|“I’m sorry, Ms. Jovanka, but the passengers have been|
complaining that instead of directing them to the toilets
you send them to a chamber occupied by a horrifying snake
god. We’re going to have to let you go.”
It’s January 18, 1983. You can’t hurry Phil Collins off the number one spot, but given time Men at Work dispatch him, replacing him with “Down Under.” The lower portions of the charts are somewhat more optimistic, with Madness’s “Our House” and Kajagoogoo’s “Too Shy” both appearing. OK, optimistic might be selling that one a little too strong. But both are, at least, wholly valid guilty pleasures.
In real news, Klaus Barbie, who represents what is possibly the biggest disparity between quality of name and quality of human being in history, is arrested in Bolivia. And hey, I totally just found a Wikipedia page for years in history that’s specific to the UK, so that’s useful. Between the end of Arc of Infinity and this story the police manage to shoot a perfectly innocent man named Stephen Waldorf, seriously injuring him. The police officers involved are eventually cleared of attempted murder despite, having shot Waldorf five times out of the thirteen times they’d fired at him, holding a gun to his head and calling him a cocksucker before finding out that they were out of ammo and just pistol whipping him a bunch. Oops. In cheerier news, Breakfast Time debuts on the BBC, their first attempt at a morning program. The first broadcast passes without anybody being shot or called a cocksucker.
Snakedance, I can vouch first hand, is one of those bits of Doctor Who that properly gets into your head and unnerves you. I’ll admit to a longstanding distaste for mind control plots, simply because I tend to just not like stories in which people are out of character – I tend to have a similar lack of enthusiasm for body swap plots and the like. But as mind control plots go, Tegan’s possession in this story is particularly creepy and memorable. And though the rubber snakes in it are still not great the image of snake tattoos that crawl off of your flesh are downright fabulous.
It is, in that regard, one of what, as an adult, I recognize as perfect pieces of childhood Doctor Who – a story that is remembered vividly without being loved (and, of course, without being hated as well). Though it’s by no means universally the case that these are the stories that then grow into beloved classics in adulthood, they’re certainly prime candidates for it. And Snakedance is certainly an example of this. As a child, it gets in your head. As an adult, you see why it got in your head in ways that make it even more compelling.
Much of Snakedance involves taking conventions of Doctor Who and looking at them from slightly oblique angles. (A suitable hat tip here to Lawrence Miles, whose analysis of the story in About Time underpins much of this) The story essentially takes what The Daemons tried and almost but not quite succeeded at and inverts it. The point of The Daemons was, ostensibly at least, that the Doctor was acting against type – that the character who we would usually expect to be haranguing superstitious people was instead running around talking about how they can’t open the crypt on Beltane. What Letts was trying to go for there was to make the Doctor seem at least partially unreliable or suspicious. It doesn’t quite work, simply because using Jon Pertwee’s Doctor as an unreliable character can’t possibly work, but the idea is sensible and a variation on what the show frequently does, namely have the Doctor run around trying to convince everyone of terrible danger while nobody listens to him.
On the surface, at least, Snakedance appears to be a fairly standard execution of the trope that The Daemons is trying to play with – the Doctor runs around trying to convince everyone that there’s terrible danger and nobody believes him. But under the hood there are some subtle changes. First of all, Manussa is, as Miles and Wood point out, unusually well developed as alien planets go. The script goes out of its way to give it little bits of character and color, and to make it feel like it has real history. Second of all, everyone’s performance is tuned in particular ways. Davison plays the part with just a little more franticness so that we can see better than usual why people think he’s crazy. Wheras the Mannusans get outfitted with the set of tricks that smart people in science fiction get – they’re far advanced beyond believing in the superstitious mythology of the ancient past. So a bunch of rationalists who act the way smart people in science fiction are supposed to are taking on the Doctor, who is acting just a little crazier than usual.
The third change, and this, as Miles points out, is the kicker, is that the monster isn’t a familiar part of mythology that turns out to have a Doctor Who explanation, it’s a known Doctor Who monster who turns out to be a mythological figure. The combination means that we have a sort of double vision with regards to the plot. On the one hand we can see better than usual why the Doctor is mistrusted on the planet. On the other hand, our knowledge and the Doctor’s knowledge coincide very well for this story. We know the Doctor is right, and we know a fair amount about the Mara. But we don’t understand Manussa as a culture quite – we learn about it at the same speed the Doctor does. And so we’re left seeing the Doctor’s arrogance and naiveté while simultaneously knowing that he’s right.
Much is made of the way in which the Season Twenty has a recurring villain in every story – though to be fair, as I noted, it’s actually every story from Earthshock through Warriors of the Deep that does that, not just Season Twenty. But if Season Twenty is read as an active effort to engage with the series’ past, this, at least, is an example of how to do that right – a story where the past history of Doctor Who is used to do a story that couldn’t be told without it. It’s the fact that we as viewers are already familiar with the Mara that provides the counterweight to the way in which the Doctor is made to seem hysterical and crazed. The viewers don’t just have to trust that he’s not, a la The Daemons. The fact that this is a known Doctor Who monster means that the viewers know the Doctor is right, which frees the story up to be almost completely unrepentant in making him look wrong. (Though the one real moment it gives him counter to that, the figuring out of the Six Faces of Delusion mask, is absolutely delightful.)
This allows Snakedance to be something no previous story has ever really managed to be: a character piece for the Doctor. Not a thematic commentary on the Doctor – those are a dime a dozen. But a story in which the Doctor’s character – who he is and how he acts – is central to the resolution of the story. Not surprisingly given that they share an overt Buddhist inclination it’s the Pertwee era that works best to compare this to, most obviously Planet of the Spiders. Not because of the obvious points of similarity like magic blue crystals, but because both stories work on a structure whereby the Doctor’s attempts to defeat the villain throughout the story are fundamentally wrongheaded even though they’re unquestionably right.
But again, where Planet of Spiders did this in a superficial way, eventually inventing a rather glib explanation about “greed for knowledge” to explain why the Doctor was doing it wrong, Snakedance manages to build it into the character. Davison’s Doctor is intensely sympathetic, but is also typically written with a sort of exasperated impatience. By removing Tom Baker’s overt bluster and scene-stealing from the role Davison, in an odd way, makes the Doctor even more arrogant by opening up a larger gap between what he does and how he acts. Combined with Saward’s addiction for “I’ll explain later” as a line of dialogue this makes Davison a Doctor with something approaching a real flaw.
And, of course, the crowning element here is Adric’s death, coming as it does in part out of the Doctor’s ineffectual standing up to the Cybermen (followed by his resorting to brute force). The sort of ineffective bluster that the Doctor spends the majority of this story conducting is, in other words, recognizable to the audience a genuine failing on his part. But, crucially, and this is what makes Davison’s Doctor such a good character, it’s also still part and parcel of why we love the Doctor. Which is the heart of what’s played on in Snakedance. We’re on the Doctor’s side. We want everyone to listen to him. But the nature of the story is that what he’s doing just isn’t going to work.
Out of all of this Bailey is able to do what he couldn’t in Kinda, which is to make the Buddhist aspect of the story sensible. However much the Mara parallels the devil, and as we talked about in the entry for Kinda it was inevitable that it would, here the Doctor beats it the way he should have back in Kinda – by meditating and acknowledging but refusing to yield to it. Thus the Doctor wins not through bluster but by perseverance. It’s exactly how a story like this is supposed to work – a much stronger execution of the approach than Kinda – and, more to the point, done with more ambition. Making Tegan into the vehicle of a character arc is, frankly, somewhat easier than doing it with the Doctor, particularly less than two years after Tom Baker left the part.
That’s not to say that the story is flawless. It illustrates better than any story to date why ditching the sonic screwdriver was a mistake with a third episode in which the Doctor is locked up for the entire thing. Yes, he still manages to find things to do by solving mysteries and putting together pieces of plot, but it amounts to a flagrant effort to keep the Doctor from getting too close to actually resolving the plot before the big climax. This is the sort of laziness that the removal of the sonic screwdriver overtly encourages. (And to whichever commenter suggested that a solution to this would be to tell writers to stop using tricks like that, you are, I think, underestimating the temptation to find ways of stopping writers from doing dumb things in the first place. In effect giving the Doctor a sonic screwdriver is telling writers not to lock him in prison cells for an entire episode. Just like taking it away is giving a green light to these kinds of stalling tactics.)
And Nyssa continues her staggering run as the best companion that nobody knows what to do with. To date, in her eleven stories as a companion, she’s been stuck in the TARDIS all or virtually all story three times, and introduced over halfway through another time, and possessed once. This time she gets to do things, but it’s mostly straightforward “follow the Doctor around” duty of the most banal sort.
This gets at another problem that the Nathan-Turner era is increasingly running into, which is an overt aversion to competence. It’s telling that of the three companions who came into Season Nineteen the first two that Nathan-Turner gets rid of are the two who are capable of doing more than getting in trouble and complaining loudly. This is not a knock against Tegan, who I largely like as a character, but the degree to which the show is having to actively keep its characters from being too competent is troubling. In many ways Snakedance is not the real offender here – I should have railed against this back in Arc of Infinity, which has an entire plot thread that depends on the Time Lords themselves being complete idiots, but the real problem is how entrenched it’s becoming in the Nathan-Turner era and how much trouble it has with characters who are actually competent. Nyssa is the last gasp of the idea that companions might be in some way competent or useful in their own right. Instead Nathan-Turner decides that he prefers companions who are “feisty.” And so near to the end of her tenure it’s just painful to see her underused like this, particularly in a story where her role has apparently been bolstered on her request. (As it happens, I’ve banked entries such that I’ve written both Mawdryn Undead and Terminus before this posted, and know that I don’t talk that much more about Nyssa, so let’s use this as her de facto farewell post. In her next story she takes stupid pills in a desperate attempt to draw out the Mawdryn plot. Then she gets to be a whimpering leper in a story that is ostensibly about her. Then she’s gone. Pathetic, but in no way the fault of Sarah Sutton, who deserved so much better.)
But on the whole it’s the good side of the John Nathan-Turner era that shows up over these two weeks. A story that befits the occasion of the anniversary. Arc of Infinity is an ominous harbinger of how things are going go terribly, terribly wrong. But on the whole, they haven’t yet.