Doctor Who reviews: The Children of Seth

I’ve mentioned in the past how much I enjoy the Doctor Who audio plays produced by Big Finish.  I actually reviewed a few of them on Associated Content a couple of years ago, but until now I’ve yet to discuss them in any detail on this blog.

As I wrote in my review of the serial “Kinda,” some of the earliest Doctor Who stories I saw, when I was eight or nine years old, were the Peter Davison ones.  So it’s always a pleasure to listen to one of the Big Finish audios starring him.  Each time, it feels a little bit like it did on those weekday evenings at 6 PM, tuning in to WLIW Channel 21, to catch the next episode of the show.

In the last few years, Big Finish has been adopting for the audio format a number of “lost stories,” i.e. Doctor Who scripts that made it to various stages of completion but, for one reason or another, were never actually filmed.  The obvious choice to start off that range was Colin Baker’s lost season, which would have featured such serials as “The Nightmare Fair.”  Now, having completed a number of these with Baker & Nicola Bryant, Big Finish has turned its attention to Lost Stories from other eras of the show.

“The Children of Seth” was an unproduced script by Christopher Bailey, who also wrote “Kinda” and “Snakedance.”  As readers of this blog may recall, “Kinda” is a favorite of mine, so when I first heard about “The Children of Seth,” I was understandably curious.  I finally had an opportunity to purchase a copy of the story at the New York Comic Con, from the Doctor Who Store.  Peter Davison was a guest at the convention, so of course I had him autograph it.

In addition to its authorship and it featuring the Fifth Doctor, another reason why I decided to get “The Children of Seth” was that it stars Honor Blackman and David Warner, two very good, distinguished actors.  As well as that, Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton reprise their roles as Tegan and Nyssa.  I always felt that the three person team of the Fifth Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa was a very strong one, and regrettably that particular line-up only appeared in a handful of stories (sorry, any Adric fans out there, but I think the TARDIS was too crowded with four people, and Matthew Waterhouse was given some really bad material to work with in Season 19).

Doctor Who: The Children of Seth

In “The Children of Seth,” the Doctor receives a cryptic message from the Archipelago of Sirius, a city located inside an immense hollowed-out asteroid.  Arriving in the TARDIS, the Doctor encounters an old acquaintance of his he first met in a previous regeneration, Anahita, the consort to Sirius, Autarch of the Empire.  Anahita has learned that the ambitious Lord Byzan, who has gradually been usurping power from the now-elderly Sirius, is about to propel the Empire into war, a crusade against the mysterious Seth, Prince of the Dark.  Foreseeing the immense loss of innocent life and the potential ruin of the Empire, Anahita, who has been exiled from the court, is desperate to reach Sirius and convince him to intercede.  And she hopes that the Doctor will aid her in thwarting Byzan’s ever-growing web of influence.

“The Children of Seth” is very much a political thriller, with plots and counterplots, schemes and betrayals, machinations and manipulations.  If this story had actually been produced in the 1980s, I’m uncertain if my young self would have actually enjoyed it.  Back then, one of my main reasons for watching Doctor Who was the monsters, and aside from the mantis-like security drones, “The Children of Seth” is extremely notable for the absence of any aliens or strange creatures.

Of course, as an adult, I absolutely loved it!  The characters are all very well developed, and there is a great deal of moral ambiguity to everyone.  Honor Blackman does a superb job portraying Anahita, a well-intentioned but occasionally ruthless figure.  Her reputation as “Mistress of the Poisons” will undoubtedly tell you that she doesn’t always walk the straight & narrow path.  Blackman is just majestic as this at-times inscrutable figure.

Adrian Lukis also is excellent as Byzan, imbuing him with a mix of runaway ambition, megalomania, and paranoia.  It’s interesting that Byzan will crush dissent by gleefully dispatching political prisoners to be mind-wiped & exiled to the mysterious Level 14, and he’s ready to plunge the Empire into a pointless war, but he actually draws the line at cold blooded mass murder.  Having a villain with the slightest of scruples can be much more interesting, and realistic, than having a one-dimensional black-hearted fiend.

Finally, David Warner portrays Sirius, the now doddering figurehead ruler of the Empire.  This was a relatively small part for someone of Warner’s stature, but he gives it his all, bringing to life a once-great man now crippled by nostalgia, the onset of dementia, and an unwillingness to perceive the political corruption taking place around him.  However, once his people are actually threatened, this aged ruler is ready to stand on the front lines again.  And despite his acrimonious relationship with Anahita, when faced with the possibility of losing his wife, Sirius is despondent.

Janet Fielding is given a substancial portion of the action in “The Children of Seth.”  In many ways I think Tegan was almost a prototype for Catherine Tate’s character Donna Noble.  The difference is that too often Tegan was scripted as overly aggressive and pushy, rather than assertive.  One of the few writers on Doctor Who to do the character justice and give Fielding good material to work with was, of course, Christopher Bailey.  So it’s no surprise that Tegan in “The Children of Seth” is an interesting, engaging character, rather than a mouth on legs.  Fielding does an excellent job, especially in the scenes where she is paired with Honor Blackman.

Unfortunately, the character of Nyssa is sidelined for much of the story.  So I felt that Sarah Sutton wasn’t given much to do.  That said, the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa have been featured traveling without Tegan in quite a few of the earlier Big Finish stories, so Sutton has already gotten the spotlight in several of those stories.  Given those circumstances, I enjoyed Tegan featuring in a large portion of “The Children of Seth” instead.

And what about Peter Davison himself?  Well, to a degree the Doctor is also pushed to the sides for a bit, in favor of Tegan and Anahita.  But then Davison is really given an opportunity to give it his all in the final episode of “The Children of Seth,” and he makes the most of it.

From the behind-the-scenes interviews on the CDs, as well as info from Doctor Who Magazine, I gather that Bailey’s scripts for “The Children of Seth” were in the early draft stage when the decision was made to drop the story.  Marc Platt, himself a good writer who has done extensive work for Big Finish, was recruited to transform these into something that could be recorded as an audio play.  Happily, instead of merely dusting off Bailey’s old scripts and finishing them on his own, Platt met in person with him, and they discussed the best way to resolve the various plot problems, as well as come up with an ending to the story.  I don’t know where Bailey’s work ends and Platt’s begins.  Whatever the case, “The Children of Seth” is an excellent story.

One last thing… I would have to say that “The Children of Seth” is not a casual listen.  I was not expecting it to be, though, given that “Kinda” has to be one of the most complicated Doctor Who stories ever made.  I knew what I was in for, that I’d really have to pay careful attention to the audio play to keep track of the characters and plotlines.  It wasn’t easy, but it was definitely worth the effort.

That said, in one respect the audio format is undoubtedly a strength.  It enabled me to envision the Archipelago of Sirius as a vast city with crowds of people, instead of merely a bunch of corridors occupied by a handful of extras, which is probably how in would have appeared if the story had actually been filmed in the early 1980s on a shoestring budget.

In any case, given its complexity, at some point I intend to sit down again to re-listen to “The Children of Seth.”  It’ll be interesting to see what I get out of it a second time.

Doctor Who reviews: Kinda

Since I met Peter Davison, who starred in Doctor Who from 1982 to 1984, at the New York Comic Con last weekend, I thought it would be appropriate to do a blog entry on one of his stories.

I first happened to start watching Doctor Who regularly at the tail end of Tom Baker’s era, and soon after the Doctor regenerated into his Fifth incarnation, played by Davison.  So, really, for me some of the earliest episodes that I had the opportunity to see were from Davison’s time on the series.  Because of this, I’m rather fond of his era.  Even if Davison didn’t always get the best stories, I enjoyed his portrayal of the Doctor.

The story I’m taking a look at today, “Kinda,” is, I think, one of Davison’s better ones.  I actually wrote a review of it on Associated Content a couple of years ago, and this is a revised version.  But, hey, if the giant Mara snake can get a CGI makeover on the DVD, then I think I’m entitled to do a special edition of one of my old columns!

The serial “Kinda,” written by Christopher Bailey, was originally broadcast by the BBC in February 1982.  The first time I saw it was a couple of years later when it aired on PBS here in the States.  I was eight years old, and, to be honest, it left me totally confused.  About a decade later, I saw “Kinda” on PBS again, and this time I taped it on the VCR.  So over the years, I had the opportunity to re-watch it several more times.  As I got older, and my knowledge of world cultures and spirituality broadened, I gradually came to have a better understanding of “Kinda” with each subsequent viewing.  The course I took in Comparative Religions in college helped.  More recently, I’ve had discussions with my girlfriend, who is very well read on religion & spirituality, and I’ve learned a lot from her.  So it is an interesting, and different, experience watching “Kinda” again as an adult now that it is out on DVD.

Doctor Who: Kinda DVD
Doctor Who: Kinda DVD

“Kinda” is set on Deva Loka, a tranquil tropical forest world that is described as a literal paradise.  An expeditionary force of humans has arrived to determine if the planet is suitable for colonization.  The occupants of Deva Loka, the Kinda, appear to be a very primitive people, but the expedition’s scientist Doctor Todd is convinced there is much more to the natives than meets the eye.  And then three of the six expedition members vanish under mysterious circumstances.

By the time the Doctor and his companions arrive on Deva Loka, tensions are beginning to fray in the expedition Dome.  Security officer Hindle, due to the disappearances of half the team, as well as the aggressive attitude of the expedition’s commander Sanders towards him, is becoming unhinged.  The Doctor and Adric are taken into custody at the Dome.  After Sanders departs to search for the missing members of the team, Hindle snaps, threatening the Doctor, Adric, and Todd at gunpoint.

Meanwhile, Tegan has been left behind by a set of mysterious giant wind chimes.  Falling into a trance-like dream state, her consciousness is projected into a strange black void populated by a trio of sinister-looking pale figures with snake tattoos on their forearms.  One of them, a sneering young man, attempts to coerce Tegan into allowing him to take control of her physical form, utilizing a variety of mental tortures.  Under this psychic assault, Tegan finally relents.  She awakens back on Deva Loka, the snake symbol now on her arm, possessed by an evil entity known as the Mara.

As I learned in the years subsequent to my early viewings of “Kinda,” Christopher Bailey invested his scripts with a number of Buddhist symbols and concepts.  For example, “Deva Loka” in the Sanskrit language means heaven or paradise.  In Hinduism (which has certain parallel beliefs to Buddhism) there are three paths that the human soul can take after death, and one of these is a path of light into a heavenly plane of existence known as Deva Loka.  Buddhism itself regards a Deva Loka as the habitat of Devas, or divine beings.  Likewise, “Mara” is Sanskrit for death or evil.  Buddhism regards the Mara as an entity of temptation that draws individuals away from spiritual enlightenment.

Of course, there is also Judeo-Christian imagery present in “Kinda.”  The Mara’s true form is a giant snake, making it the serpent in paradise.  When the Mara possesses Tegan, she takes on the mannerisms of an aggressive seductress.  To ensnare Aris, one of the Kinda tribe whose brother is being held captive in the Dome, Tegan first gets his attention by sitting in a tree and dropping apples on him, an allusion to the temptation in the Garden of Eden.  There is also an almost sexual connotation to the moment when Tegan and Aris’ hands entwine, and the Mara transfers over to his body.

One of the primary strengths of “Kinda” is the high quality of performances by the actors.  First of all, Peter Davison turns a great performance as the Doctor.  Davison grew up watching Doctor Who in the late 1960s, and has said that he drew a certain amount of inspiration from the Second Doctor, played by Patrick Troughton.  Some of the cadence, mannerisms, and personality that Davison invests in his Doctor in “Kinda” are reminiscent of Troughton’s incarnation.  Obviously this is something that I did not pick up on when I was younger, but subsequently having seen many of Troughton’s surviving Doctor Who episodes, I can now see how he influenced Davison.  I think that quality works very well in this story.  At the same time, Davison also gives the Doctor his own individual spin, making it much more than just an imitation of Troughton.

Janet Fielding, who plays Tegan, is given a chance to shine in “Kinda.”  Instead of just being the bossy, argumentative “mouth on legs” that many of the writers pigeonholed the character as, here we see a very frightened, bewildered, vulnerable individual suffering at the hands of the Mara in the black void.  During the brief period when Tegan is possessed by the Mara, she is a genuinely creepy, unsettling figure.  At the end of the serial, when the Mara’s true form is revealed, and she realizes that thing was in her head, you can see hints of what might be post-traumatic stress disorder.

(I was usually not very keen that Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner had a lot of his serials flow from one into another.  But it was a good decision on his part to have “The Visitation,” the story immediately following “Kinda” in broadcast order, contain a scene early on where Tegan is shown to be still unsettled by her possession a short while before.  I think it has become easy for fans of the revived Doctor Who series to take it for granted that the Doctor’s companions will grow & develop as a season progresses.  The majority of the time on the original series, this was not the case, and this was one of the rare instances it demonstrated that events could have lasting effects on a regular character.)

Tegan in the black void
Tegan in the black void

The most outstanding performance in “Kinda” is Simon Rouse as Hindle, an emotionally unstable individual experiencing a mental breakdown.  It would have been easy and tempting to turn in a totally over-the-top performance, making Hindle a figure of melodrama.  Instead, Rouse plays it totally straight, giving an utterly convincing depiction of a man unhinged, vacillating across the emotional spectrum, going from violent and threatening to paranoid and neurotic to childlike and innocent.  Hindle is a pitiable figure, but at the same time he is very scary, because you have absolutely no idea what he is going to do next.  The cliffhanger ending to episode one has Hindle leveling a gun at the Doctor, Adric, and Todd, declaring to them “I have the power of life and death over all of you!”  It’s a riveting moment because Rouse delivers what could have been a daft line with such conviction, and you can just hear the insanity in his taut voice.  And, at the story’s end, after Hindle has been exposed to the Kinda’s Box of Jhana, and his insanity banished, we see him in a quiet, contemplative state.  Rouse really gives a three-dimensional performance.

Also noteworthy is Nerys Hughes as Doctor Todd.  A noted actress, Hughes turns in a solid performance, and for much of the story she fulfills the role of a temporary companion.  A scientist, Todd has both the intelligence and wit to match the Doctor.  Hughes and Davison have very good chemistry.  At the end of the story, when the Doctor and his companions depart, I was left wishing that Todd could have gone with them, because she could have made a great regular cast member.

The music for “Kinda” was composed by Peter Howell, who did excellent work on a number of Doctor Who stories in the 1980s.  His incidental music on the surreal “Warriors’ Gate” the previous season was an especially effective and memorable.  For “Kinda,” Howell turns in another eerie, ethereal score that suits the serial perfectly.

This serial was directed by Peter Grimwade, and he does a superb job at translating a very dreamlike, cerebral script into a television program.  Grimwade was one of the best directors Doctor Who had during this time period.  An extra feature on the DVD is a retrospective on Grimwade, who unfortunately passed away at a relatively young age in 1990.  Present-day reminiscences and commentary by former colleagues are interspersed with clips from a 1987 interview of Grimwade.

Speaking of DVD features, “Kinda” has an Optional CGI Effects Sequence.  In other words, the giant cardboard snake at the end of the story that is supposed to be the Mara in its true form can be substituted by a computer generated replacement.  When I first saw “Kinda” in the mid-1980s, I honestly didn’t think the giant snake looked too bad.  That was probably because A) I was an eight-year-old kid in an era before realistic CGI was possible and B) after four confusing episodes that went totally over my head, I was probably just relieved to see a monster, any monster, even if it didn’t appear completely realistic!  Of course, when I re-watched “Kinda” a decade or so later, yeah, by that point the giant snake was beginning to look rather less believable to my older, more cynical eyes.  In any case, on the DVD that rather goofy-looking serpent has been seamlessly substituted for a CGI depiction of the Mara.  And it looks great.  Seriously, you might almost think there really was a malevolently hissing twenty-foot-tall snake with razor-sharp fangs writhing and coiling about on the BBC studio floor.

The Mara revisited
The Mara revisited

As I mentioned earlier, when I was eight years old, I found “Kinda” to be almost impenetrable.  Now, at age 36, what is my reaction?  Well, while I have a much better comprehension of Christopher Bailey’s serial, there are still elements of the story that are somewhat befuddling.

My main query deals with whether or not the “A Plot” of Hindle going insane actually even connects with the “B Plot” of the Mara possessing Tegan and then Aris.  I can only see one possible point of intersection.  We are told by the Kinda priestess Panna that “Our suffering is the Mara’s delight, our madness the Mara’s meat & drink.”  Perhaps the Mara, which is telepathic, learned that Hindle had wired the Dome with enough explosives to destroy everything in a thirty-mile radius.  The Mara, controlling Aris, might have been leading the Kinda to attack the Dome in order to provoke Hindle into detonating the bombs, causing widespread death and destruction.  Then again, it could all have been a huge coincidence.

I’ve heard theories by other people that the three figures in the black void are based upon Tegan’s memories of the story’s opening scene, stolen from her mind by the Mara and twisted into grotesque parodies: the ancient couple playing chess is Adric and Nyssa, the sadistic young man is the Doctor, and the abstract metal sculpture next to them is the TARDIS.  It’s an interesting idea.

The Kinda themselves are an enigma.  At first glance, they do appear to be a very primitive people.  Yet they are actually telepathic.  They wear necklaces that represent the double helix of DNA, indicating knowledge of molecular biology.  They constructed the giant wind chimes, something the Doctor observes would have required a high degree of technical skill.  And they utilize the Box of Jhana, which appears to be a simple wooden container, but which is actually a healing device capable of restoring balance to individuals with severe mental instability.

The Box of Jhana, mental projections of events that are simultaneously past and future occurrences, and the ability of the wind chimes to allow the Kinda to share their dreams: all seem to be examples of Clarke’s Law, i.e. any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  In fact, one could hypothesize that the Kinda are so incredibly advanced that they long ago passed the point where they needed to rely on conventional technology.  They are now at a point of mental and spiritual development that they live in perfect harmony with Deva Loka, negating any need for houses, mass transportation, weapons, electrical power, or anything else resembling the mechanical devices which we are dependent upon in our daily lives.  Even the Mara, which appears to be some kind of demon or evil god, is probably a powerful alien entity originating from another dimension or plane of existence.

(As I understand it, the Mara’s origins are explored in Bailey’s sequel “Snakedance,” but I haven’t seen that one in a couple of decades so offhand I don’t recall.  I really should to pick it up on DVD one of these days.)

Kinda novelization
Kinda novelization by Terrance Dicks

The one gaping plot hole in “Kinda” is that, when all is said and done, we never do learn what happened to the missing members of the expedition!  In his novelization of the serial, Terrance Dicks has the Doctor hypothesizing that the lost members of the team had each been possessed by the Mara but, unlike Tegan, they resisted giving up control of their forms and were killed.  Dicks was always good at spotting plot holes in Doctor Who stories and coming up with explanations for them in his books, the sort of exposition that there unfortunately wasn’t enough time to delve into within the actual television programs.

Watching the “making of” feature on the DVD, it was at first surprising to learn that Christopher H. Bidmead, the script editor on the previous season of Doctor Who, was the one who first commissioned Christopher Bailey to write “Kinda.”  After all, one of Bidmead goals as script editor was to bring back “hard science” to the series.  In contrast, “Kinda” is a very mystical, metaphysical story.  And many people unfortunately regard science and spirituality as mutually exclusive concepts (although I personally believe that there is room for both in our understanding of the universe).  Of course, “Kinda” is also a very cerebral story, and Bidmead wanted to produce stories that challenged viewers and made them think.  In this respect, “Kinda” is successful.

I think “Kinda” was slightly ahead of its time.  It is a story that is very suited to the age of VHS and DVD, when it can be viewed more than once. “Kinda” is a complex story with a number of layers, and each time I watch it I come away with a little bit more.