Doctor Who Project: Snakedance

Tell me about the legend.

Surely a papier-mâché serpent would top the list of least-likely villains to return to Doctor Who, but after Omega’s less-than-star return in the prior story, one is hard pressed to be nonplussed at the return of the Mara in Christopher Bailey’s “Snakedance” (Story Production Code 6D), a direct sequel to the psychological slitherer’s first appearance in “Kinda” last season. If producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward are willing to scrounge around in the archives to find a long-lost character with no connection to the current regeneration, why not draw from the Fifth Doctor’s own, more recent past? The real shock comes in seeing how well Bailey and director Fiona Cumming, last entrusted with “Castrovalva,” handle this reptilian reprise.

The ritual representation of the Mara

Unlike other “blasts from the past” in the Fifth Doctor’s run to date, this conclusion to the Mara story stands well on its own, the prior events on the Kinda homeworld that saw Tegan posessed by this malevolent entity being efficiently alluded to without requiring either cryptic asides or elaborate explanations. In short order, the TARDIS lands on Manussa, guided there unwittingly by Tegan, who has been having nightmares about a serpent-mouthed cave entrance. Some quick exposition reveals that very cave to be the site where, precisely five hundred years earlier, the nascent Manussan Federation defeated (sort of) the Mara, under whose thrall the highly-advanced Sumaran Empire fell into degeneracy and decay. The original Federator put paid to the beast by means of the cobalt blue Great Crystal, and his descendants continue to rule Manussa to the present day, with the title soon to fall to the layabout Lon (Martin Clunes), who considers the Mara myth to be a bunch of discredited superstition that is interrupting his nap.

Martin Clunes as Lon

Aware that the Mara is both quite real and very much not destroyed, despite the best efforts of the ancient Federation—and his own swing-and-a-miss with the help of the Kinda—the Doctor whips up a device not unlike an early portable transistor radio to block out external sensations, theoretically allowing Tegan the mental concentration needed to keep control against the remnant of the creature that still lurks in her subconscious mind. But when he drags her and Nyssa out to find the cave, the resulting disorientation causes Tegan to flee. A friendly fortune teller helps her and removes the device in order to converse with her, allowing the Mara to emerge, its presence announced in a crystal ball…

The Mara revealed

Once more, Janet Fielding imbues the role of Mara-Tegan with incredible vibrancy, shifting from fear and uncertainty as Tegan claws back temporary control through to an imperious hauteur as the Mara dominates their shared mien. There’s less of the internal psychological battle than in “Kinda,” without the slow, back-and-forth burn that drove the first half of that story, the conflict taking place here with frightful rapidity, but the struggle remains gripping all the same. It’s a shame, then, that once Mara-Tegan has passed the Mark of the Mara, the long snake imprint that signifies possession, on to Lon, she fades very much into the background, with the Mara’s new pawn doing all the work to return the Great Crystal to the Mara Chamber at the heart of the cave. Narratively, this sidelining makes sense, as only Lon has the authority and access needed to cajole Ambril (John Carson), the director of Sumaran studies and keeper of the crystal, to reveal its location, but one wants more of Fielding’s take on the role. Being possessed is always the key to great lines on Doctor Who, and the Mara provides no exception.

Martin Clunes and Janet Fielding as Mara-Lon and Mara-Tegan

Though Fiona Cumming uses her large cast of non-speaking crowd extras well, indeed much as she did with the imaginary Castrovalvans, to create a sense of a real culture and place, there’s not much action in “Snakedance,” with several long scenes spent winding through festival goers and watching Punch & Judy & Mara puppet shows. But Bailey’s story stands out as a rare example of telling actually being more intriguing than showing. With the Doctor and Nyssa locked up for asking too many questions of Ambril, who takes poorly the Doctor’s assertions that the Mara has actually returned, just as the prior director, Dojjen (Preston Lockwood), said it would in keeping with the legends, much time and space exists to spin out the tale of that legend and of the birth of the Mara. (And it’s curious to note that the Doctor also solved much of the story’s narrative dilemmas in “Kinda” while locked up as well.)

John Carson as Ambril, who is not amused

It all comes down to the crystals. Blue crystals always have mental powers on Doctor Who—perhaps because they light up quite convincingly—so it’s no surprise that a cult known as the Snakedancers, dedicated to keeping the traditions and knowledge of the Mara’s defeat alive, use smaller versions, known as the Little Mind’s Eye, in their forbidden ceremonies. The Doctor manages to mentally activate one of the crystals, given to him by Ambril’s assistant, Chela (Johnathon Morris), a believer in the Legend of the Return; surmising that if the small crystals can turn thought into energy, he realizes that the larger one could manifest thoughts into reality. After Nyssa recognizes the crystal as manufactured rather than naturally occurring, the Doctor further hypothesizes that they must have been made in zero gravity due to their perfection, and yet the extant Manussan culture lacks such technology.

Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton as the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa, examining a blue crystal

The Sumarans, then, prior to their collapse made not just the crystals but the Mara itself. In the pursuit of the limitless power that such a mentally resonant crystal could yield, they inadvertently transferred their culture’s flaws, “the reslessness, the hatred, the greed,” into the crystal, resulting in the Mara’s manifestation. By the time the Manussan Federation came into being, the Sumarans had fallen from their technological heights, reduced to mere servants of the Mara. It’s a clever bit of world building that spins out over all four episodes of this story, and the emphasis on archeology, mythology, and lore permeates the tale. Indeed, the scenes of Director Ambril being tempted into giving up the Great Crystal in exchange for the priceless archeological artifacts hidden in the Mara Chamber feel more believable given the focus on antiquities.

The Great Crystal

Once the Doctor and Nyssa escape, with help from Chela, they seek out Dojjen in order to uncover a means of defeating the Mara, which will use the ceremony marking its defeat to make a triumphal return by means of the Great Crystal. Using the smaller crystal as a beacon, the Doctor summons Dojjen, who wears a similar crystal as he meditates in a desert that also happens to be a few minutes away from the serpent-mouthed cave. In a scene not fit for those who suffer from ophidiophobia (though it’s likely the story’s title steered them clear in the first place), Dojjen allows himself to be bitten by a thin, asp-like snake, then proffers the venomous gift to the Doctor. Tellingly, though he knows he’s putting his life in danger, he goes through with the process to save not the universe, but Tegan, from the Mara. He feels responsible for her fate, and on the heels of Adric’s demise especially, he’s determined not to let her die.

Preston Lockwood as Dojjen, sans snake

The Snakedance, as it turns out, is not dancing with snakes, at least in a literal sense; instead, as Dojjen explains to the Doctor telepathically after he has entered a poison-induced trance, it is communing in the still spaces of the mind, a skill passed down through generations as the sole means of defeating the Mara. Rather than help the Doctor further, though, Dojjen simply sends him on his way to confront the foe he has spent a lifetime preparing to fight. In fairness, the Fifth Doctor hasn’t had much to actually do, per se, in the story thus far, so having a guest star defeat the villain would perhaps stretch Peter Davison’s patience a bit far. And the key to beating the Mara is simply to find “the still point within,” a concept the Doctor is admittedly a bit fuzzy on by the time they rush into the Mara Chamber and find the snake creature separating from Tegan, becoming the full-grown Mara itself, powered by the placement of the Great Crystal in a wall frieze.

Mara-Tegan beings to transform, aided by the Great Crystal

Throughout the cavernous room, the assembled ceremony guests fall to the floor, captivated by the Mara, who feeds on their fear and, more importantly, belief, emotions that are amplified through the large blue stone. Even Nyssa, with her scientific mind, becomes enraptured. Only the Doctor resists. Aided by Dojjen’s mental image, he channels his thoughts into the Lesser Mind’s Eye he carries, finding a mental stillness that somehow interferes with the Mara’s ability to become fully manifested. The Mara attempts to sway the Doctor into submission by surfacing Tegan’s fear, but he holds firm, and when the Mara sends its pawns after the Doctor, they shock themselves on the small crystal, giving him the opportunity to pull the Great Crystal from the wall.

Mara-Tegan in full voice

Caught mid-transference, the Mara collapses as soon as the Doctor severs the flow of energy from the Great Crystal, and it dissolves into goo (that recurring Nathan-Turner and Saward trademark), instead of just disappearing as it did at the end of “Kinda,” gone for good. Pressed for time (or perhaps simply because Bailey doesn’t want to get into any awkward questions about what just happened), the story ends almost immediately thereafter, with the Doctor consoling Tegan for the trauma she endured as the mouthpiece of the Mara.

A melty Mara

With so much emphasis on exposition as opposed to exertion, focus falls on the actors to carry the sheer volume of words, and both Martin Clunes and John Carson, as Lon and Ambril, play their parts with emphatic gusto. Clunes, as the bored and boorish aristocrat, makes for an ideal recipient of the Mark of the Mara; the changes between the character before and after being possessed by the serpent are subtle, as Lon already behaves as someone used to the world bowing and scraping before him, with just the slightest venom, if you will, highlighting the latter portrayal. It’s perfect cover for the Mara. Carson’s Ambril, a scholar so caught in theory that he fails to see the reality of his studies in front of him, exemplifies the greed and self-interest that led to the creation of the Mara in the first place, his desire to be heralded as discovering a cache of rare artifacts overwhelming his sense of duty to a sacred trust. In a lesser performance, the willingess to abandon that duty would seem abrupt, but Carson sells Ambril’s temptation well.

John Carson and Martin Clunes as Ambril and Lon

Much like with “Arc of Infinity,” Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa spends the majority of the story as the “main” companion, Janet Fielding’s Tegan obviously otherwise engaged. She and Davison share a real affinity, and their banter as they noodle out technical problems or try to avoid being captured comes across pleasingly. Nyssa bristles at some of the Doctor’s behaviors in this story, taking umbrage at his lack of bedside manner when trying to help Tegan at the start and not appreciating being helped down from a pathetically low ledge, the latter earning the celery-suited someone a withering look. A new costume for Nyssa appears in this story as well, a somewhat more practical ensemble of a blue and white striped blouse paired with a striped skirt and knee-length maroon pants. It, however, like the character of Nyssa herself, will be short lived, alas, with Sutton’s time on the series nearing its end.

Sarah Sutton as Nyssa

The word “companion” as the term of art for those who travel with the Doctor is not going anywhere, however, being used extensively throughout “Snakedance,” by both the Doctor and others. It’s used so frequently that to call out the individual uses by Bailey (and Saward’s editorial perogative) seems superfluous. The term is here to stay.

Janet Fielding as Tegan, and sometimes the Mara

Janet Fielding, as noted, makes the absolute most of Tegan’s surprisingly limited screen time. But when she is center stage, there’s no getting the spotlight away from her. Though processing seems to have been done on Tegan’s voice when she is possessed, much of the emotion and depth (both literal and figurative) comes from Fielding herself. There’s a certain vulnerability to Tegan’s character at this point, more so than when the character first hopped on the TARDIS after the death of her aunt; more than perhaps any other companion to date, she has really been through the proverbial wringer, and yet she chooses to travel with the Doctor despite having made it home, the first to voluntarily return—the first one given that option, true, but she makes that choice all the same.

For Peter Davison, this story sums up to a great extent his overall take on the Fifth Doctor—a bit cerebral, loyal to a fault, capable of error, direct rather than delicate, and willing to test his own theories even at risk to himself. Though Davison, as one of the youngest actors to play the role of the Doctor, can certainly mix it up with the best of them, his Doctor seems least comfortable breaking out the ol’ Venusian Aikido, so stories like “Snakedance” that lean more heavily into the conceptual complement the Fifth Doctor well. Whenever earlier Doctors were locked up or otherwise sidelined, the actors themselves looked ill at ease; Davison can ruminate in a cell like no Doctor before or since.

Peter Davison as a befuddled Fifth Doctor

For all the success of “Snakedance” as a compelling story, blending as it does an intriguing returning villain with an evocative and intelligent narrative by Bailey, framed with innovative directing by Fiona Cumming, many questions—plot holes, bluntly—remain, not the least of which is what the Mara was doing in the Place of Great Dreaming (from “Kinda“) in the first place. Still, the hanging points are mostly quibbles, overshadowed by strong acting and the suggestion that the Mara’s great desire, its entire motivation, is not power so much as purpose, of being-ness itself. The Mara’s control over others stems from being looked at, of being made real by the gaze of the other. In that sense, the Mara is not so different from Omega, who just wanted to be amongst the living again, to be seen, a “villainy” from which few indeed are exempt. These are different foes than the audience might be used to on Doctor Who, driven by existential needs rather than material wants, heady stuff for a show about a blue box and a time traveller with a funny outfit, but just, if you’ll pardon the pun, what the Doctor ordered, at least as an occasional respite from antagonists seeking to conquer the universe yet again.

(Previous Story: Arc of Infinity)

(Next Story: Mawdryn Undead)

Post 129 of the Doctor Who Project

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