Mara Tales: Kinda & Snakedance

10 Oct

A review of the DVD box set, from 2011

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‘Pick of the month!’ shouts an enthusiastic graphic on this page. Talk about understatement. Of the two stories in this DVD box set, the first, Kinda, is among the very best ever made. And the second? Well, no need to equivocate there. Snakedance is the best Doctor Who story ever made. So brace for superlatives.

But first things first. In Kinda, the Tardis brings Doctor, and his Von Trapp family of companions – Tegan, Nyssa and Adric – to a lush jungle world. The ground may seem strangely level and unyielding for a jungle, but as there are hints to there having once been a technologically advanced society here, perhaps they took a paved parking lot and put up a paradise.

Not all of our crew set out to explore. Nyssa needs a nap to recover from a recent script, and stays in the Tardis. It falls to Adric and Tegan to find trouble for the Doctor, which they do with alacrity. Adric goes truffling off into the forest on a trail that ultimately leads us to an alien base – of which more in a moment – while Tegan is lulled to sleep by the ringing of wind chimes, and falls into a dream…

It’s one of Doctor Who’s great once-seen, never-forgotten moments. Tegan’s dream is a triumph of writing and presentation, and among the most memorable and disturbing sequences in the whole of the series. It’s the starkness of the vision that makes it special; the restraint of it. There’s a passing sense of Alice’s Wonderland to begin with – a conversation between the two chess-playing grotesques recalls Tweedledum and Tweedledee and their “contrariwise” bickering – but this is no playful fantasy; it’s full-on nightmare. In this pitch-black nowhere, which feels at once infinite and claustrophobic, Tegan is tormented, her sense of self attacked, by a gloating, sneering incubus. In mythology, an incubus would force himself upon sleeping women against their will, but this one at least needs Tegan’s permission to, well… take her. “You will agree to being me,” it hisses. “This side of madness or the other.” That’s chilling enough, but worse is implied in the amused tone in which it offers Tegan payment for her services. “You would be suitably entertained by the experience,” it promises. These scenes still pack a punch 30 years on. There are plenty of references to sex in modern Doctor Who – companions putting the move on the Doctor, Amy and Rory likely at it like knives in Turlough’s old bed, Captain Jack the sexual omnivore – but it’s still innocent stuff; suggestion, snogging and ‘dancing’. Kinda says less, but implies more. There’s no hiding from the fact that when Tegan wakes in the jungle, her manner is clearly post-coital. She feels… satisfied. Possession has been a familiar theme in Doctor Who from its earliest days, but it’s never been like this.

Elsewhere in the jungle, the Doctor and Adric meet a survey team from another world who are undertaking a study of this planet, called Deva Loka, and its tribal people, the Kinda. Two members of their group have gone missing in mysterious circumstances, leaving only the leader, Sanders, security officer Hindle and scientist Todd. These are wholly traditional Doctor Who characters, but they are turned into so much more by a wonderful script and the finest guest cast of any Doctor Who serial. Richard Todd, playing Sanders, generally receives the least attention, but his performance is a masterclass; Todd nails every nuance of his character’s journey, a subversion of the ‘old colonial officer’ stereotype. Hindle, Sanders’ underling, begins as the junior member of the group, jaw clenched and chest puffed out like a little boy playing soldiers, but after Sanders falls under the spell of the Kinda and regresses to childhood himself, Hindle can loose the tortured adult trapped within – and he’s a bully, both terrified and terrifying.

Simon Rouse’s turn as Hindle is the greatest guest performance in the history of Doctor Who. Only Christopher Gable in The Caves of Androzani and Michael Wisher in Genesis of the Daleks come close. All three are portrayals of spiralling madness, but Rouse has the edge on the others in the way that he can take Hindle on a longer journey – all the time flipping back and forth from seeming rational to outright homicidal – and while never quite losing our sympathy. Hindle’s scary enough when he coldly announces how he will sterilise the jungle – “We will establish a cordon sanitaire around the dome. Method of implementation: fire and acid, acid and fire.” – but that’s nothing compared to when he’s playing children’s games. “But it isn’t a game!” he insists. “It’s real! With measuring and everything!” There are few things in life more disturbing then the unknowable logic of the insane, and watching Hindle play in his cardboard city, and fret over the well-being of its cardboard citizens, after having carefully prepared the extermination of all around him, is more unnerving than any marauding monster. Rather brilliantly, even Hindle gets a happy ending, healed by the Kinda, and it’s credit to the writing and Rouse’s performance that we are pleased for him.

Completing the trio in the dome is Todd, played with great compassion, and much buttoned-up sex appeal, by Nerys Hughes, who quickly establishes herself as the perfect companion for Peter Davison’s Doctor. Would it be too great an indulgence for Big Finish to revisit Todd, and team them up again for audio adventures? Of course it wouldn’t. What is Big Finish for if not to satisfy our fascination with Doctor Who’s great could-have-beens and never-weres?

Of course, Sanders, Hindle and Todd would be nothing without Christopher Bailey’s script, which deftly spins three-dimensional characters and then gifts them some of finest dialogue in Doctor Who history. Ultimately, it’s the words that make both Kinda and Snakedance so special. There’s balance and rhythm to almost every sentence. The best speech goes to Panna, the blind soothsayer of the Kinda played so wonderfully by Mary Morris, who never once blinks. “It is the Mara who turn the wheel,” she intones. “It is the Mara who dance to the music of our despair. Our suffering is the Mara’s delight. Our madness is the Mara’s meat and drink. And now he has returned.” Has any villain in Doctor Who ever come with a better-written introduction?

But ‘villain’ is a crude and inadequate description of the Mara. It’s the creature – if that’s the word – that escapes from Tegan’s dream, although it’s never clear if this Mara is drawn specifically from her unconscious, or if it ‘belongs’ to Deva Loka. That speech of Panna’s refers to the Mara in the plural, almost as a ‘species’, before suddenly using the word ‘he’. This confusion – which continues into Snakedance – leaves the Mara the most mysterious and fascinating of Doctor Who threats, as it wriggles free of some of the series’ biggest clichés. They/he/it never threatens universal domination. In Kinda, it seems only to wish to drive the off-worlders from Deva Loka. It barely even registers the presence of the Doctor.

However, it can’t be denied that this subtlety is briefly rendered moot when the Mara is obliged to take physical form as a whacking great snake. At the time of this story’s transmission, this grinning creation caused Kinda to be voted last in the DWM season poll. (Perhaps along with this story’s adult themes, which would have troubled the many thousands of tween fans who had fallen in love with Doctor Who in Tom Baker’s last years, and were only just that second hitting puberty). Yes, Kinda was judged to be of less merit than Time-Flight or Black Orchid. And the snake clearly offends some to this day, as an option for a new CGI replacement is available here. It’s a smart, ‘how-the-hell-have-they-done-that?’ job of work, but beyond novelty it’s of little interest to this viewer. This snake may seem more ‘real’, but what value is realism here, in our floodlit studio forest? That ship sailed during Part One, Scene One. The deranged-looking original is far more in keeping with the story as a whole, which is less a ‘realistic’ science fiction film than a piece of stylised theatre. This fiddling with ancient special effects is just boys picking at the scabs of old playground battles. And our mums were right when they told us that wounds only heal if we leave the scabs alone. It really is time to stop worrying and love that snake.

In whatever form you can accept it, the Mara is banished to the dark places by the Doctor, but eventually slithers its way back, a season of Doctor Who later, for Snakedance. Sequels rarely ace the original, but while Kinda is sublime, but Snakedance is just that little bit better. It’s essential strengths are the same – characterisation, performance and dialogue – but while Kinda has a few lines of rotten dialogue (“I don’t think much of that as a fighting machine!”), and a few unskilled performances, I defy anyone to identify a single piece of bad dialogue or weak performance in Snakedance. OK, so there is Hilary Sesta as the fortune teller. She’s not in the same league as her co-stars, but we are at least distracted from that by the fact she’s dressed like a nun crashing through a stained glass window. And her wild scream helps make the cliffhanger from the first episode one of the all-time greats.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, and need to sketch in some plot. The Mara has again taken control of Tegan, and caused the Tardis to land on the planet Manussa, another world on which it once found physical being, and where it ruled over an empire of chaos until it was vanquished by the Federator. For the Manussans, all this is now ancient history bordering on legend, and they are poised to celebrate the defeat of the Mara in a gimcrack ceremony overseen by the Federator’s descendant – the spoiled, brattish Lon – and his patient mother, Tanha. Fussing around them both is the pompous Ambril, curator of antiquities and supposed expert in Manussan history.

Every scene featuring these three characters is a total delight. We learn so much about Manussa from their conversations, and this exposition never feels forced – in fact, it’s almost poetic at times – thanks to the subtlety of the dialogue and the skill of the performances. Colette O’Neil, as Tanha, has a voice as tuneful as the wind chimes of Deva Loka. She almost sings her script, and is particularly wonderful when reminiscing about a visit to the mystical Snakedancers in the deserts of Manussa. “We had to go in disguise. Can you imagine your father in disguise?” It’s a beautiful piece of writing that tells us so much about Manussa, Tanha and even her unseen husband, which in turn speaks to the character of Lon.

Another example of the sheer class of Snakedance can be found in Part Three, as again a mystic gets lyrical about the Mara. Ambril invites his assistant, Chela, to read from the journal of Ambril’s predecessor, which was “written by Dojjen in the months before he decided his particular line of research was best pursued up in the hills with a snake wrapped round his neck.” Everything goes quiet as Chela recites. “Where the winds of restlessness blow. Where the fires of greed burn. Where hatred chills the blood. Here, in the depths of the human heart. Here is the Mara.” During this speech – on the word ‘greed’ – Lon steps silently into the background. By this point he has been possessed by the Mara, and is here to show the truth of Dojjen’s words. It’s the “fire of greed” which burns in Ambril that Lon is here to exploit in order to bring about the Mara’s rebirth.

Everything about Snakedance is perfectly judged. Since Kinda, Christopher Bailey has expertly assimilated the possibilities and limitations of Doctor Who, and produced a script that plays to all its strengths, while still subverting expectation and cliché. Bailey is as good as Robert Holmes at structuring a Doctor Who story and populating his world with characters at once both familiar and strange. In fact, he’s better even than Holmes, as Bailey draws upon a richer, more emotional sensibility.

It’s not just the inhabitants who ‘sell’ this world to us. Manussa is, without doubt, the most rich and vivid alien planet ever created for Doctor Who. Just think of the worlds visited in recent DVD releases alone – Tigella, Solos, Refusis – and it’s clear we’re in an entirely different league. It’s the carefully considered details of place and character that make Manussa feel so real, and not just created for the purpose of telling this one story: the Mara-themed Punch and Judy show; Ambril’s tedious dinner party; Lon’s listless sarcasm; the striking sequence with Dojjen and the snakes; the worn-out patter of the local carny. “Dare you gaze upon the unspeakable? Come face to face with the finally unfaceable? …Children ’alf price.”

And then there’s the Doctor himself. I love the version of the Doctor we meet in Bailey’s stories. In general, Peter Davison’s earliest performances were his best. He brings a wild, youthful energy to Castrovalva, Four to Doomsday and Kinda. This joie de vivre is lost by the middle of his first season – script editor Eric Saward replaces it with a kind of weary, suffering impatience – and rarely returns, but it does in Snakedance, and in spades. Even though he’s trapped in a cell through the whole of Part Three, this Doctor is still pacing, powerful and passionate, walloping the bars in frustation while making a series of brilliant intellectual leaps. I also adore how the Doctor is seen through other eyes here. In Snakedance, he’s considered a charlatan or a madman, just as in Kinda he was dismissed as a fool by Panna. I like the essential modesty of this treatment of our hero. “I’m a gentleman of the Universe” is how the First Doctor described himself, but over the years, there’s been a steady inflation of his place in that Universe. From gentleman to Lord, from Lord to Lord President; and over the last decade, a fannish desire to make the Doctor sound as special as we believe Doctor Who to be means he’s become the focus of overzealous mythologising. He is star fire! He is ice! He’s Time’s Champion, the Upcoming Wind. He is the tear on the face of the little baby Jesus… Oh, it’s all very stirring and melodramatic, but I don’t want the Doctor to be some cross between Peter Pan, Santa Claus and God – that would be so insufferable of him. I want the Doctor of Kinda and Snakedance. A man, not a superman, with as much to learn about the Universe as we do, and who defeats wickedness with wisdom and wit alone, rather than time travel slight-of-hand or a cocky demand that his foes merely “look him up”. Can we have that Doctor back, please?

So the Doctor is perfect in Snakedance. But then, everything is perfect in Snakedance. It’s as funny, scary, silly, imaginative, reckless and just plain brainy as Doctor Who needs to be – with every ingredient in perfect proportion.

“Literature is news that stays news,” said the poet Ezra Pound, and it’s a maxim as true when considering the best of Doctor Who. Snakedance will stay news. We can go back to it time after time after time, and always find a level, a nuance we’ve not seen before. It’s a story for us to grow into and grow old with. It’s a story to inspire and motivate all future Doctor Who storytellers, as both carrot and stick.

Here is Snakedance, we can say. Now beat that.

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DVD Extras

The funny thing is, if a newcomer was invited to form an opinion on these stories based only on viewing the DVD extras, they’d never guess Kinda and Snakedance were anything special. In fact, there seems a deliberate desire to deny the fact.

The Kinda production documentary, Dream Time, is a textbook example of missing the point, and seems determined to identify what might be judged to be ‘wrong’ with Kinda, rather than celebrate everything that is so gloriously right. This means more picking away at scabs, and dredging up of hoary old arguments from 80s. A discussion about how Bailey’s script for Kinda was passed between three script editors drags on and on, while there’s only the briefest discussion of the script’s actual inspiration and content. Doctor Who DVD documentaries are generally developed by editors and directors, so their obsessions lie with the visual, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the very best extras have employed writers to shape the conversation – Jonathan Morris and Nicholas Pegg most notably. And it’s exactly what these stories needed. The Snakedance documentary is better, but it still all feels like a missed opportunity.

Worse still is Directing With Attitude, ostensibly a tribute to the directorial skill of Peter Grimwade, but actually an infantile little film dripping with the poison of 80s fanzine Doctor Who Bulletin. Everything loops back into an attack on producer John Nathan-Turner. Familiar joy-suckers Eric Saward and Ian Levine are present of course, always ready to explain why every supposed fault of the 80s was Nathan-Turner’s fault, while every success had absolutely nothing to do with him. That the two men who claim responsibility for the script of Attack of the Cybermen should appear on the DVD of Kinda and say they know better how to make Doctor Who takes rare gall. And even the briefest consideration of Doctor Who’s current success now shows Saward and Levine’s arguments to be nonsense. Peter Grimwade went on to write the scripts for the painful Time-Flight and the plodding Planet of Fire. “Using Concorde is not a very sound reason for a story,” snips Saward. No, Eric, it was a perfectly sound reason for a story. Doctor Who would happily play with Concorde today. It’s what Grimwade does with it in Time-Flight that’s unsound. It’s the moment he crashes it into his own dreary plot of Xeraphin and Plasmatons that everything goes wrong. Then Saward hisses: “John got it into his head that Lanzarote would be a good place to make a story.” But it is a good place to make a story, Eric. A very good place. Doctor Who would happily shoot in Lanzarote today. The trick is not to make Planet of Fire. And finally, there’s the old complaint about the producer imposing ‘shopping lists’ on writers – perhaps naming a location, a monster to be used, or identifying when a companion is due to be written out. What despicable control-freakery! It is, of course, exactly the way that Doctor Who works today, to enormous success. So isn’t it time to let go of all this rubbish? Must we foist it upon a new generation of fans via these DVD extras? Can we not at least have some editorial balance?

More bile from darker days taints the commentary track for Kinda. A little of Janet Fielding goes a long way at the best of times, and she swiftly becomes unbearable here. Fielding’s familiar schtick is to dismiss the Doctor Who of her day in the light of what the programme can achieve now. She also seems to think she’s the first person to notice these shortcomings, and that it’s her job to open our eyes to the awful truth. But the thing is, Ms Fielding, we’re not blind to it all. We’re cleverer than that. It’s not that we can’t see these faults, it’s that we have the imagination to see past them. The commentary for Kinda is deeply uncomfortable at times, with Fielding and Davison having a right old laugh at the expense of Matthew Waterhouse, who is in the room with them. It’s rudeness at best, bullying at worst, and terribly undignified. Sure, Waterhouse has come across as a pompous prig in interviews, and certainly does in his autobiography, but I don’t think Fielding has any right to assume the high ground. Back in the day, she was the one who received the praise of fans, but responds today only by being snooty and ungracious. The funny thing is, for all we may criticise Waterhouse’s acting abilities, Fielding really isn’t much better. What she got was the good lines. When it comes to performance, Fielding has far more in common with Waterhouse than she does Davison or Sarah Sutton.

The best extra on these discs – by a country mile – is, for reasons that passeth all understanding, hidden away as an ‘easter egg’. (To access it, you have to open the Audio Options menu, hum three bars of ‘TSS Machine Attacks’, and then say the magic words: “What the hell are you lunatics playing at?”). Here, big-brained Rob Shearman sits down with Christopher Bailey to discuss his inspirations, and put pay to some old fan theories. But more interesting is where the conversation takes them after that, as Bailey admits that he hasn’t been able to watch any recent Doctor Who because his memories of working on the show – chiefly, it seems, regarding his failure to complete a third serial – remain too painful. Shearman is quietly flabbergasted, and explains how Kinda and Snakedance are “temples” to him, and to Steven Moffat. Bailey, in turn, is clearly moved by this revelation. Healed, even. Is that a tear in his eye?

This conversation is a reminder, again, of how the best of Doctor Who remains alive to us at all times, whether it was made thirty years ago or a week last Wednesday. Great Doctor Who stays news – and so here is today’s news: the writer who once inspired Rob Shearman has, three decades on, been inspired by him. It’s a wonderful thing to witness.

Wheel turns.

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8 Responses to “Mara Tales: Kinda & Snakedance”

  1. Matt October 10, 2011 at 6:09 pm #

    I’m so glad you called Davison and Fielding on the Matthew Waterhouse baiting. If they haven’t the good grace to treat him fairly then perhaps they should have stayed away from recording the commentary with him.

  2. Nick Peat October 10, 2011 at 6:18 pm #

    Two of my all-time favourite stories, finally given the attention and respect they deserve.

    I actually think think this could be the best DVD I’ve yet read in DWM. Zehn Punkte!

  3. Simon Chan October 13, 2011 at 3:19 am #

    Oh, and your picture of Martin Clunes as Lon, when he could have been a floppy-haired sex symbol! Wheel turns, indeed. Good memories, thank you, Gary.

    I really didn’t mind the peanut-tin snake as a kid watching “Kinda”. It was only because of people pointing it out, time and again, (I think even Peter Haining might have mentioned it in my old 20th Anniversary celebration book) that I even noticed. I think if you have a theatre background you can accept wobbly sets, but not wobbly performances.

  4. Richard Awkward December 22, 2011 at 10:07 am #

    Always a relief to open my copy of DWM and see your name at the bottom of the DVD review page, Gary. And this is probably the best of a very strong collection of reviews.

    It’s always entertaining to see you give a righteous kicking to the likes of Attack of the Cybermen, but too much bile rots the teeth, so it’s great to see you write something as celebratory as this. I’m sort of dreading the moment when the final story gets its DVD release. It’ll probably be the day I finally give up on DWM entirely.

    • Gary Gillatt December 22, 2011 at 11:09 am #

      That’s very kind! But never give up on DWM – it’s full of good stuff.

  5. Paul Dykes April 14, 2012 at 4:01 pm #

    As someone who was a child in the 1980s, this was the era of Doctor Who that inspired my lifelong love for the show and ‘Kinda’ and ‘Snakedance’ were absolutely at the heart of that, with the Mara making an indelible impression on my imagination. And to a five year old, the snake prop at the end of ‘Kinda’ wasn’t laughable, it was searingly real. These stories haven’t diminished over time – their richness has only become more and more apparent to me as I’ve grown older.

    So, having watched the DVDs and the extras and been amazed by how underwhelmed everyone seemed, it was fantastic to read your review and realise that not everyone felt that way – particularly as I’d not found the Easter Egg until I read about it here. With 80s Who too often lazily derided and dismissed, thank you for writing such an eloquent and heartfelt defence of the Mara stories.

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