Monday, March 19, 2012

The Void Beyond The Mind (Snakedance)

"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.

24 comments:

  1. Just meditating on a point, but the idea that John Nathan-Turner era was averse to "the idea that companions might be in some way competent or useful in their own right" may be a deeper problem than that. One of the most common complaints against the fifth Doctor was that he was "ineffectual," after all. Many of the most significant events of this period involve the Doctor failing in one or more ways, be it his inability to save Adric, or, looking ahead, the sour note on which he and Tegan ultimately part company (as an aside, I'm convinced this is part of why the final two episodes of "The Caves of Androzani" are so effective: they essentially show a Doctor who refuses, at last, to be deferred or defeated). The problem continues to be endemic through seasons twenty-two and twenty-three, where the Doctor's failures seem to outnumber his successes regularly (misjuding Lytton in "Attack of the Cybermen"; his apparent failure to save Peri in "Mindwarp").

    Interestingly, this seems to evaporate once we get into the final three seasons or so. Once Ace is introduced, the TARDIS crew consists of two characters who, while they certainly have their flaws and failures, are both legitimately "competent and useful" in their own right. The Doctor's competency is almost overplayed with the "chessmaster" theme, and Ace routinely gets to blow things up, beat Daleks to death, or what-have-you.

    So, again, as with so much that goes wrong for the show during the 1980s, I suspect this may be one of the quirks of Eric Saward as script editor. While he wasn't around for to help write out Romana or K9, I don't think the problem really becomes acute during season 18. You've mentioned Nyssa, but Adric as well, at least on paper, had the potential to be useful: he was a mathematics wizard, and there were legitimate glimpses of brilliance, especially in stories like "Logopolis." It's only with Tegan that we really get into the problem of "high concept, low competency" companions, marked either by some quirk of origin (Tegan, Turlough, Peri) or by someone's weird idea of stunt casting (Mel). But I think it may only be more noticeable amongst the companions of this period because there are more of them (we have five companions and only two Doctors between "Time-Flight" and "The Ultimate Foe").

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As I've been talking about how ineffectual and feckless the Fifth Doctor was, I found it almost amusing that that he finally found an enemy in the Mara that he could defeat largely be ignoring it completely.

      Delete
    2. The Doctor should be reckless, not feckless. He should make an effect, not be ineffectual.

      He should, in short, not be Peter Davison. Nothing against the man, myself, but his Doctor was a failure as a Doctor.

      Delete
    3. In his defense, it was a failure of conceptualization rather than execution. He played the part well, but the part was that of a whiny nebbish who had to be saved from disaster by guest stars in nearly every episode. For all his faults, can you imagine Tom Baker ever consenting to saying that line from "Earthshock" about appreciating a well-prepared meal?!? He'd have refused and improvised something different (and unquestionably better) and probably stormed off the set if the director had pushed it. Same thing with Colin Baker -- it's not like any other actor, living or dead, could have played the part as written in "The Twin Dilemma" without it being a disaster.

      Delete
    4. I much prefer the Doctor as just another character, who is distinguished by purity of intentions and good nature. The superheroic bully can lead to boring and irritating stories, and even when it's done well we've already got more conventional superhero stories for that.

      Doctor 9's stories had it about right - generally he's there to uncover the mystery and inspire people to be better than they thought they were, with the occasional moment of triumph.

      Delete
    5. I prefer the Doctor to be just another character who is characterised by his ingenuity, good nature and purity of intentions. The superheroic bully leads to boring and irritating stories, and even when it's done well we've got more conventional superhero tales for that.

      The ninth Doctor's stories got the balance right, I feel. He courageously uncovers the mysteries and inspires people to be better than they thought they were, with the occasional moment of personal triumph too.

      After all, the message of Doc 10's stories is "sit and cower while someone far better than you solves your problems for you". I prefer "you too can make a difference - all you have to do is have personal conviction and believe in yourself".

      Plus, it'd be even more boring if every Doctor was interpreted the same way.

      Delete
    6. Hmmm. How interesting that in a comment about how fallibility is more interesting than unassailable competence, I'm unable to delete my draft comment!

      Delete
    7. The best Doctor stories, I think, are collaborative, where the Doctor is not automatically the lead, but a lead.

      This doesn't excuse the faults of Journey's End or End of Time, however; it just shows how not to do those types of stories.

      Troughton didn't have to dominate a scene to make an effect... and Baker's improvisations, though effective, often came with the baggage of his own ego, as this anecdote from The Robots of Death (recorded on the Shannon Sullivan site) attests to:

      "...[O]n the 3rd, the part one cliffhanger in which the Doctor is buried alive was also recorded at Ealing. Baker disliked the resolution of this scene (particularly SV7 rescuing the Doctor), suggesting instead an action-packed sequence in which the Doctor swings on his scarf to kick the door open. He and Briant argued vociferously until Briant revealed that Graham Williams was present to observe the shoot. Baker quickly agreed to follow the director's instructions."

      Pretty sure that kind of action would've flown during Season 17, though.

      Delete
    8. I'd agree that the second Doctor is a good example of how to do it too, and that he doesn't have to be centre stage all the time. I do like people to solve their own problems generally - it makes for better stories in my opinion - and I'm happy for the Doctor to facilitate that and tip the balance. *A* lead but not *the* lead is a good way of putting it.

      Plus, the superheroic Lonely God idea leads back into the sonic screwdriver debate. If he's that amazing, why doesn't he sort everything out as easily all the time?

      Delete
  2. With you on most of this, though I still don’t warm to Nyssa… I’d add that of all the 20th anniversary year stories, this is the only one that thinks intelligently about how to use an anniversary, rather than just cramming in the cameos. I’d show it at Christmas, myself – all those people who grump about everyone having fun and that they’ve forgotten the true meaning of Christmas? The Doctor’s exactly the same sort of party pooper for Snakemas, and makes sure everyone hears what it’s really about. It’s true, but no-one’s happy when they find out what it is.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Madness? A guilty pleasure? Surely simply a pleasure. Unless you enjoy guilt, in which case don't let me spoil it for you!

    I liked season 20 because of the fantasy tone (rather than being hard sci-fi), and the comparatively unusual motives of the antagonists (wanting to live/die/alleviate boredom etc.).

    Gary Gillat cites Snakedance as the best DW story ever, by the way.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 'Madness? A guilty pleasure? Surely simply a pleasure. Unless you enjoy guilt, in which case don't let me spoil it for you!'

      Seems 'Our House' was the only Madness song that charted in the US.

      Tell us, Phil, oh dweller in the strange and mysterious land of America, what the general perception of Madness is over there?

      I'm genuinely interested, as I didn't think any Americans had even heard of Madness and they were actually one of the biggest bands of the early eighties over here.

      Delete
    2. I was limiting myself to "Our House" in the judgment - I'm only familiar with the rest of their work in passing. As Matt intuits, they are largely a one-hit wonder in the US.

      Delete
    3. "One Step Beyond" and "House of Fun" got some MTV airplay back in the day.

      Anyway. I can only speak for myself, Matt, but this American likes them a lot.

      Delete
    4. I'm more upset about his dismissal of "Down Under", myself.

      Delete
    5. There's a joke in the Simpsons about how Dexy's Midnight Runners are one-hit wonders too. Mind you, there are loads of Kiss jokes in US programmes. I suspect they were much bigger in the US than the UK.

      Give me Madness and OMD any day, though! Every wedding I've been to has played Baggy Trousers. (Although not Genetic Engineering, admittedly.)

      And I like Wonderful Christmas Time.

      Delete
    6. It might be worth you checking them out - they're from the era that Steven Moffat cites as his era of Doctor Who, and I rather suspect that the Nutty Boys have had an influence (albeit possibly an unconscious one) on some things about the eleventh Doctor, even if it only extends to dancing like a fool while wearing a fez.

      Plus, of course, Madness are cool.

      Delete
    7. John: KISS was huge here. You might be amused by this artifact of that era.

      Delete
    8. An entertaining film! If it was English it would finish with "of course, we did actually lose the football that night".

      Delete
    9. And I like Wonderful Christmas Time.

      Seriously, after reading that sentence, my right eye twitched for ten seconds straight!

      Delete
  4. Snakedance is tighter and more straightforward than Kinda, but I feel that Kinda does a better job of portraying the Mara as monster from the dark places of the mind, while in Snakedance it's much more of a standard-issue monster. In Kinda, the Mara emerges in a place of emotional chaos, while in Snakedance it's more of a polite party for the tourists. This is the first of the run of four high-concept/art-house stories that are promising on paper but don't deliver on screen: it's a shame, as any one of them could have been as compelling as Warriors' Gate, but none of them quite make it and the twentieth anniversary season ends up being the least likely one to attract new viewers. (At least for now; 21 is a step up, but 22, 23 and 24 probably come below this one).

    ReplyDelete
  5. Random thoughts: Unquestionably one of the best Davison stories, though that's pretty faint praise, IMO. Structurally, I thought it kind of lost the thread in episode four. The cliffhanger is that they're captured by Lon who orders them killed. The resolution is that the Doctor and Nyssa overcome the guards by unexpectedly shoving them rather gently so that they collapse to the ground. Then, the Doctor wanders around in the desert until the Quaker Oats man shows up provide a "Buddhism for Dummies" explanation of how to defeat the Mara.

    Poor Martin Clunes, who had previously ruled every scene he was in, spent most of episode four stuffed into what appeared to be a six-year-old girl's party dress for his climactic scenes, an unfortunate misstep in a story that had, up to that point, been a crowning achievement in DW costuming. Finally, the rubber snake was better than in "Kinda" but not by much (despite the addition "Green Pus" (tm JNT)).

    ReplyDelete
  6. On the bright side: I really liked Janet Fielding in "Snakedance," and it's the first time I really felt that she was a good actress saddled with a poorly written and directed part. While I detest Tegan Jovanka, I'd watch Possessed Mara/Tegan all day. They should have done a followup to "Keeper of Traken" with the Rani stealing Tegan's body so she could spend all her time laughing maniacally and vamping up the place.

    Also, does anyone else think that Nyssa is simply exasperated with the Doctor in this story? She spends most of episode one angry with the Doctor for how he treats Tegan. In episode three, she stops just short of calling him an idiot for not replacing the sonic screwdriver. And in episode four, she snaps at him for helping her climb down a step as if she were a small child. One begins to see why she would find a leper colony preferable to babysitting the Doctor all the time.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I'm not sure that "greed for knowledge" was the only flaw Pertwee's Doctor had to confront in Planet of the Spiders. It was a rather transparent way of introducing the second noble truth, craving and aversion, into the story.

    But the larger theme of the problem of Ego certainly applied to Pertwee's Doctor throughout his tenure. He was routinely arrogant, self-centered and domineering. "Facing your greatest fear" didn't seem to be about greed for knowledge, it seemed to be fear of death, fear of the dissolution of ego. And actually, Sue from Wife in Space pointed out in her review of Planet of the Spiders the horror of seeing Pertwee lose control and be taken over, turned into a literal puppet and how that humbling was to him as a character. Pertwee from the very beginning strove to maintain a sense of control, and railed against his lack of control over his own fate.

    ReplyDelete