Doctor Who: Companions’ Snakes on a Brain – “…Dreams are important” (Whovember #5)

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The 50th birthday watch moves on to a firm wicket with the first of the sport Doctors, the well regarded Fifth.  All bouffant and brave heart, he inherited a full TARDIS which arguably pushed the Doctor’s companions to the fore more than ever.  But while there’s a notable death, a notable assassin and a notable android during his tenure there was only a hint of what was to come. 

#5: Mara Tales:  Kinda and Snakedance

WHEN IT CAME TO THIS SCALY FOE, IT WAS AN EASY CHOICE.  Not only an arc, but one that had managed to escape me until now and is generally well regarded.  In the surprisingly mixed bag that constitutes the Davison era, it’s easy to see why the Mara Tales have emerged with a rather enhanced reputation.

Christopher Bailey crafted a mythos in his serials that was both refreshing and very Doctor.  Of course, his work has been academically analysed – one of the first to have any such scrutiny in fact – but it’s easy to see what went right with just a cursory glance.  While not distinct in the canon by any means, the Mara is a wonderfully realised non-corporeal, immortal opponent.  One of the all too few monsters who are an idea, it both occupies the same dream world as Freddy Krueger while requiring the same agreement from its foe as Mephistopheles – and just as exploitative to boot.  But still, despite its totem significance, it’s totally alien.  That’s a compelling idea, that ancient root of evil sat waiting, quietly, timeless in some dark corner of the universe.  That it crosses ground with so many horror films is no accident.

As such, the Mara is one of those fiends that never directly talks to the Doctor.  Even through a possessed humanoid may have a chat, it’s never for very long.  The Doctor had to delve into other areas to realise the Mara’s snake form and defeat it.  One of the key influences, among many, is of course Buddhism.  It wasn’t the first time that Buddhist ideas had seeped into Who though.  A decade earlier, then producer Barry Letts had brought such ideas heavily to bear on the Third Doctor’s exit.  Similarly, that era-ending story had an alien force as blatant totem, albeit with slightly more Terran origins.  And more legs.  But the parallels with that tale are slim.  The Mara’s exploits are not only fresh and referential, but constitutes a story ark that reaches far and wide for its inspiration and lets them unravel like a very leisurely snake.

Kinda (Season 19, 1982)

Kinda is a quite mesmeric marvel of a story.  Featuring good and bad body swapping (it’s all a matter of perspective) as well as extraordinarily surreal sequences and culture clashes, it’s astonishing that at times it feels so stagey.  And that’s a good thing.  It foreshadows a number of later episodes, not least the similarly mesmeric Ghostlight in its abstract abandonment and development of characters.  Unfortunately the sacrifice for this captivating unworldiness is a rather complicated plot.  That has knocked points off for some viewers, but it was a delight for me to think well into the second part that I’ve no idea what the hell is going on.

Oddly, Kinda kicks off with a pelt.  Straight into the action, the thinly disguised British Expedition Force are going stir crazy.  Into the mix of the jungle planet, the TARDIS crew have already landed prior to us discovering them.  Perhaps it’s Nyssa’s rather extraordinary disappearance from the script (it was far too complicated to include her after an extra companion was noticed – typical Davison complaint) that adds a slight disconnect.  The jungle planet is less the root strewn messes seen in The DaleksPlanet of Evil or Planet of the Daleks than the Garden of Eden.  Of course, that analogy is writ large with the devious snake-like presence as we discover – but it does enhance a disorientating world.

While the ‘British’ colonial force is run by regulation, writing off the passive indigenous people, we learn that the natives aren’t the stone age tribe they appear.  They float around the sleeping Tegan like fairies as she sleeps in the wide-open paradise.  Meanwhile, the Doctor and Adric are frogmarched by the extraordinarily over the top scouting vehicle.  It’s absurd but it remains low-key.

Telepathy is key to the tale, as is madness and the effect of various factors on the players.  There may be the malevolent Mara, but there is also the stress and fatigue that drive Hindle to the edge, the threat and prophecy on the  elder tribe woman, the impending fate on her apprentice…  As a study in madness, it stands in Who as one of the better examples.  Then there’s Adric.  Ever strange with his bizarre collaboration and escape attempt.  If only the Doctor had given him one of Nyssa’s shot.

In the opening reversal of Genesis it’s an infected Tegan who throws an apple (of no knowledge-value whatsoever) onto the dumb male of the matriarchal Kinda tribe.  Before that it’s the classic dream cameo, complete with ancient and the inevitable Tegan versus Tegan stand-off.  That’s a rare slip into cliché (albeit, this is a couple of years before Nightmare on Elm Street), but it’s brief and proceeds to more than make up for it.  It’s intriguing that for all its Buddhist themes and opening Christian analogy, Kinda may offer some of the most referential horror motifsin Whodom.  Beyond the Biblical weight of evil, and the atavistic terror of the jungle there are the horror-staple twins who quickly entwine with Hindle’s and wonderfully unpredictable psychological horror.  Splitting the lines of mental disintegration is the Kinda box that may offer pain and pleasure indivisible to the invaders and predates Hellraiser’s Lament Configuration.  Of course it’s once again lower key, and when first opened following a cliff-hanger … a plant pops out, showing that Kinda has a sense of humour.  It also provides more than enough material to show that the Fifth Doctor likes a quote as much as his successor.  Talking of the Sixth Doctor, Kinda shows, with Peter Grimwade’s rather excellent direction that mirrors can provide an excellent denouement despite the silliness.  In all, it’s enough to put everyone involved, as well as the audience, off paradise.  Although it was rather elevated as a returning villain for the 20th season, it’s a tribute to how well received Kinda was a year previously that a sequel quickly slithered out of the traps.  

Snakedance (Season 20, 1983)

Snakedance is, if anything a little slower than its prequel.  That’s noticeable from its beginning where Tegan simply sleeps into the story.  Fortunately though, there’s no dream cameo here.  The Doctor’s far quicker off the bat this time, so much so you wonder if he should make promises as rash as the one he makes at the end.

That said, Snakedance is Aliens to Kinda’s Aliens in terms of its galactic reach and design.

The inhabitants of the planet the TARDIS crew are ominously led to, although meshed in history and the meshing of civilisations, is full of residents far more on a kilter than the savages and expeditionary force seen in Kinda.  Despite that, superstitions remain and they are soon brought to the fore – but not as quickly as the Doctor would like.  It all forms a net that the plot can meander around, full of mind-control and possession.  Snakedance’s unreality is tied up and around an alien bazaar sat in front of an ancient monument.  The set design is rather impressive and, yes I’m going to say it, rather New Series.

Again, it’s the little touches that disconcert.  The Federation is actually a monarchy.  Small acts of sleight of hand are noticed by the villains, when they never would be in other serials.  The Doctor, usually a commanding Time Lord is useless against the resistance of superstition – locked up when he isn’t believed.  There’s a re-enactment where the Play may very well be the Thing.  Similar to the Kinda tribe advanced knowledge of the double-helix, here there is advanced molecular engineering…  There’s also the random Punch and Judy and the constant repetition as the Doctor says, that dreams occur frequently during the day….  So the familiar, but mixed with the inevitable.  We know that the Mara exists at the background of thoughts, but in Snakedance much of the running time is spent watching people celebrate its defeat like a relic, and knowing that the Mara is using this processional facade.

Together Snakedance and Kinda the two have a loose political devolution.  Here, in place of an alien jungle with pith helmeted explorers riding the futuristic equivalent of elephants, there is a fundamental monarchy and the equivalent of a Prince Regent.  Snakedance is another rather low key affair where its mind control strands wind confusingly between the stalls of the alien bazaar.  It’s not only the design that’s very New Who but also its denouement.  The Doctor, surrounded by a crowd, seizing victory against all odds with some spiritual and mystical help before reassuring his companion…  Janet Fielding gets even more to do here than in Kinda thanks to prolonged possession.  It’s rather strange to see her accompanied at times by the one companion who slept through the last Mara adventure, but for long periods the groups are entirely separate.  Fielding get’s to chew the scenery of hidden rock rooms and let her eyes glow at cliff-hangers.  In Snakedance the companion makes a far more concerted stab at being villain.  Yes, we’ve had hypnotised assassins and we’d have blackmailed assassins… But here there’s the real risk Tegan may be lost.  It’s the power of the continuing sequel and its random nature. Can Tegan ever be free…

Still, it’s a snake that can bide its time.  Rather than take control of Ambril, it taunts and teases.

Classic Doctor Who hardly shied away from imperilling its companions, in fact it thrived on it, but here was something else.  True malevolence that could infiltrate the TARDIS and people en masse using that companion.  It’s funny that it’s Tegan.  Disgruntled and as miserable as the Third Doctor, here the reluctant companion has to confront her own vulnerability within the space that she has found itself in ever since taking that wrong turn on a motorway.  Companions would take on a new role under Davison, one rather sadly lost in the Sixth Doctor era.  It wouldn’t be until Ace that one would really start to show what they could do, and foreshadow the New Series just before the axe fell in Perivale.  After all, the Fifth was slowly whittling the TARDIS crew down when at the time the companion was still there to be saved, not to save the Doctor.

TIMEY-WIMEY:  Read on for the Sixth Doctor’s tussle with reputation in Whovember #6!

4 thoughts on “Doctor Who: Companions’ Snakes on a Brain – “…Dreams are important” (Whovember #5)”

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