With its latest Doctor Who release, 2-Entertain unleash a double whammy of highly regarded stories from the 1980s, linked by their shared use of the abstract ‘villain’ (and sometime giant snake) known as the Mara.
The first of these is the Mara’s maiden outing, Kinda. Set on the strange jungle planet of Deva Loka, Kinda is an odd, symbolic and slightly surreal tale of creeping madness, innocence regained and the darkness that lurks within us all.
Featuring many of the standard riffs of classic Who, a distant planet being colonised, characters becoming possessed by a malignant alien intelligence, it manages to twist and turn those tropes in a way that is at once fresh and new, while also delivering the standard surprises and scares that we’ve come to expect.
Blessed with a superb supporting cast including former Dam Busters star, Richard Todd, the excellent Mary Morris, the always terrific Nerys Hughes and future star of The Bill, Simon Rouse, Kinda is also a good showcase for Peter Davison and his far more natural incarnation of the Doctor to strut his stuff.
However, despite these positives, Kinda still has issues. First off, the sidelining of the character of Nyssa in the first five minutes of episode one is so badly handled it’d make the authors of Dodo’s unceremonious exit back in 1966 blush. Nyssa has a headache? Is that really the best they could do?
Faring slightly better is Janet Fielding as Tegan, who gets to play outside of her usual default (i.e. grumpy) setting with a rather fun take on the Mara-possessed Miss Jovanka.
Sadly, the knock on effect of sidelining both Tegan and Nyssa from their traditional roles means that it falls to Matthew Waterhouse’s Adric to step up and carry the companion role. Unsurprisingly, he’s simply not up to the task, and you find yourself wishing by the end of episode one that the Cybermen would turn up early and finish him off there and then.
Thankfully, over the course of the serial, the brilliantly understated Nerys Hughes manages to sideline Adric from that role almost by default. Unlike the companions he’s saddled with for pretty much his entire time in the TARDIS, Davison has real chemistry with the experienced and savvy Hughes, and he’s clearly enjoying being able to spar with an actor of equal ability and standing.
Another notable plus is the direction by series favourite, Peter Grimwade. While lacking the more dynamic location filming he utilised to good effect in both Logopolis and Full Circle, Grimwade still manages to enliven and invigorate a studio-bound story that could quite easily have become ponderous and staid under a less certain or vibrant director’s control.
That said, even the director can’t make the big, purple rubber snake at the end of episode four look good, and it’s with some relief that the restoration team have commissioned a rather impressive CGI replacement that you can view as an alternative option on the DVD.
Due to the success of the first story, a second encounter with the Mara was duly commissioned for the following season. This subsequent adventure, Snakedance, while popular, was not as highly regarded by fans as Kinda. However, having now watched the two stories back to back, it’s hard to see why this view has become accepted wisdom.
While it’s true that Snakedance loses some of the earlier stories’ intensity and madness, what it gains is a more considered tone, consistent mood and a clearer narrative structure that gives the Doctor a more central and proactive role.
With the Mara again using Tegan as its host, and the TARDIS team now shorn of the patently useless Adric, this adventure finds the Doctor principally aided by Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa and backed up yet again by a fine ensemble cast featuring two stand out turns by Martin Clunes (in his first TV role) and the impressive Brian Miller.
However, despite the stronger narrative, the one area where Snakedance does noticeably pale is in its visuals. Fiona Cumming, though strong on performance, isn’t anywhere near as interesting on the visual side as Peter Grimwade, and her use of the camera feels both overly theatrical and antiquated in comparison.
It’s a shame, as one can’t help but feel that it’s this lacklustre direction, when compared with Grimwade’s work, which stops Snakedance from being as widely embraced as its predecessor. Hopefully, this DVD re-release will go some way to rectifying that.
Nitpicks aside, both Kinda and Snakedance are worthy additions to any discerning Who fan’s library, as they share an ambition and intelligence in their writing and production that is admirable, yet never ceases to be deeply entertaining.
Clearly influential on new series writers such as Rob Shearman, Paul Cornell and even Steven Moffat, these two adventures can be seen as an essential bridge between the pulpier 70s fare of Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes and the more character/concept driven version of the show that we see on our screens today. Just don’t mention the rubber snake
Both Mara tales feature reasonably entertaining DVD commentaries. Peter Davison, Nerys Hughes, Janet Fielding and Matthew Waterhouse appear on the Kinda track, while Davison, Fielding and Sarah Sutton cover Snakedance.
The two ‘making-of’ documentaries, Dream Time and Snake Charmer, are standard behind-the-scenes affairs, with the surviving cast and crew contributing the usual anecdotes. The strongest contributions in both cases come from then script-editor, Eric Saward, and writer, Christopher Bailey, who are refreshingly forthright in their appraisals of the two stories.
However, the standout extra on the set is the documentary, Peter Grimwade: Directing With Attitude, which is an interesting, insightful and surprisingly moving tribute to the director and writer, who passed away in 1990, just a month shy of his forty-eighth birthday.