Tuesday 29 November 2016

We Don't Go Back #18: Doctor Who, The Awakening (1984)

Folk horror, as something other than a genre of its own, often has visitors. Its themes and tropes bleed into things that might not otherwise be considered either folk or horror. British TV travels to its locals, and then leaves. The Avengers went there. Robin of Sherwood was rich with pagan signifiers and occasionally terrified me when I was a boy. Sapphire and Steel arguably spent three of their six serials in folk horror territories (and if I get round to turning this into a book, "Assignment Two" definitely gets an essay). More recently, The League of Gentlemen stopped by at least once an episode. Soap operas, comedies and serial dramas visited it. And then there's Doctor Who.

In the 1970s and 80s, Doctor Who1 pitted its nameless protagonist against the tropes of folk horror a good half-dozen times. Most times, the supernatural force turns out to be a science fictional agency.2

In 1978's The Stones of Blood, a circle of standing stones turn out to be themselves alien monsters, and the horror of the earlier episodes gives way to broad comedy.

Image of the Fendahl, from 1977, is better. It draws partly on the same vein as The Blood on Satan's Claw, with a story of the discovery of an inhuman skull that gives rise to an ancient horror. The horror, which is very much Lovecraftian in nature, is a good fit for a show that enjoys its sci-fi trappings as much as Doctor Who does, since Lovecraft's monsters are all space aliens anyway.

1989's The Curse of Fenric, the best of these stories by most measures, draws together Nigel Kneale-style technology, Viking legends of vampires, a country church and, again, a Lovecraftian horror to excellent effect.

The Visitation, in 1982, has only the trappings of folk horror: a skull-faced reaper, seventeenth century people. But it quickly jettisons them for spaceships, robots and aliens. 

The most fondly remembered of these stories, and the most written about, however, is The Daemons, broadcast in 1971, where the Doctor's comic-book arch-enemy the Master poses as a Satanist vicar and convinces a village to perform magic rituals to raise Satan, who's actually a very old alien who's the reason traditional images of Satan look like that. A lot of people really like it. And it's sort of fun without being demanding or having a whole lot of depth.
The Doctor and friends, in the crypt.

The Awakening isn't so fondly remembered. It's not considered terribly significant, and having only two episodes, often gets overlooked. It broadcast in January 1984. I was eight years old, and I saw both of the episodes, and unlike many Doctor Who stories of the time, I had clear memories of it, which carried through to when I rewatched it, thirty-odd years later. Aged eight, it deeply affected me. I thought it was brilliant when I was a kid.
A carving of a demonic force.

Its plot is straightforward. The Doctor and his friends land in a present-day village called Little Hodcombe, which is in the middle of a "war game", a large-scale re-enactment of events that overtook it during the English Civil War. It becomes clear that it has already got a little out of hand; Sir George, the mastermind of the festivities, has gotten a little too far into character, and is dragging everyone down with him. The Civil War battle that the town commemorates ended in a massacre of both sides, and Sir George wants to re-enact that, with the whole town in character.
It's our heritage!
The Doctor: What is going on?
Sir George: A celebration! On the thirteenth of July, sixteen hundred and forty-three, the English Civil War came to Little Hodcombe. A parliamentary force and a regiment for the King destroyed each other. And the village.
The Doctor: And you're celebrating that?
Sir George: Why not? It's our heritage!
The Awakening, Part One
The problem is that he wants to re-enact it with absolute authenticity. He wants 1643 to happen again. In full. He wants everyone dead.

Sir George has awakened an ancient psychic evil hidden under the church. It's been there for a very long time, and in folklore it's called the Malus. As the War Games get more out of hand, and its power grows, it brings the people further into the psychic space of their predecessors, and pushes them to indulging in dark folklore.
The Queen of the May, riding to her fate.
Before the battle will happen, the people must crown a Queen of the May. They nominate the Doctor's friend, Tegan. They'll burn her alive, of course (they don't, because she's a series regular). The Malus makes people see ghosts and demons. In 1643, a boy named Will escapes the horror by breaking through a wall. He comes out in 1984.

And then a huge, leering face bursts through the wall of the crypt. The first episode ends.
The Malus.
Even before the face has appeared, the Doctor has named an alien race and a planet, but it somehow doesn't matter; even when the Doctor defeats the Malus by pressing a few buttons a few minutes into the second episode, it seems irrelevant. The face is still there. The apparitions still appear. Sir George is still mad. The weird phenomena don't seem to make any sense. The lepers, the demons, the face, the face, that face. They just appear. The villagers seem quietly to acquiesce to murder.

When Sir George says, "It's our heritage!" he's hitting the nail on the head. Isn't murder our heritage? Weren't we born in it? Britain is drenched in blood. Isn't Sir George just being honest by doing it properly in all its horror rather than just making a theme park attraction of our history, a storybook for kids?

That's madness. We don't go back because to do so is madness, but how do we approach the past, then? Can we domesticate it?
The Malus, in making these things come to the fore, frames these questions, and in a way the framing of the Malus, that big leering face behind the wall, is subtly different from those other creatures. In The Daemons, Satan, the folk horror phenomenon, turns out to be an alien; in The Stones of Blood, the standing stones, the folk horror phenomenon, turn out to be alien; in The Visitation the grim reaper turns out to be an alien robot; and so on.

But in The Awakening, an alien is deliberately making folk horror happen. The force of evil comes from Planet Idonotactuallycare-us and is an invasion force thing whatsit whatever. Doesn't matter. It's completely the least interesting thing about the creature. Naming it avails us nothing.

Because it's not the alien that's scary. It's not its stellar origin that matters. It's the inexplicable weirdness it's bringing about. Rather than being the explanation for a folk horror phenomenon, or even the horror itself, the Malus is deliberately making folk horror happen, and it's interesting that The Doctor, who always survives, defeats the alien long before the end of the story by flicking switches... but still has to face the folk horror happenings. His enemy is not some forgotten alien. His enemy is folk horror itself. His enemy is our heritage of blood, turned sour and vomited up from the land.
Will, lost in time.
I can't even begin to explain how that face affected me, with its demonic smile, its green eyes. Even now, with thirty years of distance, of knowing in my heart of hearts that it's a big stiff puppet, the sight of the face coming through the wall thrills me.

As a kid, I didn't recall the rationale for the creature, only the weird things it did. When the Doctor visited the territories of folk horror, he and his friends survived, as they very nearly always did, But a mirror was cast on what the uncanny meant in the light of our heritage, and perhaps why we don't go back.

1If I was writing this a decade ago, I'd probably have to explain the premise of Doctor Who. As it is, you know how it works and what it's about; the one thing you might not know is that in its original run, from 1963 to 1989, each season was made of several consecutive serialised stories.

Most stories had four or six episodes; each would often be written and directed by completely different people to the preceding story. And that meant that it could often be maddeningly inconsistent, regardless of the role of the producer and script editor.

Some iterations of the original series are generally considered better than others, but nearly every one has its detractors and its defenders.

For the sake of context, this story comes a few months before the show entered an era that hardly anyone defends. This drastic failure of basic quality on nearly every level would continue long enough to prove fatal, and although it became good again in its final two seasons, it wasn't enough. Even as an eight-year-old I could tell it had got rubbish. To be fair, although there would be one really great story before the final crash happened, the rot had already set in. For all that I love it, compared to other stories from the 1982-84 run, The Awakening is probably in the top five stories; compared to the wider history of Doctor Who, it's barely in the top 100. Like most early 80s Doctor Who, it doesn't even hold up against good TV of the day. (back)

2An acknowledgment: I have Jon Dear to thank once more for the archival joys of several of these serials. His love for Doctor Who and knowledge of its nuts and bolts and screwdrivers (sonic) surpass mine by far, even if he's wrong about The Androids of Tara. (back)