Doctor Who episode 584: Snakedance – Part One (18/1/1983)
‘Dare you come face to face with the finally unfaceable? Children half price.’ The opening shot – a hermit in a painted landscape – looks very artificial. But that works because the whole episode is full of artifice; the Manussan culture has turned archaeology, history and religion into a commodity for tourists. Showmen and fortune tellers twist the story of the Mara into a way to cash in. Tanha is all fake charm and concern: actually she’s as dismissive as her awful, entitled son of people like Ambril, she just does more to hide it.
I like that this is clearly a spiritual sequel to Kinda without repeating all of its plot beats. It picks the bits of the earlier story that worked best – the world-building and the dream imagery – and repurposes them into a very different kind of story. Manussa already feels like a more real place than Arc of Infinity’s Gallifrey, with a history that extends beyond a tick list of stuff. I buy the Mara as a returning horror from the past much more than I did Omega. The stakes are clear: ‘Life under the Mara must have been gruesome in the extreme’ and that’s what is returning. Tegan’s dreams are more literal than in Kinda (snake heads swallowing her up, or rushing out of a crystal ball in a superb cliffhanger), the Doctor’s attempts to regress her through her childhood (Fielding does a stronger Australian accent), and beyond are great.
In fact, all of this is great. It’s the best Davison episode so far. The script is constructed intelligently, for instance Tanha’s memory of Dojjen mixing to a shot of the mysterious hermit, clearly signifying who he is. Characterisation is strong: these are all “types” (the pedantic Ambril, the brattish Lon) but done very well. But, importantly, the regulars are characterised equally strongly – addressing a failing of the previous season. The comedy of the opening TARDIS scene, as Nyssa tries to show off her new costume and the Doctor remains oblivious, is very funny and very telling – Nyssa is letting go of Traken; the Doctor is determined and single minded. He keeps physically moving Nyssa, and later he ignores Tegan’s discomfort (just as he ignored the man Omega knocks down in Amsterdam) as he pushes for the truth. There’s a harder edge to him here than Davison is sometimes given credit for.
Also, for Tegan/Nyssa shippers – Tegan is in Nyssa’s bed (the same display case of pink pottery is in the background).
Next episode: Snakedance – Part Two