Snakedance [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but until recently rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  This has changed in the last couple of years as I have been using birthday and Christmas money to buy some of the old episodes, usually enjoying them with one or two of my nerdier daughters. This year, though, my wife and I bought a year of Britbox for each other as a gift, which gives me access to nearly all of classic Who.


Starring Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor.
Companions:  Sarah Sutton as Nyssa and Janet Fielding as Tegan Jovanka.
Written by Christopher Bailey.  Directed by Fiona Cumming. Produced by John Nathan-Turner. Script Edited by Eric Saward.

Format:  4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  January 1983 (Episodes 5-8 of Season 20).

Season Twenty of classic Doctor Who had a big anniversary feel. Whether by coincidence or design, all the stories had some sort of returning element from the show’s history. In the case of Snakedance, this element was the Mara, a disembodied fear-dream entity that had snake overtones. It had originally appeared in Season Nineteen’s Kinda, also by writer Christopher Bailey, where it had harassed companion Tegan Jovanka. And now in Snakedance, it was back with a vengeance.

Spoilers Ahead!

When one thinks of the Mara, one tends to think of Tegan Jovanka, the Doctor’s Australian companion who found herself being possessed by the evil snake-thing more than once.

One remembers her disturbing laugh, her sinister expression, the disturbingly playful way she approached some of the other hapless people around her. However, it turns out that the part of Kinda that dealt Tegan’s possession is actually really short–it all happens in one episode. It’s actually here in the sequel that things get bigger and badder–Tegan is the home of the evil force (and gets to be pretty creepy) for nearly the story’s entire runtime.

At the same time, it’s tempered by the fact that it’s kind of confusing to understand what the Mara actually is up to. Clearly, the thing is evil, and clearly it’s “return” is bad news–but in what way any of this is true is a bit vague. The Mara always seems to be on the verge of doing something bad, rather than actually doing anything all that bad, so that it’s hard to pin down what threat it represents.

Indeed, this is one of relatively few Doctor Who stories in which nobody actually dies, which does minimize the story’s feeling of menace. Maybe they didn’t want to bring Tegan anywhere too dark? But then Kinda also had almost no deaths, so maybe it’s more of a peculiarity of the writer’s.

Snakedance is notable for almost being Martin Clunes’ first professional work. He has the fairly major part of Lon, a visiting prince (of sorts) who is at first disinterested in the local legends, who goes on to become the story’s main visible antagonist.

This is because he’s much better situated in the local situation to cause trouble than Tegan is. It’s fun to see such a young Martin Clunes and he does fine with the part, especially as the decadently bored version of Lon–but in a way it’s a bit of a shame because Tegan gets quite sidelined in the middle of the story. Janet Fielding is quite good as creepy-Tegan and it would have been quite nice to see more of her.

Apparently Clunes gets teased a lot when he shows up on British talk shows because they regularly pull out clips of him from this serial to embarrass him. It’s true that his costumes are silly at best, and especially his outfit in the story’s climax is hard to take seriously.

Indeed, there is a bit of a rushed look to a lot of the story, both in some of the design and in some of the direction. The story is making a game attempt to sell the idea of a crowded city and foreign culture, but it doesn’t quite us there (although to be fair, nearly all science fiction TV struggles with this). And there are certain scenes that are awkwardly staged, with the camera angles and direction failing to capture the drama of the situation. In a story that is as full of ambiguity in some of its story points (both in the danger and in the solution), this is a pretty significant failing–if we can’t understand exactly what is happening, we’ve got to understand the emotional stakes of individual moments or the whole story starts to feel like it’s plodding along.

This definitely begins to hit in around Part Three (where, non-coincidentally, Tegan’s role gets more relegated to the background).

Still, the Mara is a great concept, and one that could certainly have used a third appearance (in my fantasy alternate-history of Doctor Who to the TV show, the Fifth Doctor revisited Tegan on earth in his fourth season of adventures to have one final dust-up with the Mara.

I also used the Mara in my imaginary cross-over idea with Star Wars, which seemed like a natural direction to take). I know the creature featured in a Big Finish audio or two, but I could also see the Mara fitting well as a big-bad in a modern Doctor Who season-long arc.

And Tegan’s possession means we get to see Janet Fielding stretching her muscles. And it also means Nyssa really stands out in this story as the Doctor’s main companion–something which was also there for the preceding tale, Ark of Infinity), which is nice for the character.

The TARDIS was pretty crowded during Nyssa’s tenure as a companion, and she often got a bit lost next to her showier colleagues (Tegan and Adric), so this is nice for the character.

4 thoughts on “Snakedance [Classic Doctor Who]

  1. Snakedance had one of the most profoundly unforgettable endings for Peter Davison’s era. Thanks, Ben, for your review.

  2. Funny, I’m rewatching Davison’s first season and I find Nyssa usually overshadows Adric, who comes off as the “little tin dog” of the Fifth Doctor era.

  3. Frashersherman, I’ll have to keep an eye out for that as I keep going through these stories. But my impression is that Adric tends to be the *louder* companion between him and Nyssa, and thus draws more attention. I definitely prefer Nyssa, however.

  4. scifimike70, you liked it better than me, I think. I thought it all could have been put together a bit better, including the ending. But still, I appreciated the concept and ambition of the show, and I didn’t think it was terrible or anything like that.

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