‘Fear is the only poison.’ In the final analysis, this ending doesn’t quite land as well as it might, which is perhaps why the story as a whole undervalued. It’s a shame we’re left to imagine the comeuppances for such a vivid cast of characters – though I imagine after Lon’s public humiliation and Ambril’s part in it the Federation might well be looking for new leadership. I suppose with limited time, it’s right that the story focuses on Tegan’s recovery, and it’s fitting that it ends in quiet contemplation. I don’t think the concept of the Snakedance is well articulated, so it all ends up sounding a bit airy-fairy, but fortunately enough groundwork has been laid with the telepathic crystals that it doesn’t entirely matter.
There’s a creditable attempt to do a better giant snake than in Kinda, and it’s good for the fifth Doctor that he single-handedly wins a battle of wills with the Mara, even if he’s not able to convince anyone else to resist. Not that I think all of the previous Doctors would be able to either. You can imagine Pertwee in a similar story, eyes fixed on the Mara as he urges everyone else to rests, face straining with the mental effort – except there it would be played as the Doctor’s superhuman strength rather than the desperate defiance here. This Doctor isn’t an all-knowing wizard, so has to seek one out and learn the secret of defeating the Mara from Dojjen – but again, that’s pretty much what the third Doctor does in Planet of the Spiders.
If this isn’t quite a masterpiece, it’s still easily the most successful fifth Doctor story so far. The Doctor is heroic and thinks his way to a solution that doesn’t involve nearly everyone dying (an increasingly rare unequivocal victory during Saward’s tenure). We hear his desperate, panicked thoughts as he blames himself and demands to know how to save Tegan – which is easy to read as a reaction to his failure to save Adric. Janet Fielding gets more to do than in Kinda, and Sarah Sutton, while mostly doing the generic assistant stuff, gets some lovely moments (like when she ticks off the Doctor for picking her up – ‘It wasn’t necessary’ – provoking a brilliant reaction from Chela).
I like the clever links back to Kinda, all of which are subverted – the Hall of Mirrors that plays no part in the climax; the giant pink snakes that actually are puppets; the box that Ambril slowly opens – and which the Doctor runs away. In the end, I don’t think it’s as good as Warriors’ Gate, but I still think it’s the second-best story of the Eighties so far.
Next episode: Mawdryn Undead