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Posts Tagged ‘The Awakening’

There’s a discussion to be had, probably, about the perfect length for a Doctor Who story. The general tendency has been for stories to get shorter, on average, with 150 minutes being about average in the Sixties, with a definite move in favour of 100 minutes as the Seventies progressed, and 50 and 75 minute stories becoming somewhat more common in the Eighties. The revived show usually goes for 50 minutes, except on special occasions.

That said, even today the consenus seems to be that 100 minutes – a modern two-parter, or an old-fashioned four-parter – is pretty much the ideal, with many of the most celebrated stories of the revived show taking this form (let us avert our eyes from less-successful outings like Aliens of London and Daleks in Manhattan). Perhaps they just feel more like old-school Doctor Who.

Oddly enough, the reverse doesn’t seem to be true: the 20th century series’ two-part stories don’t really feel like they anticipate the modern format, possibly because of the structural requirement to have a cliffhanger in the middle. None of these stories are in the top echelon of popular regard, and a couple of them are widely considered to be deeply suspect.

One of the better examples is The Awakening, written by Eric Pringle (and heavily rewritten by Eric Saward) and directed by Michael Owen Morris. Events get under way with the TARDIS en route to the sleepy English village where Tegan’s dear old grandfather lives. But all is not well in Little Hodcombe, with a series of events commemorating a battle in the English Civil War seeming to serve a darker agenda. Proving once again that the Jovanka DNA contains some weird genetic marker rendering them especially prone to getting mixed up in the plots of marauding extraterrestrials, Tegan’s granddad has stumbled upon…

Um, well, that’s only ever really clear in the most general terms. The local schoolteacher disapproves of the war games, although the exact reasons for this are not really articulated, and Morris conjures up a mood of disquiet and tension rather well, but again there is not very much to justify it. A few odd apparitions materialise around the (seemingly deserted) village, and Sir George, mastermind of the games, is obviously a looney, but that’s all.

Eventually it transpires that the Malus, a hostile alien being, has somehow got its rather substantial self embedded in the wall of the village church, and is feeding off the psychic energy generated by the war games. Given enough energy, says the Doctor, ‘it will destroy everything’.

malus

But what exactly is ‘everything’ in this context? The church? The entire village? The whole of Dorset? The world? It’s left frustratingly vague, as is quite how this is going to happen (although I suppose one can assume an army of psychic phantoms may be involved). The story, as noted, is strong on atmosphere and character, but the various fragments of exposition never really come together, and there is an unfortunate tendency towards telling rather than showing: we never see the war games in progress (possibly for budgetary reasons), nor do we really understand quite how the Malus is influencing or being fed by them. There are pieces of unforgivably clunky writing, too: at one point two characters quite independently stumble upon opposite ends of the same secret passage, there’s a very cod moment when the villain, who has the Doctor at gunpoint, hands the weapon to a sidekick and orders him killed before instantly leaving the room (why not just do it himself, or at least stay and watch?), and the manner of that same villain’s death is wholly baffling. The Doctor himself defeats the villain mainly by pushing buttons on the TARDIS console.

There’s something Nigel Kneale-ish discernible in The Awakening‘s ambition to use SF-fantasy trappings to hide a ghost story – the Malus inspiring legends of the Devil being the most obvious steal. All ghost stories are ultimately about the past leaving scars on the present, so it’s perhaps surprising that Doctor Who didn’t explore this genre more fully. The Awakening is certainly at its best when it’s more concerned with atmosphere and eeriness than technobabble and sci-fi backstory – but it feels cramped by the 50 minute confines of the story, almost as though it just doesn’t have time to breathe.

That it works as well as it does is mainly down to some fine performances, the best of which manage to rise above the effects of Eric Saward’s tin ear for dialogue. Polly James manages to bring some warmth, life, and humour to the schoolteacher (this was apparently one of those occasions when a performer understood not one word of the script), but most impressive is Peter Davison. Davison’s performances as the Doctor are, generally speaking, not quite of the same kind as those of many of his colleagues: flamboyance, eccentricity and humour are not what the producer seems to have wanted from the Doctor at this time. You would have thought this wouldn’t leave Davison with much room for manoeuvre, yet here he manages to keep the Doctor engaging and dominant, simply by making unexpected and clever choices in his performance. The villain informs the Doctor that the war games are marking the anniversary of a bloody battle which descended on the village. ‘And you’re celebrating that?’ is the Doctor’s line. You can imagine other Doctors opting for moral outrage, or disbelief, or disgust, in their delivery, but Davison chooses a lighter, almost sardonic approach. You can see him working throughout the story to make it more watchable and dramatic, even as the climax is falling to bits around him.

Another episode (even, perhaps, another draft of the script) and The Awakening might be rather better-regarded than it currently is. Even so, it has some lovely location work, a few spooky moments, and some fine performances to commend it. But the script gestures vaguely in the direction of a story rather than genuinely providing one.

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Normally I have a lot of time for the science advocate, evolutionary theoriser and militant atheist Richard Dawkins, but every once in a while he comes out with some rather off-the-wall opinions, usually when he has temporarily left his own area of expertise and is commenting somewhere else off piste. Fifteen years ago or so I caught part of a lecture the great man was giving on the presentation of science in the media, and he was characteristically scathing about the bias he perceived. Broadcast every week on BBC1, he said, was a programme with two main characters, one of whom represented a rational, scientific viewpoint, while the other was a mouthpiece for every piece of New Age-y and pseudoscientific piece of gobbledegook the writers could come up with. Every week the characters would present their solutions to a mystery or crisis they encountered in the line of their work, and every week the scientific explanation would be wrong. How ridiculous! How objectionable! How likely to turn the nation into superstitious cretins!

Well, er, hang on, Rich – the show in question was The X Files, and only having genuinely spooky things in it 50% of the time would probably not have helped the ratings, given this was a show predicated on the existence of spooky phenomena. Nevertheless, the Prof had a point: any work of fiction revolving around a skeptical rationalist taking on the forces of the unexplained is unlikely to see the protagonist proved right, simply because there’s no story there. Or, to put it another way, one of the distinguishing characteristics of ghost stories is that they have ghosts in them.

Which brings us (finally) to Nick Murphy’s The Awakening, which has come out a couple of weeks late for Halloween, but clearly wants to be a Properly Scary Ghost Movie. Set in 1921, the main character is Florence (Rebecca Hall) a – you guessed it! – skeptical investigator of the paranormal. Her work in the area has won her admirers and detractors in equal number, but almost at once we can sense that something deeper drives her – does she just want to reveal the truth, or is she secretly hoping to one day find evidence of a ghost she is unable to explain away? Some tragedy seems to lurk in her past.

Florence is approached by Mallory (Dominic West), a master at a boarding school in Cumbria. There have long been reports of disturbances in the house, and the same spectral figure has been appearing in school photographs for decades. Now a pupil has been found dead, apparently having died of fright, and for obvious reasons the school authorities wish to have the matter investigated.

Well, I give absolutely nothing away by saying that on this occasion Florence encounters an apparition that resolutely resists debunking. That we are in standard ghost story territory is apparent from very early on, possibly even before we meet the Creepy Domestic to be found in all haunted houses (played in this instance by Imelda Staunton).

I turned up to The Awakening with fairly high hopes, based principally on the fact that co-writing the script with Murphy is Stephen Volk. Volk is not really a big name screenwriter, but nearly twenty years ago he traumatised the nation (if you believe the legend, and why not?) with the brilliant Halloween mockumentary Ghostwatch, in which a routine outside broadcast from a ‘troubled’ suburban house became an excursion into complete terror (particularly for those audience members who switched on late and weren’t aware it was drama).

Well, as I said, The Awakening is a much more traditional tale, and – if we’re honest – considerably less impressive. Murphy contrives some effective ‘jump’ moments (the gentleman in the row behind me was shouting ‘Yaargh!’ quite frequently, and I believe I expostulated at one point myself) but can’t quite generate an appropriately creepy atmosphere to accompany them the rest of the time.

As a result, the ghost itself, despite a reasonably effective build-up, isn’t that memorable a creation (certainly not compared to Pipes, the malevolent presence at the heart of Ghostwatch). I think perhaps the story has been overly drenched in metaphor – hardly surprisingly, given the setting, all the characters seem scarred and haunted by events in their personal histories. This kind of metaphor – the marks left by the past on the present – is central to many ghost stories, if not all of them, so it isn’t a problem in and of itself. But, that said, I’m not sure it should take the place of delivering a damn good scare, which is arguably what happens here.

That said, for most of its duration this is a fine film, well-mounted and directed, and with excellent performances from everyone involved. Rebecca Hall is particularly good in what’s a pretty big starring role which demands that she runs the gamut of emotions. For most of the film, the script is solid, if not exactly innovative, with a dash of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (another brilliant TV ghost story) in its focus on Florence’s rational approach to investigating the haunting.

Unfortunately, the movie comes a serious cropper in its final act. Having been restrained and quite thoughtful prior to this point, the climax sees the movie throwing not one, not two, but three separate twists at the audience. (Although one of these has appeared in so many other ghost movies that it’s practically become a cliche.) There’s a definite case of diminishing returns going on here (when the final twist was revealed, my reaction was not ‘What?!?’ so much as ‘What, not another one?!?’), and I’m not even sure the whole movie hangs together coherently as a result. It would be dishonest of me not to say that I found the end of this film a serious letdown after a strong start.

Is it enough to completely spoil The Awakening? Well, not quite – the film does work well up to a point, the acting is good, and there are some extremely spooky individual moments, especially early on. It won’t scare you to death, but neither will it bore you there – just be prepared to cut the ending some slack.

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