“You’re divided against yourself. A stranger in your own mind. You are pathetic. Look at me! I can make up your mind…” – The Mara
Many people hold this sequel in higher esteem than the first Mara story Kinda from the previous season. There are too many things I really love about Kinda for me to agree, but I did for the first time notice several elements on watching this story that made me understand why people like it so much and helped me to appreciate it more. Many elements of the storyline are quite good—from the Doctor’s realization that Tegan has unconsciously ‘hijacked’ the TARDIS to the takeover of the ceremony to the slowly unfolding history of the Mara itself. The revelation that the Mara was never a extra-dimensional being but was rather created when the mental powers of the Manussan Empire became too advanced and they accidently distilled the evil side of their nature into being is great. Indeed, this point should have been a much more dramatic and purposefully discussed reveal in the story.
Janet Fielding’s acting as a possessed Tegan is even better in this story than the previous. (I was just at a convention where she noted that fans became way too fixated on her performance here and requesting her to do the “Mara laugh” over and over to the point that she got sick of it.) Some of the side actors (the showman, the mother, the fortune teller) come across quite well and bring a lot of pathos to the personal suffering in the story. It’s just too bad that the central guest star playing Lon focuses so much on being unlikeable that there is absolutely nothing sympathetic or redeeming about his character. That fact (and some atrocious costuming for him) take some of the shine off the story.
I do wish they could have explored more about the Snake Dancers and the underused character of Dojjen. It’s like they had a cool idea but didn’t know where to take it. (Mayb there is something to the shallow Ambril’s point that a legend “becomes more and more vague the closer it approaches anything resembling any factual detail.”) I also feel like some of the “cool” effects they try to put in place take away from the story. The use of the snake skeleton in the crystal just doesn’t seem that scary (the fortune teller scream of horror is much better at conveying the danger) and it looks a bit silly when it is superimposed over Tegan’s head. I know they wanted to redeem themselves for the bad snake effect in Kinda by trying to do a more realistic one here, but the merge where we see Tegan’s face over the snake’s body just looks even sillier to me.
There are a lot nice little elements throughout though—some rich costumes (including some laughs about Nyssa finally changing her dress and the Doctor not noticing), Tegan’s weird dream sequence, some great teasing by the Mara as it starts to spread itself around. Some scenes like the Doctor pressing Tegan about her dream actually get a bit tense. (I just don’t like that they break the tension too early by cutting to another scene in between.) The Doctor being able to one up the director Ambril by showing his understanding of the sixth face is nice. The Doctor increasing adeptness at using the crystal is interesting too—we literally get to see him learning a skill. Overall, there’s enough here to say that it is quite is a good story addition, making the Mara arc one of the better ones of the Davison era.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
I think the character of the showman Dugdale is a great addition to the story. He is supposedly a sideline character, but I care much more about his fate than I do young Lon. We don’t know what threat or promise he encountered that he starts acting as the Mara’s messenger, but he’s obviously already uncomfortable in the role. When Mara Tegan suddenly pronounces that his use is finished, I feel bad for him. He intuits that he shouldn’t but can’t help but respond to her suddenly soft and pleading voice to look in her eyes. When the pan up and it’s actually her unnatural voice suddenly coming from Lon’s body, it is super creepy. When we later find him mindlessly hawking the chamber to Ambril, a cruel puppet of the Mara, and it shows in his eyes that he is totally conscious and afraid of what is going on but desperately unable to control himself then it is quite disturbing.
My biggest issue with this story overall is how it ends so abruptly. The Doctor simply resisting the takeover of the Mara somehow destroys it at the last minute and, presumably because they ran out of time, the story is suddenly over. There’s no resolution: no chance to see the aftereffects of events, changes the characters have gone through based on what they experienced, hardly any reflection. The storyline of Dojjen as representing the Snakedancers is also fleeting and unsatisfactory. (He’s definitely no Panna.) It would have been much more satisfying for his role to include a stand-off against the Mara in league with the Doctor. This is one I would have liked to have seen fleshed out as five episodes.