll take your word for it. It doesn't mean that the Cult of Demnos haven't explicitly got the name of their pet demon wrong.

Link | Reply

Elizabeth Sandifer 9 years, 2 months ago

I may be mistaken (I watched these over a week ago at this point), but I had been assuming the catacombs were built Peladon-style, i.e. as part of an integrated structure with the palace itself.

But more to the point, I don't think the details are significant here. Prophecy is always portrayed as a tricky game in which things come true in ironic or counter-intuitive ways. This is problematic only if you want the show to endorse Big-Ass Mysticism. It clearly does no such thing. Similarly, I took it as a given that the mystical elements of the story were to be understood in the same context that this blog has been dealing with mysticism from the start - as something that is most at home with structures of metaphor and narrative. It's not a matter of accurate vs "accurate," but a matter of two fundamentally different schemas of knowledge.

Which is ultimately where Masque of Mandragora can't quite shake its mysticism. Not just because the watered down von Dannikenism here concedes the game before it even gets started by trying to let mysticism in and then explain it, but because in a story like this, Heironymous was always going to have narrative power. Thus when he predicts the death of the Count, that counts for something - as audience members, we know then that the Count is toast.

Again, the comparative values of science and mysticism are largely irrelevant both to my point and this story. I'm certainly not reading this story as "Doctor Who recruits kids to astrology." That's The Daemons. But on the other hand, reading this story as a straight-forward endorsement of hardline rationalism is impossible as well.

Which is ultimately the point of "why this story." Because this one does have just about the most compelling case in the classic series for being an endorsement of Big-Ass Science. It comes the closest to looking like an outright denunciation of mysticism. But it's still not actually one. Why this story? Because showing that The Mind Robber doesn't support Big-Ass Science is too obvious a point to be worth making. :)

Link | Reply

Elizabeth Sandifer 9 years, 2 months ago

All of which said, thanks to my readers for putting me through a decent grilling. I've fleshed the post out a bit so that some of the clarifications I made in the comments are in the post as well.

The one that didn't fit, but is still worth clarifying - Mandragoras - the type of demon - are not deities in the same sense of Demnos. The cult still makes complete sense in this regard. Renaissance occultism was based heavily on the idea of capturing and binding spirits and familiars, of which Mandragoras were a category. Mandragora thus serves, for Heironymous, the role of familiar - it's the entity Heironymous interacts with and serves, but it is itself a servant of a larger deity that he worships.

Link | Reply

BerserkRL 9 years, 2 months ago

A bit of trivia, from Wikipedia: "The Sarah Jane Adventures story Secrets of the Stars was originally going to be a sequel to The Masque of Mandragora, but during production this decision was reversed and all explicit references to that earlier story were removed."

Link | Reply

Dr. Happypants 9 years, 2 months ago

I'm wise and august now! That'll keep the ol' pants happy for a while longer.

Not to turn this into a knock-down drag-out ideological showdown (which Big-Ass Science would of course win), but Philip, when you say "reading this story as a straight-forward endorsement of hardline rationalism is impossible"...I'm curious as to what exactly you take rationalism to mean here. Because to me, "Masque" seems exactly like an endorsement of hardline rationalism. It just happens to take place in a fictional world that operates under rules different from those that apply in our own--and yet, for the people living in this world, the rationalist approach is still the only way for them to reliably figure out what's going on!

What is rationalism, fundamentally, but a conviction that to solve problems and understand things you have to engage with the exterior universe on its own terms rather than turning inwards? Observe? Poke about? Update your beliefs as your knowledge increases? Accept experience as a better guide than intuition or revelation? Above all, to accept that no amount of abstract theorising in the absence of data is any match for practical pragmatism?

And that's at the very core of what Doctor Who is and does, and always has been: it's far, far better to get out there in the universe and see things for yourself than it is to contemplate them in the abstract in the light of received wisdom. How is that not the very beating heart of rationalist or skeptical thinking?

Link | Reply

WGPJosh 9 years, 2 months ago

Came late to the party on this one, but I'm thoroughly impressed with the back-and-forth point-counterpoint discourse of this entry: Extremely clear and erudite and helped me reconceptualize this one a bit.

"Masque of Mandragora" was never a favourite of mine. Every time I saw it I kept getting this nagging feeling that it was something I *should* like but I could never wrap my head around what it was actually trying to say. I applaud the introduction of "Big-Ass Science" to our analytical toolbox, especially as it's part of my day job to study that crowd, and occasionally take it to task. I also love your label, by the way: I can't think of anything more apropo.

I can second the uncomfortable feelings of having the Big Science team use Doctor Who as an ally. I've been in that spot a number of times myself. Unfortunately, as of yet I'm not entirely convinced they don't have at least some merit to their argument, especially as we approach the Leela era which for my money is just crawling with unfortunate implications, Big-Ass Science being just one of them. Not to mention that the Tom Baker years ultimately come to a head with heavy involvement from both Douglas Adams and Lalla Ward, whose sympathies should be kind of obvious (though perhaps surprisingly I don't feel those two years are quite that bad in this regard). I'm really anxious to hear your thoughts on both those eras.

Now sure the Big-Ass Science interpretation of Doctor Who is not at all one I support, but at the moment I have to concede they're not quite out of line for calling aspects of Doctor Who to their aid. As I said, looking forward to seeing this discussion continue though. As for "Masque of Mandragora" I have to thank you for clearing this one up for me: I can now comfortably watch it with better perspective on just what the heck is going on.

One more thing to add: This is the first time we get to see the Tom Baker TARDIS control room which I think is just a brilliant piece of set design. I really wish it'd been used in more serials. Did you know it was originally supposed to be used as the secondary control room in "The Doctor's Wife" but the production team ran out of money to recreate it, thus forcing them to reuse the Eccleston/Tennant set?

Until next time!

Link | Reply

talestoenrage 9 years, 2 months ago

I share the distaste for Big Ass Science you have in this post, and it's because I think it crosses a line. There's nothing wrong with being atheistic in your belief system, nor is it wrong to publicly say "There's nothing wrong with me not believing in a god or goddess of any kind, and I have every right to that belief."

But I don't agree with those who want to use that to grind religion into dust. This is less because I sympathize with religion in general, and more because treating religion as a great foe to defeat subverts the idea of using science to understand the universe better into an ideological weapon. Understanding how lightning is formed is amazing and interesting on its own, and twisting it into "And that's why THERE IS NO GOD!" makes what should be knowledge that's fascinating on its own into an unpleasant argument.

Obviously (to bring this back to the show), you could say that much of what the Doctor does is to bring a form of science in to counter superstition. It's not hard science fiction, since even leaving aside the alchemical factors in previous Doctor Who stories, it involves technobabble and speculation. But the Doctor doesn't usually go to a new place just to find something to disprove. Rather, he wants to explore, but often has the distasteful task of stopping something nasty rather than getting to stop and be fascinated by something new or unusual. Sometimes it's by proving the "magic" is nothing of the sort...and sometimes it's stopping science from being misused, whether by people who don't fully understand what they're dealing with, or someone who knows full well what they're doing and don't care about who it will hurt.

Link | Reply

WGPJosh 9 years, 2 months ago

Hey, next time came sooner than I thought! Sorry about the double post, but I forgot I wanted to big-up Phil for mentioning the 100 Club show, one of my favourite moments in music history. It may not be *exactly* accurate to say The Banshees were on the ticket, however as Siouxsie kind of formed them that night when another group pulled out at the last second. But that's splitting hairs because I'm such an enormous punk nerd and gushing fan of Siouxsie. That aside, if you're looking to reductively name one event as the beginning of British punk, or at least its crystallization into an cohesive force, this is it. I can't wait to talk more about it!

Link | Reply

SK 9 years, 2 months ago

I think there's a problem of terminology here. Science! is not about 'reason'. I mean, it uses reason, sure, but it doesn't have a monopoly on rationalism. Various flavours of Christianity are very big on reason and down on superstition (see the Reformation), and Aristotle is far more rational than any modern-day scientist.

And that gives the clue to the actual distinction. What differentiates science form Aristotle's philosophy is not reason -- they both use that -- it's empiricism. Aristotle locks himself in a room with how he thinks the world works, and uses reason to extrapolate all sorts of things, both right and utterly, utterly mad, from there. The scientist, on the other hand, always wants to test these conclusions against the real world: do projectiles actually move in a straight line until they run out of motive force, then fall straight down? Does a light object really fall more slowly than a heavier one?

So actually it's a bad idea to cast this as a division between superstition and reason, because you can get arguments that Doctor Who will always come down on the 'reason' side of that: it's always about asking, 'Why?' and not just accepting the answer. It's about investigating. It's about rationality.

So science isn't defined by reason, it's defined by empiricism. But what separates science from Science! is that those who line up behind Science!... well, they all seem to be the ones who never got the memo that the Logical Positivists were wrong. Because science is using reason to look at the empirical universe and work out how things work, and Doctor Who is all for that. But Science! is the declaration that it's only those things which can be probed, examined, measured, etc that actually exist: that reasons stops where our senses do.

And that's what Doctor Who has no truck with. Yes, Doctor Who throws its weight behind reason: but it throws its weight so far behind it that it wants to remove the artificial bounds of a twentieth-century philosophical cul-de-sac and explode reason into a far wider arena than just things that can be seen and touched and measured.

Doctor Who extends reason into the realm of mystery, and it does it without destroying the mystery. And that's why it can't be claimed by the Science! crowd, who claim the mysterious must either not really exist, or not be really mysterious.

So yeah. Terminology problem. You don't mean abuse of reason: you mean over-reaching empiricism.

Link | Reply

Elizabeth Sandifer 9 years, 2 months ago

Sorry to be slow to wander back here - I'm completely drowning in the Deadly Assassin entry, which is proving to be a thing of utter madness, and looks set to more than double the record for "longest entry ever."

Dr. Happypants - Clearly Doctor Who is pro-empiricism and going out and seeing things, at least in the general sense. But I have to say, I think its larger ethical commitment is anti-authoritarian in a way that does clash with Big-Ass Science. If you're only going to learn one lesson from Doctor Who, it should probably be "distrust anyone who says they have all the answers."

SK - Speaking of the Deadly Assassin entry, you're going to love the part of it about Karl Popper. But yes, you're largely right - I just didn't do the thorough philosophic term-defining in this entry. I ultimately ceded the term "reason" to the sort of Ayn Rand/libertarian crowd. Who do try to claim a monopoly on the concept, but conceding that point, given that it's absolutely insane, was a rhetorically poor decision.

Link | Reply

Dr. Happypants 9 years, 2 months ago

SK, speaking of the mysterious, I feel sure that I recall someone significant once saying "To the rational mind nothing is unexplainable, merely unexplained." I'm sure it'll come to me.

(Smiley face.)

I would also argue that in a very meaningful sense Aristotle, despite his reliance on reasoning, is not terribly rational at all. Because anyone who has ever had a dream, or lost their keys, or been drunk has to accept that what they think they know and what they think they see are often unreliable and need to be checked. If we define "rationalist" to mean "using logical reasoning" then sure, I guess Aristotle is a rationalist...But nobody in the world today (or at least nobody worth speaking of) uses it that way. The modern usage as relevant to Big-Ass Science! is definitely tightly bound to empiricism.

Also, SK and Phil (may I call you Phil?), speaking as a practicing academic with some exposure to this realm--formerly physics, currently mathematics with a strong theoretical physics interest--from my side of the fence Big-Ass Science! doesn't actually seem to resemble your ideas about it at all.

Second-rate academics are authoritarian. In all fields.

But in Big-Ass Science!, that sort of thinking is not at all the norm. Not even a well-known loudmouthed public evangelist like Mr. Lalla Ward is authoritarian. I'm not saying there's no such thing as an authoritarian Big-Ass Scientist, mind. But they're not any more common there than they are anywhere else.

Link | Reply

BerserkRL 9 years, 2 months ago

I think by the standards of his day Aristotle put a fair bit of stress on empirical observation, and certainly more so than Plato. He held up chicken eggs to the light and described the phases of embryonic development. He poked around in the streams of Asia Minor and described creatures everyone thought he was making up until they were rediscovered in modern times. And he severely condemned thinkers who spun theories out of their heads rather than looking at the facts. What he was much weaker on was empirical testing. His method was - "look at empirical facts - develop theory on the basis of those facts - derive implications from theory and use them to explain facts - stop." The next step of using the implications to subject the theory to further empirical scrutiny slipped by him.

As an academic in philosophy, I do have to second Philip's comments on Big-Ass Science. I find that many scientists have a vision of the world where everything outside of science is the equivalent of religious fundamentalism -- which in effect wipes my own field out of the picture.

Link | Reply

Dr. Happypants 9 years, 2 months ago

To get roughly back on topic:

I certainly wouldn't say that Doctor Who is consistently atheist rationalist propaganda throughout its run--Hartnell's Doctor strikes me as a Deist, Troughton a Gnostic, and Pertwee a Buddhist. But the Hinchcliffe era definitely is, and is pretty blatant about nailing its colours to the mast. It's not rationalist in the sense of denying that the supernatural and mystic can exist, but in the Lovecraftian sense of asserting that when dark gods and weird mysticism and such do pop up, they're somehow *wrong*.

The anti-matter monster doesn't belong in our universe. Sutekh the dark god doesn't belong in our time. The Helix belongs in the Vortex. Then there's the Sisterhood, whose magic works but is quaint and old-fashioned, a relic. The Doctor doesn't live in a rational universe, but the Doctor actively works to make his universe more rational by banishing elements that don't belong, that challenge the natural order. From this point onwards that becomes written into the show's DNA: the Doctor kills dark gods and banishes magic from the world because their time has passed and they no longer belong in our kind of reality. This becomes one of the major themes of the New Adventures, and is still with us in the new series.

Heck, "The Deadly Assassin" even destroys the godlike image of the Time Lords.

Which incidentally fits in rather well with Philip's conception of the Doctor as the rightful Master of the Land of Fiction. He has a responsibility for his domain. When dangerous ideas--like gods--escape from the domain of fiction into the domain of reality, the Doctor is obliged to track and tame them and bring them back where they belong.

Link | Reply

Gavin 9 years, 2 months ago

Just to agree quickly with BerserkRL that Aristotle is an empiricist, or at any rate, it's not *insane* to call him that. So I think it might be a good idea to phrase that differently in the published version - make it more specifically about Bacon etc. - since I think it's not critical for your reading.

I'm a bit uncomfortable in general with the notion of shorthanding classical antiquity with Plato and Aristotle, in fact. There may be contexts in which that's OK (although, personally, I don't really think that there are), but the engagement of the Renaissance with ancient Greece and Rome isn't one of them.

And there's a case that it was precisely in their engagement with classical antiquity that the Renaissance was more empirical (antiquarian, more specifically) than the Middle Ages - more inclined to approach the classics as traces of a lost world that had to be painstakingly reconstructed by gathering the available evidence.

Link | Reply

BerserkRL 9 years, 2 months ago

One can also see a more "empirical" approach in Reniassance painting techniques, in the sense of trying to capture what things "really look like" (both in the focus on accuracy of detail and in the development of perspective) as opposed to the kind of stylised symbolism that preails in medieval art. "Back to the things themselves!" as the saying goes.

One unfortunate effect of this, of course, was that from then on it became common to suppose that any artwork that displayed stylised symbolism over representational realism must be a product of incompetent technique rather than a legitimate artistic choice. Hence the silly reactions to modern art, beginning with impressionism, as well as to "primitive" art.

Link | Reply

BerserkRL 9 years, 2 months ago

It struck me as a bit silly, in one of the Sarah Jane Adventures episodes (I forget which) when the charcyters are investgating a haunted house and Sarah Jane i adamantly insistent that there can be no ghosts, though she's perfectly happy with the explanation being any other paranormal phenomenon. Just not ghosts!

Link | Reply

Elizabeth Sandifer 9 years, 2 months ago

The larger point - and this is, I think, where Masque of Mandragora and what I'm writing about today for next Monday both fall down - is that empiricism was not simply a light switch that got flicked on. Yes, Aristotle valued looking at stuff, but the idea that he was a Big-Ass Science style empiricism zealot is wrong - he still clearly takes it as axiomatic that there is an inherent principle of balance in the universe, for instance. Which is antithetical to the pure empiricism agenda.

Link | Reply

BerserkRL 9 years, 2 months ago

Vaguely related: one of my professors in grad school used to make the following argument:

"People think the post-medieval turn toward scientific empiricism and the post-medieval turn toward more representational artwork were allied, but in fact they were at odds. Art that tries to capture how things look is much closer to the medieval worldview, which in Aristotelean fashion accepted the apparent world as real (taking colours and so on at face value). The scientific revolution, by contrast, was drawing on theories that denied the accuracy of perceptual appearance, like Democritus with the view that colours and flavours and medium-sized dry goods are an illusion, and the only true reality is atoms in the void, or the Pythagoreans with the view that the mathematical principles underlying the perceptual world have more reality than the perceptual world itself. Thus art and science were really headed in opposite directions."

I think that argument is thought-provoking but mistaken. For one thing, the scientists nonetheless were trying to get a more accurate observational basis for their theories, even if those theories then turned around and questioned the accuracy of ordinary observation. For another, the extent to which the new science required abandoning common-sense realism about ordinary objects and perceptual properties was actually a matter of considerable debate among scientists and philosophers in the early modern period. For a third, the development of perspective techniques in drawing was precisely an attempt to use mathematical, non-intuitive procedures to produce familiar appearances, and thus had more than a little in common with the idea that the world of appearance is a construct out of very different principles.

Link | Reply

Gavin 9 years, 2 months ago

Phil: - I don't actually disagree with you about the larger issues. (I do have some reservations about your specific reading of The Masque of Mandragora, but then again, I haven't seen it in years. And much of my reservations boil down to the observation that this thing is already getting the Renaissance wrong in such a key respect* that I'm not sure that an argument from historical accuracy really applies.)

But what you wrote was "There is no sane way to argue that Aristotle or Plato were empiricists." This runs immediately into the objection that this is a completely routine way to describe Aristotle. Reading it again, I can see that you may have meant "in the narrow sense of my previous sentence." But that is not at all clear.

*What respect? Your light-switch thing. This is to buy completely into the Renaissance's own myth of itself and its consequent invention of the medieval period as a time of benighted darkness. This narrative is so fundamental to The Masque of Mandragora that the whole story's presentation of the Renaissance can, think, only be taken as myth with really good costumes.

Link | Reply

BerserkRL 9 years, 2 months ago

In fact the very terms "medieval" and "Middle Ages" are Renaissance coinings that define the medieval period as a transitional period between the two shiny periods, namely antiquity and modernity.

Link | Reply

Stephen 9 years, 2 months ago

If I understand your definition of Big-Ass Science correctly, then the belief in question has a proper name. It's called Scientism.

Link | Reply

Froborr 8 years, 3 months ago

Popping way late to say that I love this article and the entire discussion that followed, and *especially* the way you, Philip, lay out the essential problem with Big-Ass Science. (I have usually used the term Science Fanboys or New Atheists myself.) I especially appreciate it as someone who came to postmodernism via the (apparently fairly unusual?) path of going through Big-Ass Science and out the other side.

Link | Reply

David Gerard 7 years, 1 month ago

Watching this as a child first time around, I found the Doctor's attack on astrology parodically clunky even then.

Link | Reply

papereyes1871 5 years, 6 months ago

All the other stuff aside, the cliff hanger to episode 1 and its resolution is, in my opinion, simultaneously the best and worst in all of Dr Who.

Link | Reply

Ross 4 years, 7 months ago

Agree with you about the resolution. It would have been more convincing if he pulled a gadget out of a Batman style utility belt.
I still think that the cliffhanger to episode 3 is great - it doesn't matter how poor the effect looks , it takes me straight back to being a surprised and slightly scared 6 year old! It must be the actor playing Frederico who sells it to me.

Link | Reply

Ross 4 years, 7 months ago

Interesting! I pretty much completely disagree with you here. This story comes out pretty clearly for reason and against superstition and then shouts it from the rooftops. Yes it's true that the force that the Cult of Demnos worship turns out to be real, albeit not what they understand it to be , in the context of the plot, but it seems quite obvious to me that the malign influence of the Mandragora Helix is a metaphor for superstition, with astrology particulalrly in the firing line. The Doctor warns of Mandragora attempting to sabotage the renaissance and revert human history back to the dark ages (I think , admittedly I last watched it 4 years ago, but I have watched it several times). He openly mocks Heironymous' astrological babble in episode 1. He also refers to Mandragora attempting to rebuild an ancient Roman temple - what else are we to conclude from that other than this signifies a backward step towards ancient religious beliefs because this bit of dialogue doesn't seem to serve any other plot function. The Doctor's allies are all open to "progress" and a scientific world view, whereas his enemies are either superstitious (Hieronymous) or pre[ared to play on superstition for their own ends (Frederico, who of course underestimates the forces he is attempting to control, but I would say that those forces represent the danger of backward-looking superstition).
I always (even at the age of 6) wondered what the Doctor's closing comments about Mandragora returning in 500 years meant. Aged 6 I thought it menat Mandragora was coming back in the next story. I now think that Louis Marks was probably referring to either the revival of mysticism from the late 1960s onwards, or perhapos the increasing interest in Nostradamus as we got closer towards 1999. Perhaps Heironymous is meant to be a Nostradamus like figure?
It's not just rationalists who are against astrology and superstition, evangelicals would also be. However Louis Marks clearly seems to favour a scientific view of the world over a mystical one.
I'm not arguing that Dr Who is necessarily pro "big science" and that's the end of that, just that it is hard to argue that this story isn't despite your best efforts!

Link | Reply

New Comment


required (not published)


Recent Posts





RSS / Atom