The DVD special edition
The Hollow Men
The Curse of Fenric
|Dates||Oct. 25, 1989 -
Nov. 15, 1989
With Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred.
Written by Ian Briggs. Script-edited by Andrew Cartmel.
Directed by Nicholas Mallett. Produced by John Nathan-Turner.
|Synopsis: The Doctor discovers that the origins of a WWII English village are linked with an ancient Viking curse and an even older enemy.|
The Note On Which Doctor Who Should Have Ended by Carl Malmstrom 15/3/97
The Sylvester McCoy stories were either good or bad. It seems mediocrity was not something he did well. Time and the Rani, Remembrance of the Daleks, Silver Nemesis and Survival were all excellent stories. Paradise Towers, Delta and the Bannermen, and Ghost Light all had serious problems. The Curse of Fenric definitely falls into the first category.
Like most Doctor Who stories, it was not without its faults, but it still worked well. In this story, the Doctor and Ace come to World War II England and quickly embroil themselves in a plot by the nefarious Dr. Judson, and through him Fenric,the embodiment of evil, to take control of the world. Russians arrive on the scene and people begin getting turned into modern-day vampires (haemovores). The Doctor beats Fenric in the end, but in doing so, he nearly loses Ace.
I thought that The Curse of Fenric would have been a fine story with which to finish out the McCoy era. It explains the chess game in Lady Peinforte's study in Silver Nemesis, why Ace conveniently ended up on Iceworld in Dragonfire, and it served as a slap in the face to the Doctor. We saw him sink to a new low, in seeming to be ready to sacrifice Ace to Fenric. He, of course, never would, but I felt his sorrow for having to take such a risk genuinely. It would have given the series a feeling of pathos and hope that, I feel, would have worked better than the final scene in Survival.
The makeup in this story was excellent, and the Haemovores come across believably. The Ancient One is not the creature of evil that it seems, but something to be pitied, something that just wanted to go home. Even the vicar comes across well. It is shown to us that the vicar is only a man, and has his own weaknesses, too. Anyone's faith can be shaken.
The story had a few problems, such as once more having a companion fall in love for no discernable reason, and I have problems with one being embodying all evil in the universe. I'm sure the Master, the Cybermen, the Sontarans, and the Daleks would disagree. However, those points are minor.
In all, the story is, again, an example of what Doctor Who can do when it tries hard. It might have, perhaps, been better as the final story of the series, but it still worked well as the Doctor's penultimate adventure. Still, when seen together, The Curse of Fenric and Survival do give, I feel, the just the right sense of sadness, regret, and hope to end the series.
The Jewel in the Crown by Michael Hickerson 27/11/97
Without a doubt, this is the crowning achievement not only of the McCoy years, but also of Doctor Who. In one four episode story, you have elements from every era of show along with a modern sensibility that made the final two seasons of Who such a joy to watch. From the Hartnells years, you have the historical aspects; from Troughton's era, the morality play; from Pertwee, the military presense; from T. Baker, the monsters; from Davison and C. Baker, the continuity and re-examination of the show's past in a new light. All of that added together with Andrew Cartmel's examination of the darker, more manipulative Doctor that, quite honestly, revitalized the show during the last two seasons.
Indeed, the entire dark Doctor storyline pivots on one magnificent scene between the Doctor and Ace. I remember the first time I saw it being blown away by Ace's demand that the Doctor explain to her what is going on. Indeed, there is a look of betrayal on the Doctor's face that will so effectively mirror Ace's later when the Doctor betrays her that it's almost frightening. And McCoy and Aldred pull the scene off with style.
Indeed, there is not one performance I can fault here. The performance by Judson is perfect--both as an invalid and as the evil Fenric. And the pacing is so well done. The eventually arrival of Fenric is the climatic moment of the show, coming late enough to keep the pace going but not so late that we don't have time to discover what a great villain this is.
The final sequence with Ace's betrayal is probably one of the most powerful in Who 's history. Because at the moment, the Doctor has lost the battle and it looks as though evil will win. It can't be! Suddenly, the Doctor is thrust into a game that he has to win, even if it means sacrificing his young friend. It's a powerful moment as you realize how far this Doctor will go to insure that history remains on the course he has foreseen. A powerful moment that McCoy plays with a subtlety and ruthlessness that sends a chill up and down the spine.
So, to say I recommend this story is an understatement. But I will say this--if you don't have the extended version, get it! Unlike Silver Nemesis, where the restored footage adds nothing, the restored footage here adds a new level of texture and character development to an already fantastic story.
This is Who at its best.
A Review by Iain MacLennan 5/7/99
This story is, for my money, not only the best story of the McCoy era, but one of, if not the best, of the series entire history. I realise this is quite an accolade, but I thought it was fantastic, and left me in no doubt that McCoy, whilst in the role for not nearly long enough, was my favourite Doctor.
The first thing that struck me about it was its polished production. A lot of the stories of the McCoy era had been decidedly ropy in terms of characterisation, plot and direction, Paradise Towers and Silver Nemesis being the ones immediately springing to mind, but none of this is in evidence here. It also had a very eerie atmosphere, one scene I find particularly memorable for its shock factor is when one of the drowned Russian soldiers suddenly opens his eyes under the water, accompanied by some suitably scary music. There are numerous others as well, including the attack by the Haemavores on the church, and the Haemavore girls destruction in the last episode, which genuinely made me cringe.
And continuing on from the very dark portrayal of the Doctor in Ghost Light, once again this is in evidence, particularly in the last episode when it really appears as is he has betrayed Ace, who is also very much worthy of a mention, and we note how far her character has come since she first appeared in the series. Indeed all the characters are among the most solidly portrayed ever in the series, one in particular being Nicholas Parson's role as the Rev. Wainwright, a great scene involving him being where he is confronted in the graveyard by the transformed Haemavore girls and is forced to admit he has lost his faith.
The last three stories of season 26 saw the McCoy era finally grow up, indeed the embarrassing pantomime the series had been just two seasons previously was by this time a distant memory. It is therefore very sad that undoubtedly one of the strongest stories in the series history should have proven to be its penultimate.
Best story ever? by Jai Parker 20/10/99
Imagine a Doctor Who story about the Doctor facing evil itself. Can you already hear the "boo ha ha's!" sounding pathetic? Pretty impressive that the one story where the Doctor did face evil itself is definitely one of the series' finest. Some have said that this is the best Doctor Who story of all time. I have to tentatively agree. For a start the plot is so grown up that it is hard to imagine that this is even technically, or ever was, a kids show. The first time I saw Fenric I was only 11 and didn't understand a thing about what was going on. However when I hired out the video a few years later I was suitably impressed by Ian Briggs' script. The level of tension conveyed, the well thought out plot, along with a twist at the end that wasn't too obvious make for a challenging and enjoyable story.
The other plus on the side of Fenric attributable to Ian Briggs is the characters. Millington is a believable human villain who you can almost feel sorry for and works well with Dr.Judson, who is also pitiable, while Reverend Wainwright adds enough of that mixture of hope and sadness to both lighten and dull the tone at once. All three characters have suberb treatment by their respective actors. Guest characters aside, our regulars Sylvester and Sophie get a great treatment, with Ace really coming of age and The Doctor at his darkest and most manipulative. Even Fenric, evil incarnete, comes across well and totally believable both in print and most importantly, when acted out.
Despite all the low budget limitations the musical score sets the scene perfectly, particularly the small but very effective 30 seconds of "The Requiem". Add to this some believable special effects, great location work that sets the feel of the second world war, a near perfect climax, with the Doctor's last gamble saving the day, and you get one of the most impressive all round pieces of Doctor Who that still holds up to repeat viewings today.
MacGuffin by Rob Matthews 11/8/00
Michael Hickerson has already pointed out that this story successfully blends elements from just about every era of the show, and I'd agree with him. It's also one of the best serials because it's superbly paced, amazingly acted, and has an atmosphere like no other. However, I think what really pushes this past 'mere' excellence and into classic Who status is its final episode.
When I started to think about it, I realised that it had this in common with another two classic Who stories - The War Games (a favourite of mine) and Caves of Androzani (a not-quite-favourite of mine; for some reason it doesn't really move me until that final episode). These two stories, like Curse of Fenric, are great serials all the way through. But then they have unexpected developments towards the climax which make you see the whole story, the characters, and even the show itself, in a new light. In The War Games there was a little retrospective of Daleks, Cybermen, Ice Warriors and Quarks, and Jamie and Zoe were dropped back into the context of The Highlanders and The Wheel in Space. In Androzani, we saw all the companions of that era and its most recurring villain in a fevered dream. In Curse of Fenric, the convenient 'Time Storm' of Dragonfire is explained, and all the Doctor's adventures with Ace (particularly Silver Nemesis) are put into a new context. And each of these adventures ends with the Doctor having to make a genuine sacrifice. This is something which simply can't happen all that often in an ongoing series, so its very satisfying on these rare occasions when it does; the second Doctor gave up his freedom and his travelling companions. The fifth gave up his life, unsure of whether he would regenerate or not. The seventh risks losing Ace's faith in him forever.
So while this story has numerous elements of classic Who, it also has great originality. All the best ingredients of the past, but with a special new sauce.
In a review of The Twin Dilemma (speaking of the classics!), Ari Lipsey points out points out that 'there are very few serials where there are not suspect performances in Doctor Who'. True, but there are also very few that have as many great performances as Curse of Fenric. In fact, of all the cast, I'd cite only Jean and Phyllis as being less than excellent (not that they're bad). Look at even the small part of Nurse Crane played by Anne Reid. She's well-meaning and doesn't realise the cruelty of her actions, she's distant, she's pitiful. She's a real, contradictory human being, and her death (though offscreen) is one of Doctor Who's most horrific scenes. For that matter, look at the realisation of the Ancient Haemovore. A big lump of blue latex has surely never been so noble and haunting.
The most outstanding acting in the story, though, is probably Millington's. The scenes in which he discusses the planned betrayal of Russia and locks the soldiers inside the tunnel are of a quality that cinema aspires to. Fenric is nothing compared to this portrayal of bland, nervous evil. And Sylvester McCoy's nervous, horrified acting in this scene is so good that I'm reconsidering the great Tom Baker as my second favourite Doctor (more on that when I get round to a proper review of McCoy's Doc).
On paper the plot sounds convoluted, yes, but what matters is the realisation. Hitchcock said he didn't care about the content of a script, only about the style with which it is realised. I take this as meaning that the ostensible story doesn't matter so much as the conviction with which it is made, and that's demonstrated Dr Who-style with Curse of Fenric.
The examination of the Doctor/companion relationship must be the most remarkable that ever happened in the show. For the last five minutes I had shivers up my spine and prickles in my eyes. It's hard to believe that this is the same Doctor introduced in Time and the Rani, the same Ace from Dragonfire. I know Doctor Who was a kid's show, but the basic premises have so much potential that I'd love to have seen it continue as a more adult character-based show.
A Review by Mark Irvin 9/10/01
When The Curse of Fenric was originally broadcasted on the ABC Australia way back in 1990, I can distinctly recall my older brother (Troy Irvin) commenting about how 'adult' and 'horrific' this story was. In retrospect I tend to think how right he was. This would surely have to be the most frightening example of Doctor Who in it's 26 year history. It is truly amazing piece of work considering the show has traditionally been aimed at a younger audience. Imagine if it had been made in the 70's, Mary Whitehouse would have had a field day with this one!
Undoubtedly my favourite theme in The Curse of Fenric would have to be within the haemovores (vampires) vulnerability to human faith or belief. The Reverend Wainwright, brilliantly portrayed by Nicholas Parsons begins to question his own faith in humanity with the advent of the second World War. When attacked by the Haemovores he holds out the bible in an attempt to use his belief as a weapon of defence. To me it illustrates the most interesting point - Ultimately the Bible is just a pile of paper with words printed on it - it's true power lies in what you believe it means or what you make of it yourself.
The Rev. Wainwright's doubts are finally resolved when he confronts the two young haemovores by laying his life on the line one final test of his faith - possibly the most chilling scene that Doctor Who has ever seen. In their previous encounter the girls had sensed his diminishing belief in the good book stating " We go........but we'll be back for you later Wainwright". Very, very unnerving indeed. (The Doctor having scared them off on this occasion with his own will)
Anyway, onto other matters.....
It was excellent to see Ace's character development continue here, backing up from Ghostlight. I have always considered Ace to be one of the best companions as she is usually given a sense of purpose - her character often becoming an integral part of the plot. As Rob Mathews rightly points out, it's hard to imagine that this is the same Doctor and Ace that we saw in their respective debuts - indicative of how they had both greatly evolved as characters.
However the one main problem that I do have with The Curse of Fenric was the unusually high complexity of the plot. I constantly found myself using the rewind button to catch many of the finer points to enable me to keep track of what's going on. To be honest it was hard to follow references towards the Doctor's (previous?) encounter with Fenric and the game of chess. Also the relationship between the Fenric and Ace - I haven't seen Dragonfire for years. All this makes viewing slightly frustrating (perhaps I should watch Fenric again ehh?) although admittedly I do like these ideas - expanding on the game of chess in Lady Peinforte's study is very interesting to say the least.
All in all, I applaud the Doctor's penultimate story for it's superb originality, brilliant acting, thought provoking themes, quality of production and general sense of immense fear. I just wish it had been a bit easier to follow and made itself more clearer, that's all.
"Evil since the dawn of time..." by Joe Ford 25/5/02
This was always one of my favourites. I wouldn't hesitate to place in my top ten. Yet recently re-watching I sensed a sudden disapointment and it took me a little time to realise why. Was my love for Doctor Who waning? Was it a symptom of the eighties bashing finally having an effect on me? Halfway through episode three I suddenly realised what my issues were with The Curse of Fenric…
Sylvester McCoy. He stinks. He is blown off the screen by less experienced yet more restrained Aldred. This was revelation time as far as companions were concerned. Ace was taking centre stage, driving stories in mature, complicated human ways, in ways producers had never had the bravery to attempt before. Despite being a bold move that paid off, this left the show in a bit of a quandry…if the companion is the protagonist what is the role of The Doctor? Stories like Ghost Light and Survival show him as the teacher, forcing his friend to confront her fears but here he is finally given a chance to take the limelight and show the complexities of the character as The Doctor finally encounters pure evil. But McCoy sinks so many of his scenes he renders his 'rivalry throughout all time' plot redundant. Colin Baker once stated that he wished he could have been the longest serving Doctor which means (if he had had his wish) he would still be in the role by the time Curse of Fenric came along and I think he would have rocked (his stories with a similar feel boasted some of his finest work… Vengeance on Varos, Revelation of the Daleks). Take a look at McCoy in his "Evil since the dawn of time!" bit, a chance to show the sheer desperation of the situation and why he has to manipulate events and what do we get, over acting face gurning and lines spat out as if he could only just remember the script. A real shame since McCoy turns out trumps in Ghost Light and Remembrance of the Daleks and turns out to be the BEST thing about those classics but this story is another example of how inconsistent the seventh Doctor could be.
It's a pity because I cannot really find fault with anything else. I cannot think of a Doctor Who story with a better looking production…the gritty world of the Second World War is conjured with simplistic ease by subtle glimpses of what we would expect to see…Nazi smybols, evacuees, coded messages, mentions of Hitler, Lana Turner, etc…and being set entirely on location gives the show a breezy, realistic feel. Nicolas Mallet seems to want to get everything he can out of his outside work and scenes like the soldier being chased in the dark in episode one or Jean and Phillis luring the guy into the sea are inventive and very memorable. This from the guy who sabotaged Paradise Towers proves we all have good and bad days. The action is constant and the stunts are great, Ace, The Doctor and Wainwright coming underseige in the church is exciting and superbly fast paced, the non stop violence of the last episode provides the gripping climax with enough 'cor wow!' moments to satisfy anybody!
The acting too is top notch. Dinsdale Linden provides a perfect mannered performance as Judson and the rest of the cast doesn't disappoint. You can almost see everybody trying so hard not to let this Doctor Who have any poor performances and it pays off. The story is chock-a-block with fascinating characters that come alive on the page (I read the book too) but thanks to textured performances twist them into much different, more compelling figures. Millington, Kathleen and Wainwright are particularly good examples. Nicholas Parsons is a revelation. Go figure.
The plot is very complicated but quite rewarding if you're willing to wait for answers. One thing I particularly like about this is just how much they manage to cram in…a love story, a horror story, a time travel adventure, a historical, a character drama, an action piece…it is all these and more! The plot threads link together in episode four in a most satisfying manner and the fact that all shock revelations tie into the characters (mostly Ace actually) helps immesurably.
Let's get to the point. JNT and Andrew Cartmel had pulled their socks up and settled into a fine working relationship. Cartmel provided the excellent scripts and JNT used his trademark skills and made the show look good. Together they pulled of some of the best Doctor Who we had ever seen and given the show was twenty six years old it was quite a feat.
The Curse of Fenric is a masterpiece of drama. A masterpiece of Doctor Who. A great piece of television. It stands head and shoulders above the majority of science fiction that is being churned out these days. And I can't think of higher praise.
Nothing can prepare you for this by James Neirotti 15/6/02
Without a doubt nothing can prepare you for this Doctor Who story. In a single word it's "amazing". It surely surpasses any story that has come before it in the past 5 or 6 seasons. The musical score is exciting, unique and fits the fast pace of this World War 2 drama perfectly. The locations are simply breathtaking and as for the writing... well let's just say all Doctor Who stories should have been scripted as well as this one was. The supporting actors and actresses were chosen well for their parts, strong acting all around. Sylvester McCoy was at his best thankfully abandoning his clown image for the time being. Sophie Aldred's Ace really had come a long way at the conclusion of this story. An exceptional maturity and intelligence not seen in previous episodes made her shine throughout this four-parter. Even the blood sucking Haemovores in the story were well crafted and made to look quite realistic. I simply can't find one single thing to downgrade this story... it's as near to perfection as the Doctor Who universe can get. The one thing I did notice that does contradict an earlier story (The Tomb of the Cybermen) is when Ace's Grandmother asks the Doctor if he remembers his parents. The Doctor reply's he doesn't know if he has parents, yet Pat Troughton's Doctor in Tomb of the Cybermen recalls to Victoria how if he closes his eyes he remembers them in his mind.
I have opted in my review to refrain from shedding any information on the plot and character's in this story because I believe any Doctor Who fan, and fan of the horror/thriller genre, should approach this story with as little information as possible because it is so good; going in not knowing a single thing will be a much more rewarding experience. Twists, turns, solid acting, breathtakingly beautiful locations and a script no other writer has been able to pull off ever before on Doctor Who, are just some of the reasons why this is totally an unmissable Doctor Who experience. Stop reading and go buy it now!
The Curse of Frantic by Andrew Wixon 22/8/02
It's a bit difficult to find a story analogous to Curse of Fenric in the show's history, and this is mainly due to Curse's position in the final season of the programme's existence. What do I mean by this? Well, read on...
I have a lot of time for Curse, although I'd disagree with the (I suspect) common opinion that it's an all-time classic, one of the best two or three McCoy stories, etc, etc. It's good, but it shares the fault common to most of season 26, that the actual plot - while watertight - isn't divulged to the audience nearly carefully enough. Curse is not an easy story for an outsider to follow. For one thing, key events seem to happen at random - the appearance of the logic diagram carvings, the flask revealing itself. The plot asks questions it doesn't answer - why does the Doctor want to talk to Phyllis and Jean at the end of part two? Why have the War Office put a couple of raving maniacs in charge of the Ultima machine project? And bits of it just plain don't make sense. A decoding machine and a language translator are two fundamentally different things, operating on wholly dissimilar principles. And the whole chess-board-trap thing is just corny and smacks of the Captain Kirk School of Computer Sabotage.
But the main problem is that the story has such a dense subtext that it starts to get in the way of the text. What's it about? Well, love, hate, trust, war (and the morality thereof), loss of innocence, family, faith, chess... the list goes on and on. It doesn't especially help that many of these big issues are addressed with the same degree of subtlety as a sledgehammer in the face. Mainly those relating to Ace (ie most of them). The level of earnest cod-profundity is a bit overpowering, and did anyone not guess that the baby was Ace's mum?
Once again, the production saves the story and raises it to another level. The combination of the marvellous soundtrack, tremendous direction and some really startling performances (Nicholas Parsons can act?!?) combine to produce a stirring tale with some truly classic moments: my favourite being Sorin warding off vampires with his Soviet insignia. And the pace... it's extraordinary, berserk, frantic, manic. It's a bullet of a story, scenes and ideas piling up on top of another as it hurtles along. There's scarcely a wasted moment, particularly in the second half. A fantastically rich and endlessly rewarding experience as far as repeat viewings go, but not necessarily terribly casual-viewer friendly.
As an attempt to do Doctor Who that's about important, mature themes, handled in a serious fashion, Curse of Fenric blunders around with good intentions but the finished result lacks subtlety. In just the same way, Ark in Space lacks the true visceral bite and charm of Hinchcliffe era DW, and The Invasion isn't a prime example of the Pertwee formula (and, yes, not just for the obvious reason, thankyou). But these are the stories Curse of Fenric should be compared to: it's pioneering a new style of DW, the difference being that this style never reached its full potential for obvious reasons. Not quite the season 25 style, but that was a step along the way. A fascinating glimpse into what might have been, and a fine story in its own right.
A Review by Terrence Keenan 12/10/02
Whether or not you enjoy the Sylvester McCoy era, the general consensus is that The Curse of Fenric is his one classic tale, and a classic of Doctor Who as a whole. Most of the reviews here praise the acting, the story, the culmination of events reaching back to Dragonfire and the ultimate reason why McCoy was a great Doctor, perhaps the best.
But the reviews seem to miss out on an obvious fact:
The Curse of Fenric is a redo of The Daemons.
Come on, admit it. Watch them both back to back and see the similarities.
They both feature a mix of science and magic with a Deux ex Machina ending that makes little sense.
The Daemons has "The Devil". Fenric has "Vampires" and "Evil". The Daemons has "psionics" controlling a gargoyle. Fenric has "faith" defending against Haemovores. And the Deux ex Machinas? Jo's self-sacrifice for The Daemons. The Ancient One kills Fenric's body just after Fenric had solved the chess puzzle after hearing a stirring (allegedly) speech about being used by the Doc.
Fenric has a thicker plot than its predecessor, Ghost Light. However, the plethora of plot and character lines causes a fifty car pile-up of coincidences in the last five minutes of episode four. It's a shame because, the plot lines, in themselves, are strong when they start off. Fenric tries to resolve: Ace's character arc; the chess shenanigans started in Silver Nemesis; the mysterious Doctor bit; The Ultima Machine (tossed to the side); the baby (Ace's Mum! Cor, Blimey!!); the Haemovore time line (No fucking clue... oh, forgot, it's the FUTURE!); and the toxins (left there for UNIT to clean up in the 70's I suppose). On top of it all, it drops the biggest ball of them all, is Fenric dead? (And not to nitpick, but wouldn't Fenric come back to life once the door to the isolation chamber opened and a new body was there for the taking?) Methinks a spreading out of plot resolutions across the whole fourth episode would have solved this problem.
The acting leaves a bit to be desired. Sophie Aldred was consistent, but still unbelievable as a 16 year old. Her best bit was when she confronts McCoy about what he's planning in episode three. Sylvester McCoy waffled all over the place and reminded me of what a Hanna Barbera Doctor might be like, although he does deserve praise for the "Ace diss" moment at the climax. His underplaying the moment makes it believable. Nicholas Parsons is the best of the guests as the Vicar. Unfortunately, he's killed off in episode three. Tomek Bork is all right as Sorin, but hams out when he becomes Fenric. The rest of the cast overact badly or are so wooden you can build bridges out of them.
The direction is strong. Interesting visuals abound, even if their context doesn?t make much sense at first -- the cuts to the Viking Boat in Episode one, for example. There's a wonderfully creepy scene when the runes appear on the wall. The rain soaked exteriors in episode four add an ominous tone to the proceedings. The Haemovore creatures look menacing, and their appearance in episode two as they come out of the water is miles above similar scenes in The Sea Devils. There is a glitch in episode four where we have two different versions of Fenric/Judson asks the Haemovores to summon the Ancient One. I assume that this was part of the extra footage added to the video release. There's a nice gross out moment when the Ancient One kills his fellow haemovores and we see the demise of the annoying girls, complete with collapsing skulls (another add on, I assume). This leads to a big ass problem (and another link with The Daemons). How can a genetic mutation of the human race be only affected by faith, yet can be killed by their own kind in seconds? (Of Course! Plot Contrivance!)
(Side Note. Episode three was the first time I'd ever seen a DW episode on it's original release. I was stationed in East Anglia at the time, and remember not being impressed by what I had seen, but was happy to see new DW.)
I suppose I'm being harsh. I imagine that if you watch Fenric in sequence to the other stories that preceded it, it would make more sense, as Ace is supposed to have a character arc. However, the best Doctor Who stories stand alone, and do not need the support of other tales to have their greatness shine. City of Death does not need Destiny of the Daleks to make it great. Inferno is not supported by The Ambassadors of Death. Ghostlight, a much better story, doesn't need Battlefield (but Battlefield's sheer abomination does give Ghostlight a lift by default). It's a point as subtle as Godzilla stomping Tokyo, but the best Doctor Who episodes stand alone, and The Curse of Fenric doesn?t.
The Curse of Fenric is, at best, a mediocre tale. Which is a shame, because the ideas are interesting, the setting fresh -- a WWII locale -- and the visuals are at a consistent high level. In the end its lazy fourth episode writing and atrocious acting that ruin the potential. I can take either bad acting, or a bad script. The pair make a lethal combination. Curse has been praised to the high heavens, but to quote Flavor Flav, "Don't Believe the Hype!"
A Review by Will Berridge 22/1/03
It may be unreasonable of me, but, (with the possible exception of Warrior’s Gate), Curse of Fenric is quite my favourite story. In fact, I subscribed to UK Gold just so I could see this adventure. Since doing so, I have re-watched my recording of 30 or 40 times, at a rough estimate, which is something I just couldn’t do for Caves of Androzani or Genesis of the Daleks, however compelling these stories are on first viewing. Barely a couple of months go past without me getting an urge to stick it in the VCR, and watch it straight through (though I do now tend to fast forward some of the scenes with Mrs Hardaker, Jean and Phyllis in). And it’s still utterly flawless, with the exception of the odd minor blip only a pendant would whine about. I’ll get them off my chest:
In a way I feel guilty about choosing a story from the final season as my all time favourite, as it’s hardly representative of the entire history of the show. In focusing on serious character development for the Doctor’s companion, designing monsters which might scare someone above the age of 8, and challenging popular views about WW2, realistically or otherwise, it does things previous producers of the show just wouldn’t have seen as necessary for a tea-time kid’s show. But that doesn’t stop me giving it 3,438,912,746/10.
Keeping the Faith by Jason Cook 20/3/03
Right at the start, McCoy's Doctor makes full use of "Troughton tricks" in confusing the soldiers by making them think he's an ambiguous somebody in authority. But then the whole thing crumbles for me when the Doctor actually types up the letter from the "Prime Minister" right in front of Judson and the nurse, and they still fall for it. It's smoothly played but totally unbelievable.
The scenes are mostly fast-paced, which works well for this story. All the readings of various old narratives and such really give Fenric an epic feel, despite it being only four episodes long. The incidental music is creepy and not intrusive of the action onscreen, which is more than I can say for the music from most of the other McCoy stories I've seen so far.
The two girls, Phyllis and Jean, scare me a little before they even become Haemovores. Something about the looks on both of their faces... The actresses playing Phyllis and Jean use their normal speaking voices even after being taken over, which somehow make them more frightening. Wish I could say the rubbery-looking Haemovores were scarier though -- although in a pack they are more menacing than in isolation. When the girls attack Miss Hardaker they remind me vaguely of Oak and Quill from the infamous Fury from the Deep censor clip, although the Hardaker scene is much shorter.
Ace practically drops the baby in disgust when she finds out her name is Audrey. Seems a bit extreme a reaction to me. The scene with the baby reminds me of Back to the Future in a way ("Better get used to these bars, kid").
The scene with Wainwright reciting from I Corinthians 13 is particularly well done; Nicholas Parsons seems genuinely on the verge of tears as he struggles to say the word "love." Builds well on the theme of faith established in episode 1, when the vicar was reprimanded by the horrible Miss Hardaker for suggesting that faith is more than just words. Wainwright's scene with Ace is equally compelling -- Ace's line ("The future's not so bad. Have faith in me") would make no sense to him but is great in setting up Ace as a symbol of the future itself.
The Doctor gently chastizes Ace because she used to "drop everything for a bit of excitement." This helps to illustrate how much her character has changed since he first met her on Iceworld. Now she's calmer, quieter, and more pensive. I like her much better in Season 26 than in her Dragonfire days -- although she does still enjoy using the Nitro Nine. Her assumption that Kathleen is an unwed mother is interesting too, in that she seems to temporarily forget she's in the 1940s and not the '80s, where sex outside of marriage had become far more commonplace. Then, of course, there's Ace's confrontation of the Doctor, another excellent scene for Sophie Aldred. I grinned when I heard her yell, "Tell me!!" It really feels like he's had that coming for at least a season.
Dinsdale Landen's performance as Fenric is just as interesting as the Judson one. Great dialogue for both as well, a credit to Ian Briggs. I think Landen's smile as Fenric, the one when the Haemovores are killing Judson's nurse, is what really convinces me that Landen did a superb job in this story. He never throws away a single line and always stands apart of the rest, even when he's sitting in that wheelchair.
The "emotional cripple" scene is excellently played by all -- there's a definite impression that the Doctor may actually really dislike Ace for a moment or two. And he's trying to deceive not Fenric, but Ace! In the following sequence he does look very genuine in his regret that he had to force Ace to lose her faith in him. In the end the water is no longer a danger to be avoided, but a symbolic cleansing. Her swim is a kind of baptism through which she teaches (and allows) herself to love. And a story that began in battle ends in peace.
A Review by Paul Rees 6/7/03
Alongside Ghost Light and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, this is one of the few McCoy stories which has really stood the test of time. The Curse of Fenric is, above all, atmospheric - with the location work and the incidental music contributing a real sense of menace to the thing.
McCoy is, to be honest, not my favourite Doctor - but here he is rather more restrained than usual, and his performance can perhaps best be summed up as being 'adequate'. Ace is given greater emotional depth than previously, although her carrying of stepladders, use of explosives and cries of "wicked!" do get a little tiresome
Special praise must go to the guest cast for the sheer quality of their acting. This is especially the case with regard to Cdr Millington and Professor Judd (Judd gives an incredibly chilling performance when possessed by the force of evil known as Fenric). Nicholas Parsons is also excellent here - his loss of religious faith when confronted with the horrors of war lend the character considerable depth. The scenes where he is confronted (and eventually defeated) by the Haemavores must be amongst the most moving in Who's entire history.
The plot has been decried by some as being incomprehensible, or even gobbledegook. I think that this is unfair. It is certainly complex, but upon repeated viewings still holds up pretty well. That said, there are a number of flaws. It is surely inconceivable that Ace would deduce that the inscriptions represent a 'computer programme', even with the advantages she has over Judson in terms of her time stream (he's from the 1940s, she's from the 1980s). Rather more problematic is the role of the Ancient One towards the end: Fenric is blackmailing him, promising that he will get him home so long as he carries out a chemical attack upon planet Earth. But given that the Ancient One is said to be the last surviving human and that his Earth is said to be toxic and uninhabitable, it does rather beg the question: why does he want to go home anyway?
But that's nothing more than a minor quibble, to be honest. Essentially, it's the little incidental things which really add a sense of depth and substance to this story: Ace's hinted-at 'romance' with Soren; the fleeting dialogues on faith and religion; the moral ambiguity surrounding Britain's role in the Second World War. All these factors raise Fenric above the level of most Who stories. It possesses, above all else, an effortless maturity. 9/10
Turning traditions on their head by Tim Roll-Pickering 15/8/03
World War 2 is a popular setting for stories in many different media so it was perhaps inevitable that Doctor Who would eventually tell a tale set there, especially when the fiftieth anniversary of the war arrived. But The Curse of Fenric is a far cry from the traditional images of the war, showing the British-Russian alliance as being one of mutual distrust with each side busy sharpening the knives for backstabbing, whilst the ethics of the British in preparing chemical weapons and using them for bombing are explored. Many traditional notions are challenged, whether the notion that all priests believe the religion they preach or that vampires can be held back merely through wielding a crucifix. This all combines to make The Curse of Fenric truly terrifying since traditional notions of security are brutally smashed. Fundamentally this story is a very early Cold War style story with the additional twist that the Russians are portrayed as being more sympathetic than the British. And this is historically accurate - even in 1943 there were undercurrents and divisions amongst the Big Three of the the USA, the USSR and the UK (or perhaps the Big Two And A Half). Just as strong is the whole notion of Fenric manipulating successive generations of the original Vikings' descendants in order to engineer his return.
This story contains the additional twist when it is revealed how Fenric has manipulated even Ace and how the Doctor has known this all along. Moreso than virtually any other attempt in the McCoy years to put the 'Who' back into Doctor Who, it is this which truly makes the Doctor seem like an alien observing from afar. The scene where Ace confronts him about his preknowledge and secretive nature is exceptionally strong, whilst his later comments that destroy her faith in him seem cruel even though they are clearly necessary to allow the Ancient Haemovore to become strong enough to turn on Fenric. This is truly a grim story, aided no end by the location work that gives it an even grittier feeling than many stories. Ian Briggs' script contains strong moments, especially the ones where characters are reading aloud the translation of the Viking inscriptions and we see shots of movement around the wreck of the Viking ship. Few characters are sympathetic in this tale - only the Reverend Wainwright truly evokes the viewers' sympathy as he struggles with the evaporation of his faith. Both the British and Russians are cold blooded when they need to be, making them not much different from the Haemovores.
Nicholas Mallet's direction throughout the story is strong, with carefully constructed shots that slowly reveal the Haemovores throughout Part Two and thus make them seem ever more frightening or the battle sequences in Part Four that are grim even though no actual blood is seen. Mark Ayres' score is strong and enhances the atmosphere no end, as do many shots which emphasise the bleak nature of things. The cast is strong, with Dinsdale Landen providing a superb contrast between the embittered crippled academic Judson and the callous Fenric whilst Nicholas Parsons gives a superb performance as the Reverend Wainwright. Alfred Lynch is less effective as Commander Millington, despite the Hitler style haircut and almost accurate moustache. The real tour de force of the story has to be the Haemovores. They are superbly designed to look as though they truly are long dead mutated humans, with the Ancient Haemovore being especially memorable and also coming across as a genuinely sympathetic character - not what one would expect in a traditional vampire story. It is typical of The Curse of Fenric that it challenges the presumptions of the viewer and thus produces a story which surprises and delights at every turn. 10/10
Frenetic Fenric by Jonathan Martin 28/10/03
I'd never seen Fenric in any shape or form when I slid the DVD into the player, so I thought it was probably a good idea to watch the transmitted version first. The small problem was that by the end of episode two I was still trying to digest the first few scenes; it moves by too damn fast! Perhaps it didn't help that the last episode of Doctor Who I'd seen before it was The Sensorites part 1, but still, if your average 19 year old can't keep up with some old BBC TV series, there's something inherently wrong. Obviously when you watch it 1500 times like your average fan it'll all make sense, but it really needed to have run an episode longer.
Fenric is along with Revelation, perhaps the most adult of all the Doctor's on-screen outings, and any attempt to do something a little different, and push the envelope a bit, is always welcome. Unfortunately I could never really engage with anything that was going on on-screen, until that scene mentioned by previous reviewers: The confrontation between The Doctor and Ace where she demands to know what's going on. I enjoyed the story from then on. That scene is followed by one of the most bizarre scenes in the history of the show, where Ace * cough * seduces a guard. It was never going to work in the Doctor Who series that was just about to come to an end.
An oft-heard quote when people talk about the demise of the series is something like "technology had out-grown the storylines", but ultimately the storylines outgrew the format. Doctor Who wasn't the same series any more - and they seemed to realise that to some extent back in season 22, when they had the much more sensible 45 minute episodes... unfortunately it was back to the kiddy length of 25 minutes after the hiatus. Everything about Fenric is adult in nature, from the sexual undertones, to the convoluted plot. It would have looked so much better in B&W though, don't you think?
The haemavores are the weakest link in the story in my opinion. We learn little to nothing about them, and referring to them as "vampires" is clearly just a device to allow for the theme of faith and an effective demise for the vicar. They're just zombies, stumbling around with their poorly realised face masks. It would have been so much more menacing if they had kept their human faces, like the two girls, with just a few of those seeds and a bit of blue make-up.
None of the actors are given a chance to shine in the transmitted version either... the characters are given too little screen time to give a lasting impression. The romance element is unnecessary in a story so chock a block with plot elements, I didn't even notice that soldier before he was suddenly "heating up" the screen with Ace... he had just been another faceless bloke in uniform, and it came completely out of nowhere. Another unintentional howler is when those two soldiers from opposing forces have their arms around each other and saying stuff like "we fight together now!" I couldn't help but laugh during that scene, and again during the commentary.
Speaking of the commentary, it would have nice to have had it for the special edition as opposed to the transmitted version, the time passed so quickly when I was listening to it (and for them as they were doing it), that they still had plenty to talk about by the time the credits were over.
So, while I didn't particularly enjoy The Curse of Fenric the first time around, I am very much looking forward to seeing this extended edition, where hopefully I can truly appreciate an extraordinary script a lot more. The writers of the new series could do a lot worse than to look at stories like this one for inspiration... I think in many ways it's what modern Doctor Who is all about.
So, is Curse of Fenric an all-time classic? The original four episodes certainly are very flawed, but a version that utilizes its full potential is one that deserves close attention indeed...
A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 11/10/04
At the heart of every Doctor Who story is a tale of good against evil and The Curse Of Fenric is no different in this regard. What elevates it are the events that build up to and during this story. As it not only gives virtually every character some motivation, it also fills in some of Ace`s background and explores her relationship with the Doctor further. Thankfully it is a strong tale in its own right of unfinished buisness for the Doctor and Fenric and ultimately the results this has on those around him. Everything also looks the part, from sets to costumes to the locations, which add greatly to the atmosphere and coupled with strong acting on all fronts, The Curse Of Fenric is arguably the best tale of the McCoy era.
Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf... by Thomas Cookson 29/1/06
I'd say that of all the old Doctor Who episodes, this is the one with the strongest similarities to the New Series. The team of the Seventh Doctor and Ace, a teenager from the 1980's, was not so different to the current team of the Ninth Doctor and his companion Rose. A Doctor with a grumpy disposition and a mysterious and dark past, accompanied by an urban streetwise companion with an explored family background. Then you've got the frequent situations that the Doctor and Ace face in this episode: the setting of World War II where people are disillusioned of hopes for the future (The Empty Child), where the dead are rising in evil form (The Unquiet Dead), demonic creatures chase the characters who find sanctuary in a church (Father's Day), and where history is being re-written and phrases are newly appearing in ancient hieroglyphics (Bad Wolf).
Doctor (reading the hieroglyphics): "We hoped to return to the North way, but the dark curse follows our dragon ship. The Wolves of Fenric shall return for their treasure and then shall the dark evil rule eternally."As with a lot of high-aiming old Doctor Who stories, the situation is so complex and surreal that as a viewer, you're initially unsure whether or not you're going to be satisfied with this one. But as it happens it's one Doctor Who story I hired from the library, watched it a few times in a week and then had to return it, and now months later it's still resonated quite a strong staying power that I can't quite describe. The main strength of the episode is its very tangible atmosphere and sense of subversion in the air. We are shown images of sunken Viking ships at the sea bed with their bows raised in phallic fashion, seeming to project the possessive evil essence of the dead into the sea mist above. When we see teenage girls down on the beach dipping into the abnormally warm water, we know danger is afoot for them.
There's also some wonderful choice shots of outdoor action complemented by a downpour of rain, which adds so much to the feeling of contamination and being under duress. These factors caught me unawares since 1986 had seen Doctor Who change its style so that it would be filmed in its entirety in video format as oppose to having outdoor scenes shot in grainy film as was done previously. Given many of the episodes I had seen of that era, I felt that video format episodes of Doctor Who were ones that sorely lacked atmosphere or edge, but this is one episode that proved me completely wrong - Seeds of Doom is another.
The Haemovores are wonderful villains with pretty good makeup effects and are so well presented by script and visuals that they do feel a tangible presence. You can sense their heat and magnetism hypnotising and drawing people towards them to their deaths, in a way I couldn't say about many other Doctor Who stories which involved hypnotism. The fact that they're indestructible and can physically burn through and melt any barriers in their way only adds to their menace. The fight scenes may frequently be over too soon, but they are actually very well choreographed - another rare achievement for the series (even in its current revival form) - and the Haemovores remain relentless throughout, and as with a lot of Doctor Who episodes, it shows that death is a respecter of no one.
Now when we get to the issue of where the Haemovores actually come from, then the story gets rather confusing and hard to pin down. The Doctor has clearly encountered the Haemovores before and he talks of the Haemovores being an ancient evil, older than the universe itself, and then contradicts this by talking of the Haemovores being the evolutionary future descendants of the human race who have somehow come back to this time. One thing the Doctor seems to be referring to in vague terms could be a possible explanation for how both statements can be true. It concerns a scientific theory about the beginning and end of the Universe (which we actually see in the title sequence), that as the Big Bang saw the creation of all matter in the Universe and the constant momentum and expansion of galaxies ever since, there will come a time of the Big Crunch, where the expansion will come to a stop and all matter will be pulled back towards each other by gravity and resultantly towards the primary centre of the Universe in collision.
There is then a theory that as the Universe goes into reverse motion, so too will time - a theory exploited in the Red Dwarf episode "Backwards" - and there follows a theory that the collision climax of the Big Crunch will lead to another Big Bang starting the cycle again, meaning of course that the Universe has no beginning or end but exists on a perpetual loop that may have gone on several billion times already, and that maybe even the same people and events will happen exactly the same way again and again (of course that's taking the theory to its wildest degree). So if the Haemovores are the evolutionary descendants of man, but they also have found a way to exist outside of time, then it is possible that they could outlive the loop to the recreation of the Universe and exist in this time.
So let's move onto the themes of the episode. Taking place in the final year of World War II, the episode is very much about the villagers of this British town and their attitudes to the war. Some attitudes of patriotism, some attitudes of blind patriotism and some of disillusionment and mourning. The epsidoe has moments of boldly criticising the actions and attitudes of the British military during the war. The bombing of Germany was supposed to be strategic precision bombings of German factories, but 99% of the bombs were simply dumped at random, hitting civilian areas. In the firestorm bombing of Dresden there were more civilian deaths than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki- a fact that is conveniently overshadowed by the greater atrocities of the Nazis- so it gets dismissed often as a "necessary evil", but not here.
The episode also comments on the beginnings of the distrust between the Western forces and the Russians - in which a band of Russian spies come to the base, fearing reports of the alleged British plan to use biological weapons against Russia, and finding out that they were in fact right. Fitting that this should be shown in 1989, the year where the wall finally came down. The episode does this by stressing that the Haemovores, like vampires, are repelled by artefacts of religious faith, but that the carrier of the protection must possess unshakeable faith in order for it to work, and frequently "protected" people die because they have lost faith in these war times. There is also the character of Commander Millington (Alfred Lynch) the head of the British soldiers here, who plans to use the weapon against the Russians out of his own intolerance and paranoia. He has a Command Office which is an exact replica of a Nazi General's office; the plan being to learn to think like the enemy and counteract them, but which hints metaphorically at how in many ways he is no better than the Nazis himself.
Ace: "And the half-time score: Perivale, six hundred million, rest of the universe, nil"The centre of the episode's themes of course is Ace. Whilst the Doctor here maintains an introverted and mysterious presence, Ace comes to the fore with irrepressible personality. Rather like Rose in the New Series, Ace finds herself socialising with ease with the people around her, mingling with a pair of rebellious teenage girls who are evacuees and are miserable at having to live with a furiously puritanical guardian who keeps bible thumping to them and warning them of the eternal damnation that will await them for their immodesty and they affectionately call her "the old bag" when she's out of earshot.
Ace speaks up well for the downtrodden but submissive women of the time and surprises a lot of people with her in-development intelligence, which is remarkable for her age and gender, given the education system of the past, and she talks of the future time that she comes from, to the astonishment of the soldiers and villagers who have lost faith and who believe that there is no future for Britain. You must remember that a lot of people at the time thought that the two world wars were actually an omen prophesizing the coming of judgement day. Ace also shows her developing maturity by using her sexual prowess to distract soldiers while the Doctor makes his discreet moves, and she manages to discover some surprising and unsavoury facts about her family history here. These are all things that Rose has done in the New Series, and indeed it is nice that the New Series has actually picked up thematically where the Old Series left off.
So in hindsight how does Sophie Aldred as Ace fare as a prototype for Rose? Well I must say that Sophie does struggle with the big loud dramatic scenes in a way that Billie Piper certainly didn'. Then again, to compete with Billie Piper is no easy feat, but it's hard to care about her poignant family revelations when she shouts so melodramatically about them. Overall though, Sophie Aldred and the writers have managed to successfully achieve an endearing character in Ace and that doesn't change.
For the same reasons as Rose in the New Series, we care about Ace as a personable, well-meaning, if occasionally belligerent character who is often the victim of snobbery and misjudgement because of her council estate background and her slang and unlady-like manner, which sees her much scorned whenever the Doctor takes her to the past to more patriarchal times. And it's nice to see the character developing before our eyes and making quite a lot of confessions about herself, particularly her great Generation-X-in-a-nutshell line "Sometimes I travel so fast, I don't even exist"
If I have any big complaint, it's that towards the second half of the story, little bits of details and plot development become rather contrived and there's a few action movie one liners that don't work. The conclusion is fairly confusing and relates to continuity to the Season 24 episode Dragonfire which I haven't yet seen, and am in no hurry to see either, given how many fans have described Season 24 as the worst Doctor Who season ever. But other than that I was most impressed with this one, very entertaining and carries a lot of power and punch. I recommend picking up the DVD version with extras, including some charming convention footage and deleted scenes.
The great, unrivalled one by Richard Evans 21/9/10
Imagine this: a select committee of Doctor Who experts debate and distribute the show's equivalent of the Oscars, in a grand ceremony at some major venue, with dedications and speeches aplenty. Knowing the seemingly universal attitude to the equivalent of a Best Picture award, the five nominees would be The Caves of Androzani, Genesis of the Daleks, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, City of Death and possibly The Empty Child.
The correct sentence ending to the inevitable "And the award goes to..." is "None of the above".
Languishing awkwardly in the dying days of John Nathan-Turner's Doctor Who, The Curse of Fenric wins the award without question. What we have here is an amalgamation of the most genuinely chilling imagery seen in the series, some startling twists fit for a modern-day series finale and the Doctor himself at his darkest hour ever.
The first three episodes of this crowning glory are dominated by an ambiguity as to who the great adversary is, compounded with the Doctor's all-knowing secrecy. Initially, almost everyone is shrouded in mystery, not unlike the Doctor himself; the precise motivation of both the Russians and the quite unsympathetic English is unclear to begin with, but Ian Briggs allows it to unfold subtly in a hugely affecting manner. There's Dr. Judson, an angry man at loggerheads with his allies and mission; Miss Hardaker, a highly stereotypical foster parent who only serves to antagonise two rebellious evacuees (with good reason, it turns out); and let us not forget Commander Millington, a physical and characteristic hybrid of the contemporary tyrants, Stalin and Hitler.
In Millington, we have perhaps the most confusing character seen in Doctor Who since Biroc (who also appeared in a fantastic story, Warriors' Gate), but also the most heartless. His quiet analogy on how to poison "Dresden or Moscow", while a couple of birds perish in a cage full of the toxin in question, conveys immediately that he is no common loud-mouthed villain, but a low-key tyrant with no regard for human life. No wonder Ace guesses that he has become the eponymous Fenric. Millington is completely indifferent to the plight of two poor Russians in a sealed tunnel and claims to be able to foresee the Cold War. As a beautifully original Cartmel-era enemy, he is certainly something special: his manipulative streak, in his attempts to be all-powerful, conveniently foreshadows the Doctor's own dark side.
By Part Three, Ace is understandably furious at the Time Lord's omnipotence, resulting in a charged exchange about "evil since the dawn of time". This is one of the standout scenes in Doctor Who which falls under the category of "moments that could not possibly be handled by any other companion": it blatantly reveals just how integral Ace is to the whole story, but the Doctor continues to aggressively underplay his mastery of the situation, thus keeping it nicely concealed. Sylvester McCoy's Doctor may well be somewhat unfriendly and antiheroic, yet The Curse of Fenric is exactly what he was made for, and there is a definite sense of culmination about his lifetime here. He barges into the chemical room in Part Four, just too late to prevent one of the series' all-time great twists (one involving glowing eyes and a chess move), and ends up defeating both his enemy and companion in an infinitely cold, moody monologue. Anyone who holds David Tennant's intense mood swing from The Waters of Mars to be the Doctor's most evil ebb should consider McCoy's masterly offering in The Curse of Fenric.
That same scene sees Ace being told by nasty Fenric, very casually and suavely, exactly why she, he and the Doctor are so closely interlinked. I don't know about anyone else, but I was suitably overwhelmed by this revelation - and that is the hallmark of superb Doctor Who. It is appropriate that she feels, and appears to be, much more complete in the story's final shots. <>Those were the shocks, so what about the scares on offer? In the closing moments of Part Two, a group of seriously horrifying creatures emerge from the sea, to the equally (if not more) terrifying Mark Ayres score. As it happens, the music recurs throughout the story to enhance perfectly the presence of the vampires - actually, I mean Haemovores - and provide proper chills. Philip Hinchcliffe could certainly have done with some of this. Equally, a number of scenes involving the Haemovores howling hideously are punctuated by a similar few bars. The theme of "faith" that prevails in these parts is mystifying enough, leading to unendingly spellbinding Doctor Who (especially the fearless Bolshevik walking through a crowd of Haemovores while holding just the Communist emblem); if the unforgettable incidental music in Logopolis was haunting, this is a lot scarier, but just as well-crafted. I would go as far as to say that the rise of the Ancient One in Part Four is as intense and terrifying as the series has ever gone.
A glaring production gaffe cannot detract from the towering power of The Curse of Fenric. (I refer to Part Three, in which every outdoor scene takes place in daylight - including the shots of that Bolshevik walking free - but yet when the church doors open and the man is faced with his Haemovore adversaries, it is very obviously night time. Repeated viewings do back me up on this one!)
What more can I say about this Doctor Who "Best Picture"? It must be said that I regret a rushed comment made in response to the question "What is the best Doctor Who story ever?" (My on-the-spot reply was The Waters of Mars, which is definitely no more than second best.) Even without the best ever Doctor or the most likeable companions, Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred are two of many proofs positive that The Curse of Fenric is as good as it gets.
One last try by Richard Conway 17/7/12
By 1989, something odd had happened to Who. That oddness being the BBC (who have always made it and copyrighted it) had stopped taking any interest in the program whatsoever; they weren't even looking anymore. This of course had many a negative effect, not least the eventual shelving of the series for 7 years. The one positive effect it did have, even if it was only for one season, was to give the production team a creative and executive freedom it has rarely enjoyed before or since.
Out of this came a season of quality and experimentation that stretched the series into new and uncharted areas while at the same time retaining all the building blocks that the program was built on and needed. No story epitomised this approach more than The Curse of Fenric. On the face of it, this is a very traditional story with monsters in the mist and coming out of the sea. It's populated with very standard characters who do and say exactly what you would expect them to. All taking place in locations and scenarios you would think would be perfect for this kind of standard fare.
But look a little closer and scratch the surface and things get a lot more interesting than the standard tick-all-the-right-boxes story it pretends to be. For a start, Ian Briggs (the writer) has written in more issues, ideas and concerns into one story than most would manage over a whole season. There's everything there from the difference between religion and faith to predetermined destiny and all done in a simple and uncomplicated but nevertheless dramatic and exciting way. Not the easiest thing at the best of times but even more impressive considering the heavy subject(s) matter he tackles.
Then there's the approach he takes to the narrative and how he changes his style of writing to suit it or change it. Case in point: as the story progresses and the need arises to emphasize the breaking free of the protagonist of the piece into the main narrative and the chaos and hell that will bring, the writing style he adopts is lot punchier and faster. The writing suddenly has a lot more energy and edge and therefore so do the scenes involved. It's clever stuff from Briggs, even down to the comparison of his scenes basically breaking down into narrative chess moves on the screen as each character involved is manouvered around in his quick-fire fast-paced scenes emulating the mental and physical chess match happening on screen between McCoy's Doctor and the different forms Fenric takes.
Talking of McCoy, whatever your opinion of his Doctor, most agree this is probably his finest and most impressive performance on the series. On the face of it, it's because he his playing a darker, more manipulative version of the character he has established over the two previous seasons. However, like the rest of this story, that's only on the face of it. There's no denying that this darker potrayal that McCoy delivers is more interesting than what's gone before, but it's more interesting mainly for the fact that this is not what you would have expected him to do with the role. A leading man in a leading role only really catches fire when he does the unusual and unexpected with it. Jon Pertwee the clown playing it straight and with a swagger, Hartnell the heavy playing it as eccentric and mysterious. You expect McCoy to play it as a fool and a clown, playing the spoons and mangling his words because that's what he'd become famous for on children's TV at the time. It's only when he approaches the role against type does he feel like a proper fit for the Doctor.
All of this strong storytelling is ably backed up by the production team making it, from JNT's decision to move the story from a mixed location/studio affair to a straight location shoot, making the production values as high as possibly could be. Or the director Nick Mallett who is more than attuned to the nuances of the story and the scattergun and pacey nature of the script.
All of the acting on display is excellent throughout, with particular mention to Tomek Bork as Sorin and Dinsdale Landen as Dr. Judson who play their parts to perfection. The former slighty underplays it and the latter slighty overplays it; both are spot on with their choices and both switch easily from their respective characters to being the villian of the piece with ease and conviction. Also, special mention must be made of Sophie Aldred's Ace in both the writing and acting. It is a common misconception that the female (or male come to that) companions characters in the 80s were weak. It is unusual, however, that a companion gets such a chunk of the narrative and drama involved, that the narrative involves real character development and the actress involved recognises this and plays the material for all its worth. Much credit must go to both writer and actress for this.
In summary then, what have we got with The Curse of Fenric? Is it a straight monster story? You bettcha it is. Is it a piece about the power of faith? Yeah, that too! What about the evolutionary subtext? Yeah, that's covered as well. An anti-pollutionary warning on the fragile state of nature? If you want it to be and that's the point. The Curse of Fenric can be and indeed is all things to all men/women. It's a jack of all trades and pretty damn good at all of them, which is probably why it's held in such high-esteem by the fans of the programme
Would that the powers that be at the time had acted differently, had they still been watching the series and saw this story, instead of just the story's ratings. If they had been watching, then the production team at the time probably wouldn't have been allowed to follow their instincts and been given the freedom to make it in the first place. That was Doctor Who in the late 80s: damned if you don't and damned if you do!
An all-time classic 5/5
In Plain Language, Doubt and Indecision by Jason A. Miller 5/10/20
The Curse of Fenric was broadcast in the autumn of 1989, but I didn't seen it until a year later, when it made its way over to the States via PBS. I turned 16 a week before the initial broadcast of Part One in the UK, so would have been about 17 when I saw the thing in America. The DVD text commentary tells us that the original audience for this story was predominantly 35 and up. I was less than half that. Whoops.
There's not a whole lot that a 17 year-old suburban American kid can understand about Fenric, what with English WWII intelligence operations, logic conundrums and the Prisoners' Dilemma, billeted Blitz evacuees, a Church of England reverend who's lost his faith and Norse mythology. Almost none of that was on my school curriculum, although I knew the Norse stuff thanks to Marvel Comics.
What particularly galled me, at age 17, was the sequence late in Part Four where the Doctor has to destroy Ace's faith in him, in order to outwit the eponymous villain. Ace's betrayal, at the hand of a paternal figure (in a story that already pivoted on her hatred of her own single mum), was a bit too close to home, for me, a teenage boy raised by a single mother and with paternal issues of his own. I had no context for enjoying the story's plot or characters, and the bits that I did grasp -- the eternal conflict between parents and children and the curse of one's own DNA -- angered me.
When I really came to enjoy The Curse of Fenric was in college, because a lot happens between ages 17 and 20. By then, I'd discovered rec.arts.drwho, and was surprised to learn that, outside of the bubble of my own head, this episode was actually much loved by what Doctor Who fandom remained on the internet of the early/mid 1990s. So I purchased the then-available VHS special edition and watched it several times. By then, and with my then-ongoing college education, the story's references and allusions made more sense to me, even more so in the Special Edition where the Doctor and Wainwright have an aborted discussion about Nietzsche. Sophomoric college students love Nietzsche.
The Curse of Fenric was, then, the first Doctor Who story where I changed my opinion, as guided by online fandom. As I type this, I'm now more than a quarter century past that VHS purchase, and that makes 25 years of my life in which The Curse of Fenric has been a treasured bit of entertainment. Even though I still remember how angry the story made me in 1990.
Looking back to the DVD broadcast edition, I find that the episode is still a thrilling experience. The cast is so much more distinguished, with so much more gravitas, than the more bumbling crews of Battlefield or Silver Nemesis. Nicholas Parsons, a 61-year-old game-show host, nails Wainwright's sense of doubt and worry; his sadness is palpable in every scene. Dinsdale Landen is freakishly intense as the story's Alan Turing stand-in; Alfred Lynch's character is a very unsubtle allusion to Hitler and of the evils that can happen to even good men who go to war, but Lynch sells the role. Tomek Bork's authentic accent as Sorin is so many cuts above earlier Doctor Who efforts at foreign accents. Janet Henfrey, in a silly one-dimensional role, is so memorably despicable that I literally jumped and cheered when she returned, for essentially the same part, in Mummy on the Orient Express 25 years later. The list goes on. For its era, this is a phenomenally acted story.
Granted, not much happens in Part One. The Doctor and Ace flit about from location to location, having cryptic and enigmatic conversations with a succession of secondary and tertiary characters. But it's all interesting stuff -- the World War II setting, the Prisoners' Dilemma bit, Ace impressing Dr. Judson with her knowledge of logic puzzles, Millington wondering "whose thoughts" Dr. Judson's future artificial-intelligence machines might think, the Doctor quizzing Private Perkins about what goes on in the night, the Doctor and Wainwright worrying about the ancient runic inscriptions under the church, the Doctor and Ace prowling the churchyard in search of clues and the doomed Russian soldier whispering "No closer, please", as the teenage girls inadvertently wander closer to his hideout. Scene after scene of this is really jazzy, even if the cliffhanger is a bit of a dud, and even if it takes a few viewings to figure out which character is doing what in relation to whom.
Here's a story that measures its characters and dialogue with unusual clarity. Doctor Who had made "perfect" scripts before, with layers of meaning carefully interwoven throughout the script: The Crusade, The Tomb of the Cybermen, Planet of the Spiders (well, most of it), Logopolis. In this story, Wainwright struggles over the Christian inscription from I Corinthians, "faith, hope, and love"; moments later, Millington tells us that after the Russians steal the ULTIMA Machine, the Allies will detonate the machine remotely by having it decipher the word "love". Millington himself is specifically designed to resemble Hitler, although Briggs carries things a bit too far by giving him the first initials A.H. When Judson complains about his own chains, the ULTIMA machine later releases Fenric from the ancient flask by deciphering "Let the chains of Fenric shatter" -- and Judson then rises (from the dead) on his own two legs, his own chains having shattered as well. Briggs was only 30 when he drafted this script, mind you. I'm 15 years past that now and still don't have the intellectual complexity to be able to write something like this on my own.
Other moments, instances of the script echoing itself, are glorious, even if takes a few watch-throughs to find them. Kathleen Dudman's husband is killed in a shipboard fire -- and we learn this very shortly after the scene in which Millington sacrifies the two friendly Russian commandos while telling a story about letting some of own men die in a shipboard fire. Dudman is, of course, Ace's grandmother, and very soon after, we learn that Sorin's grandmother was English. Now, Fenric names Sorin's grandmother as "Emily Wilson", a descendant of Joseph Sundvik... but the novelization leads us to believe that Sorin's grandfather is actually going to marry... Ace; Future Ace, the time traveler. Again, this is the mark of a writer who is utterly, brazenly sure of what he's doing.
The title itself, The Curse of Fenric, is joyfully given several meanings by the script. The "true" explanation is given by Ace in Part Two, to the natural well of underground poison, which Commander Millington has specifically set up his base to harvest and later use to massacre the Axis -- and Russian -- forces. But Millington isn't just interested in the poison; he's also interested in the ancient Viking runes under Wainwright's church, for reasons explained more fully in Ian Briggs' superlative novelization. Those runes were carved by a Viking a millennium ago, the Viking who carried the Fenric flask out of the Arabian desert.... and that Viking's descendants make up all the characters in the story: Millington (name shown on the Sundvik gravestone), Judson (see the novelization), Wainwright (mentioned by Fenric in Part Four, though not hinted at in Wainwright's own scenes), and Sorin, through his English grandmother also a direct descendant of Joseph Sundvik.
The way the story echoes itself is remarkable; this is a very careful script. In Part Three, Ace tries out her seduction techniques on Sergeant Leigh, in order to distract him from guarding a Russian prisoner whom the Doctor needs to rescue. So we learn that Leigh is vulnerable to distraction by the fairer sex. In Part Four, how does Leigh die? ...at the hands of a half-dozen WRENS, comely young ladies turned into haemovores in the previous scene. Ah, Sergeant Leigh, you never learned your lesson...
Speaking death, Part Four just hammers you over the head with it, doesn't it? The broadcast version is notably choppy, with almost every scene topped-and-tailed, and with Fenric in Judson's body never appearing in the same location from scene to scene. The Russian troops are massacred by poison gas, Jean and Phyllis and the extra haemovores are killed by the Ancient One, Nurse Crane is killed by the haemovores on the order of Fenric (paying homage to his host corpse, who hated his nurse)... Almost every minute of the broadcast Part Four's running time sees somebody dying.
The production values are, as they were elsewhere throughout the Cartmel "masterplan" era, not fully up to the task of supporting the production. And I'm not talking about dodgy special effects, either. A story can overcome bad visuals -- The Ark in Space remains one of Classic Who's finest hours, even though it opens on a wobbly space model and features a hand covered in bubble wrap doubling as an alien infection at the Part Two cliffhanger. But in this story, the audio quality alone is inimical -- if not lethal. Chunks of early exposition in Part Three are drowned out by the patter of rain on umbrellas. Sylvester McCoy mumbles his way through the whole "Evil since the dawn of time" explanation. The Doctor murmuring the names of his companions to generate a faith-based force shield? Inaudible, drowned out by Mark Ayres' music. The Doctor telling Nurse Crane that Dr. Judson is dead at the cliffhanger and Millington then addressing Judson as "Fenric" as Judson, the paraplegic, literally rises from the dead? Barely audible. And Judson rising from the ground, while a profoundly creepy moment and worthy of the "We play the contest again -- Time Lord" cliffhanger, needed a better shot of Landen standing up off the floor and casting off the wheelchair. Oh, and while we're re-editing the story, we sorely need a reaction shot of Perkins after the Doctor congratulates him for wrecking the base's communications equipment -- and then tells him to put it back together again.
And, lastly, one inadvertent grace note. During the inevitable but still-riveting Part Three exposition scene -- where the Doctor and Wainwright pore over parish records to trace the curse of Fenric (well, one of them) through the descendants of the original Viking settlers, they learn that one of Joseph Sundvik's daughters was named... Clara. Steven Moffat, I am sure, was paying attention to this. It's not... Impossible.