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14 Mar 2004Snakedance, by Paul Clarke
09 Mar 2006Snakedance, by Adam Kintopf

'Snakedance' is in many ways highly similar to 'Kinda'. For one thing, it is a sequel to that story, also written by 'Kinda' scribe Christopher Bailey, and featuring the return of the Mara. Like 'Kinda', it suffers from cheap and stagy looking sets and horrible costumes, but is also well directed. And like 'Kinda', it has a superb script, great characterisation, and a superb acting. 

To address those minor negative quibbles first and get them out of the way, I actually much prefer the sets here to those in 'Kinda', with only the rocky exteriors and the cave bothering me. The rocky exteriors look better than they might have done due to the fact that they are recorded on film, but they are still obviously fake sets with a painted backdrop and some sand scattered about; in short, they always look as though they are indoors. The cave looks OK, but suffers from the same problem as those in 'Earthshock', in that it looks very little like a real cave at all. On the other hand, it has been sculpted in the past, so I suppose its shiny walls and unnatural rock shapes could be explained thus. But it still looks a bit silly when the veins in walls light up at the end. Ken Trew's costumes represent my only other criticism of 'Snakedance'; most of them look a bit silly, but are passable, for example those worn by Dugdale and Chela, but Ambril's pink and black costume is hideous and the ludicrous costume that Lon dons in Episode Four has to be seen to be believed. I should perhaps also point out that the curse of the Mara once more means the curse of the rubber snake, whether it be the one wrapped around Tegan's arm, the one that bites Dojjen and the Doctor during the snakedance, or the big Mara prop at the end. However, the snake effects used here have moved up a step since 'Kinda' and bonus points are awarded for the use of real snakes. 

So having got my rather shallow criticisms of 'Snakedance' out of the way, I'll start by praising the regulars. Janet Fielding again proves she can act, as the Mara once more possesses Tegan. She proves especially good when Tegan wakes up terrified from a nightmare, or wanders around in fearful confusion under the influence of the Doctor's dream inhibiting device. She's even better however when Tegan is fully under the Mara's control and she gets to play the villain; her tormenting of the fortuneteller at the end of Episode One, her callous treatment of Dugdale, even her power crazed ranting, all of these aspects are portrayed very well, and this is emphasized by the first two cliffhangers, superbly directed by Fiona Cumming. The real test of Fielding's acting skills is that she manages to seem menacing even with a rubber snake coiled around her arm, which is pretty impressive when all said and done. Actually, the Mara is realized very well throughout 'Snakedance' and is more prominent from the start than it was in 'Kinda', since the Doctor realises what his enemy is very early on. Cumming's use of snake skulls and distorting mirrors are both examples of how she achieves surrealism on a limited budget and shows Tegan alternately fighting or giving in to the Mara in her mind. Cumming's direction is impressive here, but Fielding is crucial to the success of these scenes. 

Sarah Sutton's Nyssa gets very little to do here, basically following the Doctor or Tegan around to allow plot exposition, but Davison is very well used as the Doctor. His frantic rushing around in an attempt to stop the Mara's rebirth is well ahdnled, and it's interesting to see how he looks to the supporting characters, with everyone except Chela assuming that he is a harmless crank. Ambril's reaction to him is very realistic, as he tries to convince everyone that on this occasion a celebration that has been performed once a decade for five centuries will on this occasion have dire consequences. His scenes with Dojjen in Episode Four are particularly good as the Doctor exhibits first fear and then finally understanding as Dojjen teaches him how to defeat the Mara. 

The supporting cast is excellent. Over the past ten years I've often seen clips from 'Snakedance' being used to embarrass both Martin Clunes and Jonathon Morris, but neither have cause for embarrassment (except perhaps for Clunes' costumes). Clunes is superb as the arrogant and bored Lon, whose transformation from obnoxious to manipulative and ruthless demonstrates that Lon is not a particularly nice person to begin with but is far worse under the Mara's control. Incredible, the famously big-eared Clunes, a man famous for portraying loutish behaviour in Men Behaving Badly, manages to appear both imperious and even dashing at times. Morris is also great as the erstwhile Chela, the one person other than Dojjen prepared to listen to the Doctor's warnings about the Mara, and his character is very likeable. Every character is well written, including Lon's snooty but well-meaning mother Tanha (Colette O'Neill), and the money grubbing but also likeable Dugdale (Brian Miller, husband of Elizabeth Sladen) whose fascination with what he thinks of as Tegan's skills at ventriloquism and the financial benefits this might bring him leads him into terror and slavery. Preston Lockwood's Dojjen is played with quiet dignity and although he barely speaks he brings a tremendous air of wisdom to the role. Perhaps most notable is John Carson's Ambril, a great character whose obsession with his work causes him to betray his sacred trust and hand over the great crystal to Lon. Ambril's motivation is always understandable, his greed for knowledge and artifacts nicely contrasting with Dugdale's greed for money and equally demonstrating how the Mara is capable of praying on people's weaknesses. Carson superbly portrays Ambril's barely suppressed excitement at the artifacts Lon shows him, as he handles them with trembling hands, and his defeated submission to the Mara's will as Lon smashes them is very well acted. In addition, Ambril's enraged reaction to the Doctor's solving of the riddle of the Six Faces of Delusion is almost worth watching the story for by itself. 

Bailey's plot is deceptively simple, carried along by the characterisation and more subtext picked up on from 'Kinda'. Buddhism apparently plays its part once more, in the origins of the Mara and the means by which the Doctor defeats it. Also as in 'Kinda' there are subtle criticisms of colonialism (or rather imperialism) as Tanha patronizes the natives and laughs at their quaint customs, whilst nevertheless fascinated by them. 'Snakedance' is perhaps less memorable than 'Kinda', affected to an extent by the law of diminishing returns, but it is a worthy sequel and after the disappointing 'Arc of Infinity' it bodes well for the remainder of Season Twenty.

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With ‘Snakedance,’ the done thing seems to be to say that it’s good, but not as good or smart as ‘Kinda.’ Now, whether one Doctor Who story is truly *better* than another is always going to be a matter of subjectivity, but I think it’s worth pointing out that ‘Snakedance’ stands up extremely well on its own, and is certainly smart. It’s true that writer Christopher Bailey does employ a more conventional storytelling style here than he did in the rich, strange stew that was ‘Kinda,’ but it no less intelligent, and in fact focuses on questions the earlier story ignores (or, at least, doesn’t get around to asking).

First off, one of the best things this story does is capture the Manussan culture itself. It’s always hard to suggest a realistic alien society in what amounts to a mere handful of scenes, and that’s why Doctor Who stories are historically populated by invaders from other worlds who have conveniently lost their home cultures. But the depiction of the Manussans is different – we get a clear picture of a society grown so remote from its own historical origins over half a millennium that its people have largely forgotten them. The account of a terrifying force that once dominated this world has been happily mythologized into ‘safe’ rituals like the ones at the anniversary festival (snake parade, ‘attendant demons,’ children’s Punch and Judy show, etc.). The Manussan people themselves are depicted as cheerfully cynical from the lowest social rank (the fraudulent showman and fortuneteller) up to the highest (Lon seems to question whether the Mara story even happened at all). But the viewer knows better – having seen ‘Kinda,’ *we* know that the Mara’s threat is frightening and real, and this even more than usual puts us on the side of the Doctor – who, in an amusing irony, is as squeaky and ineffective here as at probably any other time in his history (“I do not want more blankets, I want to get out of here!”). To see the Doctor scrambling to get the amiable Manussans to believe him is funny, but it also creates real suspense as we watch the Mara move towards its goal with complete ease.

But ‘Snakedance’ doesn’t simply tell a tense story set in a believable culture – it has real observations to make about reading the past, and somewhat odd ones at that, at least in the context of this series. For in ‘Snakedance’ we see that, for once, it’s the superstitious characters who are in the right, and the skeptical ones who are shown up as fools. This comes into focus in the fascinating character of Ambril, a tunnel-visioned academic with the authority of a government behind him (frightening thing). While the character’s earnestness and archaeological zeal is respectable, even admirable – he’s anything but a mad scientist – he is nevertheless so wrapped up in his own way of viewing the past that he can’t see new history being made around him. He scoffs at the Doctor (who, as I said, is quite a wonderful cracked young man in this story), but we can only suspect he’d act the same way even if the warnings about the Mara came from a more credible source. Ambril likes the past the way it is – frozen in time, preserved for posterity under museum glass. And Bailey’s script does a marvelous job of communicating the character’s smallness (the ‘sixth head’ joke is perhaps a little obvious, but it brings the point to the fore well enough).

The other caste of skeptical character here, of course, is the hereditary ruling elite, represented by bored Lon and his mother Tanha. Both characters are basic upper-class stereotypes, but they become quite full-blooded in the hands of the capable actors; more than that, they function well in the story, both in terms of their service to the plot and their symbolic resonance (as decadent skeptics so modern that they *laugh* at the Mara stories, despite being descended from the family who originally destroyed it!).

So who are the heroes of ‘Snakedance’? The obvious guess is Dojjen, Ambril’s counterpart and philosophical opposite, a scholar who takes such a hands-on approach to his subject that he becomes a true believer, and renounces his shallow culture for a mystic’s life in the wilderness. But the script’s real hero might actually be mild-mannered Chela, a kind of reverse skeptic – a student of science who is nevertheless able to imagine a reality outside his own experience, who begins to question the secular norm he has always known. He is a man with imagination, and Bailey seems to value that more highly than any devotion to science and reason; in fact, it’s implied that the search for knowledge is what created the Mara in the first place. (One senses that Barry Letts would have *loved* a script like this, and I like to think that the blue crystals were included in the plot as a conscious tribute to ‘Planet of the Spiders.’)

As for the aesthetics of the story, the absurd Manussan costumes are always good for a laugh (Lon does look like a refugee from a particularly wild Duran Duran video), and some of the snake effects are a bit sad, but by and large it has the look of classic eighties Doctor Who. Janet Fielding gives a good performance, and she is helped by the sound technicians (her ‘Exorcist’-like sudden voice change – “NO!” – is very effective); and Peter Davison is as wonderful as usual. As is so often the case, Sarah Sutton isn’t given anything to do, but as I can’t stand Nyssa anyway, I don’t mind. Director Fiona Cummings has some good ideas, and helps to make Lon and Tanha into more believable characters than they perhaps are on paper. (When Tanha stands with her back to her son - and the camera – it conveys her hurt better than words or acting ever could). The ending is a little sudden, but for once this abruptness works perfectly – I much prefer an ‘open’ ending like this to a hasty, well-let’s-sum-it-all-up-and-say-goodbye scene like the ones we so often get in this series.

A final thought: after sitting through a sometimes unpleasantly flirtatious first season of Russell T. DaviesÂ’s new Who, I found it refreshing to see the classic, sexless Doctor -one who doesnÂ’t even recognize that his pert companion is wearing a new dress!

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