TV EYE: Flashback – Doctor Who: The Curse of Fenric (1989)

This has been circling in my head for a month – and now it’s time to get my thoughts on this Who story from the final year of Classic Who’s 26-year run down in some sort of order. So, here they are, in a rather huge and slightly rambling exploration of Who’s latter days, and what they do (and don’t) mean to me.

Confession time – for someone who’s spent a lot of time professing frustration and issues with New Who and often happilly leapt onto the “I prefer Classic Who” horse for a canter around the meadow, I have to admit that it’s only in the time since New Who came back that I’ve realised that I didn’t actually like the latter years of the show that much. I recorded every single episode from 1984 (the year we got a video recorder) onwards without fail, and yet I only actually kept a small number of the episodes, with the rest getting recorded over within a few months. Even back in the days of Peter Davison, I can remember not being completely enthused by seasons – to be honest, the last time I thoroughly enjoyed an entire season of Doctor Who was probably Davison’s first back in 1982 (when I was 8, for heaven’s sake), and ever since then it’s been a sense that I’m getting bits I like along with a lot I don’t (or, in the case of over-violent crapfest Resurrection of the Daleks, four entire episodes of stuff I didn’t like). I stuck with it because, well, it’s what you did in the mid-to-late Eighties when you were an awkward teenager who was into SF and there was very little else on TV, and you’d watched the show like clockwork since as long as you could remember. In many ways, my love of Doctor Who had much more to do with the stuff around the show – especially the Target novelisations, and the Marvel comic strip (which was frequently wilder, weirder and just plan better than the TV show itself) – and living through the Colin Baker years and the start of Sylvester McCoy, I had gotten to a point where it was getting rather hard to care about the show anymore.

(A side-note – Colin Baker copped an awful lot of flak for the admittedly poor quality of his reign as the Doctor, but virtually all of that was down to some monumentally bad choices on the part of Script Editor Eric Saward, and producer John Nathan-Turner. As if to prove this, he’s picked up playing the Sixth Doctor again for the Big Finish audio CD plays, and has turned into one of the most consistently brilliant and enjoyable Doctors in recent memory. There’s one particular release – The One Doctor, co-starring Christopher Biggins as a con-man who’s posing as the Doctor to foil fake alien invasions – which is one of the most genuinely fun Who stories ever made, and shows (unlike some of the excesses of New Who) that comedy, Who and half-decent sci-fi can co-exist.)

Anyway, as a result it was a shock when the 1988 season of Who (the 25th, fact fans) was good enough to rekindle my love of the program, and show how good Who could be when they eased back on the camp humour and concentrated on being inventive, imaginative and weird. Good lord, even the frankly rather dreadful Silver Nemesis seemed exciting first time around, and when the season finished with the brilliant, atmospheric and utterly kooky The Greatest Show In The Galaxy, it actually felt like the show was behaving with confidance, pulling in fairly healthy ratings and looking like it was going to keep going for a while.

And then, we come to Season 26, the last televised Who until the memorably creaky TV movie, and the last season until 2004, and my love of Who found itself hitting another speed bump. I wanted to love Season 26, I wanted it to be as thrilling and involving as Season 25 had been, where even a deliberately theatrical and oddball story like The Happiness Patrol was good enough to ignore its multitude of flaws… and yet it wasn’t quite what I expected. Heady from the success of Season 25, the production team essentially decided to go further in directions that they’d only flirted with before, leading to 14 episodes that are many things, but they’re not quite what you’d describe as ‘going out with a bang.’ I’m certainly glad that fate has intervened, and that Season 26 is now simply a pause rather than the full stop at the end of a sentence, and since I hadn’t actually watched any late eighties Who since the show had come back, when Season 26 adventure The Curse of Fenric turned up as a possibility in my recent exchange voucher-fuelled DVD binge, I simply had to go for it and see what happenned.

A little background, for those of you unfamiliar with the Classic show’s latter years – after a year of daffy comedy, Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor started turning a shade darker during Season 25, with lots of vague and inconclusive hints that he may be ‘more than just a Timelord’, and a welcome dose of mystery back into the show, even if much of it was enigma for enigma’s sake. Along with this, there was Sophie Aldred as Ace, a companion who was a gigantic change from the more recent assistants, and a character who the writing teams made a genuine attempt to give some depth. Alright, in many ways Ace was a two-dimensional cartoon of an Eighties teenager up until Season 26, with a habit of letting out exclamations of “Wicked!”, and a liking for explosives that, shall we say, had little to do with reality (and which always reminds me of a saying my Dad (who worked with explosives as part of his job) told me – ‘There are old blasters, and there are bold blasters, but there are no old bold blasters…’) Nevertheless, it was all new, and different enough that it made the show that little bit realer and more relatable than it had been.

Little did we know that Season 25 was the calm before the storm. Out of Season 26’s 14 episodes, 10 of them turned out to be stories that heavily revolved around Ace’s character, lavishing an occasionally worrying amount of detail on the girl, while the Seventh Doctor got even darker, weirder and more manipulative. The Curse of Fenric was the penultimate story in the season – by this point, we were getting two four parters, and two three parters – the structure tended to be two ‘traditional’ four parters, featuring old-school Who storytelling with a modern twist, alongside a pair of more experimental and ‘oddball’ three-parters. The story we’d had before Fenric certainly fell into the oddball category, being the head-scratching Victorian mix of sci-fi, allegory and haunted house shennanigans Ghost Light, a story dripping in style and yet so bizarrely constructed that I couldn’t even begin to tell you exactly what happenned during it or what exactly it was all about. So, I was more than ready for a WWII-set tale of vampires and ancient curses, and four episodes of standard base-under-siege mayhem.

Well, you can’t complain about The Curse of Fenric being predictable. We do indeed get some of the expected bits of story, and yet in a similar way to Ghost Light (which has an excellent and largely comprehensible opening episode before going barmy), Fenric goes off the storytelling rails in episode 3 and just keeps on going. In short, it’s 1941, and at a secret Naval base, the code-breaking ULTIMA machine is about to be stolen by a gang of Russian Commandos, not realising it’s part of a nefarious plan by the British Government to wipe out Soviet High Command using poison gas. The officer in charge of the ULTIMA machine is more interested in using it to decode ancient Viking runes in a nearby crypt, there’s legends of vampires prowling the coast, and soon shambling bloodsuckers are emerging from the ocean depths, as an ancient evil starts to stir. On top of this, there’s a pair of doomed teenage girls, a vicar undergoing a crisis of faith (played by Nicholas Parsons, no less, who does a surprisingly good job), and a hassled WREN officer who’s got a baby which – by no coincidence whatsoever – has the same name as Ace’s much-hated mother. And that’s only the first two episodes. We’re not even covering the fact that you can fight off vampires with a communist star as long as you believe it enough, the eccentric weather, the multiple explosions, the random love story, the chemical gas attacks, or the unprecedented leap into Arabian Nights-style mythology and the fact that the entire climax revolves around winning a chess game by using an illegal move (I mean– it might be a great metaphor, but how exactly are the white and black pawns supposed to join forces?)

The Curse of Fenric hasn’t aged well. An odd fact, for what’s ostensibly a period drama, but a true one – there are some great moments and brilliant scenes in Fenric, but watching it does require a great deal of forgiveness, and a major pinch of salt. Yes, all of Classic Who has obviously aged, but in many ways it’s Fenric’s modern pace, sharp editing and the way it’s showcasing a genuinely proto-New-Who outlook in its execution that makes the flaws all the more difficult to ignore. In fact, it’s the pace that’s aged the least – the story may be flawed, but it barely stays still for a second, and while there’s not quite as much running around as in New Who, the actual pace is pretty close, to an extent that’s almost a little distracting at times, especially when the first episode features the Doctor and Ace zooming around between locations for very little reason other than keeping the story moving.

Most of McCoy’s era is, in fact, very similar in many ways to New Who – it’s an era that gets lambasted on a regular basis, and yet if you look at stories like Paradise Towers, Delta and the Bannermen and Survival, you can see ideas, style and concepts that were very much precursors of New Who. The difference is that, for all the issues I’ve had with him, Russell T. Davies actually had an idea of what would dramatically work onscreen and be accessible for a wider audience, when many of the decisions taken in McCoy’s era can be taken as the show virtually sending up the white flag and paying little attention to the wider audience, instead aiming firmly at a cult audience that was going to analyse the minutiae. Turning your main character into a sinister, manipulative schemer who’s fully willing to play mindgames with his friends is certainly brave, but it’s hardly the move that’s going to deal a firm blow to Coronation Street (the ratings behemoth that Who spent its last three years in the Eighties scheduled against).

There are ways in which you could see Fenric working perfectly as a New Who story – you can almost see the tabloid-style VAMPIRES! and WORLD WAR TWO! concept bullet-points – but after two episodes of build-up, when things get strange, the story starts falling apart, and we encounter one of the odder offshoots of Script Editor Andrew Cartmel’s approach to the series. Many of the later McCoy stories have a habit of falling into completely barmy plot twists during their final episodes (let’s not mention the head-on motorcycle collision in Survival that the Doctor survives with absolutely no explanation whatsoever) – even my favourite McCoy story Greatest Show in the Galaxy isn’t free from this, and you have to look at an episode like the climax of The Curse of Fenric, where a whole load of disparate plot thread are yanked together by some vague mumbling about curses and evil from beyond the dawn of time manipulating things behind the scene, and you have to wonder exactly what substances they were imbibing in the production office. Yes, we get a certain amount of pay-off, but there’s a vagueness to the storytelling that’s nothing short of frustrating, especially when the story’s aiming to tell an emotional story as well as being a rip-roaring adventure – but then, the emotional through-line of Fenric has its own special set of problems.

Essentialy, it’s all about Ace coming to terms with her feelings about her mother by ending up protecting her as a baby without realising who she was, and then being confronted with the truth and having to deal with it. Being Who, this is all crammed into a very short amount of time between incidents, and it’s also fighting alongside the fact that Ace suddenly (and rather unbelievably) starts having Brief Encounter-style romantic stares with a heroic Russian commando (Polish actor Tomek Bork, who’s very good and one of the best things in the show). This isn’t even hinted at until episode 3, at which point things have to happen ridiculously quickly, and then we also get the “I’m not a little girl anymore” scene, one of the most gob-smackingly barmy sequences in all of Who, where Ace woos a randy soldier away from his post with promises of (ahem) rumpy-pumpy, and they proceed to recite some of the least seductive and weirdest dialogue I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s halfway between weird sixth-form poetry and heinous bollocks, and exceptionally difficult to take seriously, especially when – and it feels slightly heretical to say this, considering how integral the Seventh Doctor and Ace were to Who fandom from 1988 through to about 1995 – Sophie Aldred really isn’t a good enough actress to pull this off. She’s not dreadful, but she’s definitely better at certain things than others, and Season 26’s Ace-centric storytelling does unfortunately expose her somewhat limited range as an actress, as well as devoting so much attention to the character that it was easy to be slightly sick of her by the end of the season.

Acting also brings us to McCoy – and again, it’s hard not to be critical, especially considering the kind of work David Tennant’s managed with the role in the last three years. McCoy is one of those actors who’s great when he’s being quiet and reflective, and simply shouldn’t be allowed to shout – there’s a truly painful sequence in the Season 26 Arthurian turkey ‘Battlefield’ where he has to stop a fight, and does it by waving his umbrella and bellowing “THERE!!! WILL!!! BE!!!! NO!!!! BATTLE!!! HERE!!!!” that has to be seen to be believed. Fenric sees him on better form, and yet there is a deliberately over-eccentric tone to his performance that does grate, and you do end up looking at the Seventh Doctor and wondering exactly what they were thinking.

It’s the trouble with heightening the emotions – it also emphasises the shortcomings in the writng and the acting more than if we were in traditional Who runaround territory. For example, we have the two teenage evacuees Jean and Phyllis, and the obvious suggestion that their burgeoning sexuality is what’s going to doom them to turn into vampires with a great line in goth make-up (as if the location of the vampire’s underwater lair – Maiden’s Point – wasn’t enough of a giveaway), but they don’t really get anything resembling a character until after they’ve been vamped, other than lots of giggling and the deeply horrible line “Oh, don’t be such a baby doll!” Weirdly enough, they’re much better once they’ve joined the ranks of the undead, and the other performances are wildly varying and unpredictable – Dinsdale Landen (as a wheelchair bound academic) is brilliantly weird, while Alfred Lynch (as the myth-obsessed commander) can’t seem to decide whether he’s evil, confused or stoned. Almost all the sequences involving the Russian commandos are excellent, and as mentioned, Nicolas Parsons does a good job as a vicar struggling with his faith who eventually – in a plot twist that’d be unlikely to happen in New Who – loses and gets slaughtered by the vampires.

The vampires themselves are a mix of the already mentioned big-haired, claw-fingered goth chicks, and a series of well-designed but unfortunately rather rubbery masks that don’t take well to the action sequences – and if there’s one fact that makes the difference between New and Old Who apparrent, it’s that anyone sensible would look at the Haemovore masks and say “Let’s shoot them at night – they’ll look much better that way.” Of course, since 1989 era Who was functioning on a very slim budget, night shoots were utterly out of the question, so you have rubbery-headed vampires wandering around in broad daylight, a fact that doesn’t really help the atmosphere, even though there were answers to this (For one, take a look at the brilliant Eighties kids serial Moondial, which used a ‘day for night’ process involving filters and shooting in near-black and white that was actually incredibly effective). It’s one of those little culture shock realisations that make you realise that while Eighties Who and New Who have much in common, there’s also plenty of major differences, and that they really were trying to assemble ridiculously ambitious stories on a wing and a prayer, and without the considerable backup of today’s prosthetic and CGI effects.

If there’s one scene in the entire story that stands out, it’s the climax – where the villain is triumphant, threatening Ace’s life while she’s holding back a vampire with the force of her faith in the Doctor, and the villain is doing the traditional “Kneel before me if you want the girl to live!” speech, while Ace is saying “I believe in you”. We all know how this sort of thing ends – the Doctor will find a non-violent way of defying the villain and saving the day. And, well, he does, but it’s not what you expect.

Instead… he tells the villain to kill her.

Admittedly, it’s all a gamble to stop Ace from preventing the vampire from actually defeating the main villain (thanks to a setup in a previous scene), but it’s delivered with such devastating calm by McCoy (in one of his best, and quietest moments), that it’s simply stunning. It’s one of those “I can’t believe they’re actually doing that” moments, and it doesn’t really matter that the dialogue referencing previous stories like Silver Nemesis and Dragonfire doesn’t really make sense – it’s the Doctor doing what the Doctor isn’t supposed to do, turning to his best friend and telling her that she’s an emotional cripple and a social misfit who he wouldn’t have had anything to do with unless it was to use her. Even Aldred is fantastic in this scene, and it’s a genuinely seismic moment – unfortunatly, it also proved to be the moment that a good 70% of all Who spin-off fiction from then until 1996 would be based around. The dark, manipulative Doctor became the standard, without realising that it only worked in Fenric because it was a surprise. You can break the mold once, but then you’re just repeating yourself – it’s a very late Eighties device, obviously showing off Cartmel’s love of comic books like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, and yet it did end up as revisionism and deconstruction simply for shock value. There was plenty of post-Fenric Who fiction that clung to darkness as an honour badge, a sign that yes, Doctor Who could be as adult and grown-up as we wanted it to be – and yet, I always had the feeling that it was never meant to be like that, and that Who was always meant to be a family show, and that dark, unforgiving Who stories are just missing the point. Again, while I don’t love all of RTD’s methods, that’s yet another thing that he was sensible enough to realise – that Who can be dark, can be unpredictable, but at heart it’s a melodramatic adventure that should be enjoyable for the whole family.

And here we come to the crux, the point where my big problem with Season 26 comes into play. It took me a long time to realise it – I’d have lengthy arguments with my friend Paul (with whom I’ve turned arguing about Who into an Olympic sport) where he’d be saying Season 26 was brilliant, and I’d say that I didn’t agree, but I could never exactly work out why until finally, after a few years, it hit me, and rewatching The Curse of Fenric proves that I wasn’t wrong. Essentially – Season 26 was (for the most part) trying so hard to be big, ambitious and significant that it stopped being fun. The Curse of Fenric is an especially good example of this – it’s so amazingly serious in intent and rarely even cracks a smile, especially in the last two episodes, that it eventually gets difficult to take. This serious attitude was everywhere in Season 26 (except for Battlefield, which was – unfortunately – dreadful beyond words), and it does mean that stories like Fenric, Survival and Ghost Light aren’t the easiest stories to enjoy – Who is, after all, meant to be enjoyable, and Season 26 is so determined to go for the drama that it misses out on the lively joy and imagination that marks the best Who stories.

(As a brief tangent – Seventies Who story The Ribos Operation would seem the obvious choice to have aged far worse than Fenric – it’s twelve years older, studio-bound and directed in a theatrical manner that’s more suited to the Sixties, and yet The Ribos Operation is signifcantly more entertaining than Fenric simply because it’s tremendous fun, supported by a wonderful script from Robert Holmes that builds an entire universe out of dialogue, and also features one of my newly crowned favourite villains in the form of Paul Seed (who later turned to TV directing and helmed House of Cards) as the Graff Vynda-K. It’s a howlingly hilarious and blisteringly OTT performance with some epic shouting, and yet Seed gets it exactly right and turns this pompous meglomaniac into a mini-masterpiece of semi-Shakespearean bluff and bluster. It’s the fun that comes across, though – with Tom Baker in full lunatic mode, it could hardly be anything else, and it’s one of the few Who stories that actually make me laugh out loud.)

So, when we get to the end of Fenric, and Ace going on a terribly metaphorical swim that apparently leaves her feeling much better about her past, along with a contender for the ‘Worst Episode Ending Featuring The Lead Characters Laughing” award (I mean, what does “Not any more, Niet!” actually mean? Anyone?), and what was enshrined as an all-time classic by Who fandom in 1989 doesn’t look quite so strong anymore. And yet, it shows what I love about Doctor Who as much in what it gets wrong as right, and it also shows that while Who was still stuck in gear and not quite changing enough, it was also attempting new things (even if some of them were unwise), and setting in motion storytelling developments which would eventually lead to New Who (large chunks of ‘Survival’, the final story of Season 26, are terribly New Who in style, if not in execution).

I can salute it for its ambition and its determination to aim high, even if the years haven’t been kind and I’m left suspecting that at least some of the traditional bashing of the McCoy era isn’t completely unwarranted. But, above all, I’m left in awe of the fact of how much I’ve learned about storytelling from Doctor Who, how much about what I like and what I don’t like, how much about what works and what doesn’t – it’s still one of the most significant storytelling experiences in my life. It’s hard-wired into my brain on an almost primal level. And no matter what happens, I suspect it’s going to stay there…

2 thoughts on “TV EYE: Flashback – Doctor Who: The Curse of Fenric (1989)

  1. Imagine missing the middle episode of “Ghost Light” and trying to make sense of the last episode from there. It took us years to find out what was going on!
    and I watched season 26 when we first started going out together…it’ll be 20 years in 2 days time. So I think we’re probably with your friend Paul on this one.

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    • Absolutely. And there lies the wonder of people having different opinions! I always find it interesting, though, looking at the stuff I enjoy, and particularly how it ages, how you’ll love a film or a TV show at one point in your life, and then dig it out and watch it again and think “What was I thinking?” Or, on the flipside, there’s the ones that don’t date, that amaze you by still being as good as you remember (Sapphire and Steel being one). I did enjoy Season 26 when it was on, but I didn’t love it – the last Classic Who story that I can remember unequivocably enjoying all the way through is Greatest Show in the Galaxy, and even that has a final episode that takes a one-way ticket to Weird-Out Central. I did enjoy watching Fenric again, and I’m glad I’ve got it – but it’s hard to watch it without factoring in nostalgia, and it’s certainly not something I’d show to a non-fan to say “Hey- look, Classic Who was fun, too!”
      And you missed the middle episode of Ghost Light? The mind frankly boggles… (And congratulations on finding out what was going on. I saw the whole thing first time, and read the novel, and I’m still not completely sure (although I suspect my question is not so much ‘what’ as ‘why’…)

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