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 evil has no name by Hugh Sturgess 13/10/21
Look, I'm not going to advance a radical revisionist position and say this story is bad or anything. It's justifiably lauded. Like the rest of Seasons Twenty-Five and Twenty-Six, it has far more in common with the new series than it has with (say) the Colin Baker era. In that respect, it's years ahead of its time. But I want to draw attention to the painfully obvious fact that the show is not yet able to execute being a neo-Who-esque combination of vaguely allegorical monster adventure and the family problems of the lead character. It's actually a sloppier, less well-executed story than less well-regarded episodes like Battlefield. I'm tempted to say that it is more than the sum of its parts, but that's not quite right. It's the individual parts that make it so memorable, but also the overarching story is so strong it overcomes the frequently messy, almost amateurish storytelling.
The latter McCoy era is the adolescence of Doctor Who. If the Colin Baker era was the equivalent of a 12-year-old boy, obsessed with outrageous depictions of violence and bright colours, Seasons Twenty-Five and Twenty-Six are maybe 17 or 18, when the show has matured a bit and realised that gross violence doesn't automatically convey depth and has got really into politics. The presence of Ace is partially responsible. Ace is, to put it gently, a troubled young woman whose hang-ups - hating her mum, thinking her real name (Dorothy) is lame, various acts of delinquency - are teenage hang-ups. But it's also the tone of the show itself. Suddenly it's bursting with opinions and angry, subversive political attitudes. Author Ian Briggs and script editor Andrew Cartmel want you to know that the Allied bombing of German cities was a war crime, that the Western Allies betrayed the Soviet Union at the end of the war, that even the "good war" was a bad thing.
But also, in a typically teenage way, it's trying to convey serious adult themes without the skill to properly realise it.
The change seems jarring for the production team as well as the audience. Season Twenty-Four looks and feels a direct successor to the gaudy, slightly kitsch Colin Baker era, but Remembrance of the Daleks seems to share nothing in common with either. From the out-of-nowhere new Doctor (played by the same actor, to be sure, but there the similarities end) to the impressive pre-title sequence and the outdoorsy, guerrilla-TV feel of the production, it's as though the show has been rebooted in an entirely new format. And the last two years of paleo-Who carry on as they started, but the clear awkwardness both McCoy in particular and the production team in general feel at the abrupt change in tone and narrative come Remembrance never quite disappears.
It feels like sacrilege to diss The Curse of Fenric, but the truth is that, for a genuine classic, a lot of it isn't very good. It runs very unevenly, chopping up the narrative and frequently leaping about in a hard-to-follow way, for which the extensive cuts to bring the episodes down to broadcast length can only bear some of the blame. The script frequently has trouble explaining the actions of its characters. An awful lot of the story is taken up by characters going somewhere for a minute and then leaving again with no clear objective attained. For instance, most of episode one has the Doctor and Ace go from one place to another - most notably when the Doctor and Ace go to the church to find Judson - then after a few minutes go to Maiden's Point, whereupon the Doctor immediately returns to the church. He decides to do this after they find the sealed Russian orders, but what about them made him go back to find out if someone had already translated the inscriptions? What exactly does he get up to when he wanders around the camp at night? (All we see him do is tell the patrolling corporal that there are "eyes watching".) Millington spends the "final battle" ranting in his office and then randomly wandering around the camp (something of a pattern) dropping great lines like "a traitor is someone who doesn't know who the enemy is" and shooting people. Characters often just appear wherever the story requires them to be (Sorin finding Fenric in episode four, the Doctor and Ace going to visit Miss Hardaker to talk to Jean and Phyllis).
Huge swathes of backstory are left unexplained. Mostly obvious on rewatch is the mystery of why exactly Millington wants to let the chains of Fenric shatter. He appears terrified of Ragnarok, yet in a single scene tells Judson that "all the dark powers of Fenric will be ours" once they use the Ultima machine to translate the inscriptions. Where did he get this obsession? (The novelisation says that Millington has been obsessed with Fenric and Ragnarok since he was a child, which doesn't really explain anything.) Millington is a nexus of the story's vastly overstuffed plot lines (a Cartmel characteristic), as he is simultaneously trying to release Fenric, develop chemical weapons to use against the Germans and also lure the Russians into stealing the Ultima machine as part of a Cold War plot. Millington is a great character, brilliantly portrayed by Alfred Lynch, but he's arguably the central driving force of the narrative and virtually nothing he does makes sense.
Against this, it really doesn't seem like much of a problem that the resolution of the insoluble chess game - that the white pawns join the black team - is patently ridiculous and is about as "brilliant" as just flipping over the board.
The personal side of the story is innovative for Doctor Who; companions' relatives had appeared before, but normally as a story hook, not as genuine character development or as an allegory for the broader story. But it's an experiment that isn't too successful in this case. The story asks us to believe that Ace forms a romantic relationship with Sorin after two meetings in which they exchange hardly a word, and her "love" for baby Audrey seems a little strong for a baby she's only just met. Sophie Aldred really struggles to convey Ace's internal turmoil, but she's given no help from a script that sets it up and resolves it too quickly. For all its ambitions, Doctor Who in 1989 isn't able to tell the emotional companion-centred story it wants to tell.
But I wouldn't lose this era's adolescent over-earnestness for the world. This is the era of Doctor Who that most rewards multiple viewings, as the production team cannot resist cramming as many ideas, themes and opinions as possible into every episode. One can't help but love the joyful subversiveness of depicting a British naval officer residing in an office decked out like a Nazi's while virtuous Russians aid the Doctor, or a Soviet captain holding off vampires with a hammer and sickle while an Anglican priest tries and fails to do the same with the Bible because he no longer has any faith in it. The characters frequently remark that the Russians are "our allies", but the story flips the Cold War script by making the Russians actually the heroes and the British close to villainous. What could have been an awkward combination - the Cold War intrigue of the Ultima machine, the British plot to let the Russians steal it and the secret chemical warhead buried inside it (ready to explode when it decodes the word 'love') and sucker-faced vampires and an ancient Viking curse - instead gives the story a feeling of constant eagerness to say something. The story is a whirl of great dialogue, often jamming in commentary on top of commentary (as with the throwaway line wherein Millington suggests dropping the poison on Dresden, an obvious tip of the hat to the firebombing of the German city later in the war).
And the Cold War story and the horror story are only two of the plot threads at work here. Ace's story with Kathleen/Audrey and Sorin (symbolising Ace's emotional and sexual maturity, respectively) and the Doctor's story with Fenric are almost entirely separate to either of those other threads. Plenty of Doctor Who stories could be spun from just one of the ideas at work here, and that's before we consider the backstories of Millington/Judson and Miss Hardaker, which Briggs had in mind but didn't include for obvious reasons (Doctor Who in 1989 was not going to give two characters a gay backstory or another a past sexual indiscretion).
On the subject of Fenric, this story is another good piece of evidence for the "secret history" theory of the seventh Doctor's motivations that I suggested in my review of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. In short, time and again in this era, the Doctor arrives on the scene and spends much of the story trying to work out what's going on, then suddenly knows everything and has a centuries-old plan up his sleeve. Here, he is clearly working out what's going on as it happens, yet by the time of the "evil, evil since the dawn of time" speech, he concedes that he knows everything about what's going on. As for Fenric himself, while the Doctor suggests that Fenric is an eldritch horror from before the universe began, his penchant for playing games with humanity has more in common with the Eternals of Enlightenment. The Who universe is certainly cluttered with ancient unknowable entities.
What makes this era of the show so precious, despite its uneven execution, is that for the first time since at least 1983, the people making Doctor Who are making it for reasons other than just "making Doctor Who". The end of the Davison era and the entirety of the Colin Baker era saw the show slip into a condition wherein making "Doctor Who", the venerable but increasingly cult TV show, took precedence to making something fresh, interesting or important. Doctor Who became a cargo cult where the glories of the past were recreated as if that would bestow some power upon the present. The Cartmel era is utterly different. Famously, Cartmel's pitch for the job of script editor was to announce his desire to bring down the Thatcher government, and during his time on the show he is using Doctor Who as a vehicle for the ideas and messages he wants to convey, and is enabling writers to do the same. For almost the only time in its history (parts of the Capaldi era approach it), Doctor Who is an angry, subversive piece of agitprop that almost openly foments unrest against the government. If you happen to like what Mrs Thatcher did to Britain, then I'm sure you won't enjoy this, but for me, the very idea of using Doctor Who in this way is really exciting. In its twilight, when the audience has abandoned it and it is obviously on its last legs, it is a show that exists to say something.
As with The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, The Curse of Fenric reads like a script that needed another few drafts to iron out the problems. It's far more worthy and enjoyable but is actually more amateurish than the Colin Baker era.
Doctor Who as it exists now - forty-five minutes of densely packed ideas and emotions in which the main characters aren't just plot functions but subjects in the own right - didn't just emerge fully formed in 2005. The first few series very rapidly but unevenly perfect the format, so that it is no more possible to imagine a story as slight as The Long Game being shown today than a story like (say) Battlefield. But Doctor Who took its first steps towards its current form back in 1988 and '89, and of course those steps aren't always confident. Neo-Who has hardly ever been the consistently political, subversive series the Cartmel era was, but for so much else about the modern show, the experience of the McCoy era was essential. It is a vital bridge between Trial of a Time Lord (or even Dragonfire) and Rose. Going from Survival to Rose is barely a jump at all. This was Doctor Who's first stab at a "new series", and it didn't work - but it is, for all its faults, one of if not the pinnacles of the show's original run.