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Doctor Who: Kinda (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Kinda originally aired in 1982.

My dear, you can’t possibly exist, so please go away.

– a figment of Tegan’s imagination… or is it?

Every once in a while, there’s a story that undergoes something of a critical reappraisal among Doctor Who fans, as particular fans champion a forgotten story as a classic, attack the assertion that a given story is a classic or even suggest a stinker is in serious need of reevaluation. I actually like that, even fifty years after the show originally aired, there are still discussions to be had around what the good, bad and indifferent stories are. I think Kinda has cycled through this process quite a bit – a story initially overlooked in Peter Davison’s “much better than you remember, if you can get past the cheesy production values” first season, but one that has been somewhat re-appraised in the decades that followed.

A hot-shot colonist...

Kinda has the distinction of being the first Doctor Who serial to generate genuine academic discussion on its content, provoking a wave of debate and discussion about the rich Buddhist imagery employed by writer Christopher Bailey to tell his story. It’s rich and layered, and – I’d argue – one of the very few examples of the Davison era where the bright lights enhance (rather than detract from) the mood. Now, if only we could get past that rather silly-looking inflatable snake puppet at the end of the story.

I’ve praised the wonderful folk at the Doctor Who Restoration Team more than a few times in discussing the treatment that these classic serials have received, but I honestly doubt that I could ever give them enough credit for the hours of work and love they’ve given the DVDs. In this case, the team have actually gone to the effort of digitally replacing the horrible snake puppet with a much more intimidating CGI snake. It’s a wonderful accomplishment that really adds to the end of the serial, which was dampened by one of the least impressive monsters in the history of the show (and there’s a lot of competition for that title). And, of course, there’s the option to watch the episodes as they originally aired – something I can understand even if I wouldn’t necessarily do so myself.

A snake charmer...

I know it’s superficial, and it goes against all the stuff I’ve said all this year about my power of suspension of disbelief, but I really like it. I don’t think the rubber snake “ruined” the serial or anything nearly as melodramatic, but I think that giving the Mara a more intimidating and terrifying form does make it seem more dangerous. I mean, you could make the argument that the cardboard snake prop was a fitting representation of an impotent created that needed fear to be powerful, but I don’t really buy that – the snake was not intended to look as cheap and tacky as it did, and the CGI snake does not represent an attack on anybody’s artistic vision, at least in my humble opinion.

So, enough about the ending. What about the rest of the serial? I really liked it, but then again I have a very high resistance to cheese and a fondness for the Davison era, while being aware of some of the franchise’s weaknesses at this point in time. Nyssa rather conveniently faints in the first episode, as Bailey had originally written the story to fit two companions instead of the three currently in the TARDIS, and I think that episode is the stronger for not having four lead characters along with a vast guest cast. I have no problem with TARDIS dynamics featuring more than one companion, but I honestly think there were too many people in the TARDIS at that point in time.

Adric chymes in...

One can also detect the production team’s dislike of the sonic screwdriver as a convenient plot device here, somewhat fitting since it would be destroyed “permanently” in The Visitation. Here, the screwdriver is written out in the same manner of Nyssa, being used to help her stay in her deep trance-like sleep. In Timecrash, the Tenth Doctor would joke that Davison’s Doctor went “hands free”, and there was a definite attempt to steer clear of some of the more “magic wand-ish” properties of the device during Davison’s tenure, although the discussion of whether this was a valid criticism is better suited for elsewhere. I do find something just a bit hilarious when Adric is smart enough to see that having the screwdriver disabled might be a problem, and the Doctor dismisses him, “Why should we need it?” The man clearly never learns.

Christopher Bailey’s script is great. It’s wonderful and clever and playful – never too serious, but never veering too far into camp either. I’d argue that it plays to the strengths of this particular era of the show in a wonderful fashion, typifying the sort of central high-concept science fantasy that I associate with Peter Davison’s time in the lead role. In many ways, the story also seems to suit Davison’s Doctor quite well – in that people aren’t dying left, right and centre and there’s a relatively intellectual and spiritual dimension to the problem. Davison’s version of the character was never very good at dealing with psychotic and omnicidal threats to the universe at large, rather at solving mysteries.

Going native...

It’s interesting that Bailey suggests that time is cyclical – in a show about time travel, it would have been easier to address that idea literally rather than metaphorically. Bailey suggests that time is destined to repeat itself, conjuring the image of “the wheel”, but also of a snake eating its own tail. “Look, was what we just saw the future or the past?” Todd asks the Doctor after they see a vision of darkness and foreboding. The Doctor replies, “Both.” It’s a time loop, but it’s moving forward – a pattern of destructive behaviour doomed to repeat itself. It’s a clever concept that fits well with a show about time travel.

So it’s fitting then, that Bailey takes us back to the Garden of Eden, the creation myth, set in the distant future. A lot has been written about the Buddhist themes of the story, but I think that it works so well because Bailey draws from a variety of inspirations. There’s a lot of Christian images included here as well. The Kinda live in a sort of a Garden of Eden, where they want for nothing. “The Kinda have no need of shelter and no fears for food supply,”the Doctor observes. Apples grow here, and are a symbol of temptation (Tegan offers it, and the scientists sample it). Hell, violence if even brought to the garden by a serpent.

It's a jungle out there...

Bailey also draws, rather scathingly, from British colonialism. The serial isn’t subtle about it, with the crew wearing the helmets of British explorers and Saunders sporting quite a spiffing moustache. The team is here “with a view to colonoisation”, and the high-ranking officers dismiss the natives as “ignorant savages.” When Hindle gains control of the base, the first thing he does is to dress their native prisoners in the clothes of the expedition. The clear belief is that because the culture isn’t comparable to that which produced Hindle and Saunders, it is worthless. “If the Kinda are so clever, how is it they didn’t build their own interplanetary vehicle and come and colonise us?” Saunders asks, as if colonisation is the peak of civilisation.

There are other clever ideas buried throughout the script, suggested with wit and style. In particular, Bailey’s script suggests that cycles of violence don’t need to take place on large scales, but that they happen on an interpersonal level. “When I was a boy I was beaten every day,” Hindle remarks. “Never did me any harm. Made me the man I am.”Violence begets violence. The way he treats others is a reflection of how he himself was treated. Mirrors shining back at mirrors, until all that’s trapped is a reflection of a reflection of a reflection. It’s quite ingenious that the Mara itself is trapped within a circle of mirrors.

Sleeping beauty...

There’s some wonderful mind-screw-y stuff going on inside Tegan’s head, and it’s the kind of stuff I imagine very few tea-time viewers would have been quite used to. Again, Bailey suggests a wealth of ideas about self and identity, teasing them rather than dwelling on them. I love the idea that the Mara is some sort of mind cuckoo, laying its eggs inside the consciousness of other creatures to grow and develop. It’s an ambitious monster, and something quite different from the norm. I can understand why – even if the visuals weren’t the best – the creature would return the following year for Snakedance.

It’s generally quite easy to mock the production values of the show during the eighties, but the jungle here actually looks quite lovely for a studio-bound set. I don’t think we’ve seen jungle look this good since Planet of Evilway back during the Hinchcliffe era. I think part of it is the bright saturated look, something that looks intentionally staged. It’s almost the same sort self-aware pantomime style that the best Pertwee-era alien worlds had, but shot under bright lights as in illustration that darkness could hide even in something quite close to paradise. The incidental music is also quite impressive, I must confess.

Last trance saloon?

Kinda is a great little story. Sure, it looks a bit cheesy from time to time, and Adric is as weak as he is in every other episode, but it’s ambitious and bold, with a lot of clever ideas. And, when you remove the dodgy cardboard snake, I think that makes it all rather worthwhile.

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