|Don’t make me crumble menacingly at you.
It’s January 19th, 1984. Paul McCartney is still at number one with “Pipes of Peace,” with Frankie Goes to Hollywood now up to number two. The lower reaches of the charts are basically as described last time, so let’s go even lower and see if there’s anything interesting. The Police have “King of Pain” near its peak, which isn’t nearly as high as you’d expect for that song. The Smiths are in with “This Charming Man.” There. That’s worth noting. Ooh, and on the album charts the first volume of Now That’s What I Call Music! is at number one. So there’s a symbol of the death of culture and hope. In real news, though it’s between this story and the next, we may as well give this one credit for the Apple Macintosh being introduced, just because otherwise I’d have absolutely nothing to talk about before I moved on to Doctor Who.
So here is something that I didn’t realize how much I’d missed writing about until I sat down for this entry: a thoroughly underrated gem. Not one I have to provide some rescue operation on like Terminus, but a story that’s just quite marvelous and largely overlooked. I think the last one of these was, what, Stones of Blood? Regardless, The Awakening is absolutely marvelous.
Perhaps the most striking thing about The Awakening, at least to a modern eye, is that it figures out how to do the two-part story. Or, at least, rediscovers it – David Whitaker had the gist of this figured out in the mid-60s. (Then again, to some extent the entire history of Doctor Who after 1968 is just people figuring out what David Whitaker understood all along.) But as The Awakening is the only 45-minute Doctor Who story to work between The Rescue and Rose, it bears some analysis on those grounds alone.
To some extent, of course, its central innovation is just blindingly obvious: it gets the cliffhanger to work right. Let’s look at the cliffhangers of the two-parters quickly, starting with the post-Rescue ones. The Sontaran Experiment ends with revealing the villain of the piece. Black Orchid ends with the incident that kicks off the murder mystery. The King’s Demons ends with the revelation of the Master. All three of these are cliffhangers in what we might call the game-change mould – they’re revelations that promise a shift in the nature of the story.
Compare those to Whitaker’s two cliffhangers on his two-parters. The Rescue has the Doctor stumbling upon a spike trap, and The Edge of Destruction has a particularly vivid moment of the crew betraying each other. These are not cliffhangers that change the shape of the story, they’re sudden intrusions of danger that we know will be squared away within a minute or two of the start of the next episode so we can get back to the plot.
In most circumstances it is the game-change cliffhangers that are most interesting. The ones that set up a week of trying to figure out what this means about the story are, by and large, the best cliffhangers in the series. But these cliffhangers already suffer in the Davison era, when half the time the cliffhangers are only 24 hour waits and not week-long waits. This is, in some ways, the worst part of the Earthshock reveal. The series went to great lengths to hide its “the Cybermen are back” shock reveal, including turning down a Radio Times cover, and then it only got 24 hours of shock for its trouble because the next episode aired the next day. In a two-parter in this era, there’s no time for the story to breathe at all, and so the idea of inserting the extended period of uncertainty and questioning that a game-changing cliffhanger involves is already a bit silly.
But on top of that, the game-changing cliffhanger creates a very wonky sense of structure, as we discussed back in Black Orchid. The structure that works is the one Whitaker used, in which the cliffhanger is just a pro forma event to end the episode and instead we have a 45 minute piece of storytelling that works according to its own logic and tells the story at its own pace. Which, in the compressed and tight confines of the 50 minute story, is necessary.
But The Awakening manages to have the best of both worlds. Superficially its cliffhanger is the archetypal example of a game-changing cliffhanger – a monster reveal. But in practice it’s not actually an interruption of the story’s plot. It’s obvious from fairly early on that there is some sort of malign alien presence involved. The revelation that it’s a face with glowing green eyes is an impressive visual moment, and thus makes a good cliffhanger, but it changes very little about how the story is progressing. It doesn’t actually require that the Doctor do anything differently. So The Awakening ends up having its cake and eating it too. It has a cliffhanger that is in a real sense a big moment, but that doesn’t require it to alter the structure of its overall plot.
Its overall plot, of course, is a completely standard issue assortment of Doctor Who cliches. Shady dealings in rural villages, power-mad authority figures, sympathetic skeptics, and malign ancient presences. But far from being a set of cliches, The Awakening uses the standards with a real and definable purpose. This is something that is increasingly important in 45-minute stories – the ability to use recognizable elements as a shorthand to sketch out the rules of a story efficiently.
What this allows is for the series to cut down on the sleuthing moments – the sorts of things that were, as the entry on The Adventure Game showed, on the wane in this period anyway. Instead of having a story primarily about watching the Doctor figure out the nature of things we get one about people reacting to the nature of things. (This too is just rediscovering Whitaker, who used this structure to massive effect in The Enemy of The World, where the cliffhangers were largely based on characters finding out things the audience already knew, making the question “what will he do about X,” not “what is X.”)
But what The Awakening does that’s deliciously clever is that it proceeds to comment on the nature of this shorthand. The central plot of the story focuses on the village’s love of pageantry and war games. In other words, on the sort of “heritage themepark” version of history that was the animating spirit of The Kings Demons. The problem with this version of history, of course, is that it removes any sense of progress or change. History stops being a series of material events that lead to the present day and starts being a set of fun things to “experience” – an excuse, in other words, for dressing up and acting silly.
It is in some ways difficult to think of an approach more fundamentally morally opposed to that of Doctor Who than this. Animating Doctor Who at its best, after all, has been the idea that the mercurial spark underlying the Doctor and the phenomenon of material social progress are two sides of the same coin. In other words, Doctor Who is almost completely uninterested in history except inasmuch as it is a form of progress. Heritage themepark history and Doctor Who don’t get along at all.
Central to The Awakening, however, is the idea that there is, underneath the heritage themepark version of the English Civil War, a lurking and irreducible Lovecraftian evil. And it’s telling that it is a blatantly Lovecraftian sort of evil – one of those great lurking malevolent presences. Because the Lovecraftian view of the universe, with irreducible and unavoidable Others lurking in the forgotten and erased, is the perfect commentary on this sort of whitewashing. The central horror of Lovecraft is that underneath all the science and rationality of the world is an unspeakable and incomprehensible terror that is barely and temporarily repressed. And here, underneath the sanitized and easily encapsulated version of history is an unspeakable evil that is specifically manifested by the materiality of history – by the violent viscerality that is consciously erased by turning history into “games.”
And as soon as the series starts poking at that, of course, its more alchemical inclinations rear their heads to work inadvertent horror. At this point in the series, after all, the viewership has been actively primed to interpret everything in light of the series’ past. This is the first story since 1981 to feature no returning concepts. It’s been nearly two years since the series offered a story that was meant to be read on its own merits and terms instead of as a set of allusions to history. Which means, of course, that approaching this story with the expectation that it is a commentary on the series’ past is wholly understandable. Indeed, the series has actively invited us to. It’s even gone and given us a clear door with which to do it, what with its overt nicking of the end of The Daemons and its repetition of the phrase War Games. I mean, it’s practically begging for it.
If we do read The Awakening in the explicit light of these two stories we get two major tools in our reading. The first is the idea that Doctor Who occupies a gap between the materialist empiricism of science and the alchemical storytelling of magic. The second is its evolving conception of time and history, focused particularly on the Time Lords.
It is not a particularly novel observation to note that the Time Lords steadily fell from being interesting to being painfully dull. And we have just exited the fourteen year period of the show in which Gallifrey was ever visited, The Five Doctors being its last actual appearance on the show. So we have, in a sense, completed that fall from grace. And as has been a continual theme of this blog, that fall from grace was a movement from being embodiments of the material dialectic of history to being men in funny hats – to being, in other words, pageantry. So when The Awakening attacks the notion of heritage themepark history while invoking the story name in which the Time Lords first appear after two years of unrelenting continuity references…
What’s funny, of course, is that it’s the later repurposing of Holmes and Dicks’s Time Lords into men in funny hats that is the most blatantly magical. Under Holmes and Dicks the Time Lords were at least material, if not empiricist. They were fantastic, but they were always bound by a worldly connection to material history. It’s not until The Invasion of Time, The Arc of Infinity, and The Five Doctors that they became a purely symbolic narrative function with no relationship to actual things.
(Since we are having ourselves a brief stopover in the realm of the overtly occult, I should note that, historically, we’re now in the early rise of chaos magic, a school of magical thought based on the idea of discarding the idea of an overall metaphysic and instead focusing on the pure material act of magic – the statement of intent and the use of will to effect change on the universe. The Awakening marks the point where Doctor Who starts to play it that way too. The idea that master narratives – a central feature of Thatcher’s occultism – are inherently opposed to effective magic is a matter of pure delight to the animating ideology of Doctor Who.)
The irony of this is that The Awakening restores Doctor Who’s alchemical power by pushing away from the purely magical and back towards materialism and reality. The lurking Lovecraftian horror is materialism, not symbolic horror. But this has always been at the heart of Doctor Who’s power. Just as it’s never really been about a purely empiricist and rationalist viewpoint, it’s also never just been a masturbatory engage with the symbolic. It’s been about the alchemical tempering of symbol and object. And here we see that taken to one of its most delightfully odd consequences – a case in which material reality serves as a lurking horror underpinning the play of the symbolic. In which the material is the uncanny Other of fantasy.
It goes without saying, of course, that the heritage themepark version of history is the natural ally of Thatcher. The one where Britain can be reduced to feel-good moments and pageantry instead of material progress, where the past can be erased at will and replaced with empty rhetoric. Heritage themepark history is the ultimate “there’s no such thing as society” triumph.
This marks the point, then, where, following a painfully long slumber, Doctor Who wakes up and remembers that there is such a thing as the real world. Unfortunately, of course, it’s a little late. Those inclined to intertwine Doctor Who with the cultural movements of Britain cannot help but notice that Doctor Who essentially slumped over and fell asleep on the subject of material reality not long after Thatcher’s first election and only woke up again when the left had been roundly humiliated by her second. Just in time, then, to watch the next miners’ strike.
And just in time to suffer an equally brutal humiliation of its own.