“The Curse Of Fenric” (season 26, episodes 8-11; originally aired 10/25-11/15/1989)
“The Curse Of Fenric,” like many Doctor Who stories, is about a battle to stop an impending apocalypse. It was also close to an apocalypse for Doctor Who in real life: This was the second-to-last story the series aired before its cancellation. And that was a real shame—because while “The Curse Of Fenric” isn't brilliant or even much above average, it does represent a huge improvement over the embarrassing mess of the Sixth Doctor’s seasons 22 and 23, and one which provided a clear direction for the current revival.
“Curse Of Fenric” also shows how Doctor Who’s greatest strength, its ability to reinvent itself, wasn’t limited to a change in lead actor, but was driven by behind-the-scenes changes in production staff—in this case, by the addition of the classic-era series’ final script editor, Andrew Cartmel. Cartmel and Sylvester McCoy, who played the Seventh Doctor, came on board at the same time, in the wake of a catastrophic meltdown that had resulted in, among other things, previous star Colin Baker getting fired. Their first season, led off by “Time And The Rani,” wasn’t much of an improvement, but Cartmel and McCoy both pushed for changes and received, by their third and final season, a pretty solid reinvention anchored by a new take on the Seventh Doctor—the comic buffoonery of “Time And The Rani” was downplayed, with McCoy now portraying a slightly bumbling but ultimately wise and mysterious near-mystical figure who acted as surrogate father to his spirited but troubled companion Ace (Sophie Aldred).
The character dynamic works so well that it’s almost unbelievable how infrequently it had been tried in earlier eras of Doctor Who. Leela, who I wrote about recently in “Talons Of Weng-Chiang,” was half-heartedly meant to be an Eliza Doolittle figure, but the typical amount of character development forDoctor Who companions was, well, kind of none. Even the best companions, like Sarah Jane Smith or Jo Grant, tended to arrive on scene about as fully developed as they were going to get. I don’t mean to say they weren’t good characters—just that the idea of characters who changed and became different people over the course of time was not one that Doctor Who was really about in the classic age. If Turlough’s reluctant-assassin story starting in “Mawdryn Undead” marked the first real attempt at something more fleshed-out, Ace was the first time a companion was given a full-fledged character arc. Especially in this final season of the show, she would continually be confronted with situations—often engineered by the Doctor himself—that would expand her horizons and force her to grow. This was one of the core aspects of Doctor Who that Russell T. Davies picked up on when he reinvented the series in 2005, becoming a key part of the character of Rose, and which Steven Moffat picked up on as well with Amy Pond.
It’s a shame the show had to get the ax just when it was starting to be good again—nowhere near its mid-1970s golden age, but not half bad either. But without the strength of this last season, it’s possible that the later renewal of Doctor Who might never have happened, and probably wouldn’t have kept such a direct tie to the old series—because who would want to shackle themselves to the Colin Baker era? But the McCoy years, I think, are more influential on the modern series than they’re usually given credit for—because of the forefronting of the companion as the long-term driver of the storyline, and because of the way the Doctor is portrayed as a game-playing master manipulator who often knows far more about what’s happening than he’s letting on.
All that said, let’s dive into the story at hand: “The Curse Of Fenric” starts strongly and has some terrific moments, but gets convoluted and confusing toward the finale. I don’t think it’s aged well visually, and often looks cheap and feels cheesy, but the way it takes chances and stretches the boundaries of what Doctor Who was about is admirable, even if that might have been too-little-too-late for a show that would be off the air in two months.
The Doctor’s travels are often random as far as anyone can tell, but in “The Curse Of Fenric” and its preceding episode “Ghost Light,” he has an unspoken agenda, taking Ace to places that are important to her but not actually telling her that fact. In this case, she’ll be forced to confront her unresolved anger toward her family by taking her to an English military base during World War II, where she’ll meet her grandmother when she was a young soon-to-be war widow caring for an infant girl—Ace’s mother. Besides Ace’s family problems, the story mixes in the early computing age via the Enigma machine and the wheelchair-bound Dr. Judson (who was based on computer scientist Alan Turing and whose frustration about his handicap was a nod to Turing’s difficulties as a gay man living in the 1940s, a topic too touchy for TV in 1989). Plus there’s World War II intrigue, sunken Viking ships, genocidal Cold War politics, chess, an eerily disembodied Lovecraftian villain, rebellious teenage girls, and, because Doctor Who basically requires some form of rubber-masked monster to show up, there’s the Haemovores, a horde of underwater vampires with a needlessly convoluted backstory involving time travel, the historical Dracula, and the potential future evolution of humankind. That’s a lot of thematically unrelated material, and in the end I think writer Ian Briggs picked too many targets to hit any of them squarely. But “The Curse Of Fenric” does hit sometimes, most notably where Ace is concerned.
In some ways, Ace’s arc was a deliberate attempt at a do-over of the Leela-as-Eliza-Doolittle story. Her pre-“The Curse Of Fenric” backstory, quickly: A modern-day teenage delinquent from the London suburbs who was fascinated by explosives, Ace had somehow created a time-rift in her bedroom and gotten trapped on a distant planet in the future, where she was stuck working at a (horrors!) fast-food restaurant. The Doctor found her there in the story “Dragonfire,” and promised to take her home via the scenic route. The trip lasted all the way through the last two seasons of classic-era Doctor Who, and along the way, Ace grew up. “The Curse Of Fenric” gives her several solid character moments, nailed pretty effectively by Aldred, that show how far she’s come. My favorite moment is a small one in the first episode, when she’s hanging out with her two new friends at the beach and refuses to go swimming with them, but at the same time can’t admit that the reason is she doesn’t want to disobey the Doctor’s instruction not to go in the water, and so simply tells them “swimming is stupid.” There’s something endearing about that line and the way Aldred delivers it, capturing someone who’s torn between delinquency and being responsible, between obeying her surrogate dad and giving in to peer pressure. Ace gets a much more grown-up moment in the third episode when she sets out to seduces a British soldier to distract him while the Doctor rescues his Russian prisoner. That was a risky and sophisticated move for Doctor Who back then, which was a long way from the hypersexuality of Jack Harkness and Torchwood. It’s an odd little scene, largely because it’s structured as a vampy seduction and yet the lines Briggs gives Ace are oddly detached and cosmic: “You have to move faster than that if you want to keep up with me. Faster than light. Sometimes I move so fast, I don’t exist any more.” If I had been the soldier Ace was talking to, I probably would have said something along the lines of “What the hell are you talking about?” But for some reason I love that instead, the guy is fascinated by her anyway, and asks her to tell him more. I don’t buy it as a sexual seduction, but I do buy it as Ace somehow getting through to the guy on some other level about her experiences as a traveler through time and space.
On the bad side, “The Curse Of Fenric” is frequently undone by less-than-graceful dialogue and low-budget effects that sometimes land on the wrong side of cheesy and spoil an otherwise effective moment. The glowing Viking runes are fake-looking, and it’s painfully obvious that a lot of the scenes taking place during rain are augmented by a garden hose. The teenage vampire girls with their absurdly long claws are about as scary as the ones who show up at my house on Halloween asking for candy. But the cliffhanger at the end of episode three is probably the worst, just because that’s exactly where Doctor Who’s format requires its shocking moments to be truly shocking, and instead the first appearance of Fenric in the flesh is merely Dr. Judson with glowing eyes and the Z-grade Bond villain line “We play the contest again, Time Lord.” (In case you’re worried, you do find out in the next episode that he’s not talking about the contest from Seinfeld.)
The concept behind Fenric is disappointingly diffuse, particularly since Doctor Who had been offering up powerful-but-trapped ancient evils as foes for the Doctor for many years by this point. In fact, Fenric pales in comparison to say, Sutekh from the 1975 serial “Pyramids Of Mars,” who was compellingly frightening even though he literally couldn’t move, thanks to good dialogue, a great vocal performance by Gabriel Woolf, and an Egyptian motif flavoring the story that was simple and powerfully clear. Fenric, though, is all over the map iconography-wise. What is he supposed to be, exactly? Given all the Viking stuff scattered liberally through the story, as well as the fact that Fenric calls his human pawns “wolves,” we’re clearly meant to think of the Fenris Wolf of Norse mythology. But then where does the urbane obsession with chess and intricate, long-running gamesmanship fit in? Or the ability to possess human victims? Or the Doctor’s implication that Fenric is an evil spirit predating the universe itself? It doesn’t gel together. The Norse Fenris wolf was a savage beast that lived in the icy wastes and bit off people’s hands, not something that the Doctor would have met in an ancient desert and defeated by posing a chess puzzle it couldn’t solve. They’re two completely different kinds of character, and since the villain in a Doctor Who story is the main driver of what the story is about, “The Curse Of Fenric” spins its wheels.
The Haemovores are equally confounding. They’re underwater vampires who have been slowly capturing and converting humans for hundreds of years, plucking them from ships and shorelines to slowly turn into blue-green sucker-faced monsters hiding away in the deeps. It’s an intriguing slant on traditional vampires, inspired partly by Alan Moore’s similar bloodsuckers in the “American Gothic” arc of Swamp Thing, but also picking up some of the vibe of Creature From The Black Lagoon and the evil mermen of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” There’s also a nice variant on the old repelled-by-crosses motif, in which what matters is not a crucifix per se but strong and genuine faith in something. That leads to several of the best moments in “The Curse Of Fenric,” including the death of Reverend Wainwright, who finds that regaining his faith in God doesn’t make up for his wartorn soul’s loss of faith in humanity, and the Russian soldier who successfully puts his faith in the hammer-and-sickle symbol of Communism. If Briggs had just stopped there, the Haemovores would have been terrific Doctor Who monsters—and even with the convoluted baggage he also stuck them with, they’re easily the best and most memorable villains to be introduced in the 1980s with the exception of the Mara of “Kinda.” But Briggs gilds the lily by shoehorning in a vaguely explained, left-field bit about the king of the Haemovores actually being the last representative of the future evolution of the human species, captured by Fenric and sent back to the far past, apparently to build a vampire army. The complication adds nothing to the story except to make it harder to follow what’s going on or to suspend your disbelief as the fantastical elements keep piling on. Combine that with the mishmash of Fenric, and the story becomes like a stew made out of randomly chosen items from the refrigerator with no thought given to whether any of the flavors complement each other. That’s ultimately why “The Curse Of Fenric” doesn’t stick in my mind even though I’ve seen it at least four times over the years—there doesn’t really seem to be anything at its center, no organizing motif or metaphor, no single dominating idea. It’s still pretty entertaining by the standards of 1980s Doctor Who, but that’s also the problem, in a nutshell, with 1980s Doctor Who. This is the best you’ve got? Maybe it really is time to let the show go dark for a while, then.
- Because the original edit of “The Curse Of Fenric” ran too long for broadcast, it was cut down significantly, losing about 20 minutes or so from the first cut. Now, in the DVD era, there are several versions floating around—the original 1989 broadcast version, a later video edit made in the 1990s with extra material, and an even longer version released on DVD.
- One other great bit riffing on the different kinds of faith that can repel vampires: The Doctor’s dialogue in episode three, which is mostly covered up by the soundtrack music: He’s reciting the names of his companions from earlier adventures, starting with Ian, Susan, and Barbara. Also note the earlier scene when McCoy talks with Ace’s grandmother about family, and he reveals indirectly that he no longer knows if Susan is alive. Guess he never did come back after abandoning her at the end of “Dalek Invasion Of Earth”…
- Upcoming schedule: We meet another Time Lord for the first time when the First Doctor meets The Monk, a rogue with a TARDIS and a plan to alter British history, in “The Time Meddler,” followed two weeks later when the Second Doctor tangles with the Ice Warriors in “The Seeds of Death,” after which the Third meets them again in “The Curse of Peladon.” Then we’ll hit the Davros-era Dalek tales in order, starting with “Genesis Of The Daleks,” and on through “Destiny,” “Resurrection,” “Revelation,” and “Remembrance”—interspersed with some non-Dalek material as well, including the First Doctor story “The War Machines.”