Doctor Who (Classic): “Kinda”
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Doctor Who (Classic): “Kinda”

“Kinda” (season 19, episodes 9-12; originally aired Feb. 1-9, 1982)

The typical Doctor Who villain is a physical, recognizable threat. You immediately know that the Daleks are dangerous and evil because they’ve got guns welded into their midsections and they’re eager to use them. Nobody expects a Dalek to conquer by winning over its enemies psychologically. “Kinda” takes a different tack: Though there’s a monster, a giant snake called the Mara, in this story evil comes from within more than without. The greatest dangers “Kinda” presents are internal ones that exploit the hidden weaknesses and flaws of the characters. It does this via two plot threads which are at times so divergent that they seem like completely unrelated stories, but which do work together as part of a larger parable. The first, centered around Tegan and the Kinda tribe, weaves Buddhist-inspired ideas about struggle against one’s own self and repressed negativity into a story about an innocent Eden-like paradise threatened by the corruption of knowledge. The second is an anti-colonialist, Heart Of Darkness-style jungle-horror story about arrogant civilized people who come to conquer a primitive world which is bigger and wilder than they can comprehend, and which instead absorbs and destroys them. In the end it’s too muddled and oblique to be entirely successful, and its poor use of the main characters leaves the story badly unfocused, but “Kinda” is an interesting experiment in something a little more psychological than usual. The story has grown on me the more I think about it, which is both good and bad—good because there’s more here to appreciate than is immediately apparent, bad because the story doesn’t really gel on the most basic level of entertainment. And I’m not really sure that it really works on that deeper level either, just that it’s thought-provoking.

One of the chief strengths of “Kinda” is the way it behaves like an experimental stage-theater piece as much or more as a standard Doctor Who story. That’s also the source of some of its troubles—scriptwriter Christopher Bailey was more experienced as a stage playwright than a TV writer, and went through some culture shock that couldn’t have helped the story. (Also, if your tolerance for experimental stage-theater is low, you’re going to find the crazy-soldiers-regressed-into-children subplot excruciating.) He thought that a TV scriptwriter would have the same kind of script-change approval and access to the cast that a playwright often has in stage theater—by which I don’t mean to imply that he was being arrogant, but that he saw this as a standard part of the creative process where he’d continue to refine and clarify the story. The behind-the-scenes materials on the DVD make it clear that the production staff found Bailey’s script murky, overly cerebral, and hard to understand, even if they liked its idea-rich audaciousness. It also couldn’t have helped things that that “Kinda” was commissioned by one script editor who then left the show, worked on by a second script editor who also left the show, and finally completed by a third and final script editor who didn’t see the story the same way as the others had, and rewrote it to fit Doctor Who’s more typical monster-based mode, making the Mara a more physical threat than Bailey had conceived.

I called “Kinda” a parable earlier, and I meant that literally—Bailey intended the story to embody specific Buddhist spiritual concepts which are reflected in some of the names: “Deva Loka” roughly means “god world” or “spirit world.” The Kinda wise women Panna and Karuna’s names mean “wisdom” and “compassion.” The Mara is named for a demon that tempted Buddha. Dukkha, Annica, and Anatta, the Mara’s three associates (or aspects, or servants, or whatever they’re supposed to be) that Tegan meets in her dream state are named for concepts relating to states of mind that lead to unhappiness and unbalance.

Seen today, “Kinda” seems oddly similar to James Cameron’s Avatar in certain aspects—I doubt Cameron was lifting ideas from “Kinda,” but both stories draw from a larger, older common well of inspiration. Like Avatar, “Kinda” features a futuristic human colonial outpost on a backwater jungle planet. The militaristic, arrogant Earthmen are under siege by the natives, a tribe called the Kinda, who have a deep spiritual connection to their world that gives them control over their environment because they are so perfectly in tune with their place in it. This connection is implied to have its roots in the technology of the Kinda’s ancestors, meaning that their seeming primitiveness is actually a highly sophisticated and advanced culture. Where the two stories go their separate ways is that Avatar follows Dances With Wolves and “Kinda” follows Heart Of Darkness: Instead of this culture clash resulting in one of the Earthmen going native and assimilating into the Kinda tribe, they go crazy. Also, the Kinda are not computer-created giant blue cat people, and the sympathetic female scientist is not played by Sigourney Weaver.

The Fifth Doctor, Adric, Nyssa, and Tegan arrive in the middle of an atmosphere fraught with tension and paranoia. Crew members have been steadily and mysteriously disappearing for weeks, to the point where the complement now numbers only three: scientist Todd and two soldiers, the bullying and racist Sanders and his high-strung, rules-obsessed subordinate Hindle. Although the planet is not physically dangerous to the humans, unlike Avatar’s Pandora with its poisonous atmosphere, there’s still a not-entirely-unjustified fear of contamination that means all trips into the jungle are made in a sealed one-man vehicle that’s basically a deep-sea bathysphere designed for moving around a forest. Todd is open to trying to understand Deva Loka on its own terms, but the men have a more pernicious attitude. They’re basically the worst kind of European colonialists, there to take Deva Loka by force, and that point isn’t made with any particular subtlety. If the callous taking of Kinda hostages as a matter of standard policy, or Sanders’ calling the Kinda “just a bunch of ignorant savages” didn’t make that obvious, there’s the 19th-century pith helmets, just the thing for an enterprising young man off to subjugate Rhodesia. (Also, Sanders is pretty much plucked directly out of pro-imperialist colonial literature: He’s named for the main character in Edgar Wallace’s African novels of the 1910s and 1920s, and actor Richard Todd was well-known for having played Wallace’s Sanders in a 1963 movie called Death Drums Along The River.)

One previous story that’s been mentioned as a source for both Avatar and “Kinda” is Ursula LeGuin’s 1972 novel The Word For World Is Forest, though Bailey has said he hasn’t read it. In any case, the general themes in play here were common enough—postcolonialism was especially in vogue at the time, and there were a lot of stories about people going mad or being fundamentally changed by encounters with the primal jungle. LeGuin’s book may be cited for “Kinda” because of the sci-fi connection, but recent years had also seen the movies Apocalypse Now (itself a version of Heart Of Darkness) and Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, and the novels The Mosquito Coast and At Play In The Fields Of The Lord. There’s also the Russian sci-fi novel and movie Solaris, in which exposure to an incomprehensible alien world drives a group of human scientists mad. “Kinda” is part of that zeitgeist.

There’s little doubt that the human colonists here are being driven crazy by the mental powers of the native tribe, though it doesn’t seem to be something the Kinda are doing on purpose—or if they are, it’s not quite going according to plan. Hindle’s mind snaps after he forms a telepathic link with his two Kinda hostages, but they act like his zombie servants for the rest of the story, obeying his commands and showing no initiative of their own, so I doubt it was a conscious act of revenge or rebellion. Plus, he turns even more xenophobic than before, becoming obsessed with sterilizing the jungle by fire before it can infect him with its microbes and vines and things.

Sanders, meanwhile, has had his mind expanded by the mystical Jhana Box that the Kinda’s two wise women give him—that’s another Buddhist-inspired name, referring to the still serenity of meditation. In an instant, he’s changed from the bully we met earlier. It’s almost entirely for the better—but there’s a side effect. Sanders turns so benign and kindly that he’s kind of softheaded, and cheerfully helps Hindle wire up the explosives that threaten a 50-mile radius of jungle around them, assuring Adric that “he means well ... We all do, don’t we, underneath it all?”  

Maybe so, but not everybody who means well does well. Although he’s wracked with terror and threatens to cause enormous destruction because of it, Hindle’s not really evil, just hopelessly lost and confused. Hindle’s madness was catalyzed by his contact with the planet of Deva Loka, but it apparently comes from his own inner turmoil—it’s not something the Kinda did to him, but something that was waiting for its chance to come out. That’s why he gets so agitated when one of his silly cardboard men is damaged, crying in anguish that “you can’t mend people!” He’s got to know, on some level, that he’s making a remark about himself as well. Actor Simon Rouse really sells the line, too. All this is resolved a little too easily by having Hindle finally open the Jhana Box/deus-ex-machina that’s been sitting around since the second episode, waiting for someone to remember it. The resolution doesn’t feel earned, partly because it’s hard to believe there’s a simple off-switch for deep-set psychological trauma, and partly because what the Box actually does is described in totally contradictory ways at different points in the story. It’s both a source of healing and a threat. The blind sage Panna insists that “no male can open the Box of Jhana without being driven out of his mind,” but when the story needs instant sanity so it can wrap things up, that’s what the Box provides.

While Hindle’s inner turmoil runs rampant in the dome, Tegan’s opens a door to the devil in the jungle outside, as the Mara seizes the chance to manifest itself in the material world by possessing her. It’s left somewhat open to interpretation exactly what the Mara is, but it seems reasonable to think it’s the Kinda’s own dark side—by banishing their collective psychic aggression and worldly desire, they have achieved their return to innocence. But they haven’t scotched the snake, just repressed it, and the arrival of the TARDIS gives this disembodied psychic force the foothold it needs to get back: Tegan, who makes the mistake of falling asleep directly underneath the crystal chimes which allow it to possess her. Tegan’s personality is much like Donna Noble’s in the new-series Doctor Who—outspoken, brassy, and an endless source of complaints and negativity. And just the right person, therefore, to be attractive to a disembodied demon who needs someone with rough edges it can grasp onto. (Considering that the humans who were already on Deva Loka were plenty screwed up themselves, I suppose the only explanation for why they hadn’t unleashed the Mara is that they hadn’t found the crystal chimes yet.)

Tegan’s Alice-In-Wonderland-in-MTV psychedelic experience, in a mysterious black space that the script calls “The Wherever,” is easily the strongest part of “Kinda.” It’s a demonic possession and also a demonic seduction, made possible only because Tegan already has a source of evil already within. Note how in the last episode, when Tegan asks the Doctor if the Mara is still inside her, he doesn’t give her a straight answer. (And there’s an interesting juxtaposition which is left tantalizingly unexplored: The first people Tegan meets in the Wherever are two white figures playing chess next to a black column, mirroring the earlier shot of Adric and Nyssa playing chess next to the TARDIS. So the third phantasm—the one who actually does the mind games and trickery that lead to her possession—is clearly an evil version of ... well, do I need to spell it out? Hint: He’s the one Bailey called “Dukkha.”)

If the Mara is actually the repressed side of the Kinda’s aggression, its ultimate goal naturally would be to get back to the tribe and reinfect it. So it makes a certain amount of sense that the awakened Tegan almost immediately transfers the Mara to the mute male Kinda named Aris, who carries the villain role for the latter half of the story. But it strikes me as pretty weak to write Tegan out of the story so thoroughly, eliminating her from the entirety of episode three and giving her no real role in defeating the Mara in part four. I’m not sure there’s a good reason for Aris even to be in the story—Tegan should probably have remained the focus, instead of some guy that we aren’t familiar with or emotionally invested in. Tegan did get another chance to wrestle with the Mara in the following year’s sequel, “Snakedance,” but that doesn’t mean her absence here isn’t a baffling weakness of “Kinda.”

And it’s part of a larger problem of this story—the entire TARDIS crew is kind of sidelined here, and rather passive. Nyssa is clumsily written out with the explanation that she needs to take a nap for two days, made necessary because her character hadn’t been part of the TARDIS crew when Bailey’s script was commissioned. Even the sonic screwdriver was written out, and would actually be destroyed in the next serial, “The Visitation.”

And although the Doctor does come up with the mirror circle that finally entraps the Mara, he spends most of “Kinda” reacting to events, not actively changing the course of the story. But maybe there’s a reason for that. It’s interesting that the Doctor is the only man in the story who can open the Jhana Box safely. Since the Box apparently changes men by removing their worst personality flaws, one possible reason the Doctor wasn’t affected is that he’d already recently confronted his own worst flaws and undergone a severe personality change—namely, at the beginning of the season when he regenerated from his fourth body into his fifth. It’s not merely an insult when Panna calls the Doctor an idiot: As Shakespeare said, the wise man knows himself to be a fool. And more than any of his other regenerations, the Fifth Doctor is calm and humbly aware of his faults and shortcomings. He lacks the imperious arrogance that marks three of the four earlier Doctors, particularly Tom Baker’s version in his later seasons, and that might mean the Jhana Box doesn’t find anything within him that it can fix. The problem is, this means the Doctor has less personally at stake in the story than he might have, since the major threats here are against emotionally unbalanced people. I wonder if “Kinda” might have been more interesting if it had happened not as a Fifth Doctor tale but as Four’s final story. Instead of attacking Tegan, the Mara could have attacked the Doctor himself, and tried to exploit his dark side. That would lead to the Fourth Doctor needing to confront and conquer the part of himself that attracted the Mara, which would in turn have provided a natural lead-in to the much more placid Fifth Doctor. In any case, Five’s serenity is only temporary. Panna talks about the cycles of history, implying that the Kinda have gone through the process of conquering the Mara and being re-conquered by it over and over. (Like the Matrix sequels, but with snakes.) The Doctor’s life is also cyclical, dominated by the very Buddhist concept of reincarnation—and as we know now, when Five regenerates, he loses that inner balance in a big way.

Stray observations

• “An apple a day keeps the—uh... well, never mind.”

• The final appearance of the Mara in giant-snake form is not exactly convincing, looking less like a living creature than a decoration from some lost St. Patrick’s Day parade float showing the snakes being driven out of Ireland. But the DVD features include newer CGI that replaces the original Mara with a much better and scarier beast—if you have the choice, watch that version.

• The set design is also hit-or-miss. It’s hard to ignore that the jungle floor isn’t made of dirt, but a flat cement studio floor partly obscured by leaves. It’s noticeably less convincing than the lush alien jungle Who’s team put together six years earlier for Season 13’s “Planet of Evil.” Having said that, the colonists’ geodesic-dome structure is well-conceived, and The Wherever is pretty brilliant—very sinister and otherworldly with its engulfing void of blackness and overexposed white shapes wandering within.

• As my wife put it: “No wonder everyone hated Adric.” Just in the first half of the first episode, he runs a stick along the delicate-looking crystal chimes, much to the Doctor’s annoyance, then wanders into the jungle moments after being specifically warned not to go wandering off, then stupidly activates the inert Total Survival Suit, which promptly pulls a gun on him.

• Next time: The show’s first monsters make their first return appearance and the Doctor loses his first companion in 1964’s “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.”
• Nov. 13: “The War Games,” episodes 1-5
• Nov. 20: “The War Games,” episodes 6-10
• And coming up after that, “The Silurians,” “City of Death,” and visits to the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctor eras.

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