Back when Peter Davison was playing that mysterious time traveler, the Doctor, he had a lot fewer tricks up his sleeve — and he couldn't rely on the sonic screwdriver to get him out of jams.
In this clip from one of two newly released Doctor Who DVDs, Davison vents about what he sees as the overuse of the sonic screwdriver on the new series. Davison's Fifth Doctor actually lost the sonic screwdriver early on in his tenure, thanks to an unusually clever alien adversary. And he basically argues that it's too much of a get-out-of-everything-free card. One wonders if this topic ever comes up in Davison's family chats with his successor and future son-in-law, David Tennant, who was one of the biggest sonic screwdriver addicts of them all.
But that's not all we learned from watching the new DVDs of "Kinda" and "Snakedance" — we learned the meaning of existence, too. And Peter Davison's secret songwriting career. Read on for more.
And yes, that's Janet Fielding (Tegan) and Sarah Sutton (Nyssa) doing a commentary track on "Snakedance" — the three stars of most of Davison's episodes together again and making fun of the ludicrous special effects. The commentary track on "Snakedance" is one of the more entertaining ones we've heard in recent years, partly because the cameraderie and goofiness of this long-standing team shows through.
We made no exaggerated claims in our intro — if you watch "Kinda" and "Snakedance," you will understand the meaning of existence. "Kinda" and its direct sequel are a weird attempt at encapsulating Buddhist concepts on Doctor Who — something producer Barry Letts had tried to do in the early 1970s in a very different way. Written by Christopher Bailey, a playwright who was fairly new to television, both stories feel very much like stage plays on screen, with some very stylized characterization and some very playful storytelling. If you were a fan of early 1980s theater by the likes of Caryl Churchill, Alan Ayckbourn or even Tom Stoppard, these stories won't feel totally foreign to that aesthetic.
Both stories are about the clash between decadent civilization and more primitive spirituality. And they share the same villain, the Mara, which is a giant snake that represents desire and destruction. (In Buddhist lore, Mara was a demon who attempted to keep the Buddha from becoming enlightened.)
In the first story, "Kinda," the Mara threatens a peace-loving matriarchal native tribe who all wear decorative towels (out of respect to Ford Prefect, probably). And when the Doctor arrives, his companion Tegan becomes the host for the Mara, which uses her to take over a native tribesman, while a group of human explorers go mad and nearly destroy the entire settlement. In "Snakedance," the Mara takes over Tegan again, and uses her to return to its birthplace, the planet Manussa, where a ceremony celebrating the Mara's supposed destruction provides an opportunity for it to return to power.
Of the two stories, "Kinda" is the more arty, and "Snakedance" is the more solidly constructed. In "Kinda," the main human villain is a colonial soldier named Hindle, who starts out as a too-tightly-wound officer and winds up becoming a maniac who creates paper dolls. In a precursor to Lost and other shows, "Kinda" includes clues you won't necessarily catch the first time around, like an early scene involving Tegan's friends that's restaged later by the phantoms the dream world — which makes Dukkha ("suffering"), the evil agent of the Mara who tricks Tegan, into a parallel of the Doctor. "Snakedance," meanwhile, is much more of a character study of a handful of people whose pompous stupidity, greed or decadence provides a series of opportunities for the Mara to recreate itself. (Martin Clunes, who's now a famous actor in England, has a great turn as a spoiled young aristocrat.)
Re-watching these stories, "Kinda" has not aged well, or else it just looks different to me now that I'm older. For years, I've thought "Kinda" was an under-appreciated masterpiece, a delusion that didn't survive the first time Mr. Hindle screams, "I have the power of LIFE and DEATH over ALL OF YOU" at the Doctor and friends. A lot of stuff that used to seem clever and deep when I was younger now seems a bit silly and contrived. By contrast, "Snakedance" holds up much better than I'd remembered — it's still quite slow-moving, and the Doctor still spends two whole episodes trying futilely to convince people he's not crazy and getting locked in a cell, but it's got some nice performances and has a genuine sense of something at stake.
Plus there's always the fact that "Snakedance" doesn't feature the most ridiculous plastic snake you've ever seen, as witnessed in this clip from "Kinda":
But you have to give both stories huge amounts of credit for trying to do something different and adventurous with Doctor Who's format, and their weird stories of a creature of pure hatred that takes advantage of people's pettiness and the decadance of advanced civilizations do, in fact, make a reasonable stab at the meaning of existence.
And Christopher Bailey, the writer of both stories, gives an interesting account of just how they came to be, on the special features of both discs. They both come with making-of featurettes, and Bailey explains how his first script, "Kinda," suffered from a misunderstanding of Doctor Who and the fact that three different script editors worked on it. (One can only imagine how cool it might have been if Christopher H. Bidmead had been around the whole time.) "Snakedance," by contrast, was just a collaboration with script editor Eric Saward from start to finish, and Bailey felt much more in tune with the show. But when Bailey tried to write a third story, for the Sixth Doctor and Peri, he had what seems to have been a creative crisis and quit writing for television altogether.
You also get some new insights into another one of the show's creators, Peter Grimwade — who directed "Kinda," along with "Full Circle," "Logopolis" and "Earthshock." Grimwade almost directed "Resurrection of the Daleks" as well, until it was delayed due to a strike, and then his relationship with producer John Nathan-Turner deteriorated. Grimwade then wrote three middling-to-awful stories. There's a great featurette on the "Kinda" DVD which sheds a lot of light on just how much of a perfectionist the late writer/director really was, and exactly why his attempts to write for the series were so much less successful than his work as a director. (Curiously, the featurette doesn't mention the Doctor Who spoof that Grimwade created, "The Come-Uppance of Captain Katt."
There are also some deleted scenes from "Kinda," and an option to replace the amazing plastic snake (as seen above) with a slightly less embarrassing CG animated version.
Meanwhile, the extras on the "Snakedance" DVD are also pretty great. There's the "making of" featurette we already mentioned. There's also Peter Davison's appearance on an episode of kids' call-in show Saturday Superstore — in which Davison reveals that he wanted to be a pop star and was still writing and recording his own songs while he was starring in Doctor Who. This means somewhere in Davison's basement, there are boxes of cassette tapes of early 1980s-style pop music, possibly sounding a bit like Depeche Mode or Kajagoogoo, written and performed by the Fifth Doctor. We only need a volunteer to sneak in there and liberate the tapes, so we can post all the mp3s on the internet.*
The "Snakedance" DVD also includes some studio footage showing just how primitive those special effects sequences that Janet Fielding made fun of earlier were. And interestingly, there's an alternate ending to the final episode — the televised version ends somewhat starkly, with the Doctor assuring Tegan that the Mara is finally dead. But they recorded another few minutes of closure, in which everybody deals with the fact that they've been idiots and the Doctor just saved them from their own stupidity. If you've ever wished that you could see all the people who didn't listen to the Doctor standing around saying "We're sorry we didn't listen to you," then this is a dream come true.
All in all, these are two of the more ambitious classic Who stories, and although neither of them quite holds up, they're both fun to watch for different reasons. And if you have fond memories of them, the DVD extras will actually enhance your appreciation for them quite a bit.
* We are not actually suggesting that anybody should break into Peter Davison's house. Please don't do that. Or if you do, don't say we told you to do that.