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Doctor Who: Mara Tales

Review by: 
Blackgloves
Release Date: 
1982/1983
Studio: 
2 Entertain
Genre: 
Sci-Fi
Format: 
DVD
Region: 
0 NTSC
Aspect Ratio: 
1.33:1
Directed by: 
Peter Grimwade
Fiona Cumming
Cast: 
Peter Davison
Janet Fielding
Matthew Waterhouse
Sarah Sutton
Movie: 
4
Extras: 
4
Bottom Line: 
4

One of classic Doctor Who’s most ambitious and innovative writers, Christopher Bailey, gets the only two serials he ever wrote for the show released in a double-dip box set this month. “Mara Tales” features the mesmerising and enigmatic “Kinda” from 1982 – only Peter Davison’s third story into the series after taking over the title role from Tom Baker – and its sequel “Snakedance”, the second tale to be broadcast in the following year’s season of adventures. Bailey, a bookish student of Buddhism, infused both of his scripts with concepts, symbols and terms derived from his religious and philosophical studies. This was Doctor Who at its most ‘high concept’ and the results have divided fans of the series ever since.

The Mara is not your average Doctor Who monster. In fact, in Bailey’s original story outline, it only symbolically counts as a ‘monster’ at all, coming as it does from the Buddhist perspective in which evil (like perception of the self) is an illusion – a reflection of the dark places within the human subconscious mind that emerges as a token of its fears, repressions and rigid desire for control and knowledge.

In both “Kinda” and “Snakedance”, the Mara is let loose in the world thorough the troubled dreaming mind of the Doctor’s companion Tegan, who both times becomes possessed by it, giving Janet Fielding a rare chance to do ‘proper acting’ for once instead of standing around with the crowd of companions who make up the menagerie of traveling partners who accompanied Davison’s Doctor during the first half of his tenure, seemingly only there at all to ask the occasional stupid question. For this reason Fielding has always been rather fonder of these two adventures than most of the others. The remainder of the original idea -- which gets somewhat lost after going through the script editing mill of Eric Saward -- that the Mara is a core part of Tegan’s psyche that gains control of her, rather than an outside invading ‘force’ that can be purged or vanquished in the traditional manner of Doctor Who monsters, is what ultimately makes both productions, for all their many faults and embarrassments, two of the more intriguing tales from the Davison and John Nathan-Turner eras.

KINDA (1982)

“Kinda” is probably the more obviously flawed of the two Mara stories Bailey wrote for the series, but also the more provocative and beguiling in its unusualness. For one thing, at heart it dispenses almost entirely with the accepted structures that underpin what we normally expect from a standard “Doctor Who” adventure. These are built on a set of narrative fundamentals and patterns that are normally so ubiquitous in every story that we barely even notice them; so that when all of a sudden they’re gone, the viewer immediately registers that something is radically different. Unfortunately (and completely understandably), script editor Eric Saward ends up largely undermining the new possibilities afforded by this storytelling approach, by going hell for high-leather to try and script-edit them all back into it again, leaving a rather compromised work in his wake, that ultimately struggles to rise above its studio-bound setting.

 “Kinda” is structured as an abstract exploration of certain anthropological and psychological themes, cast in mythological terms rather than as another ‘alien threat’ or ‘monster invasion’ story. It doesn’t fare well having to try and accommodate the traditional ‘end of episode cliff-hanger’ or the reams of clumsy expository dialogue that were eventually imposed on it -- since that kind of thing only drives home the point that this story just isn’t functioning on a level where these requirements make any sense.

It becomes particularly notable that this is a rare Doctor Who story in which the Doctor is made almost entirely peripheral to the main events which take place during it. There is really nothing for him to do, as such – apart from explore the planet and observe its inhabitants, and try to work out what is going on among them. For some, this is part of the story’s problem. Saward certainly thought so. But for others, it’s one of the things that help make this a tantalising, uniquely textured piece of work that ultimately gets horribly betrayed by a plastic pink snake prop, dodgy native extras in orange sarongs and a flatly lit TV studio jungle set, with a few leaves sprinkled over the clearly visible studio floor.

The Doctor (Peter Davison) and his companions Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) and Tegan (Janet Fielding) arrive on the planet Deva Loca – a luxuriant jungle paradise where the trees bear fruit all year round and which is inhabited by a serene, telepathic race of voiceless ‘savages’ called Kinda, who nonetheless appear to have access to some form of advanced thinking if their double-helix necklaces are any indication.  Also living on the planet is an advance expedition from off-world which has set up a prefabricated domed base in the jungle while the party scout out the possibility that Deva Loca might make a suitable colonial outpost. However, several of the party have recently gone missing, leaving only the expedition leader Sanders (Richard Todd), chief scientist Todd (Nerys Hughes) and the security officer Hindle (Simon Rouse).

The Doctor and Adric get separated from Tegan when a box-like robotic construction (actually a Total Survival Suit [TSS] brought to the planet by the colonists) takes them hostage and marches them back to the dome, leaving Tegan dreaming under the wind-chimes at the Kinda’s Place of Great Dreaming. Here, a force from the dark places of her dreaming mind makes itself manifest to her in the form of a Trickster, and shows her the perishability of her own perceptions and her sense of self, before using her as a host to cross over into waking reality, eventually possessing Aris (Adrian Mills) one of the gentle Kinda, and giving him a voice which he uses to try an incite the indigenous inhabitants to rise up against the dome.

Meanwhile, the Doctor and Adric discover that all is not well in the colonists’ base, as Hindle has apparently gone dangerously insane and somehow manipulated two Kinda hostages into doing his bidding, while Sanders arrives back at the base after a jungle sojourn bearing a strange wooden box given him by Panna (Mary Morris), the wise woman of the Kinda, and her protégé Karuna, which has turned him into a child-like zombie after he gazed inside it!

This story is, of course, stuffed full of allusions to Buddhist and Christian mythology -- from the Wheels of Existence and Becoming to the Garden of Eden and the serpent imagery evident when Tegan turns into a rouged-mouthed strumpet under the influence of the Mara, and tempts Aris by throwing apples at him -- the passing of its influence from the one to the other represented by a snake image slithering from Tegan’s arm to Aris’s.

Then there is the fact that almost every character name has some sort of significance to Buddhist philosophy, even when they’re only mentioned in the end credits! That kind of thing isn’t anything new in Doctor Who: for even a story as grimly superficial and pantomimic as “The Horns of Nimon” contains intrinsic references to Greek mythology woven in throughout. But that’s not what makes “Kinda” stand out as a story; you don’t necessarily have to be aware of any of this background material to see that the tale is operating on a markedly different level to most of its companions.

Its stand-out feature is the sophisticated system of visual rhyming that appears all the way through, re-enforcing the main theme: that of the self being an illusion brought about by compartmentalisation, externalisation and separation. The colonists have walled themselves off from the jungle environment by building the dome -- which leads Hindle into insanity as this separation creates anxiety and paranoia about what’s ‘out there’, beyond the artificially imposed walls. When he imprisons the Doctor and Todd, he puts them in a box-like wire-mesh cage, once again classifying them as ‘other’. The colonists’ TSS devices are also clunky rectangular machine ‘boxes’ symbolising the inhabitants’ separation from the natural planetary environment. While the Jhana Box of the Kinda is a source of suffering for the newcomers, even though it’s supposed to be some sort of healing device – for gazing into it can make them go mad, as it dissolves all these false perceptions of selfhood and enables a joining up with the collective mind of the Kinda.

It seems the Kinda are supposed to have brought about the suspension of an endless, repeated cycle of Time that leads to desire and then on to war and suffering (and is brought into effect by the persistent illusion of the self) by living in a constant meditative state and sharing their minds telepathically; the divisions between Kinda individuals are also fluid, as we see when Karuna takes over the memories of Panna after her apparent death in the cave. They recognise that the dreams of an unshared mind could provide a host for the Mara and so begin the cycle again. This symbolism gets tied in with the idea of the fall of Man, cast out from Eden after being tempted by the serpent. Even the Kinda are prone to the same set of illusions, though -- at least once the off-world expedition arrives -- for they define the new arrivals as the ‘Not-We’, thus creating another opposition for the Mara to exploit when Tegan dreams it into being and allows it to take possession of Aris.

One of the more poignant manifestations of the ‘box’ image-rhyme occurs when the possessed Aris demonstrates his leadership qualities to his followers by concocting a cargo-cult style copy of the TSS to travel in, in the belief that it will give him the same power as the colonists. In this case, though, his version of the ‘Total Survival Suit’ is made out of flimsy forest branches and sticks! Another keenly felt theme of the piece involves colonialism; the costume design makes this rather too literal by cladding the expedition in desert kaki and pith helmets, but the madness that spreads through the dome dwellers’ community, particularly that of Hindle (played no-holds-barred to the hilt by Simon Rouse) is an illustration of the male-led colonial mind-set, unable to impose its sense of order on an alien culture and cracking under the strain. There’s an opposition suggested between male knowledge and female wisdom that probably counted as progressive in 1982 but would almost certainly seem dodgy even to more hard-line feminists in 2011. Hindle’s breakdown is obviously meant to refer to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” but the hysteria, combined with Janet Fielding’s wanton sexuality when she becomes the Mara’s vessel, also seems to recalls similar themes at work in Powell and Pressburger’s tale of desire and madness among the missionaries of Tibet in “Black Narcissus”.

One obvious drawback with this story and all its head-spinning cleverness is, of course, that if you are eight years old when you’re watching it, then you’ve really got no chance of having any idea what the heck is supposed to be going on! Older viewers may not really be able to follow it in the way one usually ‘follows’ a Doctor Who plot, but you sort of ‘get’ it anyway, only having to be at least vaguely familiar with the colonial theme and with the ideas of repression and the subconscious that both play such a strong role in the story. What really hampers “Kinda” are the various belated attempts by director Peter Grimwade and script editor Eric Saward to normalise it, with over literal representations of the Mara itself (the wobbly snake that appears at the end: it’s not so much that it’s a bad effect, but that it’s a bad effect of something that should always have remained symbolic and nebulous) or with attempted explanations that kill the atmosphere and only draw attention to the many plot holes the story contains if you attempt to take it as a conventional narrative (so what did happen to the missing expedition members?)

When Barry Letts was script editor during the Jon Pertwee’s era, Buddhist parables where ten-a-penny, of course; they tended to go hand in hand with all the psychedelic visuals and Jo Grant’s garish ‘70s fashions. “Kinda” sees a return to Pertwee-style ‘trippiness, but this was the early eighties so now the mystical visions and subconscious visualisations are cast in a form that make them look like early electro-pop videos, with the pinky-orange fuzzy sky effect from David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” video. Because of Christopher Bailey’s apparent elusiveness after he completed the two Mara-related stories -- apparently never writing anything for TV ever again -- a hoax even took root that both tales had in fact been penned by Kate Bush under a pseudonym! After all, her video for “Sat in Your Lap” bares certain uncanny similarities to Tegan’s dream encounter with the Trickster – and who was it who wrote “The Dreaming” anyway? If it wasn’t for the fact that Bailey appears in the accompanying making of documentary on this disc, one might well have concluded that the mischievous pranksters behind this fantastic rumour had a point!

“Kinda” features a cast commentary track with Peter Davison, Matthew Waterhouse, Janet Fielding and guest star Nerys Hughes. This is a fairly irreverent affair, light on information maybe, but entertainingly forthright. Although Davison mentions how this particular script seemed to him to have much more weight to it than some of the others, most of the conversation revolves around mocking the various deficiencies of the production. Naturally Janet Fielding is particularly vocal in that regard, and poor old Matthew Waterhouse comes in for some rather relentless ribbing. One of the more infamous stories associated with the filming of this tale concerns the young Waterhouse (only eighteen at the time he got this role but with a subsequent reputation among many of the regular cast members he worked with as a bit of a know-all), apparently approaching Richard Todd on the set and presuming to offer him the benefit of his wisdom, dispensing a few acting tips to the Oscar-nominated star of “The Dam Busters”! Adrian Mills who plays Aris comes in for some light-hearted stick as well, but mostly the participants settle to pointing out their own goofs or cringing at various aspects of their thirty-year-old acting performances. It’s a frothy, not too serious trip down memory lane for all four, especially Nerys Hughes who hasn’t watched the show back at all before now.

“Dream Time” (34’ 05”): Another comprehensive and very engrossing making of feature from 2 Entertain, which takes a scalpel to the surrounding circumstances of the commissioning, the writing and the production of “Kinda”. Everybody you would wish to see taking part is here, from writer Christopher Bailey to script editors Christopher H. Bidmead, Antony Root and Eric Saward. The fact that this story had to run the gauntlet of three script editors and a change of Doctor (Bailey wrote the first draft expecting Tom Baker to be playing the lead, and had to change many of his original intentions for the Doctor’s part in it once it became known that Baker was leaving), probably explains a lot about the finished version’s tendency to pull in several different directions simultaneously, and we get a great variety of opposing opinion from the various perspectives of the people who had a hand in it.  The cast, including Nerys Hughes, Simon Rouse and Adrian Mills are interviewed about their roles and their experiences on set during the filming of the story, and even director Peter Grimwade’s views are incorporated from an old filmed interview given by the director some time before he died. Finally writer on the new series of Doctor Who, Robert Sherman, explains why he regards “Kinda” so highly.

“Peter Grimwade – Directing with Attitude” (22’ 57”): A very welcome in-depth study of Peter Grimwade’s association with “Doctor Who”, presented by Mark Strickson. Grimwade worked his way up through the ranks of BBC production personnel during the seventies, eventually coming to direct Tom Baker’s swansong “Logopolis” and subsequently forging something of a reputation among fans of the show as one of its great auteurs. He also wrote screenplays for the show during Peter Davison’s tenure and even the odd Target Books novelisation. A plethora of Grimwade’s colleagues who worked with him on the programme over many years are interviewed in this excellent tribute.

“Deleted and Extended Scenes” (14’ 36”): Unusually, this story featured quite a lot of deleted material in the first two episodes, a great deal of which is fairly vital character information that helps make clear some of the developments and changes that take place, particularly in the character of Hindle. These sequences have been taken from the timecoded domestic videotape copies of the story’s early edits.

“Optional CGI Effects Sequence”: The chance to see episode four with a brand new CGI generated Mara snake replacing the unconvincing pink puppet prop that had to make do in the original episode. In the flat glare of studio video lighting, I wasn’t convinced the end result would be all that impressive, but it actually looks really good. The disc also includes a split-screen comparison clip that displays the two versions side-by-side.

“Trails & Continuity” (4’ 13”): another chance for younger viewers to laugh at just how primitive TV was back in the 1980s, with this selection of genteel trails for each episode of the story.

The disc also includes a photo gallery, an option to watch the episodes with an isolated music track, on-screen text production notes, PDF files of ‘Radio Times’ listings and a trailer for the forthcoming box set release: “Revisitations 2” -- featuring “The Seeds of Death”, Carnival of Monsters” and “Resurrection of the Daleks”.

SNAKEDANCE (1983)

After the unorthodox and challenging nature of “Kinda”, and coming in the wake of the difficulties the writer had previously laboured with in attempting to adapt his ideas to the production methods and story types more commonly found on the programme, “Snakedance” sees Christopher Bailey doing ‘traditional’ “Doctor Who” -- or his idea of it at least. It’s a sequel to the first story, that plays more  like an attempt to recast the same ideas in the more customary mould, with Bailey now evidently feeling comfortable writing within the restrictive parameters of a multi-camera TV drama. Ironically, the story seems to resemble the kind of stage-bound, point-the-camera-and-film televised plays frequently seen on the programme back in the early ‘60s, than it does the more dynamically structured ‘action’ adventures of Eric Saward’s years as script editor. Consequently, although it’s far from being an inadequate Who adventure, “Snakedance” doesn’t have the same abstract, unpredictable quality that characterised its predecessor. The Mara now comes across as a more typical show Monster, attempting to cross the borders back into physical reality through Tegan once again, after subconsciously manipulating her mind to get her to feed the Doctor the wrong co-ordinates into the TARDIS and bring it back to the Mara’s home world Manussa, where the creature aims to accomplish its self-actualising task.

 If you’d not previously seen “Kinda” you perhaps wouldn’t even spot the subtext that motivates the story at all, since on the surface “Snakedance” plays more like a typical alien possession tale this time round. Season twenty is full of stories that hark back to the series’ then thirty-year past, so this story -- in only referring back to events on Deva Loca from the previous year -- might seem somewhat less abstruse than those episodes that rely on viewers being familiar with the Black Guardian or, say, the renegade Time Lord Omega from the 1973 adventure “The Three Doctors”. But you actually do have to have a fairly detailed knowledge of “Kinda” to spot what the point of this story really is. Not a problem now the two of them have been released together in this box set, but perhaps a little unreasonable at the time. Once again, there are copious references to Buddhist ideas, this time joined by a smattering of Hinduism and T.S. Eliot inspired mysticism. The most notable thing about the story, from an average “Doctor Who” fan’s point of view, is how it accidentally seems to reiterate some of the major themes of Jon Pertwee’s regeneration story “Planet of the Spiders”, dealing as it does with blue crystals with uncanny powers that bring monsters into being with meditation, and the dangers of a thirst for knowledge … only without all the car chases Pertwee liked to indulge in back then.

Another constantly reiterated aspect of this particular adventure is that it provides Martin Clunes with his first screen role as the louche, decadent and bored young nobleman Lon. This being the early eighties, Clunes is dressed in a series of extravagant costumes that look like a New Romantic-inspired corruption of Regency-style dress a la Adam Ant, culminating in the actor donning a ludicrous toga and helmet ensemble for the Mara ceremony in episode four. Clips of it are forever being unearthed to this day on various ‘Before They Were Famous” style programmes, in order to provide a laugh at the actor’s expense.

Actually, Clunes is excellent in the role, as is the rest of a particularly strong cast that includes Collete O’Neil as Lon’s over-admiring Mother Tanha, who evokes the hint of a borderline incestuous desire between mother and son with her over indulgence of the petulant future leader’s every bored whim; John Carson as the bureaucratic minister of Manussan Antiquities, Ambril, impatient with the Doctor, who understandably just looks to him like yet another of the cranks he’s had to put up with on a regular basis; and Brian Miller (husband of Elizabeth Sladen) as the flamboyant showman Dugdale, whose novelty  mirrors offer up a terrifying reality when the evil Tegan comes visiting, and looming snake skulls start appearing everywhere.

Strong performances from the guest cast and Davison being on particularly fine form as a strangely manic Doctor (it often feels like he is the one possessed!), plus a script that manages to be evocative and inventive despite the drawbacks already mentioned, helps keep the story alive during a slow middle section; and of course, Janet Fielding gets even more to do this time as the evil human embodiment of the Mara -- suggesting a constant sense of threat even though nobody actually dies in this story. Bailey had obviously noted her memorable portrayal of dark sexuality from “Kinda” and gives her even more to do this time. The Garden of Eden metaphor is invoked once again when the Doctor tries to take Tegan back into her past to find the source of her nightmares with hypnotism, and regresses her to her six-year-old self, watching things grow in her garden.

Although the various Manussan sets and the costumes of the planet’s inhabitants all appear to have been begged stolen and borrowed from a variety of sources including, famously in the former case, the set of the BBC’s “A Song for Europe” that year, “Snakedance” works because there is a particularly strong sense of the planet Manussa having a detailed history and a vividly realised culture. It is still evident from Bailey’s script, if only realised in a small-scale way on screen. This is central to the whole concept behind the story: Manussa was once supposed to have been a thriving Empire hundreds of years ago, according to legend, before it succumbed to the evil power of the Mara during its decadent Sumaran period, falling into war and ruin under the Mara’s malign influence, until the creature was finally destroyed by the present society’s founding hero -- which in turn led to the planet’s current resurgence and peaceful but dull existence.

The Mara’s defeat and destruction is celebrated in a ritual held every ten years, formally re-enacting the legend of the serpent’s demise with a stately procession to the cave where the event took place. These ancient past events have turned from history into barely remembered legend and become rather tired traditions in the process, re-enacted simply for the sake of it by the bored and pampered nobility, represented primarily by Lon (Martin Clunes): -- the descendent of the hero who was said to have originally destroyed the Mara.

There is still a supposed legend that claims that the Mara was merely banished to the dark places of the human psyche rather than destroyed, but no one takes this idea seriously. The whole society has trivialised its own past so that it has all become nothing but a source of empty distraction, cheap popular entertainment and children’s parlour games enacted in the colourful street bazaars where we witness the showman Dugdale’s Mara-themed Hall of Mirrors attraction and a Punch & Judy stall with the crocodile replaced by a Mara serpent.  

Written records only began well after the Mara was destroyed, so everything that happened in the Sumaran period of the Mara’s ascendancy and before that, is part of the society’s pre-history, accessed only through hieroglyphs found in the excavations of the planet’s cave systems and in the many artefacts from the period which are displayed in its museums. Naturally, when the Doctor bursts in on this society and tells them that the Mara is a real force which is planning on co-opting their up-coming ceremony to reoccur as a physical reality, he’s treated as something of a David Icke figure, peddling absurd von Däniken’-style pseudo-history and ill-educated myths. An important element of the Mara story relates to the Great Mind’s Eye – a large blue crystal which tradition dictates should be kept out of sight, with its place taken in the ceremony by a fake version. The Manussans originally released the power of the Mara through a technology based on ‘perfect’ crystals created in a zero gravity environment, these focused the waveform of human thought to enable advanced knowledge, but in the process also amplified all the fear, hate and repressions of the human mind which then manifested the Mara. This is another version of the dangers of too much knowledge parable that was at the heart of “Planet of the Spiders”, but, as Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood point out in “About Time: The Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who”: ‘the message here isn’t that it’s bad to explore because it might release monsters, but that it’s necessary to “realise” monsters in order to become whole’. The bored Manussans have cut themselves off from this aspect of their past, and so are left exposed to the Mara bringing down their pampered society once again, manifesting itself as another embodiment of their unfocused, repression-riddled, fearful minds.

The disc includes another audio commentary by cast members Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, and Sarah Sutton who appears in this story as Nyssa (she sat out “Kinda” with a headache in the TARDIS, because Bailey’s script was written before she’d become a regular cast member). Once again, this is an irreverent affair that is dominated by Fielding and Davison ribbing each other, particularly over Janet Fielding’s claim that John Nathan-Turner had told her that Davison had wanted her out of the show! The rest of the time is spent with the cast pointing out some of the more blatant examples of illogicality inherent in the script, and also the tendency to create false cliff-hangers by having a character (usually Nyssa) scream at an invisible threat for no apparent reason, just to provide a punctuation point at the end of the episode. Most of their criticisms are fair, and it’s a testament to the strength of Bailey’s ideas that the story largely manages to survive the more egregious drawbacks of the antiquated production methods under which the show was still being made in the early eighties.

“Snake Charmer” (24’ 37”) is another thorough and informative ‘making of’ with the cast and crew, which now also include production designer Jan Spoczynski and director Fiona Cumming, while Robert Shearman explains why this is his favourite ever Doctor Who story!

“Deleted Scenes”(3’ 05”) – scenes from the original ending of episode four, courtesy of a timecoded recording kept by producer John Nathan-Turner. The episode overran and had to be trimmed before broadcast, resulting in a curiously abrupt ending and a lack of explanation of certain key plot-points which ended up being clumsily incorporated into a piece of dialogue at the beginning of episode one of “Mawdryn Undead” the following week. Here we get to see the original ending of the episode.

“In Studio”(6’ 12”) – a glimpse inside the studio during recording of effects sequences for the story – includes the infamous ‘farting Mara’!

“Saturday Superstore” (14’ 16”) – Peter Davison guests on the Saturday Superstore, a Saturday morning children’s show, where he plays cricket with Mike Read and John Craven and takes questions from young callers.

Finally, the photo gallery, the isolated music score, the PDF files of “Radio Times” listings and the painstakingly researched on-screen text production notes are all present and correct once again.

The two stories making up this “Mara Tales” box set represent the Peter Davison era at its cerebral best despite, the increasingly telling outmoded BBC production methods of the period. With first class extras and excellent re-mastered video on both stories, it’s another worthwhile purchase from an often overlooked and underestimated period in the series’ history.

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