When Religion Meets Who

Review of Kinda (#119) - Mara Tales, Part 1

DVD Release Date: 12 Apr 11
Original Air Date: 01 - 09 Feb 1982
Doctor/Companion:   Five, Adric, Tegan Jovanka
Stars:  Peter Davison, Matthew Waterhouse, Janet Fielding
Preceding StoryFour to Doomsday (Five, Adric, Nyssa, Tegan)
Succeeding StoryThe Visitation (Five, Adric, Nyssa, Tegan)

In the UK, Kinda and Snakedance were released together (in March 2011) as a boxed set called Mara Tales.  Due to that fact, not to mention the fast-approaching premiere of Series Six, I've decided to post my reviews of both DVDs together.  It's my hope that that will also allow me to provide a sense of continuity between the two, which comprise the only appearances of the antagonist/creature known as the Mara.

Kinda is all about Story.  There are grand ideas and deeper themes that actually kind of obscure the regular characters.  More than in most cases, the Doctor is swept up in events around him, and things just happen to, rather than because of, him; his presence (unlike Tegan's) is really inconsequential.  That fact alone makes it a rather atypical story, even before considering the aforementioned themes.

Further, the Companion dynamics are a bit odd.  Although this is smack in the middle of Nyssa's time in the TARDIS, she appears for a total of about 3 minutes in the entire story, at the very beginning and end.  The others get separated early in the first episode, leaving Tegan to play her key role in the unfolding drama, while Adric tags along with the Doctor.  When Tegan and Adric finally are reunited, they snark at each other so much you wonder how no blood has yet been shed in the TARDIS.  In fact, it was this exchange - which painted Adric in a particularly poor light, as a self-absorbed ass - that finally gave me a better sense of why so many fans dislike him so thoroughly.

Behind those slight oddities, though, there are some incredibly intriguing concepts.  First off, there's a flavor of British Imperialism much as there was in The Mutants, though not so relentless.  Given the commanding officer Sanders' attitude regarding the native people, the Kinda ("What point of view could they have?  They're savages!"), the viewer is unsurprised to find that a major aspect of Kinda culture (not to mention its overall sophistication) has escaped the notice of the survey team:  although the Kinda they have observed do not "have voice," certain wise females are allowed (or able?) to speak, the rest using telepathy to communicate.

The most blatant theme, though, is one of religious symbolism.  While viewers familiar with the Christian tradition will immediately pick up on snake and apple references, students of Buddhism will find even more familiar ground.  A multitude of names are taken right out of Buddhist mythology:  Mara (temptation), Panna (wisdom), and Karuna (compassion), to name a few.  Even the name of the planet (Deva Loka; Celestial Region) is borrowed from Sanskrit.  And what individual with even minimal knowledge of Buddhism could miss the references to the turning of the Wheel?  All of these combine to make the story a more philosophical and thoughtful one than any I can readily recall.

DVD Extras (highlights)
CGI Effects Comparison
I think one of the biggest flaws fans saw in Kinda when it was first transmitted was the less-than-stellar quality of the giant snake.  That sequence, about a minute and a half long, has been redone with a modern-day CGI version of the snake inserted in the appropriate shots.  You can watch a side-by-side comparison of the originally transmitted effects and the new CGI (you can also choose to watch the episode with the new effects in situ).  It's rather fascinating to see what a difference nearly 30 years (and a bit of budget) can make.
Dream Time
This episode's "making of" documentary explores the interplay among writer Christopher Bailey, director Peter Grimwade, and the three (count 'em!) script editors involved in bringing Kinda to the screen.  Each of these men had a different attitude toward the story and the pros and cons of the Buddhist themes, causing them occasionally to be at odds.  A few production notes and reminiscences about (and by) the guest actors are also included, though my favorite bits were from the interview with Janet Fielding, when we get to hear her thoughts about her own work.  It's not the most inspiring look behind the scenes ever, but it was still worth the time.
Peter Grimwade: Directing with Attitude
The late Grimwade was actually involved with Doctor Who not only as a director (Kinda was the third of four stories he directed), but also as a writer, though for various reasons he did not meet with as much success in the latter role.  Likely of only mild interest to most fans, this biographical piece is nonetheless well crafted, and narrated by Mark Strickland (Turlough).

Although many mock the denouement of Kinda for the poor effects, taken in the spirit it was meant rather than with the jaded eye of the modern viewer, it is relatively satisfying.  Not least, the Doctor's lack of response to Tegan's query about the Mara's status - whether deliberate or accidental on his part - conveniently leaves the door open for another Mara story.

Review of Snakedance (#124) - Mara Tales, Part 2

DVD Release Date: 12 Apr 11
Original Air Date: 18 - 26 Jan 1983
Doctor/Companion:   Five, Nyssa of Traken, Tegan
Stars:  Peter Davison, Sarah Sutton, Janet Fielding
Preceding StoryArc of Infinity (Five, Nyssa, Tegan)
Succeeding StoryMawydryn Undead (Five, Nyssa, Tegan, Turlough, the Brigadier)

Snakedance is essentially writer Christopher Bailey’s do-over on Kinda  The same underlying evil, which springs from the hearts of people, is still present, but here exists in a venue in which the Doctor can really do what he does best:  Save the Day.  The resolution relies on him, his cleverness, and his ability to conquer the imperfections within himself.

This story happens a season later than Kinda, on a completely different planet, and with Nyssa rather than Adric.  By the time our heroes reach Manussa, the evil of the Mara has been reduced to legend by the intervening centuries since its local defeat.  The tawdry commercialism surrounding the decennial Festival will have a familiar feel to people from many countries all over our world in its parallel to the secularization of actual earthbound religious holidays like (the nominally Christian holiday) Christmas.

The pomp and circumstance are certainly entertaining, though.  There’s a lovely shot in the first episode when the crew first steps out of the TARDIS into the market, which is incredibly reminiscent (from the Neowhovian perspective) of scenes in The Fires of Pompeii and Turn Left.  Later, at the height of the Festival, the motion of the massive papier-mâché snake that’s paraded through the town put me a bit in mind of a Chinese dragon.

Another theme throughout is the unofficial rivalry between “old religion” and “new reason,” so to speak.  Some on Manussa truly believe the Mara will return some day and either retreat to the wilderness to become Snake Dancers or keep their leanings relatively quiet.  Meanwhile, the official state position is that there’s no solid evidence to support any of the legends, and so they can be nothing more than stories.

Perhaps my favorite ideas from Snakedance, though, go back to its Buddhist roots.  It is attachment that leads to misery (note Ambril's distress over ruined artifacts).  One must cast aside the “Three Temptations” (as they are named at the height of the Ceremony):  Fear, Despair, Greed.  I think all of us could probably do better without so much of those.

DVD Extras (highlights)
Snake Charmer
This time the “making of” documentary compares some of the differences in working on the two Mara stories from the perspectives of the writer and script editor (Eric Saward). It also includes comments about and by some of the actors regarding various performances in Snakedance, some cool notes about the set design, and an interesting aside about the nature of cliffhangers in the serial (N-episodes-per-story) format.
In Studio
As the production team worked to create certain effects shots, not everything worked per plan. Some of these outtakes are actually fairly amusing, but now that I’ve seen them once, there’s no reason ever to watch them again.
Deleted Scenes
Despite what it says, the first half of these 3 minutes are not so much “deleted” scenes as “rearranged” ones. However, there is an alternate ending here. Personally, I think the editors made the right decision.

When the Doctor has his moment with the Old Wise Man figure, I couldn’t stop smiling (not least because of the real, live little garter snake – yay!). I was hard pressed to decide whether I loved it more because of the parallels to Buddhism (“fear is the only poison”) or because of those to Star Wars (“steady your mind; attach to nothing; let go of your fear”) – though the latter admittedly draws from the former. Either way, it was a wonderful part of the story. This one’s definitely on the re-watch list.

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