Evil lurking in a church. A may queen for sacrifice. According to Eric Pringle, this was entirely coincidental and he had never actually seen The Daemons. This makes sense, as the ideas flow together naturally and were hardly original to The Daemons. Subverting the purity and safety of a church and combining that with pagan traditions is familiar horror territory, and this is clearly an example of Doctor Who doing horror, something we haven’t seen for a while. I will leave the Lovecraft connections to Mike, but suffice to say “Malus” is Latin for “evil”, and you don’t need to know Latin to recognise the intent, as the word is the source of plenty of English words such as “malevolent” and endless words with the prefix “mal” meaning “bad”. Right now I have some malodorous cheese in the fridge.
So we are overtly right back in the Doctor vs evil territory. This is not a race of aliens with any kind of redeeming quality, nor a realistic attempt to build an alien mythology, beyond Creature who Feeds on Negativity. And that’s simply a well-worn sci-fi way of saying “demon”. Look how it infests the TARDIS. Within the normal rules of Doctor Who the TARDIS is generally inviolable. To break into it takes a power that is not interested in existing within the scientific, or the realms of the possible. The Malus is a fundamentally non-scientific force.
Pringle’s original attempt at The Awakening was a four-parter, which script writer Eric Saward thought was slow, so he asked him to have another go at it, as a two-parter. If only every Doctor Who story could have had this treatment, but the money would never have stretched that far. It just gets on with telling a great story, without many of the padding techniques Doctor Who stories so often employ. You get the monster reveal at the end of the first episode, and then we are straight into the question of how to fight the Big Bad. This is what is so great about the two-parter. On a basic level, they drop parts two and three of a four-part story. The running time is the same as a 21st Century episode of Doctor Who, and the pacing is not a million miles away. In the end, this was achieved with extensive rewrites by Saward. Pringle was not pleased and felt it was rushed, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Saward may have made his fair share of mistakes during his time working on Doctor Who, but he got things exactly right here, and was years ahead of his time in terms of fitting Doctor Who into a shorter format.
Of the handful of two-parters sprinkled through Doctor Who’s classic series history only one was not successful. It is hard to get them wrong, really, as the format is such a gift. Unfortunately the one big failure was the most recent one: The King’s Demons. So what The Awakening does is quite complex and incredibly clever. It takes the same thematic starting point as The King’s Demons: Doctor Who crashes into children’s school book history. Like The King’s Demons this is specifically primary school book history (secondary school history in Britain rarely strays from the last couple of centuries, and is all about wars, either hot or cold) so is presenting history as understandable to the youngest viewers. The Awakening does this openly, by showing history as interpreted by a reenactment group. This is history as a game, or an inspiration. But whereas The King’s Demons never strays from the path of its simplistic faux history, The Awakening has real history crash through into it. So we get a four-way melee:
- Children’s Primary School Book History, being gatecrashed by…
- Real History, being gatecrashed by…
- A Horror Movie, being gatecrashed by…
- Doctor Who.
To do this within the confines of a two-parter is magnificently ambitious. Inherent in all that, of course, is the clash between history and myth, science and magic, sci-fi and fantasy. Doctor Who is at its very best when it merges all these things together, and stubbornly refuses to fit into one box or another. History is mythologized, real history breaks back through. Fabulous. RP
The view from across the pond:
Growing up in Staten Island, pronounced “Stat Nyland” by the locals (whatever a Nyland is), we used to go to a place known as Historic Richmond Town. It is a window into history that gives us a look at life in the 1600s. I often ate at a little place called M. Bennett’s; it was a small, candlelit restaurant that didn’t have electricity. It was very nice, but I never asked who M. Bennett actually was. Rumor is there’s a guy there named M. Koquillion who runs the place so I’ll leave well enough alone. (Sorry, Vicki! Too soon?) But when I think of recreations, this was our go-to place! Supposedly, ghosts can be seen in a few of the local “haunts” including a former mansion called The Parsonage. And the cemetery dates back far enough that there could easily be something otherworldly buried there. I have not gone in search of that creature, but if a little monster were spotted crawling up a wall, I would not be surprised!
Which brings us to The Awakening. What was great about this story was the Malus itself. Although it ends up being a computerized probe or something nonsensical like that, the initial idea of it was frightening and well executed. (In hindsight, this was so appropriate for the 80’s, like the Discobot from The Visitation; an ironic link considering Tinclavic is mentioned in both stories too – must be something found in the paint used in the 80s!). I always like when the monster can’t be spoken to or reasoned with because it adds a primal element that is really scary. And when the Malus spews forth its innards, it is such a repulsive scene, vaguely reminiscent of The Exorcist in its grotesqueness. Finding that this creature is residing in or around a church just exacerbates the horror of it. The smoke coming out of the wall is just icing on the fear-factor cake. (But maybe as a homeowner it strikes more terror into me because I just see one heck of a repair bill…)
After that, however, it all goes pear-shaped. The actual creature living in the cellar is so not believable that it comes off looking like something from the local carnival. Are we to believe that face was alive? It’s an animatronic wall face… I mean, the fact that it swallows Sir George, is crazy. Let’s just talk very simple biology here. If you eat something, it goes somewhere. If one were to fall into the mouth of a head with no body, chances are the guy is right on the other side of the “mouth”. Sort of like falling out a window, you don’t vanish from all reality!
And what’s with Tegan anyway? She’s wanted to go home for so long because her job clearly was a good one, but she finally gets to the right year and with her own family and instead of staying, maybe getting a lift home with her grandfather, she gets back in the TARDIS? Talk about fickle! And how horrible must she feel that the Doctor can’t get her home unless it’s to her grandfather’s village where they are doing a dry run for M. Night Shamalamadingdong’s The Village? (I had a lot of respect for Shyamalan until Signs when intergalactic travelers invade a planet deadly to them; like humans deciding to invade the Sun! So henceforth, Shamalamadingdong! The Village didn’t help when I called the “punchline” before the opening credits finished!) But as villages stuck in the wrong time, Little Hodcombe got there first, by a long shot.
Now it is interesting to see Doctor Who take a page out of Classic Trek’s book with Day of the Dove, where an entity feeds off negative emotions like anger and hate. If the Malus was smart, it would have waited for Star Trek: Discovery, because it would have had a far greater menu to choose from; like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet. I mean, no one likes anyone in Discovery. There’s enough bad emotion to fuel CNN for years. Bring on the anger. I’ve no doubt that if the creature is real, its living in some news network! Bad Wolf be damned! And speaking of being damned, what does it say that this creature ends up being the reason a church is destroyed? I’m all for science vs religion, but destroying the church might make for a commentary worth an article all on its own. Maybe there’s something to be said for having a bit of faith. How safe is it for the townspeople with the church gone right after they all tried to kill one another? At least, by destroying the church, insurance will pay so the repair bill is minimized; although how you record that with insurance is anyone’s guess! (Is there a check box next to the options: Flood, Gas leak, fire, destruction by alien head?)
It’s always nice having a big group come aboard the TARDIS, and maybe that’s the saving grace for the town. “Ok, we almost killed one another, but at least we know there’s more to the cosmos than us… so let’s pretend this never happened and move on. And avoid the church rubble because the cleanup will be messy when we find Sir George’s body!” (Maybe he’s still down there, crying out “I’ve fallen into a crack and I can’t get up!”)
Doctor Who gets it right a lot. This was not one of those times. Although, oddly, there’s a tranquility to this episode that I still enjoy watching despite its flaws. Go figure! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Frontios