It’s a living history.
Of all the many changes producer John Nathan-Turner brought to Doctor Who, the regular appearance of the two-episode story structure stands as one of the most successful. Forced by necessity to strip down the story to its basics, the writers for the two-part tales have consistently turned in taut, if not always coherent, narratives, and Eric Pringle’s “The Awakening” (Story Production Code 6M) stands as no exception. From the very start of the story, with a contemporary figure being menaced by Cavaliers on horseback, Pringle plays with the notions of temporal fluidity that are at the heart of Doctor Who—if the Time Lords can travel through time, so can other beings and forces, a plot device used frequently in the early days of the series but seldom evoked by the time Peter Davison dons the Fifth Doctor’s mantle.
The local magistrate, Sir George Hutchinson (Denis Lill) explains to the flustered schoolteacher, Jane Hampden (Polly James), that he and his fellows are merely re-enacting the events of the English Civil War, and that it’s all simply a bit of fun that the entire village has decided to participate in, except for her. Once they have simulated the final epic battle fought in village of Little Hodcombe between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads in 1643, all will go back to normal. It’s an interesting twist, as the viewer has been conditioned by the very nature of Doctor Who to accept, and indeed expect, the very real possibility that the figures had somehow appeared in 1984 from out of the past.
By virtue of lovely narrative happenstance, Tegan’s grandfather, the historian Andrew Verney (Frederick Hall), lives in Little Hodcombe, and the Fifth Doctor brings the TARDIS to town for a visit at the very same time as Sir George’s men are rounding up Roundhead stragglers. But instead of materializing normally, an unexpected energy field forces the blue box into the crumbling crypt of the long-abandoned local church. While heading to the village, the Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough find themselves waylaid by the wanna-be Cavaliers, who forcibly escort them to Hutchinson. The magistrate’s demeanor turns from conciliatory to vindictive once Tegan mentions her grandfather, with Sir George ordering them to be held under guard.
Jane Hampden, along with the viewer, realizes not all is quite as it seems; the participants in the wargames, with the exception of Ben Wolsey (Glyn Houston), take proceedings with an earnestness that borders on the maniacal, treating the fighting as real. Once our time travellers inevitably escape, they split up, the better for Tegan and Turlough to get caught before the end of the first episode. The Doctor, having returned to the church, finds himself buffeted by phantom sounds of combat, then sees a roughly-clothed young man tear through a weak brick wall. Named Will Chandler (Keith Jayne), the lad is trying to escape the battle raging outside the church—in 1643. Some further narrow escapes, this time with Jane, now also on the run from Sir George, sees the three confronted, in proper end-of-episode fashion, by the source of all this confusion, the giant face of the Malus…
In fewer than twenty-five minutes, Pringle has subverted audience expectations not once but twice, suggesting and then undoing the notion that Cavaliers have ventured from the 17th Century before bringing an actual peasant of the era into the modern day. Topped off with a giant, smoke-belching, green-eyed face hidden for hundreds of years behind a church wall, “The Awakening,” more than many stories of the past several seasons, provides a cliffhanger that genuinely demands resolution. Luckily for contemporary viewers, the final episode aired the very next night; unluckily for them, it falls nobly short of its promises.
The answer, as always, is aliens. Much like the last English church to be infested by a paranormal foe, in “The Daemons,” the force driving the villagers into a frenzy hails from the far-off planet Hakol, whose inhabitants harness psychic energy as easily as electricity. Their unmanned space-face probe, intended to pave the road for invasion, crashed in the village hundreds of years in the past; damaged, it only received enough psychic energy to activate when the internecine conflict between the Royalists and Parliamentarians swept through Little Hodcombe in 1643—the very battle Sir George intends to recreate in bloody specificity, down to burning a Queen of the May. (It’s Tegan, in case one could not guess from her change into clothes that are very much not up to her New Wave standard.)
Using Jane as a foil for his explanations, since Tegan and Turlough are nowhere to be found, the Doctor spells out just how Sir George has roused the village with enough psychic energy to awaken the Malus, which now feeds off that energy and amplifies the negative emotions in the participants. Tegan’s grandfather, who winds up in the same locked barn as Turlough after his capture, explains that he found the Malus in the church and told Sir George about its presence. The Malus offers the mad magistrate unlimited power, and only by stopping the re-enactment of the battle can the village—and, as ever, the planet—be saved.
Through the bravery of Ben Wolsey, Tegan avoids her role as the wick in the May Queen bonfire, and eventually everyone—the Doctor, Tegan, Turlough, Varney, Ben, Jane, and Will—winds up back at the church. Turlough and Varney knock out the Cavaliers trying to break into the TARDIS while the Doctor manages, by pushing unexplained buttons and levers inside the blue box, to sever the connection between the Malus and the psychic energy in the village. A manifestation of the Malus managed to enter the TARDIS when the door was left open, leading to tense moments before the grotesque figure perched in the corner of the TARDIS ceiling burbles to death in a bit of trademark Nathan-Turner/Saward green goo.
After the Malus unsuccessfully attempts to kill the enlarged TARDIS team with Roundheads psychically manifested from 1643, Sir George arrives, compelled by the giant face to complete the task himself, but the strain of seeing Ben and Jane gives him pause, a brief window allowing young Will to push him into the Malus, ostensibly killing him and triggering the self-destruct sequence on the alien probe. Everyone jumps in the TARDIS while the effects team gets to work blowing up a model church with reasonable verisimilitude.
Pringle himself doesn’t really know how or why everything came together in the end, having Turlough ask the questions likely on the audience’s mind, like why the probe failed in the first place and how Will was transported physically from 1643 when every other psychic manifestation of the Malus disappeared, to say nothing of the nature of the the blinded beggar who stole Tegan’s purse or the homunculus in the TARDIS. It’s the nature of these two-part stories that the narrative will show through a bit at the seams, and both “Black Orchid” and “The King’s Demons” likewise suffered from thin development of characters and plot, but the resolution of “The Awakening” feels compressed where the prior two stories fit their plot planters somewhat more snugly.
The three main guest cast members, Polly James as Jane Hampden, Denis Lill as Sir George Hutchinson, and Keith Jayne as Will Chandler, acquit their one-dimensional characters with depth beyond their scripted lines. Lill’s turn as Sir George possesses a vibrant menace, and Jayne’s thick 17th Century accent needs a knife to cut through, an admirable commitment to accurately portraying the out-of-time peasant. James receives as much screen time as the two “proper” companions, and once she starts flipping switches on the TARDIS, there’s a moment’s wonder if she’ll stay on-board permanently, particularly given her relative chemistry with Davison.
Pringle’s take on the Fifth Doctor suits Peter Davison quite well. There’s a wryness and sardonic flippancy to the character in “The Awakening” that Davison has been working towards since “Castrovalva” that finally shines through here. He’s quick to accept his own foibles but also willing to send back any jibes hurled his way, and Davison’s timing and facial expressions suit this version of the Doctor quite well. Whether this is a one-off presentation or a plan by Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward to shift the character remains to be seen.
Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson receive fairly short shrift again as Tegan and Turlough, perhaps understandable given the short length of the story and the appearance of a pseudo-companion in Jane Hampden, a necessary figure to push the narrative along quickly in a way they could not. With Fielding only having two stories left after this one, though, and Strickson only three, to see so many stories in a row where Tegan and Turlough essentially stand around feels like a waste of two strong actors who, by all appearances, have bought into Doctor Who and its ethos.
For all their inherent limitations, the Fifth Doctor’s two-part stories serve mostly as a welcome, needed respite from the high-stakes that are almost de rigueur for four- and six-episode stories, “Black Orchid” being at heart a murder mystery and “The King’s Demons” but a bit of “small-time villainy” on the Master’s part. “The Awakening” tries for more, tries to match the grandeur of the epic stories, but just can’t get there in a scant fifty minutes of screen time—Terry Nation and Dennis Spooner took three hours to try to explain just what “The Daleks’ Master Plan” was all about and barely managed it. Given more time, or fewer moving parts, Pringle might have pulled it off, but in the end, it’s just ever so close to sticking the landing.
Nonetheless, “The Awakening” remains captivating throughout, with a quick pace and strong directing from Michael Owen Morris, plus some lovely, bright location shooting. The relative lack of explanation, of coherence, means that just about anything can happen, the veneer of uncertainty having been established firmly by the end of the first episode. It makes for thrilling viewing, even if the aftermath leaves a bit to be desired. There’s something to be said for recreating that initial sense of wonder that permeated Doctor Who back when it first aired, when one had no idea where the TARDIS was going to go next, least of all the Doctor, and to the extent that “The Awakening” reminds viewers not to take anything for granted nor to trust their preconceived notions of how the show works, it broadly succeeds.
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Post 136 of the Doctor Who Project