Tony Fyler feels the whisper of the snake.
Each of the three Doctors who piloted the Tardis during the 80s had adventures with longstanding foes like the Daleks and Cybermen, but each of them also had era-specific enemies or monsters that had the potential for further use, but which never made it across into another Doctor’s time. The Sixth Doctor had Sil, the particularly unpleasant slug-like Mentor. The Seventh Doctor tangled with Fenric, the Elder God. The Fifth Doctor’s private property was, if we’re honest, a cut above both of them. The Mara was based in religious symbolism – in Buddhism, Mara is a demon of seduction. Marrying that idea to the Judaeo-Christian idea of a serpent who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, Doctor Who’s Mara is all things to all people – a creature of the mind, that feeds your desires and grows stronger, until, when released, it takes the form of a giant snake and is free to obey its own whims, bring chaos and destruction everywhere it sinks its fangs.
It could be said that this is not normal Doctor Who fare, but on the other hand, the show has a long history of explaining the way in which rationally explicable things have become part of some belief system or other. But especially in its manifestations in the TV stories Kinda and Snakedance, the Mara really was something particularly disturbing, Janet Fielding doing exceptional work to bring the definitively adult concept into the family show, and push the boundaries between ‘hiding behind the sofa’ scary and ‘actually potentially traumatizing’ scary.
Big Finish audio has many opportunities the TV show never had, and one of those opportunities is to revisit monsters or villains that had potential, but which perhaps suffered from TV budgets. While the human and mental incarnations of the Mara were deeply disturbing on screen, its ultimate serpent form had an inevitable tendency to be a let-down. And while Kinda stuck reasonably close to the mythological origins of the Mara, with a tribe of mostly-mute aborigines falling under the spell of the first male among them to speak (with the Mara putting words in his mouth, based on his desire to rid his world of a scientific expedition), Snakedance, the second Mara story, gave a fascinating investigation of precisely the reverse – how spiritual or objectively-experienced things can come to be viewed as ‘mumbo-jumbo’ over time, and how we as a species de-fang the snakes of our collective consciousness. If that strikes you as a trite point, bear in mind that this Easter there were Dalek Easter eggs on sale in stores: the symbol of science-fiction racial purity, used to sell chocolate to children.
So, given the opportunity to add a third chapter to the Mara story, what does Big Finish offer in The Cradle of the Snake?
Well, sadly, slightly less than the sum of its predecessors. After a strong ‘next time on Big Finish’ moment at the end of The Whispering Forest, the action at the start of The Cradle of the Snake feels rather clunky – there’s a lot of Turlough asking ‘What?’, and Nyssa or the Doctor filling in the exposition of their previous tangles with the snake of seduction. Intending to pop back to Manussa and have a word with Dojjen, the mystic so instrumental in the Mara’s defeat in Snakedance, the Doctor overshoots, and lands them in the Manussan past – a hundred years before the rise of the Mara on that planet. He also links minds with Tegan in an attempt to drive the Mara out of her once and for all. Janet Fielding as ever does superb work bringing the self-assured tones of the Mara to her performance by degrees, to disturb the listener, but the snake makes a point – if it leaves Tegan, it must find somewhere else to go. Yanked prematurely from Tegan’s mindscape by Nyssa’s concern, the Doctor heads off into Manussan society, to find Tegan a medic who can cure her once and for all.
It’s not long before there’s a sense of ouroboros at work – the snake that eats its own tail – as the Mara comes out to play on Manussa significantly before it’s ‘supposed’ to, through the engine of a machine that translates thought energy into physical realities (hence the cradle of the snake, as the Mara has always been about the translation of thought into action, thought into reality), and one by one, those who appear to be ranged against its rise simply fall to the power of its seductive voice. Oddly enough, given her experience with the character and its very vocal performance, Janet Fielding only gets an initial shot at being the Mara in this story, though everyone else, at some point or other, has a turn. Without overspoiling you, listen out for the Nyssa Mara, it’s a treat for anyone who thinks she’s always been a bit too Goody Two-Shoes.
While the story of the Mara’s premature rise to power, feeding itself on the minds and desires of many Manussans is straightforward enough, there’s something of a headache in store for listeners trying to keep the timeline straight in their head, as to whether the Mara was genuinely ‘born’ on Manussa as a result of the thought-into-matter machine tapping into the darker desires of some Manussans, or whether it’s only there at all because the Doctor and his crew brought it there. The solution to the problem of premature Mara-rule is also more than a little convenient, stretching the idea of balance to very near its breaking point – only when balance is restored to the universe can the Mara be defeated. Handily, here’s an avatar of perfect contentment to balance against the Mara’s serpentine itch of endless desires – so that’s alright then, boys and girls.
There’s some solid British acting talent trying to make sense of Marc Platt’s script, including Dan ‘Dead Bloke From Downton’ Stevens as Rick ausGarten, Vernon Dobtcheff as the pre-Dojjen Dojjen, Dadda Desaka, and increasingly ubiquitous Big Finisher Hugh Fraser as Dr Hanri Kerrem, the doctor who gives Tegan a clean bill of health, but as with many Platt scripts, there’s an overriding sense that the ideas are more important than the demands of drama, so the wheels come off the storytelling in episode three, and the solution rather bumps along the ground for the majority of episode four without any actual ‘Ta-Dah’ moment or the accompanying sense of having ultimately won anything. Oh and the big snake? Yep, turns out it’s just as underwhelming as a sound effect as it was as an early-80s puppet.
Perhaps the real issue in The Cradle of the Snake though is not the lack of a coherent storytelling structure for the last episode, but the lack of the sense of menace that was unique to the Mara on screen. Both in Janet Fielding’s performance as the embodied Mara, and Jeff Stewart’s as Dukkha, the main trickster in her mind, there was a cold, delicious power that made the Mara feel like a real, exciting force to watch. The truth is that no-one in The Cradle of the Snake except Fielding can quite capture that slow, seductive malice – there’s too much focus and drive in the Mara having a plan beyond existence, and everyone seems committed to playing it as just a possessive force. As such, the Mara, which feels inherently like it could be a villain custom-made to work brilliantly in the audio format, falls depressingly flat in The Cradle of the Snake as it busily sets about conquering its world.
One to buy, then?
The voice of the Mara inside you will probably tempt you to it, because to anyone who enjoys the Mara and understands the appeal of it as a creation, the idea of not knowing what it does after Snakedance is going to be intolerable. But it’s very possible you’ll then spend quite some time trying to convince yourself you like it rather more than you actually do.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk