July 22, 2013

Who50: "Kinda"

Who50 counts down to the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who by reviewing my favourite episodes and serials over the history of the programme, counting down from #50 to #1. Today, #15: "Kinda", a 1982 four-part serial written by Christopher Bailey and directed by Peter Grimwade.

I was never particularly scared of Doctor Who as a child. There was one story, which we will get to in a few weeks, that gave me nightmares, but generally I never found it a particularly frightening show. Thrilling, certainly, and often very tense, but never actually scary. There were a few other exceptions, however, and here's one: a military officer driven out of his mind, clutching a cardboard cut-out man in his hand as he screams at the Doctor that 'you can't mend people!!' It doesn't involve a monster in a rubber suit, or a giant maggot or spider, and yet it's always been one of the most frightening moments I've encountered in Doctor Who's long history. It's frightening because, unlike Daleks, Cybermen and Zygons, paranoia is real. Mental illness is real. Hindle (Simon Rouse) progressively goes out of his mind while retaining a position of authority, and for once there's precious little the Doctor can do.

"Kinda" is a strange story. It's one of the most adult works of science fiction Doctor Who ever had. It's complex, strange and rich in symbolism, inspired by Buddhism as well as (arguably) Ursula K. Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest. Its writer, Christopher Bailey, came out of nowhere to write it and its sequel "Snakedance", and then popped back into obscurity. Despite writing two of the best Doctor Who serials of all time, he never wrote for television again.

The plot, in as much of a nutshell as I can manage: the TARDIS arrives on a forest planet named Deva Loka. A small human expedition has been assessing the planet for potential colonisation, however for months members of the team have been going missing and the remaining three staff are close to breaking point. While the Doctor and Adric explore, Tegan falls asleep among a strange set of crystal wind chimes. When she awakes, she has been possessed by a malevolent spirit named the Mara - which seeks to destroy the peaceful world of Deva Loka and it's inhabitants, the Kinda. The Doctor and Adric are unable to help Tegan, however, as they have been imprisoned within the Earth expedition by one of its crew, Hindle, who has been overcome by the growing pressure and had a mental breakdown.

Asides from the complex, thoughtful script "Kinda" also benefits from one of the best guest casts of its time. I've already mentioned Simon Rouse's tour-de-force as Hindle, but he's supported by Nerys Hughes as science officer Todd, British screen legend Richard Todd as Sanders and Mary Morris as local wise woman Panna. Particularly keen-eyed viewers can also spy a young Jonny Lee Miller (Trainspotting, Elementary) among the Kinda.

Separate to the bulk of the story is a lengthy dream sequence in which Tegan is challenged, taunted and ultimately overcome by the Mara. It's something straight out of Samuel Beckett: surreal, symbolic and oddly hypnotic. It's a very bold risk, and one that pays off marvellously - thanks in no small part to Lee Cornes' performance as one of the Mara's manifestations.

Peter Davison's first season as the Doctor got off to a fairly shaky start: "Castrovalva" was a bit wobbly, and oddly structured, while "Four to Doomsday" was straight-out dire. "Kinda" must have come as a tremendous relief to some viewers - proof that Doctor Who could still knock the ball out of the park when it needed to, and provide the kinds of stories that no other TV series in Britain could.


  1. This and Snakedance are an extraordinary duo: if they'd been written by Nigel Kneale or Stephen Moffat and presented as original productions they'd be touted as minor classics. As it is, I think they're uncomfortable fits for a Doctor Who vehicle: they're almost too cerebral and, dare I say it, too good for the format-- all the weaknesses are inherent Who weaknesses (shabby sets, wonky RSM/bouncy castle monsters, etc) and all the strengths exceed the delivery medium.

    I don't think Who ever aimed for such a consistently philosophical high point, either before or after.

  2. I tend to agree - certainly I think that when Christopher Bailey wandered away into academia the UK lost the most promising TV writer of the 1980s.

  3. This one's awful. If it was two episodes instead of four, it might have worked, but as it is there's too much "these guys are crazy" padding, and it gets old very fast. It takes forever for the story to go anywhere. Snakedance is good though, so maybe the strong sequel almost justifies this story's existence.

    1. That's funny, because the "these guys are crazy" parts are my favourite within the story.

    2. I'm with Grant, here-- it's the uncertainty and the moral ambivalence which gives these stories (it's hard to write about one without the other) much of their charge. I agree that Kinda moves slowly, but it's the accretion of layers that's important to the narrative: it's not a running-down-endless-corridors-all-urgent-like episode of the David Tennant variety. Like I say above, I think it's an awkward fit for Doctor Who in many ways, but I do think it's exceptional science fiction television.


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