The Curse Of Fenric and I go back and long, long way. In fact, this was only the second Doctor Who story I ever saw (the first being Death To The Daleks) way back in 1991 when I was six years old. I didn’t get into Death To The Daleks at that age, so this is the point where I trace the beginning of my fandom – having said that, I can quite honestly and categorically say that watching this story for the first time all those years ago was the most scared I have ever been in my life. Perhaps that’s why the McCoy title sequence never bothered me too much – I associated it with this story so instead of it being brash and gaudy I found it menacing, signalling what was to come in this story. I was so frightened that I didn’t watch this story again for years and years (meaning that my ancient VHS tape is still in great condition) but now, aged 21, The Curse Of Fenric stands proud in my top three stories of all time.
It begins as it means to go on: scarily, with two Russian dinghies heading towards the English coast. Under the water lies the forgotten remains of a Viking longboat, and on the surface a strange mist is falling. The rear dinghy is enveloped…and vanishes. Only one of its crew is found later, washed up on the shore – a gibbering, petrified wreck. I could go on like this for the distance, as it’s such a captivating story that knows exactly how to get a reaction from the audience – be it excitement, interest, puzzlement or terror – and executes it brilliantly. Part of its appeal lies in the unease and fear created by the sense of the unknown, the bread and butter of successful horror. The fact that the soldier Gayev is unable to say what has terrified him so badly, the scene becomes even scarier. I’ve gone on in my reviews elsewhere about my love of a good, absorbing mystery, and Gayev being mute works much more effectively than a cheesy “it was…it was…aargh!” which a lesser story may have employed. This sense extends to the plot: what is the Viking longboat doing there? We find out later, but rarely do we learn anything conclusive. This is evidence that this story is at least as confusing (not to mention thematically rich) as the preceding Ghost Light. Great though that story is the general weirdness of its plot and themes are its be-all-and-end-all; The Curse Of Fenric on the other hand is much, much more.
You look differently on things depending on what mood you’re in. This is such a good story that I actually really like both Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred in it. I’d say they’d both improved since their debuts and to an extent this is true, but Aldred’s performance in much of Battlefield suggests a flaw in this. It must be said that elements coming together is a key factor in the overall impression of a story – a scene or a line might work very well in a story like this, but may just annoy if in a weak story. Anyway, I’m waffling a bit: they’re both on good form here, both clearly enjoying the brilliant script.
Dr Judson’s office is a good example of the quality of the period detail of the story: historically accurate yes, but fundamentally an ordinary room which helps create a sense of realism; visually gorgeous as it was the sepia-tinted The Empty Child very definitely takes place in Blitzworld™, a Second World War that is definitely an artistic construction, whereas it’s easier to believe that this could be real. Dinsdale Landen is brilliant as the tortured Dr Judson and – spookily – he died the day before the DVD arrived from Amazon.co.uk.
Petrossian’s melodramatic comment that the evil is “cold against your skin” is cheesy, but the scene is rescued by Tomek Bork as the noble(ish) Captain Soren. Apparently Bork was upset at being asked to play a fervent Communist, raising the question about why he auditioned for the role of a fervent Communist, but whatever he felt he gave a performance to be proud of. Ace lying in bed listening to a crying baby is truly chilling, and is followed immediately by Petrossian being clobbered by something that comes out of the sea – this mystery is reaching critical mass. However, I should say that the new 5.1 surround mix replaces his scream with a different one that doesn’t sound half as good as before.
The exchange between the vicar and Miss Hardaker is a brilliantly written one, with Wainwright’s doubts introduced early on without being rubbed in the audience’s face. Unfortunately Jean does not convince as a Londoner, although I’m more inclined to think that Joanne Bell as Phyllis is speaking with her natural accent – which in turn sounds weird when she is eventually turned into an Haemovore, possibly because of the traditional image of the erudite, upper-class vampire. The line of “Maidens’ Point? Well, that rules us out” shocked me a lot when I heard it, as it’s really not what I expect from an original series story; indeed it has only just been added to the DVD as its inclusion in the 1991 video release would have meant a 12 rating. If this was a Russell T. Davies episode I’d be lashing into him right now – but if this was a Davies episode that would have been the third such gag so far (I know, cheap shot).
The ULTIMA machine is very impressive but the thought that it can translate Viking runes is rather implausible and almost spoils things until you remember that these runes were cut specifically for use in the machine, as their translation facilitates the release of Fenric. This is followed by the Doctor revealing to Ace that there’s been subsidence in a grave – the implication is clear, but rather than darkly dwell on it (“something’s been moving under there…”) the Doctor cracks a witticism about Communion wine. This means the subtle implication is left to linger in the mind unaided, adding to the atmosphere, and it also shows that the Doctor knows what’s going on but isn’t telling. The fact that we can’t trust the Doctor adds greatly to the sense of unease, and Ace forlornly reading off a list of the dead Vikings is wonderfully atmospheric.
The sense that the Doctor is leading the audience behind is heightened when he finds the sealed orders from Russia (which the Commandos would really like to get back) but refuses to explain what they are or what they mean – the audience is left to make their own conclusions when it is revealed that they share chilling parallels with the runes in the church crypt. The first scene with Millington in his office is almost dialogue free, showing how much the music adds to the atmosphere: Mark Ayres is the one person I can think of who can make synthesiser music work in a period setting. The aforementioned translation of the runes is as spooky and atmospheric as everything else, and would make a great poem if a bit of creative editing was done on it. The scenes where it is read are helped greatly by cutting to the runes or to the unique underwater photography (okay not quite unique as Paradise Towers had some, and so did Warriors Of The Deep etc…but who cares about them?); this is much more interesting than merely lingering on the reader, and shows what a good director Nicholas Mallet can be. In fact, it almost makes up for him allowing us to see “PEX LIVES” written on the wall too early in Paradise Towers.
Next we see the dead Russian soldier under the water, which is one of this story’s several nightmare moments. However, my marginally stronger constitution now allows me to look at the scene a bit more closely and you can definitely see his eyes move. Then again, paint my face white, immerse me in water and tell me to play dead and my eyes’d probably move too. That or I’d die. I say paint my face white: he was a black man apparently, and they did a reverse minstrel on him to get that ultra-realistic “deathly pallor” look. Tasteful.
Cory Pulman makes a pleasing impression as the hard done by Kathleen Dudman, although the baby’s Superted toy is the kind of anachronism you’d think someone would have noticed. Also, for Aaron Hanley (who’ll be around sixteen at the time of writing), being able to say he’s been in Doctor Who at a time when the show is quite well-regarded and mainstream again carries less street cred than you’d first think when you consider he’s playing Sophie Aldred’s mother. Alfred Lynch is also good as Millington; I didn’t react well to his deadpan character at first, but it has grown on me a lot over the years.
Into part two, and the drowned soldier waking up is the moment that freaked me out the most as a youngster, and therefore is my candidate for Doctor Who’s scariest ever moment for the default reason that it’s the moment that scared me the most. QED. However, the close up of the Haemovore’s hand looks very fake and rubbery – you can even see the bubbles escaping through the hole in the glove. They definitely work better in long shots. Fenric getting round the Doctor’s plan of giving the translation to Dr Judson by burning new ones into the wall is a great plot device, but I do feel it could have been better explained as it took me years to work out what was going on in this story. I’m alright now, I understand it because I’ve had so many years to think about it, but looking at it objectively I have to criticise it. I’m no fan of crass exposition, but sometimes the plot is a little too cryptic for its own good. It does lead to a nice revelation from the Doctor though, about nine hundred year old runes that weren’t there before (although wouldn’t Judson have noticed too?).
Nurse Crane is a great character. Making someone annoying is a difficult task for a writer and actress as they can’t genuinely irritate the audience; the viewer must like being annoyed by them to feel an appropriate level of schadenfreude at their eventual demise. Here this works very well. Ace’s anger at the poison (glowing green, naturally – my earlier comment about The Empty Child succumbing to simulacra applies here to an extent) is rather poorly acted, letting the side down a bit. However, Aldred makes up for this with the lovely scene where she comforts Wainwright over his loss of faith, which also has a parallel with The Empty Child. The ULTIMA machine is booby trapped with a big green bottle of poison in full view, which is rather silly, although it does lead to an amazing scene where Millington reveals to the Doctor exactly how the toxin will be released. The Discontinuity Guide asks how the Russians expect to get away with the ULTIMA machine in their little dinghies: firstly Millington suggests that they only want a part of it, and in any case unless they rowed all the way from Norway it’s safe to assume that they have some transport waiting somewhere, out at sea.
I’m still not sure how Millington and Judson know about Fenric. Then again there’s a lot I don’t understand about this story; it is ripe for fan speculation, which is always a laugh (except when it gets out of hand). My theory is that Fenric implanted the knowledge in their heads, since he’s been manipulating their entire lives.
More atmosphere (yes, more) comes when Jean and Phyllis are swallowed by the sea. They work much better as zombies (apart from the aforementioned accent) as there’s less call for them to be naturalistic, which really isn’t their strength. Here’s another interesting nugget: when the Doctor tells Kathleen he doesn’t know if he has family, she replies “it’s the war isn’t it? It must be terrible not knowing” to which he replies “yes”. This takes on a double meaning in light of the new series…maybe there was trouble brewing even at this stage in his life. Nice bit of retro-active continuity there. You’ll have to excuse me one moment as my head appears to have become lodged in my bottom, but I think I’m alright now.
Ace explains to Judson about the logic diagram, which is the closest we get to some proper exposition. Come to think about it season 26 is full of complicated plots – apart from Ghost Light (which needs no mention) there’s the ambiguous link between the Cheetahs and their planet in Survival, and Battlefield which is just generally garbled. The Haemovores also appear properly now – they are well designed, costumed and shot which is reflected in the fact that like the Zygons they are popular monsters despite only having one appearance in the show.
Into part three and it’s raining all of a sudden. Since the changing weather was by necessity worked into the plot I really don’t have a problem with it and I think its weirdness adds a lot. In fact, the special edition’s regrading process takes something away because although the faded colours are there the light and shade is still that of bright sunshine, so if anything it looks even less realistic. What’s the problem with it being rainy while the sun is shining? That happens. There wouldn’t be rainbows if it didn’t. I’m waffling again, aren’t I? The Haemovores marching along the foggy beach look wonderful.
The scene where Kathleen rebukes Ace for suggesting she’s an unmarried mother is a good one; Ace often puts her foot in it in period stories but here it feels natural and a mistake that could genuinely be made, as opposed to calling a nineteenth century gentleman “bog brain”. The later scene when she learns of her husband’s presumed death is also brilliantly acted.
The curse being passed down through the generations taps into a derivative but successful idea that mankind is being manipulated, although it does raise the question of whether there’s a conflict of interest between Fenric and the Fendahl. Next we come to the famous battle in the church. This is pretty ordinary, with the seeping water being unimaginative nonsense, and is only really notable for the reappearance of Ace’s ladder last seen in Ian Briggs’s previous story Dragonfire. While it worked in such a silly story as that, it feels like too much of a contrivance in a more realistic story here and also shows how elements of Ace’s character were not built upon by other writers. It is notable that we get more “professor” lines here than in any story since Dragonfire too.
Eeeeeevil, eeeeevil since the dawn if tiiiiiime! It’s a well written scene, but Sylvester McCoy is floundering hopelessly. It’s a shame as it’s potentially a good scene as well as being an important one for the plot, but all people do is laugh at it. Ace manipulating the soldier is a disappointing scene though, and possibly the worst of the story. She’s there talking utter gibberish, and this highly trained soldier’s standing their lapping it up. Sorry, I don’t buy that. After this the word ‘Ingiga’ comes out of the ULTIMA machine – it took a long time to work out that Ingiga refers to “the great wyrm” or something like that, and so here probably refers to the Ancient One. The cliffhanger is great, if slightly cheesy, but it loses something in the feature version as all the build up comes to naught. Much as I like the feature version it’s not perfect – while I appreciate having to edit the episodes into one for timing reasons some of the cut outs could have been better left out, such as lingering shots of people sitting or walking that add nothing to the story. Fenric’s teleporter is a great special effect though.
Ace’s cry of “Mum, I’m sorry!” is a good subtle moment of characterisation, and is soon followed by a well directed sequence where the soldiers shoot at Phyllis and Jean. Fenric’s “eulogy” shows a villain with a black and twisted sense of humour, which is very rare and makes it such a great villain. Nurse Crane’s death is deeply disturbing, helped by Landen’s unsettling smile; the guest cast of this story have a fairly high mortality rate of 64.7%, and these deaths are the deaths of real, fleshed out characters. Phyllis’s and Jean’s deaths are also good, and the Ancient One comes across as a very sympathetic character. I like the shock of Fenric passing into Soren after being defeated at chess (yes that’s derivative too but it’s still pretty stylish). My only gripe is that Fenric keeps going round with his eyes shut.
The revelation that the baby is Ace’s mother is great, although the flashbacks added to the feature version are unnecessary and overstate the point. The Doctor’s dark betrayal is another great moment, as McCoy seizes the opportunity to play to his strengths. The notion that Fenric has been following the Doctor’s travels affecting the chess set in Silver Nemesis gives the McCoy years a proto-Bad Wolf set up, which is nice. My only gripe with the ending is that Fenric is killed so easily; okay so Soren’s body is killed but does Fenric die so easily when deprived of a host? That’s disappointing. Also, the bunker exploding for no good reason is melodramatic and should surely release the poison. The final scene is beautiful, but again the feature version (through necessity of some technical problem) cuts out the Doctor’s final line. This is a disappointment, although it’s still a great sentiment to end on.
The Curse Of Fenric is very nearly perfect, and the teeny, tiny flaws I’ve mentioned can’t diminish its greatness at all. This story defined my childhood terrors and as such affects me deeply – therefore, ironically in such a long review (3070 words), I find it quite hard to sum up quickly. Therefore, I’ll end with a message to all the parents who complained that The Unquiet Dead was too scary: your kids may have sleepless nights now, but in ten years time they’ll never get enough of it.
Season twenty-six of Doctor Who threw up some great stories. ‘Survival’ and ‘Ghostlight’ are widely recognised as being Doctor Who of the highest order, and rightly so. OK, so ‘Battlefield’ was pants, but every season contains at least one shocker. Out of the four stories broadcast that season was a Doctor Who story that I consider to be the best of the best, ‘The Curse of Fenric’.
It can be difficult to review this story as there are really three different versions floating around. There is of course the 1989 original broadcast, which is also included on the DVD release. Then there is the early nineties video release, which contains new material not originally broadcast, and finally the special edition DVD release, including even more new footage, a new 5.1 Dolby soundtrack and new CG special effects. Scenes are also rearranged so that the whole thing plays much more smoothly, as the director Nicholas Mallet originally intended. In my opinion, all of the things that make this story so great were already in the original broadcast, so that is what gets reviewed here. The special edition is just icing to the already delicious cake underneath. Also, it is probably unfair to review the special edition alongside episodic televised stories, as the thing has had a lot of extra care taken with it (outlined above).
In fact reviewing ‘The Curse of Fenric’ isn’t only made difficult by the various versions of it that exist. It’s made more difficult by the fact that it’s a near impossible task trying to nail down just what the story is all about. Is it a), an anti-war story, b), a vampire story, c), a character study of Ace as she grows into a woman, d), a story about ecological disaster or e), a WW2 war story. It’s all of these things and more.
Set during WW2 Ace and the Doctor travel to a secret military intelligence installation on the English coast, where base Commander Millington and Dr Judson are cracking Nazi codes. They also appear slightly preoccupied with Viking rune stones, for reasons that are made more apparent later. Thrown into this mix are Russian Spetznatz commandoes who arrive to steal the computer that is cracking the codes. Unknown to them, the computer contains a chemical bomb that will detonate when a certain word is decoded back in Russia. As if all this wasn’t enough, vampire hordes (Haemovores) rise from the sea and summon the ‘ancient one’. As the story unfolds we learn that this is all a backdrop to an ancient game played out between Fenric and the Doctor.
All of these elements could have made ‘The Curse of Fenric’ an unfocused mess, but I feel the chaotic narrative structure (which is more apparent in the broadcast version) is suited to one of the themes that Ian Briggs was writing about; Chaos. The story is essentially an anti-war piece, with Fenric representing war and chaos. As the story unfolds more and more people die senselessly either at the hands of the Haemovores or the soldiers, who spend the final episode dying in their droves. The Reverend Wainwright is actually one of the more important characters in this regard, as he has lost his faith because of the horrors of war and ends up losing his life as a result. On the DVD, Briggs talks about sex being an important part of the story also, but this is alluded to far less in his scripts, (it is primarily a children’s show after all!).
Moving away from the plot and themes, it has to be said that ‘The Curse of Fenric’ looks superb. Entirely shot on location, the story contains an atmosphere that very few late eighties Doctor Who stories ever did. Mallet directs superbly, especially considering the time constraints. As Briggs points out on the DVD, ‘The Curse of Fenric’ was recorded on a fourteen day shoot, which is very little time when what they filmed was essentially a feature film.
Mark Ayres’ score is haunting, creepy and a pleasant move away from the horrible Keff McCulloch synth-rock music we got during the majority of the McCoy era.
Performance wise, ‘The Curse of Fenric’ can’t really be faulted. McCoy gives one of his best performances as a much darker Doctor. Now, many people have a problem with the idea of a ‘dark Doctor’. I’ve never really understood this, as in my opinion it makes the character of the Doctor far more interesting. He doesn’t just wander into situations, bumbling around finding solutions by accident. Now he has a plan, he often knows what is going to happen and doesn’t mind using the people around him like pawns. Ace, at the end of episode four, has to broken down in order for the Doctor to defeat Fenric, and to do this he has to destroy her faith in him.
Speaking of Ace, this has to be one of Aldreds finest hours in the show. She plays the part with a maturity not often seen before. This story, like other season twenty-six stories sees Ace being a pivotal feature of the action, so it was important she performed well.
The supporting cast are all excellent, especially Nicholas Parsons as Wainwright, even if he didn’t have a clue what was going on (on the DVD commentary he sound absolutely bewildered and completely confused!). Perhaps the only criticisms of the performances that could be made would be of the two young evacuees, Phyllis and Jean. They act as if they are appearing in a dodgy sixth-form production, and actually have quite substantial roles in the story.
If you haven’t seen ‘The Curse of Fenric’, then you really ought to. Any preconceived notion about the McCoy era ‘all being a silly pantomime’ will be blown away by the best Doctor Who story ever.
‘The Curse of Fenric’ is an unusual story in that the version most widely accepted by Doctor Who fans is not the version originally broadcast. Whereas extended versions of both ‘Silver Nemesis’ and ‘Battlefield’ have been released on video, neither really gained anything that was missing from the original broadcast version; ‘The Curse of Fenric’ however benefited enormously from the few extra minutes of material incorporated into the video release. More recently, the original televised version has been released on DVD, but with an impressive extra in the form of an even longer cut that has been fully reedited and includes even more footage than the previous video release. The actual story isn’t significantly altered, but both extended versions flow more smoothly than the comparatively truncated original, with the extended DVD version apparently closest to the vision of director Nicholas Mallett. None of which is massively important here, except in that it is the extended DVD release that I have watched on this occasion, which doesn’t significantly affect this review but might be of interest to the more curious reader.
Anyway, turning to ‘The Curse of Fenric’ itself, it is a story that is more difficult for me to review than might be expected. As with any Doctor Who story often described by fans of the series as a classic, there is very little that hasn’t been said about ‘The Curse of Fenric’. Partly this is because it can retrospectively be seen as the archetypal Cartmel story, the culmination of all the finest qualities that he strove to bring to the series during his tenure as script-editor and because it arguably had a far greater impact on the New Adventures than more obvious candidates such as ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’. My reasoning for this is that here we see the Doctor at his most manipulative, as he uses Ace as a pawn in a game that started long ago with an ancient evil from the dawn of time. It also sees Ace starting to grow up and develop as a character, more so than any previous story, as she confronts her feelings for her Mother, has her faith in the Doctor shattered and also starts to obviously become aware of her sexuality. ‘The Curse of Fenric’ also seems to be aimed at an older audience than that which Doctor Who is traditionally perceived to have aimed for, with doses of horror including vampires, corpses, and chemical warfare. ‘The Curse of Fenric’ is a grim and gritty story in which almost every supporting character dies and puts Ace through emotional hell. Finally, ‘The Curse of Fenric’ is also riddled with subtext, much of which writer Ian Briggs discusses in the DVD extra Shattering the Chains, and which generally concerns sex and faith. Most of this is obvious, such as the “seductive” appeal of Jean and Phyllis and Ace’s later distraction of the guard, Wainwright’s wrestling with his faith, Sorin’s faith in the Russian Revolution, and Ace’s faith in the Doctor, some less so; I’d never made the connection for example between Doctor Judson’s physical disability and Alan Turing’s homosexuality. For fans who dislike such blatant subtext in Doctor Who, ‘The Curse of Fenric’ is probably an especially bad example of all that was wrong with the Cartmel era, but for better or for worse, it signposts the direction in which Doctor Who would go in the New Adventures more clearly than any other story from the period, as a whole new generation of young writers would bring their politics and opinions to the good Doctor’s adventures.
An exploration of the subtext within ‘The Curse of Fenric’ should not detract from appreciation of the story at its most basic level however; it is a very good slice of Doctor Who, which for the most part has aged extremely well. The plot is well structured so that suspense builds throughout the first half of the story, as questions are raised about the mission of the Russian commandoes, Commander Millington’s agenda, and the significance of the Viking curse. Once what was originally the cliffhanger to Episode Two is reached, the story shifts gear; once the Haemovores emerge onto land the remainder of the story is a fast-paced thriller, with explanations coming thick and fast as both Fenric’s and the Doctor’s plans become clear. This structure works highly effectively; there are no reprieves once the Haemovores attack as the Doctor and Ace find themselves facing threat after threat as the endgame draws near and bystanders die one by one.
Crucial to the success of this plot is the characterisation, which allows the actions of the supporting characters, the dangers they face, and their deaths, carry real impact. The Rev. Mr. Wainwright is a case in point; he’s a tortured soul desperate to believe in the essential goodness of humanity but increasingly unable to do so against the backdrop of World War II. The scene in which he reads from the Bible is crucial to his character as it illustrates his crumbling faith far more effectively than the taunts of Jean and Phyllis, but all of this would just be so much subtext were it not for the fact that Wainwright is thoroughly likeable. The massively underrated Nicholas Parsons conveys Wainwright’s uncertainty and fear very convincingly; his bravery in facing his terror is admirable and it makes the fact that his faith ultimately proves too weak to save his life all the more poignant. Basically, all of Briggs’ characters are human; Mrs. Hardaker is an old battleaxe whose strict attitude towards her charges automatically predisposes any young (or just liberal!) members of the audience to dislike her. She throws words like sin around very easily, and shows an unshakable faith in the “good book” whilst Wainwright expresses doubt about the morality of war, which is the blind faith of somebody who unthinkingly follows doctrine rather than attempting to understand what it is they actually believe in. Janet Henfrey captures all of this perfectly, looking and sounding every inch the strict governess, and yet when Jean and Phyllis actually kill her, we briefly get to see her smiling and relaxing as she listens to music rather than the severe and apparently cold person that she has been portrayed at up until that point. Which is important, because it means she isn’t just another corpse to boost the story’s body count in a way that possibly appeals to fans that think that ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’ is “adult”, it means that she is a human victim whose death feels like a loss.
Perception of death is very important in ‘The Curse of Fenric’. The Russian commandoes, Sorin included, are prepared to kill to succeed in their mission, but again Briggs and director Nicholas Mallett make sure that the deaths that they cause are not lightly forgotten. The home guard soldiers killed on the beach are laughing and joking as they go out on patrol and Prozorov is deeply troubled at having killed them; it doesn’t make it any easier to excuse the actions of him and his fellows, but it does explore the horrors of war in a quiet way that is rare in Doctor Who on television. Sorin is a particularly interesting character in this respect, because of what he believes in and what he does, and the way Ace responds to him. Some fans have expressed a serious misgiving about the fact that Ace is attracted to a man that embraces a regime that killed millions of people; I think this misses the point however. It’s very easy to think of Stalin and forget that originally, the Russian Revolution succeeded because Lenin had the support of many of the ordinary people. It is easy, but foolish I think to dismiss such people as “evil” out of hand; we don’t know why Sorin has such faith in the Revolution and we don’t know whether or not he is aware of the atrocities that Stalin was committing at this time. Because we don’t know these things, and because Sorin is portrayed as a man prepared to kill for what he sees as the greater good, the character becomes more powerful because the script encourages us, largely via Ace, to see him as a person and grow to like him. He is portrayed as a man of conviction and courage and Tomek Bork brings a warmth and charisma to the role, all of which helps to create conflict in the viewer. In a story in which the principle villain is “pure evil”, such muddying of moral waters makes for fascinating characterisation.
A rather less likeable character is Alfred Lynch’s Commander Millington. Like Sorin, Millington is a man prepared to kill for what he thinks is the greater good, but unlike Sorin these actions are harder to justify. Juxtaposed with Wainwright’s angst at the thought of British bombs falling on German cities and killing German children is Millington’s willingness to use a chemical weapon on a Russian city at such time as they cease to be Britain’s allies, a stance that he explains by telling the Doctor, “It could end the war”. Millington is a man who has stared too long into the abyss, whose obsession with tapping into the Nazi psyche has made him a monster; his speech about the men trapped behind a bulkhead on a burning ship is terrifying, not because it is impossible to understand, but because he uses it to excuse the deaths of the two Russians sealed in the mine shaft with the haemovores. The men who died on board the ship might well have been sacrificed to save the rest of the crew, but there is plenty of time to save let the Russians out before the haemovores reach the end of the tunnel. The deaths of the crewmen on board his old ship is uncomfortable too; there may be logic behind it but it is given an all too human perspective shortly afterwards in the shape of Kathleen Dudman’s grief over the news of her husband Frank’s death.
‘The Curse of Fenric’ is also notable for the characterisation of the regulars; this is Ace’s best story, as she grows up noticeably, and Aldred puts in her first real decent performance. Her concern for the baby is convincing, and she manages to convey fury at the Doctor when she realises that he knows what is going on. Ace thus works as somebody to whom the audience can relate for the first time, and she gets some nice scenes; critics of the Cartmel era often dismiss her faux pas over the fact that Kathleen is married as a just another piece of the social commentary that they argue unnecessarily clutters the era, but whatever else it may be it is also a nice reminder of the period in which ‘The Curse of Fenric’ is set. I wouldn’t give a second thought to the possibility that Kathleen might be single mother any more than Ace does, but it is a reminder that this is set in an era when it was a real stigma that people were ashamed of. Having said of all this in praise of both actress and character, the scene in which Ace distracts the guard is woefully overrated; it is a self-conscious and self-satisfied piece of dialogue that doesn’t really convince and is delivered in a horribly unnatural manner by Aldred. Nevertheless, considering how bad Ace’s dialogue was in Briggs’ previous ‘Dragonfire’, her only truly appalling line here is “Who do you think you are, armpit?”
And finally there is the Doctor. ‘The Curse of Fenric’ shows the Doctor at his most manipulative, as he plays a game of chess (both literally and metaphorically) with an ancient and powerful foe, in which people die. It is often suggested that his actions here are less damning than those in ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’; certainly he doesn’t destroy any planets here, but many people fall along the wayside and whilst it can be argued that he tries to save as many people as possible as he battles Fenric, I should like to point out that there is no reason given why after their last encounter he couldn’t simply have taken the flask that he trapped Fenric in and dumped it in a black hole like he did with the Fendahl skull. In addition to which, the Doctor’s psychological abuse of Ace reaches its peak here, as he destroys her faith in him to defeat Fenric, reducing her to tears; he clearly regrets his actions afterwards as he tries to reassure her that he didn’t mean it when he called her an emotional cripple and told Fenric to kill her, but personally I’d never trust him again. None of which is a problem however, since I like this darker aspect of the Doctor, one that would reach new heights in the New Adventures. I also find it rather amusing that the chess move with which he confuses Fenric is utterly illegal, which means that he won last time by cheating… McCoy’s acting is very good here, even during his “evil from the dawn of time” speech, when he has to convey anger, something that he often has trouble with. McCoy’s Doctor broods throughout, creating the impression that he is weighed down by the choices he hasmade and is forced to make, and it works beautifully.
Overall, ‘The Curse of Fenric’ is a story in which everything comes together. Mark Ayers’ atmospheric score is crucial to the mood of the piece and has aged very well. Nicholas Mallett does a superb job of directing, and he manages to get the best from his actors, all of whom give excellent performances, with the exceptions of Joann Kenny as Jean and Joanne Bell as Phyllis, both of whom are fine until their characters turn into vampires after which they become a bit hammy, albeit not enough to seriously compromise the production. The sets mesh perfectly with some stunning location work. The special edition benefits ‘The Curse of Fenric’ even more, as it is given a spit and polish and little details like the stakes carried by Sorin can be seen in context for the same time. Andrew Cartmel’s approach to Doctor Who reached its zenith here; ironically, only one story later, it would all come to an end…