Sunday, 11 October 2009

Doctor Who: Snakedance

Part One

“The Federator’s son is bored.”

This is the first time I’ve had to resort to video again, after a stream of DVDs, since Kinda. Is there some kind of anti-Christopher Bailey conspiracy going on?

The story begins with perhaps the most jaw-dropping moment yet to be seen in 1980s Doctor who: Nyssa has actually changed her clothes! Of course, the Doctor doesn’t notice, to Nyssa’s resigned irritation. Nice little subtle character moment, that. Nyssa has a lot more personality these days than she used to.

We can now add Tegan to the list of TARDISeers whose bedrooms we’ve seen! So let’s see: that’s Romana, Nyssa, Adric, the Doctor and now Tegan. Is that it, or will we eventually see even more? Stay tuned, for you may be surprised and delighted, unless of course the memory cheats.

Anyway, the Mara’s at it again inside Tegan’s subconscious. Meanwhile, on the planet of cheap ‘80s proto-IKEA décor, Lon, son of the unseen Federator, is lounging around being bored. He’s a brilliant character, perfectly radiating the self-indulgent ennui of unearned privilege and a total lack of responsibilities. I’m no fan of that wretched sitcom Martin Clunes is best known for, but he’s great here.

This scene also provides some much-needed exposition on the Mara’s destruction five hundred years ago, the role of the Federation in this and his predicted return, also briefly alluding to the snakedancers. All this is admirably imparted in ways which sketch out for us the personalities of Tanha, Lon and Ambril.

For all the competence of the script, though it’s a shame about the sets. It’s not the cheapness I mind- this is Doctor Who after all- but the lack of imagination. The design of everything on this supposedly alien planet, with what is apparently meant to be a less advanced level of technological development than our own, just looks contemporary.

The Doctor reveals himself to warn Tanha, Lon and Ambril of the Mara but, again, this Doctor is not accepted as his predecessors probably would have been. Instead his warning is seen not just as the rantings of a crank, but worse, those of a harmless one, no more than a minor irritation. We’ve never quite seen the Doctor receive this reaction before. As Lon says, “No, let them go. What’s the point?”

Part Two

“Are you just going to lie there being bored?”

“Yes, I rather suspect I am. After all, what else is there to do?”

The scene with the mask, and its “six faces of delusion”, is a nice touch, although it shows Ambril to be rather a poor archaeologist to have missed seeing something so obvious. But worryingly, although this is still a good episode, nothing new is really developed. It’s becoming apparent that this isn’t going to be as good as Kinda- the plotting and characterisation is as competently done as before, but thematically there’s nowhere near as much going on, and this robs the events of having much meaning.

Janet Fielding is brilliant as the Mara-possessed Tegan at the cliffhanger, and the combination of her and Martin Clunes is particularly great.

Part Three

“We wait.”

Again, not much new really happens here, although there’s nothing bad about the story exactly, and Christopher Bailey is too good a writer to let things become dull. We get to fill in a few more details about Dojjen and the snakedancers, we see a Punch and Judy show, and we learn the history of the Mara, much of which, I’m sure, consists rather heavily of a Buddhist subtext which I’m not getting.

This is a very odd story, with a mystical type thereat and no attempt to give a scientific explanation for the Mara. It isn’t a science fiction story at all. And never has the Doctor, who spends pretty much the entire episode in a cell awaiting rescue, seemed so powerless. And the main source of conflict in this story so far has been the refusal of others to believe the Doctor. This seems to indicate that scepticism should be seen as a bad thing, a potentially worrying message.

Part Four

“Am I forgiven?”

“Oh, yes of course. Aren’t you always?”

It all concludes logically enough, although the visions induced by the hallucinogenic snakebite are rather too reminiscent of the visions induced by Mary Morris’ character in Kinda. But I like the ceremony (“I offer you fear in a handful of dust”) and the snake effect is very well realised this time.

Overall, I’m slightly underwhelmed. After Kinda, at the moment my second favourite story, I was expecting something similarly brilliant. But while Snakedance was certainly a decent enough story, it seemed something of a retread of Kinda, with less apparent thematic depth. A high 3/5.

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