5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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'"I don't like it." "Then admire the craftsmanship."'
It's half an adventure, but it's not half bad.
Of course, it's not as if The Awakening doesn't have its faults and plenty of 'em. As a two-parter that's really a four-parter put through the crusher, there are enough mysterious things happening without explanation for an entire series of Sapphire And Steel. In fact, the only thing that could clear the whole mess up would be seeing the Doctor in the TARDIS shower and realising the whole thing was just a dream.
It really doesn't do to look too hard, because your brain will start to bend in some alarming directions. Take the Malus, for example. Why is it shaped like a big stone face? Is there a fleet of big stone face-shaped aliens wandering the galaxy looking for their lost advance party? What's it doing squashed into the wall, anyway? Why does it want to whisk Will Fletcher through time? Come to that, why does it want to nick Tegan's handbag? And why is it that aliens all seem to thrive on negative psychic energy? Couldn't it, just once, be marshmallows?
And the villagers. Just how much do they know about the Malus, anyway? And if they're all Under The Influence, why are the teacher and Tegan's granddad exempt? Alternatively, if they're not, why are they going along with Sir George's loony schemes? (Especially the distinctly weird Willow, who seems to be getting far far too much fun out of the proceedings. He's definitely our favourite.)
And that's just scratching the surface. We're not, say, going to try documenting the amazing flashes of intuition in which half the cast know heaps of stuff without ever being told about it, because that would be way too anal. (Actually, we just can't be fecked.) And we'll also politely gloss over the great honking chunks of infodump as well ("You of all people, our schoolteacher..."). What we can't leave out, though, is the insidiously creeping sense of deja vu. Yes, you're right, you have seen this somewhere before. It was called The Daemons.
It's all there. The quaint village. The maiden sacrifice. The maypole. The special sacrifice dress. The evil influence that turns out to be an alien. Even someone else solving the problem so that the Doctor's involvement's strangely pointless. Now this is a real shame: we think it's much more of a weakness than the hash they made of plot continuity. Why do something you've already done, and in such a similar way?
Like we said, a lot of faults. But amazingly enough considering our track record with other Fifth Doctor stories, we still quite like it. Some of that's about the two-part format: although it leads to a truckload of plot stupidities, it also gives the story a certain whooshiness, and too much action makes a definitely attractive change from way too little. And some of it's about the script, which is delightfully sharp in places. Immortal exchanges like '"You speak treason!" "Fluently!"', not to mention the Doctor's hilariously black response to Will's saying the Queen of the May had been burned ("The toast of Little Hodcombe"), give the Doctor a edge that's sadly lacking elsewhere.
More than anything, though, we love the atmosphere of the beginning, which until it deteriorates into the bog-standard welter of alien/psychic energy explanations is powerfully creepy. The modern-day Civil War recreation wrong-foots the audience right from the beginning, and that's sustained very nicely with the appearance of Will and the sparkly things. It's impossible to get a handle on exactly what's going on for quite some time, and that combined with the feeling of menace provides a genuine behind the sofa experience.
Characterisation suffers from the cramped format, but considering that, it's not too bad. Will Fletcher's an underused but appealing character, Ben as the voice of reason is a good contrast to Sir George the standard possessed guy, and we really really like the wonderfully strange Willow. (We're split on whether the best Willow moment is his threat to undress Tegan, his telling Tegan she's annoying him or his standing impassively by as if he's waiting for a bus while some poor sucker manfully tries to ram the TARDIS with a polystyrene brick. Superb stuff.)
Jane is a bit too much like an over-eager Labrador puppy, and Andrew Verney's totally wasted (how did a man so sensible manage to have a granddaughter like Tegan?), but you can't have everything. As for the TARDIS crew, Turlough's annoyingly shed much of his coward persona here, Tegan's about what you'd expect and Peter Davison picks up the unusual opportunities the script offers the Doctor and runs with them.
Okay, so it's not Citizen Kane. But providing you don't think too hard about the plot, it's actually quite fun. And we can't say fairer than that.
MORAL: When you see a maypole, leg it.
GOT A PEN?
Why oh why do good characters invariably insist on announcing to evil characters their plans to stop said evil characters? Jane could just sneak off into another room and phone the police, but oh no, that would be mean and underhanded. Apparently.
HEARTS OF OAK
By the sound of it, the floor of the church is made of the same kind of stone as the streets in
Willow leaves Tegan alone to put the dress on, right? So how does she manage to lace it up at the back?
WEIGHT AND SEE
As stone falls from the wall in front of the Malus at the end of episode one, you can see a big chunk of it that's grey on both sides but a suspiciously polystyrene-like white along the edges.
INTO THE JAWS OF DEATH RODE THE 500
They only had to come up with one cliffhanger, and they still only managed a pathetically flabby one. The Doctor trots forward in front of the Malus for no apparent reason and stands with his hands over his ears instead of running away, again for no apparent reason. Ooh, the tension is killing us.
YOU DON'T SAY
A round of applause, please, for Peter Davison's wonderfully sarcastic delivery of the line "Yes, I know" when Jane says "You must stop him!". If only the Fifth Doctor had had a few more opportunities like that.
Peter Davison momentarily struggles for the names of his companions in the line: "I must search for... Turlough and Will". And who could blame him? We wouldn't be falling over ourselves to find Turlough either.
CAN WE KEEP IT, DAD?
Much as we hate the way people keep trooping in and out of the TARDIS without as much as blinking, that adorable little mini-me Malus makes it all worthwhile. And need we add - green goo!!
We love the way the huge chunk of rock Turlough uses to assault Willow with falls noiselessly to the floor.
The TARDIS crew visit this time period in the first place so that Tegan can spend some time with her grandfather. So why is the Doctor in such an all-fired hurry to rush off at the end?