Tag Archives: mara

Delusion, dropouts and Snakedance (1983)

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In the middle of the otherwise straight-laced Davison era, lies Snakedance – an exotic, experimental and slightly deviant experience. It feels like an illicit treat, like a sneaky spliff before heading back into English class, focussing on Eliot or Blake. It’s got much to say about expanding your mind to see the true nature of things. But let’s start with its most famous scene, which focuses on an elaborate but mysterious hat.

It’s a hat from the old times of the planet Manussa and it’s in the possession of this planet’s chief fusspot Ambril (John Carson). The hat features five sculpted faces in an outer orbit around its crown but is confusingly called “the six faces of delusion”. Not even Ambril, an antiquities scholar, knows why. It’s left to the Doctor (an excitable Peter Davison) to point out that the missing sixth face belongs to the hat’s strong necked wearer. Ambril, who had put the numerical discrepancy down to his ancestors’ inability to count rather than their ability to balance oversized headwear, is outraged to have this pointed out to him and orders the Doctor out.

Critics of this scene have mentioned that it’s a pretty obvious conceit and it’s surprising that Ambril and his fellow Manussans hadn’t worked it out themselves. Fair enough, but it’s also saying something else about them: that their minds are closed to symbolism, metaphor and nuance. Snakedance tells us that the Manussans are a decadent, complacent people, but that scene shows how bereft of imagination they are. They are blind and deaf to the threat of the return of the Mara – the ancient evil that once dominated their planet – because they can’t conceive of it happening. Just as they can’t imagine a situation where five faces can become six. They cannot open their minds to the possible.

Opening one’s mind to new possibilities and engaging in mind altering experiences to see the truth of things are at the heart of this enigmatic story. It starts with a dream, in which companion Tegan (Janet Fielding) has a premonition of arriving at the snake’s head cave on Manussa where the Mara will attempt its return. Later, the Doctor will hypnotise her and have her regress to childhood in order to confirm his diagnosis that the Mara is resident insider her head. In both these states, it’s shown that the only way to reveal the Mara is to suppress your own ego and enter into a subconscious state.

Once on Manussa, Tegan is mentally overtaken by the Mara, as she was in Kinda, this story’s prequel. Possessed companions are standard Who fare, but Tegan’s is something different because the Mara’s presence suggests not just suppression of her personality but an amplification of darker characteristics lying latent with her. This makes the Mara a uniquely disturbing creation: greed, lust, envy, wrath are all magnified by the Mara. It makes Tegan’s experience feel like a genuine expansion of the mind, although in a deeply malevolent way. And to reinforce that this mind expansion opens up new ways of seeing things, there are symbols of distorted perception dotted around, like crystal balls and fairground mirrors.

Altering your mind also eventually proves to be the only way to prevent the Mara’s physical return to Manussa. This is the only Doctor Who story to place mystical, almost heroic significance on the “dropout”; the person who turns their back on society to travel into the wilderness, and search for life’s essential truths. Maybe with the help of drugs; the image of a mind blowing trip in the isolated wilderness seems to be what the snakedance actually is.  We only ever see one snakedancer, Dojjen (Preston Lockwood) and we never truly meet him. He turns up in a series of unexplained close ups which are dotted through the story and reappears at the end as the Doctor’s spirit guide to chaperone him through his own bender.

Dojjen used to hold the same position as Ambril, that of dusty historian and bureaucrat, but he dropped out of Manussan society to wander in the desert. Ambril dismisses Dojjen as a “crank”, one who “decided his particular line of research was best pursued up in the hills with a snake wrapped round his neck.” But Snakedance positions Dojjen not as a spaced out loon, but as the wise man from whom the Doctor must seek advice. He’s a bit like K’anpo in Planet of the Spiders, except that Dojjen is completely outside the establishment, and he’s a drug user. OK, so he doesn’t actually drop acid but his drug is the venom of the snake and he convinces the Doctor to sample it as well. And so we have the only Doctor Who story where the Doctor takes a mind altering substance in order to solve the story’s problem.

The insight the Doctor gains from the experience is to find the “still point” within himself. When the Doctor returns to the snake’s head cave to confront the Mara, he finds dozens of Manussans in thrall to it, paralysed as the Mara feeds off their mental energy, in order to take corporeal form. The question is how to prevent it and the answer, again, is to change mental states.

It’s never fully explained what the still point is, but what the Doctor seems to do at the end of Snakedance is to meditate, to eradicate conscious thought and therefore starve the Mara of the energy it needs to fully emerge. All around him, the gormless, weak willed Manussans are entranced by the Mara, unable to clear their minds and disbelieve it out of existence. Again, they lack the ability to open their minds, to mentally adapt to the world around them, which has suddenly got very dangerous very quickly.

This is why, I think, Snakedance is such an intriguing story. But it’s also a languid one. Its big moments are not action sequences, but ones which focus on characters changing their consciousness in order to expand their perception. They are personal, internalised events. In fact, the standard Doctor Who runaround bits – your chases through market places, dashes back to the TARDIS, the interminable Part Three lock up – are its least interesting segments.

It’s a story hampered by having to remember to be Doctor Who, as reinvented in 1983 as a cut-price action adventure serial. But despite all of that, writer Christopher Bailey manages to slyly – even covertly – tell a story with a deeply Doctor Who moral: a lack of imagination leads to stultification and corruption, but open your mind and you’ll be enriched and rewarded.

Plus you’ll know how to interpret a mysterious hat. So there’s that too.

LINK TO Thin Ice: fairgrounds and tattooed men.

NEXT TIME: It’s reality TV gone feral in Vengeance on Varos. And cut it… there!

Caution, character and Kinda (1982)

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It’s hard to know where to start with Kinda. There’s so much going on in it, all of it interesting. But so much has already been written about it in attempts to solve its mysteries, track down its allusions and just generally work out what’s it all about?  I could have another go, but I’ll only repeat what others have said, or get it all wrong or both. So instead, I’m going to talk about a character in Kinda who is often overlooked: the Doctor.

The Doctor, as played by Peter Davison, holds Season 19 together. Behind the scenes, three script editors worked on this set of 7 stories, plus a one off special about the tin dog. It’s no wonder that this season produced such an eclectic clutch of stories: from the lyrical brain teaser of Castrovalva,  to straightforward monster mash The Visitation, to cozy murder Black Orchid to whatever Time-Flight is via the return of the Cybermen and the death of a companion. And Kinda, this esoteric parable, sits in the middle. Not since season 3 has the show veered so wildly from one thing to another.

In any other prime time, family show, this might be a problem, alienating viewers from one week to another. But this show has Peter Davison as its lead, and at that time, he was as big a TV star as you would have found on British TV. Producer John Nathan-Turner used to say that when he was recasting the towering Tom Baker in the role of Doctor Who that he wanted someone younger and with straight hair. What he didn’t say, for whatever reason, was that he was also looking for a star; someone with a following they could bring to the show.

Davison’s profile in the early 80s is something which might be lost of newer fans who weren’t around to experience it, but it pushed the show into mainstream popularity. For want of a better analogy, it would be like Kris Marshall becoming the Doctor (what a crazy idea!). He was a familiar face and he was well known for taking on charming, young larrikins. He had a presence about him which was informed by his other TV roles and that was part of his appeal.

He’s the sort of Doctor who allows you take risks like telling a story like Kinda because his presence kinda forces it into the shape of a standard Doctor Who story. Kinda is a strange, mystical story, but Davison is a solid, dependable presence in it. He’s your boy-next-door hero, who your Mum remembers from All Creatures Great and Small and he plays it dead straight while all sorts of weird shit goes on around him. It’s hard for Kinda to be completely mystifying with the fifth Doctor around; he’s intrinsically a patient explainer of things. (Compare it to that similar head scratcher Warriors’ Gate, in which the aloof fourth Doctor sheds no light on proceedings.)

Why is this important? Because as well as being a stabilising factor in an unusual story, it gives Davison licence to play the Doctor in a radically different way to Tom Baker.

Some have argued that the Doctor is a peripheral presence in Kinda, but that’s not how I see it at all. He’s actually a catalytic presence in the story; his arrival on Deva Loka brings Tegan to the planet which allows the Mara to emerge. And it’s he who bridges the gap between the colonially minded dome dwellers and the Kinda themselves. Finally, it’s he who devises the plan to deal with the Mara itself.

Thing is, I think that from the outside it can look like he’s being more passive. Partly that’s because he expresses himself in far more passive way than Tom Baker – sometimes verging on meekness. Like this exchange, when the bellicose dome commander Sanders (Richard Todd) promotes his febrile 2IC Hindle (Simon Rouse).

SANDERS: Oh yes, incidentally, while I’m away, Mister Hindle will be in charge.
DOCTOR: I don’t think that’s…
SANDERS: Yes? What?
DOCTOR: (backing down) Nothing. 

It’s the sort of tentative approach the show hasn’t seen since Troughton left (was Tom Baker ever tentative?). Later, when Hindle flips his lid and starts raving about the menace presented by the trees, the Doctor doesn’t seek to shut him down; instead he perseveres with his gentle approach to understand the man’s psychosis.

HINDLE: Seeds, spores and things. Everywhere. Getting hold, rooting, thrusting, branching, blocking out the light.
DOCTOR: Yes, but I…
HINDLE: Don’t you see?!
DOCTOR: Nearly, nearly, nearly!

That “nearly, nearly, nearly” is the plea of someone trying to understand, trying to help. It’s the tiniest moment, but it’s distinctly fifth Doctor-ish. Can you imagine Tom or Pertwee taking this cautious tack with a madman? Early on in his tenure, Davison is pitching empathy as one of his Doctor’s defining traits.

Eventually, the Doctor and his newfound friend Todd (Nerys Hughes) escape from the dome and encounter the wise woman Panna (Mary Morris). She’s instantly insulting towards the Doctor. When she brands him an idiot, he takes it with bemused good humour. And when he can’t work out Adric’s (Matthew Waterhouse) coin trick, he’s intrigued, not indignant. When his joke about an apple a day keeping the Doctor away backfires, he retreats sheepishly. In all these ways and more, he’s marking himself out as different from Baker’s stridently prominent persona.

There’s another crucial moment for him at the story’s end. When he took over the role, Davison confided in Nathan-Turner that he didn’t know if he could summon the heroic strength to stand up to the show’s various villains. Nathan-Turner assured him that the character of the Doctor would naturally bestow that strength on the actor. As if to prove his point, Kinda features just such a moment, when the Doctor stares down the Mara, glaring at him through the eyes of Aris (Adrian Mills).

DOCTOR: I’m called the Doctor.
ARIS: Why do you involve yourself?
DOCTOR: Because I share the Kinda’s aim where you’re concerned.
ARIS: I now control the Kinda.
DOCTOR: Well, you did for a while, but no longer.

Davison’s Doctor is an active, heroic presence in Kinda, but his modus operandi is different to other, more boldly interventionist Doctors. He spends nearly all the story collecting information, working things out. It’s only in the fourth episode that he takes action, having gathered the data he needs.

This quiet, deliberate approach is important because one of Kinda’s themes is men trying – and failing – to assert their authority. Sanders shouts. Hindle shouts. The Mara roars. But the Doctor takes the subtler route: he listens, he empathises, he demurs, but he stands up to the bad guy when he has to. It’s a beguiling combination. It makes Kinda an important story in the development of Davison’s Doctor, among the many, many other things it is.

Walk quietly and carry a big stick of celery. He’s the Doctor who turned young Spandrell into a fan. And when he’s part of a story as smart, scary and sexy as this, I don’t think he can be beaten.

LINK TO The Eaters of Light: Demons crossing over from other worlds.

NEXT TIME… By the left frontal lobe of the sky demon, it’s The Pirate Planet.