‘Nobody these days believes in legends.’ This avoids some of the normal pitfalls of third episodes with a structure that keeps the Doctor out of the action but in the detail, learning about the origins of the Mara and the Snakedancers from Dojjen’s journal which he has persuaded Chela to share with him. Meanwhile, Lon and Tegan lure Ambril to their lair, and manipulate the same sort of greed that created the Mara to persuade him to reveal of the great crystal required in the Mara’s resurrection ceremony. It has less forward motion than the first half, but it’s a useful clarification and the mirroring of the Doctor’s temptation of Chela with Lon’s of Ambril creates a nice balance between the two elements.
Christopher Bailey’s firm grasp of character is the other thing that makes this work. We never really get a sense of why Hedin is willing to sell out Gallifrey to Omega because we never really get a sense of him at all. Ambril, on the other hand, has shown off his intellectual pride and need for recognition throughout the story so far, so it makes absolute sense that he falls victim to the Mara without it needing to resort to anything as tiresome as mind control. Tanha, always putting on a performance if there’s an audience of one, talks as though she feels as if she’s in a play: ‘I think perhaps you had better come with me. Isn’t that what one usually says in this kind of situation.’ Chela, upright and dutiful, in a very Shakespearean way, refuses to free the Doctor until he sees his superiors break their sacred bonds of trust, freeing him from his own vows.
Everything about this works, though. The sets, which were thrown together and by rights should look awful, aren’t generally the most impressive but the prison is the best one the series has done. There’s a wry Kinda in-joke during the Punch & Judy sequence, when Punch is attacked by a giant pink snake puppet. The creepy bits – like the showman’s mechanical repetition of his marketplace patter – are unsettling without being gruesome (increasingly the show’s go-to approach). The performances are great – particularly John Carson’s grim resignation when he returns from the Mara cave. Jonathon Morris’ wince at Sarah Sutton’s cliffhanger scream is heartfelt. If this ends well, it’ll be the best serial since Warriors’ Gate.
Next episode: Snakedance – Part Four