Snakedance: a beautiful nightmare
|Above: the Doctor is imprisoned for trying to avert the Mara's return.|
Never before have I been scared of a classic era Doctor Who story. Don't get me wrong, I love the classic era - but generally I've found its horror elements dated. That was until I watched Snakedance.
Snakedance, a Fifth Doctor story broadcast from 18th to 26th January 1983, is the sequel to 1982's Kinda, also written by Christopher Bailey. Both stories move away from the hard science fiction common in Doctor Who of the time in favour of the kind of anthropological sci-fi pioneered by Ursula K. Le Guin. As well as their broader anthropological themes, they both deal with the antagonist the Mara - a being of pure negative emotion; of hatred, anger and greed. It dwells on the "Inside" - what we would call the land of dreams and nightmares - and usually takes the form of a snake. It can possess human beings, and yearns to return to the physical realm. Christopher Bailey, a Buddhist himself, loosely based it on the Buddhist demon of the same name.
Now, I didn't particularly enjoy Kinda. I found the hippie-ish, "noble savage" representation of the Kinda tribe a bit dated and clichéd, and Simon Rouse's performance as Hindle hammy and annoying. The dream sequence was interesting, however, and conversely Janet Fielding's performance as a Mara-possessed Tegan was an enthralling watch. I do believe Fielding, bless her, is a million times better as an actress in her brief stints as the Mara than as Tegan herself!
Unimpressed with Kinda, I had no idea what to expect from its sequel. Yet I found it to be everything Kinda should have been - the perfect Doctor Who horror. The first episode particularly contains all the dread and excitement of a great evil returning - an ominousness very much aided by the superb, surreal sound design, and the nightmarish visuals. That first cliffhanger is terrifying - an animal skull inexplicably floating towards the screen.
The sets and costumes are decent, and the worldbuilding is rich. The serial takes place on the planet Manussa (a reference to the Manussa Domain of Buddhist cosmology), which we see, through detailed history and archaeology, was once home to the Manussan Empire, and later the Sumaran Empire under the iron rule of the Mara. Now the Federation governs, but the memory of the Mara lives on in fascinating folklore and tradition.
Fundamentally, Snakedance is a gothic horror. The Mara as a concept is "superstition brought to life", and that's what makes it so frightening. It's inexplicable, unstoppable, needlessly horrific - it's everything the modern, enlightened world seeks to leave behind in the Middle Ages. It is, quite literally, a living nightmare. I suppose that would explain its serpentine shape - it's almost a mythological, Jungian archetype. Indeed, throughout Snakedance, the Mara encounters purveyors of superstition, such as a phoney fortune teller and the owner of a hall of mirrors. Neither believe in the superstition they purvey, but the Mara comes to them almost Christ-like, to show them that, finally, their lies have become truth.
I call it a gothic horror because, like all the gothic greats, it derives its horror from an irrational, yet real, monster of superstition. And what do rational men fear more than the irrational being real? Years of analysing and categorising the universe around them - making it nice and comprehensible - only to discover something that defies comprehension. What could be more incomprehensible than a literal nightmare-being?
As in any gothic horror, therefore, Snakedance pits the Mara against the scientific establishment, here embodied in the character of Ambril, Director of Historical Research. He represents who the Doctor would be in any other story - rational, scientific, and always looking for a logical explanation. But Snakedance turns the scientific world of Doctor Who on its head, and even the Doctor is dragged off and locked away like a deluded prophet, for warning of the Mara's return.
A young Martin Clunes in his first television role puts on a good performance as Lon, the son and heir of the Federation's ruler. He betrays his people and sides with the Mara for no other reason than boredom; for it is so often the case throughout history that bored aristocrats are the death of civilisations. On a lighter note, I also enjoyed the endearing character moments between the Doctor and Nyssa, such as when the Doctor doesn't notice her new dress (which I think looks pretty on her, despite its garish 80's design!), or when she rebukes him for picking her up. It's charming moments like these that make classic Who.
Overall, Snakedance is an effective, intelligent, and criminally underrated Doctor Who horror. I have come away from it with a strong impression of the unlimited scope an antagonist like the Mara allows. A writer can do almost anything with it, because it is inherently inexplicable. A disembodied serpent skull floating eldritchly towards the viewer would not work for a monster such as a robot or a dragon, constrained by logical (if supernatural) laws as they are. Even a ghost would require some kind of backstory to explain it. But the Mara is nightmare epitomised - it can be absolutely anything, so long as it's terrifying.