Just for kids. That’s the phrase often used to both dismiss and endorse Doctor Who in the media, some fans happy that the show is the children’s series adults adore while others see it as only good enough for the under-tens.
Occasionally a story comes along which confounds the critics and the fans alike. In the latest Doctor Who DVD set, The Mara Tales (2entertain), we get two of them.
First up is Season Nineteen’s Kinda, Christopher Bailey’s script taking the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) to the planet Deva Loka, where a survey team is threatening to go native as the alien Mara infiltrates the minds of those in charge…and Tegan (Janet Fielding).
Season Twenty offered a rematch for the Time Lord and the Mara, as the Tardis arrives on Manussa, a relatively peaceful planet whose populace remember the Mara from their history and who are preparing to celebrate their banishment.
Things don’t go well for Tegan as the Mara surface in her mind, causing a race against time for the Doctor and Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) to help banish them.
With these two stories, both influenced by Buddhism and psychiatry to varying degrees, Bailey brought some depth to the Tardis crew and to the people they meet. Whereas many adventures give us alien planets and cultures painted with broad brush strokes, Kinda and Snakedance tried to delve beneath the surface of the psyches involved.
In Kinda, Hindle (Simon Rouse) is pushed to the limit by the presence of the Mara, while Tegan is given some a chance to shine and grow as the snake within her is unleashed. For one of the few times in the classic series, sexuality rears its head in Kinda, though there’s nothing too overt for the seven-year-olds in the audience.
Unfortunately there’s also that snake prop at the end which threatens to derail the story: it’s to the actors’ credit that we stick with it till the final moments.
Janet Fielding’s ability to flex her acting muscles continues in Snakedance, one of the few direct sequels in the show’s history and one which actually improves on its predecessor. Here, the Doctor is seen by the Manussians as a raving lunatic who speaks of the Mara’s return, Davison’s breathless performance one of the best of his brief tenure.
From the set design and direction through to the music and the acting, Snakedance is a tour-de-force of 1980s Doctor Who made at a time when the series was about to lose its place in the BBC’s affections for many years to come.
While Snakedance, with its political wrangling, clever dialogue and ability to dress Martin Clunes in a shocking set of threads and still appear to have some authority, is undoubtedly something to be savoured by the adults, it’s tempting to think that the aforementioned children in the audience could have been left wanting.
There’s little in the way of action or time travel in Snakedance or Kinda, but almost thirty years on they’re all the better for it.
The extras on this set compliment the stories near-perfectly, with documentaries Dream Time and Snake Charmer explaining the genesis of Kinda and Snakedance respectively. Christopher Bailey makes for a refreshingly honest contributor, the benefit of hindsight also helping script editor Eric Saward to give his candid views on the stories.
Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, Nerys Hughes and Matthew Waterhouse take on commentary duties for Kinda, the latter happy to take a gentle ribbing from his colleagues throughout. Director Peter Grimwade is the subject of another lengthy documentary, with extended and deleted scenes, an isolated music score, information text and optional CGI – be rid of the toy snake forever! – bulking out the disc.
Over on Snakedance, Davison and Fielding are joined by Sarah Sutton for the commentary while another stack of deleted scenes, an optional music track, photo gallery, information text and Radio Times listings are present and correct.