Clocking in at just two episodes, “The Awakening” never gets the chance to repeat itself or spin its wheels. Its brevity is its biggest liability.
It's not uncommon to find oneself enjoying a classic Doctor Who tale when, early in the third episode, things become repetitive, characters fall back into captivity after having just escaped, and the episode's cliff hanger seems like it will never come. These third episodes are too often padded with non-action and extraneous plot, all of which is unwound and forgotten by the story's end.
This condition worsens during the longer stories, the six-part epics in which multiple episodes fall prey to such wheel spinning. Clocking in at just two episodes, “The Awakening” never gets the chance to repeat itself or spin its wheels. Its brevity is its biggest liability.
The Doctor (Peter Davison) directs the TARDIS to earth circa 1984 to give Tegan (Janet Fielding) a chance to visit her grandfather, historian Andrew Verney (Frederick Hall). In the small English village of Little Hodcombe the Doctor and Tegan, along with Turlough (Mark Strickson), find a population engaged in an ongoing series of war games based on a 1643 battle of the English Civil War. These costume enthusiasts are led by Sir George Hutchison (Denis Lill), a flamboyant tyrant dressed in the clothes of a Royalist who barks orders and demands historical authenticity.
Lill’s sometimes daffy performance is summed up in a line of Sir George’s dialogue: “Something is coming to our village. Something wonderful. And strange.” Local school teacher Polly (Jane Hampden) fears for Sir George’s sanity, and rightfully so, as he’s being controlled by the Malus, an alien being which feeds on the fear and anger of those near it.
The first half of the story is fast-paced, with a sense of menace lurking beneath the surface. The Malus, a legend whose presence is in the town dates back to the 17th century, haunts an abandoned church, its visage appearing in elaborate carvings adorning the walls and the floor. The Malus appears throughout the story as a large face partially obscured by a crumbling church wall, its eyes glowing green and smoke billowing around it.
When its face is fully revealed, the Malus looks like little more than an amusement park decoration, an evil leer frozen on its face as it welcomes you to the house of horrors. Because its plans are all carried out through Sir George, the Malus is a villain of ideas not of action. Its presence is maintained through a series of cutaways to its glowing, smoldering face, an effect which recreates in the viewer the being’s influence on the villagers of Little Hodcombe.
In the abandoned church, the center of its power, the Malus conjures tangible projections of people from the past, including fighting soldiers and a peasant named Will Chandler (Keith Jayne). Doctor Who often worked in the mode of the historical epic, but the idea of bringing the past into the present -- as a threat -- is an interesting twist on the time travel conceit. The story becomes an historical epic which is aware of itself, much like the Civil War re-enactors of the village.
The second half of the story isn’t as successful as the first, because it’s forced to work too hard. It does the heavy lifting of putting our heroes in and out of danger, providing breathless exposition to a very confused Polly, defeating the Malus, and wrapping up the story. A final scene in the cramped TARDIS control room finds Tegan enjoying a rushed moment with her grandfather, a narrative payoff necessary because it provided the entire reason for the Doctor to come to earth, and a joke about man-out-of-time Will Chandler not knowing what 'tea' is.
The story, written by Eric Pringle, was initially planned to run the usual four parts, but was condensed to two by producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward. The move is commendable, but elements like Tegan’s reunion with her grandfather and Will’s displacement in time could have been better handled with time to spare in a third episode. The rushed second half was felt by the cast, as revealed in the making-of featurette “Return to Little Hodcombe”. Janet Fielding recounts Polly James’s confusion about the story and the general feeling that there was something missing overall. Other bonus features include audio commentary, a look at the Malus today courtesy of the fan who purchased the prop and hung it on his living room wall, and a well-known out take of a horse destroying a location set.
Given the typical problems with third episodes, complaints about the story's length may seem contradictory or petty, but a third and final part might have allowed this story a chance to breathe, to find a rhythm and to conclude without the characters gasping for air. Still, there’s something to be said for a story which leaves one wanting more, not less.