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Doctor Who: The Awakening (parts one and two)

A while back, I said that in the mid-eighties, Doctor Who got complacent. Example one: “The Awakening” is the first story since “Black Orchid” two years previously to have no returning villains. As such, it’s really a breath of fresh air. It’s also incredibly fast-paced for the period, proving that quite a lot of Doctor Who could have been done in about half the time, and it makes the two serials on either side feel even slower by comparison.

I’m happy that “The Awakening” gave our son a couple of good frights. He said this one was very scary, and he hid under his blanket at least three times. It’s about a big stone creature called the Malus that’s been hiding in a church wall for centuries. It feeds on psychic energy and possesses lesser beings into committing violence to feed itself. There’s some guff in the script about spaceships and probes from the planet Halkol to keep this from being a simple, old-fashioned ghost story. All you need to know is that it’s a big animatronic face in a wall that roars and belches smoke and makes people want to kill each other. This may not be art, but it’s a trillion times better than “Warriors of the Deep.”

Joining our heroes this time out, there’s a great guest cast. Back in “Kinda,” the Doctor basically took guest star Nerys Hughes on as his companion of the story. This time, it’s Polly James, who was Hughes’ co-star from the seventies sitcom The Liver Birds. (Oddly, very little of that show – only two of its nine series – has been released on DVD. Still, only £15.09 right now, I might pick that up…) Anyway, as much as I like Janet Fielding, it’s fun watching Peter Davison explaining all the space stuff to good actors with good comic timing like Polly James. Plus, there’s the great Glyn Houston as a villager who finds himself on the heroes’ side, and Dennis Lill as the main baddie.

I also like the way this story ends, with a pile of guest stars agreeing with Tegan and Turlough that it’s high time the Doctor takes a break and everybody’s just going to stay on Earth for a few days. That’s partially because it’s a cute scene, and partially because I’m very naughty and once had an audience laughing hysterically as I made up some very inappropriate fanfic to horrify a very “trad” fan in an explanation what the Doctor got up to in Little Hodcombe. It ended with her screaming “There’s no canonical evidence that happened!”

But I also like the idea that one day in Little Hodcombe, the Doctor was reading the newspaper and saw that there was a charity cricket match in the nearby village of Stockbridge. If you are not familiar with Marvel’s run of Fifth Doctor comics, then I can’t recommend them highly enough. They were written by Steve Parkhouse, and drawn by Dave Gibbons, Mick Austin, and Steve Dillon, and they fit almost perfectly in the space between this story and the next TV one. They’re all collected in the Panini edition The Tides of Time and are huge fun. (I say almost perfectly because they use the version of Rassilon that Parkhouse had invented for the comic in 1981, before he showed up in “The Five Doctors” as a totally different character. Just handwave it or call him Dumbledore or make up some inappropriate fanfic and it’ll all work out.)

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Doctor Who: Image of the Fendahl (parts three and four)

You know, I just didn’t enjoy this as much as I thought I was going to. I do enjoy the way that I’ve found lots more to like about some Who adventures, especially “The Mutants” and “The Time Monster,” than I thought that I would, so I guess the flip side is that naturally there would be one or two that drop down a couple of pegs from my remembrance to reality.

“Image of the Fendahl” is a really flawed story, particularly when everything starts to revolve around the Satanic coven that one of the four scientists has been leading in his spare time. It’s something that should have been developed and explored, but because there was such a huge money crunch during this period of the program, it’s even less convincing than the coven in the broadly similar Jon Pertwee-era adventure “The Daemons.” I particularly “like” the way that the only member of Stahl’s coven with a speaking part is also the only character in the village that we meet other than the two characters who help our heroes. Devil’s End felt like a real place because we saw it and all the dozens of people who live there. This place just exists in a TV studio.

So it fails at a lot of important things, but I still appreciate it because the tone is just right. This is prime “scaring children” Who, from an era where the horror is largely going to be swept aside for light sci-fi action like we saw in the previous adventure. In this, it succeeds, because our son tells us that this was really scary and “totally creepy.” This and “Fang Rock” both feel like holdovers from the three seasons of the show that Philip Hinchcliffe produced. The way forward is going to be much breezier.

I think that Tom Baker and Louise Jameson are both really good in this adventure, even if the guest cast all seem under-rehearsed. Dennis Lill and Wanda Ventham would be back in stories in the 1980s and I think they did better and more convincing jobs as their characters in those, and there’s a guy named Edward Arthur who seems to be doing a very good impersonation of Ian Ogilvy rather than making me believe that he’s a scientist who’s in over his head. So there’s a lot that boring old people like me can grumble about, but any story that gives seven year-olds the creeps can’t be called a complete failure, and while our son didn’t have a lot to say about this one, he seemed to enjoy it.

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Doctor Who: Image of the Fendahl (parts one and two)

1977’s “Image of the Fendahl” was the last Who TV story written by Chris Boucher, and the last one script-edited by Robert Holmes, although happily, we still have a few more stories from his typewriter to come. It seems to be set a short time after “The Invisible Enemy,” since the Doctor’s had cause to dismantle K9 for repairs, and Leela has found a new, white outfit somewhere. I wonder whether people from her tribe sew their own garments. Maybe the Doctor bought her a few yards of leather, or imitation leather, somewhere.

This is a good, creepy story, although it’s one I’ve always had trouble embracing because all of the guest actors, including Dennis Lill and Wanda Ventham, manage to seem a lot more like actors in a TV studio than scientists in an old priory. The reason for their research is all mcguffins, the point is to get everybody in one place for something weird and creepy that deliberately evokes Quatermass and the Pit as much as possible. There are mysterious deaths, twelve million year-old human skulls with pentacles in them, and a local grandmother who practices “the old ways.” We catch a glimpse of eerie slug-like things that the Doctor calls embryos, and it’s going to build to something very memorable the next time we sit down to watch TV…

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