The Doctor’s meeting with Dojjen is this episode’s key scene. Dojjen explains exactly how the Mara can be vanquished – the Doctor needs to find the still point. “The still point is within yourself, nowhere else. To destroy the Mara you must find the still point”.
Earlier we were told that Dojjen had set off for the hills some ten years earlier to prepare for the day that the Mara would return. Given this, why didn’t he go back with the Doctor? Presumably he was confident that the Doctor was the right man for the job (and it also saved having to pay Preston Lockwood to appear in the studio scenes).
Although this episode was subject to some considerable editing, particularly at the end, the ceremonial section drags somewhat (even though it was originally much longer too). This is not necessarily a criticism though – the ceremony should be somewhat tedious and formal and the longer it’s dragged out, the more tension is created.
Eventually we get some acknowledgement from the Doctor that he’s concerned about Tegan. When mentally conversing with Dojjen, his priorities are saving Tegan first and destroying the Mara second.
Janet Fielding sits out a portion of this episode, as she did in the previous one. With Lon acting as the main conduit for the Mara’s plotting since the start of episode three, Tegan was left with little to do except pop up occasionally to menace the unfortunate showman Dugdale (Brian Miller). But she does get a nice scene at the end of this episode, pleading with the Doctor to help her. “Help me, Doctor. What’s happening to me? Please, look at me, Doctor. I need your help”.
But the Doctor know this isn’t Tegan – it’s still the Mara speaking through her – so continues to press until (apparently) the Mara is destroyed once and for all. The story ends with a distraught Tegan being comforted by the Doctor (a rare example of Davison’s Doctor having a brief moment of physical contact with one of his companions). Sadly, this moment is rather curtailed due to the overrunning issues – which is why it was decided to carry the discussion about the demise of the Mara into the first few minutes of the following story, Mawdryn Undead.
Snakedance is a slightly more conventional and a little less compelling story than Kinda, but it’s still full of interest. It has a stagey and unreal feel at times – for example, both the cave interior and exterior don’t look at all convincing – but it’s the story concepts (the notion that evil is contained within us all) and the performances which matter the most. Unlike the Great Crystal, Snakedance has a somewhat flawed beauty, but a beauty nonetheless.
After Lon is taken over by the Mara, it’s notable that his general attitude and appearance doesn’t change at all. Compare this to Tegan, whose voice drops several octaves whilst her character also undergoes a radical adjustment (showing amusement at the distress of others).
In plain story terms it’s not hard to understand why. Since Lon still has to interact with both his mother and Ambril, it would rather give the game away if he was cackling evilly in the corner. But possibly Bailey missed a trick by not submerging Tegan’s possession – in a different version of the script she could have appeared to be her normal self until a suitably dramatic point of the story (a cliffhanger, no doubt).
Since Snakedance has a fairly similar story structure to Kinda – the Mara doesn’t attempt to make a full, physical manifestation until the end of episode four – this means a certain amount of running on the spot has to be done until we reach that point. This is far from unusual in Doctor Who (unless you have a very episodic story like The Keys of Marinus) but Snakedance is still powering along with character development, so what we see here never feels like padding.
John Carson continues to impress and Martin Clunes also seems to feed off Carson’s quality playing (their two-handed scenes are something of a treat). The Mara needs the Great Crystal in order to make a dramatic reappearance and Ambril is the one who can facilitate this. It doesn’t take long for the Mara (presumably through the thoughts of Lon) to work out a way to tempt Ambril – a previously undiscovered cache of previous artefacts.
For Ambril, who has dedicated his life to cataloguing the treasures of the past, the prospect is a mesmerising one. This is seen most clearly at the moment when Lon causally teases him about their value and importance. Ambril’s face takes on a wistful expression as he wonders how many there are (“lots?”) which then switches to anger as Lon doesn’t give him a straight answer. For the normally servile Ambril to lose his temper, it’s plain that something extraordinary has happened.
Christopher Bailey’s lyrical powers can be seen in this evocative excerpt from Dojjen’s diary. “Where the winds of restlessness blow, where the fires of greed burn, where hatred chills the blood, here in the Great Mind’s Eye, here in the depths of the human heart, here is the Mara”. Although it’s not just a piece of fancy dialogue, as it also serves as a pointer to the way the story will develop.
And where’s the Doctor been all this time? Locked up and slightly frustrated. Here, he explains to Nyssa precisely what the problem is. “The lock is extremely primitive. It’s practically a museum piece. There’s no electronic impulse matrix to decode, no sonic microcircuit to disrupt. Crude mechanical six barrel movement, key operated. Primitive but adequate. Well, it’s more than adequate, actually, because the key is what we don’t have”.
But although the Doctor is restrained, he’s still able to begin to understand how the Mara will return thanks to some vital information supplied by Chela. It’s possibly not unintentional that the Doctor is shown to be just as active behind bars as he would have been if he’d been at liberty. At this point in the story he’s operating as a Victorian/Edwardian “thinking detective” – someone who could find a solution to a seemingly imponderable mystery without having to leave the comfort of their armchair.
It appears that the locals enjoy Punch & Judy just as much as we do – albeit with a twist (their version has a snake instead of a crocodile). The sight of the puppet snake menacing Mr Punch is no doubt a sly nod back to the less than perfect snake which made an appearance at the end of Kinda (a larger puppet, on sticks, makes an equally amusing later appearance).
Nyssa continues to be pro-active, but her attempts to help only lead her to the same cell occupied by the Doctor. Once that happens the Doctor seems to lose his impatience to escape (which is transferred over to Nyssa). Possibly the most telling moment occurs when Nyssa frets that the longer they’re incarcerated, the greater the possibility that the Mara will destroy Tegan. The Doctor looks a little guilty, but doesn’t answer.
If this episode’s cliffhanger proves one thing, it’s that Sarah Sutton wasn’t one of the series’ natural born screamers …..
In Kinda, it seemed like the Mara could only possess one person at a time – moving from Tegan to Aris, for example. Snakedance is able to improve on that, as Tegan/Mara is able to corrupt Lon.
This makes sense – since Tegan spends the story possessed by the Mara she requires a confederate to talk to (she could spend it soliloquising but that would probably get somewhat tiresome rather quickly). The fact that Lon is a man of status doesn’t hurt though – this means he would be able to open doors that are closed to others.
Martin Clunes’ performance is often seen as something of an embarrassment, but there’s no reason why it should be regarded as so. Lon isn’t as deep a character as, say, Hindle, but Clunes doesn’t disgrace himself.
But it’s John Carson who really impresses. This episode has one of my favourite Snakedance moments – the six faces of delusion – in which the Doctor manages to demolish Ambril’s superiority with almost indifferent ease. True, it’s hard to believe that Ambril would never have considered the possibility that the ceremonial headdress which features five carved faces would only display six when worn, but given Ambril’s intractability, maybe it’s not too unreasonable after all.
The Doctor continues to be a thorn in Ambril’s side, but since the Doctor is babbling on about death and destruction it’s possibly not surprising that nobody (except young Chela) takes him seriously. But it is rather refreshing that we’re halfway through the story and still the Doctor is positioned as an outsider. This isn’t unique (it’s very late in the day during Frontier in Space before anybody listens to him) but usually by now he’s managed to convince someone of his bona-fides. The early run of the new series, with its psychic paper, made this even less of a problem, but Snakdance takes us back to a time when the Doctor couldn’t simply stroll into any situation and simply take control.
Christopher Bailey didn’t find Kinda to be a very satisfying experience. Mainly this was because his theatre background had made him accustomed to working in a collaborative environment – whereas television (particularly series like Doctor Who) were much more compartmentalised. So once his scripts were finished the production pretty much carried on without him (something which he regretted).
But the fact that Kinda passed through the hands of three script-editors – Christopher H. Bidmead, Anthony Root and Eric Saward – probably didn’t help either. In contrast, Bailey only had to deal with one script-editor during the creation of Snakedance – Saward – although it’s hard to imagine it was a great meeting of minds.
Saward favoured accessible and straightforward action adventure tales and Bailey …. didn’t. Snakdance is therefore something of a hybrid – with the voices of both Bailey and Saward on show. This wasn’t unusual for Doctor Who (the script-editor often had a considerable input into the stories commissioned) but it’s possibly more marked in Snakedance, given Bailey’s unusual style.
Saward’s influence can be seen right from the start. He disliked the fact that Bailey had written lengthy scenes and so elected to cut them up – chopping and changing from one to another. This didn’t work at all, since it spoilt the dramatic flow from scene to scene. Too often we leave one location at an inopportune time in order to witness an equally brief and unsatisfying moment elsewhere before returning to our original point.
This is Snakedance‘s main drawback, but as the story progresses it becomes less of a problem. This is either because the story becomes more engrossing, and therefore the narrative jumps are more tolerable, or simply because they decreased.
After a brief shot of a man we later learn is called Dojjen (Preston Lockwood) the action switches to the TARDIS. When Nyssa enters the console room, wearing a new dress which the Doctor totally fails to notice, there’s a definite sense of change and development. This was rare for Doctor Who companions during the 1960’s – 1980’s. They tended to arrive fully-formed (or at least as formed as they’d ever be) and would remain largely in a state of stasis until they left.
There are exceptions. Jo becomes slightly less dizzy and more capable during the later part of season ten (although this may simply have been a case of Letts and Dicks laying the ground for her imminent departure) whilst Ace would have even more of a pronounced story arc as she travelled from girl to woman.
Nyssa’s development is less substantial, but it’s there all the same. With longer hair and new clothes (even if they’re not very flattering) she seems to be more confident and able to confront the Doctor head-on. It’s only annoying that after spending most of S19 not doing much at all, Nyssa becomes a more interesting character just at the point in which she’s almost on her way out.
The TARDIS is usually a place of sanctuary. Occasionally (The Mind Robber, for instance) this is reversed, but more often than not it’s the place where the monsters can’t reach. So this makes Tegan’s trauma – menaced by the Mara in her dreams – all the more unsettling. Also slightly perturbing is the way that the Doctor roughly questions her (or at least as rough as Davison’s Doctor tended to be). As with his inability to praise Nyssa’s new look, this could just be a cause that he’s preoccupied, or you may wish to believe that he’s still a little upset at the way Tegan barged back into the TARDIS at the end of Arc of Infinity!
When watching the first episode of Kinda, it was possible to guess which of the characters would support the Doctor and which would oppose him. In Snakedance it’s not so clear cut. Tanha (Colette O’Neil) and Lon (Martin Clunes) are both powerful people – the wife and the son of the Federator respectively – but the reason for their presence isn’t obvious to begin with. Tanha operates like a senior member of the Royal Family – she has ceremonial duties to perform and will always carry them out to the best of her ability (even if she sometimes has trouble in maintaining interest) whilst Lon is a junior Royal. He doesn’t appreciate his privileged position, finding it to be restrictive, and therefore amuses himself by being less than diplomatic.
Flitting between the two is Ambril (John Carson). As a noted archaeologist and a learned researcher into ancient Mannusan history, he should be the Doctor’s ally. With the Doctor concerned that the Mara plans to make a return to this universe via Tegan, Ambril could supply vital information. But Ambril is close-minded, pompous and disinclined to listen to anybody else.
So as episode one ends, the Doctor and Nyssa are separated from Tegan and somewhat lacking in allies. Meanwhile, there are definite signs that the Mara has returned ….
Although Kinda had somewhat bemused Doctor Who fandom in 1982, it was popular with both the general audience and the Doctor Who production team, so a sequel always seemed likely.
Script Editor Eric Saward was also keen for another story featuring the Mara, as it would provide Janet Fielding with another meaty role. Saward had quickly grown to appreciate Fielding’s performance as Tegan and when interviewed by DWB in the mid 1980’s he felt that the series would have been stronger if Davison’s Doctor had only had Tegan as a single travelling companion: “If we’d just had Janet and Peter the contrast would have been excellent — critical, curious, tenacious — all the element I think make a strong and insightful companion against a weaker, much more vulnerable Doctor. Tegan was the best companion not just because of good writing, but because of Janet Fielding’s skill as an actress. Her performances in Christopher Bailey’s scripts confirmed that.”
Whilst Snakedance resembles a traditional Doctor Who story much more than Kinda did, it’s still quite unusual. Unless you count the Mara at the end of episode four, nobody dies and whilst the plot does develop in a linear way there’s still a considerable amount of time to debate the nature of evil. As with Kinda, Bailey’s Buddhist beliefs are very much to the fore.
And like Kinda, Bailey would select the names of several characters from various languages. For example, Tanha is a Buddhist term that means “thirst” and Chela is derived from a Hindu word meaning “slave” or “servant”.
Snakedance is also quite similar to Kinda in that whilst Janet Fielding does get the chance to shine, she’s also off-screen for quite some time (particularly in episode three). This gives a welcome chance for Sarah Sutton to enjoy more of the limelight. As with Arc of Infinity, Nyssa spends the majority of the story with the Doctor and there’s a very interesting, slightly bickering relationship, that develops. Nyssa was the most underwritten companion of S19 and it’s only a pity that finally she’s beginning to show more promise just when her days are numbered.
Peter Davision is wonderful in this story. For me it’s one of his three best performances as the Doctor, along with Frontios and The Caves of Androzani. From the opening scene, he seems to have much more of a sense of urgency than in recent stories, as he pushes Tegan hard (too hard for Nyssa’s liking) to remember her dreams. Later, he spends much of episode three locked up, firstly by himself and later with Nyssa. And whilst some of the other Doctors would be pacing up and down and desperately trying to find a way out, there’s a lovely sense of calm about Davison in these scenes – he doesn’t seem to be doing much, but that’s the mark of a good actor.
It’s also noteworthy that he spends most of the story unable to make people believe that he’s anything but a raving madman, since in most Doctor Who stories the Doctor tends to get welcomed into the fold fairly quickly (Kinda is a good example of this, whilst Frontier In Space is, like Snakedance, a relative rarity where we see the Doctor as an outsider for the majority of the yarn).
A key man that the Doctor needs to convince is Ambril (John Carson). But although Ambril is an expert in antiquities, he has little time for the Doctor’s doom-mongering, but the Doctor probably doesn’t help his cause in the following, wonderful, scene –
(A ceremonial helmet with a crest of five faces is on a display stand.)
AMBRIL: Now take this, for example. It dates from the middle Sumaran era and unusually is mentioned quite specifically in the Legend. Oh, there can be no doubt. The reference is to the Six Faces of Delusion. Now count. One, two, three, four, five. You will observe there are five faces, not six as the Legend would have it. Now, my point is this. I do find it quite extraordinarily difficult to take seriously a Legend that cannot even count accurately. Of course, artistically speaking, it’s an entirely different matter. The piece is exquisite. An undoubted masterpiece.
DOCTOR: What is it?
AMBRIL: Hmm? Head-dress.
DOCTOR: Try it on.
DOCTOR: Try it on.
AMBRIL: Certainly not. Whatever for?
DOCTOR: Please. I want to show you something, then I’ll go and leave you in peace.
AMBRIL: Very well.
(Ambril puts on the headdress.)
DOCTOR: Now, count the faces again.
AMBRIL: Do as he says.
CHELA: One, two, three, four, five.
DOCTOR: And one makes six. The sixth Face of Delusion is the wearer’s own. That was probably the idea, don’t you think?
AMBRIL: Get out! Go on, get out!
John Carson’s performance is beautifully judged and must rank as one of the best Doctor Who guest-star performances. There were plenty of bigger names that guest-starred in Doctor Who, but few were as good as Carson. He’s a major reason why this story works so well.
The rest of the cast are equally good though. Snakedance has a fairly small group of characters, which helps to ensure that all of them have room for some decent scenes. Colette O’Neil is perfect as Tahna, the bored wife of the Federator, forced to listen to endless tedious speeches by Ambril about the history of Manussa. Although Martin Clunes’ performance does tend to crop up on “before they were famous” type series, he’s fine as Lon, the bored son of the Federator. Jonathon Morris gives a fresh-faced vigor to the role of Chela and Brian Miller (Mr Elisabeth Sladen) has a lovely turn as the showman, Dugdale.
Which leaves Preston Lockwood as Dojjen. He doesn’t have much to say (at least not out loud) but he’s in one of Snakedance’s key scenes as the Doctor submits to a snake bite in order to discover how he can destroy the Mara. And unlike many Doctor Who stories, the Mara can’t be destroyed with a gun or an explosion, something quite different needs to be done –
DOJJEN: No, look into my eyes. You have come this far. You must not now give in to fear. Look.
DOCTOR: It’s the poison. The effect of the poison.
DOJJEN: Fear is the only poison.
DOCTOR: Fear is.
DOJJEN: Ask your question.
DOCTOR: How, how can, I must save Tegan. It was my fault, so how, how can. Destroyed. How can the Mara? It was my fault.
DOJJEN: Steady your mind. Attach to nothing. Let go of your fear.
DOCTOR: What is the Snake Dance?
DOJJEN: This is, here and now. The dance goes on. It is all the dance, everywhere and always. So, find the still point. Only then can the Mara be defeated.
DOCTOR: The still point? The point of safety? A place in the chamber somewhere. Where?
DOJJEN: No, the still point is within yourself, nowhere else. To destroy the Mara you must find the still point.
This excerpt helps to highlight that Snakedance is something unusual. For those who prefer monsters and explosions it might seem a little tame, but I’d take this over the empty heroics of Earthshock any day. If one were being picky, then you could say that Manussa is not the most convincing of planets – it looks incredibly stagey (the entrance to the cave for example, is very artificial). In the end though, I don’t really think this matters, as it’s the script and characters that are important and not the visuals.
It’s a great shame that Christopher Bailey never wrote for the series again, but at least we have Kinda and Snakedance. Not only two of the best Doctor Who stories of the 1980’s, but two of the best Doctor Who stories, period.