‘The Black Archive #46: The Awakening’ reviewed

❉ The latest release in Obverse Books’ Black Archive series takes a look at 1984’s Doctor Who story, The Awakening.

The Awakening is perhaps the best thought two-part story from the Davison era. It might be small scale, but its rather spooky and atmospheric with many memorable images and a great cast making it something of a triumph. David Evans-Powell takes a thorough look at this story, exploring how it fitted into in with its TV contemporaries and how it reflects some bigger movements at the time.

Hauntology is a very much a popular theme at the moment. The idea that the present is being shaped by the recycling of retro-aesthetics and old social forms or the expected futures we never quite had is found in contemporary programmes such as Stranger Things. The Awakening is the Doctor Who story that probably best reflects this, as the ‘present’ of 1984 is haunted by the traumatic Civil War battles that took place in Little Hodcombe in the 17th Century. This is just one of the many themes David Evans-Powell explores in his look at The Awakening.

Very much linked to this feeling of hauntology in the story is the discussion of Little Hodcombe as a liminal space. Powell-Evans carefully explains the term and shows how Little Hodcombe is a good representation of a liminal space, distant from civilisation and vulnerable to influence from malign forces. More often this is a threat from the rural wilderness, but here it’s an extraterrestrial force at work, The Malus. He carefully contrasts this with other representations of liminal spaces in popular culture such as the hammer film, Blood on Satan’s Claw and the Play for Today episode Robin Redbreast,  showing the influence this idea had on fiction at the time.

Many reviews comment that the English village is the quintessential setting for a Doctor Who adventure, but this is something Evans-Powell is quick to debunk. As he points out, the village setting only really featured in two stories before this, hardly making the show synonymous with them. It does, though, lead to a really interesting discussion of the representations of villages in popular culture and how, despite the bucolic image they have, the reality is somewhat less innocuous, especially in the works of Agatha Christie and episodes of The Avengers, where they’re hiding all sorts of menaces, spite and scandal.

This sense of both the idyllic and the menace of the setting is well explored by Evans-Powell. He takes a look at this juxtaposition in terms of the uncanny; the feeling that something long familiar to the viewer is actually unfamiliar. This is something The Awakening does from the off, when Jane Hampden, an obviously modern woman is chased by Civil War troopers on horseback and of course, the image of the Malus breaking through the wall in the church.

This later leads into a discussion of the creation of the Sealed Knot in 1968 and the rise of other historical re-enactments as recreational pastimes. With their aim of authentic recreations of the past, there are obvious parallels with Sir George Hutchison’s plans in Little Hodcombe. There’s a full and frank discussion in the final chapter of whether we should celebrate the violence of the past that is very reminiscent of Jane Hampden’s arguments in the story itself. It goes to show how The Awakening drew on some contemporary ideas to create a memorable story.

Evans-Powell really hits his stride by working through how this story conforms to the storytelling conventions of the ghost story, especially poltergeist stories and the work of M.R. James. There are definite parallels to be found in the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas adaptations of his work, especially in regard to the use of the manifestation of the devil in church settings and Andrew Verney’s role as the academic investigation into the legend of the Malus. A close comparison of these plays is a really engrossing part of the book.

Similarly, there is a very convincing argument for The Awakening’s similarities to Sapphire and Steel. Evans-Powell looks at the themes of anachronism and confusion of time in detail, coming to the conclusion that this story is as close as Doctor Who ever came to resembling the ITV show. Although time isn’t the enemy per se, the Malus is able to weaponise time against the inhabitants of the village by using the pent-up energy stored from the Civil War, breaking down the perception of linear time, as in Sapphire and Steel’s Assignment 5.

There’s a very detailed and convincing argument made by Evans-Powell about the influence of Nigel Kneale on this story. Normally The Daemons and Image of the Fendahl are identified as the Doctor Who stories most influenced by Kneale’s work, but Evans-Powell shows a number of direct parallels between this story and Quatermass and the Pit, which many other commentators have not picked up on, particularly the collision of past, present and future in one location and the way The Malus behaves very much like the Martian spaceship and the Martians themselves. It’s a fantastic piece of detective work, showing how there are always new avenues of investigation to be explored.

I was very interested to read about how The Awakening fitted into the very 1980s ‘heritage drama’ strand. The rise of shows such as the BBC Miss Marple serials and By The Sword Divided showed a cleaned-up version of history, with muted colours and less brutality than the folk drama that had been more prevalent in the 60s and 70s.

As always with The Black Archive series, I come away with a head buzzing with new ideas and greater insights to some old familiar stories. I’m constantly amazed by the work of the authors of these books in finding new themes to explore, bringing alive the past in the present, just as The Awakening does. This is another engrossing addition to the series and I really hope David Evans-Powell gets the chance to write for the series in the future, as this was a thought provoking and highly enjoyable read.

‘ The Black Archive #46: The Awakening’ by David Evans-Powell is out now from Obverse Books, RRP £3.99 – £8.99. Buy Black Archive books from the Obverse Books website!

 Green-fingered librarian Simon Hart is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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