Thursday, 14 February 2013

The Cradle of the Snake written by Marc Platt and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What’s it about: "The Mara is in all of us, deep in our minds. In our darkest thoughts, that’s where it started. Some people call it a demon, but that’s too simple. It’s about temptation." Tegan's nightmares have returned. Seeking to banish the snake-like Mara from his companion's psyche, the Doctor sets course for Manussa, the creature's point of origin. But the TARDIS arrives instead in the heyday of the Manussan Empire, where infotainment impresario Rick ausGarten is preparing to turn dreams into reality. The sun is setting on the Manussan Empire… and it's all the Doctor's fault.

An English Gentleman: I liked the conceit of the Doctor under the Mara’s thrall stirring up the differences between his friends rather than trying to placate them as usual although the way in which that is so effortlessly achieved does rather highlight how surface level the relationships are during this period of the show. I was amused by the idea of the Doctor and Turlough have a lads night out and of the Mara/Doctor revelling in the fact that he is not his usual ‘goody goody’ self. However I was quite disappointed that the Doctor’s possession was so easy and that it wasn’t the psychological tussle that I imagined it to be. Envision how much more interesting this would be if the Doctor fought back sooner and wrestled the Mara for supremacy of his mind. As presented here it is even easier for the Mara to dominate his mind than it was for it to take over Tegan’s in Kinda and you’re not telling me that his mental defences are weaker than hers.

Alien Orphan (the Older): ‘Nyssa? Oh yes the tedious little nun!’ Its far more interesting to have Tegan questioning Nyssa’s intentions and allegiance to the Doctor as the Mara than it was as herself in Cobwebs. One comes across as an insidious attack on her morality and goodness and the other was a spiteful and meaningless attack in a fraught moment. Unfortunately just under halfway through the story Tegan is back in control of herself and is nastier than ever to the daughter of Traken. I honestly don’t know why she puts up with it. I’d love to hear Nyssa (as herself) go at Tegan in the same way, I bet that would be a really nasty scene.

Mouth on Legs: Tegan, understandably, is very shaken by the news (and experience) that the Mara is still lingering on inside of her. Especially since the Doctor told her that her experiences on Manussa were going to be the last. Considering she was practically mind-raped by this creature when she states that Nyssa can’t even begin to know what she went through, for once she is right. One of her fondest memories is flying over the farm with her father. Her initial characterisation under the thrall of the Mara is very good but halfway through episode one things go awry with the character suddenly becoming very accepting of the situation, appreciative of the help she is going to receive and enjoying a rather sunny disposition. Since this is about as far from the usual abrasive Tegan that we normally have to suffer it seems to indicate that the Mara is still in the driving seat and so it comes as something as a shock to learn that she is in full control of her faculties. I’m sorry but that simply isn’t the Tegan I know (that was the one from Cobwebs, even if that was taken to extremes). The Doctor promised her that the Mara was gone forever in Snakedance which this story proves was either an ill educated guess or a blatant lie to calm her down, either way the Tegan I recognise would never simply smile and accept the situation, she would be furious at being cheated and probably stamp her feet and threaten to leave again. The poor wretch really can’t win with me…because then she turns on Nyssa (with a little stirring up of feelings from the Doctor/Mara) and really bitches at her and somehow I hated her even more than ever. ‘You know Nyssa I’ve had it up to here with your superior attitude! You didn’t think I’d get better, did you? Little Miss Perfect, aren’t you? Poor little Tegan suffers from a weak constitution, isn’t that what you said?’ If I were Nyssa I would slap Tegan so hard around the face for that speech she’d still be feeling the burn after a week. How can she blame Nyssa and not the Doctor for her condition? Bizarrely after this tirade she then asks Nyssa to protect her from the encroaching snakes. Her characterisation is all over the place, but then it always was. A case in point, come episode four Tegan is trying to remind Nyssa of all the positive aspects of her personality when just two episodes earlier she was lambasting her for them.

Alien Orphan (the Younger): Poor Turlough, he’s been thoroughly wasted throughout this trilogy. Shunted off to the shadows in Cobwebs (its not as if anybody could be heard over Tegan’s voice in that story), left circumnavigating a forest for three episodes in the last story and now the only person not getting in on the fun of being possessed in Cradle, its quite a waste of Mark Strickson’s talents. Of the three companion actors I would say that he is probably the most assured (or maybe he was just given the most interesting character on screen?) so it seems bizarre to ignore such a valuable asset. He doesn’t like it on Manussa because it is too nice (sometimes they can overemphasise how shifty he is supposed to be). Turlough is so thick that he cannot work that the Doctor has been taken over even when he addresses a carnival crowd and declares ‘You’ll soon learn – all of you! Just you wait until tomorrow night!’ Hardly sharpest pencil in the case, is he?

Standout Performance: Cradle of the Snake feels like a good time to look at the performances of the regular cast considering most of them (Turlough is the one left in the lurch this time round) get to play evil in this story. Janet Fielding is rather effective in the early scenes, capturing that childlike menace that worked so well in Snakedance and really emphasising the snake like aspects of the Mara. Davison’s take on the Mara is more conventional villainy but he’s having so much fun breaking free of the Doctor’s shackles of decency its best to just go with it. Whilst I have problems with the Doctor’s and the Mara’s characterisation when they are united in his head, Davison has never been quite this frenzied before and its rather entertaining. Sarah Sutton’s turn at playing evil is less fun than Davison’s but far more convincing. She’s only a few steps away from the Nyssa that we know and love which makes her interpretation the most chilling (and irritatingly the one which gets the least exposure).

Sparkling Dialogue: As always with a Marc Platt script, you can expect some gems to pop up…
‘The Mara’s withdrawn into Tegan’s psyche and it wants me to go in after it…’
‘Surely an Empire suggests order? How can that exist under the Mara? The Mara is a spirit of mockery, of chaos and evil.’
‘The was a young lady from Traken,
Who picked the wrong doorway to darken,
But due to her blunder,
She’s now lying under,
A place for the TARDIS to park on…’
‘Paradise was never so ripe for the plucking!’

Great Ideas: The Doctor describes the Mara as being inside all of us, deep in our darkest thoughts.

Audio Landscape: A plane roaring through the skies, the plane descending, the Doctor flying and landing in muck, sheep baa-ing, birdsong, hissing snakes, carnival atmosphere, smashing a mirror, bells tolling, a giant snake roaring and chomping down on its victims.

Musical Cues: Now here’s a turn up…if you had asked me after listening to the story what I thought of the musical score I would have said it was one of the least effective I have heard for a while. However listening to the isolated score on the bonus track I was confronted with some dazzlingly effective music that was so good I skipped back and listened to it again. My only conclusion is that either I wasn’t paying enough attention to it during the story of that the director didn’t spotlight it well enough. Bizarrely I found the attempts to recapture the Mara sting from Kinda and Snakedance to be utterly ineffective here. What sounded like a bloodcurdling scream in the TV series comes across as little more than a synthesised sound effect here.

Isn’t it Odd: Snakedance revolved around the Doctor having to find something quite special within himself (‘the still point’) to defeat the Mara, to not try and engage with the creature until he had prepared himself for the mental battle. It feels churlish to have him mention the still point so offhandedly at the beginning of this adventure as though it is like his sonic screwdriver, something he can whip out and deploy whenever it is needed. In the same way Dojjen was a fantastic character because he never once got involved in the story (it had to come to him because he wanted no part of the society that the Doctor was visiting) and yet the Doctor suggests popping in on him now to get a check up on Tegan as though it was just like visiting the Bi-Al Foundation. It hastily re-interprets the events of Snakedance as something far more mundane than they actually were. The talking sheep were a good idea in theory (it’s a nice audio-only way to suggest the weirdness of a dreamscape) but in its execution it sounds faintly ridiculous and overly comical. I’m not sure that was the best approach when the story is trying so hard to be psychologically hard-hitting. The cliffhanger to the last story and the first ten minutes of Cradle suggest that this is going to be a tense, psychological horror but as soon as we hit Manussa the Doctor is talking about parties and Tegan and Nyssa are having a gay old time soaking in the atmosphere of the planet. Bizarrely they all seem to have forgotten the very real horror that has brought them here. The twist that the Doctor has been infected by the Mara might not come as a great surprise considering the story goes to lengths to point out the transference fifteen minutes in. By pretending that hasn’t happened for a further fifteen minutes doesn’t mean we will have forgotten. The Mara is not so much an insidious horror that grows out of your own fears and doubts anymore, Cradle promotes the entity as a super villain that attacks a city culturally and politically, that laughs uncontrollably at its own fiendishness and that calls its minions ‘insolent wretches!’ It has lost any (practically all) of its nuances (I never imagined the creature saying anything as mundane as ‘how’s my list of intellectuals going?’). Toby Sawyer’s performance as Baalaka is just odd. I can’t decide if he is channelling a hippy blissed out on crack or an Australian bush farmer that has indulged in one too many beers. Its an amiable turn (due to the nature of the character) but its also very, very odd and quite unconvincing (when he starts groaning uncontrollably he sounds like an old man that hasn’t experienced an orgasm for a while and has suddenly become reacquainted with the experience). Apparently evil cannot be defeated until it is name…are we in Rumplestiltskin territory now? Rather than focusing on the more interesting part of the story (the Mara gaining dominance over Manussa) the third episode concentrates almost solely on locking the Doctor in the TARDIS and his friends running round in circles panicking on how to deal with an evil version of him. The plot grinds to a halt here as we listen to them panic for half an hour. Combining the superficial nature of the media with the emergence of the Mara somehow trivialises it. After pointing out so many things that didn’t work for me in this story it might feel like kicking a man when he’s down to say that Platt’s original characters in this story never engage or feel like they are worth investing any time or energy into. Johana is especially annoying, a mock-Peru character that stresses everything she says without any of Nicola Bryant’s charm to make the character bearable. I thought there would have been something rather more furtive and sagacious to the Mara’s takeover of Manussa than embodying a giant snake and threatening to gobble people up if they don’t do want it wants. Surely if Tegan is free of the Mara for the majority of this story then this should really have been a personal struggle for her to face up to the creature that has invaded her dreams and a vendetta to defeat it forever. Instead this potentially interesting use of her character is completely squandered.

Result: I wasn’t sure what to expect from Cradle of the Snake. Looking at opinions online (something I rarely do before listening to something) seems to find this tale caught in a state of marmite flux, some love it and others loathe it. I’m not so enamoured with the Mara tales on television as everybody else seems to be (Snakedance is very good but I could pick many holes in Kinda) and if anybody was going to be brave enough to step into Christopher Bailey’s shoes then I too would have suggested Marc Platt. One of the things that made the best parts of Kinda and Snakedance so special was that they handled their themes and ideas subtly but that seems to be entirely absent here. The Mara is less of a conceptual horror and more of a tenapenny villain that can hop from one mind to another (dream imagery aside, its no different from Cassandra in New Earth) and the melodramatic performances from the regulars merely support the idea that this is a bog standard nasty that revels in carnage but has little depth beyond that. Big Finish have been known to innovate elements from the TV series (the Daleks, Davros, the Master) and they’ve occasionally taken something that did work and fudge it (the Metebelies Spiders, the Krynoid, the Kraals). Platt seems to have fundamentally misunderstood what that Mara is all about and as such perhaps this was one sacred element (that might sound like hyperbole but this villain really is revered) of the show that should have been left alone. What I really took from this adventure was that Revenge of the Sith feeling of all the elements dovetailing together, the story of the Mara’s emergence and Empire building as spoken of in Snakedance is recounted here and there is something quite stimulating about having the foreknowledge that things aren’t going to turn out well for this civilisation. Its unfortunate that the early promise devolves into what is little more than turbulent shouting in the last episode – it really does feel that Marc Platt and Barnaby Edwards (two of the most competent staffers at Big Finish) have bought into the Eastenders school of thought that histrionics equals drama when it so often has the reverse effect. I wanted to like this a lot more than I did, there are some elements that are worth highlighting (particularly the performances of the regulars, especially Davison) but taken as a whole this fails to live up its potential and squanders an opportunity and I’m not sure which is more disappointing. Marc Platt is one of the most involving and intelligent writers to have ever worked on Doctor Who but he seems to have lost his way with this script, plumping for standard action adventure rather than engaging with the (potentially interesting) ideas in a penetrating fashion. I don’t want to say that this trilogy has been entirely without merit because that would be disingenuous (Cobwebs paints an ugly picture of the future, The Whispering Forest eventually gets Tegan right and Snake plays about with some weighty ideas) but each story has been weighed down by some pretty hefty flaws. I sometimes feel that when a character/actor returns to the fold the audience gets so wrapped up in the excitement and freshness of that and that is blinds people from the deficiencies inherent in their opening stories. The first season of fourth Doctor adventures was given a reprieve in that regard and this trilogy is another example. Tegan and Turlough are back and it is refreshing to have the fifth Doctor stories re-animated because of this but this isn’t the strongest run of tales to greet their return: 4/10

2 comments:

Gus Fallon said...

This is the second Fifth Doctor trilogy in a row that you've been burned by! Are you going to switch gears and review a trilogy with another Doctor?

I didn't really enjoy this story but then again "Snakedance" is the only and one televised Fifth Doctor story that I've never seen so that's probably part of it.

Joe Ford said...

Trouble is I've reviewed everything else in the main range except the next two Davison theologies and a couple of 8th Doctor ones! So I'm going to see these through (I'm nearly through Rat Trap) first before I polish off Mary Shelley. Despite the last two trilogies being such a disappointment I'm still optimistic about The Emerald Tiger. Anything written and directed by Barnaby Edwards has got to be worth a listen!