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Doctor Who: The Awakening (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Awakening originally aired in 1984.

The Awakening was the third and final of Peter Davison’s smaller two-part adventures, taken once in each of his three seasons in the title role. Much like Black Orchid and The King’s Demons, it feels like a light and refreshing breather, especially in a final season that was becoming gradually darker and more somber. While Black Orchid allowed the cast and crew to take a somewhat relaxing break before the tragedy of Earthshock, The Awakening feels conspicuously grimmer, but still seems a relatively casual affair when measured against the stories that were to follow.

Malus aforethought…

In fairness to this two-parter, it does boast a rather nifty concept, with the idea of “a confusion in time” somehow linking seventeenth century England with 1984. Confining the action to two half-hour episodes concedes that there’s not really too much that can be done with the premise, but it’s an endearing sort of modesty. We’ve seen much slighter premises expanded to fill four-part episodes, so it’s nice to see a story that is just the right length for its material.

The King’s Demons revealed that we can forgive even a fairly flawed and banal little adventure if it’s told with brevity. I’d argue that one of the reasons Jon Pertwee is so underrated is because even a good story suffers if it runs to six episodes. You need something really fascinating to justify that, and it’s not easy to come by (that said, there are any number of well-paced Doctor Who episodes running to and beyond six episodes). Still, I think The Awakening has a far more interesting central premise than either The King’s Demons or Black Orchid, even if the latter perhaps benefits more from the BBC’s stylish period design.

A grave matter…

That said, The Awakening looks good. Even today, the location footage looks pretty nice. It’s very clearly footage from the BBC in the eighties, but it’s about as good as one could expect footage from that era to look. Apparently the serial was shot across three different villages, and they all look absolutely sublime – to say nothing of the rather wonderful visual thrill of seeing troops on horseback marching through a quaint little village with its telephone polls and red phone booths. Much like the length of the story, the production seems relatively restrained – and I’d argue it’s the better for it. The show struggled to create convincing and immersive alien worlds on a shoestring budget, but the crew really got a chance to shine when they were allowed to work with more common surroundings.

With that in mind, I should concede that I adore the Malus. I’m a sucker for that type of old-school animatronic practical special effect. Yes, the monster looks like something from a theme park, but there’s something impressive about the creature sticking its head through that church wall (or even scampering inside the TARDIS). I like the concept of the creature, and I think that the serial is wise not to have it communicate directly with the cast. I know that actors like Graham Woolf can give these cosmic horrors a wonderful depth, but there’s something absolutely fascinating about a foe that doesn’t even have the concept of verbal communication. It just seems so much more horrifying, as if it operates on an entirely different plain of existence. The Malus doesn’t make threats or demands – it causes murder and anger and hatred.

Creepy crawly…

One gets the sense that The Awakening might have made for a much darker Tom Baker story. As it is, the cast seem to wander around the village in broad daylight, and even the Doctor seems to be having a lot more fun than usual. In this quaint English setting, Davison actually looks completely at home – this is one of the rare times that the Fifth Doctor doesn’t seem entirely out of his death, with a rather an uncharacteristically confident swagger and some wonderfully coy dialogue. Asked what the rise of the Malus might lead to, the Doctor responds in typically gloomy terms. “Given the energy, it would not only destroy him, but everything else,” he explains, before adding, “Cheer up.”

The Fifth Doctor spends so much time surrounded by death and destruction it’s rare that he seems to have too much fun. This two-part adventure gets noticeably darker in the last couple of minutes (featuring an off-screen decapitation and green ooze flowing from the creature’s mouth), but there is something that feels quite light about it. As the Doctor runs around the caverns beneath the village, trying to save everyone, he asks his newly-recruited sidekick, “Do you know anything about psychic energy?” In one of those wonderful moments of self-awareness, the series has her respond, “You know I don’t.”It’s little touches like these that make it clear Davison’s Doctor is just as fond of showing off his impressive knowledge as any other iteration of the character, despite his outwardly youthful appearance and the character’s tendency to follow rather than lead.

There’s going to be holy war…

The notion of demonic possession in a small English village would have played as gothic horror in a Hinchcliffe era story (or even, arguably, in Jon Pertwee’s The Daemons). However, fitting the spirit of the show in the mid-eighties, there’s a stronger emphasis on the pseudo-science. While the serial does explicitly compare the Malus’ presence to that of a poltergeist, it’s only as an afterthought, after the Doctor has rationalised it away as “more psychic disturbance.” Even the blips surrounding the strange apparitions make it clear that this isn’t a ghost story of any kind, and the series never pretends it is. Even though we hear the Malus dismissed as a local urban legend, none of the locals dwell on it, and none of them cling too heavily to any superstitious beliefs when confronted with it.

It’s not an exceptional example of what the show is capable of, but it’s a well-produced adventure that has aged quite well, thanks to the modesty of the production design. There are no garish laser beams or cardboard caves for the characters to wander down. If there’s any real complaint to be made, it’s that the story itself could easily have been developed a bit more and possibly even expanded. For a rather clever concept (an alien weapon fueled by hate), the story doesn’t really capitalise on it, and the cast fall into the old trope of wandering around/being captured/escaping far too often for forty-five minutes of television. Of course, this doesn’t really have too much of a chance to become tedious, but it feels like the concept is just sort of wasted.

Back to the wall…

The Awakening isn’t a classic episode. It’s not even the best of the Davison era. However, it’s a modest and endearing little serial that makes good use of its setting and allows Davison’s Doctor to take a break from the old “only sane man in a universe completely off its rocker” routine (which, to be honest, I quite enjoy, but I also appreciate the change in pace). I’m surprisingly partial a lot of Davison’s final season, but it’s good that he did get to have a more conventional adventure before he finished up in the role, and I think The Awakening works well in the wider context of a season that was quite fond of killing off the non-regular cast members. I think that, with only two dead bodies, the episode easily has the lowest death count of the year.

One Response

  1. I’m quite sure that the Malus gave plenty of children numerous nightmares back in the day by reaffirming their fears of the possibility of monsters in the closet and now perhaps within the walls. >;-)

    *on a side note with the story The Eleventh Hour, I immediately thought of the Malus when I saw the crack in the wall. Sadly I knew this time the reason for the crack in the wall was going to be completely different, but one can imagine “what if?”. 😀

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