The TARDIS makes an unplanned landing on Manussa, where preparations are underway to celebrate the defeat of the Sumaran Empire five centuries earlier. But the ancient evil of the Mara lives on, and Tegan, who has been haunted by disturbing dreams since her time under the wind chimes on Deva Loka, is now a pawn in its plan to re-enter the physical world and subjugate the Manussan people.
Only the Doctor can stop the Mara – but first he must convince the authorities that he is not just a deluded fool who believes in children’s fairytales…
With Season 20 bringing back antagonists and allies from the show’s history ahead of the twentieth anniversary story The Five Doctors, the Mara are a call back to more recent Doctor Who, as they are one of the more interesting antagonists from Peter Davison’s first season as the Doctor. I really liked their previous appearance in Kinda and Snakedance certainly does not disappoint either – it is no surprise that Rob Shearman and Steven Moffat hold this story in such high esteem.
Christopher Bailey creates a really interesting story here, where it would be all too tempting to create a straight like-for-like sequel to Kinda. By setting the story five hundred years after the defeat of the Mara, it shows a society almost trading in on its past, with characters like Dugdale being responsible for attractions around the celebrations. The sheer matter of distance between the defeat and the events of this story mean that the scepticism of the locals to the Doctor’s correct claims seems believable – society has lapsed into a complacency that the Mara cannot return. Bailey also gives us an origin story for the Mara, created out of the fear and negative emotions of the ancient Manussans, channelled through the crystals, which created the creature. The story is also aided by great direction by Fiona Cumming and good set dressing, utilising some sets from A Song For Europe to create some really interesting spaces for the interiors of the palace. Cumming takes a story shot entirely on sets and makes it feel vibrant and lifelike, rather than feeling inhibited by being shot on a stage, while the shots in the caves feel oppressive and creepy. Her interesting in working on character driven stories really serves this well, as some of the more memorable moments are conversations between characters, especially Lon and his mother.
One of Snakedance‘s strengths is the supporting cast, who, thanks to good writing, feel very fleshed out. Martin Clunes’ Lon could easily be quite unlikeable in the hands of less charming actor, being an impatient and bored son to the ruler of Manussa, especially when you consider how the show dealt with a character like Adric. It is easy to see why Clunes gets a bit embarrassed when clips of Snakedance are shown out of context, but he puts in a great performance here and The relationship between Lon and his mother Tanha feels particularly believable as she attempts to get him to engage more with the ceremonies around the anniversary with little to no success. There is a good scene where Tanha describes the impatience of her son and talks about her husband as “lingering on, rather” and another where she and Lon discuss the Federator which allow the audience to form their own image of the unseen character rather than having him appear onscreen unnecessarily. We also have Chela and Ambril who could potentially have been rather bland characters on paper who are given extra charisma by John Carson and Jonathan Morris.
This is an interesting story for the Fifth Doctor, as it really shows that things are not as easy for this incarnation than some of his predecessors. Where as some previous Doctors would have been able to sweep in and take command of the situation pretty much immediately, here the Fifth Doctor, perhaps because he seems more affable and outwardly young, is dismissed as talking nonsense. Davison is at his best when he is exasperated at people not believing him, and it is rare to see the Doctor choose to stay at the periphery of the situation as a result. It’s not something that would work in every story but here I found it interesting, and this fish out of water kind of dynamic is shown again when he communes telepathically with Dojjen Sarah Sutton here proves that she has more than enough to have been a sole companion to the Doctor and with Tegan possessed by the Mara for most of the story’s run time, it is nice to see the character given something to do, especially considering that she was essentially written out of Kinda. There are some lovely moments, like her being caught by Tanha trying to steal the key to the Doctor’s cell or her outrage at the Doctor helping her over a ledge. Speaking of companions who are given something different to do, this certainly rings true for Tegan who is controlled by the Mara for almost the entirety of the story. Janet Fielding is given more to do than sulking here and she is really creepy, especially in the cliffhanger at the end of Part 1. Fielding really sells the character’s vulnerability at the beginning of the story, a side of Tegan we rarely see, and it is probably the character’s best showing. The Mara’s last pass at the Doctor is a lovely touch, attempting to trick him into helping them by pretending to be Tegan being harmed.
Verdict: Snakedance is a rare thing in Doctor Who: a good sequel. Good performances and an interesting script boost Snakedance into being a high point in Peter Davison’s run. 9/10
Cast: Peter Davison (The Doctor), Janet Fielding (Tegan Jovanka), Sarah Sutton (Nyssa), John Carson (Ambril), Colette O’Neil (Tanha), Preston Lockwood (Dojjen), Martin Clunes (Lon), Brian Miller (Dugdale), Hilary Sesta (Fortune Teller), George Ballantine (Hawker), Jonathon Morris (Chela), Barry Smith (Puppeteer) & Brian Grellis (Megaphone Man).
Writer: Christopher Bailey
Director: Fiona Cumming
Behind the Scenes
- Christopher Bailey stated that the idea for this story came from an article he had read about isolated Christian sects in what he believed was the Arizona desert that handled snakes as part of religious rituals. The groups actually originate in Appalachia.
- Part 4 overran, leading to the removal of a scene where the Doctor comforts Tegan about her ordeal with the Mara, which was instead included at the beginning of Mawdryn Undead.
- Christopher Bailey again used Buddhist terms such as Manussa (the human realm), Tanha (craving) and Dugdale (From dugatti, unhappy existence). Dugdale was originally Duchan (platform used by Hebrew priests and Chela was named for a word meaning religious disciple.
- Whilst another story was planned, it was never made. Big Finish made a further story with the Mara (The Cradle of the Snake).
- The first major television role for Martin Clunes. He would go on to be in contention to play both the Eighth and Ninth Doctors.
- Brian Miller would go on to appear in Deep Breath. Miller is the widow of Elisabeth Sladen and father of Sadie Miller, who has at the time of writing just started reprising her late mother’s role of Sarah Jane Smith. Brian Miller also voiced the Daleks in Resurrection of the Daleks and Remembrance of the Daleks.
- George Ballantine had made seven previous appearances in Doctor Who, all uncredited. His role as Hawker in Snakedance was his final appearance and sole credited one.
- Barry Smith had previously worked as an uncredited puppeteer on Planet of the Spiders.
- Brian Grellis had previously appeared in Revenge of the Cybermen and The Invisible Enemy.
The cliffhanger at the end of Part One where the snakehead comes into the fortune teller’s crystal ball is a really creepy and effective moment.
Once a man fell asleep and dreamt he was a frog. When he woke up, he didn’t know if he was a man who dreamt he was a frog or a frog who was now dreaming that he was a man.The Fifth Doctor
Previous Fifth Doctor television review: Arc of Infinity
Previous Fifth Doctor review: The Children of Seth
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