This is the second of three attempts to do a Doctor Who vampire story. It is also the second of three stories to date that are resolved by the companion having to lose her faith in the Doctor. Combining these two is an effective idea because the vampire myth and faith are tightly bound together, so a story that plays on the link between the two is an interesting approach. It is taken a step further than the material which inspired the plot, by making the faith not just religious. In fact, it is the religious faith that is shown to fail, while faith in friendship (the Doctor’s faith in his past companions and Ace’s faith in the Doctor) is really powerful. So unlike The Daemons the resolution is not something that comes out of the blue, but is tightly bound up in the mythology that is being explored.
Some of the very best examples of Doctor Who take their inspiration from the horror genre and many classic images are present here: the changing weather, the vampires, the brides of Dracula, the crypt and the ancient runes, the vicar struggling to hold onto his faith, the attack on the church and the creatures rising from the sea. Combined with such excellent incidental music and powerful performances this all adds up to a frightening, atmospheric story. It fits very naturally into the wartime setting, which is in itself inherently horrific. As a child I found it confusing why the Russians seemed to be the enemies, but this is not just a displacement in time of Cold War issues. Russia and Britain were allied by a common enemy and there were fears, particularly towards the end of the war, about how a victory shared by the allies could possibly work.
In basic terms, The Curse of Fenric is a vampires-invade-Bletchley-Park story. At least, this would be the brief issued by a showrunner in modern terms. The location is given to us as allegory rather than the real thing, presumably because it was felt that a celebrity historical with Alan Turing would not be appropriate for Doctor Who: Turing was prosecuted for homosexuality, chemically castrated, and almost certainly committed suicide. However, the story does not ignore these issues, referencing them for those who are paying attention with Judson’s disability, providing a parallel between two discriminated-against minorities. The parallel was clearly intentional, as can be seen in Ian Briggs’s novelisation, where Millington and Judson are shown to have had a past relationship. The novelisation also makes sense of Miss Hardaker’s obsession with morality, because she herself had a child out of wedlock and suffered the social consequences. This shows the depth of thought that went into the story, even if we have to look for clues to some of the underlying issues rather than having them made explicit. And note that the potential end of the world is threatened by chemical weapons, just as Turing was himself the victim of a different kind of chemical weapon, when he chose castration over imprisonment.
The coming of age theme is kept suitably mild for family viewing, but, in keeping with the vampire fiction that inspires the story, desire is shown to be dangerous, with Jean and Phyllis luring men to their deaths, and Ace distracting a soldier from his duties. This is resolved by showing the power of friendship and love, not just with the whole faith in friendship thing, but also Ace’s love for the baby who will grow up to be somebody she has spent her life hating. Never has Doctor Who explored the complexity of relationships better, certainly not in the classic series. And that brings us to something very important about The Curse of Fenric.
I probably shouldn’t go into too much detail about the cancellation of Doctor Who in 1989 because that is really a topic for Survival or a separate article, perhaps both, but let’s just bear in mind that Doctor Who failing to return to our screens in 1990 had nothing to do with viewing figures. When Doctor Who is coming off a run of popularity and excellence then you can schedule it against Coronation Street and get away with it. When you’re coming off of the Colin Baker era then you are setting it up to fail when you schedule it against the number one programme in the country, no matter what you put on screen. To put this in perspective, the episode of Coronation Street that went out against the first episode of The Curse of Fenric was number 1 in the charts, with over 21 million viewers.
So you can’t then cite poor viewing figures as the reason why you’re getting rid of it if you want to look credible as somebody who should be running a television station. Sometimes the quality of a series simply cannot overcome scheduling, as we found out recently with Class. It might not have deserved ten million viewers, but it certainly deserved more than a couple of hundred thousand. If you bury something away on the failing last internet gasp of a closed television channel and then stick it on BBC1 after everyone has gone to bed, then you can’t expect sci-fi to perform well in the viewing figures under those kinds of constraints. Similarly, Season 26 of Doctor Who was set up for an unavoidable fall.
But Michael Grade needs to go down in history not just as the person who cancelled Doctor Who, but also the person who didn’t bring back Doctor Who for another year despite the series putting The Curse of Fenric on our screens. And that really is the most inexcusable thing about the whole cancellation debacle, because The Curse of Fenric was 20 years ahead of its time.
I have to preface what I am going to say here by mentioning that this is not my favourite story, but favourites are all about personal preferences and often nostalgia as well.
Looking completely objectively at the original run of Doctor Who, this is the best it ever got.
Not Caves of Androzani, which is consistently voted top of the list as it pleases a large section of pre-2005 fandom who want Doctor Who to be gritty adult drama and not, you know… Doctor Who. The Curse of Fenric is probably the only Doctor Who story you could take the scripts from and remake it as two 45 minute episodes today with whatever the current team may be, without having to rewrite one line. No, not even the seemingly nonsensical chess solution, which is not a misunderstanding of chess if you look beyond the obvious; posing a problem with a solution that amounts to “break the rules of the game” is exactly how the Doctor solves his problems when he is at his best.
And not only would this not seem out of place in any modern series, but it would be a highlight. The fact that the only other Doctor Who story you could possibly argue that case for is Survival shows how crazy it was to cancel a show that was starting to hit standards that the same show 20 years in the future would be very happy with. At last Doctor Who reaches a point where it has it all: stories that scare us and make us think at the same time, with depth of characterisation and very real character development for the Doctor and the companion. And just as it finally gets to that point, the rug is pulled away from under our feet… RP
The view from across the pond:
Sylvester McCoy’s era as the Doctor, for me, was an era of halves. Each season, I typically enjoyed half the stories while the other half were just mediocre. Which means that, of his 12 stories, 6 were good. That makes it pretty easy for me to pick a favorite out of that batch and The Curse of Fenric is probably the strongest (with Remembrance coming in a close second). During this period, the writers were attempting to make the Doctor mysterious again, adding hints that our hero had a dark past. And although that dark past is hinted in this story, it is not what made Fenric so good.
To tie in with the Halloween theme, I will look at the individual elements of the story first. Again, we get vampires paired up with more Lovecraft. Haemovores (literally, blood eaters) are a mix of vampire (conceptually) with the way they respond to faith and Cthulhu (physically) with those barnacled, tentacled faces and their underwater existence. Often, we are given a view from below the surface, looking up at the unsuspecting world. The addition of the “brides of Dracula”, in the form of Jean and Phyllis, two girls with Nosferatu-like fingernails, further the vampire image. We also have the Ancient One; an over-sized Haemovore from a future, destroyed Earth. This creature’s name is similar to the Great Old Ones of Lovecraft mythos, but he’s far less frightening and mind-crushing than Cthulhu. Lastly, we have yet another Lovecraftian reference with the evil from before time; perhaps akin to Shub Niggurath or Yog Sothoth. The point is, the influence of Lovecraft is pronounced throughout this episode even if it is not a direct representation. We go a few steps further into dark territory: a church run by a priest suffering a crisis of faith during World War II, a mad general willing to commit acts against mankind to win the war, and a professor struggling to break a code accidentally unleashing the evil that the Doctor trapped centuries before…
Like baking a chocolate cake, with the right ingredients, you can only go so wrong. At worst, you have a tasty treat that was good but maybe could have been better; at best you have a masterpiece. Thankfully, we’re closer to the masterpiece. Where it fails is arguably the very thing that saves the day: the Doctor belittling Ace to cause her to lose faith in him. It’s a brutal scene, but when the Doctor and Ace talk and he has to explain why he said what he said, McCoy does a fantastic job conveying that it hurt him at least as much as it hurt her. So while it’s a hard scene to watch, it does have an above-average resolution. Many shows would just glaze over the impact. Instead, Doctor Who takes it as an opportunity to strengthen the relationship between the two characters.
The acting is excellent in this story, complimenting the tension marvelously. Sorin (Tomek Bork) is fantastic as the embodiment of Fenric. His confusion at the chessboard that rapidly turns to victory (thanks, Ace), is incredibly well-acted. He flips from defeat to victory frighteningly. Commander Millington (Alfred Lynch) is fantastic as a man on a mission. That mission includes trying to get into the mind of the enemy. What we find there is not pleasant. Dr. Judson (Dinsdale Landen) plays the angry, crippled scientist to perfection. The vampire girls are tremendously creepy with their disheveled hair and long nails. McCoy and Aldred are great together and the aforementioned scene actually drives that point home. Love them or hate them, they had chemistry. They were always a strong team!
The idea that the Doctor fought Fenric before is interesting. I have a couple of problems with it however. First, when? If we accept that we’ve been following the Doctor since the early days, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. I can ignore this in the event it happened when he was a very young Time Lord, but it really doesn’t hold up that well. Second and more importantly, if Fenric was trapped in a vase, did the Doctor forget it somewhere? I mean, wouldn’t the next logical step be to take the vase and throw it into a sun? Or leave it on the moon? Put another way, if you capture the “evil since the dawn of time” in a jug, you can’t leave the jug sitting around! Someone might use it for some iced tea or something… It gives new meaning to “that’s brisk, baby”! Brisk as a tomb in fact…
To add one more twist, Ace discovers that the baby she’s been fawning over throughout the story is her own mother. This added element is unexpected and the recognition allows Ace to let go of some of the anger she’s held for so long. It’s a wonderful realization after a powerful episode and enhances the character of Ace, freeing the character for a lot of growth in the coming seasons. We’re at a point where the writers seemed to realize that the companion could be built up as a character; this had been largely missing until now. Sadly, those seasons never really materialized. (On a side note, I don’t know how jumping in the water for a swim, while fully clothed, would really wash away bad feelings, but I accept that it could have been more symbolic.)
Well on the bright side, at least we know what to do if this episode doesn’t appeal: jump in the water… fully clothed of course… and when you come out, you’ll love the episode.
Now, I have to go check all the jugs around my house. I’m not about to let my guard down this close to Halloween, and I intend to make some iced tea soon… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Survival
The Curse Of Fenric was penultimately the best story to end the classic Dr. Who on and would have been my vote from Sylvester McCoy’s era for The Doctors Revisited. Thank you both for your great reviews.
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As I just updated in my comments on The Happiness Patrol, McCoy’s era, even with its share of morally valid messages and drama, can feel diminished by how the classic Dr. Who clearly needed to measure up to newer SF in the 80s. It can take loyal Whovians such as ourselves to appreciate how Dr. Who intends to reach us. But when Whovians could imaginably be most satisfied with both The Curse Of Fenric and Survival, both of which were stories that comfortably mixed the new with the old and paved the ways for everything that works now in the modern Who, that’s when the classic Who was ended only one year after its 25th Anniversary. McCoy was openly (in The Story Of Dr. Who) optimistic that it was just after S26 that the classic Who would reach a whole new peak which, if it included a visualization of Timewyrm from what I remember of it, might have been more synchronous with the 90s (in reflection of how the classic Who changed for each new decade with the 70s and 80s).
If The Curse Of Fenric and Survival kept Dr. Who alive in the most realistic way, it was naturally motivating the powers that be to recognize the best way to keep it going. Yet giving it a rest and allowing the fans (via BBV, Reeltime and Dreamwatch) to make the Whoniversal arts of compensation work most profoundly at that point, even despite all inevitably missed marks with the TV Movie, clearly made more sense.
But even if fans cared enough to pull their own creative resources from the Wilderness Years to Big Finish, they still needed enough incentive. The Curse Of Fenric for all the creative complexity it gave us, coupled with its most synchronously helpful effects with great underwater filming and top-notch action sequences, qualified more than enough. Especially thanks to Sylvester and Sophie giving their all.
So maybe the classic Who near its end made a smart move by trying to recapture the traditional magic despite its SF TV competition. But in reflection of its competition, its better chances for appeal simply had to dispense at that point with regular television. Quite fairly, The Curse Of Fenric could have still exclusively succeeded either via Big Finish or the New Adventure Novels. That to me is a true testament of how legacies succeed via stories that are clearly destined to be told.
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Thanks for mentioning the music. I had thought about it but by the time I was done, neglected it. It certainly deserves mention.
I also should have said that this was the first time I ever heard of faith being used against vampires in a non-religious way. I’ve since seen it again, but this was the first. Again, Doctor Who was ahead of its time!
Lastly, I did not bring up scheduling but I’d argue that the same holds true for the 1996 TV movie. Broadcast here in the States on Tuesday, May 14th, it was up against some basketball game (NBA finals or something; I neither cared at the time, nor remember) and the SERIES finale of Roseanne. While the latter might be about a trailer-park family of the lowest common denominator, people here liked it. (As you can gather from my comments, I found it deplorable.) But regardless of my feelings for it, it was the final episode, so what hope did Doctor Who have in 1996 when it had been missing from our TVs for 7 years?
Excellent points you make!
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Roseanne was shown over here to and I took a look at that and thought it was not for me, to say the least! Yes, the US scheduling definitely had an impact on the Movie, I remember that. The BBC made a mistake to get involved in the whole co-production thing because the UK viewing figures were good (9th for the week, so not significantly different to Rose, which was 7th) and the BBC I think would have happily gone to a series but were stuck then with the rights all tied up for a few years.
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If they had been able to prepare the TV Movie’s release earlier for the 30th Anniversary, or a couple years later for the 35th, that might have helped. It’s just my opinion.
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