The Curse of Fenric
Bigger on the Inside by Rob Matthews 12/3/02
Season 26 is one which both delights and frustrates me. The 'delightful' part will no doubt form the main bulk of this rant, so let's get the frustration out of the way first-
Only us fans know that the series ever got this good.
No, of course I don't mean to suggest that any member of the viewing public who watched this series would love or even like it. I mean, I think Doctor Who's great but I'm nevertheless amazed that it managed to appeal to a mainstream audience for so long. What sticks in my craw is the commonly-held idea that the show 'got silly', 'degenerated into farce' etc - it's the fact that McCoy is remembered for playing the spoons, for falling over and acting like a prat. All of which did happen for one season, McCoy's first, but then the show pulled its socks up in spectacular fashion for its two remaining years, and McCoy became a hugely successful Doctor - one who was almost the precise opposite of that useless 'comic' character he's remembered as.
Trivial, yeah, but you see it in TV reference books and on webites and the like, and its as if its become set in stone: The Series Became Too Silly. Yeah, the series about the hundreds-year-old man with two hearts who travels through eternity in a 4ft-by-4ft box.
Fortunately for us, the season did not end, as popular myth would have it, with the pantomime of season 24. It ended with a season that was refreshing, dark, rich, literate, character-centered, and yet never leaden. It ended by looking forward rather than back. I'm actually glad that the production team didn't know it was going to be the show's final season, because that would probably have led to something altogether more bloated, to some big 'last ever episode, which would have been a failure because self-indulgence or -congratulation never resulted in great Doctor Who.
In a review of season 22 I wrote some time ago, I claimed that Colin Baker's maligned debut series was to my mind Doctor Who's last 'real' season. Whilst probably exaggerating, I can't bring myself to completely disagree with my past, er, incarnation. My belief was that it was the last time Doctor Who the TV show strode on with complete confidence that its future was assured (the drawback, of course, was a strata of laziness in some of the writing). And it does still seem to me that from Trial of a Timelord onwards the show knew it was on the way out. Already hobbled in terms of its episode count, the McCoy years were a sort of 'last chance', an illusory one, as it's plain as daylight that in scheduling it against the UK's most - inexplicably - popular soap the BBC were trying to kill Doctor Who off.
So the end was in sight, it's just that no-one thought it would be thisyear. It was always deferred to maybe a couple of years down the line. But whereas I used to think of the McCoy years as a superb coda to the show proper, I'll admit it's probably only because they turned out to be just that. Given fairer treatment by the BBC - not that I can imagine any circumstances under which it such treatment would have been given -, the show could probably have bumbled on merrily with the cancellation crises forgotten. In much the same way, had Doctor Who ended, say, after season 7, it'd be easy to argue that season 6 was the last 'real' season because of the abrupt difference in tone. It's just hindsight.
So season 26 continued the near-reinvention of the show that began the year before; the Doctor-Ace partnership, the focus in on Ace's personality as the Doctor's receeds into the ether - Ace driving the stories on an emotional level, the Doctor driving the plot in a bigger and more active way, and as a more mysterious presence. Remembrance of the Daleks established the Doctor as now ready, willing and able to play dangerous games with his old enemies, The Happiness Patrol showed him storming confidently into an oppressive society to put it to rights all in one night... Silver Nemesis was a flop, it went too far, made him too powerful. Whereas Remembrance of the Daleks ended with the Hand of Omega darting back off to Gallifrey, Silver Nemesis depicted the Doctor as fully and permanently in control of an all-powerful weapon of mass destruction, which he used to wipe out the Cyber fleet, and presumably could have used to wipe out any number of other enemies and their planets whenever he felt like it. The story did, however, urge that season in a direction unusual for the show, in depicting black magic as something real, something that works. I'm ambivalent about this, but it was an important development which I'll come back to. In The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Manipulator-Doctor went to the next level. Whereas in Remembrance of the Daleks the viewer was allowed to finally understand what was going on, here the mystery was actually increased by the story's finale. The Doctor faced beings he referred to as Gods (again, invoking the supernatural), beings he claimed to have 'fought all through time'. To defeat them he relied on the timing of an apparently random series of events. Despite earlier indications to the contrary, it seemed the Doctor had known all along what was really going on. And we were left without the foggiest.
Then in season 26, all these elements were refined and developed further. Ace was more clearly the psychological focus of the stories, while the Doctor became an even bigger presence, almost as if that little man in the question mark pullover was just one facet of a gigantic space-time whirlwind. In Battlefield we learned he was known as Merlin in a future incarnation and an alternate universe. In The Curse of Fenric he resumed a chess game with pure Evil from the Dawn of Time, altering timelines and his companion's life as part of the game.
But amidst this fresh vision, the influences on the stories remained much the same as in earlier periods of the show's history - Arthurian legend, daemons and witches, Jekyll & Hyde, Dracula, werewolf lore (tweaked in Survival) - all these could have inspired the stories in any Letts or Hinchcliffe season. What was different was the approach - the writers and script editor attempted (some say pretentiously) to make the stories about more than just themselves, ie to make them more than simply Doctor Who for its own sake. Which, as it turns out, is the best way to make Doctor Who anyway.
Battlefield premiered the season, and got it off to a bit of a shaky start. The story was muddled and didn't make much sense, the music was absolutely atrocious (I think it was David J Howe who pinted out that, rather than add to the story, it actively detracted from it), and some of the sets, special effects and action sequences were overtly tacky. But there was good stuff there too. The occasional good line ("Do you mind, that's a very valuable piece of coin", "A non-stick bullet", "Arthur dead. Everything else propaganda", "Death gone mad") reminded us that this was from the same writer as Remembrance. The Brigadier got the best treatment he'd had at the hands of a scriptwriter in years, perhaps the best he ever got in the show. He was proud, brave, heroic, and still at odds with the Doctor after all these years. The Destroyer was superbly realised, even though his presence was pointless.
The story doesn't fit in too well with the rest of the series, essentially because the other three stories are better plotted and far less flawed - and also there's no real focus on Ace here as there would be in them -, but it adds well to the cumulative effect of this season and the McCoy era in general. I say that for these reasons -
The Doctor talking Morgaine out of launching the nuclear missile within 60 seconds is a great scene, harking back to his disarming of the guards in The Happiness Patrol and his grim pep talks with Kane, with the Supreme Dalek, and with Helen A. And, as was the case with Kane, it's Time that defeats the enemy. The passage of time thwarts Morgaine's intentions and and the Doctor is - aha! - it's champion.
Mordred repeats the Doctor's words from The Happiness Patrol, "Look me in the eye. End my life", a nicely subtle use of continuity.
Magic rears its head again. Morgaine and co come from an alternate dimension where the supernatural just seems to work. Morgaine is ageless and deathless, she can read minds, summon monsters (apparently 'from Hell', of all places) and control them with silver. And she can cure blindness. And the Doctor just accepts this, no questions asked. Taking the season as a coda to the show proper, this is disappointing, and very much at odds with previous arguments about the subject in the show's past. But season 26 isn't just the final season of the show, it's also the inspiration for the Virgin book line, which is where the property really grew up. From that point of view the sorceress Morgaine is a prototype of characters like the Pythia and the Carnival Queen, while Brigadier Winifred Bambera prefigures Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart as a strong, young female character whose presence in the narrative supplants the Brigadier's.
Next there's Ghost Light, a story with a crass and unsuitable name (I like the working title The Bestiary better), but an amazing density of themes, ideas and characterisation considering its length. Dealing primarily with the subject of evolution and its effect on the stubborn and dogmatic worldview of Victorian England (fairly similar to that of latter-day Texas), it dealt by extension with the hypocrisy and repression of that era (obvious targets, but also too obvious to ignore). And the dark old house riddled with slimy secrets also symbolised the skeletons in Ace's own cupboard - with the racism of the 'white kids' that burnt out Manisha's house reflected in the hundred-years-earlier comment of Inspector Mackenzie that the manservant Nimrod is a 'nasty-looking...foreigner (with) gypsy blood'. And Gwendoline's song, 'That's the way to the zoo' plays in the background as Ace tells the Doctor her story, foreshadowing Rev. Matthews' transformation but also refelecting the dormant savagery of the 'white kids' Ace is talking about.
I guess that's what I like about Ghost Light, the amount of things it does at once, the incredible tightness of the narrative. To get around the problem of its short running time, Marc Platt's script makes clever use of a literary shorthand - the numerous references aren't just there for the sake of being smartarsed, they have immediate associations ("Which of you is the Jekyll, and which is the Hyde?", "Gwendoline, this is a metamorphosis", "Let's go down the rabbit hole", "His hair turned completely white", "Quiet, Elisa"), which save a lot of exposition time. It's much like a Kim Newman story, a kind of 'remix' of well-known literary characters and situations that still manages to be original.
And this is something that should be borne in mind when you're watching it. Despite superficial similarities, Ghost Light is not comparable to a Weng-Chiang or or a Fang Rock; those were naturalistic narratives, this is an edifice of ideas. It is in fact a heavily stylised comic-bookish story in the vein of a Paradise Towers or a Happiness Patrol. You just notice it less because the basic elements are familiar from books and movies, and because its done more fluidly. It also owes a debt to Silver Nemesis, a story that tried to do far too much with too many disparate elements in too litle time. But in Ghost Light, every element links with the next, all the themes rub up against each other well, nothing is superfluous. It's a success because there's no moment where you're left sitting there tutting or shaking your head.
Aside from further developing Ace, the story adds a certain level of cruelty to the Seventh Doctor's character (a trait he professes to despise, but Ace gets a dig in on behalf of the audience) - he forces her to confront her nightmares and doesn't tell her that he's going to do it. The story also demonstrates again his tendency towards the melancholic side of his nature - something he positively championed in The Happiness Patrol -, ensuring that the clown character from Time & the Rani remains a distant memory.
(not that there's anything wrong with an essentially comic Doctor, but that just wasn't McCoy's strength)
The 'This is the house I told you about' scene remains one of the show's most important. The confrontation between Ace and the Doctor feels immediately more convincing than any other such moment in the show's past - only that scene between the Doctor and Tegan in Resurrection of the Daleks was as good, but that was written to end the character's relationship. It's was a confrontation that their friendship didn't survive. Here the Doctor and Ace have no intention of parting company - there's genuine antagonism, especially on her part, but they still love each other.
And this scene, indeed the story itself, virtually built the Virgin NAs. Paul Cornell, that line's shining star, ran with it, delving into Ace's old life in Perivale in cornerstone NAs like Timewyrm: Revelation and Love and War.
Josiah's choice of surname is interesting, considering the story was written by a fan - 'Josiah Samuel Smith' seemingly a variation on the Doctor's own 'John Smith' pseudonym from his enforced time on Earth. And Josiah too masquerades as a scientist. Ace even compares the two in one scene. And he's changed his form, 'regenerated', before. But where the Doctor has learned compassion, Josiah is all front, all Victorian hypocrisy. He's basically vile. His 'companions', though, are a dark parody of what we fear the Doctor's might really be to him - they're puppets and toys.
There's an undersung hero of this story and the remainder of the season who really needs a mention, and that's Mark Ayres, the bloke who provides the music. Gorgeous, gothic and evocative, it's as vital a part of the narrative atmosphere as Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo or Psycho scores. His themes for Redvers Fenn-Cooper, for Nimrod's tale, and for Gwendoline's breakdown add feeling, atmosphere and a sense of the characters' histories in a compact and stylish way.
Ghost Light was followed by that wacky historical romp The Curse of Fenric, an astounding mix of all the themes of McCoy's era, and an apparent culmination of this Doctor's battle against other-dimensional elemental forces. Equally importantly - because these stories consistently mixed the huge and conceptual with the personal -, it brought all the undercurrents (the story's metaphor of choice) of the Doctor/Ace partnership to the surface and resolved the issue of whether she could really trust him.
Magic and the supernatural get their biggest thumbs-up yet from the show. What recently struck me about this story is that it really shouldn't work for me. Pure Evil from the Dawn of Time? Come off it. That's the stuff of adolescent fantasy literature, it's banal. How can good or evil exist in a vacuum anyway? And yet the story does work, incredibly well. The conviction of the scripts, the stunning perfomances, and - again - Ayres' music just force you along with the flow. The Doctor's fear and horror of Fenric, revealed only momentarily, is the most important factor in making this convincing, because if even the Doctor - especially this Doctor - is frightened then Fenric really must be a force to be reckoned with.
And McCoy and Aldred pull off that sense of awed fear flawlessly in the confrontation scene in episode 3 - "You know what's going on, don't you? you always know, you just can't be bothered to tell anyone" she says, the Doctor muttering vaguely, almost under his breath, about "evil, evil from the dawn of time", hoping that Ace will give up and go away, Ace furiously yelling "Tell me!" as we've waited for her - and probably every other companion - to do for ages. In a way, it mirrors the scene I've already discussed in Ghost Light, except that now it's the Doctor's turn to spill his own particular beans, to expose his own fears. The suggestion that the Doctor might be the Good force from the Dawn of Time is there, in the symbolism of the chessboard, but fortunately the script doesn't go as far as to state it outright or dodgily hint at it in any of the lines. The Doctor as messiah would be toe-curling.
Curse of Fenric reaches back across the McCoy era, and pulls a couple of dodgy things into a new focus. "You think I didn't know? The chess set in Lady Peineforte's study?" is a positively goosepimply line when you watch the story for the first time, or even the second or third. Or tenth. The Doctor has just suggested Fenric kill Ace and now previous stories are being pulled out from under us (was it actually one of Fenric's timestorms that dragged Peineforte to the present day?). The dark, Norse God-battling Doctor is retroactively made a presence in even those earlier stories - "Ever since Ice World where you first met the girl", essentially bringing the whole era into sharp focus and crystallising it in this one scene. I've mentioned before in discussing The Key to Time season that I find a black-and-white worldview uninspiring in terms of drama, but Curse of Fenric finally becomes the opposite of that - when the pawns band together, they make grey. The Doctor can defeat Fenric and save his friend. Where there's life there's hope and all that. The universe is not as simple as Fenric believes, and he doesn't reckon on the nobility of the Ancient Haemovore. The archetypal monster, a hideous vampire, is this yarn's tragic hero.
Within the trajectory of the season, TCOF contains some fascinating elements. Here, faith is strength, it creates a psychic barrier that wards off the Haemovores. A secular version of faith, yes, depending upon the individual, but still in direct contradiction to the portrayal of faith in Ghost Light, where it's a crippling and lethal weakness which impedes Reverend Matthew's view of reality and makes him an unpleasant human being to boot. So the type of person who would have been filed away under "Imagination, comma, lack of" in Ghost Light would most likely survive an attack by Haemovores in Fenric.
Me, I tend to go with Tom Baker's words in The Face of Evil, "Never be too certain of anything, Leela, it's a sign of weakness"; that sums up what I love about Doctor Who. But it says a lot about the general excellence of season 26 that the stories can make me accept both viewpoints. What I mean is that Ghost Light and Curse of Fenric aren't having a scrap, they're having a civilised argument. (though of course one can only do that with an open mind...) Evolution, too, gets a negative treatment in Fenric where it got a positive one in Ghost Light. In the previous story the Doctor embraced it, demonstrating his true alienness and the scope of his vision in that oddly moving 'conversation' with the cockroach ("Don't worry, you'll soon work your way up"). Here, evolution turns humanity into bloodsucking monsters (though it's hinted that pollution is also to blame - which also ties in with Josiah's discussion of the adapting moths - a marginal eco theme links the stories too).
Commander Millington is worth commenting upon. At first glance, a Hitler surrogate - and interestingly the third of the McCoy era, preceded by the Chief Caretaker and DeFlores -, it then appears that we've misjudged him and that he's really more a friendly military presence in the vein of the Brigadier or of Group Captain Gilmore. And then it turns out that he is a Hitler surrogate after all. In this respect, the story has further resonances with its neighbours - The militaristic Brigadier in Battlefield was an essentially good man whose way of doing things clashed with the Doctor's. The militaristic Millington is an essentially evil man, but chillingly weak and pathetic about it. The Brigadier is willing to sacrifice himself, Millington is willing to sacrifice others.
Curse of Fenric, like Ghost Light, is also a vital progenitor of the NAs, giving us the image of the chess-playing manipulator Doctor battling supernatural or extra-dimensional forces. And as has been pointed out by Mike Morris -
-whose points I keep mentioning in my reviews, but its only because he's so brilliant -
-, the basic story was replayed on a grander, more extensive scale in those books, and they, albeit quite expertly, played down the fact that it was actually resolved here.
Cross-story resonances continue in Survival, the second story in the season to be set in Perivale (as much a part of the Doctor Who landscape by now as Skaro or Gallifrey). There's a reference to the Gabriel Chase incident by the TA bloke, and after Nimrod's lamenting the loss of 'the wild world' we now go there, and find it both seductive and unbearable.
Another Ace-centred story, Survival - working title Cat Flap - offers some Freudian delights with its planet of savage pussies. It also resurrects the Master, who, as the analogy goes, 'doesn't need to outrun the tiger, he only needs to outrun his friend'. Another opposite number to the Doctor, though in a very different way from Fenric, his cowardice causes his degeneration into animal behaviour. The Doctor doesn't believe in survival of the fittest, he believes in survival of the united; in civilisation, and civilised values. Hence "Workers of the world unite" from Curse of Fenric becomes "If we fight like animals we die like animals" in Survival. And the bloke who does live his life by a 'survival of the fittest' creed, the TA sarge (another variation on moustached militarism), is incapable of coping with the situation on the Cheetah planet. He's also killed by the guy who most took his ideas to heart. Midge isn't strong, he's weak, and that creed is an easy refuge for his cruel nature.
Again, the messages of the story are mixed. In some ways the story advises following your instincts (such as those about Home), in others it advocates rising above them. But what's most important is that you remain in control and always have the choice. The Master loses control because he doesn't have a choice. Civilised behaviour, compassion, was never an option for him. Even with the Delgado version the charm was a chilling masquerade.
When the Doctor returns home, it's Earth he goes to. David J Howe, who can be the most anal fanboy when he wants to be - witness his fretting over the French Revoltion book in Remembrance -, treats this as a mistake, but one that can be nicely tied in with the 'half-human' shite of the TV movie. It doesn't occur to him that Earth, where Ace is and where the TARDIS is and where the Doctor has spent much of his life, may well be the Doctor's home now. Besides, what a ridiculous and budget-consuming distraction it would have been to have the Doctor flashing into existence on the floor of the Panopticon.
Ayres' music is again the perfect accompaniment to the story - the guitars have an appropriately savage tang, and there's a general undertone of sadness running all the way through. By coincidence, mind you. No-one knew the show would end here. But his accompaniment to the Doctor's tacked-on yet still beautiful closing speech feels entirely right - there's not an abrupt change in tone, it's consistent with the rest of the story.
And by another coincidence, the original scripted words, too, make a lovely epitaph to the show -
"I felt like I could run forever. Smell the wind and feel the ground beneath my feet and just run forever" "The planet's gone. But it lives on inside you, it always will" "Good"
Didn't we all feel that the show could run forever? And indeed it has lived on, in our memories and in other media, because us fans won't let it die that easily.
So season 26 is a new beginning as much as an end. So satisfying that it gave the show a magnificent send-off, yet so brief that we welcomed the expansion of its ideas in the Virgin book series. And despite the differing thematic approach to the Eighth Doctor novels, the BBC owes a great debt to the NAs - they blazed the way and showed how the property could be done justice in print.
And all of them basically rooted in three great Doctor Who stories from 1989. Quite a legacy. Quite a season.
Darwinism and going home... by Terrence Keenan 22/4/03
Four stories. Two dealing with the misconceptions of Darwinism, one acting as a throwback to the past in the series, and yet one more battle with a godlike power.
Conventional Fan Wisdom (TM) states that season 26 is McCoy's best and features three amazing stories and one that has more a divided reaction. Conventional Fan Wisdom means little to me, so I divide the season in half. Two brilliant serials about Darwinism, and two awful serials dealing with fantastical elements that in the end, just don't work.
There is little good about Battlefield. I think if this had come out as a full blown, 300 page novel, it would work better. Performances aside -- which on the whole are just bad -- its the plot/story which cause the most problems. Ben Aaronovitch seems to change the direction of the story with each episode, almost as if he was writing it on the set and tossing it to the actors as soon as the page left the printer. Aaronovitch tries to toss in a whole new batch of mysterious elements, but unlike Remembrance of the Daleks, these annoy -- The Doctor being Merlin, a Future Doc leaving messages for his past self -- and lack the potential deniability that seemed to permeate the mysterious elements in Remembrance. The ending of the tale, where Morgaine allows herself to be arrested is laughable. As a commentary about the futility of war, Battlefield fails as well. Overall, a dire mess.
Ghost Light is weird. Good weird. Brilliant weird, even. A very simple plot is covered up with striking visuals and interesting character establishment. I didn't find it confusing on first view, but could understand those who did, as there are red herrings aplenty.
Ghost Light is also the first tale that deals with Darwinism. The theme is about change, which is the essential idea of Darwin's theory, boiled to a single word essence. However, what I found most interesting in the recent viewing is the misuse of evolution is just as prevalent in Ghost Light. Josiah Smith de-evolves the reverend as a way to show himself higher on the food chain. Light reduces the inspector to primordial ooze to show his own superiority. Control wants to be lady-like, to evolve into something far more than a base creature of animal instincts.
Ghost Light is also more about the relationship between Ace and the Doctor. The Doctor takes Ace to Gabriel Chase not only to help her emotionally but to investigate what caused Ace to burn down the house. The Doctor never got this involved with his companions in this way before. A bold move and one that adds to both the 7th Doc and to Ace.
Performances all around are strong. Even John Hallam's hammy Light isn't all that bad in context. Sylvester McCoy offers his best performance during the whole season, and even Sophie isn't all that bad. The guests all acquit themselves well.
And then comes Fenric. A painful, boring, mess. An incomprehensible nightmare of a story filled with bad coincidences, huge implausibilities, no internal logic, and atrocious performances.
Having just watched it again, I was awestruck by how bad it is on all levels. The only actor who shows any skills is Tomek Bork, but even he bollocks it up when he becomes Fenric. In my full review, I listed all the plot inconsistencies that bugged me, so I won't rehash them here, but I found one more... WHY THE FUCK WOULD AN ALLEGED EVIL FROM THE DAWN OF TIME BE OBSESSED WITH A CHESS PUZZLE?!? Now I know there have been some seriously implausible situations in Who before this, but THIS MAKES NO FUCKING SENSE! If you were an alleged Evil From the Dawn of Time, would you waste your time with a chess puzzle? No, you'd have your minions kill everyone in sight. And, while were at it... HOW WOULD AN ALLEGED EVIL FROM THE DAWN OF TIME BE KILLED IN A HUMAN BODY BY CHEMICAL WASTE WHEN IT HAD BEEN TRAPPED IN A PORCELAIN FLASK FOR 16 CENTURIES AND CAN HOP FROM BODY TO BODY AT WILL? Jon Blum has claimed that Fenric is dead in articles at OG and other places, but this ignores all other story logic to make this plausible.
And that is Fenric's biggest flaw -- lack of any story logic. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy shares a few common areas with Fenric, but has its own, consistent internal logic. And that doesn't necessarily mean explanations. GSitG doesn't have any, nor does it offer any. Fenric tries to have it both ways, offer explanations, yet render them meaningless. AAAUUUGGGHHH!!!!!
Let us move on to Survival. The other Darwin-inspired tale. Survival is more about Social Darwinism -- Survival of the fittest. Like Ghost Light, there are also nods to de-evolution in it as well. The other theme of Survival is going home. It is quite fitting that Doctor Who ended up in the present, in London, for its farewell serial.
Survival is flawed. The first episode is the strongest of the three, and can be perceived as a nod to magic realism -- the mundane and fantastical are collided together in the very opening scene. Some of the performances are not up to snuff. The Master could be any old villain.
However, Syl and Sophie are on the top of their game. Anthony Ainley exudes a quiet menace and desperation. There's a well done, if unsubtle, gay subtext in the relationship between Karra and Ace. The final confrontation between the Doc and the Master is brilliant. The Doctor's core belief is restated, Corrupted Darwinism is rejected, and those who wish to move onto a peaceful existence are allowed to live.
Four stories. Two interesting tales about Corrupted Darwinism and two disasters about... well about fanboy wish fulfillment and sloppy writing.
Classics! by Joe Ford 29/4/04
It's time to get the tissues out, it's the last ever season of Doctor Who for over a decade. Seasons Twenty-Four and Twenty-Five showed Doctor Who sagging a little, becoming more and more showy but lacking that certain sparkle tha t it had thrived on for over two decades. Was the final year the nail in the coffin for the longest running SF show?
Battlefield: I don't mind Battlefield at all despite the mountain of problems it has. The basic idea for the story is sound and although ever other show had done its spin on the Arthurian myth yonks ago it still works fine within the Doctor Who framework, this is a show that thrives on magic so why not write a story where the science on display is indistinguishable from magic? The emotional core is solid too, with Morgaine painted in a villainous light until it is revealed all of her actions are directed out of sense of betrayal from her one time love Arthur.
The biggest strength of the story though are the characters, most of which are great fun to watch. My personal favourites are Ancelyn and Bambera, the odd couple. It is rather wonderful that they are the exact opposite of what we would expect from their gender, he is softly spoken, gentle and calm and she is rude, butch and aggressive as hell! They flirt like mad with each other and the chemistry is like lightning, he even jumps into homicidal fury once he discovers she is 'dead'. Shou Young is also worth a mention, a rare cross-cultural character who has great rapport with Ace. But the piece de resistance is the excellent work that is done with the Brigadier; we get full access to his home life now he has retired as a mathematician. I love the scenes in episode one with Doris, these glimpses of domestic bliss are so uncharacteristic for Doctor Who (and the Brig) it is another glimpse into a genre the show could yet explore.
Morgaine makes an interesting baddie, something of a rarity in the McCoy era up to this point. Played by Jon Pertwee's ex-babe, Jean Marsh, this melodramatic character is given depth and menace of a sort we are not used to in Who. Her gift of sight to Elisabeth is a very powerful moment because it changes our perceptions of this thus far villainous woman completely. And her quiet admission to the Doctor that she loved Arthur is an extremely moving coda. I would love to have seen more of her.
All these wonderful people contribute to make this an entertaining four epis odes. Unfortunately Ben Araronovicth has taken a dip in the quality of his s cripting and the story is plagued by lots of bits that scream 'This is a coo l bit!' when really it is nothing of the sort. The UNIT Ids, "Yeti, Autons, Daleks!", "Good lord is that a spaceship!", "Oh come on Proffesor its not like I'm king of the Britons is it?", "BOOM!"... the list goes on a nd on. The story has quite a bit of padding too, a real issue in the McCoy e ra and could be edited down to three episodes without too much damage to the plot.
The direction too is lacking in places with a whole ton of embarrassing acti on splashed across the scene, silly stunts and all without much thought abou t how unrealistic it all looks. The Knights are cursed with inadequate spark guns and the explosion with Ancelyn hitting the brewery is unforgivable. Th e story doesn't feel as intimate as it should in places with nobody getting enough screen time thanks to the huge cast.
Plus McCoy and Aldred suffer in the hands of a poor script editor, Ace is once again written as a juvenile delinquent (when Aldred is trying to play her as a woman who has learnt something from the previous five stories) and the Doctor, in his Merlin role does silly things like leaving notes for himself. Of all the stories this year McCoy seems most uncomfortable in this one ("Morgaine! If they're dead!") although it isn't his weakest of the year.
The Last Word: Good, fun Who but it suffers from poor direction and scripting. The actors give it their best and salvage quite a bit from this strangely under and over written story.
Ghost Light: The second classic of the McCoy era, ten stories in. Marc Platt is a fan writer who appreciates just what fans want, not a bunch of crap continuity but original (although I dunno if I could use that word to describe Ghost Light given all the sources it steals from!), scary, funny Doctor Who. Me and Simon spent one evening going through the stories trying to pick out all the references and steals in the dialogue and tracing them back to their sources... the story stands up to repeated scrutiny thanks to its layered scripts which offer something different every time you watch it. Whether you want to watch a horror or a SF mystery or an ethical debate or a historical or a character drama... . you will get a chance to explore all of these at least once and even if the plot fails to penetrate your skull you will still be won over by the witty, quotable dialogue.
Atmosphere is everything and top director Alan Wareing makes sure you don't feel comfortable for one second. The setting, an old Victorian house is perfect for hiding all sorts of nasty surprises and there is a real sense that anything (floating, hypnotic maids or twitching insects or reptile husks) could come for you next. In fact years before The Chimes of Midnight and its sentient house Wareing was giving Gabriel Chase a personality of its own, a threatening, ominous dwelling that really feels as though it is coming to life .
You can tell this is the last story to be recorded because Sophie Aldred has matured into her role as Ace and takes the viewer on a roller-coaster ride of emotions. She is impossible to take your eyes of, the script offering her opportunities to emote sensitively and the result is hypnotising. In fact McCoy too gives his best ever performance, easily the scariest of Doctors when he tries and his sinister, silky voice works wonders in many the story's most disturbing moments ("We all have a universe of our own terrors to face").
The plot is actually surprisingly simple but you have to watch it at least five times to truly 'get it'. The performances from the guest actors are one hundred percent convincing and the set design is beautiful, the ultimate expression of gothic horror.
The Last Word: Just listen to Mark Ayres' score, threatening, emotional and intimate... this story in a nutshell.
Verdict: A plus
The Curse of Fenric: Another story of such quality that we have not seen since Revelation of the Daleks. Another period setting, the show finally getting in touch with its historical possibilities after a huge stretch of futuristic stories in the eighties. Another director who made a mess of an earlier McCoy story but succeeds with flying colours second time round (stand up Andrew Morgan). Another stylish production with some deliciously atmospheric location work and stunning special FX for the time.
It truly feels as if Doctor Who is starting to find its feet after three uns teady years. Grounding the show on Earth seems to working in its favour providing a realistic feel we haven't enjoyed since the season seven. The stories are taking the time to explore their characters, to slow down and explain the plot, to not get to wrapped in set pieces when there are gripping emotional stories to tell.
Go watch The Curse of Fenric on DVD without the cliffhangers and you will appreciate just how well the story flows. It feels like a novel in every respect, the characters and dialogue taking precedent over the action (although there is certainly plenty of that). The World War II setting is properly explored by offering a glimpse into two very different sides of the conflict and painting neither as good or evil. We get to see the human side of the War in Kathleen, Ace's grandmother, who loses her husband to the ugly conflict; Ace herself is taken on a journey of self discovery (how pretentious!) and finally making peace with the mother she claims to hate.
Much of the material is adult and gripping, horrific moments never shied away from by director Nicholas Mallet. There is a huge death count in this story and much of the nastier stuff is squeezed into the last two episodes whose pace never seems to let up. I love the attack on the church, an action sequence so well executed it would fit well into a blockbuster of the time. There is a palpable feeling of desperation in episode four as things go from bad to worse climaxing in the superb sequence where the Doctor orders Fenric to kill Ace. Such are his behind the scenes machinations it is possible to believe he could be telling the truth.
Which brings me to my only complaint, just one in an otherwise flawless story. McCoy. He's just not up to performing material this powerful and he drags down some stunningly written scenes ("But somehow the evil force survives!" or even worse when he rushes into the room screaming "Haaaaaaaaace!").
The Last Word: A multi genre story that satisfies on all levels. Not just great Doctor Who, great television.
Survival: Doctor Who has come home to contemporary London. This is another very well written Ace story that takes her on another journey, this time exploring her sexuality and sensuality. The story has a wonderful female edge to it, Rona Munro being only the second woman writer the show has known in twenty-six years!!! It really feels as though Ace's character is heading somewhere, becoming very confident with herself and projecting a confident image of womanhood, a far cry from the adolescent embarrassment she was in Dragonfire. In three stories she has become one of the most interesting characters the Doctor has travelled around with. And Sophie Aldred just rocks, she plays her intimate scenes so hauntingly that she really connects with the audience.
The violent, volcanic world of the Cheetah People is one of the best-realised planets in the shows history not only because of the gorgeous FX the desert landscape is treated with but the very clever idea of the planet and the creatures emotions being linked thus giving the world a personality of its own. Having the Master skulking about should dampen the story's effect but shockingly it has the reverse symptom, watching him losing a battle against his feral nature re-introduces a scare element to the character that has been absent for AGES. Indeed Anthony Ainley reigns in all that pantomime villainy and instead plays the role as he should have all along, genuinely desperate and willing to go to any lengths to survive.
There are a few production problems such as the animatronic cat and the appearance of Hale and Pace that attempt to damage its credibility but it is acted with such conviction and knocked together with real verve that the end result is very powerful indeed. It is a good sign of what we could have expected in the next season, Cartmel having now clearly found his niche and running like hell with it. Maybe another season of stories in this vein would have been too much but as a run of three very good stories this is the best quality Doctor Who has been for many, many years.
The Last Word: Sensual and seductive, another personal favourite.
Well what a reversal of fortune! Just when I was about to give up on Doctor Who as a programme that was in the hands of the wrong people to exploit its full potential along comes three stories in a row that prove me wrong! JNT and Cartmel had finally settled down into a satisfying relationship come the 26th and it was a crying shame that this was the point that the BBC decided to pull the plug. It was just a shame we had to go through the unfulfilling seasons 24 and 25 to get here, had McCoy begun his reign with this season I think the show may have continued for many more years than it did.
So just what was it that the script editor and produce had learnt from their previous two years that made this one such a winner?
No more oddball stories for a start. Even Ghost Light, which leant towards the macabre, was played in the fashion of straight historical drama in the best traditions of the BBC. Gone were the outrageous ideas of walking sweeties and homicidal cleaning robots and in stepped the exploration of relationships and settings grounded in reality. By setting each story on Earth in an instantly recognisable period the show was once again exploring real people in fantastic situations, something it always does so well. The stories might still have been fast paced and full of action but the emotional core of the story, the characters and their journeys were always more important. It was the year Doctor Who proved it could still be taken seriously and most of its stories still hold up beautifully today.
One of the biggest assets of the year was Sophie Aldred who (after her bizarre character regression in Battlefield, writer Ben Araronovitch having written for her much more consistently in Remembrance of the Daleks) managed to be the best thing about the last three stories the series ever transmitted. Finally they were calming her character down, breaking away from all the cod-cool dialogue and forcing her to grow up. It was such a shame that the show ended where it did because Sophie was really hitting her stride and I could imagine one more year and she would be one of my favourites.
There was a very interesting dynamic emerging between Ace and the Doctor; an awkward trust issue was building as he kept taking her to the root of her fears. It was quite different from the sixth Doctor and Peri where she distrusted him because of his manic regeneration, this was a calculated attempt to shape his companion, to have her learn from her mistakes of the past. Rarely had we seen an edginess like this before, scenes such as Ace turning on the Doctor in Curse of Fenric and stating "It's like it's some kind of game and only you know the rules!" proving to be all the more powerful because we know she's right.
In her three big stories Ace gets to explore her fear, her family and her sexuality. In ten episodes they had managed to turn her into one of the most interesting female characters on TV, let alone Doctor Who. And Aldred was so good at playing the struggling adolescent, her quiet anger in Ghost Light, her teary disbelief in Curse of Fenric and her emerging strength in Survival... Aldred was tested with some strong material in season 26 and she passed with flying colours.
Which is just as well because McCoy was more up and down than ever. It has been said over and over but this man just cannot play anger or any excitable emotions convincingly so when we brace ourselves for Battlefield's dramatic climax, the Doctor's beautiful speech on nuclear war it is reduced in impact significantly by McCoy's babbled delivery. Same with his "Don't move!" comedy/drama sequences in Survival. And his "She's only a child!" in Curse... it's all so melodramatic! Ghost Light threatens to be an entirely flawless performance until he finally lets rip with some wonderful ham and snaps at Light "Why don't you forget the survey Light... and goooo!"... oh dear.
However when McCoy was good this year he was excellent. These were dark times for the Doctor when his plans and schemes were at their all time nastiest. He was playing about with people's lives, manipulating events to suit his needs but was always doing it for the best of reasons. McCoy could be damn scary in season 26 and mostly in his quieter, more subdued scenes. One moment in Survival always catches me out when he rescues Ace from Karra and gives her the evil eye as he escorts her away. That look says more than a thousand words. Or his frightened, disgusted reaction to the poison bomb killing doves of peace in Curse. Better still is much of the work he does in Ghost Light, the darker, black comedy of the script seeming to suit McCoy very well and he delivers much of the tongue twistingly weird dialogue with barely restrained menace.
Another huge plus is that the show's production team were getting better and better and the look of the stories was often fantastic. Curse of Fenric has a practically flawless look, they could have visited 1940's Britain for all I know such is the authenticity. Ghost Light continues to impress throughout with its creepy, Victorian designs, the laboratory and hallway looking especially expensive. And that location work on the Cheetah planet... they convince you the budget is ten times its size. Having the last two stories entirely on location was showing a continuing trend of the naturalistic look of the stories throughout the McCoy era starting with Delta and the Bannermen, through Silver Nemesis and Greatest Show and finally up to date with Curse and Survival. It helps to sell the story if it looks a million dollars, it shouldn't, the script should be enough but let's face it we all enjoy watching good-looking television and these four are particularly good examples of Doctor Who in this case.
And the themes were all very interesting too. Evolution is explored with a wicked sense of humour in Ghost Light, it all starts out with funny references to Ace's hip clothes ("Perhaps one day you'll evolve into a young lady!") but turns sinister when we realise Josiah himself is evolving too, leaving reptilian husks behind to skulk in the basement. The Reverend Ernest Matthews is victim to the sickest joke of the story, his presence in the house to disprove Josiah's theories of evolution are turned on their head when he himself is de-evolved into a chimp! And finally one the show's best lines crop up as Inspector Mackenzie is reduced to "sugars, proteins and amino acids" ...the primordial soup of which life sprung from. This prompts Josiah to quip that his soup like form is "the cream of Scotland Yard", one of my favourite moments of the year.
We also get to see the Second World War from a number of perspectives. Judson as the Turing type code breaker, obsessed with his scribblings. Millington the Commander much more interested in the bigger picture. Kathleen, the working girl who finds out her husband has been torpedoed to death in enemy waters. Sorin, the Russian, just looking for a peaceful way to end the conflict. It is fascinating to see how these characters cope with the circumstances; even smaller characters like Captain Bates, unhappy about his Commander's homicidal orders but forcing himself to do his duty, make a huge impact on the story.
Yes this was indeed a very good year for Doctor Who, one of the best in over a decade. It does me (and fandom) some good to remember just how good JNT's first and last season were as producer and as much as we may moan about the mistakes made in the middle there were still a shocking number of classics in there to be cherished, often popping up quite unexpectedly. Season 26 certainly follows that pattern, after two years of experiments both successes and failures it would appear this shocking rise in quality proved our patience had paid off.
McCoy? Good Doctor, not so good actor. His era, more misses than hits and the stinkers really did stink but the classics really did shine. Without a shadow of a doubt any positive reaction to the McCoy era would be down to season 26.
A positive 9/10 for the last year of the show.
A Broken Kaleidoscope by Carl Rowlands 25/2/13
To understand the various (non) reactions to Series 26 of Doctor Who, it becomes necessary to understand the series' recent past.
Through the harshly contemporary eyes of today's 10-year olds, the series is primarily dated by the continued use of videotape recording, combined with the absence of digitised effects. This is in stark contrast to, say, Series 19's Castrovalva, which noticeably limps along in pace, aged by a leaden quality to the storytelling. Something huge had happened in the meantime, which meant that, by Season 26, Doctor Who had, in effect, totally reinvented itself, moving beyond its conventional formula. Whilst the better, stranger episodes of the Davison era were already hinting at new directions the series could take, it failed to decisively follow up. The result is that the contrast between early-1980s and late-1980s Who is conspicuous: in terms of character development, in terms of atmosphere, and in terms of plotting.
It's almost impossible to explain Season 26 in isolation. Low viewing figures were no reflection of the quality of the stories. They were, if anything, a latent verdict on Series 23 and 24. Series 23 saw the final collapse of old-school Doctor Who in the face of internal BBC opposition, low budgets and, possibly, an exhaustion of ideas... or at least, an inability to identify and maintain quality. Arguably, the 'cold reset' button for Doctor Who was actually pressed - hard - after Trial of a Time Lord. The programme was never the same again. Series 24 saw a rushed foray into slapstick children's television, which did much to further wreck the series ratings viability, especially in the eyes of its teenage-ish target demographic. Having offended the late 1980s legion of surly teenagers, further frivolity - even such as that represented by an arch metaphor such as Kandy Man - was seized upon as further evidence for the prosecution, regardless of the increasingly dark and cerebral (if scatterbrained) storylines of the era.
For many of us , it didn't matter at the time whether or not The Curse of Fenric was excellent Who-as-Hammer. People had complained about a TV programme - and justifiably. It showed no sign of improvement for a while; they drifted away, and confirmed their response with others. That's how Doctor Who's audience dissipated. The real hardcore convention-goers persisted, or those with nothing better to do, or those with a thing for Sophie Aldred, but many of the more casual Doctor Who fans drifted off.
The best stories of Seasons 25 and 26 show that it was our loss, for at least some of the time, anyway. However, bringing an audience back would have required an unprecedented level of high-quality, week-in, week-out; something Doctor Who, with its production staff of human beings, was rarely able to achieve, even in the Tom Baker era. It was a tough call, to expect people to recommend this era of Doctor Who to their 16-year old friends, when they could be landed with an sprawling, over-excited low-rent mess such as Battlefield - or even worse, a spectacularly amateurish and self-deriding cliffhanger a la Dragonfire. I'm convinced that, given more time and some more resources, a core of talented writers would have been established, which would have allowed a more consistent level to emerge, but this is not an argument you could make to most viewers in search of midweek TV entertainment. The move from apparently childish entertainment to the surrealism of much of Series 26 - not least, the abstraction of nascent gang culture in Survival - was disconcerting, and it was too easy to (wrongly) dismiss the latter as being the consequence of a frenetic, belated hunt for credibility. The lack of artifice and trendiness makes Series 26 especially endearing in the light of the TV movie and, to a certain extent, today's Moffat-era Doctor Who.
Within the remaining demographics who were tuning in for these 30-minute snatches, I think two groups really appreciated this era. Firstly, younger children, who responded well to the dynamic between the Doctor and Ace, which was perhaps the best, and most balanced team in Doctor Who during the 1980s, despite any individual limitations. The other group were probably quite a bit older, who tolerated the missteps, and understood the new series as offering a modern, quirky take on sci-fi and fantasy elements. Such persistence was amply rewarded by Ghost Light, one of the strangest and most bizarre stories to emerge under the Doctor Who title, and a marker for a different New Who, which the current, intensely populist TV series often refers to, almost in passing, and sometimes almost in opposition. It's this conception of New Who which appears to have been the prime influence behind many of writers for the Big Finish audio adventures. It's still out there.