Doctor Who Sunday: The Curse of Fenric
Due to the fact we can’t physically watch and review every classic Doctor Who story before the 50th Anniversary, we have decided to check out two episodes in each Doctor’s era every week until the 50th. This week is the Seventh Doctor’s week, featuring Remembrance of the Daleks and The Curse of Fenric. For those looking for another good episode to understand the Seventh Doctor, also look at Survival.
The Curse of Fenric is the third serial of the 26th season of Doctor Who. This four-parter also has two other versions: one from the 1991 video release and a 2003 special edition DVD version.
“Evil, evil since the dawn of time.” A story which is set in a secret naval WWII naval camp, and has numerous cool elements: vampires (called Haemovores – creatures which consume human blood and are repelled by faith), an evil demon thing that possesses people it has placed a curse on, Russian soldiers (what story is not improved by the communist Russians?), a priest who is having a crisis of faith, a crippled but brilliant scientist, and a mad military commander.
Into this scenario step the Doctor and Ace, dressed suitably (much to Ace’s annoyance) for the time period. Although the story is quite fast paced, and a little confusing (which is a characteristic of later Seventh Doctor stories – Moffat-era stories have nothing on these ones), it is solid. What drives the story along are its strong characters, and the horror elements. Really, it should be watched having an appreciation of the relationship between the Doctor and Ace, and ideally having watched the stories Dragonfire and The Silver Nemesis, as these are mentioned within The Curse of Fenric. That being said, once you have an understanding of the story, it is definitely enjoyable.
For a bit of backstory, Fenric is one of two disembodied entities which came from before the universe (others that appear in Doctor Who include the Great Intelligence and The Beast). As the spiritual form of evil, it was previously been defeated by the Doctor, and was trapped in a flask in Hungary somewhere. Although trapped though, Fenric was powerful enough to still exert an influence on the events and individuals around him. Due to events in history, Viking raiders managed to gain a hold of Fenric’s flask, but a being called the Ancient One, a super-powerful Haemovore which Fenric brought back from a future Earth, hunted down and killed them all. All the descendants of the Viking settlers were infected with the “curse of Fenric” – basically Fenric could influence their lives, and, in the Curse of Fenric, these descendants come to be called the “Wolves of Fenric”.
Confused? That’s just the backstory! But with that in mind, it is important to note that the story itself is not that complex: there are just a few smaller stories which all get tied up in the larger arc. As an aside, this serial itself is part of two arcs: the first being what I personally call the “Fenric Arc”, which has some subtle (probably not thought through) references during the earlier Seventh Doctor stories; and the other is Ace’s personal arc, of which is the middle story. It does help to watch these other stories, as it can be a little confusing without them (or someone who has watched them to guide you through).
Story aside, the characters are well written, with the possible exception of Commander Millngton. The Doctor is at his most manipulative and callous in this story. As Ace notes in frustration, he seems to know everything that’s going on, but doesn’t deign to let others, even Ace, in on his machinations. Not to spoil the story, but he has a truly nasty scene when he is dealing with Fenric, which brings out the Doctor’s alien and thoroughly alien nature.
Ace is still strong and gutsy as ever. On top of that, she is really fleshed out as a character – much more than most Classic and even most modern era characters. She is revealed to have an extreme hatred of her mother, enough so it makes her dislike anyone with the same name, even a little baby. She also shows her first official on-screen romance (though some of the other characters she interacts with are pretty suspect…), a Russian captain called Captain Sorin. The other characters are constructed well; Doctor Judson, brilliant but extremely bitter about being bound to a wheelchair, especially towards Commander Millington, whom he knows personally from high school; Captain Sorin is a loyal and clever Soviet commando who is smitten with Ace, and has undying faith in the Russian Revolution; the Reverend Wainwright, who has been suffering extreme anxieties about his faith since the start of the war; Fenric, who is arrogant and malicious, and hell bent on the destruction of earth for his own amusement; the Ancient One, who was whisked away from his dying future to obey the will of Fenric, but still has enough free will to think and have independent dialogue. The only character whose lines seemed to make little sense was Commander Millington’s. With an understanding of Fenric’s curse and the backstory between Judson and Millington, it becomes clear why Millington is the way he is, but for a first time-viewing it seems rather flimsy, although his dialogue does move the narrative along.
In conclusion, the Curse of Fenric is definitely enjoyable to watch. The horror themes, the dark nature of the Doctor, Ace’s backstory and her on-screen romance all make enjoyable viewing. It is still a very complex story, however. Unlike most of the other Doctor Who stories so far, where the viewer hasn’t needed much prior knowledge of the show, The Curse of Fenric requires at least a little bit of research to appreciate its nuances and enjoyability as a story. In conclusion, it is an enjoyable watch, although a little confusing for the first viewing.
Who is Fenric? Well, if you haven’t watched much of the Seventh Doctor’s run (and even if you have), you might not know.
The Curse of Fenric is set during World War II, but unlike most narratives set in this time period, it does not feature Nazis as the main bad guys. Instead (and here’s a twist), while there are Russian soldiers on an English naval base (oooooh, scary), an English scientist (Judson) and an English commander (Millington) are the bad guys.
This story involves a supercomputer which decodes ciphers, vampire/zombie creatures called Haemovores, a mysterious, ancient evil known as Fenric, a kind of Viking curse and a very unsubtle relationship between a Russian revolutionary, Captain Sorin, and Ace. While it does get a little confusing – for example, I wasn’t sure why Commander Millington was acting so bizarrely with no in-story justification (hint: he’s being influenced by Fenric’s power) – it was a satisfyingly rich story, with excellent side characters. Aidan explains the backstory and plot in much better detail above, and I won’t go into it further, but I’m told the novelisation really fleshes out the backstory if you’re really keen to learn more about this story.
Ace’s character goes through an rough time in this episode, but she is still the darling of whatever time she finds herself in. She impresses the scientist Judson with her knowledge of logic puzzles, charms two girls she meets at a church and of course, has an excellent chemistry with Sorin. Unfortunately, her friendships often go awry, and most of these don’t end well. Without giving too much away, Ace finds herself in a tough situation in this episode, with the Doctor saying very harsh things to her. The scene is one of the most powerful I’ve seen in any episode of Doctor Who, and is a testament to both Sylvester McCoy’s and Sophie Aldred’s acting.
The Doctor is particularly cunning in this episode. While perhaps not quite as casually callous as the Sixth Doctor can be (such as when he happily let humans drown/disintegrate in a pit of acid in Vengeance on Varos), he’s quite deliberate and calculating in what he reveals to his companions and what he doesn’t – something that Ace calls him on. And of course, there’s the scene involving Ace above, which is stunning. He also has some humorous moments, such as when he forges an “official” letter which states he and Ace are allowed on the base, finishing moments before a soldier walks in and demands that they leave.
As above, the side characters in The Curse of Fenric are actually well worth staying for. While at first you’d assume that the Russian soldiers are the bad guys, the English on the naval base are far more dangerous, especially Commander Millington and Dr. Judson, who have dangerous plans for Germany, as well as the world. There’s a small side story concerning Ace’s brief friendship with a woman on base, which later takes on greater meaning, a priest who has had his faith badly shaken by the events of the war, and of course, the Russians. Most are nameless lackeys who meet bitter ends, but the named Captain Sorin is notable first as he and Ace have an adorable relationship, and secondly for his unwavering dedication to communism, which is not depicted as the menace it would have been seen as in the 40s. In fact, Ace is quite left-leaning, which is one of the reasons they get along so well.
Altogether, this is a terribly confusing story, but if you can figure out what’s going on (possibly having this review handy…), The Curse of Fenric is a great watch. Full of intrigue, action and character building, I would recommend some background reading or perhaps more than one viewing to fully appreciate this episode.