Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Serial 131: The Awakening

Doctor: Peter Davison (5th Doctor)
Companions: Tegan, Turlough

Writtten by: Eric Pringle
Directed by: Michael Owen Morris

Background & Significance: Believe me when I tell you it was completely unintentional that we'd burn through the three Davison two parters in such a short short span. It just happened. I don't know how, but trust me, it did. So.. yeah. Here we are, talking about the last of these two parters (and really the last two parter of the classic series) because all the Colin Baker ones don't count (okay, maybe "The Ultimate Foe" counts, but that's... a tricky topic).

The last time we talked about a Davison two parter it involved The Master and was rather odd. The time before that, Cassandra was talking about a "delightfully whimsical" historical. And this?

Well... it's the same consistently odd that the other one is.

Part of what makes these two part stories interesting is the way Classic Who writers have absolutely no idea how to flesh out a story and paint it in all its tapestryness in just two short episodes. To make things even more confusing, there's the same amount of characters as would appear in a standard four parter and the same amount of scope, but it ends up making the whole thing feel incredibly rushed or what have you. So it's a little strange to watch because it feels like they're racing through, leaving me with the sensation that it's all just a little too rushed and sloppy to be anything super amazing or memorable.

That's a shame, of course, because what we have here is probably easily the strongest of the Davison two-parters.

Eric Pringle and Michael Owen Morris are interesting to me because they're in that club of "one-offs". You know the types: the ones who come in and do one Doctor Who story and one Doctor Who story only. And then that story becomes their one, lone Doctor Who legacy, the story that will forever represent their association with the show. Normally, I equate this with the first episode because (if you think about it) it's the story the writer's been wanting to write for all his/her life. As an example, Steven Moffat's would be "The Girl in the Fireplace", which really does a good job exploring the themes and motifs Moffat would later explore in greater depth in his stories going up till today.

For Christopher Bailey the thesis story would be "Kinda", for Neil Gaiman it would be "The Doctor's Wife". And so on and so forth.

"The Awakening", though, is something of an odd, odd bird. Without spoiling the general conceit of the episode, it's a total blending of classic historical while putting on a crazy unique interesting twist on it to make it a "simple" sci-fi story. And yet, it's really not THAT simple. At the time, Pringle was originally commissioned for a four part story and when his outline revealed that he didn't have enough to make a compelling four part story they curtailed it to two parts. But Pringle's condensing led to Saward adding and rewriting making it longer to fill out the time (and yet the initial cut of the first episode way overran. So good on getting that one right, Eric Saward) so it ends up being a bit of your standard Davison era hodgepodge where it doesn't QUITE work out the way it should be.

But that's the era, I guess. Can't do anything about that.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

One of the things that this story does that something like "Black Orchid" or "King's Demons" didn't do (although "Black Orchid" did it better than "The King's Demons") is create a part one that gives you the impression that there is only one part left to go.

Lemme explain: If you were to make "The King's Demons" into a four part story, part one would stay relatively the same. It sets up all the players and all the intrigue and all that, but it feels like you're setting up a four part story because of the scope and all the balls being juggled in the air (fine, so there aren't that many, but it still has that pace about it). But here it's different. Here you can tell that Pringle has heavily condensed his story and isn't really doing as much with it, and in that I can tell that certain elements were added (I suppose). AND YET I can't say I see all that much that Saward contributed to the story because this episode.... feels about as light as the first part of a classic series two parter would be. There aren't many subplots (any, really) and it involves a metric frak ton of running around.

That's not to say it's not enjoyable. What's here is plenty fun and plenty good time. I just think it's a little slight, but only because there's not much to play with.

I especially love the setting. The Doctor going to visit a war re-enactment (albeit to see Tegan's grandfather, although that's hardly anything more than a McGuffin) is a touch of brilliance and allows for a story set in present times while still being able to play in the world of a historical. And yet, I don't think this story does nearly enough with the premise and leaves tons of toys on the ground. See, apparently this story didn't have enough to play with, but to that I say that's ridiculous. You have a war re-enactment going on in present time and the Malus is feeding on the psychic energy of the villagers buying into the premise? Why not have them merge timestreams or something? I mean, you already introduced Totally-not-the-new-Adric-Companion Edward who was pulled out of the past....

But like... If coming up with elements to fill time was such an issue, why in the frak...

That's my problem with this two parter. They aren't doing anything with this premise. You have Sir George as the leader of this re-enactment, which is cool, but he doesn't do anything. And yes, he's under the influence of the Malus (the evil big bad alien bad guy), but at the end of this he hasn't really done anything. He's just expanding the situation: getting a May Queen (Queen of the May) and adding sentries at the town's borders, but we never see any of this re-enactment stuff. And I know that's a product of the limited budget and time or whatever, but... it feels a little cheap if you ask me. I mean, that's the whole tentpole of the story and the most you can show me is the town square? Come on. Do more. Please.

Enough with the negative (hopefully). What else?

For one thing, it's always great to see Peter Davison. Always. And I know that I'm absolutely broken recording at this point (I say that as a qualifier, not because I actually care), but Davison is so so good in all things and always. It's all in the mannerisms, in the way he talks, holds himself. The scene in the church when he's investigating and you can just tell that he's thinking, or later when he's with Edward and has his hands in his pockets... Even the bit where he uses a coin to determine what he's going to do next is the most absurd thing, and yet it still works (and well) as its own quirky little thing that he does. It's just a blast to see him investigating the situation at hand, assessing and thinking. God. The thinking. No Doctor thinks like Peter Davison. You can see it on his face, the way the abacuses in his head are just flicking back and forth while he jots down the notes going on.

That's what makes him awesome to me. The Doctor is always (and has always been) the ultimate thinker in any given situation. That's what makes him so different from any other hero I see. Most other heroes are lock-stepped into just one thing, but The Doctor (and Davison's Doctor in particular) can be a swashbuckling man of action without actually having to do any action at all. Sure, I've seen him flip his fair share of bad guys in his time and I've seen him raise guns against his enemies (thanks for that, Eric Saward. Way to completely betray the strengths of one of the best actors to ever be The Doctor), but at the end of the day the 5th  Doctor is a thinker, through and through. That's how he solves the problems and the days and all without being the manipulator that McCoy is. It's all in the youthful energy and the "Lawful Good" in him. And maybe that's a naive perspective for me to like. Maybe life is more important than the "Lawful Good", but to you I direct a wonderful blog post by Greg Rucka about the pervasion of cynicism in our culture.

Davison's Doctor is like Superman. He's not for the cynical, and--

Shit. Gotta save this line of thinking for later. Don't want to spoil thoughts I'm doing later.

I also love seeing this incarnation of The TARDIS crew. There's something about the finnicky panicking of Turlough (love Turlough) and the fact that Tegan isn't completely loud mouth annoying here. The combination of the two really works for me because it just... feels so iconic. Maybe it's The Volvo Factor or something, but this TARDIS really feels like a place that I sorta... belong. Maybe because it feels like a TARDIS of peers. I don't feel much older than Turlough or Tegan feel here and it feels... accessible, I suppose. Not relateable, accessible. I mean, I can't relate to wearing heels while running away from period-dressed people on horseback by going through a large puddle of water.

So yeah. Accessible.

That accessibility comes from the strength of Michael Owen Morris's direction, of which I'm a huge fan. I think he does a good job pacing and shooting the whole story. Scenes feel energized and strengthened, and even though I don't really know what all these people are talking/arguing about, I know that I'm engaged with what's going on. All the shots are well constructed and strong, visually stunning and such. It's just good work, I think. Sad he doesn't come back. I mean... yeah. It's all in the blocking, the angles, the dynamicism of the camera... Not only that, but he does pull a really strong performance out of Davison (as I said above), and you can tell who those good directors are. They always pull a good performance out of Davison, because Davison worked so closely with his directors and blah blah blah you get what I mean. Sad that this is Morris's only credit on the show.

That's enough stretching part one, I think.

Part 2:


So yeah. This story ends, but it's... So... what happens?

The end of this story has a lot of discussion about The Malus and what it is and how it's rising because it feeds on psychic energy and how everything's going to hell all of a sudden because The Malus is rising and we have to get back to the church because the Malus is rising. And it's all... here, I suppose. What is The Malus? A giant Olmec style head that's totally silly and totally Classic Who (but let's be real here: I don't care because this sorta thing is super fun and super awesome). But what else is it? It's a probe that crashed to earth and landed in the church and it has the ability of being all psychically manipulating and what have you.

More than that........?

So it landed in the 17th Century during the actual battle but it's laid dormant there for a while, only recently having the strength to take over Sir George's mind and using him to do some re-enactment thing which will fuel the psychic energy the Malus needs to escape/take over the earth/something else. It's all just a bit lost in the jumble, isn't it? And all of this magic stuff that the Malus can do is not exactly used. I mean, it can project psychic protectors, but it doesn't do jack with that (but seriously how cool would it have been to see the psychic projections of the Malus (which are 17th Century soldier/guard/fighter/Musketeer looking dudes (which is awesome)) fighting The Doctor and his sudden crew of people surrounding him? Wasted opportunity) and thus becomes entirely useless.

Same with everything else. I mean, the solution to the problem is "diddle on the TARDIS" to "technobabble technobabble" and now the Malus will burn itself out because that's what needs to happen for the story to end.

It's just too easy. I mean, there's the whole psychic projection thing that Tegan got in the first episode that Turlough and Tegan saw infiltrate the TARDIS, but that was solved pretty quickly, wasn't it? I mean, it was, right? I'm not really wrong about that, I don't think. It just reminds me a lot of this most recent season of Doctor Who's "Curse of the Black Spot", in which everything is just a series of vignettes and issues that are all solved independently and separately of the larger story. None of those things really come together to make the whole piece sing as a cohesive unit, and this story is much the same way. I know the Malus is the overarching threat, but it's a series of smaller, simpler issues that are all solved independently, almost like levels of a video game.

I mean, the psychic projections? They dissipate. The lizardcreaturewonkything in the TARDIS? Solved by some button mashing. Sir George? Solved a few minutes later. The Malus itself? Solved by running away.

And sure, that's fine, and I don't mean to make it sound like I'm not having a good time with it (because I am), but man is all of this just way easy. And I know that's a byproduct of this being a two part story, but... dammit, that's not good enough. If it's a two part story, tell a smaller story (have we learned nothing from "The King's Demons"?), something that fits in the time scope of fifty minutes, because... Man. This doesn't even... I wonder what Saward added, too. I know he had the mention of Terrileptils (because god knows he has to mention his own creation; to be fair, most do) but there's still the fact that it... it just feels like too much was going on and it all had to be wrapped up too quickly.

So maybe Saward's instincts were incorrect? Maybe just enough was going on and adding things just added to the confusion and need to wrap it all up nicely.

Ugh. Enough ranting. I wanna talk more Davison.

Davison is magic in this. Not that I would expect anything less, but it's (again) all the things he does with himself that make him believable. My favourite of these is the bit when the woman person (can't be bothered with her name BECAUSE SHE ENDED UP DOING ABSOLUTELY NOTHING IN THIS EXCEPT FOR THIS MOMENT) toys with the TARDIS in this, opening the doors and making him glare at her for touching his TARDIS (or even better, when she gets in his way and he just glares at her until she gets out of the way; magic). But he's good. So good. No Doctor acts like him. He makes the technobabble sound so good and interesting and his energy is completely unparalleled. He just does such a fantastic job of capturing the character and my perception of it...

But yeah.

The other elements in this story are very sloppy. What's the purpose of little Edward from the past? Nothing really. I mean, apparently Saward and JNT were both interested in possibly using him as a Companion, but... they didn't. Same with the lady or even Tegan's grandfather (who, by the way, has something like four lines in this whole story). The grandfather, by the way? He spends the vast majority of this episode trapped in a locked room with Turlough and the two of them spend most of that time trying to get out. And by "trying to get out" I don't mean they devise a clever plan and try a bunch of things. I mean they spend the whole time slamming themselves against the door until it gives way and lets them out. So..... Real constructive use of time.

Same with the re-enactment.

I mean, they've spent so much time talking about the War Game and the most we see is one of those May Poles or whatever. Sure, it led to the absolutely fantastic moment in which The Doctor tries to stroll across the knoll in plain sight without being noticed and then gets noticed AND THEN makes a run for it (genius), but they still did absolutely nothing with the ability of blending a true, pure historical and putting it in a cool science fiction setting, which is probably the absolutely most disappointing thing. Everyone is removed from the cool concept the whole time. It's just... I dunno. Maybe I expect more and they couldn't do it (limitations of Classic Who) but the point still stands that it's... I dunno. Just feels like a waste of a good premise.

Sigh. So yeah.

Final Thoughts?: It's a strong Davison story, probably even good. I'm just not convinced that it's much more than that.

All the things you expect here are good and strong. Davison is as good as he usually is (which is excellent) and the direction is uniformly very solid.

I think that's probably my favourite thing about this era as a whole. I mean, I love Davison a lot a lot (yeah, I'll still keep saying it, whatever), but he really is elevated by strong directors. Fiona Cumming and Peter Grimwade directed incredibly strong stories, as did, of course, Graeme Harper, and even Matthew Robinson. Add their stories with this one and you have almost half of Davison as overseen by very competent and enjoyable directors. That doesn't even take into account the consistently average direction of Peter Moffat (who did just fine with his stories). But these directors really elevate the material they're presented. I've made it no secret that I love the feeling of the stories in the Davison era, and a lot of that comes from the directors capturing that spirit and dialing into it and making it awesome.

"The Awakening", though...

I find I come out appreciating Mr. Morris more than I do Mr. Pringle. I feel like there was a lot of material and depth to be explored that he didn't go into. Or maybe he did but then the story was reduced to four episodes. And then Saward ignored that and did his rewrites. It's just... disheartening to me, I guess. There was a lot of room for this serial to play and have fun, and to a degree it does. But at the end of all this it's handicapped by being a two parter without the perceived space to play (despite the fact that you can get a ton done in just two episodes). And that's the most disappointing thing. It ends up being "merely average" and the standout best of the Davison two-parters, but I can't say I loved it for the content of the story. I'm more infatuated with the tone and the immediate nostalgia of my memory as I think back to the running around and the what have you.

So. Yeah. Thumbs up, I guess? But.... they're not exactly enthusiastic thumbs.

Next Time!: 1st Doctor! Another two parter! A strong mystery (even if it's obvious)! The introduction of Vicki! And what the hell is a Coquillion? "The Rescue"! Coming Next Tuesday!

1 comment:

  1. Good review. I always want to like this story better; but it just feels so rushed.