THIS STORY TAKES
PLACE BETWEEN THE
NOVEL "ZETA MAJOR"
AND THE TV EPISODE
'MARA TALES' DVD
BOX SET (BBCDVD2871)
RELEASED IN MARCH
THE TARDIS MAKES AN
UNPLANNED LANDING ON
THE PLANET MANUSSA,
WHERE THE DEFEAT OF
THE SUMARAN EMPIRE
FIVE CENTURIES EARLIER
IS BEING CELEBRATED.
BUT THE ANCIENT EVIL
OF THE MARA LIVES ON,
AND TEGAN, WHO HAS
BEEN HAUNTED SINCE
HER TIME UNDER THE
WINDCHIMES ON DEVA
LOKA, IS NOW A PAWN
IN ITS PLAN TO RE-ENTER
THE PHYSICAL WORLD
AND SUBJUGATE THE
ONLY THE DOCTOR CAN
STOP THE MARA - BUT
FIRST HE MUST CONVINCE
THE AUTHORITIES THAT
HE IS NOT JUST A MAD
FOOL WHO BELIEVES IN
18th january 1983 - 26th january 1983
The series’ 20th anniversary season was conceived with the intention of looking back at the series’ past. Arc of Infinity introduced a new generation of viewers to Omega, a third of Ancient Gallifrey’s ruling triumvirate, now reduced to living as an anti-matter creature; the season’s centrepiece trilogy brought back the Black Guardian, not to mention a certain former Brigadier; and even The King’s Demons brought with it the Master. Snakedance, conversely, looked to the series’ much more recent past, heralding the return of the Mara from only the season before.
Whilst it would certainly be overstating matters to call the Mara’s debut serial, Kinda, any sort of success, it was outstanding in the truest sense. A sequel offered writer Christopher Bailey the opportunity to tell his story again, but this time pre-empt the many problems that had plagued it the first time around. This time, he would be writing for a Doctor that he had seen in action. He would be mindful of the limitations of the studio and the special effects. Most importantly of all though, he would shift the emphasis from the abstract to the relatable, relaying his story through a number of painfully-flawed protagonists instead of a quorum of bleached Buddhist avatars in a blackout.
So that Arc of Infinity could benefit from springtime weather for its extensive location shoot in Amsterdam, Snakedance was the first serial of Season 20 to be enter production. However, despite being entirely studio bound, the production feels every bit as lush and as expansive as the Rosse Buurt runaround. Rather than impose an alien jungle on the set designers, this time around Bailey gave them a barren desert. Rather than dream up robotic suits of armour, he littered his script with archaic helmets and swords. And, in a real coup, designer Malcolm Thornton was able to construct the Manussan Palace around expensive modern sets built for the previous year’s Song for Europe. The resultant look is gaudy and rococo, capturing the faded gentility of a once-proud Empire.
However, what really sets Snakedance apart is the quality of
the performances. Despite having to sport horrendous new outfits, Sarah Sutton and particularly Janet Fielding are both
on fine form. Fielding doesn’t quite match the intensity of her
Kinda performance, but it’s still a very memorable turn, and Sutton no doubt relished a Mara script that had her involved
in the action by the Doctor’s side. Meanwhile, Peter Davison’s
Doctor is handled with considerably more poise than he was
in Kinda, Bailey even daring to eschew the conventions of the
series and really make him work hard to garner the trust of the
Manussans. This encapsulates the fifth Doctor rather neatly,
showcasing both his innate weaknesses and the resilience
borne of them.
The serial’s supporting cast are even better handled. In the DVD’s flagship feature, Snake Charmer, new series writer Robert Shearman discusses how Snakedance inspired him to become an author, and, being a veteran of his two short story anthologies, I can really see shades of Shearman’s characters in Bailey’s. The cast of Snakedance are normal people who’ve either given up or been compromised - they don’t harbour lofty ideals or aspirations because they can’t afford to. We have a fortune teller who tells her punters what they want to hear, and a mother and son who do anything but lament the loss of their patriarch. Indeed, Colette O’Neil and Martin Clunes are absolutely superb as the deceased Federator’s wife and son. Clunes’ first television role is so often mocked thanks to his overblown 80s outfit, but his performance is wonderfully polished, constantly flitting between petulance and pity with commensurate aplomb.
John Carson’s Ambril is
even more memorable
still. The harried historian
begrudgingly carries half
the plot, the hilarity of his
sullen incredulity eclipsed
only by the unequivocal
signs that he’d rather be
anywhere else but here.
Brian Miller’s theatrical
performance should also
be mentioned – he may
be more famous for marrying the real-life Sarah Jane Smith than he is for his dazzling turn
as Dugdale, but I think both feats are equally noteworthy.
Snakedance only lets itself down in two areas, really. Firstly, its structure leaves a lot to be desired. The forced cliffhanger at the end of Part 3 is a case in point, as is the excision of several minutes’ material from the final episode, some of which appears on this DVD as a deleted scene, and the rest of which can be found in Part 1 of Mawdryn Undead! Secondly, having bamboozled viewers with his script for Kinda, this time around Bailey pushes things too far the other way. However “You mean I’m still possessed by the Mara from Deva Loka, the world of the Kinda…” made it to screen I have no idea.
In addition to the abovementioned bonus material, the DVD release also boasts a 15-minute clip from Saturday Superstore, which if nothing else pulls the horrors of Clunes’ and Sutton’s costumes into sharp perspective. There’s also an interesting little feature that explores how
a number of the serial’s special effects were achieved (“and when we say special, we mean special...”), and a typically buoyant commentary track featuring Davison, Sutton and Fielding that harbours such cruelly-amusing lines as the one I’ve just quoted.
Above: The special features on offer serve as the perfect complement to Snakedance
Overall, the Snakedance DVD comes highly recommended. The serial is unusual in that it seems to improve with each additional viewing, rather than become worn, and the special features on offer serve as the perfect complement. Don’t be put off by Robert Shearman’s comment that Snakedance is his favourite Doctor Who story – unlike The Space Museum that he defends, this one really is worth a look.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2007, 2011
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
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