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Thursday, 9 March 2006 - Reviewed by Adam Kintopf

With ‘Snakedance,’ the done thing seems to be to say that it’s good, but not as good or smart as ‘Kinda.’ Now, whether one Doctor Who story is truly *better* than another is always going to be a matter of subjectivity, but I think it’s worth pointing out that ‘Snakedance’ stands up extremely well on its own, and is certainly smart. It’s true that writer Christopher Bailey does employ a more conventional storytelling style here than he did in the rich, strange stew that was ‘Kinda,’ but it no less intelligent, and in fact focuses on questions the earlier story ignores (or, at least, doesn’t get around to asking).

First off, one of the best things this story does is capture the Manussan culture itself. It’s always hard to suggest a realistic alien society in what amounts to a mere handful of scenes, and that’s why Doctor Who stories are historically populated by invaders from other worlds who have conveniently lost their home cultures. But the depiction of the Manussans is different – we get a clear picture of a society grown so remote from its own historical origins over half a millennium that its people have largely forgotten them. The account of a terrifying force that once dominated this world has been happily mythologized into ‘safe’ rituals like the ones at the anniversary festival (snake parade, ‘attendant demons,’ children’s Punch and Judy show, etc.). The Manussan people themselves are depicted as cheerfully cynical from the lowest social rank (the fraudulent showman and fortuneteller) up to the highest (Lon seems to question whether the Mara story even happened at all). But the viewer knows better – having seen ‘Kinda,’ *we* know that the Mara’s threat is frightening and real, and this even more than usual puts us on the side of the Doctor – who, in an amusing irony, is as squeaky and ineffective here as at probably any other time in his history (“I do not want more blankets, I want to get out of here!”). To see the Doctor scrambling to get the amiable Manussans to believe him is funny, but it also creates real suspense as we watch the Mara move towards its goal with complete ease.

But ‘Snakedance’ doesn’t simply tell a tense story set in a believable culture – it has real observations to make about reading the past, and somewhat odd ones at that, at least in the context of this series. For in ‘Snakedance’ we see that, for once, it’s the superstitious characters who are in the right, and the skeptical ones who are shown up as fools. This comes into focus in the fascinating character of Ambril, a tunnel-visioned academic with the authority of a government behind him (frightening thing). While the character’s earnestness and archaeological zeal is respectable, even admirable – he’s anything but a mad scientist – he is nevertheless so wrapped up in his own way of viewing the past that he can’t see new history being made around him. He scoffs at the Doctor (who, as I said, is quite a wonderful cracked young man in this story), but we can only suspect he’d act the same way even if the warnings about the Mara came from a more credible source. Ambril likes the past the way it is – frozen in time, preserved for posterity under museum glass. And Bailey’s script does a marvelous job of communicating the character’s smallness (the ‘sixth head’ joke is perhaps a little obvious, but it brings the point to the fore well enough).

The other caste of skeptical character here, of course, is the hereditary ruling elite, represented by bored Lon and his mother Tanha. Both characters are basic upper-class stereotypes, but they become quite full-blooded in the hands of the capable actors; more than that, they function well in the story, both in terms of their service to the plot and their symbolic resonance (as decadent skeptics so modern that they *laugh* at the Mara stories, despite being descended from the family who originally destroyed it!).

So who are the heroes of ‘Snakedance’? The obvious guess is Dojjen, Ambril’s counterpart and philosophical opposite, a scholar who takes such a hands-on approach to his subject that he becomes a true believer, and renounces his shallow culture for a mystic’s life in the wilderness. But the script’s real hero might actually be mild-mannered Chela, a kind of reverse skeptic – a student of science who is nevertheless able to imagine a reality outside his own experience, who begins to question the secular norm he has always known. He is a man with imagination, and Bailey seems to value that more highly than any devotion to science and reason; in fact, it’s implied that the search for knowledge is what created the Mara in the first place. (One senses that Barry Letts would have *loved* a script like this, and I like to think that the blue crystals were included in the plot as a conscious tribute to ‘Planet of the Spiders.’)

As for the aesthetics of the story, the absurd Manussan costumes are always good for a laugh (Lon does look like a refugee from a particularly wild Duran Duran video), and some of the snake effects are a bit sad, but by and large it has the look of classic eighties Doctor Who. Janet Fielding gives a good performance, and she is helped by the sound technicians (her ‘Exorcist’-like sudden voice change – “NO!” – is very effective); and Peter Davison is as wonderful as usual. As is so often the case, Sarah Sutton isn’t given anything to do, but as I can’t stand Nyssa anyway, I don’t mind. Director Fiona Cummings has some good ideas, and helps to make Lon and Tanha into more believable characters than they perhaps are on paper. (When Tanha stands with her back to her son - and the camera – it conveys her hurt better than words or acting ever could). The ending is a little sudden, but for once this abruptness works perfectly – I much prefer an ‘open’ ending like this to a hasty, well-let’s-sum-it-all-up-and-say-goodbye scene like the ones we so often get in this series.

A final thought: after sitting through a sometimes unpleasantly flirtatious first season of Russell T. Davies’s new Who, I found it refreshing to see the classic, sexless Doctor -one who doesn’t even recognize that his pert companion is wearing a new dress!

FILTER: - Television - Fifth Doctor - Series 20