Image Credit: Daniel Blythe – All rights reserved
Image Description: An inflatable snake poking out through a stone window
Snakedance and Christopher Bailey’s gifts to modern Doctor Who by Harry Draper
‘Where the winds of restlessness blow,
Where the fires of greed burn,
Where hatred chills the blood,
Here, in the depths of the human heart,
Here is the Mara.’
Snakedance is perhaps the single greatest allegory for how Doctor Who is the most adored, undervalued, inventive and disastrous property in popular culture. Cue theme sting.
2006: I have a confession to make. I don’t quite get Snakedance (1983). In my formative years of novice fandom, Doctor Who is the Doctor, the companion, the TARDIS, the Daleks and the Cybermen. Even when treading the hallowed halls of the Blackpool Exhibition, becoming aware of and being enthralled by Mechonoids and Morbius, the Mara had no such hold over my mind. Christopher Bailey’s two contributions to the programme, Kinda (1982) and its sequel Snakedance, cannot compete with my affections for Earthshock (1982) or Resurrection of the Daleks (1984). Or even Time-Flight (1982) – I am a strange child. Kinda, I concede, is at least cerebral, lurid, intriguing. I admit, I have as much interest in its follow-up as Director Ambril (John Carson) has in the Doctor’s ravings.
Being a completist, it is satisfying to have them as artefacts or relics of a bygone age, on BBC Video. But nothing more.
2011: I’m reading Doctor Who Magazine, and in bursts a madman, rambling about the Mara, imploring me to open my eyes. Not the Doctor, but writer Gary Gillatt. As I read his review of Snakedance to coincide with its DVD release as part of the Mara Tales boxset, I begin to see that there is more to this serial than meets the Great Mind’s Eye:
‘… everything is perfect in Snakedance. It’s as funny, scary,
silly, imaginative, reckless and just plain brainy as Doctor Who
needs to be… We can go back to it time after time after time, and
always find a level, a nuance we’ve not seen before. It’s a story for
us to grow into and grow old with. It’s a story to inspire and motivate
all future Doctor Who storytellers, as both carrot and stick.’
Unbeknown to me, Kinda and Snakedance had already secured their rightful place in the parley of Doctor Who scripture as bona fide classics.
2020: We are on the verge of isolation. As we prepare to face an unseen threat, constantly at the back of our minds, I take refuge in watching Kinda and Snakedance back to back. For the first time, with no caveats or compromise, I love them. The Box of Jhana has been opened. Sceptic has become convert.
But if we had to choose which of these is the jewel in the crown, the Great Crystal to be placed in the jaws of the horrible, rearing snake that is Doctor Who – which is it to be?
1982: Kinda is broadcast. Christopher Bailey looks at the finished programme, and winces. He reasonably says to himself, ‘Paradise was a garden centre. You could see the plant pots!’ and likens the ‘laughable’ production values to a pantomime. This is not to condemn the work of director Peter Grimwade, designer Malcolm Thornton or producer John Nathan-Turner, without whom Kinda would not have been possible. And it’s almost a cliche in itself, but worth reiterating – Doctor Who fans have often rejected the maxim of ‘wobbly sets and rubber monsters’, valuing the storytelling above all else. But we can sympathise with Bailey. The forest world of Deva Loka is noticeably artificial, flooded with studio light which only casts an unfavourable sheen upon that giant writhing snake’s plastic skin in the finale to Part Four. Eden needed to be shot at Ealing. Nevertheless, we can look past this. Kinda is, in spite of its limitations, a masterpiece.
This is where Snakedance has the advantage. It is an unqualified success that exploits these limitations.
1983: In Snakedance, Bailey creates a world that IS a pantomime – specifically, a pantomime staged to celebrate the end of the Sumaran Empire and the vanquishing of the Mara to the Dark Places of the Inside. In its original run between 1963-1989, Doctor Who did often look cheap. Russell T Davies, the award-winning writer who spearheaded the revival of the show, noted that ‘part of its cheapness, part of its slight amateuress at times, allowed viewers in’. Bailey was the first writer to make that cheapness integral to the world-building. He presents us with a beautifully tacky bazaar, Manussa, where the Mara is not simply history and culture, but merchandise. The plastic snake is not the final embodiment or manifestation of the Mara as it was in Kinda. Here, in the fictional narrative itself, it is a literal prop being paraded about by the Manussan public. We also see it slithering its way into the Punch and Judy show, much to the delight of the children. It is a striking and ingenious technique of visually conveying the Mara’s presence with the limited resources available. This is not to say this is a bad-looking piece of television. Only on my most recent viewing did I notice just how intricate the design of this production is, expertly crafted by director Fiona Cumming and designer Jan Spoczynski. See the candles or glowsticks Lon acquires to take Ambril to Snakemouth Cave? Snake candelabra! It’s a slight shame we couldn’t have an in-joke about snake rub-on transfers, but that may have been an indulgence too far. Speaking of which, when will Eaglemoss get round to doing that Mara statue?
Significantly, if the production values ever appear to be false, unrealistic, artificial – those words encapsulate Manussa perfectly. The shoddy booth of distorting mirrors, the sawdust on the studio floor, that maddening mosaic scapular worn by the fortune teller – all play to the strength of the story’s subject matter. Bailey admits that this was intended as a commentary upon the production values of Kinda. But I wonder if he realised that, in Snakedance, he had provided the single greatest allegory for the paradox of Doctor Who. The programme can be regarded as a tawdry affair made on a shoestring budget with duct tape and pantomime cows (or snakes), and yet offers us the most imaginative stories. If Snakedance is about anything, it is about how external appearances can be both revealing and deceptive.
For once, the production values are not competing with the imagination of the writer and failing to meet expectations. We have a world that feels real and alive, and a story which will never age or date. For four evenings in January 1983, Doctor Who was truly timeless.
If the design of Snakedance captures the banality of life on Manussa, it is the dialogue that provides its true riches. Tanha paints a morbidly middle-class picture of the Snakedancers who have secluded themselves from society:
‘Oh, they were frightful. They were all covered in ash. Some
of them were almost naked. They lived entirely on roots and
berries and things, and they put themselves into trances. It was
Similarly, it is the Doctor who discerns the otherwise evasive origins of the Crystal which led to summoning the Mara into existence:
‘The crystals were designed and built by a people who had
mastered the techniques of molecular engineering in a zero
Bailey does not ask the production team to try and visualise zero-gravity engineering or the heady, spiritual underworld of the Snakedancers. He knows that cast and crew are working against time, the clocks ticking down to ten, the lights threatening to go out at BBC Television Centre. Understandably, he puts his faith not in post-production or special effects like chroma-key, but in Peter Davison and Colette O’Neil. And yes, the joke about the Six Faces of Delusion, the headdress that renders the wearer’s own as the sixth, may be obvious now, but the fact that the intention is completely lost upon Ambril, the self-designated expert, never fails to make me laugh. Just goes to show – show and tell.
Dialogue and design sing from the same hymn sheet, and for all its apparent ambiguity, the song is lucid. Manussa is an emporium where everybody has sold out and given up. Lon, another of our Six Faces of Delusion, is played by Martin Clunes. The son of the Federator is only too wise to this failure of Manussan civilisation, but only because the greatest consequence is that it bores him. In his privileged position as heir, he does nothing to effect any change, dismissing Ambril’s work as digging for trinkets, dismissing his own mother’s pamperings. He does not believe in dreams.
‘The Mara was destroyed, not banished to another dimension.
It won’t return in a dream or in any other form.’
This is cleverfully juxtaposed with the Doctor’s own philosophy in the following scene:
‘Dreams are important, Nyssa. Never underestimate them.’
Only the Mara has a dream. Is a dream. The Mara is the one part of the Manussan consciousness that wants anything. The fate of impresario Dugdale, played by Brian Miller, husband of Elisabeth Sladen, is absolutely appropriate; he is mentally reduced to a wind-up toy, his empty head swaying from side to side, eyes not daring to blink, endlessly inviting the public into his shoddy booth of distorting mirrors. That’s the people of Manussa all over.
The Mara exists where the fires of greed burn. It is telling that its posthumous legacy (if that is the correct term, for the Mara can never truly die) lies in the ever-constant climate of capitalism.
The original ending of Snakedance was cut in post-production (available to watch as a deleted scene on the DVD). It’s a traditional ending to a Doctor Who serial. The status quo of Manussa has changed for the better, the Doctor applauded by the public, recognised at last as a hero. Ambril offers an apology, albeit begrudgingly. It is left to the Manussans to decide whether or not the Great Crystal should be destroyed. One suspects this was the hand of script editor Eric Saward rather than Bailey, but that’s only speculation. Regardless, thank heavens this was cut. You can understand the logic behind such an ending, as an affirmation of the show’s general optimism. But the broadcast ending, with silence falling upon the horrified, helpless civilians, the Doctor holding Tegan close to comfort her – a rare occurrence – and the Mara lying dead, its jaws forming a mocking grin… it’s like we’re all in shock. Perhaps there just is no coming back from this. The shopkeepers and merchants will no doubt walk away from this spectacle, the horror already a faded memory, wondering if they should slash the prices of their clockwork snakes to shift a bit of stock and earn a few extra credits before the sun goes down.
‘You can’t mend people!’ screams Hindle, played by Simon Rouse, in Kinda. The great joy of that story is that he is proven wrong and healed by the mental balm projected from the Box of Jhana. No such luck here. Manussa is broken, has always been so and will always be so.
Strangely, few writers since Bailey have applied this idea again – the concept of weaving a monster into the cultural fabric of our society. The most obvious example is Robert Shearman, self-proclaimed devotee to Kinda and Snakedance, having cited the latter as his ‘very favourite Doctor Who story’. Rather wonderfully, student is now master, becoming one of the most critically acclaimed writers in theatre and prose. In his popular Big Finish audio drama Jubilee, the foundation of the hit television episode Dalek, Shearman asks the question – what would the Doctor have thought of Dalekmania? Presumably, he would have been horrified. Shearman brings the Sixth Doctor into an alternative timeline in which we do indeed buy those Dalek tea towels and mugs. In both stories, the Dalek and the Mara are faded icons, mocked and used by the people who, without knowing it, now embody the values of their enemies. Just as the Manussans are locked inside their self-imposed worldwide shop, the glorious English Empire suppresses its subjects through the outlawing of contracted words and enforcing national spirit. Naturally, the Doctor’s warnings of the ever-relevant threat posed to these regimes are not heeded – with horrific consequences. Both monsters take advantage of their respective situations to stage the means of their revenge and renaissance. In ouroborosian logic, the Mara exploits the ceremony celebrating its destruction five hundred years ago to instigate its return, the snake quite literally eating its own tail to survive. The lone Dalek, imprisoned in the Tower of London, appears to accept its execution at the jubilee commemorating its defeat, only for the Dalek invasion force of the past to materialise in the present, like ghosts coming back to haunt us.
Snakedance remains encoded in the DNA of some of the best episodes to follow in its wake. BAFTA winning writer Steven Moffat gleefully borrows from Bailey’s two contributions on a regular basis. In Blink, the Weeping Angels are frozen for all eternity when the TARDIS dematerialises and they are forced to see each other. This no doubt owes its conception to the Mara being trapped in the circle of solar panel mirrors and forced to leave Aris’ body in Kinda. According to the Doctor, the one thing evil cannot face is itself – a fairytale logic which applies to both the Angels and the Mara. In The Eleventh Hour, Prisoner Zero, a multi-form, disguises itself as a man and a dog. In a twist that is both comedic and disturbing, it is the man who growls and snarls, as Prisoner Zero, in a hurry to get dressed, has ‘got the voice a bit muddled’ between the two. Hold up a mirror to this, and we see its reflection – the sequence where Tegan donates her voice to Lon, the two sharing in their enslavement to this monster that speaks through their mouths. The Weeping Angels’ mental attack upon Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) in The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone evokes the nightmarish ordeals suffered by Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding) when she becomes a supplicant of the Mara. In both instances, the eyes are the ‘doors’ into the soul, which allow the demons to consume our companions from within. Could we even go as far to interpret the Pandorica as a direct lift from Kinda – a box that threatens to reveal a terrible secret if we open it? Those last three examples only cover one series from the Matt Smith years. As Shearman asserts the point to Bailey in an interview smuggled onto the DVD release of Snakedance, his work is like ‘temples’ to him, Moffat and Paul Cornell, opening another Box of Jhana in the process.
One of the key themes of Snakedance is legacy. Fittingly, the serial’s influence permeates some of the most popular episodes of the twenty-first century. Bailey’s disciples went on to write for the show that they loved. They studied the text intently, and have been rewarded by its riches through both childhood and career.
This is the ultimate vindication of Snakedance. For Christopher Bailey and the Doctor, it is the triumph of the writer and the reader over the false, commodified and manufactured – See Andrew O’Day’s excellent article, ‘Wise Men Say’ in Tides of Time 43. The Doctor uses Dojjen’s private journal to understand the nature of the Mara, to seek a truth that they never find – Thank you, Jon Pertwee. He finds the still point, refuses to submit and prevents the Legend of the Return becoming a reality. And like the pictograms on the cave walls and the journal of Dojjen, Snakedance is history worth revisiting. Maybe now more so than ever.
We face an enemy, constantly at the back of our minds. Find the still point.
‘Fear is the only poison.’
Bailey, Christopher, ‘Moments of Pleasure’, Doctor Who Magazine, ed. Clayton Hickman (Panini: Tunbridge Wells, 2003)
Davies, Russell T, Doctor Who Confidential: The World of Who, (BBC: 2005)
Gillatt, Gary, ‘Mara Tales: Kinda & Snakedance’, Squabbling Rubber (2011) https://gillatt.wordpress.com/2011/10/10/mara-tales/, accessed 11 April 2020
Shearman, Robert, Christopher Bailey, Interview, Mara Tales: Snakedance (2 Entertain: 2011)