Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Serial 124: Snakedance

Doctor: Peter Davison (5th Doctor)
Companions: Nyssa, Tegan

Written by: Christopher Bailey
Directed by: Fiona Cumming

Editor's Note: Hey, kids! Matt here! Not stepping in this week because I promised Cassandra a good story and because I had already decided I would be fine with "just" doing "Kinda" I [foolishly] promised her "Snakedance" before I had seen it. So she's in this week and I'm left angsting that I don't get to write it. Ah well. It was nice to watch it again (which I just finished doing. TMI?) and while I'm sad I don't get to tackle this story in a blog capacity, I have no doubt that Cassandra will do a bang up job because it's a rich, kick ass story with tons and tons of things to talk about. And hopefully it won't be in the vein of the epics we've been doing around these parts lately. God knows we don't need another "Kinda"-length entry any time soon. Last week's was long enough.

But I'm talking. I do that sometimes. Shutting up now and turning it over to Cassandra for her thoughts on the return of Christopher Bailey and Fiona Cumming.

Background & Significance:  There's something about sequels in Doctor Who.

Because television tends to be more serialized than movies, it's interesting whenever a TV show chooses to do a sequel, especially considering the more moder and character arc-centric approach inherent to its storytelling foundations. But with Doctor Who sequels, I tend to be pretty wary of them, because they're usually pretty rubbish. I mean, look at "Monster of Peladon".  Same writer, same director, same Doctor, same production team, different Companion, and somehow it managed to take a completely awesome story in "Curse of Peladon" and come up with... well, a crap sequel.

So when I heard that there was a sequel to "Kinda," I wasn't entirely sure what to think. And then we watched it.

And it was awesome.

"Snakedance" is significant because it is a sequel.  It was broadcast during Season 20, the 20th anniversary year of Doctor Who. JNT and Saward wanted the year to be epic, so each story in the season was designed to bring back an old adversary of the Doctor.  Of course, the Mara sort of sticks out like a sore thumb because it was just introduced in the previous season.  But I think that's why it's better than just about every other story in the season.  That, and Christopher Bailey is a boss at writing awesome things.

It's also pretty significant because of its cast, which is expertly wrangled together by director Fiona Cumming. Brian Miller, husband of Elisabeth Sladen, is in this story in the role of Dugdale, which is pretty awesome.  And it's the first television role of Martin Clunes (Lon), who is a prominent and award-winning actor in the UK, which I guess is kind of a big deal.

But enough of all that.  Let's take a closer look, shall we?


Part 1

Matt has been lamenting the decision to give me “Snakedance” for the past while, and, while it probably won’t be as good an entry as he could have done, I hope it is interesting and insightful and does the story justice.

Because this story certainly deserves it.

This first part is very interesting and effective, in my opinion, because it sets up everything you need to know about the story going forward, even though you might not realize it while watching.  The first shot of the entire serial is an old man surrounded by the wilderness of the desert with a crystal around his neck, which, as you may or may not know, is ultimately what the Doctor ends up seeking to defeat the Mara.  (But seriously, if you didn’t know that before reading this, what are you doing? Shame on you, looking at spoilers. Stop what you’re doing and go watch it right now. Go on.)   

The old man may not be elaborated on at all in this first part (though, if you are very clever, perhaps you are able to connect the conversation between Lon and his mother to this image of the old man that appears a few more times throughout the first episode), but the image has been planted for a future payoff and I think that’s a marvelous and really innovative way of drawing people in.  I really think a silent image like that is more effective at capturing the imagination and intrigue of an audience than having these two alien characters prattle on about something or another until we cut away to the Doctor and his companions elsewhere.  The two approaches elicit the same response: “What does this have to do with the Doctor? How and when do the two parties meet up? How does this contribute to this week’s adventure?” But I think the lone image is so much more elegant, introducing a component of the story in as minimalist a way possible, which provokes a more curious and engaged response out of the viewer than the other way, I think.  And it really makes use of television as a primarily visual medium; we’re being shown something, not told, and it’s so refreshing. A picture’s worth a thousand words, as they say, and I feel that definitely applies here.

It’s also indicative of the confidence of this script and its director, which is consistent throughout the entire episode.  Watching this episode, I’m reminded of Christopher Bailey’s strong writing abilities and why I love Fiona Cumming so much.  The dialogue is crisp (I especially enjoy the bantery conversation between Lon and his mother before they go to the cave, it’s great and almost masks the fact that it’s practically all exposition), the characters and even the planet of Manussa are fully-realized, the cast, acting, set design, and costumes are all wonderful. (Except Nyssa’s outfit. Seriously. What is that? I don’t even know.)

I really think this first part, at least, does everything right.  The opening shot intrigues and mystifies us, we have a mystery on the TARDIS that, by the end of the episode, blossoms into the return of a known and very dangerous adversary, we have interesting characters on a beautifully realized and portrayed alien planet, a bit of fun run-around, and a pretty decent cliffhanger.  What’s not to love?

And I love how everything builds in this.  The Doctor identifies the Mara as a threat early on, which I think is a great choice; especially in a sequel, where we’re dealing with a monster that we’ve encountered fairly recently.  Instead of saving the reveal of the Mara for later, namechecking it within the first five minutes (with Tegan’s dream imagery, Lon and Tanha’s conversation, and finally the Doctor’s acknowledging its presence in Tegan’s head) gives the episode something to build towards, and provides some suspense, tension, and stakes.  We know the Mara is looking for a way to get out and possess Tegan again, but we don’t know when it's going to happen, and that’s why we’ll keep watching.  Which is pretty ingenious, if you ask me.  Add to that the fact that we just encountered the Mara in the previous season, as opposed to the recent return of the Cybermen in “Earthshock” or Omega in “Arc of Infinity”, both of whom were last seen years and years ago, and you’ve got yourself a pretty effective sequel and episode that takes the concepts introduced in “Kinda” and builds on them, instead of just being useless callbacks and fanwank.

I can already tell this is probably going to be a fairly long entry, but I just wanted to mention our principle cast for a moment before moving on.  It’s always a delight watching a Davison story, and I love how panicked he is throughout this first episode, right up from the beginning and only ever getting more frantic as the episode goes on.  It’s a great touch and, as Philip Sandifer over at his blog TARDIS Eruditorum points out, only contributes to people on Manussa being reluctant to believe or help him. To the Manussans, the Mara is a centuries-old legend and a cultural touchstone; so for the Doctor to be raving about how it’s real and returning, of course they write him off as crazy.  It’s equivalent to someone coming up to you and insisting that Zeus or some other mythological being has possessed their friend.  Would you believe them and help them out, let alone give them the time of day or make eye contact?  I know I wouldn’t.

And so the Doctor has this huge challenge to face seemingly all alone but for Nyssa. Which isn’t much help anyway, since Nyssa loses Tegan in the market, thanks to those cool toy snakes.  I know Nyssa can be fairly useless sometimes, but I really like her, and I wish they’d given her better material.  She doesn’t do a whole lot in this first part, but I do like how she keeps scolding the Doctor whenever he bothers Tegan about her nightmare.  It’s an interesting touch, and shows us that there is a person in there; clearly she doesn’t like the Doctor picking on Tegan, or their bickering, and attempts to put some kind of a stop to his badgering her.  Then again, you could argue that she does so because she doesn’t understand the full import and threat of the Mara, but whatever, I’m choosing to see it as a character moment for her.

And Tegan… Well, I’ll save her for the next part.

Part 2

I’m jealous of this story.  I wish I could write like this.

This keeps up the momentum established in the first part and builds on it in such a way that, though not a whole lot really happens (aside from Tegan, of course), it still flies by and I find myself completely engrossed.  The majority of the narrative is dominated by Tegan at this point, but the Doctor still gets a chance to shine through some humorous moments, from the beginning of the episode with the little comedic beat where he and Nyssa are trying to open the door of the TARDIS, to pointing out the Six Faces of Delusion to Ambril and pissing him off.

I’ve read complaints about how ineffective Davison’s Doctor can be, but I think it works here.  I like to see him panicked and scrambling for information and answers before ultimately saving the day at the end.  And as I mentioned before, to have the Doctor obtain assistance so easily from the Manussans would be unbelievable and disingenuous to the story.  I like that the Mara is the sort of monster that the Doctor needs to work to defeat, instead of the solution coming to him easily.  I like that he has to scrounge around for any sort of scrap of relevant information concerning the Mara and its return, and I like how the most knowledgeable person (Ambril) refuses to help him out because he thinks the Doctor is straight up crazy.  It’s a nice change of pace and really forces the Doctor to be resourceful.

But he’s not totally without allies, and the Doctor’s meeting with Ambril does begin to bring Ambril’s assistant Chela around to the Doctor’s cause.  I know Chela’s not really a player in this yet, I just wanted to mention how adorable he is. (Seriously, you guys, he is so freaking adorable.)

So I guess now’s a good time to talk about Tegan.

I’ve mentioned before how I’m not a fan of Tegan.  I think she’s a horrible companion; I can understand the concept of her as a foil for the Doctor, but the execution of the concept is dreadful. 

But “Kinda” and “Snakedance” make me love Tegan in ways that I never would have thought possible.  And it’s such a shame that there aren’t any other truly effective uses of Tegan during her time as a companion (in my opinion, anyway, feel free to point out others in the comments and persuade me why they work), because I really think they had the potential to make her awesome instead of a whiny bitch.

The reason I like Tegan so much in this is because these two stories actually utilize her and turn her from a companion into the villain.  She’s supposed to be a foil for the Doctor?  Okay, let’s take that to the extreme and turn her into the antagonist.  It’s even more interesting and layered because Tegan is still in there, but she’s possessed, which makes it all the more terrifying and allows us to sympathize at the same time.  We’re not rooting for the villain, we’re rooting for the companion trapped in her own mind.  And I think that’s genius, because Bailey takes a largely unlikeable, whiny, nagging companion and somehow turns her into someone we’re able to feel sorry for, to root for. 

It also doesn’t hurt that when she’s possessed by the Mara, Janet Fielding is able to pull it off and come off as a total badass.  And I love me some badass female characters, especially even when they are evil.

I’m interested in the symbolism and imagery of this story as well.  It’s interesting to me how there’s this conflicting influence of Eastern and Western religious beliefs, specifically Buddhism and Judeo-Christianity.  In “Kinda” there was plenty of imagery evocative of the Garden of Eden: Eve (Tegan) being corrupted by the Snake and going on to corrupt man in the form of Aris.  That imagery continues in “Snakedance,” what with all the snakes, and Tegan once again corrupting and passing on the Mara to Lon.  Though I’m not quite sure what to make of it, why the Mara needs both a man and a woman to do its bidding.  I suppose it’s because Lon is a local and knows about the Great Crystal and all that, which serves to further the plot, but I think it goes deeper than that.  Perhaps, because the Mara is a creature of collective thought, it needs more than one vessel to serve it and help it on its way to manifesting in the physical.  And, of course, there’s the straightforward symbolism of a man and a woman working together to bring something into the world.

So there’s the Mara imagery that is grounded in Judeo-Christian philosophy, and the opposing symbolism of Buddhism, which isn’t as straightforward, but it’s there.  The planet’s name, Manussa, comes from a Buddhist term meaning “the human realm,” Tanha translates to “craving,” Dugdale (the hall of mirrors dude) comes from a word meaning “unhappy existence,” and Dojjen (the man in the desert and Ambril’s predecessor) comes from Dogen, a Zen master who lived in medieval Japan.  Now, that’s no accident.  And I can’t speak for Bailey’s intentions in seemingly pitting these two philosophies against each other in “Snakedance,” but I think it’s a fascinating blend of imagery and meanings that contribute to the richness of this culture that is being portrayed in this serial.  So often we get alien worlds that are generic and underdeveloped, only going so far as to further the plot, but, as I mentioned earlier, Bailey goes to the trouble of fully fleshing out this culture, and does so in a way that it is not skull-crushingly boring whenever people talk about the particulars and mythology of the planet, because it also contributes to the story at large.  Which is so clever.  Make the driving force behind the story (driving the Mara out of Tegan and defeating it) grounded in the mythology of the alien planet, and you have a perfectly legitimate reason to explore said mythology.  Why don’t people do this all the time?  It’s glorious.

Anyway, I’ve rambled enough on this for now. Onward!

Part 3

If there’s one thing wrong with this story, it’s this part.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I love this story, and I think it’s great.  But we can’t all be perfect.  And part threes are difficult to pull off well.  So it languishes a bit here; it feels like the narrative wants to push forward but it’s being held back in a very noticeable way.  Namely, the Doctor and Nyssa being locked up in a prison cell for literally the entire episode.  Though I do think it’s funny how they hang a lantern on the situation by having Nyssa lament over the loss of the Sonic Screwdriver.  But then again, this forces the Doctor to be resourceful and rely on the information that’s been finally given him (and becomes one of those nifty ads for reading you see in the library all the time in the process).

But, with the Doctor all locked up, The Mara has a chance to move all of its pieces into play.  And the most important piece in the Mara’s plan is The Great Crystal.  So that’s its focus for this part: getting to the Great Crystal.  And who’s the keeper of the Crystal?  Ambril.

Something about Ambril that I just noticed while watching this part (and the fact that in the opening credits, the stars fill in Davison’s face gradually. Mind = blown.) is that Ambril’s outfit in this episode looked familiar to me, but I couldn’t place it.  And then I did some searching on Google, and I realized that Ambril’s costume was extremely reminiscent of a Catholic bishop’s house cassock, what with the black and the purple sashes.  I’m not Catholic, but I’ve seen the outfit before, and it niggled at me until I was able to place it.  What strikes me as particularly interesting is how closely Ambril’s outfit resembles that of a clergyman, especially in a story that is already filled with religious imagery.  As the last roadblock between the Mara and the Great Crystal, Ambril so far has been portrayed as an upstanding, rational man who’s insisted time and time again that the Crystal is safe.  But it’s also known that Ambril is super into Sumaran artifacts, and so that’s how the Mara chooses to tempt him.  And it ends up working.  Granted, there’s some blackmail involved, but because of his greed for knowledge and the prestige of discovering a find of this caliber, he is willing to give up the Crystal, even though he knows he’s not supposed to.  I just think it’s interesting that a man evoking the image of a high-ranking Church official is not immune to the temptation of the Mara, and is corrupted just like everyone else.

So all is lost!  But that old guy in the middle of the desert is popping up again, so perhaps the Zen Master will be instrumental in the defeat of the Mara (spoilers, he totally is).

It’s striking how much symbolism plays a part in this story, from the imagery, to the names, to the notion that the Mara is itself a symbol made real through the combined mental energies focused by the Great Mind’s Eye.  There’s even a puppet show in this episode, which is the epitome of symbolic storytelling techniques.  All of this symbolism contributes even further to the realism of this alien planet and culture, mirroring the Mara, really.  The Mara was a thought, a symbol made real and tangible, just like this planet and its characters are developing to nearly the point of awesome realism on the screen.

Too bad this ends with a pretty standard and lameish cliffhanger, complete with needlessly screaming Companion.  And Tegan’s snake tattoo is becoming super gross and inflamed, you may wanna have that checked out, girl.

Part 4

So this is a pretty great episode to cap this pretty great story (and hopefully good entry).

Of course, the resolution to the cliffhanger is pretty lame and standard, but what can you do. The beginning of the episode aside, however, I think this does an excellent job of wrapping up the story and everything that’s been planted for payoff in the preceding three parts.

Can I just once again point out how wonderful these celebratory customs are?  It’s honestly breathtaking how much thought and care went into developing this planet, its people, and its beliefs.  I love that, even in the last episode, we have time to pause and get further insight into the celebration of the Mara’s destruction, what with the guy dressed as a demon collecting coins from the unwary.  It’s glorious and an easy concept to pick up; it’s awfully reminiscent of Halloween, isn’t it?  Dressing up as evil things, collecting sweets, celebrating the fear annually?  To the people on Manussa, this celebration is nothing but a fun custom, which underscores even more the dire nature of the Doctor’s task; how can he communicate the seriousness of the threat at hand when everyone is too busy having fun and celebrating the myth?

Luckily, he’s finally got assistance and an ally in the form of Chela, who he brought over to his side in the last part.  I love how long it takes the Doctor to get help, though.  It’s realistic and brings out just how absurd the Doctor sounds to these people, blabbering on about the return of the Mara when it’s nothing more than a legend and a scary story to frighten children. 

But not to the Snakedancers, whom we’ve heard people talk about in the past three parts, but haven’t really seen just yet, with the exception of the passing images of Dojjen in the desert.  I like how the people the Doctor needs to get help from are scattered all over the desert and are generally regarded as hacks and superstitious crazies.  And I like how there’s been all this build up to the Doctor finally interacting with the Snakedancers in the form of Dojjen.  When they interact and Dojjen reveals to the Doctor the secret to defeating the Mara, it’s very cathartic, and a potentially boring mental exchange between these two guys becomes extremely important and engaging.

Honestly, I’m just so impressed with the various ways Bailey is able to engage his audience and keep them interested in the story in the midst of all this esoteric stuff and symbolism.  It’s lovely, because the plot itself is straightforward enough for children to understand, but the layers of meaning and different concepts are also there to be picked up by a more mature audience.  It treats its audience as intelligent and doesn’t pander, but it’s also incredibly simple.  And I like that.  There’s no need to be ridiculously complicated.  And since the plot is so simple (get the Mara out of Tegan and defeat it), it allows for the extra layers of goodness.

I’m not completely sure what to make of the conflicting philosophies/religions in this story, though.  Dojjen is overwhelmingly Buddhist in his philosophy and solution to the problem.  He meditates and insists that the way to defeat the Mara resides within the self, which is how the Doctor does ultimately defeat it.  So you have the Judeo-Christian imagery on the one hand, being vanquished by Buddhist philosophy on the other.  I guess you could say it’s fairly straightforward, that Bailey subscribes to a more Eastern approach and uses this story as a vehicle for his views, but I don’t think that’s it at all.  At least, not completely.  You can’t necessarily ascribe everything that is presented in a story and pin it on the writer like that’s what he is or thinks.  So I’m puzzled by it, and I don’t have a clear cut answer as to why there is all this imagery and what the end game means, but I think it contributes to the familiarity of this planet and adds another avenue by which we can access the culture, since it is rooted in two of humanity’s most prominent religions.

I once took this ritual and religion class a couple years ago, and we talked a lot about symbols and rituals and what they mean and how they are a form of communication in the various cultures and all that; there was a lot of reading of boring and complicated articles that people typically don’t read til grad school, and I’ll spare you all the potentially scholarly thoughts I may have rocketing around in my brain, but I think the reason this story is super interesting and seems to be dripping with detail to me is because of that class (and because it just is).  Especially the ritual that is portrayed in this part, and how the Mara hijacks it to its own ends… I have all these half-formed thoughts.  Like how this culture is big on symbolic storytelling, basically reenacting the destruction of the Mara as a means of not only remembering, but keeping record and communicating the legend to others.  We saw something similar to this in the silly puppet show in the previous part, so I like how it’s so thorough and the ritual has precedent in this society, not coming out of nowhere to serve the story, but coming organically from what we've already seen portrayed. 

I also think it’s interesting that the Three Temptations that are mentioned in the ritual are basically reflected in the three people who fall to the Mara’s power: Tegan, Lon, and Dugdale (and Ambril, by extension).  The first temptation is fear, which is how the Mara takes control of Tegan’s mind; Tegan runs away from Nyssa because she is frightened, and so she ends up removing the white noise machine thing and falls under the Mara’s power.  Lon despairs of the necessary formality of him being here on this planet, which is reflected in his disdain and boredom leading up to his being summoned; you could say that he goes to Tegan as a result of this boredom.  Dugdale is involved in all of this as a result of his greed, and so becomes a mindless slave and hangs out with Tegan for the duration of the story.  Ambril, while not under the direct influence of the Mara, complies with Lon’s demands to use the Great Crystal also because of his greed—not for money, but knowledge and prestige.

And of course, fear seems to be the most powerful of these temptations, since Dojjen points out to the Doctor during the mental connection that “fear is the only venom.”  Fear is what the Mara feeds off of in the cave, and the Doctor’s refusal to submit to that fear is what ultimately defeats it.  And how appropriate is it that fear is the most potent of these temptations and the root of the Mara’s power on a show like Doctor Who, one that is known for its monsters and the ability to cause children to hide behind the couch out of sheer terror?  

It just makes sense that the Doctor, our hero, is the one able to overcome the fear and ultimately defeat the Mara.  After all, it’s basically what happens in virtually every Doctor Who story ever. 

Final Thoughts?: Goddamn.

Guys, if you couldn't tell from my crazy ramblings up there, "Snakedance" is ridiculously good.  It's superbly written, directed, cast, acted, everything.  I know I haven't talked a lot about the direction of this story because there is so much else to talk about and, if you must know, I'm more interested in writing than I am directing, but Fiona Cumming knocked this out of the ballpark.  All of her shots are so interesting and effective and gorgeous.  And the production and costume design of this are beautiful.

It's just a treat to watch. Which is saying something, because you all know how much I love Davison stories (I love Davison stories a lot a lot a lot, by the way).  There's nothing quite like having so many good things combine to create something that is so thought-provoking, entertaining, haunting, and just over-all awesome.

I just... I'm completely gobsmacked at how good this is. I wish that this caliber of storytelling was the norm for this show instead of the exception.  But, I suppose if it weren't the exception, it wouldn't stand out as phenomenally as it does.

Next Time!: Second Doctor! Jamie and Zoe! Crazy robot things! Alien planets! Human sacrifices! Brainwashing! And Robert the Goddamn Holmes! Matt's back next week with his review of "The Krotons"! Coming next Tuesday!


  1. Never seen it, but I REALLY want to after this glowing review. I can't stand Tegan, so when I hear that this serial somewhat redeems her, I'm very interested. I hate not liking the companions.

    Love the giant snake head cavern thingy too :)

    1. Finally seen it, and I totally agree - this was an absolute joy, I lived it start to finish! All the Manussan characters are fabulous - the dialogue is sparklingthe sets and costumes are fantastic - you're right, this is one of the most believable worlds presented on DW - magnificent. And yeah, Tegan wasn't super annoying, so bonus! But Nyssa's dress really is the most hideous thing I think I've ever seen ;)

  2. Another wonderful review :)

    I just finished Snakedance and although I do not share all of your praise I think it is a great serial. Snakedance was the missing piece in the Mara trilogy and now the crystal references in The Cradle of the Snake (Big Finish audio) finally make perfect sense.

    What I also liked about Snakedance were the hints of possession as in Tegan's red teeth and face, later Lon's and Dugdale's faces.

    1. Hahaha! Oh man! I can't even imagine listening to Cradle of the Snake without Snakedance. That musta been a tad confuzzling...