TV EYE: FLASHBACK- Doctor Who – “Kinda”

It is amazing what you can find on Youtube, especially thanks to the copyright-baiting lunatics who seem to be having a ball by jumping up and down in front of the BBC and shouting “Na na na!” After a recent wonder, I discovered what appeared to be the majority of 1980s Classic Who on there, and found myself watching a story that I hadn’t properly seen for well over twenty years. For once, you don’t really need to fear the spoilers- the following may be rather stream-of-consciousness, but it’s also an attempt to try an express why I love Who, shoddy effects and all. Enjoy…

DOCTOR WHO: ‘KINDA’

One of the accidental side-effects of the new relaunch of Who, and my rather complex and mixed feelings about it, has been a reawakening of my love of Classic Who. It’s sent me scurrying back to stories I’ve enjoyed in the past, in search of the elusive ‘something’ that (at least for me) the new show is missing, and what’s nicest about the whole process is that what I love about Doctor Who is still there. The imagination, world-building and sheer ambition of the show, which so often transcended the limitations of the rickety budget– it’s all still there, and it’s certainly harder to find a better example of Classic Who’s wild ride from clunky embarrasment to lurid genius than the 1982 Peter Davison story ‘Kinda’.

One thing you always have to bear in mind when watching Classic Who is that no matter how good it gets, something’s always going to go wrong somewhere. As what was essentially a low budget show even back in the days when almost all TV was produced pretty cheaply, Who was always fighting a battle to produce 25 minutes of science fiction adventure per week on a tiny amount of money, and very often things went wrong, or didn’t work. Even stone-cold classics like the 4th Doctor story Robots of Death still manage to have a few moments that’ll make even the die-hard fans wince (particularly the cartoony sound-effect used for Leela’s knife ‘thunking’ into the body of a robot), and it’s these moments that always prove the bugbear when talking about the show to non-fans. Of course, to modern eyes and in comparison to today’s sci-fi dramas, most of Classic Who looks stunningly primitive, and it’s the clunky moments, the failures and the slip-ups that get remembered- the creaky models and the wobbly sets (ignoring the fact that most of Who was made at a time when virtually all TV dramas and comedies were made on sets that wobbled– try watching the set in Fawltey Towers and you’ll see it frequently struggling to survive the punishment it’s getting). Naturally, these moments make it even harder to suspend disbelief– and while certain stories have a fair number, Kinda is crammed full of them.

For a start, it’s a story that’s set on a lush, paradise-like jungle planet, and it’s filmed completely in an overlit studio. There are points where the set works– and yet there are also scenes where the suspiciously flat jungle floor is perfectly visible, and it doesn’t look like anything other than a very odd piece of theatre. Then, there’s the fact that many of the performances verge on over-the-top and are certainly more theatrical than modern audiences are used to- particularly Simon Rouse as Hindle, who’s got to pull off a very particular form of paranoid mania without being intentionally funny. On top of all this, there’s the stylised dialogue, the offbeat costumes (particularly the slightly over-obvious ‘explorer’ garb), the special effects that are frequently creaky even for Classic Who standards (the puppet snake at the climax really doesn’t work), and you’ve even got future ‘That’s Life’ presenter Adrian Mills dressed in a loincloth and shouting things like “I am Aris! I have voice!”

In short, there’s everything there to make Kinda a prime example of why Classic Who is a bit of a mess, and why New Who is such a massive improvement on it. There’s just one small problem– if you look past the production values, Kinda is a lush work of near-genius with a level of ambition that New Who wouldn’t touch with a barge pole.

To summarise, the story is set on the planet Deva Loka, a jungle environment inhabited by a race of telepathic tribespeople called the Kinda. While they initially look primitive, they also wear necklaces modelled on the DNA double-helix, and while a mission has been sent from Earth to establish whether the planet is suitable for colonisation, things are soon rapidly going out of control. Half of the mission staff have just disappeared into the jungle, and out of the remainder, the Security Officer Hindle is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In response to the disappearences, two Kinda hostages are taken, and the brother of one of them is looking for a way of striking back. Then, the TARDIS lands, and the Doctor ends up (as per usual) walking straight into trouble.

(As a brief sidenote- Kinda is from the 1982 season, which saw the TARDIS with a crew of 3 companions, more than there’d ever been since Ben and Polly left back in 1967, and it’s quickly obvious that it was an experiment that was never going to last for long. Giving everybody something to do was a major struggle- and out of the trio of Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding), Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) and Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), it was often Nyssa who got the short end of the wedge– particularly in Kinda, where, thanks to a contractual mix-up, she spends the entire story asleep in the TARDIS recovering from an illness. It was also a situation that led to a repetitive number of scenes where the TARDIS crew would argue with each other and squabble– fun on occasion, but it eventually got annoying, to the point that the relationship between the 6th Doctor and Peri was mainly defined by how many arguments they had. There’s a scene in episode 4 of Kinda, inserted because the script was running short, which shows this clearly– it’s not there for any reason other than for two characters to have an aimless argument, and it sticks out like a sore thumb among the otherwise well-crafted (if occasionally theatrical) dialogue.)

He and Adric end up held prisoner at the Dome where the Earth mission is based (in a section of the story that functions as a satire on the British Colonial mindset that’s sometimes overstated yet still effective) – but what really burnt this story into my mind was what happens to Tegan when she ends up falling asleep in the jungle near some enigmatic wind-chimes. For almost two episodes, she is lost inside a dream where a sinister figure– who we later learn is a destructive force known as the Mara, as near to Satan as makes no odds– tempts her into letting him ‘borrow’ her body. It’s a tremendously freaky sequence that plays like a nightmare version of the David Bowie video Ashes to Ashes (which is, to be honest, disturbing enough already), and the Mara is one of those gleefully unpleasent forces of evil that hardly have to say or do anything for you to know that they’re bad news.

Essentially, what’s happening is that the Mara is an agent of destruction from the ‘dark places of the inside’, and is aiming to re-introduce violence back into the world of the Kinda- an act that will essentially start ‘the Great Wheel’ turning once again. The script is heavily influenced by Buddhist philosophy, with the idea that there’s an eternal cycle of civillisations rising and falling– the Kinda were once technological, but they’ve only attained their idyllic, peaceful state by shunning violence and not setting off the cycle. It comes down to a conflict between the force of the Mara (which is trying to destroy Paradise), and the insanity of Hindle, who fears everything that the Kinda and the ‘outside’ represents, and comes very close to destroying everything. Naturally, there’s plenty of escapes and intrigue, but it’s the sophistication and seriousness of the ideas behind the story (many of which are heavily influenced by Buddhist mythology) that still makes it work.

It’s got the added advantage of direction from Peter Grimwade, one of the few Who directors who was able to create a recognisable and distinctive style, as well as some stunning synth music from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s Peter Howell (While New Who’s Murray Gold has improved from some of his unlistenable work on Season 1, I still miss Who with a synth soundtrack), as well as one of Peter Davison’s finest performances. It’s one of his first stories, and yet he carries off the role far better than I remembered at the time– coming in the intimidating wake of Tom Baker, Davison’s affable and human Doctor seemed a little wishy-washy, although now he’s closer to a more earnest and less quirky version of the Doctor as presented in New Who. While it’s arguable Davison didn’t really get to grips with the character until his final year (especially in the story Frontios), he’s still a fine Doctor, and without the sense of theatrical bombast that made Colin Baker’s Doctor an acquired taste, even when he wasn’t being sabotaged by shoddy scripts.

At heart– it’s just a relief to look back at this story and realise that everything I loved about Who- the imagination, the texture and the detail is still there, and still able to create moments that transcend the creaky production values. Yes, time has been less than kind, and especially with stories like Kinda and Snakedance, you’ve got to give them the benefit of the doubt on more occasions than most modern viewers will be comfortable with. And yet… there’s a determination to tell strange and unusual science fiction here that’s truly admirable. The sheer, anything-can-happen nature of Classic Who is one of the things that I adored about it while I was growing up, and it’s certainly arguable that the only points where it really started going wrong was when too many stories started blending into one (from the grim, gritty ‘everyone dies’ actionfests of Season 22 to the overt comedy of Season 24 and onwards). When it worked, it made you think that absolutely anything was possible, that the TARDIS could go anywhere, and that stories could end in all manner of ways. It simply confirms to me that while Classic Who doesn’t have anywhere near the emotional depth (In Kinda, there’s something very charming about the relationship between the Doctor and the ‘proxy companion’ Todd, which is I think more down to the performances than anything in the script), but New Who doesn’t have anything resembling its predecessor’s nerve. The moments where it has captured it`- Girl in the Fireplace, Human Nature, Blink– even, although in a very flawed way, Gridlock– have been among New Who’s highlights, but too clear an idea of ‘this is the way Who is supposed to be’ has slipped into the show’s DNA. Things were getting repetitive even in Season 3– but, there’s been more than enough complaints about that kind of thing from me. Whatever happens, when it comes down to it, I’ll still have stories like Kinda to remind me how limitless and full of bizarre surprises Who could sometimes be.

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