Cast: Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred, Dinsdale Landen, Tomek Bork, Alfred Lynch ~ Writer: Ian Briggs ~ Director: Nicholas Mallett ~ Year: 1989
The Low-Down: From one of the very underrated eras of ‘Classic’ Doctor Who, this is a story from the final year of the show’s original 26 year run that laid down a lot of the ground-work for what Who would eventually evolve into sixteen years later… but which also has its own particular flaws and problems. It’s an enjoyable and daring story in many ways – but time hasn’t been completely kind, and it doesn’t quite deserve the classic status fandom has bestowed upon it…
What’s it about?: The TARDIS lands at an Army base in Northern England during World War II, and the Doctor and Ace are soon investigating a mystery that connects the code-breaking ULTIMA machine, secret chemical weapons, and an ancient viking curse. But Russian commandos are patrolling the area on a secret mission, and something monstrous is stirring under the waters of Maiden’s Point…
The Story: Confession time – for someone who spent a lot of between 2005 and 2008 professing frustration and issues with ‘New Who’ and happily leaping 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 Doctor Who came back on TV that I’ve realised I didn’t consistently like the latter years of the show that much. Memory and distance cheats easily – even back in the days of Peter Davison, I can remember not being completely enthused by seasons, and 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). For those who complain about modern-day Doctor Who being inconsistent, one of the replies I give is that Doctor Who has always been inconsistent, and there’s almost always been the sense that you have to take the rough with the smooth.
I stuck with the show 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, especially when 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 than the show itself – the Target novelisations, and particularly 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 hard to care about the show anymore.
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 showed how good Who could be when they eased back on the camp humour and concentrated on being inventive, imaginative and weird. 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 confidence, pulling in fairly healthy ratings while also looking likely to stick around for a while.
And then, we come to Season 26, the last televised Who until the memorably creaky 1996 TV movie, and the last TV season until 2005… 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 went further in directions that they’d only flirted with before, leading to 14 episodes that are many things, but 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. But, since I hadn’t actually watched any late eighties Who since the show’s return and improbable rise to Bestest TV Show in Britain (TM), when I had the opportunity to revisit the Season 26 adventure The Curse of Fenric, 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 an initial season of daffy comedy, Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor turned a shade darker during Season 25, with lots of vague and enigmatic 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. Admittedly, 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. Nevertheless, it was all new, and different enough that it made Doctor Who much realer and more relatable than it ever had been before.
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, from the publicity for the upcoming story, I was more than ready for a WWII-set tale of vampires and ancient curses, and what I guessed would be 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 base-under-siege action, and a fairly traditional opening two episodes, but 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. It’s not exactly a quiet, tidy, unambitious story either – we get a secret Naval base, a code-breaking ULTIMA machine, Russian Commandos, and a nefarious plan by the British Government to wipe out Soviet High Command using poison gas. 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. All this is crammed into the first two episodes alone, and 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. All of Classic Who has obviously aged, of course, but in many ways it’s Fenric’s modern pace, sharp editing and the way it showcases 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 over his years in control of Doctor Who, Russell T. Davies actually had an idea of what would dramatically work onscreen and be accessible for a wider audience. On the other hand, 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 the fans who were 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, things then get incredibly 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, but when I look at 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 scenes, I do 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. Here, 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 is good in the rolel, but she’s definitely better at certain things than others, and Season 26’s Ace-centric storytelling does unfortunately expose her slightly 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 both David Tennant and Matt Smith (and, to a certain extent, Christopher Eccleston) have managed with the role in the last few years. McCoy is one of those actors who’s brilliant 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 the production team 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 apparent, 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 some solutions 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.
However, the direction (from the late Nicholas Mallet) does manage to pull off a great deal of atmosphere, even with the flaws and the limited resources, and 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. Here, 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.
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 electrifying “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 make complete 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 everybody realising that it only really 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 at the time, 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 didn’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 entertaining SF melodrama (with an occasionally educational spin), 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.
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. However, it does show 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…
The Verdict: The Curse of Fenric is a tricky bit of Classic Who storytelling – it does carry off some great sequences, and there are moments of true brilliance… but its lofty ambitions do trip it up on more than one occasion, and the lack of genuine fun does cause it some serious problems. Ultimately, it’s a fascinating example of the show still trying new things, even in the last year of its first ‘incarnation’, but it is very rough around the edges at times, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as a good jumping on point for anyone who’s only been watching the modern-day series…