Written by:
Christopher Bailey
Directed by: Fiona Cumming
Starring: Peter Davison
Year: 1983
Video Availability (NTSC Version): Try Amazon

The 20th anniversary season seemed to be the year of writers giving linear follow-up works. While Steve Gallagher's Terminus wasn't a sequel to Warriors' Gate, it did surprise by taking Gallagher's fragmented narrative devices and stretching them out into a straight A to B storyline. Kinda wasn't as narratively esoteric as Gate, but in many ways it's more surprising to find its direct sequel is a straightforward adventure serial.

This is not to knock it outright, however - while not a patch on Kinda, Snakedance is still a thoughtful and intelligent story, and stands out among its season stablemates. Davison's fifth Doctor is remarkably callous in this one, his curiosity overriding Tegan's feelings. And while Bailey's second story again gets to be the one filmed entirely in a studio, it somehow works, making it all even more surreal. Only Martin Clunes's camp playing really detracts from what Who does best: strong stories, well told.

The village square should be awful, but somehow isn't. I think in one sense it's the sheer scale of it - it really is pretty ambitious for a studio - combined with the sympathetic direction by Fiona Cumming and Peter Howell's rewarding music. Also, the obviously fake nature of its construction pushes it towards Caligari style surrealism.
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One of the great things about this story is that everyone sees the Doctor as they realistically would do: a complete loony. Another great thing is Janet Fielding, delivering one of her strongest performances. In fact, looking back, Janet really is quite good, and it's only in her first few stories where she's really poor. In fact, Cumming must have been working overtime here because she even gets a reasonable performance out of Sarah Sutton.

It's perhaps to this serial's chagrin that two of its prominent stars have since appeared in useless BBC sticoms. And so it is that you can no longer look at Lon without thinking it's Gary from "we drink lager, tee hee" comedy Men Behaving Badly, or that Chela is Adrian "I said 'hanging by a thread', ho ho" Boswell from Bread. Yet look at how Bailey creates an entire culture spanning hundreds of years, including the helmet with the faces of delusion - wonderful stuff. Again, while the snake of the Mara is an obvious Biblical reference, it also makes for an interesting commentary on sexual power.
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Martin Clunes seems to be looking off camera at times for his cue while lip synching, but look at the scene where the Doctor is imprisoned - it's always shot from outside the cell, looking in, placing us once more in the role of observer. We're called upon to see the Doctor as the other characters do, which is exceptionally clever direction by Cumming. Sole exception is when the Doctor is beginning to earn Chela's trust - only then are we allowed to share the Doctor's view. Look at the unusual slanted design of the cell, too, suggesting danger. All clever stuff, though despite the best efforts of Cumming, Fielding and Brian Miller, there's no convincing us that that snake is anything other than a rubber toy from the joke shop.
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The scenes with the Doctor and the wizened old man do have a likeably ethereal quality when shot on film, as opposed to the video of the rest of the production. The unusual music that accompanies it (reminiscent of Inferno in a sense) also adds much.

It's arguable that the carnival sequences, like the punch and judy show in the previous episode, are just padding. But they pass by, and I'm not about to try and topple such a lovingly crafted house of cards. This is no stock story there to pay someone's mortgage, but a tale that the author really cared about. "I offer you fear in a handful of dust." Wonderful stuff, leagues ahead of "what does that mean, Doctor?" fare. Also curious is Nyssa's offbeat "Thankyou, but it wasn't necessary" to the Doctor. In fact, while Janet's role in the second half is greatly lessened, it's possible to suggest that this is the best Tegan story, and that it's definitely the best Nyssa story. If Sarah Sutton was always like this she would have been far more bearable - could it really just be with so many companions in the other stories she never had the chance to shine?

You know, I suspect that conservative fans who hate Kinda (bearing in mind back in the 80s it was regarded by fans as an all-time turkey) prefer Snakedance just because the snake looks better. A pretty shallow indictment, really, and we also get the rather pat resolution where the Doctor destroys the Mara by taking a blue crystal - just like the Pertwee years all over again. In fact, this sense of anti-climax does cause the story's intellectual ambitions to dim somewhat. But then again, when you were ten all you wanted was a close-up of a snake with its guts pouring out of its mouth…
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On reflection, this low-key and rarely discussed story is probably the highlight of season twenty. In my review of Enlightenment (which I covered first) I suggested that was the peak of the anniversary year, but seeing this again has caused me to rethink such a stand. Christopher Bailey's scripts are beautiful and literate Who that possibly wouldn't work under any other Doctor. The perfect Davison vehicle, and proof that it doesn't always have to be monsters and corridors.
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