19 May 2017

Something very wonderful and strange!

Why does a two part story broadcast 33 years ago leave such a strong impression? Maybe it’s because while it contains many elements you might expect to encounter in an Eighties Doctor Who story, `The Awakening` cuts out a lot of the filler that often extended stories unnecessarily cutting to the essence of the series. In a lot of ways it’s similar to the series we have now- 50 minutes of mystery, excitement. It is indeed something very wonderful and strange! Little was known by fans about Eric Pringle before he wrote it and the story proved to be his sole contribution to Doctor Who. This always seemed a shame as he appeared to have found a way to create a well thought out story packed with interesting characters, an alien with real visual impact and romps along at quite a rate. I used to think it should have been 3 parts but now I realise it is perfect as it is.

It has “pure evil” long before that phrase wore out its welcome later in the decade which is how the Doctor describes The Malus. The creature’s gradual unveiling from behind a crumbling wall and realisation as a giant devilish face belching smoke and noise is nothing short of stunning. Eric Pringle’s economic yet precise script explains it well- a machine of war created by harnassing psychic energy. The story does have echoes of both `The Daemons` and `Image of the Fendahl` but is sufficiently different to stand as their equal. It remains one of the most effective latter day monsters squatting in designer Barry Newberry’s superb church set which looks so good you think it really is a church. 

Despite this very physical presence Pringle does sprinkle an allegorical ingredients into the mix suggesting that violence begats violence and that any society could create its own Malus. It’s roots in historical reconstruction conjures up countryside myths and dark forces to terrific effect as well as providing some incongruous images of civil war soldiers against contemporary symbols like a phone box. This also plays with the series’ own inventive use of locations for historical stories. The writer also builds up the threat perfectly taking care to explain with dialogue that never seems solely exposition. He is also prone to sprinkling a little cheeky comments such as the Doctors “toast of Little Hodcombe” and Jane’s mocking of the pageant plus he writes Will’s dialogue in what at least sounds like a plausible historical dialect. And the story ends with something about a cup of tea!

The production is blessed with a splendid cast led by Polly James who plays Jane Hampden as a determined yet confused foil for the Doctor. Likewise Keith Jayne whose as befuddled 16th century urchin Will Chandler acts his socks off. Its been said before but these two would have been excellent companions whom audiences would have taken too but the series was never as daring as that back in the day. It is noticeable though how both work better with Peter Davison’s Doctor than the current incumbents moany Tegan and shifty Turlough. Both Janet Feilding and Mark Strickson do their best but neither character is likeable something that applies in all the stories they inhabit. Dennis Lill always gives good value stopping just short of overdoing maters while Glyn Houston’s charm overcomes the one plot hole of why Woolsey is not as affected by the Malus’ influence thought this may because he’s a decent man?

Director Michael Owen Morris’ marshalling of such enviable resources adds a further level of class to `The Awakening`. Each time The Malus snorts and growls the cameras get closer to its eyes. Other impressive visuals include the silver coated `ghosts` and the mini Malus hanging about in the Tardis.

Various accounts have suggested the story was heavily re-written by Eric Saward and that Eric Pringle wasn’t too pleased. Yet when you compare it to other stories of the time it does have something extra special about it and that can only have come from the credited writer. I’ve just read a post on Facebook too from someone saying what a nice man Eric Pringle was. In a varied career, he also penned episodes of well liked series like The Pretenders and some children’s books. By a weird coincidence perhaps orchestrated by a more playful Malus, I’m currently working on a children’s book in which one of the villages is called Hodcombe as a tribute to what is one of the best Doctor Who stories of the 1980s.

Eric Pringle 1935- 2017

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