Snakedance ★★

An early role for Martin Clunes and the return of the serpentine Mara in a limp sequel to Kinda

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Season 20 – Story 124

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“It’s using her dreams to increase its power. Eventually it will take over her mind altogether” – the Doctor

Storyline
Controlled once more by the Mara, Tegan steers the Tardis to Manussa, where a festival is celebrating the monster’s banishment five centuries earlier. The Mara uses the Federator’s son, Lon, and Tegan to acquire a crystal that will return it to the physical world. After escaping from prison for challenging Lon’s authority, the Doctor and Nyssa must locate a sage called Dojjen who predicted the Mara’s revival…

First transmissions
Part 1 – Tuesday 18 January 1983
Part 2 – Wednesday 19 January 1983
Part 3 – Tuesday 25 January 1983
Part 4 – Wednesday 26 January 1983

Production
Filming: March 1982 at Ealing Studios
Studio recording: April 1982 in TC6

Cast
The Doctor – Peter Davison
Tegan – Janet Fielding
Nyssa – Sarah Sutton
Ambril – John Carson
Tanha – Colette O’Neil
Dojjen – Preston Lockwood
Lon – Martin Clunes
Chela – Johnathon Morris
Dugdale – Brian Miller
Fortune teller – Hilary Sesta
Hawker – George Ballantine
Puppeteer – Barry Smith
Megaphone man – Brian Grellis

Crew
Writer – Christopher Bailey
Incidental music – Peter Howell
Designer – Jan Spoczynski
Script editor – Eric Saward
Producer – John Nathan-Turner
Director – Fiona Cumming

RT Review by Mark Braxton
There is no hard and fast rule to Doctor Who “sequels”, except for one that says some work and others don’t. For every Web of Fear, for example, there’s a Monster of Peladon. But which category does Snakedance fall into?

Well, this four-parter, a follow-up to the previous season’s Kinda, is a firm fan favourite. Maybe it’s because of the familiar elements: the quest for a blue crystal and its bespoke receptacle in a cave recall Planet of the Spiders. (When Tegan commands: “I need the great crystal” I kept expecting the Great One to reply, “I thirst for it! I ache for it!”) And former producer Barry Letts would have nodded benignly at the clear Buddhist parallels.

But here we have snakes and not spiders. More thought and a lot less action. Christopher Bailey juggles a multitude of stimulating ideas: dreams versus reality; science and superstition; self-satisfied materialism v impoverished inner peace…

But where Kinda had bravura performances and genuinely unsettling moments, here the coils of plot and subtext hang rather limply, while the narrative sometimes speaks with a forked tongue.

But Janet Fielding again has something to get her teeth into. Her anxiety is heartbreaking when she asks, “I’m still possessed aren’t I, Doctor?” And her deep-voiced Mara incarnation is once more a startling departure from the familiar Aussie whine.

It’s a poor start, in anyone’s book: an old man squats in front of a watercolour wilderness… Nyssa shows off a hideous outfit culled from a church bazaar… a young man with dressing gown (and lippy) swans around in an 80s idea of sci-fi decadence.

More startling is Tegan’s nightmare, the zoom into a snake’s mouth and our realisation that the Mara has reawakened. Under the Doctor’s hypnosis, Tegan regresses to her six-year-old self – this is all good stuff, and it sparks a real curiosity as to how the ragbag of characters and settings will knit together.

The fact that it doesn’t, in any way that convinces, is a shame. But it’s representative of a show that often went through the motions during this period. Take the episode three/four crossover: Lon orders his guards to kill the Doctor, Chela and Nyssa. There’s a scream… “No!” cries Lon’s mother. So they don’t.

It’s insultingly bad.

That lack of genuine jeopardy, pace or thrills characterises the story as a whole. The guest turns are all solid. Much has already been written about Martin Clunes but he’s fine as the indolent, permanently bored Lon. It’s not his fault that he was dressed in New Romantic cast-offs.

But neither he, nor Johnathon “Bread” Morris’s Chela, nor John Carson’s Ambril register as real people, or memorable creations.

The Doc’s communing with the Dojjen should, you feel, be more of an event. It puts one in mind of the “daisiest daisy” monk of The Time Monster, or Time Lord guru K’anpo from Planet of the Spiders (again). But because we don’t know enough about the old sage here, we simply don’t care.

It’s a stretch to understand quite why Snakedance is so beloved. It’s competent, and colourful enough – the whole shebang bursts into occasional life with the impressively peopled carnival – and Fiona Cumming directs the surreal possession scenes with flair. But the haste with which the climax is rattled through suggests John Nathan-Turner wanted to move on to the next story as soon as possible.

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Radio Times archive material

A short piece on Johnathon Morris and RT billings

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[Available on BBC DVD]