Review [DW]: “Snakedance”

20×2. Snakedance
Writer: Christopher Bailey
Director: Fiona Cumming
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Mara, having maintained a hidden presence within Tegan’s mind, begins to take control of her again, diverting the TARDIS to its original homeworld of Manussa, where it plans to use the legendary Great Crystal to effect its return. The Doctor and Nyssa have to contend not only with the Mara’s manipulations but with the skepticism of the local populace, many of whom now regard the Mara as a myth and are preparing a festival celebrating the story of its banishment.

Review: If “Kinda” straddled the line between science fiction and fantasy, “Snakedance” pretty much leaps across it. While there are traces of conventional Doctor Who pseudoscience (the Doctor invents a gadget to try to block the Mara from interacting with Tegan, and there’s a line positing the importance of the Great Crystal’s molecular structure), the Mara’s plan is essentially the performance of a magic ritual. The Mara itself also gets more of a backstory, having been created out of the negative emotions of a group of people who made an ill-advised attempt to harness the Great Crystal’s power hundreds of years ago. The Doctor defeats the Mara at the end not by using any sort of technology, but by finding the “still point” within himself and countering the negative psychic energy of the Mara, as advised by the Manussan ascetic Dojjen. This ending, incidentally, transformed a story that seemed like it might be out of place on Doctor Who into one that might *only* work on Doctor Who. The meeting with Dojjen, in which he and the Doctor communicate telepathically, is the most memorable scene in the serial, but the idea of the protagonist suddenly being able to understand all this and find his or her “still point” when there are just minutes left might seem like a stretch on most television shows. When the protagonist is the Doctor, however, I actually have no trouble buying into this idea.

Manussa doesn’t rank among the most interesting alien societies that we’ve seen on Doctor Who, but I did appreciate that the Doctor’s confict with the locals arises not because they mistakenly think he’s behind whatever evil scheme is under way, but because they don’t believe there’s an evil scheme at all. The Mara is apparently now regarded by the Manussan establishment as a myth, and those who still believe in it are seen as crackpots: Dojjen has been exiled, and the Doctor is seen more as a disruptive nuisance than anything else when he tries to warn everyone what’s happening. The Mara is able to operate partly by appealing to the vanity of Ambril, Manussa’s Director of Historical Research who sniffs at the Doctor’s lack of academic credentials and who is persuaded to retrieve the Great Crystal with the promise of getting credit for an archaeological discovery.

While the Davison era had yet to produce an absolute clunker (though “Time-Flight” perhaps came close), it’s hovered mostly in the average-to-pretty good range so far. “Snakedance” does take some chances by venturing further into mysticism and the supernatural than is typical for Doctor Who, but it also just barely gets away with it, and neither the underlying concepts nor the details of plot and characterization are strong enough to make it a top-notch serial.

Rating: *** (out of four)

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