Sunday, August 09, 2009



A 1982 Peter Davison tale of jungle weirdness, Doctor Who: Kinda is still the source of ferocious arguments (just wait ’til it’s out on DVD and they explode across the special features). Is this a brilliant piece of art, or does it just have the most rubbish ‘snake’ ever broadcast? Is it a Buddhist metaphor, or borrowed from Ursula le Guin? Is it mind-expanding or mind-deadening, philosophically intriguing or just New Age socialism? I answer some of these questions in a highly partial and occasionally spoilertastic way…
“You will agree to being me… This side of madness or the other.”
Few Doctor Who stories have raised such wild passions for and against them as Kinda. Yes, I was one of those ten-year-olds who helped vote it bottom of Peter Davison’s first season for DWM’s poll back in 1982, largely through a vivid last memory of ‘that snake’; at the other end of the spectrum, some fans have announced that anyone who disagrees with their assertion that this is the best Who story ever is an emotional Nazi. I shall leave it to your own judgement any irony involved in people who use “Nazi” to decry those whose precise tastes do not absolutely accord to theirs…

I started a re-evaluation of Kinda through my wobbly audio copy, in those days before video. The old wise woman’s “Wheel turns” speech was quite hypnotic, and so I gradually found myself thinking Kinda was rather interesting – despite one of Uncle Terrance’s least lively novelisations trying to convince me otherwise [like the director, his prosaic prose isn’t in sympathy with the weird wonder of the story]. Nowadays, with repeated video viewings, I’ll admit that I can’t see how I ever thought the story worse than Four to Doomsday or Time-Flight, and I’ve got a lot closer to the adoring end of the spectrum than the embarrassed end I used to sit at. But will I go all the way? Well, I don’t think so, though I’ll waver between perhaps eight and nine out of ten. Let me explain.

On the whole, Kinda is interesting and refreshing, one of the Who stories with the most ideas, married to one of the Who stories that looks most like a pop video. The Dark Places of the Inside are fantastically imagined and realised, and the ‘time’ sequence is hardly less impressive. Unquestionably, the subversive ‘menaces’ of the trees, the “primitives,” Hindle, Dukkha and The Dark Places of the Inside or wherever, all combine tantalisingly to disrupt expectations and are carried off brilliantly.

In the story’s second half, however, and especially after the main hallucinatory effects sequences end, the action-based director and thoughtful script start to work against each other (notably from the blown cliffhanger to Part Three on), particularly as the author’s ideas become less successful. The fourth episode is definitely the weakest, despite quite a strong scene with Hindle’s toy madness and Panna’s consciousness passing on to demonstrate that no-one actually dies in the story (albeit the three ones who went missing…?). Studio floors, technobabble and ‘that snake’ summing up a glib and dull resolution – not to mention interminable Adric / Tegan bitching scenes – make it a curiously uninventive and unimpressive ending. This story is probably best watched as a whole, rather than an episodic let-down.

I’ve recently taken to watching Who again on an episodic basis. Yes, that’s right – as the BBC gods intended! As you might expect, with all stories written that way, most of them work much better that way. And it’s become clear that a key reason so many of us disliked Kinda on first watching – other than the shame of (all together now) ‘that snake’ at school the next day – was that this story didn’t. For a few stories where not all the episodes work, the resolution is the killer. Watch a rather good story with a poorer Part Four (Paradise Towers or The Creature From the Pit spring to mind to tease you with, or perhaps The Leisure Hive if you want one that fewer people hate so much), and it’s plain that only watching ‘the bad bit’ in one sitting leaves you with a nasty taste in your mouth that wouldn’t be so strong if you’d watched it as a ‘movie’. Watch Kinda episodically, rather than all of a bundle as video encourages you to, and it’s striking that it wasn’t just the increasing sophistication of the viewing fans that has led to Kinda’s startling turnaround since its original broadcast. It was the ‘poor Part Four’ effect at work in a peculiarly devastating way when we first watched it.

Oddly, watching Kinda episodically, I’m also struck that despite every review mentioning how the story centres on Janet Fielding, it isn’t a ‘Tegan story’ at all – more of an Adric story. He has quite a lot to do throughout the whole story (though achieving little, at least he only pretends to side with the villain this time; clearly Hindle responds to another boy to play with), while her strong role in the first two parts vanishes almost completely later on. She is superb when oppressed and then possessed by Dukkha (though an effective ‘rape’ scene apparently unlocking her sensuality is an unpleasantly disturbing message), but her appearance in Part Three is just that. Aris merely steps over her unconscious body at one point, and she neither moves nor speaks in a ‘blink and you’ll miss her’ cameo. As all the companions are buried way down in the cast list to start with, it seems particularly unfair on Matthew Waterhouse that he still gets later (and shared) billing than Janet Fielding for Part Three, and that Sarah Sutton gets no billing at all for the middle episodes.

My other reason for recently re-evaluating Kinda is that I’ve now read the book that’s said to be one of its main sources, Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest. Now, this isn’t a story that can simply be explained by reference to any one of the mountain of references it makes, whether Judaeo-Christian Garden of Eden symbolism, Buddhist analogies or Vietnam-era sci-fi. However, as the Buddhism’s been written about in great detail, I found comparisons with Le Guin’s book intriguing, and they helped crystallise why I don’t think Kinda is quite as clever as many take it to be – or quite as enjoyable.

Despite some clear similarities in the setup, including a sophisticated sexual division of labour in the “primitives,” “idiot” / “insane” colonial military leavened by a sympathetic anthropologist, and dreaming, sophisticated “primitives” (as well as blatant nods like “Planet S14” in Kinda for “World 41” in the book, Aris’ captive brother for Selver’s enslaved and murdered wife, or “ILF” – “Intelligent Life Form” – for “hilf” – “High Intelligence Life Form”), the story itself has remarkably little in common with The Word For World is Forest. Quite funny that the villain of the book is “Captain Davidson,” though, as it’s of course the Doctor who enables the snake to enter Eden! Kinda is far less successful in getting across an idea of the local people as sophisticated – with the dubious exception of Panna and the double helix jewellery, it’s merely told, rather than shown. How do they have access to molecular biology? On the face of it, nicking the necklaces from an alien spaceship crashed in the jungle would be more logical an explanation. Shouldn’t we have had some shared dreaming, or something to put the Box of Jhana in context? Instead, these “primitives” really are telepathic, which even the Mara correctly notes is a very boring way to communicate.

Instead of evidence of intelligent thought, the Kinda (surely everyone in this story bar the Doctor, Todd and Panna are just that – ‘children’?) follow Aris like sheep, and flee after a ludicrous attack on the Dome using a TSS-style ‘wicker man’ (instead, in Le Guin’s book Selver’s attacks on the Terrans use their own bombs against them, as well as showing the lethal effectiveness of ‘primitive’ weapons. The Kinda merely appear stupid). Of course, the whole effect is engineered by the Mara to bring about their misery, but instead of a powerful, co-dependent, co-defending (“the dreaming of an unshared mind”) group intelligence, they merely combine into a herd. This is especially obvious in contrast with Aris and Panna / Karuna, who are intelligent and resourceful because they are individuals. The extremely collectivist ideological slant of the story is objectionable both because it isn’t to my personal taste anyway, and because the author’s clear wish to impose it on us has not led him to consider whether it works – in the context of the story, it doesn’t, and it fails even to make an attractive case. It seems not only philosophically disagreeable, but artistically unsuccessful.

The message that progress is horrid and only leads to destruction, and that people are much better off as happy sheep, is despairingly poor. Even the ‘dangers of progress and exploration’ message of The Green Death, for example (which I rather like), is leavened by the saving grace of individuality, while even that other anti-questioning Buddhist parable, Planet of the Spiders, notices the danger of not having a mind of your own as well as of unrestrained ego. Again unlike The Word For World is Forest, which shows the destructive effect of ‘progress’ on the Athshean culture, Kinda is a zero-sum game – there has been no effect on the tribe by the end; again, intelligent life is changed by experience, while the Kinda appear like drones.

Perhaps Christopher Bailey should have read the author’s Introductions to The Word for World is Forest. Ursula Le Guin talks of art as the pursuit of liberty, “escapist” from reality into the freedom of imagination. She also warns of the power an artist has over their characters leaching into desire for the power to influence other people.
“The desire for power, in the sense of power over others, is what pulls most people off the path of the pursuit of liberty,”
she warns, and notes that when artists believe they can do good to other people, they forget about liberty and start to preach. Bailey has failed to heed her warning, and has been “inextricably confusing ideas with opinions”.

Another of my Summer holiday repeat season, originally written for the now-junked site Outpost Gallifrey in 2000 or 2001, I quite enjoyed that one, despite being more pompous than usual (these days I flatter myself I hide it better). As you can tell, I’d recently read The Word for World is Forest, and wanted to explore that ‘source’ for the story rather than go along with the fan meme that the story was all about Buddhism, despite both being mentioned in the famously po-faced and impenetrable media studies textbook Doctor Who – The Unfolding Text which studied Kinda at length a quarter of a century ago.

‘Arthouse’ Vs ‘Macho’ Peter

Unfortunately, Kinda isn’t out on DVD yet, so it’s not as accessible as some to make your own judgements over (though a second-hand VHS is probably cheap enough). I’ll bet it’ll be paired with its even better sequel Snakedance when it is released, but in the meantime, what I didn’t say above is that it may be the most striking example of one of the two warring styles found throughout Peter Davison’s time as the Doctor. While most Doctor Who seasons have a relatively consistent tone within them, Peter’s stories divide sharply between what I think of as ‘arthouse’ and ‘macho’ – wild imagery and gently elegiac tales versus the sort that, as Peter cackles on his commentaries, have more on-screen deaths than Rambo or The Terminator (and those stories that are neither ‘arthouse’ nor ‘macho’ are mostly just forgettable). Like I suspect most fans, I’m convinced that Peter’s best story is his final one, The Caves of Androzani, but less usually I reckon one of the reasons is that it finally unites those two styles, bringing vicious characters and extreme violence to the screen but with evocative dialogue, a deranged love story and dreamlike music and camerawork. That combination, as much as its extraordinary quality, makes it the ideal Peter Davison Who story. There are some, though, who champion Kinda, the ultimate arthouse Doctor Who – and I think I’ve explained why for me it’s good, but not that good. It is, however, a hugely important story, marking out a new direction in which the series could go, helping pull it away from the nothing-but-macho approach of the incoming script editor at the time – where Kinda’s ‘possession with added hippy weird shit’ Vietnam-flavoured existential crisis (directly following two other existential crisis stories) sometimes makes you wonder if the author was on the same drugs as Philip K Dick, Eric Saward appears to be mainlining nothing but testosterone.

Kinda has a lot going for it as an experience. There’s brilliant imagery, and the psychological horror of Tegan in the Dark Places of the Inside uses ’80s video effects like almost no other story (though, as Not the Nine O’Clock News might say, nice video, shame about the song). There’s a remarkable cast – Richard Todd (a major film star actively subverting leading roles he actually took, such as Sanders of the River), Nerys Hughes, Simon Rouse – with superb roles, and Peter Davison finds his feet as the Doctor by stepping aside for much of this story in a way that it’s difficult to imagine Tom Baker doing. Most criticism I’ve read of Kinda focuses on the design, but though the jungle’s not much cop and the giant snake at the climax is every bit as funny as you can imagine, it’s the ideas that let Kinda down for me – both that it runs out of them by the end, and that some of them aren’t very good in the first place. A lot of it’s compelling, but there’s something off-putting at the heart of it. The sledgehammer-unsubtle moral that it’s better to be passive and pastoral than ask questions, develop speech or even be an individual at all seems more Pol Pot than Doctor Who. The series is all about thinking for yourself, about finding new ideas and new places; this pits itself solidly against both, so it’s ironic that it’s often called one of Doctor Who’s most ‘intellectual’ stories it preaches so earnestly against the intellect.

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