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The Curse of Fenric

Review by David Bishop

Quite simply, this four-parter is a classic, perhaps the best Doctor Who adventure of the 1980s. Forget Remembrance, forget Caves, forget Earthshock - Curse is the highlight of the decade and the perfect way to enter the 1990s. Much of the credit goes to Ian Briggs for creating a cracker script, full of mystery, menace, pathos and contemporary issues. There are enough revelations and asides to keep any fan in ecstasy for days and the excitement it generates should register on the Richter scale. The recently screened Attack of the Cybermen was so bad it dragged classics like Tomb of the Cybermen and The Invasion down towards its level by ripping off their plots. Curse does the opposite - it pulls the slipshod Silver Nemesis and dodgy Dragonfire upward by retrospectively explaining some of the questions they left unanswered.

All the actors put in top performances, with Sophie Aldred the best as Ace. The scene in Part Three where she turns on the Doctor or the devastation on her face in the crucial scene from Part Four are edge-of-the-seat, hold-your-breath stuff. Celebrity guest star Nicholas Parsons also shines, as the priest without belief. Indeed all the leads get meaty roles to work with while Briggs uses care and attention with the development of even the minor characters. To be honest, I had grave reservations about this adventure before seeing it - things did not bode well. Shooting and the script both overran, causing the sort of editing headaches that neutered Silver Nemesis.

The assigned director was Nicholas Mallet, responsible for such abortions as the studio-bound Paradise Towers and The Mysterious Planet. There was faint hope that an all-location story like Curse could prosper under his direction, because he worked best on The Mysterious Planet while on location.

The result of all this speculation was humble pie - in one adventure Mallet has made such a turnaround it's hard to believe he is the same person that plumbed such depths before. The direction in Curse is terrific, aided and abetted by the great script and uniformly excellent cast. Only the editing really flaws Curse from achieving perfection.

Part One is ominously jerky in its pacing, trying to cram too much into too short a time - 30 or 35 minutes would have been a better length for that episode. After that the pace settles down nicely, although an extra minute or two would have been good at the end of Part Four to get the viewers a chance to catch their breath. Nicholas Mallett, all is forgiven!

This story just keeps getting better with repeated viewing but is absolutely stunning on first sight - where its immediate predecessor Ghost Light fell down. Ian Briggs' novelisation of Dragonfire was among the best for years - his book of this story (due mid-1990) should be brilliant. Curse is a classic - do anything you can to see a copy.

Review by Paul Scoones

What can one say about this story? Other, of course, that it is undoubtedly one of the all-time classics of Doctor Who. It is to my mind one of only three JNT stories which excel in every respect - the others being Earthshock and The Caves of Androzani. I rate them all equal. If you thought last year's Remembrance of the Daleks was good (which it was), this is better - much, much better.

It was an unlikely story to succeed - with JNT still producer, Andrew Cartmel still script editor, the infamous Nicholas Mallet returning to direct, the story written by Ian Briggs whose one previous Doctor Who tale (Dragonfire) was a decidedly average tale in a dreadful season, and a cast which includes as one of its key players Nicholas "Bloody" Parsons. But succeed it did. Mallet's is almost as pacey as Ghost Light, and by Part Four, things are positively hurtling along. Perhaps the very best scenes (from a direction point of view) though, were the underwater shots, which were in fact directed by JNT himself!

As with Ghost Light, the entire cast treated the story as a serious drama production - which is of course how they should - but seldom does. The above-mentioned and much derided Nick Parsons was particularly brilliant as the Rev Wainwright. Here was a character with real depth, someone you could sincerely believe in and fully sympathise with. But this is also due to the lines he was given to deliver.

The writing was what really made The Curse of Fenric. Ian Briggs dialogue sparkles with carefully chosen phrases, outbursts, monologues and occasionally well-placed anecdotes. Did this man really write Dragonfire?

Once more, we glimpse at more of the Doctor's past - what some people term "The Cartmel Factor", but for once all that is added to his character is a previous, unseen adventure, rather than any Time Lord devices he's kept up his sleeve since the series started. There are several shock revelations in The Curse of Fenric, but they affect Ace much more than the Doctor, who remain more of a bystander, an observer, only taking action when he realises things have got out of control. This is the way the Doctor should be treated. The very best scene of the story comes in Part Three when Ace finally has enough of the Time Lord's evasive nature, and rounds on him accusingly: "You always know. You just can't be bothered to tell anyone. It's like its some kind of a game and only you know the rules!" Before the Doctor reveals Fenric's true nature, however, Ace is reduced to screaming at him "TELL ME!!!" This is one of the most highly charged scenes I have ever witnessed on Doctor Who. The best drama is made of emotional conflict, and there is plenty of this in The Curse of Fenric. Ian Briggs created Ace in Dragonfire, and here he writes for her character first, and the Doctor second. It is the best story for a companion ever and Sophie Aldred rose to the occasion, handling superbly the extreme excesses of emotion the production required of her. It was after watching this story for the first time that Ace became my favourite Doctor Who companion.

I could go on for pages and pages about all the brilliant aspects of this terrific production, but I won't - most of my observations I'm saving for an indepth analysis of Fenric that I intend to write for this zine shortly. This review will undoubtedly be printed in amongst a number of reviews of the same story. It doesn't particularly matter to me whether others liked it or not. I do - a lot. I would go as far as to rate it as one of my five favourite Doctor Who stories of all time.

One of the questions I am asked is why I like Doctor Who. In recent years, that hasn't been easy to answer, in fact not since Season 21 ended. This story has gone a very long way towards restoring this fan's flagging enthusiasm for Doctor Who.

Review by Graham Howard

I found this to be a wonderfully atmospheric story with just about all the ingredients of a classic Who. If there was any Doctor Who tale from the Doctor's past that could provide a comparison, I believe Fury from the Deep (at least judging from the novel) would be the closest in evoking the feel of Curse. The translation of the old Viking poem, the excellent use of incidental music and location, and even the soliloquy read from the pulpit combined to give this story its unique feel.

Nick Mallet's direction appeared to me, as a lazy person, to be effective and tight, and did not seem to suffer too much from the extensive editing that must have been done to cut this story down from the five episodes desired by the production team (filming of each episode overran by several minutes) to the original four episodes they were ultimately allotted. I know Mallet has received a lot of flak from fan quarters for his earlier efforts in Doctor Who, with Curse I'm sure he will have silenced a lot of his critics.

The acting was excellent all round. Sylvester is now firmly established as the Doctor, giving perhaps his most serious performances to date (at least from the stories I have seen) with there being very little by the way of comic relief or comedy in this story. The Doctor seems to be a rather "all-knowing" character these days, perhaps pointed out most clearly with Ace's words to the effects that "you always know what's going on. But you never tell anyone!" In my opinion the Doctor should, for the most part anyway, find out things as the viewer does, although he would normally remain one step ahead of the viewer.

Sophie Aldred's Ace seems to get better and better. From her pleas to the Doctor to tell her exactly what is going on (as above), to her unusual chat up lines (?) to the guard - she is "not a little girl anymore", to her 'relationship' with the Russian soldier, and with the revelation as to certain 'dark secrets' from her past, I believe in this one story she was able to convey more depth of character than Peri was able to do in all her tenure (at least up to The Mysterious Planet).

Of note also was Nicholas Parsons who gave a very creditable performance as the Reverend Wainwright.

I found the Haemovores to be effective monsters overall, however, warding them off with faith (?) seemed a bit too easy, and it was something of an anticlimax when the Doctor was able to do this as they were invading the church.

I particularly liked the climax to Part Three with Judson, previously in a wheel chair, standing up behind the Doctor and saying "We play the contest again, TIME LORD," revealing that he knows who the Doctor is and that he has met the Doctor before. However, in some respects I believe, as with Battlefield, Part Four did not deliver what was promised from the first three episodes. This lack of satisfaction stems mostly from the unanswered questions:

How can a chess game constrain Fenric? What was the relevance of the flask? Why did the 'Ancient Haemovore' need the Doctor to destroy Ace's faith in him before destroying Fenric? Why didn't Fenric resist the Haemovore or use his powers against it?

It maybe that someone who has studied the story in detail can provide the answers to these questions... Jon?

Review by Richard Scheib

At last Season 26 offers a decent item. It is deeply problem ridden, but it is also an episode that offers some fascinating and quite adult insights. It is only a couple of steps up from Ghost Light in terms of plot comprehensibility. It seems this season, Script Editor Cartmel is going for avant-garde styles of editing - the old trick that was trendy back among the Beat Generation writers of randomly chopping ones pages up, throwing them in the air and re-connecting them in whatever way they came down. This plot gets very quickly lost in a tangle of foreign spies (it actually being difficult to tell whether they are meant to be Communists or Scandinavians), computer and bacterial warfare plots to take over Russia (or is it Germany as the intelligence operation seems to be set up to mimic that of the Nazi Government), ancient Viking curses and artifacts somehow involving vampires from the future and a climax that depends on the outcome of a chess game. The results are highly confusing and the attempts to rationalize the vampires, for instance, approaching desperation, one that also contradicts the equally unlikely reworking of vampire lore in State of Decay. At times the story, particularly with its vampires with three-week old porridge on their faces, emerging up out of the water remind of the low budget underwater Nazi zombie extravaganza Shock Waves made in 1975.

The cursory jumps of logic, plot and exposition are too many to enumerate. Coincidence rates highly - the Doctor and Ace are constantly finding vital objects - sets of invasion plans just lying on a beach, the Oriental Treasure just fallen out of a niche in a wall.

But on the other hand there were aspects of the story that I liked very much. In tone its character is possibly the most adult I have seen a Doctor Who story yet. Ace's discussion about unwed motherhood and seduction of an officer to divert him from the Doctor are far from the fuzzy, mawkish romantic embarrassments that most of the series attempts to even mention sexuality wind up in. Indeed the character of Ace is the most fascinating one in the whole story - the surprise, if slightly predictable, revelation of the identity of the baby and particularly the final scene has an oddly haunting effect that remained with me for some time after. There's also one neat Doctor/Ace exchange which I loved from an exegetic viewpoint, where Ace confronts the script-writers habit of having the Doctor leave his revelations of what is going on until the end or dramatically appropriate moment, twisting it by making it a compulsive game-playing part of the Doctor's personality. The character I also liked was that of the Vicar played by Nicholas Parsons. Another striking character, conducting another quite adult area for Doctor Who religion, in casting caught by rational modern Anglican doubt, there being one really beautiful moment where Ace assures him there is indeed hope for the future. It was these moments that made Curse of Fenric for me, despite the confusing rest of it. As far as I'm concerned this is the best story to come out of the whole McCoy era yet. This is really the area I would like to see Doctor Who go in the future - there is so much potential in doing a Doctor Who with adult emotions. The Peter Davison era came the closest to it, but then along came Colin Baker.

Review by Andrew Poulsen

Well, basically, I LOVED IT! SOCK IT TO 'EM, ACE!!! 'Nuff said.

Review by Jeff Stone

Ian Briggs is, in my opinion, one of the best DW writers the show has had for years. His debut story, Dragonfire, saved the 24th season from completely self-destructing. Now, two years later, he has produced a story that is truly destined for classic status - The Curse of Fenric.

McCoy and Aldred turn in excellent performances - they are fantastic together. McCoy's Doctor portrays emotion well - anger, fear, amusement, they're all there. Ace's character is explored incredibly deeply - the fact that the evil Fenric was responsible for her travelling to Ice World, and that the baby she helps to rescue in the story is in fact her... well, that would be spoiling the surprise.

The Haemovores, the creatures of this story, are rather good - even though they looked like animated lumps of half solid concrete. It shows that all aliens need not be green and have sixteen eyes to be effective.

The plot develops well - the Russian troops, sent to steal a code-breaking computer, are a nice sub-plot, though why Russian? The Germans might have worked better.

There just isn't the room here to describe this brilliant story in full - it's very complex but becomes easier to understand as it goes along. I like the `green poison seeping out of the earth' aspect of the plot, even if it is ripped off Inferno.

Does McCoy make those bird noises himself? I love that!

Briggs has done a good job of building other stories into it as well, Silver Nemesis in particular, concerning the game of chess (remember Lady Peinforte's chess set?), and the last deadly game of chess that Fenric and the Doctor must play...

One niggle arises - yet again, the Doctor's bloody past is built into this story! It is getting so we can't go for one season without learning about some aspect of the Doctor's past exploits - why hasn't he told anyone about the before!? I hate that!

All in all, Fenric is an incredible story - complex, multi-layered and genuinely frightening, action-packed, original (in most areas) and very well acted. Ian Briggs, I salute you! I name The Curse of Fenric as classic of the season.

This item appeared in TSV 17 (January 1990).

Index nodes: The Curse of Fenric