Doctor Who: The Curse of Fenric

"We play the contest again, Time Lord."

Is this the single best story of the McCoy era? I certainly used to think that when I was younger. Now? Not so much.

I used to have such a high opinion of this story. Only last month I went on Twitter and proclaimed it my favourite McCoy era story. When first saw it, back when I was a wee bairn, it absolutely terrified me, especially the scene where the two girls go for a swim and come out vampires. The idea that something could get inside you and change you, corrupt you, make you evil, horrified me and gave me nightmares for weeks. I stopped thinking it was scary a long time ago, but I still thought this was a great story. Then I sat down to watch it for the first time in I don't know how many years so I could write this review.

Oh boy.

'The Curse of Fenric' sees the Doctor and Ace battle an ancient evil, one that the Doctor is all too familiar with, that has been manipulating whole generations of humans for centuries to do its will. These humans have now built a machine that allows this ancient evil to escape its prison and return to the real world where it quickly takes one of these humans as a host and starts turning the others into its monstrous servants. If that all sounds a little bit familiar that's because writer Ian Briggs has just rehashed 'Image of the Fendahl' and relocated it to a military base during World War II. But an original plot is the least of this story's problems.

'The Curse of Fenric' isn't a bad story, but it is a painfully uneven one. Briggs' script sets things up nicely, but then completely falls apart in the final episode. On the production side of things, the period detail is rather good, save for the odd anachronism (see below), but the direction and editing is sloppy and impatient. Rather than slowly building up, like any good horror story should, things just suddenly happen with little or no warning, robbing many scenes of any tension or sense of dread. Some start so abruptly you wonder if the opening minutes were clumsily cut off for time. In the final episode the Doctor goes from talking with Fenric in one location to suddenly chatting with the Ancient One in a completely different location with no absolutely moments in-between explaining how he got from one location to the other. I was expecting the extended special edition on the DVD, which reedits the whole thing into feature length and adds 20 mins of extra footage, would fix most of these issues, but alas it did not.

Fenric also turns out to be something of a rather limp villain. Like the Gods of Ragnarok, he’s another ill-defined ancient evil whose exact powers and motivations are never clear. All we’re told is that he is evil and wants to do (unspecific) evil things and can be easily defeated with tricky chess problems. Again, the show is frustratingly fuzzy on how exactly this weakens him. More frustratingly, the solution Ace inadvertently gives him makes not a lick of sense. Not only is it a completely invalid move, it isn’t even a winning one. It all makes me think that no one involved in the creation of this story had ever played a game of chess in their life.


The story’s other main villains are the Haemovores, one of those lumbering zombie hordes that is only effective if you stand still and let them catch you. For some reason Briggs decides to give them a needlessly complicated backstory. First he ties them into the vampire myths which leads to some bizarre moments like the scene where Wainwright is just randomly standing in the middle of the graveyard when the girls come up behind him and he's says, without turning around, "I know who you are". How he knows they're vampires, or why he seemed to be waiting for them in the graveyard in the first place, is never made clear. Briggs then muddles things further by telling us that the Haemovores are actually evolved humans from a distant future where the Earth has been ravaged by pollution brought back in time by Fenric to be his minions. Ian, dude, you know sometimes a zombie army can just be a zombie army.

For all of this story's many fault, it is still a great story for the Doctor and Ace. The Doctor has probably never been more manipulative nor more ruthless than he is in this story. He is willing to go to any length to stop Fenric, even if it means brutally shattering Ace's faith in him. It's also great to see Ace finally stand up to the Doctor and call him out for his secretive bullshit. As with 'Ghost Light' this story sheds more light on Ace's troubled past, as she meets her grandmother and her mother as a baby. This subplot is a little heavy handed at times, and doesn't tell us much except that Ace hates her mum, but it works a lot better than the suggested brewing romance between her and Captain Sorin, which is a complete dud. Like all companion romances it's rushed, unconvincing and pretty bad. But not quite as bad as the scene where Ace goes to seduce the guard so the Doctor can free Sorin. That was just... I have no idea what it was, only that it was weird and awkward and the guy playing the squaddie needed to go back to drama school. In fact all the actors playing the Russian or British soldiers are terrible, made worse by the atrocious dialogue Briggs hands them.

The acting in general is a bit of mixed bag. Game show host Nicholas Parsons is surprisingly good as Rev Wainwright, even if his crisis of faith is blundered through before he is rather pointlessly killed off. Anne Reid is completely wasted in the thankless role of Nurse Crane. Dinsdale Landen is great as the disgruntled Professor Judson and as Fenric. Tomek Bork is also good as Fenric, but rather bland as Sorin. Can't really make up my mind about Alfred Lynch as Commander Millington, though. He's a bit inconsistent throughout.


Notes and Quotes

--Anne Reid (Nurse Crane) later played Florence Finnegan in ‘Smith and Jones’ and Janet Henfrey (Miss Hardaker) played Mrs. Pitt in ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’.

--The Russians are speaking Russian when they first arrive, but then switch to English. Why? It's not like they are there undercover The Eagle Has Landed-style.

--This was meant to be the first story of the season aired. Because of this the Doctor wears a large coat for most of the first episode to hide his new brown jacket. It is hilarious that they thought the Doctor wearing a different colour coat was something worthy of a dramatic reveal.

--Baby Audrey seems to have a SuperTed toy despite the fact the character wasn't created until 1978.

--Why were the Russians returning to Norway when it was under German occupation at the time?

Ace: "And the half time score: Perivale, six hundred million; Rest of the Universe, nil!"

Fenric: "Kneel if you want the girl to live!"
The Doctor: "Kill her."
Fenric: "The Time Lord finally understands."
The Doctor: "Do you think I didn't know? The chess set in Lady Peinforte's study? I knew."
Fenric: "Earlier than that. Before Cybermen, ever since Ice World, where you first met the girl."
The Doctor: "I knew. I knew she carried the evil inside her. Do you think I'd have chosen a social misfit if I hadn't known? She couldn't even pass her chemistry exams at School, and yet she manages to create a time storm in her bedroom. I saw it in your hand from the very beginning."
Ace: "Doctor, no."
The Doctor: "She's an emotional cripple. I wouldn't waste my time on her, unless I had to use her somehow."

Two out of four anachronistic kids' toys.
--
Mark Greig comes from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow More Mark Greig

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