Faith Keeps them Safe in ‘Doctor Who: Snakedance’

“Snakedance” concerns a culture which celebrates its history but is oblivious to its meaning. On the surface the story is simply a rehash of the previous year’s “Kinda”, as it was written by the same writer, Christopher Bailey, and again features Tegan (Janet Fielding) possessed by the evil entity called the Mara. “Snakedance” succeeds where “Kinda” failed, however, by tying its various plot lines together and creating a thoughtful, exciting story with a devastating ending.

The Doctor (Peter Davison) and his companions Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) and Tegan arrive on the planet Manussa where a festival is about to begin celebrating the 500th anniversary of the vanquishing of the Mara. Tegan suffers a series of nightmares as the Mara reasserts itself in her mind, and she soon enlists a bored young aristocrat named Lon (Martin Clunes) to help bring about the Mara’s return. The people of Manussa tell stories of the Mara’s return, but they’re believed only to be myths. The Doctor knows better of course, but he’s locked away for being a madman as the Mara’s plans begin to take shape.

In “Kinda” Davison was often on the sidelines, but here he’s wonderful, running around warning the Manussans of impending doom like a time-traveling Glenn Beck. Fielding, too, is put to much better use here, with the Mara actually possessing Tegan for more than just a few short scenes. There are several callbacks to the earlier Mara story, including the paper mache snake of “Kinda”’s disappointing climax. Street performers in the Manussan market parade around with a snake puppet that recalls the dragons of Chinese festivals.

Tegan, as possessed by the Mara, is the story’s ultimate villain, but her bidding is done by Lon. His boredom and disinterest in his heritage is cured by the idea of destroying it. Clunes’ Lon is a mixture of snobbery and smug indifference, the kind of perfect performance that makes you want to jump through the screen and smack the guy.

The earlier episodes are punctuated by strange scenes of a withered old man sitting between two stones in the middle of a vast desert. These scenes hang over the whole story, repeating throughout like a mantra. We later learn this is Dojjen (Preston Lockwood), former chief archaeologist of the Manussan government and expert on the time of the Mara. He’s a believer in the stories of the Mara’s return, and has gone into self-imposed exile to prepare his mind to face the creature. Dojjen becomes the Doctor’s “Yoda”, if you will, and teaches him how to stop the Mara’s return.

The snakedance of the title was inspired, according to writer Christopher Bailey, by the snake handlers of certain Christian denominations in the United States. According to their beliefs, faith keeps them safe from the snake’s bite, and so it is on Manussa. Dojjen’s exile provides him clarity of mind to drive the Mara out. “It is all the dance,” he tells the Doctor. “To destroy the Mara you must find the still point.”

“Snakedance” end as a negative reflection of its precursor. In “Kinda” the Mara is undone by its own reflection, but here the creature draws strength from the fear brought on as the Manussans see it. The Doctor doesn’t look, and it’s his refusal that causes the Mara’s permanent demise. The story closes with Tegan sobbing in the Doctor’s arms, a powerful, devastating ending.

Bonus features include a Peter Davison interview from the British kid’s show Saturday Morning Superstore that features awkward phone questions from viewers and prizes like autographed Musical Youth records. Davison is very charming throughout, and even plays a little cricket with host Mike Reid.

Also included is “Snakecharmer”, a making-of that details writer Christopher Bailey’s frustration with the result of “Kinda” and his determination to improve upon it. Also, current Doctor Who writer and superfan Robert Shearman discusses his love for the story, saying that “Kinda” was bolder, but “Snakedance” is better, more human.

RATING 8 / 10