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Snakedance was the second serial of season 20 of Doctor Who. A sequel to Kinda, it featured the return of (and Nyssa’s first direct contact with) the Mara. Three decades later, a sequel/prequel to this story — though not the one Christopher Bailey had attempted — was created for audio in the form of Big Finish's The Cradle of the Snake.

The show had a noteworthy cast. It was one of Martin Clunes' earliest television roles, though not his debut. His outrageous costumes and youthful appearance make it a story often sampled whenever the multi-award-winning actor appears on television chat programmes. (DOC: Snake Charmer) Snakedance also featured Brian Miller — husband of Sarah Jane Smith's actor, Elisabeth Sladen — in a significant role.

Writers involved in the production of the BBC Wales version of Doctor Who have expressed affection for this serial. In 1995, Steven Moffat was a participant in a wide-ranging, public discussion about Doctor Who with Andy Lane, David Bishop and Paul Cornell. He ranted about the "crap" nature of the majority of the 1963 version of the show, but called Snakedance "one I couldn't really fault".[1] He would build upon this opinion in a 1996 essay, in which he called Snakedance and Kinda "the two best Who stories ever".[2] Likewise, Robert Shearman has called Snakedance "my favourite" Doctor Who story. He is heavily featured on the DVD release, explaining why.


The TARDIS makes an unplanned landing on Manussa, where preparations are underway to celebrate the defeat of the Sumaran Empire five centuries earlier. But the ancient evil of the Mara lives on, and Tegan, who has been haunted by disturbing dreams since her time under the Wind chimes on Deva Loka, is now a pawn in its plan to re-enter the physical world and subjugate the Manussan people.

Only the Doctor can stop the Mara - but first he must convince the authorities that he is not just a deluded fool who believes in children's fairytales...


Part one[]

A man is sitting in the middle of sand. He is wearing a precious-looking blue necklace.

Tegan has decided to return to the TARDIS. But she is having strange dreams, just like she did back on Deva Loka. She tells the Doctor and Nyssa about it. The Doctor worries that the Mara could still be alive, not as a physical form, but in the mind.

On the planet Manussa, Tanha wants Lon to be prepared for the ceremony to celebrate the end of the Mara. He isn't really bothered but is more interested in a jewel kept between the teeth of a model snake. It is Ambril's - an artefact kept for many years, as a symbol of the Mara. They decide to set off to the cave, where Ambril will explain the ceremony's proceedings.

Tegan's room

The Doctor and Nyssa listen to Tegan's dream.

Under the influence of the Mara, Tegan has set the TARDIS controls to Manussa, a planet known well to the Doctor. She also talks of a dream she's been having, of a cave, shaped in the jaws of a snake. The Doctor creates a hypnosis machine that inhibits the brainwaves associated with dreaming to protect Tegan. Upon their arrival on the planet, they decide to investigate.

On a local street, a man is shouting to the crowds about a hall of mirrors. Lon finds it hilarious and is pulled along by his mother so that they can reach the cave. There, Ambril explains the legend of the snake and how they will add to the ceremony using the stories. They enter the cave and travel far through the tunnels inside.

Snake cave

Lon outside the Cave of the Snake.

The Doctor is searching for the cave, which Tegan had a vision of in her dreams. They finally find it and the Doctor enters, telling Nyssa to look after Tegan outside. As a consequence of her dreams, Tegan is frightened when a merchant approaches selling wriggling toy snakes, bought by children on Manussa. She runs away and Nyssa tries to follow her but loses her in the crowds.

Tegan enters a fortune teller's tent and, because she removes the hypnosis machine, she is eventually controlled by the Mara. The fortune teller explains that her stories aren't real but then becomes aware of a snake's skull appearing in her crystal ball. It explodes violently and the fortune teller screams.

Part two[]

Tegan escapes from the tent. The fortune teller is helped out of the tent by locals, completely overwhelmed by the situation.

The Doctor has appeared in the cave where Lon is having a lesson on the Mara legend. Ambril is surprised by the Time Lord's appearance. The Doctor is keen to note that the legend is very real. Lon finds this curious. Ambril believes that the Doctor is crazy.

Nyssa finally finds Tegan, who is laughing about the fortune teller. Nyssa soon realises that she is under the influence of the Mara again, her emotions different to what Tegan would express. Tegan then runs again and this time Nyssa loses her for real. Tegan has secretly entered the hall of mirrors.

Mara in mirror

The Mara speaks to Tegan in the mirror.

Nyssa arrives just outside the cave where Lon, Tanha and Ambril have just emerged to return to the palace. The Doctor is behind them. Nyssa explains about Tegan's disappearance. The Doctor looks worried. He wants to return to the TARDIS though to monitor the wavelengths of an interesting blue jewel he has obtained.

The Mara in Tegan is interested in the mirrors, remembering that she was trapped by a circle of mirrors before on the Kinda world. Dugdale finds her talking to herself in the mirror, and is also influenced by the Mara when he looks into the mirror. Tegan orders him to bring Lon.

The Doctor and Nyssa are now inside the TARDIS where the Doctor is creating a circle where he can project thoughts into the jewel. When he tries along with Nyssa, the jewel lights up, but only when they concentrate.

Lon and Tegan

The possessed Lon and Tegan.

Lon arrives at the hall of mirrors and is quickly taken by the Mara. They then proceed to the cave and behind the symbolic wall where they use Dugdale as a servant.

Part three[]

The Doctor returns to the palace to try to persuade Ambril to believe him. Ambril is unimpressed and orders the Doctor to be jailed. Nyssa overhears everything and tries to work by herself.

Lon arrives in Ambril's office to gather the jewel, which opens the symbolic wall and will eventually bring back the Mara. Ambril doesn't know that Lon is under an influence. The Doctor tries to persuade Chela to get him out, but with no luck.

Lon lures Ambril through the streets of Manussa where, while buying a pair of candles, the impatient Ambril watches a Punch and Judy show that is being performed before he is brought to the cave with the promise of discovering priceless historical artefacts. Once inside, Ambril is cornered by the possessed Lon, Dugdale and Tegan, who pressure him to return the Great Crystal during the ceremony. After Ambril agrees and Lon leads him away, the mark of the serpent on Tegan's arm manifests as a live snake.

Chela brings the Doctor a diary written by Dojjen, Ambril's predecessor as Director of Historical Research. Dojjen believed that the Mara had not been destroyed and would someday return. He eventually left his post to study the forbidden teachings of the Snake Dancers.

Mara puppet

The Mara puppet show.

Nyssa searches Ambril's office for the key to the jail cell, but Tanha catches her in the act and has her locked up alongside the Doctor. The Doctor and Nyssa read through Dojjen's diary and realise that the ancient Manussans manufactured crystals that could conduct mental energy. The unanticipated result was that the crystals absorbed and reflected the Manussans' own negative thoughts and emotions, creating the Mara. As centuries passed, the Manussans forgot that they themselves had brought the Mara into being. The Doctor deduces that Dojjen learned this truth from the Snake Dancers, the only people who kept the knowledge alive.

Lon and Ambril return to the palace, where a dazed Ambril informs Tanha and Chela that at the impending ceremony, the Great Crystal will be restored to its original place. Alarmed, Chela frees the Doctor and Nyssa in hopes that they can intervene. They attempt to flee the palace but are surrounded by guards. Lon claims that the three are plotting his death, and orders the guards to kill them.

Tegan Mara and Dugdale

The Mara begins to manifest using Dugdale's fear.

Part four[]

Tanha overrides Lon's order and allows the Doctor a chance to speak. The Doctor realises that Lon has fallen under the control of the Mara. Ambril offers to reveal the Great Crystal, and as he, Tanha and Lon are distracted, the Doctor seizes the opportunity to escape with Nyssa and Chela.

Determined to destroy the Mara completely, the Doctor uses his crystal to summon Dojjen. Dojjen and the Doctor enact the Snake Dance ritual, in which live snakes bite their wrists, allowing them to communicate telepathically. Guilt-ridden over what has befallen Tegan, the Doctor asks how he can save her and defeat the Mara once and for all. Dojjen urges him to find the "still point" within himself.

Snake cave inner chamber

Power flows toward the Mara.

Tanha questions Lon's strange behaviour, but he brushes aside her suspicions. In the cave, the ceremony proceeds according to custom until Lon stuns the audience by announcing that the Mara has returned. The Doctor, Nyssa and Chela burst onto the scene, but are too late to stop Lon from placing the Great Crystal in the mouth of the snake on the cave wall. Tegan appears holding the Mara in the form of a snake wrapped around her arm. The Mara feeds on the crowd's fear and panic, growing larger and stronger.

The Doctor alone is unaffected. He focuses mental energy into his crystal in a battle of wills against the Mara. Although his resolve is tested when the Mara speaks to him with Tegan's voice, he refuses to submit. Dojjen adds his own mental energy to the effort, helping to subdue the Mara long enough for the Doctor to pull the Great Crystal from the wall. The Mara's influence is broken, and the snake falls to the ground, dead.

Restored to herself, Tegan weeps with horror at having felt the rage and hatred of the Mara inside of her. The Doctor comforts her, assuring her that the Mara has been destroyed.




Astronomical objects[]



  • Nyssa exchanges her Trakenite outfit, which she tended to wear since her meeting with the Fourth Doctor, for a long-collared, white and blue-stripped shirt and striped grey skirt.

Story notes[]

  • In the DVD extras, Christopher Bailey states that the idea for the serial came from a story or article about isolated Christian sects in the Arizona desert that handled snakes as part of religious rituals. The religious groups he is referring to actually are located in Appalachia, areas such as Tennessee (where it originated), Kentucky and Georgia, not Arizona.
  • The last episode overran, leading to the removal of a scene where the Doctor comforts Tegan about her ordeal. It was used in the next story (although it includes the explanation that the Mara could only be destroyed during the process of its becoming, creating a minor plot hole if the serial is watched in isolation).
  • Martin Clunes is rather embarrassed about his role in this serial, mostly because chat shows have kept bring clips out from it showing him in the silly costumes.
  • Once again, Christopher Bailey used Buddhist terms - Manussa (“the human realm”), Tanha (“craving”) and Dugdale (from duggati, “unhappy existence”).
  • Dojjen was an homage to Dōgen, a Zen master who lived in thirteenth-century Japan.
  • Dugdale had earlier been called Duchan (a platform used by Hebrew priests), while Chela was named for a Hindi word meaning “religious disciple”.
  • Two weeks prior to the start of production, Peter Davison was asked to film what he believed to be a promotional trailer for Australian television. In fact, this was a ruse concocted by John Nathan-Turner. In reality, when Davison arrived on location, he was surprised to find Matthew Waterhouse, Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding already there in full costume. Davison was even more surprised to discover that they were accompanied by Eamonn Andrews, and that he was the subject of This Is Your Life. The occasion marked the second time that a Doctor Who star had been featured on the show, the other being Jon Pertwee in 1971.
  • Designer Jan Spoczynski had wanted to use an outside firm to build the sets, but permission was withheld until almost the very last minute. Consequently, the sets had to be constructed very quickly, and Spoczynski was disappointed with the results.
  • Jill Bennett, Eleanor Bron, Judi Dench, Elspet Gray, Sheila Hancock, Jean Marsh, Anna Massey, Kate O'Mara, Barbara Shelley, Joan Sims, Elizabeth Spriggs, Wanda Ventham and Fiona Walker were considered for Lady Tanha.
  • Joss Ackland, Geoffrey Bayldon, Frank Finlay, Richard Johnson, Dinsdale Landen, William Lucas, T.P. McKenna and Clifford Rose were considered for Ambril.
  • Christopher Farries was originally cast as the Megaphone Man.
  • Peter Davison joked that he saw the story as a bit of rest, so that Janet Fielding could do her "heavy, evil" acting.
  • In the DVD commentary Davison also suggests that the device the Doctor builds (to control Tegan’s dreaming) looks like an original iPod, which would not be launched by Apple, Inc until 2001, some 18 years after this serial was recorded.
  • Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding disliked their costumes, with Sutton going so far as to say it made her look fat. Peter Davison says on the DVD commentary that it looks worse than Colin Baker's costume.
  • According to John Nathan-Turner, the staircase in the Chamber of Lom was originally used for A Song for Europe.
  • The BBC's Head of Serials read the script and thought the storytelling was obscure and confusing. He felt it was a mistake to pursue this line of storytelling, but John Nathan-Turner and Eric Saward disagreed because they liked the originality and promised more conventional storytelling for the rest of the season.
  • Fiona Cumming got the directing job when she told John Nathan-Turner that she preferred character-driven stories.
  • Christopher Bailey was writing for the series again, having been unhappy with the extent of the rewrites Eric Saward had performed on his scripts for Kinda, but he relented when he was promised that any such interference would be minimal.
  • Presiding over the ceremony, the Megaphone Man says "The first temptation is fear. I offer you fear in a handful of dust." This references a passage from the T.S. Eliot poem "The Waste Land": "And I will show you something different from either / Your shadow at morning striding behind you / Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; / I will show you fear in a handful of dust."


  • Part one — 6.7 million viewers
  • Part two — 7.7 million viewers
  • Part three — 6.6 million viewers
  • Part four — 7.4 million viewers


  • Kate Bush wrote this under a pseudonym. (She didn't.)
  • This was Martin Clunes' television debut. (Although all participants insist this is true on the DVD commentary, it's not. It was his first major role on TV, but he had already appeared in The White Guard, a BBC Play of the Month which aired on 20 September 1982.)

Filming locations[]

Production errors[]

If you'd like to talk about narrative problems with this story — like plot holes and things that seem to contradict other stories — please go to this episode's discontinuity discussion.
  • Lon claims that the fake crystal is made of glass. However, the practical effect of it being smashed does not convincingly confirm Lon's statement. It obviously shatters like plastic or polystyrene.


Home video and audio releases[]

DVD releases[]

This story was released on DVD in a box set called Mara Tales with Kinda on 7th March 2011 in Region 2. The two episodes have been updated, with CGI Mara instead of the original puppets.



It was released as issue 103 of Doctor Who DVD Files.

Video releases[]

This story was released on VHS in December 1994 in the UK markets, February 1994 in Australian markets and September 1995 in US markets.

Digital releases[]

The story is available for streaming in Canada & the US through BritBox or Amazon Instant Video in the UK.

It is also available to download through iTunes.

External links[]


  1. "Four Writers, One Discussion" a record of a conversation held on 17 January 1995. Time Space Visualiser #43. New Zealand Doctor Who Fan Club. March 1995.
  2. Moffat, Steven. "Season 19 Overview". In-Vision #62. 1996. Posted to doctorwhoforum.com. Registration required.