There’s a chess game motif in this episode that is unsubtle but quite fun. Tegana sees it as a ‘fascinating game of strategy of war’ between two equally-balanced armies. The Khan is obviously Marco’s ruler, hence Tegana’s later line ‘Marco, can you save your king?’ Elsewhere, Tegana proves himself a cunning player of games, slipping out of the encampment after hours, then later, offering to brief Marco’s guards, and finally, playing saviour to the group when he promises to ride off in search of water. Sometimes Marco falls for it, sometimes not, but the rivalry between the two men is compelling, and makes for an interesting episode.
Elsewhere, Lucarotti makes sure the road to Cathay contains as much peril as Skaro. First, Susan and Ping-Cho are lost in a sandstorm, then Tegana sabotages the water supplies, threatening to condemn the travellers to death among the bleached bones of previous victims of the Gobi Desert. The water plot is well set up: it was the cliffhanger of The Roof of the World, and it’s reinforced by a conversation between Ian, Marco and Tegana about how many barrels of water they’ll need to make it across to the other side.
So far, everywhere the time travellers have landed has been a hostile environment – even the Ship, for two weeks. A lot of titles reinforce this idea of dangerous places: The Forest of Fear, the Lake of Mutations, the Petrified Jungle – and now The Singing Sands (and, next time, The Cave of Five Hundred Eyes – I guess the title was changed because they’d already had a Cave of Skulls). Somewhere in the series’ future, I wonder when, the places the TARDIS lands become less threatening than the people in them. The Singing Sands has its cake and eats it by making the geography as dangerous as bandits or warlords.
Lucarotti’s script is also very poetic, with some lovely descriptions of sandstorms, and of the desert at night – a ‘great silver sea’ that reminds Susan of ‘the metal seas of Venus’ (presumably where the Doctor learned karate). You can see why the actors involved all speak so highly of this one, especially since they all get to dress up in beautiful silks, and everyone gets something to do (except the Doctor, who has about two lines before he keels over). Susan is being written as an ordinary 1960s teenager, using slang words like ‘Oh, crazy! We dig it!’ which works very well in context (even if it’s a bit Ace!), and suits Carole Ann Ford better than the ethereal space girl she was asked to be in the first 13 episodes. Mark Eden gets the most interesting role, though – giving him voiceovers narrating the journey, revealing his thoughts and fears, means he’s a much more developed character than any of the non-regulars we’ve seen to date.
With much more incident than the previous episode, coupled with very strong dialogue, this is the best episode since An Unearthly Child.
The Singing Sands no longer exists. Not in any of its regenerations. This review is courtesy of the excellent Loose Cannon reconstruction
Next episode: The Cave of Five Hundred Eyes