Saturday 20 November 2010

The Curse Of Fenric

The Seventh Doctor plays chess against an ancient opponent and Ace meets her grandmother.

Despite being a massive Sylvester McCoy and Seventh Doctor fan (and a true believer in the Dark Doctor, the Ka Faraq Gatri, the Time's Champion and all that New Adventures stuff), this is only my third review of a McCoy serial. I think it is easier for me to be objective when reviewing the stories of other Doctors. I'll do my best here, but I can't promise not to praise this story all the way. Where do you even start with a story this brilliant?

The first thing that must be said is that there are two versions of this story. The original version was heavily edited for broadcasting and a lot of explanatory material was cut out. This is unfortunate, as the extra material does help to make sense of the plot. The original unbroadcast version is included on the current BBC DVD as a feature length movie with a remixed score. Remarkably, the script editor Andrew Cartmel claims that only the unedited version is worth watching. While I agree that the unedited version is better, I believe the televised version is still a classic story and one of the greatest moments of Doctor Who.

That score! Its totally unlike any other Doctor Who score, for its a thumping industrial music score that could easily have made by Skinny Puppy or Front Line Assembly. Giving this serial an industrial music score just shows that it is made for goths and rivetheads. The use of industrial music is particularly appropriate given the impact of this story on the New Adventure novels that would come later. The New Adventures would delve in the same sources as the industrial music scene, taking inspiration from cyberpunk, the Terminator movies and the Alien movies.

I think it would be correct to say that Curse of Fenric is only barely a science fiction story. We have the classic sci-fi theme of time travel through Ace meeting her mother as a child and reference to mutation caused by industrial pollution in the far future, but otherwise this is a story that has been stripped of science fiction elements and is very much a fantasy or magic realist story. Nicholas Briggs has taken us in this story into the realm of symbols, metaphors and mythology. Spaceships, robots and aliens are foreign to this kind of story. Fenric is not an alien monster, but a demonic spiritual being. His name is taken from Norse mythology (the apocalyptic wolf that would ravage the world at the end time of Ragnarok) and he is a symbol or metaphor for cosmic evil. The them of chess playing is also used as a metaphor for the cosmic struggle between good and evil. Traditional fans who view Doctor Who as primarily a science fiction show might find this rather spiritual angle hard to swallow. Nevertheless, it totally fits my view of the Doctor and his world. As a Christian I believe in spiritual beings and I believe in a cosmic war between good and evil. I appreciate very much the attempt to bring in a more spiritual cosmology. Let us face it, Doctor Who has always had a spiritual dimension, be that the Buddhism of Barry Letts, the cosmic dualism, resembling Taoism or Zoroastrianism introduced The Ribos Operation and the Neoplatonic mysticism of Logopolis.

If Fenric is a kind of devil, then it also makes the Doctor into a kind of godlike, or at least angelic being, operating on a spiritual and cosmic plane. We have a cryptic reference to a force of good that pre-existed before the universe and if the Doctor is not meant to be that force, he is at least in some way connected to it. Here the so-called 'Cartmel Masterplan' has reached its heights and the Doctor is not merely a Time Lord from Gallifrey, but an elemental force of spiritual power beyond our comprehension. His plans are unfathomable and his ways mysterious. He is a scary figure and we are disturbed by his manipulation of Ace, but we know that he is good and we can trust him. The fact that the Doctor's methods appear questionable is important. As Ace says:

"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. You knew all about that inscripiton being a computer program, but you didn't tell me. You know all about that old bottle and you're not telling me! Am I so stupid?!?"

When the Doctor is involved in a clash between straight and narrow good and downright evil, it would be easy for the Doctor to become a dull, saintly figure without any ambiguity. This is what went wrong in the Pertwee era. The Doctor was given an evil archenemy, the Master, which meant the Doctor became a far more black and white character. In my opinion, the Third Doctor was a rather sanctimonious character who tended to irritate through his moralizing. Likewise, the heavy use of the Master in the Davison years reflected the fact that the Doctor was just a little too perfectly good. The Seventh Doctor is a character with a moral purpose, but whose strategy is rather Machiavellian.

The new perspective on the Doctor presented in Curse of Fenric might jar with what we have seen before of the Doctor. The mysterious Dark Doctor of Curse of Fenric is a total contrast to the Third Doctor, who was happy to tell people he was a Time Lord from Gallifrey and to talk about his childhood anxieties. However, we have always had conflicting impressions of the Doctor. The selfish First Doctor is a polar opposite of the kindly Fifth Doctor. It is just as hard to reconcile the pacifism of the Third Doctor with the Second Doctor who jumps for joy as he blows up the Dominators (Ace evidently reminds the Seventh Doctor of his more youthful self). Fans might also be irritated by the revelation that the Doctor has an archenemy of whom we have been told nothing. However, this provides an awful lot of fun for obsessive fans like me who can imagine how Fenric might be connected to earlier stories (arranging the events of Evil of the Daleks? Influencing the evolution of the Fendahl?). Fenric implies that this has been the case with the events of Season 25.

The Sylvester McCoy era made heavy use of Twentieth Century Britain as both a setting and a theme. Delta and the Bannermen used the Fifties, Remembrance of the Daleks used the Sixties and Survival took us to a contemporary council estate. Even the future settings made reference to Twentieth century Britain, with Paradise Towers taking inspiration from inner city housing and Happiness Patrol taking a swipe at Thatcher. Curse of Fenric takes us into wartime Britain and the moral amibiguity of that era. The theme of war is contrasted with love, both in Wainwright's reading 1 Corinthians 13 (in reality he would probaly be reading the King James Bible which uses 'charity' rather than love) and the irony for the self-destruct code-word being 'love.' The moral ambiguity is particularly brought out by the fact that Sorin is protected by his faith in Communism, an ideology that instigated mass murder on a horrendous scale.

The thematic depth goes beyond war and the good/ evil conflict. The talk about 'undercurrents' and 'coming into the water' seems to be a metaphorical explanation of sexuality. We also see hints of a repressed sexual relationship between Millington and Judson. The theme of Ace coming to terms with her anger towards her mother is beautifully handled. There is also a wonderful lyrical depth in Ace's seduction of the soldier (I know it would have been quicker and simpler to just take her top off, but its a nice scene). Her speech about moving faster than the second hand of a watch seems to be referring to the peculiarities of her temporal existence and perhaps her relationship to the time travelling Doctor.

Despite the lack of night scenes, this serial creates a very effective horror movie atmosphere. This is enhanced by the very murky weather during the filming. The underwater scene with the dead Russian soldier openning his eyes is particularly frightening. The Haemovore costumes are obviously rubber suits, but they are very well designed and look quite horrible. The Ancient One's costume is especially good. Questions have been raised by viewers about whether the Haemovores are from the past, present or future. As I understand it (and I have never read the novelisation), the Ancient One is from the far future, when earth is devastated by pollution. He is transported to the Viking-era by the imprisoned Fenric and then creates a colony of Haemovores across the centuries, hence the variety of historical costumes they wear.

Like many other stories, there are clear nods to H.P. Lovecraft in this story. On a purely visual level, there is something of Cthulhu about the Ancient One's costume. On a thematic level we have an extra-dimensional entity at work who has incredible power. This entity has misleading connections with mythology and twisted people seek to revive it. As with Lovecraft's entities, Fenric remains an unseen presence rather than something that actually appears. According to the New Adventure, All-Consuming Fire, Fenric is Hastur, the Unspeakable a great old one from the Cthulhu mythos. The fact that Fenric is an unseen power makes him far more effective than Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars. The problem with Sutekh was that despite the brilliance of Gabriel Woolf's performance it is difficult to regard a masked man in a suit as a godlike being. Fenric is a much more abstract, and in my opinion, much more haunting entity.

As has been said, Fenric is a kind of metaphor for evil itself. This is rather reminiscent of Image of the Fendahl where it was implied that the Fendahl was death itself. This was rather added to the creepy atmosphere of that story, nevertheless that element did not quite work within the narrative of Image of the Fendahl. The problem was that the story was too grounded in science fiction concepts for there to be room for the Fendahl to work as a symbol or metaphor of something more abstract. By stripping away the explanations and logic of science fiction this story is able to operate on that symbolic level.

Unusually for Dr. Who, nobody gives a bad performance. The two teenage girls are not brilliant, but they are not at all bad. This story features some of best acting in the history of the show, both from the regulars and the non-regulars. Sophie Aldred is absolutely stunning in this story. She was never a first-rate actress, but their is a real intensity to her performance here. She looks absolutely wonderful in her 1940s costumem even with her bomber jacket slung over the shoulder. I absolutely adore the red hairnet she wears, an excellent touch.

Although I am a passionate fan of Sylvester McCoy, I understand perfectly well the fans who are unimpressed by his performances and think he was a bit rubbish. He does deliver some of his lines in a very odd way and pull some strange faces, but for me that underlines the mysterious nature of his character. He is a dark and powerful figure, yet he adopts the bearing of a clown. I think Curse of Fenric is probably his best performance. He comes across much stronger here than in his other stories.

Millington is a superb villain. He comes across as nervous and unstable, but full of callous disregard for others. His implied homosexual relationship with Judson is a fascinating character element. His obsession with Norse mythology is a nod to the Wagner obsession of De Flores in Silver Nemesis. Millington is not a suave, mustache-twirler, but an unstable wreck with a lot of skeletons in his psychological closet. Judson is also a fascinating character, twisted by the bitterness of being confined to his wheelchair. In Nurse Crane we get a glimpse of how easily disable people can be abused by those who are trying to care for them.

Nicholas Parson is glorious as Reverand Wainwright. Best known for his involvement in comedy, he really shines in this serious role as a minister troubled by the moral confusion of war and the doubts that this brings.

The subplot about Ace's mother is very important. The reason being that it not only allows the resolution of some of Ace's many inner demons, but also adds a certain hope to the story. Despite the massive body count, a mother and her child are able to survive this story and we know they will live on. This contrasts enormously with the overwhelming darkness and hopelessness of Pyramids of Mars (the most overrated Dr. Who story ever in my opinion).

There are some confusions about the plot of this story. There are some glaring problems in its logic, for instance in Millington's expectation that the Russians will steal the Ultima machine and use it without taking it apart and examining how it works or the unlikeliness of Ace not recognising her mother's maiden name. Nevertheless these problems are no worse than those in many other stories and do not detract from the richness of the dialogue or the intensity of the atmosphere.

I love this story. I totally identify with the way it portrays the Doctor and I love the fact that it set the stage for the Time's Champion concept in the New Adventure novels. While staying at my parents' home in Hastings last summer, I got the chance to visit the church in Hawkhurst where the story was partially filmed. I have to say I was more than a little disappointed that there was no acknowlegement of Doctor Who being filmed there inside the church! I am sure I am not the only Whovian to have made a pilgrimage there!


  1. Excellent review. i'd never really thought about the similarities between Chtulhu and the Ancient One - good observation!

    However, after just watching Curse for the first time in 10 years, I was hoping to find some answers to some the unexplained question that plagued my mind after turning off the DVD!

    As you pointed out, the Doctor never explains his intentions at the beginning of the story. Surely he didn't know he was heading to showdown with Fenric? If not, why does he bluff his way into a top secret facility? To look at what to him must be an antiquated computer?

    Why does Fenric even need the Ancient One? He seems to be doing fine on his own. In the end, he does more damage than good. An excuse to bring monsters into the story I wonder?

    Why does Fenric move the Ancient One from the future in to the ancient past when he needed him in the 20th Century? And other than the fact that Fenric admits that the Ancient One is just another pawn, it's not really even clear why he kills Fenric when he does. And why kill himself?

    And the attempts to link it to past stories are are so clearly written after the event, they barely make sense. Why move Ace to Iceworld? It's not like the Doctor is a stranger to 20th Century Earth! And a chess set in Lady Penforth's study? That's a tenuous link to Fenric's return at best. Cartmel's Masterplan indeed. Even a brief rain storm is passed off as Fenric's work! Reminds me of the freak snow storm in 'Claws of Axos'!

    And why is Fenric so please that Ace has saved her hated mother? Since the other option was for Ace to never have been born, I'm sure she made the right choice anyway!

    I feel that this story is trying to be far smarter than it is, and while I appreciate it as perhaps the highlight of the McCoy area(and that's faint praise to be fair), I think it attempts to draw in more elements than it can handle in 88 mins. I also feel it's a shame that all the horror scenes take place in the day - they would have been far more effective at night.

    I haven't watched the new movies version yet though, I understand much of the exposition was cut, so maybe that will answer some questions!

    And surely you really don't think Pyramids of Mars is over-rated!

    Oh, and a small observation - Curse is scripted by Ian Briggs, not Nicholas.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks for your comment.

    A lot has been left deliberately mysterious in this story. I don't think we need answers to all of the questions you ask.

    Curse of Fenric is a story heavy in metaphors. It works on a symbolic level. I think that justifies it getting away with plot problems that would be very damaging in a more straightforward science fiction story.

    Yeah, I think Pyramids of Mars is overrated. I hate that story. I'll review it one day.

    Curse of Fenric and Pyramids of Mars both suffer from problems in their plot, but I think Curse of Fenric can get away with it better because of it's faster pace and stronger emotional climate. Pyramids of Mars is a very ponderous story which leaves us plenty of time to scream at the paper-thin plot.

  3. Deliberately mysterious? Or badly written/edited? I have my doubts...

    I think to defend the story by saying that it's more fantasy than sci-fi and therefore doesn't need to make sense then begs the question - is this suitable for Doctor Who, a science fiction series which has always debunked the supernatural? Where things are put down to (fictional) science, not the acts of gods & angels and demons & devils? Battlefield in the same season just about got away with it, but 'Curse' struggles in my opinion.

    You say there are plot holes in Pyramids, but no major ones spring to mind...certainly not ones that left me scratching my head like Curse does.

    I also thing the characters are more interesting in Pyramid, without the need to say 'this guy's lost his faith in humanity' or 'this girl's screwed up because her mum was unpleasant'. etc. Also Holmes' script takes the time to explain the origins of the Osirians, why they are on Earth, and why Sutekh wants to destroy all life.

    I'm never keen on the idea of 'letting the audience decide' because the written hasn't actually thought everything through. It's this kind of mentality that allows an artist to display half a sheep in a gallery and call it art. Fair enough if half the plot has been thrown out like we know is the case in many a story in Doctor Who history, but that's more an argument about who's to blame - the end produce is still lacking.

    I know I sound like I hate Curse here - I really don't - but I think it's massively over-rated. And I wish to correct myself from the earlier post actually - I think Remembrance is the pinnacle of the McCoy era.

  4. I won't say much more about Pyramids of Mars; I have yet to write a proper review of it.

    I hate Pyramids of Mars, I dislike most of the Hinchcliffe era and most of the Pertwee era.

    Maybe at the end of the day I'm not actually a real Doctor Who fan. I don't like what Doctor Who became in the late Sixties and Seventies; that is a science fiction show. I think I'm much more comfortable with the Doctor as some sort of mysterious angel or trickster god fighting demons than I am of rubber monsters invading the home counties or spaceships being besieged by giant insects.

  5. I suppose that's the good thing about Doctor Who - it has something for everyone! Different eras and even different stories can be so divisive. There are very few Doctor Who stories I truly hate - all have faults and all have merits (in varying quantities!) To me, the Who-ograph is pyramid-shape (no pun intended) with the season 13 being the pinnacle and gradually dropping either side (the excepts being the Graham Williams era is worst that the Davison years and McCoy's last season is probably the best season since the Davison era).

    I too love mythology being draw into the show, but only if it's explained. Any form of sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic, so there's a lot of scope. Silly really, the science is usually made up by the writers of course, but knowledge of science is what separates the Doctor from us. He doesn't have a magic wand, so he uses his brain. If he started using magic, the very essence of the character would be gone.

  6. I see Doctor Who as a pit, with Season 1 and Season 26 at the top and Season 11 at the very bottom.