|A snake! A snake! Ooooooh! A Snake! (Badger badger…)|
In real news, Hafez al-Assad, father of current Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, conducts a scorched earth campaign in Hamathat kills between seventeen and forty thousand people, mostly civilians. Like father like son, clearly. And British airline Laker Airlines abruptly goes out of business, stranding six thousand passengers when their flights are cancelled due to lack of airline. Putting the creativity into creative destruction, then.
And then on television, Kinda. As such things go, Kinda is one of the most overdetermined Doctor Who stories in existence. So we’ll start with a book that I’m kind of largely going to avoid, namely Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text. There is, to be clear, nothing particularly wrong with this book. It’s a fabulous example of early 1980s media studies. Unfortunately, the 1980s were basically the earliest days of media studies. And so reading The Unfolding Text in 2012 one gets the sense of a clever book where the only bits that would be at all new to someone who is reading this blog are basically the bits where some mildly arcane bit of literary theory is being evoked. I mean, I don’t think most of my readers are necessarily going to be solid on Greimasian oppositions and their relationship to The Krotons, but even there I think they’d do fine on the actual analysis.
But The Unfolding Text has a particularly detailed reading of Kinda due to the fact that the authors were allowed to hang around the set during filming, and so among we academic types Kinda has a bit of a reputation simply because its been analyzed in particular depth. All of which said, the reading is a bit flat – various codes of meaning overlap and partially cancel each other out and the end result reinforces established social codes based around a BBC image of “professionalism.” It’s a fair enough approach and hard to argue with, but it falls a bit too neatly into the general tendency of early cultural studies work to find oppressive cultural hegemony everywhere.
I, somewhat obviously, prefer a different approach. Not to break out the theory excessively, but I tend to favor an approach where it’s assumed that nothing is ever fully erased and that overlapping codes of meaning – which obviously happen in any collaboratively authored text, and, frankly, in most single-author ones – do just that – overlap, leaving each meaning intact as one of a number of routes through the text.
To put it in less heady terms, The Unfolding Text belongs to a school of thought where a lot of effort goes into showing how mass media is a tool of the established social order. In 2012 hardly anyone needs to be told that anymore. It can safely be taken for granted, and I largely do here, finding myself instead interested in the odd contours of the world as depicted in a piece of mass media aimed at the general population that nevertheless consistently works as a rabbit hole to a world of strange concepts and avant garde techniques and ideology. I’m interested in the way in which the strange survives in mass media, in other words, not in the rather banal fact that mass media is by default an apparatus of existing power. I understand why, in 1983, at the dawn of media studies the observation of how mass media worked to reinforce structures of power was important, but the result is that The Unfolding Text is, as I said to start, a bit basic.
So where The Unfolding Text sees a Buddhist allegory that has been Christianized (or, if we want to be blunter, an exotic allegory that has been normalized – The Unfolding Text does precious little to work through the Buddhist nature of the story, focusing almost entirely on the way that it got mainstreamed into a Christian allegory instead of on what it might have said or done on its own) I am inclined to see a story in which the signifiers of both overlap in interesting and compelling ways.
Or, at least, I would if this were particularly Buddhist. As Miles and Wood point out, the degree to which Bailey can actually be said to be particularly Buddhist is kind of minimal. The Buddhism of the story exists more on the level of character naming as a sort of crass symbolism than on the level of actual content. Had Kinda been a particularly Buddhist story then the Mara wouldn’t simply be removed from Tegan’s mind but accepted as a part of her own internal landscape – a representation of her own demons that she cannot simply erase. That’s kind of pointedly not where the story actually goes, and that’s on the level of scripting, not on the level of Christianizing that The Unfolding Text goes for.
A more interesting issue of Christianization comes in the “serpent in paradise” aspects of the story – aspects that are very clearly drawn from the book of Genesis and not from a Buddhist source. Were we interested in sloppy readings we’d go with some sort of Joseph Campbell monomyth bullshit, but I’ve expressed my utter disdain for Campbell already, so clearly that’s not what we’re going to pick. Instead let’s embrace the postmodern and simply accept that the Christian imagery of the Garden of Eden and the more Buddhist concept of the Mara as Tegan’s internal libidinous desires are being juxtaposed, with the Mara being couched in the more culturally familiar concept of original sin and primal evil. This isn’t Christianity overwriting Buddhism, but an active hybrid concept that simultaneously evokes both.
But all of this is presupposing that a sort of symbolic deciphering of this story is the most interesting way to go about it. And it’s not. The merging of the image of primal temptation with Tegan’s obviously libidinal possession with the childlike logic of her dreamspace is the most symbolically rich part of this story, sure, but if we’re being honest we’re not holding a candle to the symbolic rabbit holes of Logopolis or The Deadly Assassin here, and frankly, thank God because I don’t have anything like the time to write another one of those posts. It’s a potent little knot of symbols, yes, but it’s thus worth taking seriously on precisely those grounds: it is both potent and compact. That is, it resonates strongly without being all that difficult to grasp. Without any mucking about with Buddhist terminology it’s relatively clear what’s going on with the Mara and temptation. It may hit a bit old for a given viewer – the degree to which it’s immediately familiar is, as Miles notes in About Time, kind of directly related to the degree to which the viewer has gone through puberty. But even for a “too young” viewer there’s a familiar sense of the inaccessible here. The Mara feels like a part of the world you’re not old enough for, and retains its primal power. Indeed, for an audience slightly too young to grasp the sexual overtones of the Mara the creature is in many ways even more potent.
This gets us closer to what’s really interesting about Kinda, which is not the density of its symbolism but the quality of its storytelling. Because quietly and without overly excessive fanfare this story is the first one to basically work like modern Doctor Who. It’s a genuine character-based science fiction story. It’s still a flawed story – the series has a ways to go before it can do this elegantly – but it’s the first time we can recognizably see this sort of Doctor Who story being told.
We’ve largely gotten at what Tegan’s character does here. She is, of course, particularly well-suited to this – her rashness, impulsiveness, and anger make her the character most suited to this sort of libidinous transformation. Similarly, Adric’s teenage rebelliousness make him the obvious person to put in the dome under Hindle’s cruel and arbitrary authority. And the young and fresh-faced Doctor is perfectly positioned to be the Idiot who, free of preconceptions, who is able to piece together what the world is and respond to it.
But this commitment to character goes beyond just the TARDIS crew. Character traits also provide much of the sense of danger in this story, with Hindle being a sort of madman that we haven’t seen before. For all the scenery chewing of the episode one cliffhanger, with Hindle screaming that he has the power of life and death over everybody, there’s something unnerving about it. Hindle isn’t an insane villain in the Master sense of just being insanely evil, he’s a villain whose makes him wholly unpredictable. For all the excess of Simon Rouse’s performance it remains a deeply, deeply unsettling one simply because at no point are Hindle’s actions predictable. Equally deft is the way in which Bailey sketches out his other characters so that there appear to be character motivations for what they’re doing as well. For instance, Karuna’s actions are clearly motivated in part by her relationship with Aris, even though the details of this relationship are never quite spelled out.
The result is a world in which everybody appears to be acting as characters, but the interactions of their characters tell a larger story about the philosophical and imaginative concepts of the story. Which are not simply an allegory but are instead thematic. At the heart of this story is a series of stories about the destructive relationship between desire and power, with every given interaction being defined by that relationship. So Hindle is driven mad by his anxiety over power, Aris is tempted and destroys his people because of his desire for power to take revenge on the colonists, et cetera.
There are problems – given all of this, the resolution of just trapping the Mara in a bunch of mirrors is, frankly, lame and underwhelming. After building an entire complex network of character traits and thematic implications all the story can find to do with them is to blow them all up. Except that Bailey is working actively to avoid being so overtly violent, going instead for a functional zero-death story, so instead we get a giant snake.
Ah yes, the snake. One of the legendary bad effects of Doctor Who – one so bad that they redid it in CGI for the DVD. This is silly in several regards. First, the anti-historical nature of it simply jars. Surely by 2011, when the DVD came out, we can simply be at peace with the fact that Doctor Who had some crap effects in its time. Beyond that, surely there’s not that much benefit to fixing just one dumb thing in the story. I mean, let’s CGI out Matthew Waterhouse while we’re at it. Or Aris’s fillings. Or any number of other things. The idea that Doctor Who’s past is somehow fixable is ridiculous. For that matter, the idea that it’s possible to make Kinda look less like it was made in early 1982 is ridiculous. Kinda is absolutely part and parcel of television in 1982 ill-advised giant pink snakes and all. Kinda was a television program, transmitted in a real context. To treat Kinda as something other than the transmitted version is simply inaccurate.
Which gets at the second and rather more significant issue, which is that, as I said, it doesn’t matter how well-done the snake is given that it’s a fundamentally unsatisfying ending in terms of what comes before it. The visual quality of the snake isn’t what’s wrong with the ending. What’s wrong with the ending is that it doesn’t extend from any of its characters. It’s not about Hindle, restored by the Box of Jhana, taking a sane decisive action to save everybody. It’s not about Tegan facing down her demons. It’s not about Adric facing his fear. It’s marginally about Karuna’s growing up and taking on the role of wise woman, but Karuna hardly had the most compelling character arc. It’s mostly just about the Doctor finally getting around to having a clever idea when, in order to be an adequate denouement to everything that’s come before, it needed to be character-based.
But if we gave Four to Doomsday some leeway for being the first story to try soap opera style storytelling and getting the characters wrong we need to give Kinda some more leeway for attempting to try character-based storytelling that was wedded firmly to the science fiction concepts. This is an extremely mature story, technically speaking. And in the end, it’s still 1982 and Doctor Who doesn’t hit the point of doing this sort of thing elegantly for a while yet. All of which said, it’s not even like the new series hasn’t flubbed the ending on a story here and there. Victory of the Daleks happened, and Kinda’s weak ending is no worse than that one. So forgiving the ending – essentially the story’s only major lapse – is relatively easy.
There is, however, one rather ominous fact on the horizon. In hindsight, of course, everybody recognizes that Kinda is a classic piece of Doctor Who. And yet in the Doctor Who Monthly poll on Season 19 it ranked dead last – as the absolute worst story of the season. This is particularly notable because the season finale, Time-Flight, is one of the most reviled stories in all of Doctor Who – the fifth worst ever in the Mighty 200 poll. And yet Time-Flight was nicely middle of the pack in the season poll whereas Kinda was absolutely hated at the time. I’m going to be relatively kind to Time-Flight when we get to it, but let’s make this perfectly clear – if you prefer either Time-Flight or Four to Doomsday to Kinda, there’s something seriously wrong with you. And unfortunately, apparently the Doctor Who Monthly readers, or at least those that answered the season poll, did.
The usual cautions about the tastes of Doctor Who Magazine readers apply, but what we have to remember is that this was also an era where John Nathan-Turner was overtly courting fandom through the magazine. And here, quite frankly, we see where this becomes really, really toxic. Because by most metrics, even in 1982, it would have been clear that there are really interesting and praiseworthy things going on here and that this is a model story for how to do Doctor Who. Instead, though, the whims of fandom had sway. In hindsight it’s blatantly clear that this is the most sophisticated and aesthetically successful story Doctor Who has done yet. But it’s not the model going forward at all, and it’s not until five years from here that this begins to be what the program shoots for by default. Instead the program tries to cater overtly to the Doctor Who Magazine audience.
It’s not as though there’s an immediate downturn in the quality of the show after this. There’s not, and the Davison era remains, on the whole, quite good. But on the other hand, if you want to point at the wrong turn that kills Doctor Who, I think it would be hard to find a better one than this. Because the ratings for Season Nineteen were generally fantastic – short of the ITV-strike bolstered Season Seventeen they’re the best that Doctor Who has done since the Hinchcliffe era. And ratings-wise, it’s all downhill from here. Kinda was, by a trivial margin, the lowest-rated story of Season Nineteen, and it still beats every single story from Seasons 20-26. This season is the last season of Doctor Who that can validly claim to be massively popular. The directions it goes after this are, at least in the short and medium term, the wrong ones.
And if you want to identify a specific error, it’s difficult to come up with a more compelling example than making actively listening to people who thought Time-Flight was a better story than this a matter of active policy for the show. Never mind the absurd stupidity of some fan comments, never mind the discussions of fanwank and continuity porn. Doctor Who made a point of taking seriously people who preferred Time-Flight to this.
No wonder it died.