The Curse of Fenric
By Ian Briggs
Transmitted 25 October to 15 November 1989
“We hope to return to the North Way, carrying home the oriental treasures from the Silk Lands in the east, but the dark curse follows our dragonship.”
Arriving on the coast Northumbria, the Doctor and Ace saunter into a top secret naval base busily deciphering Nazi codes. At the same time, a small platoon of Russian soldiers flees their sinking vessel, landing on the coast to retrieve British Intelligence. Inside the base, the most intelligent incryption device ever developed, the Ultima machine, is being used to break enemy codes. Professor Judson and his superior Commander Millington have another motive, one that promises great power if they can solve the mystery of the Norse runes in the village church.
In the water off the coast, a timeless evil waits, sculpting metal trinkets with their bare hands and pulling sunken bodies to the depths, turning them into inhuman creatures.
The Doctor is putting the final moves on a game he started long ago. He has worn many faces, but the Doctor is now taking on a role of champion against the forces of darkness. In ancient Arabia, he played chess with an evil spirit using pieces carved from human bone. The Doctor tricked the evil entity into a trap, but Fenric had his own plans that stretched throughout time, leading to another confrontation with the Doctor.
I tend to indicate The Curse of Fenric as the last gasp of greatness for Classic Doctor Who. It has a period setting, alternate history, a clever plot, some outstanding guest actors and terrifying monsters. Following Battlefield, referred to as one for the lads with its soldiers and knights and Ghost Light, an intricate and moody situation drama with formal dress and bug-eyed monsters, Curse of Fenric is the culmination of work that Sylvester McCoy and Andrew Cartmell had started back in 1987. A sense of mystery was returned to the Doctor and a new direction added to the program that made it both modern and reverential to the source material. It also focused on the companion Ace, forming the final part of her character’s arc that had begun back in her first story, Dragonfire.
Briggs’ plot draws from many excellent sources as the Arabian Nights, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, HP Lovecraft and even historical war records. While it does mention some continuity points such as the Doctor’s granddaughter and the chess game briefly shown on screen in Silver Nemesis, it draws strength from developing new mythologies and monsters. It also has some startling visuals that proudly declared Doctor Who had plenty of life left in it. The Ancient One leading an army of aquatic vampires assaulting a church is one of the absolute best moments of 1980’s Who.
There are of course flaws with Curse of Fenric including dubious special effects and performances as well as some terribly bizarre dialog. Just what does ‘No one ever makes you come into the water, but everybody wants do’ mean? Why is the confrontation between the evil vampire girls and Reverend Wainright filmed on such a lovely sunny afternoon? You can even hear birdsong! Additionally, there are so many plot threads strewn about that it gets dizzying and the program attempts to resolve them all in a slap dash manner, making the end result appear amateurish at times. When the DVD arrived, I giddily screened it to a friend as one of the best Doctor Who stories that few had seen and was crestfallen when he lost interest almost immediately due to the convoluted plot, poor audio and some dire performances.
I can point to a few sore points where Curse of Fenric falters in its greatness but the biggest problem in my opinion is that it attempts to accomplish far too much, especially for a Doctor Who story.
Russian soldiers land on the beach of a sleepy English village to steal a top secret English encryption machine. Millington and Judson are involved in a clandestine ploy to bomb the Kremlin with an experimental toxin, but are also pawns of Fenric, an ancient evil entity trapped in a bottle. Fenric brings the Haemovores to the 1940’s to not only cause death and destruction but have his revenge on the Doctor by creating a temporal paradox resulting in a future apocalypse. The Doctor has brought Ace to her mother’s birth to force her to accept that she can both love and hate someone and move past it… That’s a lot for one four part story (and I skipped a few ideas).
To be fair, this is a case of Doctor Who straining outside of its bounds with nearly no resources and boundless ambition.
Even so, the performance by Nicholas Parsons as Reverend Wainright who struggles with his faith as his country’s army slaughters thousands is stirring and very adult for its time. Likewise, the chemistry between Alfred Lynch as the slightly mad Commander Millington and Dinsdale Landen as Dr Judson is fascinating. Landen plays one of the finest and most evil of villains in Fenric, delighting as he watches Judson’s nurse get assaulted by Haemovores yet chilling in his interactions with the Doctor.
The regulars McCoy and Aldred really shine in this story, making sense out of a plot and doubtless frenzied production schedule. A classically trained actor, McCoy reveals in this final series that he is an excellent choice as the Doctor just waiting for a decent adventure. An inexperienced actress, Aldred is especially impressive here as she takes on much more dramatic material than ever before. Ace was granted so much care and attention by the production staff, but it would have all been for naught if she flopped in the part.
Canceled shortly afterwards, this is a glimpse of what could be done if the BBC was courageous enough to let Doctor Who grow up. Much later, bits and pieces of Cartmell’s Doctor Who masterplan would crop up in Russell T Davies revision. Much like the Big Finish audio dramas, Davies cherry-picked ideas from this period, but sadly very little of the brilliance remained.
In 1989, Doctor Who had the lowest ratings in decades. The BBC had lost its interest in Doctor Who and producer John Nathan-Turner, a man who struggled to keep the series afloat for years, wanted out. It was also a time of incredible innovation and re-invention. Doctor Who had gone from a day-glow children’s program to sophisticated entertainment combining fantasy, horror and drama all at once.
Finally available on Netflix, The Curse of Fenric is an outstanding story that shows Doctor Who in a time of flux and evolution.