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Doctor Who: Snakedance (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Snakedance originally aired in 1983.

I know exactly what you want.

Do you?

Yes, you’ve come to pester me with some extravagant theory you’ve dreamed up concerning the Mara, and should I, the Director, fail to take sufficient notice of your colourful improbabilities, it will be the end of civilisation as we know it at least. How am I doing so far, hmm?

– Ambril and the Doctor

I think it’s quite a compliment to the concept of the Mara, introduced the previous season in Kinda, that the relatively new alien menace was chosen to take part in the celebration of classic villains that was Peter Davison’s second season. It was only a year old at the time, and hadn’t exactly been stunningly realised, so it seems like a massive vote of confidence in the monster to see it measured against foes like Omega in Arc of Infinity and the Master in The King’s Demons. Common knowledge will tell you that Snakedance is a perfectly entertaining serial, but can’t really measure up to one of the better stories of Davison’s first season. I’m not so convinced, and think that the two stories actually complement one another perfectly.

Don't let this get out of hand...

To some viewers, Snakedance might lack the philosophical complexity of Kinda. For example, the adventure does feature any number of dreams, but none seem anywhere near as surreal as we witnessed in Kinda. The story is much more straightforward and there’s none of the ambiguity that the original series suggested. On the other hand, some viewers could argue that the serial is much less pretentious than its direct predecessor, simply making a decision to favour character and plot rather than atmosphere and mood. It’s really a matter of preference.

Certainly, there’s less of Bailey’s Buddhist themes to be found here – though some (“the great crystal – the great mind’s eye!”) do remain. Still, there are some faint echoes of the ideas, as is somewhat fitting. Snakedance isn’t an attempt to repeat a story that we saw only one season ago, and I think that’s fair. Instead, it’s more of an expansion of ideas. So concepts like “the wheel”, the idea that time repeats and the past and future can be the same without the use of time travel remain, suggested somewhat fleetingly in the history of Manussa, a planet that has been home to not one, but two great empires.

Serpent's tooth...

Hell, the Manussans even regressed, moving backwards from a position of technological advancement. “It’s quite clear that the Manussans of the pre-Sumaran era were a highly civilised people,” Ambril explains. “Their technology in some senses was considerably in advance of our own. Then, suddenly, almost overnight, the Manussan civilisation simply disappeared. It was certainly subjected to a cultural catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.” The culture, once the pinnacle of civilisation, had devolved “to such an extent that when the Federation record begins some six hundred years later, they speak of the Manussans as a primitive people in thrall to the Mara, sunk in barbarity, degradation and cruelty.” It’s very similar to what Kinda suggested.

And while the story touches on the core theme of the earlier adventure, it also feels appropriate that it develops further something fleetingly suggested in the original story. Kinda touched on the importance of drama and theatre as a means of exorcising demons, with the Doctor portrayed as a “Jester” figure, one who banishes demons and primal fears. No wonder that serial has drawn a large volume of academic discussion. Here, Bailey takes the idea and pushes it to its extreme. The celebrations on Manussa are pure theatre, with street vendors, and performers, and puppet shows.

We're all puppets...

In Snakedance, the line between reality and illusion sort of blends. I’ve argued that the earlier Doctor Who adventures work best when then treat their material in a relatively theatrical manner, with the self-aware set design and stage-like performances, so setting an episode inside a theatrical festival suggests recursion. Here, the natives carry around a giant puppet of the Mara, which is itself a giant puppet. The Mara on Manussa stands in for the fears of the natives, while the Mara on the show stands in for the viewers of the show, and both have to use their imagination to fully realise it. In effect, it’s an effigy for an effigy, infinitely recursive. Facing the Mara, Tegan insists, “I’m safe if I don’t look!” In that regard, she’s arguably much like the viewers at home.

And so the barriers break down. Throughout the serial, it becomes clear that the festival and its staged conflicts of good and evil are not enough for people. “It’s just a fake,” Lon insist. “Your whole ceremony is a fake.” A man running a hall of mirrors reflects on how the magic is gone from his line of work. “I’m not a curious man. I was once, a long time ago. I was a humble student of life’s mysteries. A treader of the secret pathways, a delver into the darker corners and so forth. All rubbish, of course. At the end of the day, when the lights come up, as in one form or another they always do, there’s always somebody standing there with their hand out, waiting to be paid.” And difficulties develop when Lon turns a fake ceremony, an excuse for catharsis, and acts it out “for real” by using real implements instead of fakes.

Into the mouth of danger...

In quite a clever meta-fictional twist, years before the Weeping Angels, the Doctor deduces that the Mara is actually a creation of our collective subconscious. After all, aren’t all the monsters in all fiction? “I suspect that when they built the Great Crystal they overlooked one vital factor,” the Doctor remarks. “The nature of the mental energy would determine the nature of the matter created. The Great Crystal absorbed what was in their minds. The restlessness, the hatred, the greed. Absorbed it, amplified it, reflected it.” Nyssa finishes the thought for him, “And created the Mara.” The Mara was literally conjured into being by the collective subconscious. “What if our dreams no longer needed us?” the Doctor would ask years later, and I think the Mara is the answer. I do like the fact that the Doctor has absolute faith in defeating the Mara, stating, “You won’t succeed. In the end, evil never does.” It’s like he watches the show, or is at least aware of the rules of narrative governing monsters.

I’d argue that all this stuff is at least as clever as the ideas propose in Kinda, in that it explicitly renders the Mara as a sort of meta-monster. It’s a great take, and I’ll be entirely honest and confess that I’m surprised that the Mara hasn’t been used in the revived series. I think Moffat could do wonders with a concept like that. Still, at least every story featuring the creature has been a hit, which is more than most recurring monsters can argue.

Face your fears...

Even outside of the clever meta-fictional stuff going on, the serial has a lot going for it. You could argue that, if Kinda was one of the few stories perfectly suited to Davison’s Doctor, Snakedance feels like a story more typical of his later stories. The Doctor has all the answers, but nobody will listen to him, creating the perfect recipe for tragedy while the character insists, “There’s no need for this.” I’ve always seen Davison’s Doctor as the character’s most inherently tragic personification, and this story really typifies that. He explicitly states the he feels responsible for what’s happening, insisting, “It was my fault.”

Of course, Bailey avoids a lot of the problems that would confront the later serials featuring this version of the character be avoiding Eric Saward’s infamous “kill ’em all” approach. Nobody dies for the entire serial, which allows Davison’s Doctor a rare “everybody lives!”moment, and one that definitely feels well-earned. Bailey manages to amp up the tension without resorting to killing the majority of the cast, which makes the story quite a bit easier to watch.

It all becomes crystal clear...

Speaking of things that make the serial easier to watch, the serial features some wonderful design work. Even the Mara looks slightly better than it did in Kinda – though I remain perplexed as to why the Restoration Team didn’t do a similar computer-generated enhancement here. Outside of the still embarrassing (but less than last time) snake puppet, the production looks good. It helps that everything is intended to look theatrical. In particular, the Mara’s cave looks impressive, a rather wonderful set for this era of the show.

The guest cast is superb. In particular, Martin Clunes makes a wonderfully subtle Lon, the heir to the throne, who is occasionally cheeky and occasionally worse. It’s a performance that refuses to go over the top, and is the stronger for it. His wardrobe might be roundly mocked on clip shows, but it’s a solid guest appearance. Equally impressive is John Carson as the bureaucratic Ambril, who seems to be having great fun refusing to listen to the Doctor.

Boys behaving badly...

Even the TARDIS crew is on fine form, with Davison repeatedly seeming quite frustrated by his companions, without ever seeming too aggressive or adversarial. There were times when the passive-aggressive sniping got a little bit too much (never reaching the levels it would with Colin Baker, when it became aggressive-aggressive). Davison’s Doctor seems like he’s genuinely had enough when the coordinates mess up, declaring, “Somebody’s been playing around!” When handling the snake, Nyssa suggests, “His bite could be deadly.” Davison proves himself the master of snarky delivery when he calmly replies, “Yes, I do know.” Although, what the hell was up with Davison’s sideburns? The seventies were well over!

I liked Snakedance. I think I may even have liked it as much as Kinda, even though that represents some for of blasphemy. I think the Mara is long overdue a trip to the twenty-first century. After all, if the Macra can do it…

I invite you to take the most exciting journey of all. The voyage inside. The journey to meet yourself. I address you in the silence of your own hearts. I offer my personal challenge. Dare you bare witness to what the Mara shows? Will you gaze upon the unspeakable? Dare you come face to face with the finally unfaceable?

– the hawker

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