The Curse of FenricBookmark and Share

Friday, 24 March 2006 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

The Curse Of Fenric and I go back and long, long way. In fact, this was only the second Doctor Who story I ever saw (the first being Death To The Daleks) way back in 1991 when I was six years old. I didn’t get into Death To The Daleks at that age, so this is the point where I trace the beginning of my fandom – having said that, I can quite honestly and categorically say that watching this story for the first time all those years ago was the most scared I have ever been in my life. Perhaps that’s why the McCoy title sequence never bothered me too much – I associated it with this story so instead of it being brash and gaudy I found it menacing, signalling what was to come in this story. I was so frightened that I didn’t watch this story again for years and years (meaning that my ancient VHS tape is still in great condition) but now, aged 21, The Curse Of Fenric stands proud in my top three stories of all time.

It begins as it means to go on: scarily, with two Russian dinghies heading towards the English coast. Under the water lies the forgotten remains of a Viking longboat, and on the surface a strange mist is falling. The rear dinghy is enveloped…and vanishes. Only one of its crew is found later, washed up on the shore – a gibbering, petrified wreck. I could go on like this for the distance, as it’s such a captivating story that knows exactly how to get a reaction from the audience – be it excitement, interest, puzzlement or terror – and executes it brilliantly. Part of its appeal lies in the unease and fear created by the sense of the unknown, the bread and butter of successful horror. The fact that the soldier Gayev is unable to say what has terrified him so badly, the scene becomes even scarier. I’ve gone on in my reviews elsewhere about my love of a good, absorbing mystery, and Gayev being mute works much more effectively than a cheesy “it was…it was…aargh!” which a lesser story may have employed. This sense extends to the plot: what is the Viking longboat doing there? We find out later, but rarely do we learn anything conclusive. This is evidence that this story is at least as confusing (not to mention thematically rich) as the preceding Ghost Light. Great though that story is the general weirdness of its plot and themes are its be-all-and-end-all; The Curse Of Fenric on the other hand is much, much more.

You look differently on things depending on what mood you’re in. This is such a good story that I actually really like both Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred in it. I’d say they’d both improved since their debuts and to an extent this is true, but Aldred’s performance in much of Battlefield suggests a flaw in this. It must be said that elements coming together is a key factor in the overall impression of a story – a scene or a line might work very well in a story like this, but may just annoy if in a weak story. Anyway, I’m waffling a bit: they’re both on good form here, both clearly enjoying the brilliant script.

Dr Judson’s office is a good example of the quality of the period detail of the story: historically accurate yes, but fundamentally an ordinary room which helps create a sense of realism; visually gorgeous as it was the sepia-tinted The Empty Child very definitely takes place in Blitzworld™, a Second World War that is definitely an artistic construction, whereas it’s easier to believe that this could be real. Dinsdale Landen is brilliant as the tortured Dr Judson and – spookily – he died the day before the DVD arrived from Amazon.co.uk. 

Petrossian’s melodramatic comment that the evil is “cold against your skin” is cheesy, but the scene is rescued by Tomek Bork as the noble(ish) Captain Soren. Apparently Bork was upset at being asked to play a fervent Communist, raising the question about why he auditioned for the role of a fervent Communist, but whatever he felt he gave a performance to be proud of. Ace lying in bed listening to a crying baby is truly chilling, and is followed immediately by Petrossian being clobbered by something that comes out of the sea – this mystery is reaching critical mass. However, I should say that the new 5.1 surround mix replaces his scream with a different one that doesn’t sound half as good as before.

The exchange between the vicar and Miss Hardaker is a brilliantly written one, with Wainwright’s doubts introduced early on without being rubbed in the audience’s face. Unfortunately Jean does not convince as a Londoner, although I’m more inclined to think that Joanne Bell as Phyllis is speaking with her natural accent – which in turn sounds weird when she is eventually turned into an Haemovore, possibly because of the traditional image of the erudite, upper-class vampire. The line of “Maidens’ Point? Well, that rules us out” shocked me a lot when I heard it, as it’s really not what I expect from an original series story; indeed it has only just been added to the DVD as its inclusion in the 1991 video release would have meant a 12 rating. If this was a Russell T. Davies episode I’d be lashing into him right now – but if this was a Davies episode that would have been the third such gag so far (I know, cheap shot).

The ULTIMA machine is very impressive but the thought that it can translate Viking runes is rather implausible and almost spoils things until you remember that these runes were cut specifically for use in the machine, as their translation facilitates the release of Fenric. This is followed by the Doctor revealing to Ace that there’s been subsidence in a grave – the implication is clear, but rather than darkly dwell on it (“something’s been moving under there…”) the Doctor cracks a witticism about Communion wine. This means the subtle implication is left to linger in the mind unaided, adding to the atmosphere, and it also shows that the Doctor knows what’s going on but isn’t telling. The fact that we can’t trust the Doctor adds greatly to the sense of unease, and Ace forlornly reading off a list of the dead Vikings is wonderfully atmospheric. 

The sense that the Doctor is leading the audience behind is heightened when he finds the sealed orders from Russia (which the Commandos would really like to get back) but refuses to explain what they are or what they mean – the audience is left to make their own conclusions when it is revealed that they share chilling parallels with the runes in the church crypt. The first scene with Millington in his office is almost dialogue free, showing how much the music adds to the atmosphere: Mark Ayres is the one person I can think of who can make synthesiser music work in a period setting. The aforementioned translation of the runes is as spooky and atmospheric as everything else, and would make a great poem if a bit of creative editing was done on it. The scenes where it is read are helped greatly by cutting to the runes or to the unique underwater photography (okay not quite unique as Paradise Towers had some, and so did Warriors Of The Deep etc…but who cares about them?); this is much more interesting than merely lingering on the reader, and shows what a good director Nicholas Mallet can be. In fact, it almost makes up for him allowing us to see “PEX LIVES” written on the wall too early in Paradise Towers.

Next we see the dead Russian soldier under the water, which is one of this story’s several nightmare moments. However, my marginally stronger constitution now allows me to look at the scene a bit more closely and you can definitely see his eyes move. Then again, paint my face white, immerse me in water and tell me to play dead and my eyes’d probably move too. That or I’d die. I say paint my face white: he was a black man apparently, and they did a reverse minstrel on him to get that ultra-realistic “deathly pallor” look. Tasteful.

Cory Pulman makes a pleasing impression as the hard done by Kathleen Dudman, although the baby’s Superted toy is the kind of anachronism you’d think someone would have noticed. Also, for Aaron Hanley (who’ll be around sixteen at the time of writing), being able to say he’s been in Doctor Who at a time when the show is quite well-regarded and mainstream again carries less street cred than you’d first think when you consider he’s playing Sophie Aldred’s mother. Alfred Lynch is also good as Millington; I didn’t react well to his deadpan character at first, but it has grown on me a lot over the years.

Into part two, and the drowned soldier waking up is the moment that freaked me out the most as a youngster, and therefore is my candidate for Doctor Who’s scariest ever moment for the default reason that it’s the moment that scared me the most. QED. However, the close up of the Haemovore’s hand looks very fake and rubbery – you can even see the bubbles escaping through the hole in the glove. They definitely work better in long shots. Fenric getting round the Doctor’s plan of giving the translation to Dr Judson by burning new ones into the wall is a great plot device, but I do feel it could have been better explained as it took me years to work out what was going on in this story. I’m alright now, I understand it because I’ve had so many years to think about it, but looking at it objectively I have to criticise it. I’m no fan of crass exposition, but sometimes the plot is a little too cryptic for its own good. It does lead to a nice revelation from the Doctor though, about nine hundred year old runes that weren’t there before (although wouldn’t Judson have noticed too?).

Nurse Crane is a great character. Making someone annoying is a difficult task for a writer and actress as they can’t genuinely irritate the audience; the viewer must like being annoyed by them to feel an appropriate level of schadenfreude at their eventual demise. Here this works very well. Ace’s anger at the poison (glowing green, naturally – my earlier comment about The Empty Child succumbing to simulacra applies here to an extent) is rather poorly acted, letting the side down a bit. However, Aldred makes up for this with the lovely scene where she comforts Wainwright over his loss of faith, which also has a parallel with The Empty Child. The ULTIMA machine is booby trapped with a big green bottle of poison in full view, which is rather silly, although it does lead to an amazing scene where Millington reveals to the Doctor exactly how the toxin will be released. The Discontinuity Guide asks how the Russians expect to get away with the ULTIMA machine in their little dinghies: firstly Millington suggests that they only want a part of it, and in any case unless they rowed all the way from Norway it’s safe to assume that they have some transport waiting somewhere, out at sea.

I’m still not sure how Millington and Judson know about Fenric. Then again there’s a lot I don’t understand about this story; it is ripe for fan speculation, which is always a laugh (except when it gets out of hand). My theory is that Fenric implanted the knowledge in their heads, since he’s been manipulating their entire lives.

More atmosphere (yes, more) comes when Jean and Phyllis are swallowed by the sea. They work much better as zombies (apart from the aforementioned accent) as there’s less call for them to be naturalistic, which really isn’t their strength. Here’s another interesting nugget: when the Doctor tells Kathleen he doesn’t know if he has family, she replies “it’s the war isn’t it? It must be terrible not knowing” to which he replies “yes”. This takes on a double meaning in light of the new series…maybe there was trouble brewing even at this stage in his life. Nice bit of retro-active continuity there. You’ll have to excuse me one moment as my head appears to have become lodged in my bottom, but I think I’m alright now.

Ace explains to Judson about the logic diagram, which is the closest we get to some proper exposition. Come to think about it season 26 is full of complicated plots – apart from Ghost Light (which needs no mention) there’s the ambiguous link between the Cheetahs and their planet in Survival, and Battlefield which is just generally garbled. The Haemovores also appear properly now – they are well designed, costumed and shot which is reflected in the fact that like the Zygons they are popular monsters despite only having one appearance in the show.

Into part three and it’s raining all of a sudden. Since the changing weather was by necessity worked into the plot I really don’t have a problem with it and I think its weirdness adds a lot. In fact, the special edition’s regrading process takes something away because although the faded colours are there the light and shade is still that of bright sunshine, so if anything it looks even less realistic. What’s the problem with it being rainy while the sun is shining? That happens. There wouldn’t be rainbows if it didn’t. I’m waffling again, aren’t I? The Haemovores marching along the foggy beach look wonderful.

The scene where Kathleen rebukes Ace for suggesting she’s an unmarried mother is a good one; Ace often puts her foot in it in period stories but here it feels natural and a mistake that could genuinely be made, as opposed to calling a nineteenth century gentleman “bog brain”. The later scene when she learns of her husband’s presumed death is also brilliantly acted.

The curse being passed down through the generations taps into a derivative but successful idea that mankind is being manipulated, although it does raise the question of whether there’s a conflict of interest between Fenric and the Fendahl. Next we come to the famous battle in the church. This is pretty ordinary, with the seeping water being unimaginative nonsense, and is only really notable for the reappearance of Ace’s ladder last seen in Ian Briggs’s previous story Dragonfire. While it worked in such a silly story as that, it feels like too much of a contrivance in a more realistic story here and also shows how elements of Ace’s character were not built upon by other writers. It is notable that we get more “professor” lines here than in any story since Dragonfire too.

Eeeeeevil, eeeeevil since the dawn if tiiiiiime! It’s a well written scene, but Sylvester McCoy is floundering hopelessly. It’s a shame as it’s potentially a good scene as well as being an important one for the plot, but all people do is laugh at it. Ace manipulating the soldier is a disappointing scene though, and possibly the worst of the story. She’s there talking utter gibberish, and this highly trained soldier’s standing their lapping it up. Sorry, I don’t buy that. After this the word ‘Ingiga’ comes out of the ULTIMA machine – it took a long time to work out that Ingiga refers to “the great wyrm” or something like that, and so here probably refers to the Ancient One. The cliffhanger is great, if slightly cheesy, but it loses something in the feature version as all the build up comes to naught. Much as I like the feature version it’s not perfect – while I appreciate having to edit the episodes into one for timing reasons some of the cut outs could have been better left out, such as lingering shots of people sitting or walking that add nothing to the story. Fenric’s teleporter is a great special effect though. 

Ace’s cry of “Mum, I’m sorry!” is a good subtle moment of characterisation, and is soon followed by a well directed sequence where the soldiers shoot at Phyllis and Jean. Fenric’s “eulogy” shows a villain with a black and twisted sense of humour, which is very rare and makes it such a great villain. Nurse Crane’s death is deeply disturbing, helped by Landen’s unsettling smile; the guest cast of this story have a fairly high mortality rate of 64.7%, and these deaths are the deaths of real, fleshed out characters. Phyllis’s and Jean’s deaths are also good, and the Ancient One comes across as a very sympathetic character. I like the shock of Fenric passing into Soren after being defeated at chess (yes that’s derivative too but it’s still pretty stylish). My only gripe is that Fenric keeps going round with his eyes shut.

The revelation that the baby is Ace’s mother is great, although the flashbacks added to the feature version are unnecessary and overstate the point. The Doctor’s dark betrayal is another great moment, as McCoy seizes the opportunity to play to his strengths. The notion that Fenric has been following the Doctor’s travels affecting the chess set in Silver Nemesis gives the McCoy years a proto-Bad Wolf set up, which is nice. My only gripe with the ending is that Fenric is killed so easily; okay so Soren’s body is killed but does Fenric die so easily when deprived of a host? That’s disappointing. Also, the bunker exploding for no good reason is melodramatic and should surely release the poison. The final scene is beautiful, but again the feature version (through necessity of some technical problem) cuts out the Doctor’s final line. This is a disappointment, although it’s still a great sentiment to end on.

The Curse Of Fenric is very nearly perfect, and the teeny, tiny flaws I’ve mentioned can’t diminish its greatness at all. This story defined my childhood terrors and as such affects me deeply – therefore, ironically in such a long review (3070 words), I find it quite hard to sum up quickly. Therefore, I’ll end with a message to all the parents who complained that The Unquiet Dead was too scary: your kids may have sleepless nights now, but in ten years time they’ll never get enough of it.