Every once in a while there is a “Before They Were Famous” type of programme on TV, and who should appear but a lipstick-wearing Martin Clunes. Well, fancy that. Of course, the audience finds it all hilarious, quite the funniest thing they have ever seen. Sometimes we are even treated to a sight of a young Johnathon Morris, usually the climax to Part Three where Nyssa screams.
Well, we must be charitable and admit that these clips in isolation obviously seem quite amusing to the Not-We, but they do Snakedance an injustice. While Martin Clunes might prefer to forget his Doctor Who performance, he should be more ashamed of that dismal product of the Nineties British trash-television mentality, Men Behaving Badly. It is no surprise that the 1990s was the decade that lacked a series of Doctor Who – it was the decade that taste forgot in Britain, in both television and music… but I’m getting off the point. Because actually Clunes’s performance as Lon is formidable, a great piece of work from an up-and-coming star.
Snakedance is a sequel to Kinda but Christopher Bailey writes a very different story, at least thematically. The source material he uses is much more tightly focussed. Whereas Kinda gave us a hotchpotch of Buddhism, Christianity, classical literature and mythology (not that I’m complaining at that approach), Snakedance really goes down the Buddhism route and takes it right to the conclusion. There is no thrown-in-by-Eric-Saward resolution here, but instead it flows naturally from the plot.
Yes, there are plenty of similarities between the two stories. Tegan’s possession is a bit of a re-run but not so effective, although the snake tattoo thing is brilliant. Janet Fielding and Martin Clunes make for a stunning double act. Tegan is one of the few companions to be corrupted by evil and pose a genuine threat to the Doctor. The fact that the other prime example of this was Turlough illustrates the bravery and inventiveness of the Fifth Doctor era.
But this story isn’t about Tegan. It’s all about the Doctor. And that’s actually more unusual than you might think, at least in the way in which this is about the Doctor. Because the Doctor is our audience identification figure. He behaves like any one of us might do in his position, frantically and clumsily trying to convince people about the danger they are facing and failing spectacularly to be listened to. Davison’s Doctor is perfect for this because he is superficially the weakest (and by that I mean he appears to be young and has the Doctor’s arrogance but lacks the appearance of authority and the ability to take centre stage when he walks into a room and command attention) so it seems natural for him to be ignored when he comes in all blustery. He goes on about something that sounds mystical and nonsensical to an advanced futuristic race. Despite the magnificent touches of realism Manussa is afforded with its rich and detailed culture, it is clearly scientifically advanced.
So what this all boils down to is that we can completely understand why the Doctor is rejected as an idiot and locked up for pushing his manic bluster too far, yet we know he is right because we have seen the Mara before. This is the way to do a sequel – not a rerun of the same story like The Monster of Peladon, but a new idea that completely relies on the return of a monster and could not function without it. In this respect, Snakedance fulfils the old-monster-in-every-story remit of Season Twenty far more effectively than any other story.
So we have the Doctor established as an audience identification figure and then something magnificent happens in the fourth episode. As in Planet of the Spiders (which this story is as much as sequel to thematically as Kinda), the Doctor sees a guru/teacher/mentor, whatever you want to call Dojjen, and he learns something and becomes a better person and finds the ability to defeat the Mara. And seeing the Doctor as an audience identification figure who actually has a story arc and goes to a better place and develops is something that is very rare and quite wonderful. At the time it might have seemed odd for an ancient Time Lord to be shown as so flawed and needing to learn, but looking back on this story in our era of fourteen different incarnations of the Doctor, we can see the Fifth Doctor as actually relatively young and inexperienced. He may have been thought of at the time as an old man in a young body, but from our perspective now he is a young man in a young body, at least in Gallifreyan terms.
So what about the Mara and its significance? As I mentioned above this is all much more tightly focussed, and the Mara is now pinned down as an embodiment of the evil inside humans (well, perhaps we should say humanoids considering the origins of the Manussans is unclear). And the way it operates is exactly the same as the way evil (or at least if you can’t bring yourself to believe such a thing, let’s say the motivations that lead to “evil deeds”) functions in real life: it provides distractions from the path to spiritual or moral purity. There are two big categories of distractions: temptation (and in Kinda there is a clear parallel with physical temptation) and fear. Giving in to those is shown to allow the evil in. The Mara constantly throws the distraction of fear at people and demands their attention in that way (“Look at me” is key – the Mara needs attention).
It is not often that a sequel surpasses the original, but Snakedance might do just that. It divides opinion a little more, and that is probably because your enjoyment of the story depends on your tolerance level for the way Bailey prioritizes his themes. If you are a fan of horror-type scary stories then you will probably prefer Kinda, because Snakedance debunks all the fears and totally eradicates the source of them, whereas Kinda allows those fears to take hold more thoroughly and linger after the story’s end. Despite this Snakedance has plenty of genuinely scary moments, and does not deserve to be laughed at, and nor does Martin Clunes. RP
The view from across the pond:
Here’s good advice: find a still point. Don’t go into this story with any high expectation. Instead, find that state of calm to try to enjoy it. And be glad that the Mara is not long for the series!
Tegan returns after a brief absence and tells the Doctor that she’s still having dreams like she had during Kinda. This opens up with some potential: it could improve the Mara story, adding more to the myth and giving us more of Tegan in the weird dream state. In other words, it would make a mediocre story into something better. Alas, it’s not to be.
Dojjen, the mysterious old man who advises the Doctor to find that “still point”, might be the only real element of interest in it. From the first scene of the story, he’s there, mysterious and quiet. He’s that strange wanderer, the “Kane from Kung-Fu”, that went out into the barren wilderness to learn how to combat the Mara. When he joins the Doctor to fight the Mara at the end of the story, there’s a sense of actual power and there’s something impressive in the way it’s done. As if the Doctor has an equal; maybe even a superior! But the rest of the story never rises up.
The snakes might be a part of the problem. Look, I understand the special effects are not up to modern standards which is fine! I can typically accept that. The trick is to watch as if viewing a stage play; it’s totally ok to me because I do understand budgetary constrictions, but those snakes looked terrible. At no point do they look real. Martin Clunes, making an early TV appearance, is very unusual too; I’m not sure if it was his spoiled child character, his attire, personal appearance, but he took me out of the story as well and as a key figure in this tale, that’s not a good thing. Ambril is supposedly a student of ancient Manussan culture but can’t understand that the headgear, the “Six faces of delusion” (which by the way, was incredibly clever but not hard to figure out), only has 5 faces leaving the 6th for that of the wearer. (Good job museum curator…) It is fun watching the Doctor bring Ambril down a notch with this realization. The caves don’t look like caves, so much as dark sets. And the scene when the crystal is put into the wall, was the light meant to be “special effect” or was it actually light activated in the wall by the crystal?
The notion that evil is within us all is fascinating stuff and makes for great story telling, but Star Trek’s original series episode “The Enemy Within” does a far better job looking at it and making sense of why we all have aggressive tendencies alongside our peaceful natures. Sure, finding calm and peace may be a more useful approach to handling it, but doesn’t really explain why it’s there. This episode just doesn’t give us anything to really sink our mental fangs into. It just writhes around on the ground and never actually dances… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Mawdryn Undead
I have to say, I do love the radically different opinions we have of some episodes. Your perspective is wonderful and you do give me something to think about. Whether you sway me into your camp, I cannot say, but I certainly have heightened perspective about it now.
I’ll give you these two: Tegan and Lon together were a powerful double-act. And the Doctor being taught by Dojjen was one of the things I really liked about the episode too. It would have been nice if we saw more character development during the series back then. If Tegan came away more confident or the Doctor from here on seemed less “vulnerable” (as Davison’s Doctor was always thought of). Though characters have arcs in some stories, we don’t see a lot of them carry over into the following ones during the original series.
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Character arcs are very hard to find in classic Who and I think that stems from the lack of a single creative guiding hand. It was always a collaboration between various producers and script editors, but now we have a longterm showrunner to sketch out the overall picture of a series before any writers are chosen, and write a decent chunk of each series himself. We have had just two showrunners in 12 years, and that’s where the continuity of vision and coherent character arcs stem from.
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And there’s the driving force behind why I love Babylon 5 so much. 1 writer for 90 of the 110 episodes. Cohesive, well developed characters. Great show!
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No one is totally good and no one is totally evil. That was a character promo quote that I recall for a female pro-wrestler known as Jaclyn Hyde. So whether or not the equilibrium between good and evil can be fully serious or blatantly ridiculous, depending on how such imbalances are stigmatized in specific horror thrillers which is often depressing, is a question that’s easy for me to answer with Snakedance. First of all, I liked Martin Clunes as Lon and especially when he falls for his share of obvious reasons under the Mara’s influence. I like to think that his imaginable recovery would have made him a better person as opposed to the spoiled rich kid he started out as. Because the snake can be conditionally envisioned as the Devil incarnate, and because of how haunted I once was as a child by Sidney Lumet’s Child’s Play, Snakedance works better for me than Kinda for proving that evil in its brutal and traumatic realism can still be conquered and defeated, even without the luxury of doing it earlier on, because the Doctor had to wait until the Mara’s climactic becoming. It proves that even with underwhelming visual effects for the monster of whatever, horror thrillers of this very profound nature can effectively work without the misappropriated horror (blood and gore) which we see too often today. I always appreciated Dr. Who’s talent to make horror a thoughtfully intelligent genre as did Brian Clemens’ Thriller, Sapphire & Steel and The Omega Factor. So Snakedance is among my favorites from Davison’s era and the delicately handled final scene between Tegan and the Doctor after the Mara’s final demise is among the best endings. Thank you all for your reviews which I found very helpful. I hope mine is too.
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Of course it is Mike! Thanks for some interesting comments.
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You’re very welcome. 🖖🏻
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