Tony Fyler has Malus aforethought.
The Awakening is, no matter which way you slice it, an odd Fifth Doctor story. It’s not exactly a time-bending story but it does have what we can imagine are members of a village parish council riding around on horses, dressed as roundheads and cavaliers, and it does also have people from the actual Civil War in the same story. It’s a two-parter that takes place over a single frenetic day, and it has one of the most genuinely creepy aliens seen during Peter Davison’s time as the Doctor – which is no mean feat for a monster that says nothing, and moves really very little.
So what’s the Awakening about?
Attempting to please the ever-moaning Tegan with a visit to her grandfather in the quiet English village of Little Hodcombe, the Doctor is perturbed when a disturbance ripples through the Tardis just as it puts down in the decaying village church. A figure moves across the scanner screen and the Doctor and Tegan go out to save them from the falling masonry, much to the chagrin of the self-preserving Turlough. And so our heroes get mixed up in a village playing re-enactment games of the time during the Civil War when roundheads and cavaliers destroyed not only each other, but the village itself. What’s moderately creepy in this set-up is that, as is just slipped casually in in episode two, the final battle of the war games ‘has to be for real’ – can you imagine the council meeting where that was agreed? To celebrate its history of destruction, the village is going to pit its citizens against each other in a real battle. What’s more, there appear to have been longstanding plans for the lucky lady crowned Queen of the May to be burned alive. Actually, properly burned alive. The only person this seems to bother in the slightest is Jane Hampden – also the only person in the village not to dress in period costume, and it only seems to bother her to the extent that ‘things are getting out of hand.’
You can watch The Awakening on a couple of levels at once – on the one hand you can see it as a blistering satire on the insularity and self-importance of small local power-groups, from the parish council to the Rotary Club, the Malus’ influence representing the preposterous and dangerous things such groups can be led to do when they begin to take themselves too seriously.
It’s actually really rather more fun though to take The Awakening at face value, with a mad local magistrate having found a semi-robotic creature from outer space hidden in the local church, which requires a shedload of psychic energy to be fed to it so it can destroy everything within its scope, and hitting on the idea of playing the re-enactment of the Civil War for real, so as to feed his alien master. Obviously barking mad stuff on every conceivable level, but do you know what? It works a treat.
Why it works a treat is down to three distinct factors. First of all, there’s some absolutely classic writing here, from one-timer Eric Pringle. Not only does the idea of an alien as fearsome-looking as the Malus being mistaken by superstitious seventeenth century people for the Devil appeal, but all the beggaring about with psychic energy as a real physical force is lightly treated, so it slips into your consciousness slick as you please. Of course – psychic projections can kill. Of course the Malus would need to rest after creating an apparition expressly to milk the psychic terror out of its observers, and using it to kill. Of course, a little Tardis jiggery-pokery can isolate the Malus from the chaos in the village, in one of the least impressive victories in Doctor Who history, why not? More to the point, the dialogue is both oddly stylized and yet memorable.
‘You speak treason!’
‘Fluently! Stop the games.’
A thing of beauty right there, and one of those oddly rare moments that give Peter Davison a chance to succinctly define his Doctor. And as for the Doctor and Jane’s conversations in the tunnel between the house and the church, they’re pitch-perfect in terms of defining the Fifth Doctor’s calm but deliciously patronizing approach to his companions. Tegan and Turlough are both spikily well served for dialogue here too, and Denis Lill’s Chief Nutter of the Parish, Sir George Hutchinson, swans about the place as though he really is a cavalier. You half expect him to burst out into moustache-twirling laughter practically every time he strides into a room. He doesn’t do this, because Pringle keeps everything jusssst the right side of doolally, allowing the threat to seem barbed and real, rather than monstrously silly.
The second big reason The Awakening works so well is the calibre of the actors involved, and the performances they give. Lill is clearly in his element here, being bad, if not more than a little mad, but he follows Pringle’s lead and never makes Sir George seem foolish or silly – just a man possessed by the wonder of what he’s discovered, which has presumably made a fairly dull life something suddenly exciting and meaningful. Glyn Houston as Ben Wolsey, who seems the newest recruit to Hutchinson’s army, gives a good rendition of ‘what the hell’s going on around here’ normality, the least affected combatant in the village’s games of Civil War madness, and the anchor to a moral core that goes back before the world started going mad. Polly James as Jane is equally superb, becoming the Doctor’s one-shot companion here (well why not? Peter ‘full Tardis’ Davison is practically slumming here with just Tegan and Turlough running around the village), and she could easily have become a kind of latter-day Sarah-Jane, given another future. Come to that, Keith Jayne as Will Chandler is excellent too, and there really was talk of him joining the crew. That would have been a beautiful development – we can imagine him working as a kind of Jamie-like taming influence on the bombastic Sixth Doctor, though the truth is, he probably wouldn’t have survived the carnage of Resurrection of the Daleks. But here, he’s another anchor, this time to the historical period of the Malus’ landing on Earth, and his clear-cut approach to complex moral situations – ‘It be better he be dead!’ - does actually provide the dramatic denouement that we’re otherwise by the Doctor twiddling some Tardis knobs.
And the third reason for The Awakening’s success is the Malus itself. As an early animatronic device, it’s a minor miracle it was allowed anywhere near Doctor Who, given the comparative bill of goods the BBC had been sold on the model of Kamelion, which had been envisaged as an active companion, but in the event couldn’t so much as stand up. But by keeping things simple – the Malus only really has three effects, moving and opening its eyes, opening its mouth and shuffling forward – and by of course being kept entirely under wraps until the episode one cliffhanger (though the scariness of a crack in a wall was proved here, long before Steven Moffat ever got his hands on it), the Malus becomes a very visual chiller that looks quite unlike anything else the Doctor has ever faced.
The Awakening’s story of scary-faced psychic-energy wranglers walled up in churches and crack-brained cavaliers had the mark of difference that made it a breath of fresh air after the overlit and sadly Myrka-filled Warriors of the Deep. Decades on, the pacing, the performances, the dialogue and that creepy big head are still enough to make The Awakening a great way to pass an hour.