Sunday, July 7, 2013

Kinda / Snakedance - "An apple a day keeps the ... "

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Snakedance - Details

Season 20, Story 2 (Overall Series Story #125) | Previous - Next | Index

So here's what I thought I would do, watch "Kinda," then "Snakedance," as broadcast order would dictate, but the latter would suffer, perhaps unfairly, from being the second Tegan-and-the-Snake story and not get a fair shake; so, I elected to re-watch "Snakedance" first as I make my way through the classic series and see if stands on its own merits. Since I don't really remember a thing about it or "Kinda" except how ridiculous the snake(s) looked in one (or both) of them, it's nearly as good as starting fresh. (I last saw them when they were broadcast on my local PBS station back in the early 1980s. I read an impassioned blogpost recently (that I'll try to find again and link here) defending "Snakedance" (or "Kinda," not sure now which) as an underappreciated bit of genius, one of the best stories of the classic series. I found this hard to believe based on my scant memories, but the bloke who wrote the post really had put a lot of thought into it -- more than I put into skimming it, since I'm not sure which he was even reviewing -- but enough to persuade me to bump both these stories up in the queue.

And, now that I've watched them both, while I can't praise either as highly as some, I did find them much more satisfying than I remembered. Of course, I didn't really remember them at all, and what I did remember was not being fond of either, so that's not saying much. But, it is saying something. The biggest problems with "Snakedance": Nyssa's clownishly garish outfit which she apparently was trying to seduce the Doctor with in the opening scene on the TARDIS -- really that was entirely awkward; and, the inflatable snake -- here I think it's the director's responsibility to recognize when something looks completely rubbish and a different approach is needed, so we'll hang that prop failure making it to screen on Fiona Cunningham (but recognize she did a pretty outstanding job otherwise!); finally, that the guest stars all outshone the regular cast.

That last is a particularly weird and humbling thing for a fan to have to admit. In this story, the garish, buffoon brigade that is the TARDIS crew basically comes rumbling, bumbling, stumbling into an otherwise plausible, well-realized world populated with characters that are quickly as established by talented actors, and our regulars come across as the equivalent of the Keystone Kops dropped into an episode of Law & Order by comparison. Martin Clunes (Doc Martin), Colette O'Neil, and John Carson basically dominate this episode. I often argue one of Doctor Who's great strengths is the flexibility offered by the format that allows it to be (or, more accurately I suppose, borrow tropes from) a sci-fi adventure, a detective/mystery, a historical, a science-fantasy, an epic, a comedy, or a drama, whatever it wants to be to tell the story it wants to tell. But, for it to work, the cast have to be up to playing in and against those genres, like Tennant and Tate could. If they're not, well then you end up with an uncomfortable pastiche, and we're dangerously close to that here.

OK, that Keystone Kops crack was a bit harsh; Davison does have his moments in this one, displaying genuine concern and compassion for Tegan, even as he's forcing her face psychological terrors. And Janet Fielding actually does a much better job playing possessed and terrified than we might have thought she had the ability to carry off. Poor Sarah Sutton isn't given very much worth doing, and is forced to do it in the aforementioned travesty of a get-up, which utterly undermines anything she might have actually accomplished -- the conflicting stripes and patterns of her blouse/jumper/skorts contraption having the effect of causing the viewer to avert his/her eyes, or endure what feels like a series of disorienting, vertigo-inducing minor strokes.

Much of the praise for this story focuses, rightly, on how it's trying to incorporate some rather heady ideas and focusing on problem solving rather than mindless action. However, this one is actually a little more fun to read about when it comes to it's use of Buddhist elements than it is to actually watch in action.

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Kinda - Details

Season 19, Story 3 (Overall Series Story #119) | Previous - Next | Index

So, having watched "Snakedance" first, how does "Kinda" fare when viewed as if a prequel, instead of the episode that got a sequel? Well, quite alright, actually. In fact, while the writer and production team prefer the second story, as I learned watching the DVD special features, I found "Kinda" the more satisfying story overall. The supporting cast isn't quite as good as it is in "Snakedance" but mad Hindle, the Kipling-esque Sanders, and the scientist Todd are better integrated in the story, interacting more with Doctor and Adric -- the Doctor and Todd and actually becoming quite chummy -- making it feel more like a cohesive whole; in "Snakedance" the supporting characters, for the most part, have their best moments with each other, making the Doctor more of a gadfly circling around the edges of a story in which he isn't particularly well embedded.

I don't think it's a factor in my preference for this story, but I should confess I watched it using the CGI effects improvement option of the DVD, so the snake looks miles better than it did in the broadcast version. That's one thing that's worked pretty well when I've seen it done as a special feature of the DVDs, and while it's certainly different from using animation to fill in missing scenes (which has also been done well on some DVD releases), I tend to think it's not a violation of the original but a true enhancement when used judiciously.

I mentioned above, perhaps unfairly, that Janet Fielding played possessed Tegan better than we might have expected given her -- and she's said this about herself, so I don't feel too bad echoing it -- limited acting chops. In "Kinda", I think he did well in the dreamscape, showing that while she may be a bit rough around the edges, she was by no means the least accomplished actor to play a companion. Tegan's status as an unwilling companion trying to get home by design makes her sort of an unsympathetic figure, because who wouldn't want to travel in the TARDIS?! That she was also a bit loud and butted heads with the Doctor worked against her character's likability as well, so it's to Ms. Fielding's credit that she managed to overcome that and win over the fans that she did to Tegan's corner.

My recommendation to the fan who isn't a completist, or to the younger fan seeking out episodes of the classic series to watch for the first time, would be to make "Kinda" one of the Davison era stories to seek out first, and to maybe leave "Snakedance" for later when you're running out of episodes to watch.

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