...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, April 15, 2011

Day 3757: Doctor Who: What's Wrong With Kinda?


"Kinda" is an acknowledged classic of Doctor Who, a story from Mr Dr Peter's first year, when everything was NEW and EXPERIMENTAL (or "wildly inconsistent" if you prefer).

Notoriously, it was voted worst in Doctor Who Magazine's annual poll, but was rehabilitated by a reappraisal from Mr Paul Cornell: yes, he's the chap who wrote "Human Nature" so clearly he knows STUFF.

There are several really awesome performances and some really astounding (and in a GOOD way) visuals.

So why do I still end up thinking it's a wee bit rubbish?

And no, it's NOT the big pink mind-snake!

Thing is, there're at least FIVE kinds of "Kinda".

There's the "Kinda" that Kate Bush (Christopher Bailey) wrote as a Buddhist allegory; there's the "Kinda" that Peter Grimwade's Syndrome directed, full of Christian Eden imagery and Top-of-the-Pops visuals; there's the "Kinda" that Eric "von" Saward wanted, guns, guns and, well, guns; there's the "Kinda" that Mr John Nathan-Turner had in mind, something with Richard Todd and Mary Morris and Nerys Hughes in it. Probably in a jungle.

There's the INEFFABLE one in fans' minds… or the terrible one in fans' memories…

And then there's the one we actually GOT!

For starters, the "Kinda" that reached the screen is really TWO stories: there's "what's going on in the dome (Mr Hindle's gone potty)"; and there's "what's going on in the forest (a Hindu demon has escaped from Tegan's dreams and is going to destroy the Kinda's Buddhist paradise. Probably)".

These two stories only intersect each other tangentially and the final episode is reduced almost to the Doctor running backwards and forwards between the two plots trying to DO something only to see them both resolve pretty much all by themselves.

It doesn't ENTIRELY help that there are certain bits of one plot that LOOK like they are in the other. The Kinda Wise-Woman Panna (Ms Mary Morris – awesome performance #1) and her Box of Jhana very much LOOK like they are part of the Kinda plotline but are ACTUALLY part of the "dome" plot.

The colonists in the dome have been pushed to a state of hysteria by the disappearance of three of their team.

The disappearances have also led to the colonists sealing themselves off in the dome – heightening the paranoia – and taking two of the local Kinda tribe as "hostages". All according to the manual, which inexperienced, out-of-his-depth security officer Hindle (Mr Simon Rouse – awesome performance #2) is following to the letter.

The expedition leader, Sanders (Mr Richard Todd – awesome performance #3), is taking his frustrations out on Hindle and the combination of these stresses has pushed an already weak man to the edge.

Hindle then makes telepathic contact with the Kinda "hostages" and it pushes him right over. (You can see this happen; all that guff later about mirrors and capturing souls is his patronising colonialist rationalisation).

And this is all Panna's fault.

She OUGHT to be a figure of wisdom, but actually it's her bloody-minded insistence on giving the "Kinda healing device" to the colonists – even though she KNOWS that it'll drive any man who opens it mad!– that causes the disappearances and sets the whole inevitable cycle going.

And then she does it AGAIN to Sanders, and it really doesn't help matters any.

Ultimately the situation is resolved because Todd (Nerys Hughes – also pretty good) tricks Hindle into opening the Box of Jhana and because he's already nuts it turns him sane.

The Mara has NOTHING to do with this plot!

Notice especially that no one tries using the box of Janna to cure Aris of the Mara!

Meanwhile, in a very much other part of the forest…

Dr Woo arrives with three chums: Nyssa, Tegan and boy-brainiac Adric (Mr Matthew Waterhouse – awesome performance #4… no, just kidding).

Tegan falls asleep under the Kinda tribe's magic wind-chimes and through her dreams an evil spirit called the Mara takes possession of her. Through Tegan, it is able to take over of one of the Kinda, Aris; and, because it is able to speak through Aris and because there is a Kinda prophecy that they must obey a man who can speak, through Aris it takes control the rest of the tribe, threatening them with destruction through the reintroduction of "progress".

This is very much the WEAKER story of the pair. (Pear? No, it's apples… hang on, we'll come back to that!)

It is quite DIFFICULT to CARE about the fate of the Kinda.

We're repeatedly TOLD that they are far more sophisticated than they appear. Which isn't hard as they appear to have stepped out of a Timotei commercial – and that's what the WRITER has to say! The so-called clues to this include the necklaces that they wear, which are said to resemble the DNA double-helix but actually don't, the glass glockenspiel at the place of dreaming and ultimately the "sophisticated healing device" that is the Box of Jhana.

But the Kinda themselves never DO anything to justify this claim. The telepathy does not help. The Mara (as Tegan) is all too right when it declares "telepathy is such a BORING way to communicate".

I UNDERSTAND – because the script keeps TELLING me – that they are supposed to "do nothing" because they are kind of beyond all that, but to paraphrase "Warriors' Gate", it needs to be the RIGHT KIND of "nothing".

These guys, hanging out with blissed out expressions and carrying their fruit platters, could just as easily be a tribe of primitives living in the ruins of a far more ancient and sophisticated society, a thought that is reinforced by the way they try to recreate the Colonists' high-tech "total survival suit" (or TSS – the galaxy's clunkiest spacesuit) using just leaves and branches: mimicking rather than understanding.

What it NEEDS is for one of the Kinda to disable the REAL TSS, maybe casually flipping open a panel and changing a circuit or maybe just by touching it, to indicate that the technology – ALL technology – is BENEATH them.

Instead, this is almost PATRONISING to the "charming native folks".

The script invests much more character into the colonists in the dome, and as a result we CARE about what happens to them. Even Hindle. In contrast, the Kinda are a bland bunch in whom we are never invested. At best they are an over-stylised collection of archetypes; at worst, a bunch of ciphers.

And if we don't care about them, we don't care about this part of the story. And remember, this is supposed to be the IMPORTANT part of the story, the bit with the dirty great SYMBOLISM in it.

At the end of part three Panna shows Todd and Dr Woo a VISION, so heavily STEEPED in SYMBOLS, not to mention so heavily treated with visual effects, that it might as well have "THIS IS A VISION" appear as a caption card. It's undeniably POWERFUL, but that power depends really on what happens to the Kinda tribe MATTERING to us.

And what is it with that prophecy anyway? It appears to do nothing but HARM, since the Kinda end up following Aris into larks and scrapes because of it. By falling for it, the tribe demonstrates blind faith rather than spiritual enlightenment. And if they are supposed to be so sophisticated how come they haven't made their prophecy a bit more specific?

Why DON'T the menfolk have voice? It's cultural rather than biological (Aris, at least, clearly HAS vocal chords for the Mara to use). I know that I shouldn't be bringing my own cultural baggage to the anthropological table, but "it just is" isn't a completely satisfactory answer at the end of a story that RELIES on a man suddenly having a voice.

And for that matter, why are only WOMEN allowed to be WISE? Panna repeatedly calling the Doctor an idiot is, yes, a running joke. But it's also prejudiced and rude and once again WRONG!

Female wisdom (Panna) and compassion (Karuna) are shown to be no match for the Mara.

At one point, Karuna's knowledge even appears to go backwards: SHE'S the one who tells Dr Woo that the way for the Mara to enter the waking world is by the dreaming of an unshared mind. But then she appears shocked to learn that Tegan might have been sleeping near the chimes, asserting "but it is forbidden!" like she doesn't know that the CONSEQUENCES of doing "the forbidden" are already upon them.

And, incidentally, if it is forbidden for an unshared mind to dream, why do the Kinda tribesfolk just blithely decorate Tegan's slumbering form with flowers. Rather than, say, waking her up before something terrible can happen. Or at least going to Panna to tell.

Panna, though, as we've seen, gets everything WRONG and Karuna falls under the Mara's sway. (Perhaps it's trying to say that only when you COMBINE wisdom with compassion do you succeed, but it don't come across that way.)

In a story that OUGHT to be big on female EMPOWERMENT – what with the women Kinda being the wise ones who get "voice" – it actually undermines this by having them fall victim to such an overwhelmingly MALE power. It's a BIG PINK SNAKE for goodness sake; I mean what WERE they thinking?

The shame of it is that Mara itself is TERRIFYINGLY AWESOME.

Played like a lizard by Mr Jeff Stewart (awesome performance #5) in the already-incredibly-creepy nearly-black-and-white world inside Tegan's head. The bleached-out film and the red dye on the teeth make him – it? – look like something DEAD, a corpse that the Mara has just slung on like an ill-fitting suit. Dukkha-Mara toys with Tegan as he toys with our expectations of the "rules" in this "dreamworld", casually tossing them aside to twist the knife, somehow both revelling in this and remaining dead-eyed and unaffected by it at the same time: an emotionless savagery.

And when it takes possession of Tegan (Ms Janet Fielding – awesome performance #6, and possibly winner of the Most Awesome, You Ownz Da Deva Loka award) if anything it gets even BETTER.

It's not an ORIGINAL observation that there's a big slice of SEXUAL AWAKENING in the Mara-possessed Tegan. (What's that you say? A big pink snake and apples in the paradise garden leading to knowledge of good and evil? Could there be a SUBTEXT going on here?).

The unfettering of her sexual identity (while "under the influence") also mirrors the hints that Tegan is repressing something rather UNPLEASANT: in this story, a childhood memory of ice cream and she "didn't like the taste"; in "Snakedance" she talks about her garden "where people always come back"; and there's further insight into her state of mind in "Enlightenment". When we first meet her she's living with her (maiden?) Aunt Vanessa and given the propensity for Dr Woo's companions to be orphaned, can we guess that an early bereavement is the answer to what's her childhood trauma? Or is there something WORSE going on?

The Mara doesn't just exaggerate Tegan's unspoken DESIRES; it might actually USE her fears to torment her with her "own" behaviour.

But then the idea of a (sexually) LIBERATED woman as POWERFUL or even FRIGHTENING is VERY Nineteen Eighties! It's hardly a coincidence that the then Prime Monster was depicted as the woman out of SPECIES (see especially the Comic Strip's "Ken" – and that really DOES have a song by Kate Bush in it!).

It's a shame that Tegan-Mara gets so little of the screen time (and then SHAMEFULLY she's not even IN episode three!) and has to wait until the sequel to really let rip!

In some ways you could say that the PROBLEM with "Kinda" IS "Snakedance".

In "Snakedance", the Mara is a world-conquering all-consuming snake god. We know that in the deep past it overthrew the Manussan Empire and ruled its own Sumaran Empire for half a MILLENNIUM. In the "present", we see that it has formed a plan to take advantage of the Manussans' ceremony in the cave and quickly takes control of the people it needs to effect its resurrection: first the showman, then Lon (directly), then Ambril. With the Great Mind's Eye and all the people at the ceremony it can recreate itself and take over the world. That Mara is both ambitious and effective and, looking like it could succeed, credible.

Contrast that with the Mara's aims and ambitions in "Kinda". If it WANTS to conquer worlds… wouldn't it be better off possessing one of the COLONISTS, rather than a barely-dressed hippy? If its aim is no more than to cause misery for the Kinda, then it would STILL be better off possessing one of the colonists – imagine it taking over Sanders and instigating a full military assault on the jungle. Or even Todd and turning her scientific detachment into cold clinical killing.

When incarnated as Dukkha inside Tegan's head, the Mara's malevolence is sophisticated and philosophical. When it takes possession of Aris, its evil amounts to… being mean to the tribe's jester. And playing dress-up with twigs.

Just what the HELL does the Mara think it's DOING?

In story terms – and frankly according to the PHILOSOPHY here – the threat of the Mara OUGHT to be the MAIN threat, appalling and apocalyptic as Panna's episode-ending vision implies; the threat from Hindle should be PETTY in comparison.

But from the way it's shown on screen, it's the other way around.

The biggest threat to the Kinda is that they and their forest will be incinerated by the insane Hindle. Compared to that, the Mara is, what, getting them to perform some kind of cargo-cult approximation of an attack on the dome at the end of which they all run away.

That thing with the giant pink snake may be jaw-dropping (for one reason or another)… it's certainly "the memorable bit"… but rescuing Aris from the mind-snake is, in STORY terms, treated as just an adjunct after the main drama is over.

And that's just wrong.

In a lot of ways, what the story needs is TIME.

Everything seems to happen in a big rush. It almost FEELS like it all plays out in real time, or at most takes place over the course of one afternoon. The Doctor actually tells Tegan she's been asleep for two days, at one point, but there's no sense of that much time passing: it never seems to get dark, and there hardly seem to be enough events to take up the stated time.

(You CAN just about make it add up, if you assume Sanders goes out in the TSS on day one and Hindle locks up Dr Woo and Dr Todd overnight – which certainly ISN'T the implication of, for example, Todd's "shouldn't we try to escape?" line – and then episodes two and three take all day with the prophecy vision taking all the second night so that they wake Tegan up on their third day on Deva Loka in episode four. But it's a stretch and there's not a sense of morning and afternoon passing.)

But that isn't my point.

When the Doctor arrives it's ALREADY the beginning of the crisis: people have disappeared, the hostages have been taken, Hindle is ready to go fruit-loop etc. And the Mara hasn't even been released yet!

This is fundamentally the wrong order: the release of the Mara NEEDS to come before events start to spiral out of control – the POINT of the Kinda is that they have "stepped off the wheel of time" so events shouldn't BE occurring, let alone spiralling out of control, until the Mara turns up to restart the wheel.

The story OUGHT to work like this:
  1. Tegan falls asleep under the chimes and falls under the power of the Mara, releasing it;
  2. the Mara possesses Aris and the Kinda begin to change, perhaps starting to use or develop their technology;
  3. reacting to this change, Panna suspects the colonists and uses the box of Jhana to try and bring things back into balance;
  4. far from healing things, this makes things worse as one by one the colonists exposed to the box go crazy and/or native and disappear;
  5. Hindle, possibly already sensitive to the Kinda telepathy, becomes paranoid and instigates the security protocols, and he and Sanders kidnap two of the tribe;
  6. the Kinda become hostile, possibly beginning to turn their technology to weapons…
In THIS context, the two different stories become INTERCONNECTED because the Mara is the root cause, driving them both.It means that Panna's prophetic vision of an apocalypse seems like a credible extrapolation rather than an hysterical over-reaction. And it means that stopping Hindle isn't enough, because the Mara will carry on turning the wheel unless it can be stopped, confronted, rejected.

But maybe that's just me, wanting the PARABLE to make SENSE as a piece of action sci-fi rather than just a statement of state of mind.Maybe the problem is that I was just TOO YOUNG to see "Kinda" the first time and that sense of "WTF" has stuck. Daddy Richard thinks he has the same problem (ooh look: the fourth wall!). But then I was even younger when I saw the allegedly-even-more-baffling "Warriors' Gate" and I've never had a problem with that!

In the end, it's possible that "Kinda"'s great success is that it is SO baffling that people just keep coming back to it for more. Even if it's like that scene in "Star Trek" where Guinan serves Data a drink so he can experience it emotionally: "that is REVOLTING! Give me another!" Its contradictions give it DEPTH; the lack of a single unifying vision for the story makes it MULTI-FACETED (Noo, crystals is the OTHER one!); and its very inconsistencies make it interesting.

In other words, what is WRONG with "Kinda" may be exactly what it does RIGHT.


"Kinda" is available on DVD along with "Snakedance" in the BBC boxset "Mara Tales".

Daddy Alex previews the set (and the rest of the year's releases) here; and also talks more stuff about "Kinda" here.

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