The Curse of FenricBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 13 July 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

‘The Curse of Fenric’ is an unusual story in that the version most widely accepted by Doctor Who fans is not the version originally broadcast. Whereas extended versions of both ‘Silver Nemesis’ and ‘Battlefield’ have been released on video, neither really gained anything that was missing from the original broadcast version; ‘The Curse of Fenric’ however benefited enormously from the few extra minutes of material incorporated into the video release. More recently, the original televised version has been released on DVD, but with an impressive extra in the form of an even longer cut that has been fully reedited and includes even more footage than the previous video release. The actual story isn’t significantly altered, but both extended versions flow more smoothly than the comparatively truncated original, with the extended DVD version apparently closest to the vision of director Nicholas Mallett. None of which is massively important here, except in that it is the extended DVD release that I have watched on this occasion, which doesn’t significantly affect this review but might be of interest to the more curious reader.

Anyway, turning to ‘The Curse of Fenric’ itself, it is a story that is more difficult for me to review than might be expected. As with any Doctor Who story often described by fans of the series as a classic, there is very little that hasn’t been said about ‘The Curse of Fenric’. Partly this is because it can retrospectively be seen as the archetypal Cartmel story, the culmination of all the finest qualities that he strove to bring to the series during his tenure as script-editor and because it arguably had a far greater impact on the New Adventures than more obvious candidates such as ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’. My reasoning for this is that here we see the Doctor at his most manipulative, as he uses Ace as a pawn in a game that started long ago with an ancient evil from the dawn of time. It also sees Ace starting to grow up and develop as a character, more so than any previous story, as she confronts her feelings for her Mother, has her faith in the Doctor shattered and also starts to obviously become aware of her sexuality. ‘The Curse of Fenric’ also seems to be aimed at an older audience than that which Doctor Whois traditionally perceived to have aimed for, with doses of horror including vampires, corpses, and chemical warfare. ‘The Curse of Fenric’ is a grim and gritty story in which almost every supporting character dies and puts Ace through emotional hell. Finally, ‘The Curse of Fenric’ is also riddled with subtext, much of which writer Ian Briggs discusses in the DVD extra Shattering the Chains, and which generally concerns sex and faith. Most of this is obvious, such as the “seductive” appeal of Jean and Phyllis and Ace’s later distraction of the guard, Wainwright’s wrestling with his faith, Sorin’s faith in the Russian Revolution, and Ace’s faith in the Doctor, some less so; I’d never made the connection for example between Doctor Judson’s physical disability and Alan Turing’s homosexuality. For fans who dislike such blatant subtext in Doctor Who, ‘The Curse of Fenric’ is probably an especially bad example of all that was wrong with the Cartmel era, but for better or for worse, it signposts the direction in which Doctor Who would go in the New Adventures more clearly than any other story from the period, as a whole new generation of young writers would bring their politics and opinions to the good Doctor’s adventures. 

An exploration of the subtext within ‘The Curse of Fenric’ should not detract from appreciation of the story at its most basic level however; it is a very good slice of Doctor Who, which for the most part has aged extremely well. The plot is well structured so that suspense builds throughout the first half of the story, as questions are raised about the mission of the Russian commandoes, Commander Millington’s agenda, and the significance of the Viking curse. Once what was originally the cliffhanger to Episode Two is reached, the story shifts gear; once the Haemovores emerge onto land the remainder of the story is a fast-paced thriller, with explanations coming thick and fast as both Fenric’s and the Doctor’s plans become clear. This structure works highly effectively; there are no reprieves once the Haemovores attack as the Doctor and Ace find themselves facing threat after threat as the endgame draws near and bystanders die one by one. 

Crucial to the success of this plot is the characterisation, which allows the actions of the supporting characters, the dangers they face, and their deaths, carry real impact. The Rev. Mr. Wainwright is a case in point; he’s a tortured soul desperate to believe in the essential goodness of humanity but increasingly unable to do so against the backdrop of World War II. The scene in which he reads from the Bible is crucial to his character as it illustrates his crumbling faith far more effectively than the taunts of Jean and Phyllis, but all of this would just be so much subtext were it not for the fact that Wainwright is thoroughly likeable. The massively underrated Nicholas Parsons conveys Wainwright’s uncertainty and fear very convincingly; his bravery in facing his terror is admirable and it makes the fact that his faith ultimately proves too weak to save his life all the more poignant. Basically, all of Briggs’ characters are human; Mrs. Hardaker is an old battleaxe whose strict attitude towards her charges automatically predisposes any young (or just liberal!) members of the audience to dislike her. She throws words like sin around very easily, and shows an unshakable faith in the “good book” whilst Wainwright expresses doubt about the morality of war, which is the blind faith of somebody who unthinkingly follows doctrine rather than attempting to understand what it is they actually believe in. Janet Henfrey captures all of this perfectly, looking and sounding every inch the strict governess, and yet when Jean and Phyllis actually kill her, we briefly get to see her smiling and relaxing as she listens to music rather than the severe and apparently cold person that she has been portrayed at up until that point. Which is important, because it means she isn’t just another corpse to boost the story’s body count in a way that possibly appeals to fans that think that ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’ is “adult”, it means that she is a human victim whose death feels like a loss. 

Perception of death is very important in ‘The Curse of Fenric’. The Russian commandoes, Sorin included, are prepared to kill to succeed in their mission, but again Briggs and director Nicholas Mallett make sure that the deaths that they cause are not lightly forgotten. The home guard soldiers killed on the beach are laughing and joking as they go out on patrol and Prozorov is deeply troubled at having killed them; it doesn’t make it any easier to excuse the actions of him and his fellows, but it does explore the horrors of war in a quiet way that is rare in Doctor Who on television. Sorin is a particularly interesting character in this respect, because of what he believes in and what he does, and the way Ace responds to him. Some fans have expressed a serious misgiving about the fact that Ace is attracted to a man that embraces a regime that killed millions of people; I think this misses the point however. It’s very easy to think of Stalin and forget that originally, the Russian Revolution succeeded because Lenin had the support of many of the ordinary people. It is easy, but foolish I think to dismiss such people as “evil” out of hand; we don’t know why Sorin has such faith in the Revolution and we don’t know whether or not he is aware of the atrocities that Stalin was committing at this time. Because we don’t know these things, and because Sorin is portrayed as a man prepared to kill for what he sees as the greater good, the character becomes more powerful because the script encourages us, largely via Ace, to see him as a person and grow to like him. He is portrayed as a man of conviction and courage and Tomek Bork brings a warmth and charisma to the role, all of which helps to create conflict in the viewer. In a story in which the principle villain is “pure evil”, such muddying of moral waters makes for fascinating characterisation.

A rather less likeable character is Alfred Lynch’s Commander Millington. Like Sorin, Millington is a man prepared to kill for what he thinks is the greater good, but unlike Sorin these actions are harder to justify. Juxtaposed with Wainwright’s angst at the thought of British bombs falling on German cities and killing German children is Millington’s willingness to use a chemical weapon on a Russian city at such time as they cease to be Britain’s allies, a stance that he explains by telling the Doctor, “It could end the war”. Millington is a man who has stared too long into the abyss, whose obsession with tapping into the Nazi psyche has made him a monster; his speech about the men trapped behind a bulkhead on a burning ship is terrifying, not because it is impossible to understand, but because he uses it to excuse the deaths of the two Russians sealed in the mine shaft with the haemovores. The men who died on board the ship might well have been sacrificed to save the rest of the crew, but there is plenty of time to save let the Russians out before the haemovores reach the end of the tunnel. The deaths of the crewmen on board his old ship is uncomfortable too; there may be logic behind it but it is given an all too human perspective shortly afterwards in the shape of Kathleen Dudman’s grief over the news of her husband Frank’s death. 

‘The Curse of Fenric’ is also notable for the characterisation of the regulars; this is Ace’s best story, as she grows up noticeably, and Aldred puts in her first real decent performance. Her concern for the baby is convincing, and she manages to convey fury at the Doctor when she realises that he knows what is going on. Ace thus works as somebody to whom the audience can relate for the first time, and she gets some nice scenes; critics of the Cartmel era often dismiss her faux pasover the fact that Kathleen is married as a just another piece of the social commentary that they argue unnecessarily clutters the era, but whatever else it may be it is also a nice reminder of the period in which ‘The Curse of Fenric’ is set. I wouldn’t give a second thought to the possibility that Kathleen might be single mother any more than Ace does, but it is a reminder that this is set in an era when it was a real stigma that people were ashamed of. Having said of all this in praise of both actress and character, the scene in which Ace distracts the guard is woefully overrated; it is a self-conscious and self-satisfied piece of dialogue that doesn’t really convince and is delivered in a horribly unnatural manner by Aldred. Nevertheless, considering how bad Ace’s dialogue was in Briggs’ previous ‘Dragonfire’, her only truly appalling line here is “Who do you think you are, armpit?”

And finally there is the Doctor. ‘The Curse of Fenric’ shows the Doctor at his most manipulative, as he plays a game of chess (both literally and metaphorically) with an ancient and powerful foe, in which people die. It is often suggested that his actions here are less damning than those in ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’; certainly he doesn’t destroy any planets here, but many people fall along the wayside and whilst it can be argued that he tries to save as many people as possible as he battles Fenric, I should like to point out that there is no reason given why after their last encounter he couldn’t simply have taken the flask that he trapped Fenric in and dumped it in a black hole like he did with the Fendahl skull. In addition to which, the Doctor’s psychological abuse of Ace reaches its peak here, as he destroys her faith in him to defeat Fenric, reducing her to tears; he clearly regrets his actions afterwards as he tries to reassure her that he didn’t mean it when he called her an emotional cripple and told Fenric to kill her, but personally I’d never trust him again. None of which is a problem however, since I like this darker aspect of the Doctor, one that would reach new heights in the New Adventures. I also find it rather amusing that the chess move with which he confuses Fenric is utterly illegal, which means that he won last time by cheating… McCoy’s acting is very good here, even during his “evil from the dawn of time” speech, when he has to convey anger, something that he often has trouble with. McCoy’s Doctor broods throughout, creating the impression that he is weighed down by the choices he hasmade and is forced to make, and it works beautifully. 

Overall, ‘The Curse of Fenric’ is a story in which everything comes together. Mark Ayers’ atmospheric score is crucial to the mood of the piece and has aged very well. Nicholas Mallett does a superb job of directing, and he manages to get the best from his actors, all of whom give excellent performances, with the exceptions of Joann Kenny as Jean and Joanne Bell as Phyllis, both of whom are fine until their characters turn into vampires after which they become a bit hammy, albeit not enough to seriously compromise the production. The sets mesh perfectly with some stunning location work. The special edition benefits ‘The Curse of Fenric’ even more, as it is given a spit and polish and little details like the stakes carried by Sorin can be seen in context for the same time. Andrew Cartmel’s approach to Doctor Who reached its zenith here; ironically, only one story later, it would all come to an end…