Region 1

Region 2
"Mara Tales"
Box Set
VHS Video
(Doctor Who Story No. 125, starring Peter Davison)
  • written by Christopher Bailey
  • directed by Fiona Cumming
  • produced by John Nathan-Turner
  • music by Peter Howell
  • 4 episodes @ 25 minutes each
Story: The Doctor searches for a link between Tegan's dreams and a lost culture on the Federation colony planet Manussa, believing that their arrival there was no accident. He soon finds his mental disciplines tested as his quest to free Tegan from the Mara becomes more of a spiritual journey than he bargained for....

A brilliant gem of television that has so far received only moderate recognition by sci-fi Doctor Who fans. Discover some of its hidden wisdoms and modern relevance as we explore its high concepts in greater depth in our review....

DVD Extras include:

  • Audio commentary by actors Peter Davison (The Doctor), Janet Fielding (Tegan), and Sarah Sutton (Nyssa).
  • "Snake Charmer" making-of featurette (25 min.) with Davison, Fielding, director Fiona Cumming, writer Christopher Bailey,
    script editor Eric Saward, designer Jan Spoczynski, and analysis by fan writer Robert Shearman.
  • Deleted Scenes (extended ending, 3 min.)
  • Isolated Music Score by Peter Howell
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • Photo Gallery music montage (5 min.)
  • "In Studio" raw studio recording of effects sequences (7 min.)
  • Peter Davison attempts cricket on the Saturday Superstore show (14 min).

Buyers' Guide Review

by Martin Izsak

(A more in-depth analysis, containing "SPOILERS" and intended for those who have already seen the program, can be accessed here.)

This story's significant differences from most other Doctor Who adventures will no doubt continue to make its ranking hotly debated among the show's fans for years to come. It is in fact a real gem, offering many quality elements rarely found elsewhere and almost never at this level of excellence, becoming something unique for Doctor Who, science fiction, and television programming altogether. As such, this story has shot up into my list of the top five Doctor Who stories of all time.

However, my opinion was not always so favourable, particularly when I first saw it. Writer Christopher Bailey continues the anti-tech writing style he began in this story's prequel "Kinda" (story no. 119), which denied my young thirst for laser beams, materializations, physical action, and most of the "magical" effects surrounding new sci-fi processes that fueled my early interest in the genre. Bailey has other aims in mind, and chiefly sustains the first three episodes with explorations of culture, character, and a form of long-forgotten crystal technology which few still believe in - all of which supports what I now believe to be the most important aspects of good science fiction. The final episode then layers in spiritual elements critical to a superb dramatic climax that satisfies on multiple levels, and has the added power of being able to positively affect viewers' lives, becoming one of the tours-de-force for Peter Davison's era.

As with "Kinda", the story begins just after the TARDIS has landed. In fact, only one shot of the police box appears in the opening episode, as our main characters first come out of it, and it is not a glorious one, half hidden behind someone's laundry. While the interior features several times during the story - a nice touch in itself - the juxtaposition of the interior and exterior is not really given its due. This just isn't a great tale for introducing us to the main vehicle for the series.

The opening shot is a nicely mysterious teaser, hinting at both the geography and the thematic material that only gets its due later in the story. "Snakedance" then quickly begins 80's style intercutting of two groups of not-yet related characters: the Doctor's gang in the TARDIS and some royal visitors to the planet in their quarters - all without really letting the audience in on why we are watching them or what should intrigue us about them. But the characters are well fleshed-out, and each scene is a good length, allowing some substance to show through in each. Topping that, the story begins to gel really well once we realize that both groups are headed for the same, mysterious location....

Nyssa is seen trying out the first completely new everyday costume she's had since she joined the show, and Sarah Sutton and Peter Davison devise a few enjoyable additions to their first scenes surrounding this, thankfully keeping it tasteful and minimal enough not to interrupt the flow of the story. The new costume is welcome variety on the show, but sadly isn't any improvement on Nyssa's season 19 look. Thankfully, it only features for one story, until yet more variety wanders out of the TARDIS's wardrobe room....

Once more for season 20, Nyssa gets to play the chief companion to the Doctor as she did in "Arc of Infinity" (story no. 124). Although continuing to do an excellent job of it, there is less for her to do in this story, and less dramatic meat for her to get her teeth into.

It is Janet Fielding who has far more acting to do, although only a relatively small percentage of it is as her regular character Tegan. Thankfully, a few nice new character bits still manage to come out for Tegan, such as the glimpse of what she was like when she was six years old.

The Mara also turns out to be an enjoyable and successful mix of acting, special effects, and backstory mystery, having its most profound effect in the imagination.

While all the guest actors do excellent work in their roles, John Carson's Ambril has become a particular favourite of mine. Both his passions and his intolerances come out clearly, humorously, and with much charisma. Superb. And if you're looking for a little alien culture to show itself on the Doctor's travels through time and space, Ambril's ramblings are actually rather interesting and rewarding to listen to.

Which brings us to another point. It's easy to see how the production team of the new millennium might try to set a story such as this in colonial India a few centuries ago, as the parallels are great. But it achieves more in the sci-fi genre by being a clash between two completely alien cultures with the freedom to be anything, become anything, and have any kind of history that suits the adventure at hand. Sweet. Just what I look for these days, and precisely what is in far too short supply in the 2005-2007 years of the show. While there is every reason to believe that "Snakedance" features the same interplanetary Federation as was seen exploring the planet Deva Loka in "Kinda", there really is nothing in either story to indicate that this Federation is Earth-based, as many fans seem to have assumed. In my mind, it's alien, as it should be, and if we ever see any more of it on Doctor Who, it may yet surprise us with even stranger cultural twists.

One of the things that makes these characters work so well is the way they are all so easily understandable - the idle prince, the socially climbing queen, the greedy showman, even the street vendor pushing trinkets. They're all real at first sight, unlike many of the more experimental characterizations one will encounter during the Sylvester McCoy era. The one bit that doesn't really work for me is the puppet play in the market - which of course doesn't really need to be anything too real in the first place.

The plot of "Snakedance" is fairly well-constructed, and a bit better than "Kinda". Each episode works well both when viewed on its own, and in quick succession as a whole story. Although the progress and enjoyment of the story easily survive its routine capture and escape sequence, the adventure likely would have been better and more popular had more traditional Doctor Who action been used instead.

Stillpoint Quest

The final segments incorporate a whole new level into the story, and it is only here that Peter Davison's Doctor's mythological role in this tale is really defined, making sense of what might have been perceived as character flaws earlier in the story. There is much more to say on this topic, but I will of course avoid spoilers here by saving it all for the In-depth Analysis version of this review, along with how and why "Snakedance" ties in with our feature article: "Recipe for Health".

For now, I'll just say that my experience suggests that the information expressed simply and helpfully here, has the potential to reach beyond into viewers' lives, consciously or unconsciously, and have impact. Even after dismissing this story in my youth, I found many profound lines coming back to me whenever I needed them most.... along with images, sounds, and music from the program. Likely without realizing it, Doctor Who audiences were given a glimpse of something brilliant and real that many have yet to tap into.

Peter Howell returns to compose and realise the score for this adventure, building upon the musical foundation he had created the previous year for "Kinda". It is yet another top-notch score, matching action and mood brilliantly, featuring trademark transformational electronic sound, and exotic instrument sounds worthy of ancient and mysterious civilizations. But his layered octaves of graceful synth pads evoking mental peace and tranquility is the signature brilliance of the piece, effortlessly burned into memory.

Sadly, only a less inspiring bit of source music is currently available on a CD release, designed to counterpoint the peace as it symbolizes the typical chaotic state of the citizens' minds going about their daily lives and celebrations.

Music by Peter Howell
"Janissary Band" (0:52) is available on:
Audio CD - Doctor Who - Earthshock
Silva Screen FilmCD 709

More info & buying options

"Snakedance" undoubtedly has one of the most dramatically riveting, successful, and unique conclusions of any Doctor Who story, with some effective and bizarre visuals to boot. And the minute one considers the Mara to be an external representation of any unwanted or unconstructive thoughts in the mind, the conclusion reveals rare layers of mental, emotional and spiritual wisdom.

Though I heartily rank this sequel much higher than its predecessor "Kinda" (story no. 119), I will acknowledge that, at least for the first three episodes, the excellence of "Snakedance" is centered primarily in its dialogue and performances, while "Kinda" is perhaps a bit more interesting visually, and horror-fans may easily find "Kinda" a bit closer to what they're looking for. "Snakedance" dominates in terms of spiritual/philosophical wisdoms, however, and has a much better and more focused concluding episode. Although it certainly helps to have seen "Kinda" before tackling "Snakedance", I don't really believe it necessary. You can still start with "Snakedance", and if intrigued to know more history and backstory, check out "Kinda" at a later point.

I often look back at "Snakedance" as a by-product of the brief critical mass of spiritual transformation that the human race achieved in the early 1980's, perhaps not so much in Christopher Bailey's script-writing as he probably "got it" all along, but more in terms of the rest of the production crew in deciding to do this story in the first place and putting so much excellence and energy into it. This critical mass probably also influenced the original "Star Wars" trilogy, Spielberg's "E.T.", "Enlightenment" (Doctor Who story no. 128), and to some extent "Star Trek II - The Wrath of Khan". As we reach critical mass yet again in the next few years, this time in more permanent fashion, I predict new appreciation for "Snakedance" may be in the works.....

This story is available on DVD and VHS video.
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DVD NTSC Region 1
for the North American market:
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DVD PAL Region 2
"Mara Tales" Box Set
for the U.K.
VHS Video
NTSC A in the U.S.
NTSC B in the U.S.
NTSC in Canada
PAL for the U.K.

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Further adventures featuring the Mara and the struggle to overcome it can be found in
the novel "Buddha: A Story of Enlightenment", by Dr. Deepak Chopra.


Read the Buyers' Guide Review for the next story: "Mawdryn Undead"

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