The Curse of Fenric ★★★★

Purple vampires, Norse myth and Nicholas Parsons! Much to enjoy in this tale of doom

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Season 26 – Story 154

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“You always know. You just can’t be bothered to tell anyone. It’s like it’s some kind of game, and only you know the rules” – Ace

Storyline
The Doctor and Ace arrive at a secret naval base in Second World War England, where the commander intends to let Russians steal the core of a code-breaking computer, booby-trapped with deadly toxin. A scientist called Judson is using the machine to translate Viking runes in a nearby church. This releases Fenric, an ancient evil that the Doctor once captured in a flask by winning a game of chess. Can he and Ace repel an attack by humans turned into hideous vampires by the Haemovore – a creature plucked from the future by Fenric – and prevent the destruction of the entire world?

First UK transmissions
Part 1 – Wednesday 25 October 1989
Part 2 – Wednesday 1 November 1989
Part 3 – Wednesday 8 November 1989
Part 4 – Wednesday 15 November 1989

Production
OB recording: April 1989 at Crowborough Training Camp, East Sussex; St Lawrence’s Church, Bedgebury Lower School, Roses Farm and Yew Tree Farm in Hawkhurst, Kent; and Lulworth Cove, Dorset

Cast
The Doctor – Sylvester McCoy
Ace – Sophie Aldred
Dr Judson – Dinsdale Landen
Commander Millington – Alfred Lynch
The Rev Mr Wainwright – Nicholas Parsons
Miss Hardaker – Janet Henfrey
Captain Sorin – Tomek Bork
Sgt Prozorov – Peter Czajkowski
Vershinin – Marek Anton
Petrossian – Mark Conrad
Jean – Joann Kenny
Phyllis – Joanne Bell
Nurse Crane – Anne Reid
Kathleen Dudman – Cory Pulman
Captain Bates – Stevan Rimkus
Sgt Leigh – Marcus Hutton
Perkins – Christien Anholt
Ancient Haemovore – Raymond Trickett
Baby – Aaron Hanley

Crew
Writer – Ian Briggs
Designer – David Laskey
Incidental music – Mark Ayres
Script editor – Andrew Cartmel
Producer – John Nathan-Turner
Director – Nicholas Mallett

RT Review by Mark Braxton
Ian Briggs, in his second and final script for Doctor Who after 1987’s Dragonfire, plays to his self-confessed strengths: computers and Scandinavia. Add to that vampires, future shocks and the Second World War and you have a potent if over-flavoured concoction.

There is much to enjoy and admire, from the well-marshalled location filming and the escalating sense of doom to the cogitations on faith and the well-performed and prescient Doctor/companion tension.

The references to Norse mythology are fun for those who have read about the monstrous wolf Fenrir and his escape from the impossible shackles of Gleipnir during Ragnarök, or the destruction of gods and mankind. And the Vikings, runes and the Doctor’s back-story lend the story a suitably mythic magnitude.

If there isn’t quite an embarrassment of riches, there is at least a bashfulness of bonuses: the surprising baby-and-mother storyline for Ace; the fiery runes appearing on the stone wall; the Haemovores (when they’re not in unforgiving close-up), like purple pumice-stone sprinkled with Cheerios; the impressively huge doomsday room; and the presence of Anne Reid, albeit way down the cast list! (On her return to the series in 2007 the distinguished thesp would take top billing as a blood-sucking Plasmavore.) Even Nicholas “Sale of the Century” Parsons makes a fair go of his anguished reverend.

But it’s as if three scripts have been rewritten as one. Part of the problem is the “Russians are coming” strand: despite giving colour to Ace’s storyline in arguably her best adventure, they really aren’t necessary, in the same way that the Nazis are surplus to requirements in Silver Nemesis. I did at least appreciate Sorin and co’s Slavic deliberations – until the hilarious line: “From now on, everything in English”!

Other banalities could have done with the red-pen treatment, too, especially “See you in hell” and “What kind of world is this to bring up a child in?” Overall, the plot is just too convoluted; even at the climax the different strands somehow remain disparate, like a Venn diagram with no common elements.

The physical effects are a mixed bag: the explosions are impressive but the lashing, apocalyptic rain looks like a sprinkler has been hidden just out of shot.  And the scares are just a bit amateurish, with the talon-raised Haemovores choreographed a bit like Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The “coastal community under threat from the sea” can be terrifying, of course: just watch 1981’s The Nightmare Man, directed by Doctor Who’s own Douglas Camfield.

But let’s not dwell on what The Curse of Fenric isn’t but on what it is.

The story is most important for the way it connects with 21st-century Who, with companions daring to question the Doctor’s motives and ethics (see the opening quote). Ace, mature in drab dress and hairnet, asserts both her independence and her womanhood in a way that shows the makers weren’t preserving the show – or the central pairing – in aspic. They wanted to move it on, just as they do today.

Not only does Ace enjoy the first flutters of romance, and use her womanly wiles to create a diversion for the Doc, but she also discovers that the baby that a Wren is attempting to hide at work will grow up to be her mother. Sophie Aldred conveys well the turmoil of emotions going on inside her, and her interactions with the Doctor are believably volatile. More of this sort of thing and the McCoy era would have deserved a drastic reappraisal.

The Curse of Fenric may be a curate’s egg, but the failings have more to do with overambition than anything else, packing the story with way too much  – perhaps out of a sense of panic. But what is abundantly clear is that the series in its death throes wasn’t going down without a fight. A very commendable fight it was, too.

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