Doctor Who: Mara Tales - Snakedance (UK - DVD R2)
Will this Fifth Doctor story be able to charm those cynical Wilson Bros?
Though season 19's Kinda was not an immediate success (it featured at the bottom of the list of that season's favourite stories, it grew in stature and the enough interest was generated to warrant a revisitation to the concept of the Mara and for season 20, writer Christopher Bailey wrote a another script that dealt with the theme of possession by a malevolent snake-like creature.
Though the Mara was seemingly defeated during the events of Kinda, it becomes clear that the giant snake was merely hibernating and soon Tegan (Janet Fielding) is still living la Deva Loka and she subtly steers the TARDIS to the planet of Manussa, where the superstitious population is living in fear of the Mara's return.
The possessed Tegan disappears and begins to enlist the help of others, including the foppish man-child price Lon (Martin Clunes) to fulfil the prophecy of the Mara’s return, which will spell almost certain doom to the planet, unless The Doctor can convince the Queen that he is not a lunatic and that the snake-like Mara is going to swallow Manussa like a boa constrictor consuming a Jack Russell.
Janet Fielding continues the good work that she was able to grab hold of during Kinda, but her character is pushed into the background for much of the time, which was necessary to advance the plot - the concept of being possessed was established in Kinda, so it was time to have the emphasis be on a new storyline. Fielding’s great in this and - dare we say it - somewhat more alluring than usual when under the influence of the Mara.
Peter Davison seems to be coasting in this story, showing little of the enthusiasm that he displayed in Kinda; it’s still good stuff, but the relish that Davison had in the previous Mara tale doesn’t seem to be present here - perhaps he was starting to get itchy feet and thinking that maybe his career should progress from wearing cricket whites and inserting his fist into a cow’s rectum. What is interesting is that writer Christopher Bailey had penned Kinda when Tom Baker was still in the lead role and he finally got to write a Doctor Who script with Davison firmly in place and Davison comes across as having more zest and more to do in the script penned with his predecessor in mind.
Sarah Sutton as Nyssa just seems to prove even more that her hasty inclusion as a full-time member of the TARDIS crew wasn't the greatest decision in the world. Sutton does what she can with the character, but Nyssa has and always will be one of the blandest companions in Doctor Who's history.
Martin Clunes was hired by the production to portray a young, arrogant upstart and it just so happened that Martin Clunes apparently didn't have to artistically stretch too much in order to play the character. He certainly does his job well, making many viewers wanting to punch the living daylights out of him, and it is Clunes' youthful bravado that carries the character and his performance, even if the odds are stacked against him as he wears a ceremonial toga during the climax that makes him look like a weather map. In recent years, Clunes has become the darling of the British public by appearing in a third-rate House knock-off that appeals to people over a certain age who still regard the paunchy, middle-aged Clunes as an Angry Young Man...
Jonathon Morris has a certain degree of presence and does a good job or playing the underling who doesn't agree with his blinkered superiors. Watching Morris putting in such a good performance makes you more than a little sad that he didn't have a bigger career than he did (moreso when you see how famous his fellow guest star Clunes has become), but it was probably spending several years in an awful sitcom that proved to be the final nail in his coffin. We watched him onstage in The Rocky Horror Show back in '93 and he was great as Frank, so it makes it all the more sad that he didn't become a household name.
Things are fairly pedestrian, but director Fiona Cumming tries to inject a bit of life into the proceedings by having a few off-kilter camera angles and one or two tracking shots during dialogue-driven scenes that could have been boring in the hands of a less-inventive director.
During the festivities, there are numerous attractions to engross and diverted the Manussians, including a hall of mirrors where Tegan really starts to go bonkers under the Mara's possession. A throng of kiddies are enthralled by - of all things - a Punch and Judy show. It is bizarre that Punch and Judy would exist in another world - OK, so the archetypes can pretty much exist in any culture, so that’s not TOO much of a reach, but to have them appear almost exactly as they do on Earth, complete with Punch’s voice going through a swozzle. It’s understandable why they’d chose to have it featured in this story, as simply replacing the crocodile for a snake works well, but it just seems to pull you out of the story somewhat. Besides, the puppet snake seen in the Punch and Judy scene arguably looks more convincing than the one seen during the climax of Kinda…
It is generally acknowledged that sequels are often inferior to the original, but there are occasionally continuations of popular stories that are just so ghastly that you wonder quite how they strayed so far from a format that was successful; Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows and Highlander II: The Quickening are possibly the best cinematic examples of such a phenomenon, but this could also be applied to Snakedance in relation to Kinda. It seems inconceivable that writer Christopher Bailey could bugger up the concept he created with Kinda when it came to fleshing it out with Snakedance. Where Kinda was an intriguing, well-written and fast-paced tale that had some great performances and an ambitious sense of scope, Snakedance has a leaden, flaccid script that seems to drag and some overripe turns from a guest cast that pales in comparison to that seen in Kinda.
You might have realised by now, but we aren’t big fans of Snakedance; there are certain elements of the script that are intriguing, specifically the downplaying and commercialisation of religion (the Mara’s image has been packaged and sold in various ways to the population, in much the same way that the image of Christ and related religious paraphernalia appears on t-shirts and jewellery these days). The whole thing just strikes us as the perfect example of why we were never great fans of the Davison era, with brightly-lit and unconvincing sets, along with a sense that things were just going through the motions, being more irritating than exciting. Still, if there is one way that Snakedance improves over Kinda, the Mara’s mark on the forearms are much better.
Snakedance looks pretty good on DVD, with the usual spit and polish from the Doctor Who Restoration Team; for some reason, and we can't quite put our finger on it, it doesn't look as wonderful as Kinda, but it still has a most impressive quality to it. Maybe the somewhat muted colours of Manussa can't quite compete with the verdant conservatory-plant-look of the first story.
Nothing to complain about here - everything's perfectly audible and there are no issues such as synchronisation, etc. It all sounds perfectly good to us.
Snake Charmer: From the outset, there is a candour to the proceedings which fills in a few blanks from the previous Mara documentary. Writer Christopher Bailey opens the proceedings by saying that he “…crawled away from the Kinda recording…” firm in the belief that he could do better, and was re-commissioned by Eric Saward, who appreciated his abilities, in spite of the problems last time out.
Bailey’s accrued familiarity of the show and the production process meant that Snakedance was “…a breeze by comparison”, with the script being written in ten days. Although very much into Buddhism, Bailey based the Manussans on a Christian sect in the deserts of Arizona, a group whom handle snakes and take the associated danger as part of their religion - even though he derived the name of his group form a Buddhist word.
The essence of Snakedance’s look at the commercialisation of historic glories and old-world magic was an almost subconscious side-swipe by Bailey at his experiences on Kinda. The themes clearly worked for others watching, as proven by Nu-Who scribe Robert Shearman, who not only loves Snakedance, but pin-points it as the inspiration for him to become a writer. Shearman regularly used certain elements of structure and dramatic interplay from the story in a number of his plays.
It was known well in advance, but there is absolutely no contribution from Martin Clunes about this important stage in his career. Director Fiona Cumming reveals that his name was plucked out of the “Juvenile section” of Spotlight, seemingly drawn to his Mick Jagger lips. Davison asserts that Clunes came with a generous portion of confidence, even at the start of his career. So much so that ‘ol Peter feels the future star of Men Behaving Badly stole the show right out from under co-star Jonathon Morris’ nose, even though Morris had just come off of John Huston’s Beau Geste. Clearly egos were trampled, especially with both being of similar age.
Janet Fielding is quick to praise the work of her fellow cast members, which might be that she her opinion of her own handling of the material thrown at her during time spent on the show is not a sparkling one. You could easily read it as Fielding possessing an admiration for those who able to deliver naturalistic performances in the face of baffling, other-worldly dialogue. For those who don’t know, the two genres “act- ors” dislike the most are horror and SciFi, but when offered a choice of the two, thespians will opt for the horror script every time, as horror at least contains numerous things they can draw from life experience.
We’ve always like Fiona Cumming, being a very hands-on, no bullshit director, and has proven that she can deliver the goods with style. She picks projects which are not of the usual “monster of the week” variety, and most of the best Doctor Who stories aren’t. “I’m not in to the whole Metal Mickey…type”, she amusing states. “I’m more into the acting.” Along with Production Designer Jan Spoczynski, the battles with the BBC to get the Moroccan feel to the sets approved and built are revealed. In spite of the terrific results, Davison sticks his oar in when he continues his assault (from the Kinda commentary) on BBC videotaped interiors, in contrast to Cumming’s assertion that the marketplace benefited from the intense brightness of the studio lights, as she had just come back form Morocco and felt it had and identical feel to it.
Davison has a damn good chuckle when he gets told that some of the Snakedance sets were redressed ones from the 1982 broadcast of A Song for Europe. Some units from the production of Alien were brought in as part of the detention area, and you really have to give Spoczynski full credit for making the cells look deeply cool by merely tilting the bars at an angle.
Speaking of Davison, Cumming picks up on the directorial instincts lurking under his thespian robes, to the point where she was uneasy when filming the in the cells on Snakedance, noting that Davison would be looking at the sequence from another angle. He even made suggestions to her during the shoot, cementing her suspicions, and Davison himself says that if acting ever “gave him up”, he would take up residence in the director’s chair.
Things are left with another minor contribution from Saward, concurring that the cliffhanger at the end of episode three is awful, a result of Bailey deciding from the outset that nobody would be killed. A page of typed manuscript from The Hollows of Time closes the proceedings, with Bailey revealing that his Peri-era story didn’t work, and culminated in him abandoning the medium of television all together.
In Studio: Essentially B-roll footage, this delivers both candid insight into the taping process and a fair amount of laughs. We get at least one fluffed take, with Clunes uttering the classic act-or line of “I’m sorry” when the blame is his. The exploding crystal ball blows off its stand and lands neatly back down onto it again. Whispered conversation between Clunes and Fielding is picked up by a microphone: “Aren’t they zooming something in…?” with the reply: “Yes. They’re doing the red glow on your arm.” Best of all in an extended sequence showing the filming of the Mara’s death, where the crew are snickering with laughter as the red liquid is pumped out of the mouth. A female voice goading them not to only makes matters worse, but who wouldn’t get a chuckle when hearing the words: ”Cue it to spurt”?
Deleted Scenes: A couple of pieces are merely minor extensions of little consequence, but we get a coda to the story which might have been better served being included in the final edit of Snakedance. Apologies are dished out, mistakes are owned up to, and Tegan has very definite plans for the fate of the crystal. Excellent stuff, but at odds with the downbeat ending they went out with. It’s the same argument with the two different cuts of The Exorcist: do you go out cold and sorrowful or happy with everything wrapped up?
Saturday Superstore: Davison does the PR circuit, and braves the live kids TV favourite. He engages in an impromptu game of cricket, assists with the picking of a competition winner, and answering a few questions from the fans. Naturally, the call-in section of shows like this are always toe-curling stuff, and this continues the trend. Fans of classic technology will be heartened to see the good ol‘ “Speak and Maths“ from Texas Instruments. This was unappealing to many kids, as not only did it make them practice maths in the comfort of their own homes, but you couldn‘t get it to spell out “Bollocks“ they way you could with the other one. Listen out for the laughter from all concerned when the Musical Youth question is read out, asking “what is a Dutchie?” Yeah, sure it‘s a cooking-pot. Oh, and as for the “Roger the Dog”? competition - the mind boggles! Fun, fun, fun!
Photo Gallery: The camera clearly loves Sarah Sutton, who appears in more pictures than anyone else. There are the usual role-call of production photos, cast portraits and set documentation. Not much else to say, but it all works beautifully when set to the righteous music of Peter Howell.
Audio Commentary: This really is vintage stuff, with the atmosphere bounding along like a puppy with a pair of designer sunglasses in its mouth. Fielding particularly relishes the opportunity to introduce episode four, never having done it before. The tone is set right from the outset, when much fun is poked at the rather flamboyant nature of Sara Sutton’s dress in this particular story, prompting the actress herself “Doesn’t that almost make Colin Baker’s outfit look good?”
The mystery of perfect recall of years ago in audio commentaries is trashed when mention is made of the typed notes handed to all of them before recording, with Fielding messing around by reading out one of hers: “My name is Janet…” Conversely, the go off-topic at several points, with the trio spending a few minutes debating the merits of HBO and the relevance of the viewing figures compared to the freedom of broadcasting, among other divergences.
It’s become a common thread, but Davison again sides against the video-based nature of shooting, but indirectly this time, where he mentions when Snakedance was recording, many were speculating the demise of film as a visual medium, a notion rather amusing to purists at the time, but a real possibility these days. Elsewhere, you’ll be shouting at the screen as the trio struggle to remember recording a commentary for a previous tale, having trouble recalling the title, let alone anything else. To wit:
Fielding: “What was the Silurian story? What was that underwater story?”
Fielding: “The Sea Devils.”
Fielding: “Have we done that? Have we done a commentary for that?”
Davison: “Apparently I think we have done it, yes. It‘s all a blur…”
Fielding: “I think we should do it again!”
Davison: “We’ll do it again for Blu-Ray…”
The trio are fun, and the Peter Davison era is not inexhaustible, so enjoy them while you can. Unless they DO go back and rerecord them for Blu-ray, of course.
Info Text: Fascinating minutia about the changes from script to screen, with numerous little tweaks occurring on the fly in the studio. We learn that the story was selected to be screened at the NFT in 1983, chosen to represent the best of Doctor Who. Not only that, but it was also cited as a favourite of John Nathan-Turner, as well as being well-thought-of by current Nu-Who supremo Steven Moffat. Never mind...
It also recounts the tale of how Davison was dragged into a studio for what he thought was a “filmed promo” for the show, only to find the This Is Your Life cameras shoved into his face - yep, it was all a rouse to get an in-costume Davison in the right place for a look back through his career. We also learn that although the average ten-year-old wouldn’t have picked up on it at the time, but Snakedance was a deliberate attempt to keep the costs of the show down, featuring only around ten “guest” speaking roles throughout the four parts.
Best of all is that it’s nice to discover that Christopher Bailey sides with us and numerous other fans that footage of Lon in his climactic costume have been taken completely out of context on a plethora of shows (including that lazy piece of crap Before They Were Famous) in an attempt to get cheap laughs at the expense of both Clunes and Doctor Who as a whole. Another Doctor Who Info Text track, another excellent, exhaustive trawl though the archives.
Isolated Score: As with Kinda, Peter Howell’s music isn’t wall-to-wall, but deployed with precision. Much comes in the form of atmospheric scene-setting, and provides an unsettling texture to the proceedings. Most would be perfect to have playing on a loop at a Halloween party, so primal is the charge it generates. Some sections reminded us of John Cameron’s score from Psychomania, and that’s one hell of a compliment.
PDF Materials: Ever reliable, this little lot, as the nostalgia boat docks once more. All four of the Radio Times listings are there to be enjoyed, and each one of them bearing a question. For the record, the average person reading them blind at the time wouldn’t have know:
1)…who the Dojjen are.
2)…what the power of the Great Crystal is.
3)…If the Dojjen can help The Doctor, or…
4)…If The Doctor can prevent The Becoming.
Coming Soon: And with this little lot, many Whovians will certainly be. The Revisitations 2 set is a cracker, with remastered editions and bounteous extras. We should know, it arrived on our collective doormats the other day. What we have here is a really fun trailer, with superbly edited footage from all three titles, these being teh Pertwee classic, Carnival of Monsters, the Ice Warriors romp, The Seeds of Doom and the bloodbath that is Resurrection of the Daleks. It’s out at the end of March. Can you wait that long?!? Yeah, this is the same bit as on the Kinda review, but it’s the same set.
With a story as good as Kinda, it comes as a bit of a bummer that the continuation of the premise is not nearly as good. It's kinda (no pun intended!) like watching The Abominable Doctor Phibes, then being somewhat befuddled by how drab Doctor Phibes Rises Again is. We find Snakedance to encapsulate much of what was dull and uninteresting about quite a bit of the Davison era.
When you buy the Mara Tales box-set, just think of it as buying Kinda and getting Snakedance as a generous extra.
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 7th March 2010
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Extras: Audio Commentary, Snake Charmer, In-Studio, Deleted Scenes, Saturday Superstore, Photo Gallery, Info-Text, PDF Materials, Coming Soon Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Fiona Cumming
Cast: Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton, Martin "Jug-Ears" Clunes
Length: 100 minutes
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