Sunday, 17 November 2013

Snakedance written by Christopher Bailey and directed by Fiona Cumming

This story in a nutshell: The Mara is trying to crawl its way out of Tegan’s mind…

An English Gentleman: ‘If I’m allowed to leave long enough, I’ll explain…’ One of the few stand out characterisations of the fifth Doctor in his second season, Bailey throws away what everybody else is doing with the character (aside from a few efforts, not a lot) and does his own thing. Instead of trying to portray what a formidable force the fifth Doctor is he goes in the other direction, looking over his shoulder and seeing what the other writers are doing and amplifying it to dramatic and comedic effect. As a result none of the characters seem to respect or have take much notice of this raving lunatic that sprints through the story trying to warn them of imminent disaster – he comes across as something a paranoid nutter simply because nobody is taking him seriously. Gone is the time when the Doctor could walk into a room and command everybody’s attention (‘Gentlemen this lighthouse is under attack and by tomorrow we might all be dead’), now he is more than likely to be thrown out on his ear for making wild insinuations. Both Bailey and Cumming exploit Davison’s youthful, softer look so this travelling student spends most of this story piecing together the mystery whilst screaming prophecies of disaster at a brick wall. It wouldn’t work if this was the default Davison characterisation but it makes for a fascinating and thrilling one off. The energy that he brings to the part in this story is extraordinary, he is like a beige blur at times with the speed he flies in and out of scenes, reeling of exposition like it might be his last line and yet making it entirely comprehensible. It’s only highlighted by the scene in the TARDIS where he sits deathly still and focuses on the Great Crystal and when that doesn’t work he bursts into life and volume to try something else. When he is given the chance, Davison is fantastic in the part. I always crack up when the Doctor is dragged away from the reception dinner ranting and raving about the Mara. It’s all the more hilarious because he is right. For once the Doctor decides to stay on the periphery of the story until he has all the facts at his disposal to defeat the Mara, heading to the hills to make contact with Dojjen. He is perfectly willing to face the venom of the snake in order to communicate with him, even though he is clearly afraid and disorientated by the experience.

Alien Orphan: Make no mistake, this is Nyssa’s finest story bar none. Forget her introduction in The Keeper of Traken or her re-introduction in Logopolis. Move on from her doppelganger tricks in Black Orchid and her gun wielding antics on Gallifrey in Arc of Infinity. Snakedance is such a good story for Nyssa because it allows her relationship with Peter Davison’s Doctor to flourish without Adric, Tegan or Turlough getting in the way and proves without a shadow of a doubt that the two of them could easily have held up the show given the right material. They are fantastic together here, afforded razor sharp dialogue and fun banter by Christopher Bailey which only seems to have been encouraged by Eric Saward. Nyssa is either trying to get a reaction out of the Doctor because she seeks his fashion advice (which, judging by his own raiment, why would you do that?) or she is trying to make an impression on him. I always thought there could be something special between these two. They are driven by their concern for Tegan and it brings out the best in both of them, dashing about, sparking of each other and intelligent mapping out the history of the Manussan Empire and the Mara’s effect on it. I love the little gag with the door control. Sutton is quiet as a mouse during the scene where Tanha catches her red handed with the key attempting to free the Doctor and the scene is far more effective for it (Fielding would have been hysterical).

Mouth on Legs: Another chance to see Janet Fielding act rather than stomping around the sets and bellowing at the top of her voice. More than that, there were a few moments in Snakedance when I first watched it where the Mara-possessed Tegan genuinely gave me the chills. Ahhh…Tegan asleep in bed having terrible dreams. That means she can’t be up and about and grousing. It’s not like Doctor Who to aim for such adult conceptual horror like this and the thought of something penetrating and evil pulsing away at the back of Tegan’s mind and taking control whilst she sleeps is really rather frightening. Psychological horror is my favourite because it helps to explore the more uncomfortable aspects of our psyche and Snakedance taps into the gnawing fear that that multiple personality syndrome sufferers must face…is there a personality in my mind that is unsafe and independent of me? Tegan is really scared that the Mara is at loose in her mind and Fielding successfully makes the character feel vulnerable. As much as I admire her sinister turn as the Mara, I found Fielding’s playful eight year old Tegan talking about playing in gardens and eating ice cream much more chilling. Juxtaposing this character at her most innocent and at her most frightening works fantastically well (‘Go away!’). The disturbed way Tegan asks the fortune teller ‘you look into the future in that?’ always gives me the shivers. In the first two episodes it is the way Fielding goes from glimpses of the Mara with Tegan in control to glimpses of Tegan with the Mara in control that is so impressive. The emphasis is very different. The simple fact of the matter is (although there is nothing simple about how the Mara manipulates and frightens her into it) that Tegan chooses to submit to the Mara for the second time. I love the Mara’s last ditch attempt to subdue her final dissenter – the Doctor – by pretending to be Tegan in a great deal of pain and needing his help.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Once a man fell asleep and dreamt he was a frog. When he woke up he didn’t know if he was a man who dreamt he was a frog or a frog who was now dreaming he was a man…’
‘Mind you it is surprising what does come into your head…’ – Bailey gives all of his characters, even if they only appear in a few short scenes a real sense of personality, like they could always give you more.
‘The sixth face of delusion is the wearers own. That was probably the idea, don’t you think?’
‘I’m so tired’ ‘Then borrow my strength…’ – brrrr
‘At the end of the day when the lights come up, as in one form or another they always do, there’s always someone standing there with their hand out waiting to be paid!’
‘I offer you fear in a handful of dust!’

The Good:

  • Despite the slightly wobbly insertion of Dojjen into the painted backdrop, the overall effect of the opening is quite inspired. It is one of those introductory scenes that immediately makes you think this is going to be a bit different. Fiona Cumming has said that she wasn’t happy with the dream sequence where Tegan is coaxed towards the mouth of the snake and whilst some of the effects are a little ropey it is one of the few times that they can get away with that. Dreams don’t have to have a budget or decent production values, they don’t even have to make sense. They only have to amuse or frighten or bewilder and this sequence certainly does a good job of two and three. Just what does Tegan see that makes her scream so hysterically? The skull filling the crystal ball, the rising music, Tegan’s mind finally gripped by the Mara, the glass shattering towards the audience as Cumming cuts to the titles…the first cliffhanger is one of those moments of perfection Doctor Who serves up on rare occasions.
  • One of those most impressive assembled casts in any Doctor Who, Snakedance features a formidable number of very strong performers that help to bring Manussa alive vividly. It is very easy to buy into the relationship between Lon and Tanha, a bored young aristocrat who is waiting for his father to pop his clogs and a disapproving but patient mother who loves her son but wishes he would do something with his time. If Adric taught me anything it is that arrogant, petulant youths are not my cup of tea but Martin Clunes goes to show how well it could have been done. Considering this was his first telly he has a striking screen presence, when he is on screen my eyes immediately draw to him to see what he is doing and he can more than hold his own around these experienced, veteran actors. Colette O’Neil is quite a find too, bringing a great deal of subtlety to her role and from her first appearance suggesting that this character has a life that stretches far beyond the confines of this story. I like how Tanha defers to Lon when he puts his foot down, but maintains control of him on the whole. It’s not often that you see complex dynamics between your guest characters like this and it feels like Clunes and O’Neil have worked extra hard to make this relationship as authentic and involving as possible. Rob Shearman is bang on the nail when he slates Tanha’s gentle sigh of ‘Even then..’ when discussing her husband when he was younger as a complex moment of dialogue. It pretty much tells you everything you need to know about their relationship in two words, or at least enough to paint a picture of an unhappy marriage amidst luxury. Nothing succeeds in rousing Lon except the allurement of being inviting out on a cold night by a woman. Nice to know that there is some blood pumping around in that body.
  • I was going to confine all the actors/characters discussion to one block of this section but it would be the longest paragraph ever. Instead I’ll split it between the Manussans and the visitors to their world. Because the natives of this world are brought to life by performers of the calibre of John Carson, Brian Miller and Jonathan Morris. And impressive they all are. I love the moment of humiliation that Lon brings to bear on Dugdale who is simply trying to earn a living, a scene that highlights how the upper classes can patronise and belittle their inferiors and there isn’t a damn thing they can do about it. In real life Ambril would probably be the a crushing bore but when executed by John Carson he is a delight, reeling off academic dialogue like poetry and with a twinkle in his eye. His performance reminds me of Nicholas Courtney’s as the Brigadier, a character that should technically be duller than dishwater and the sort of stereotype that other shows churn out as a matter of course but thanks to his cheeky portrayal it becomes something far more engaging and alluring. Ambril has a great line in sarcastic humour that made me howl (‘I’ll cancel the whole thing…and now my assistant will show you out’) and is such a terrible old fraudster that he walks willingly into the lions den under the pretence that he will be able to take the credit for artefacts that have already been discovered. Brian Miller (husband of Elisabeth Sladen no less) delivers a massively entertaining turn as Dugdale, packed with lovely little details (he plays about with hanky all the time). Only Jonathan Morris is playing the story entirely straight like he has stepped out of any other drama but he stands out because of it. There are no overt theatrics in his performance and as such his is the most naturalistic (he could have stepped straight out of Bread for all the difference in his portrayal). He quickly develops a fine chemistry with both Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton and I can see how this could have worked put on a longer basis (check out the cheeky look Chela gives the Doctor when Nyssa has a go about helping her over a ledge).
  • Who cares if they are recycled from BBC entertainment shows, these are some of the finest sets of the era. Elaborately filled with exotic props, atmospherically lit and well shot, Snakedance has a terrific sense of style and brings home the affluence of the Federation. I particularly like the lighting effects that Cumming using to suggest day and night, it is such a simple way to create atmosphere but one which is lost on so many Doctor Who directors. It might be a bizarre moment to praise but I get tingles when the Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan emerge from the TARDIS that is lost in the shadows and covered by awning and step out into the noise and bustle of a marketplace. Every time I see it it reminds me of how thrilling it must be to step out onto an alien and exotic world through great design, subtle lighting and sound effects. Showing what a decent lighting engineer can bring to Doctor Who, the exquisite design of the caves (they feel genuinely cavernous, walls twisted with roots) would count for naught if the lighting wasn’t able to create a feeling of oppression. The one area where the illumination is too bright is the scenes set at the mouth of the cave…but that snake mouth entrance is so creepy (I have a morbid fear of snakes, cut me some slack) I’ll let it fly. At the risk of waxing lyrical too much about the general design of this piece, the chamber of the Mara (as scribbled down by Christopher Bailey who didn’t want the designers fudging this most important of designs) is probably my favourite set in all of eighties Who. Clearly a studio, the marketplace is nevertheless bustling with extras, the air full of authentic sound effects and the sets packed with little details that it feels lived in. The difference between this and the all studio exteriors of something like The Happiness Patrol is extraordinary. The reception is a small scene in the grand scheme of the adventure but it encapsulates everything I have been talking about here; a great set, seductively lit, filled with detail and beautifully shot.
  • Peter Howell provide one of the series’ most memorable scores in Kinda and looks set to trump that one in Snakedance, this time going straight for the fear factor with very little relief. He punctuates the dramatic moments with stings and screams that send fingers up and down the spine. A huge round of applause for the special sounds on this story too which help to create an exotic atmosphere on Manussa and really set it apart from the Earth.
  • The only Doctor Who story that stops to tell a Punch & Judy show. This pleases me.
  • Talk about getting more than you bargained for. I never thought we would get to understand how the Mara came into being because it works so well as an indistinct conceptual threat but Bailey is smart enough to know that if we are going to get answers, then they better be good ones. The Manussans blindly brought the Mara into being themselves, amplifying their mental forces including restlessness, hate and greed, reflecting it and creating a mental force so malevolent it turned on them in a reign of terror. Now there is a story that is worth being dramaticised (and don’t bang on about The Cradle of the Snake, Big Finish’s hugely disappointing Mara tale). Much like the story that follows this one it is a message in not messing about with technology and forces that are beyond your control. In Mawdryn Undead it is more explicitly stated but given we have already encountered the Mara before in Kinda the revelations are much more satisfying because we have had to wait for them. That’s why the third episode syndrome doesn’t hit Snakedance despite the Doctor being locked in a cage for 25 minutes and the villains preparing for their evil masterplan rather than actually doing anything malicious, because the information fed to us in the first two episodes converges in this installment to spill out the nature of the Mara and the scope of it’s malevolence.
  • Much like Kinda, Bailey is determined to make the location that his story takes place come alive through it’s little details, it’s customs and it’s people. Fiona Cumming brings a great deal of strength to it’s realisation in a way that Peter Grimwade failed to do with Deva Loka in Kinda and the story climaxes on an episode that sees a planet in a party spirit, ready to celebrate the destruction of the Mara and to be shocked by it’s return. I love the smaller moments like the ‘return’ demon that touches you and threatens to tip water over you unless you pay him for his troubles (there’s always money to be made out of revellers) and the uproarious procession of the snake and the heroic fanfare that greets Lon when he wears the costume of the man who once defeated the Mara all combines to paint a vivid picture of a people trapped in the past and trading on past glories. I love how the procession of the snake takes place in various parts of the streets and the entrance to the cave mouth because by switching locations as it makes its way to the chamber of the Mara you can suggest a great number of inhabitants filling the city (when it reality it is the same extras). Little tricks like that go a long way.
  • What is it about eighties Who and goo? Not content with melting the faces off of the Tereleptils, the guards in Ressurection and Mestor, it also features both the Mara and the Malus vomiting up great waves of thick liquid upon their demise. JNT understood that kids love the chance to go ‘Ewwww!’
The Bad: Why does Tegan/the Mara’s face start turning a fiery shade of puce? Is it because she is consumed with such a rage? The end of episode three is justly criticised. It feels as though it was made up on the spot and Nyssa has faced far worse moments when she has felt the need to scream so voluminously. What a shame that the snake that Tegan handles is clearly of the rubber variety because those scenes could have been extraordinary with a real one wrapped around her arm. When it falls to the floor, limp and lifeless, it’s artificiality is highlighted. The wobbly teeth don’t help either (although the animatronic eyes are a lovely touch and quite creepy). Still, it is miles better than the original Kinda snake. I would have quite liked there to be a suggestion that the Mara still existed in the mind of one of the Manussans (not Tegan though, she’s been through enough and peddling out this story a third time might be pushing it…Big Finish). 

The Shallow Bit: What to say about Nyssa’s new costume? On the one hand it is  absolutely hideous, a clash of styles that simply don’t belong together except in the fevered imaginings of John Nathan-Turner (and would only seem remotely fashionable if Nyssa was paired up with the sixth Doctor). On the other hand all the constituent elements are quite trendy and it is great to see Nyssa loosen up a bit and get out of those trouser suits. You decide. The Doctor can’t make up his mind either, so rather than come to a decision he decides to prevaricate with the latest travel dilemma. It is rare that you ever come across such a stunning array of hats in Doctor Who. Everything from Ambril’s Russian inspired hat with a hint of pink to Dugdale’s more showy example laced with sequins to the unforgettable piece worn by Lon during the ceremony, it is one eclectic example of millinery after another. It’s fortunate that the Doctor doesn’t choose to sport his during this adventure because his would look quite mundane in comparison. Jonathan Morris – hubba hubba. Tanha’s cloak to head off to the reception has to be seen to be believed. Shiny chiffon, eat your heart out. Lon’s costume for the ceremony is justly infamous and can be see advertising the show in the most ludicrous of fashions on any chat show that Martin Clunes cares to appear on. The fact that Clunes manages to act his way out of such an absurd piece of clothing is proof that he will go on to do great things.

Result: Astonishingly good, this is how formidable Doctor Who can be when everything comes together like a perfect puzzle. If I’m honest this feels more like a Hartnell historical than a slice of eighties Who; much more concerned with character, setting, atmosphere and intelligent dialogue than glossy set pieces and pacy plastic action. If you prefer the latter then you might be disappointed but if you have the patience to soak in the former then there are a wealth of riches to mine from this script and production. What struck me was the strength of the performances of the guest artists and the complexity of the characterisation – this cast of characters has a rare depth to them and a feeling that they have legs way beyond the length of this particular adventure. The characterisation of the Doctor is fascinating, he is basically treated as an irrelevance but purposely so this time around and Davison plays the part of the impotent portent of doom to the hilt with fine support from Sarah Sutton who once again proves she is the ideal companion for this Doctor. Fiona Cumming’s direction of the two stories in season twenty is such a cut above the other efforts that it scarce bears comparison. A female touch in the generally quite masculine eighties era of Doctor Who is very welcome and she brings a fresh visual style and a willingness to experiment. Snakedance is the best Tegan story too, with all the complexities and scares of Kinda but giving her a substantial role in the tale too. I really can’t find much to fault this story beyond the fact that it has a stagey feel because of the heightened performances and studio bound exteriors but even that feels deliberate. This feels like a really strong stage play with a rock solid plot and truly engaging characters and I can see it transferring to the stage with a minimum of fuss. Eighties Who could do with a bit more the subtleties and complexities of Snakedance and it automatically elevates the era because of it’s existence. I loved it when I first saw it and I have found even more to enjoy now I have studied it critically: 9/10

1 comment:

Anthony Pirtle said...

I suppose it's to the fifth doctor's credit that his companions being in deadly danger always brings out the fire in him. I just wish it weren't the only thing that did.