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Doctor Who complete reviews: Snakedance

REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO

Tegan's not herself, but it may be her finest hour...

Snakedance

Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. There's no escaping from your nightmares. Dreams are like a lottery. On a lucky day, you'll find that you've just come into loads of money, moved into a swanky mansion with a gold-plated swimming pool and quaffed the most expensive champagne that money can buy for breakfast, dinner and tea. On a bad day, however, it's the pits, as you will either be forced to confront your darkest fears or face the prospect of a grisly, hideous death that's on a par with the demise of the Nazi baddies in Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

So spare a thought for poor old Teabag, who's drawn the short straw in dreams. She's having several nightmares about her slithering nemesis, the Mara, who's back for more in Snakedance.

It was inevitable that the Mara would stage a return, given The Doctor's non-answer to Teabag's hopes that she was free of the force in Kinda. This time around, Teabag bears the brunt of the Mara's ire far more violently, with the endgame of manifesting the snake at a tacky ceremony on the planet Manussa.

Sequels in Doctor Who are generally hard to pull off, especially if the first one was a bonafide classic. Given that Kinda was so good, a lot is demanded of Snakedance, but luckily, it's equally as strong as its predecessor, and a notable improvement on the lacklustre Arc Of Infinity. Snakedance may be more of a straight-ahead adventure tale than Kinda, and it may lack the surreal elements that marked that story out, but it's still a highly dramatic, exciting piece of Who that has plenty of interesting things to say about belief vs. materialism. It's also just as claustrophobic in its own way as Kinda - there's a rather queasy, ominous air about Snakedance, whether Teabag's summoning skulls in crystal balls or whether poor old Ambril rues the day that he doesn't take spoilt brat Lon seriously enough.

The clever thing about Snakedance is that it takes place in an environment that's totally different to the Deva Loka jungle - but the people of Manussa are just as backward as the Kinda tribe. Most of the characters in Snakedance are wealthy, over-privileged oiks who walk around in their own superficial little bubbles. There's Lon, the lazy, bored son of the unseen Federator, who's as pampered and selfish as they come. He even tries the trick of pulling the "Don't you know who I am?" routine when taking hapless showman Dugdale down a peg or two. Forever seeking fun and excitement for free, Lon's Christmases all come at once when he's summoned by Teabag, but it's very much a case of "Be careful what you wish for" as he too is taken over by the Mara.

"It's not the easiest of tasks for Martin Clunes, given that he's required to stomp about in way too much make-up, speak in a terribly posh voice and at one point dress up in what appears to be a 10-year-old girl's frock and an antique teapot"

Snakedance (Doctor Who, 1982)Lon is of course played by Martin Clunes, still a familiar face on TV today in the likes of Doc Martin and Reggie Perrin. It's not the easiest of tasks for Clunes, given that he's required to stomp about in way too much make-up, speak in a terribly posh voice and at one point dress up in what appears to be a 10-year-old girl's frock and an antique teapot. No wonder he took the role of the laddish Gary in Men Behaving Badly. However, the silly make-up and costumes are irrelevant, since Clunes' performance is first-rate - he may be known for his many comedy roles these days, but Snakedance proves that Clunes can do drama just as effectively. Lon is very much a nasty piece of work, even before he's taken over by the Mara, and Clunes conveys that twisted superiority to a tee.

Snakedance (Doctor Who, 1982)Who else do we have? There's the equally pampered Lady Tanha, all OTT make-up, bling and fancy clothes - in today's world, she'd be one of those socialite-style irritants, who spend their time going to swanky parties and being photographed at their poncy homes for a centre spread for one of the shallow glossies. Excellent performance from Colette O'Neil though, and the same goes for John Carson as the over-fussy Ambril. Ambril's a singularly pompous oaf, and just about the most boring man on the planet. Forever eulogising and droning on about any given subject, Ambril is a walking insomnia cure. Give him an exciting subject to talk about such as the first man on the moon or the 1966 World Cup final, and you can bet your bottom dollar that Ambril will reduce these to beige sludge.

The common denominator (apart from all three being totally unlikeable) among these characters is that they run such superficial, pointless lives, and judging by the rest of the Manussans, this seems to be a common thing. This over-reliance on glitz and polish makes the ceremony of the banishment of the Mara a ripe target for the snake's comeback. The ceremony itself is ridiculous as a bellowing man screeches joyless banalities into a megaphone while leading a procession of giddy Manussans and a giant cuddly toy snake prop. Lon is then asked to participate in a phoney ritual in which he renounces fear and greed through withered branches and handfuls of dust. It's only when Lon smashes the fake crystal that the ceremony is seen as a sham, full of fake posturing and pointless tradition by a society that has "gone soft". Hmmmm, quite what Christopher Bailey was trying to say here is an interesting one. You could argue that it's a comment on the increasingly superficial lifestyle of the 1980s, what with the yuppies and the over-reliance on pointless material goods. And with most people walking around in their own worlds, it's possible that Bailey was making a subtle dig at those who missed the bigger picture, and how learning and knowledge weren't prized so much.

"With its Buddhist influences, the themes of Snakedance may be too close to Planet Of The Spiders for its own good, but the message is still just as important"

Dojjen in 'Snakedance' (Doctor Who, 1982)This is seen in the treatment of two characters in Snakedance. One is Dojjen, the scraggy old hippy who's dismissed as a crank for his warnings about the Mara. The other is of course, The Doctor. I've moaned in previous reviews about how the Fifth Doctor was sometimes seen as an ineffectual presence and not taken seriously enough by others. That's exactly the case here, but in this instance, it's perfectly in context. We all know that The Doctor's warnings about the Mara are for real, but the Manussans pass him off as an idiot and throw him into a dungeon. Even when he's allowed to speak, Tanha and Ambril dismiss his claims as arrant nonsense. Looking at the bigger picture and offering views that challenge the norm are evidently not welcome on Manussa. Or maybe they're secretly laughing at The Doctor's mullet, which is in danger of reaching Michael Bolton-esque proportions.

Bailey takes this notion one step further by saying that people's fear, ignorance and negativity actually create the Mara and allow it safe passage. Look at the end sequence in which the Manussan crowds are huddled together in one shaking mass before the growing Mara - it's only The Doctor who overcomes his fear and finds the "still point" within himself to allow him to save the day. With its Buddhist influences, the themes of Snakedance may be too close to Planet Of The Spiders for its own good (The Doctor faces his fears to defeat an overgrown creature with delusions of grandeur), but the message is still just as important.

"Altogether, this is Janet Fielding's best performance, but paradoxically, it shows that she's wasted in the thankless role of the moaning Teabag"

Janet Fielding as Tegan Jovanka in 'Snakedance' (Doctor Who, 1982)Even with all this intellectual food for thought, Snakedance is one cracking tale. And for once, stealing the show is Janet Fielding as the possessed Teabag. I don't know, JNT missed a trick when he cast Fielding - she would have made for a much better recurring baddie, since she does gruesome evil very very well. Take the end of part one - on paper, it sounds crap: Teabag laughs evilly at a trembling fortune teller as a Mara skull shatters her crystal ball. But on screen, it's oddly one of the most effective cliffhangers of the Davison years. It's thanks to a number of things - the direction from Fiona Cumming (more on her in a minute), who uses cool video effects and dramatic camera angles to heighten the tension; that eerie, ominous rising/falling score from Peter Howell; and of course, Fielding's chilling performance - in fact, Fielding is one of the select few who can go "Bwa-ha-ha-haaaahhh!!" and not make it sound like a cheap panto. Altogether, this is Janet Fielding's best performance, but paradoxically, it shows that she's wasted in the thankless role of the moaning Teabag.

As mentioned, Fiona Cumming's direction is strike one, and again, Snakedance proves that she's most at home when helming the more imaginative, mystical style of story. She's responsible for several effective setpieces, including the aforementioned cliffhanger, the 'hall of mirrors' scene and the memorable climax. The costuming and especially the design work from Ken Trew and Jan Spoczynski respectively are outstanding, and lend the production a high-budget, glossy sheen. And again, Peter Howell proves that he's the top dog among the Radiophonic Workshop composers - the Mara screech is the icing on the cake in Snakedance's atmospheric score.

Snakedance achieves the near-impossible - a sequel that's the equal of its illustrious predecessor. It contains a thought-provoking but accessible script. It's directed with great style. The acting's of the highest standard (even the lesser roles like Chela and Dugdale are acted well by Johnathon "Bread" Morris and Brian "Mr Elisabeth Sladen" Miller). The production values are stunning. If you want to get your mitts on a Doctor Who DVD in 2011, then you won't go far wrong with the Mara Tales boxset, which is overdue for an airing in the Spring, apparently. The Mara may be gone forever (death by strawberry blancmange), but in only two adventures, it makes its mark as one of the most memorable evils in the 1980s.

 

John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.

Check out John's previous Doctor Who review, Arc Of Infinity

Read more Doctor Who articles at Shadowlocked


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