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Doctor Who: The Curse of Fenric – Special Edition (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Curse of Fenric originally aired in 1989. The special edition cut of the episode was released on DVD in 2003.

I’ve said it a lot over this past year, but you really have to be incredibly grateful for the wonderful team behind the classic Doctor Who DVD releases. Not only do they loving restore classic adventures that might be forgotten to the ages, and not only do they packages the episodes with buckets of in-depth and lovingly-made featurettes, but they also occasionally revisit classic serials to bring them up-to-date, or to move them more in line with the director or writer’s artistic vision. Sure, some of these “special editions” occur in the most random of places (Planet of Fire, anyone?) or simply to remove a few technical impairments holding a story back from being an entertaining romp (as in Day of the Daleks), but occasionally they do something more substantial. In this instance, they make a great adventure into something truly spectacular.

This is not a drill…

No era of the show is quite as controversial as the Sylvester McCoy era. Of course, Doctor Who fans will disagree on anything, but there are any number of divisive stories featuring the actor, ones that likely to be shortlisted among the best ever produced or the true worst of the series, depending a given fan’s personal preference. Mentioning Ghost Light or The Happiness Patrol is just something you don’t do in polite conversation – the affection harboured by some fans is matched only be the vehemence held by others. While Remembrance of the Daleks does tend to draw a generally favourable response, I think many would concede that The Curse of Fenric stands as perhaps the Sylvester McCoy serial with the broadest appeal.

Lovingly restored by the technical team, expanded with deleted scenes (and shuffled around a bit for good measure), with a newly remixed 5.1 surround sound and decent enough (if not spectacular) special effects, the movie-length special edition of the episode enhances the good stuff at the heart of the adventure, while adding some other interesting ideas on top. As the show entered its final years, Andrew Cartmel arguably brought a new bold and defining vision to the series, offering something of a fresh approach to a science-fiction institution that was over a quarter of a century old. With the cooperation of the much (and perhaps unfairly) maligned John Nathan Turner, Cartmel attempted to reintroduce a sense of magic and mystery to the Doctor, suggesting that his outward persona was merely an act to hide a more calculating and manipulative interior.

Everybody out of the water!

This aspect of the character played very much to Sylvester McCoy’s strengths. I’m fond of his version of the character, but I think he represents the weakest actor in the lead role – or at least the most limited. McCoy’s version of the character works best when he’s very much the stagey showman, with a hint of something more complicated bubbling below the surface. You can really see that even here, with the awkward delivery of the playful banter between Ace and the Doctor on their arrival. While the individual line readings are genuinely weak, and I think that McCoy and Aldred weren’t the finest combination of actors to headline the show, there is a sense of deep affection and – what’s more – a developing and growing relationship.

Ace is a fascinating character, for all the truly horrible slang that she used to come out with, and for all of Aldred’s struggles to make sense of it. Ace is perhaps the only original series companion to truly develop over her time with the Doctor, and to work out her own issues. There have been characters who have undergone change during their time with the Doctor – Turlough being perhaps the most obvious, but also Romana – but most of it seems to happen over their first serial and the show doesn’t necessarily chart a character arc for them, while making for occasionally improvised leaps and bounds in characterisation. You can see a lot of this carrying forward to Russell T. Davies’ first year on the new show, with Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor helping Rose grow and develop into her own person.

My, what big eyes you have…

The Curse of Fenric represents a huge step forward for Ace. The relationship between her and the Doctor feels more like a father-daughter relationship than most other companion dynamics (where the Doctor instead seems more like a really cool uncle than a responsible parent). there are hints of that here, with the Doctor treating Ace like a child. “Is it okay if I go down to the cliffs tomorrow and do some rock climbing?” she asks like a hyperactive child. He responds with a tired, “Go to sleep.” He forbids her to go swimming in the water, later on. When the Doctor explains that Judson could never break Fenric’s code, he’s undone by the simple fact that he never warned Ace not to help the scientist, being too busy treating her like a child. “You should have told me,” she quite fairly admonishes him.

And yet the Doctor clearly takes great personal pride in her growth and development. Most Doctors seem to keep their companions around to impress them, boasting their intimate knowledge of the cosmos and attempting to sound impressive – after all, the primary story function of a companion was to act as an audience-stand-in and receive a big juicy info-dump. However, McCoy’s Doctor doesn’t give Ace the answer straight-away. He’s more concerned with allowing her to reach the conclusion herself. When they find the Soviet plans on the beach, he instructs her, “Read the lettering.” Trying her hardest, the young girl suggests, “Greek.” He corrects her, “Russian.” In the cavern with inscriptions, he keeps prompting her (“…and…?”) to reach the key observation (“…and it wasn’t here this morning!”). In most cases he eventually gives her the answer, but he does encourage her to work it out herself.

Oh ye of little faith…

Of course, this is the serial where Ace, the troubled teenager that the Doctor picked up half-way across time and space, finally grows up. She makes peace with her mother, falls in tragic love, and learns that she can’t really count of the Doctor never to hurt her (as he’ll do what he has to in order to save as many lives as possible, even if that means disappointing her). The Reverend quotes from Corinthians early in the episode, and passage seems relevant for Ace. “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” This serial is pretty much about Ace putting away those childish things. When the Doctor tries to fob her off with the usual excuses, she demonstrates she has grown up enough to deserve his respect and honesty, “Tell me!” And he gives her that respect and honesty.

One of the best things about Ian Briggs’ whip-smart script, drawing on the same Norse mythology as the previous season’s The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, is the wonderful subtext he gives all his core ideas. There’s a lot going on in the script. A worn-down sign on an old beach warns about “undercurrents”, and perhaps it refers to the story itself. Briggs cleverly and (for a family show) skilfully compares Ace’s emotional development with her sexual growth. Briggs created the character in the earlier adventure Dragonfire, and – despite John Nathan Turner’s insistence he keep it out of the show itself – insisted that Ace was not a virgin. Here, she volunteers to distract a guard. “How?” the Doctor asks. She responds, “Professor, I’m not a little girl.”

Soldiering on…

Of course, this does lead to some awkward dialogue where Briggs’ clever symbolism seems to give way to overly emotive writing. It happens occasionally over the course of the adventure, and it’s something I’ve picked up on increasingly on repeat viewings over the years. There’s a tonne of very clever stuff in here, but there are also moments when Briggs over-eggs the pudding, so to speak. It is something that stands as a very minor black mark against an otherwise impressive story.

Briggs handles sexuality remarkably candidly for a tea-time television show. When Ace suggests that the girls meet at the none-too-subtly named “Maidens’ Point”, the girls respond, “Well that puts Jean out for a start.” The three girls, playing out on the beach, discover things about themselves – jumping down from a rock “makes you feel all funny inside”, while a “piece of junk” (from a long-lost Viking treasure) “makes you feel all tingly.” As the puritanical and sexless (and husband- and childless) aunt suggests, “I know what girls who go to Maidens’ Point has in mind.”

Signs and symbols…

It’s a vampire story, after all. It’s all about repressed sexuality bubbling through the surface with old religious and social values suggesting that the women who dared to give into their sexual desires ended up “damned forever” and restlessly haunting the bay, which is supposedly where the lead character came ashore in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The show cleverly uses swimming as a metaphor for sex, perhaps foreshadowing the dancing metaphor in The Doctor Dances. When the aunt rants and rambles about the girls’ immortal souls, one responds sarcastically, “Just because you’ve never been swimming.” It’s no wonder there are no children about.

Of course, the story does go a little bit deeper than that. After all, any story can do cheap sexuality. Instead, Briggs ties that notion of growth and development and expands it further, illustrating that a young person’s sexual development helps transition them from child to adult, son to father, daughter to mother, as Briggs suggests by tying in an infantile version of Ace’s mother, Audrey. The spectre of child mortality looms over the cemetery (“only lived thirteen days, poor thing,” Ace suggests, reading a tombstone). A sign of her transition from reckless teenager to responsible adult, Ace takes time out during the climax to check on the baby. The Doctor notes her change in character, “Once upon a time you dropped everything in search of excitement.” Even Ace herself finds her old attitudes changing as she matures. “I used to think I’d never get married, but now I’m not so sure.”

In command of his faculties?

While this is the most developed theme, and the most effective one, it is by no means the only one. As much as the serial develops Ace, it also expands quite a bit on Cartmel’s portrayal of the Doctor. A far more enigmatic and scheming character than he once appeared, it’s implied that he brought Ace to the circus in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy to overcome her fear of clowns. Here, he brings her to her mother’s infancy to make peace with a parent she hates. Although it seems like ignorance that the Doctor never warned Ace about the symbols, it could also hae been that the Doctor chose this moment to stage a long-overdue final confrontation with Fenric, while Ace came to terms with her mother. After all, the Doctor’s final gambit sees him erode her trust in one parent figure, so surely he intended to wash away the hatred of another?

There’s a sense of mystery about all this. Like Battlefield, this story feels like the conclusion to an untelevised adventure. “We play the contest again, Time Lord,” Fenric boasts. The Doctor and Fenric are tying up loose ends from over seventeen centuries ago. More directly, Ace’s entire time with the Doctor has been one large gambit on the part of both Fenric and the Doctor. Fenric’s direct influence spans back more than centuries in-story, but also back over a season in the show itself, “ever since Ice World.” Cartmel’s Doctor is a bit of a naughty boy, who is only now getting around to tidying up all manner of dirty business he really should have sorted out long before. Fans refer to this redefining of the character as “The Cartmel Masterplan”, and perhaps it’s at its very best here. It’s another trait carried over to the revival, with both Davies’ (and especially Moffat’s) Doctors fond of playing the occasional long-game.

It made me a religious fan…

As if that isn’t enough the serial also features some interesting temporal mechanics. The show took a while to come to grips with the time-traveling aspect of the show, with Day of the Daleks being the first serial to really play with the idea of a paradox, and the time-travel only really providing a shift in backdrop from time to time. Here, we have several fascinating ideas, none of which are really dwelt on too heavily. First of all, Ace saves and directs her own mother, meeting her grandmother. “You’ve just created your own future,” Fenric advises her. Fenric also attempts to get “the First One” to trigger a chemical reaction that would create the barren wasteland that produced him. The Doctor advises him, “This act will be the beginning of your end.”

So Fenric stands for pre-destination – the notion that we are trapped in cycles of repeating behaviour. Ace directs the mother she’ll grow up to hate. The First One will create the atomic wasteland that he dreads so much. In contrast, the Doctor represents complete freedom and autonomy. He teaches Ace that her hatred defines her only as long as she holds on to it. He convinces the First One that he doesn’t have to create that horrible future – we all have control of our own actions and lives. It’s actually a rather wonderful position for the character, and setting Fenric in opposition (along with giving the pair a rich history) makes the bad guy more than just a cookie-cutter villain.

You want a piece of me?

At the same time, Briggs writes the story as something of an anti-war adventure. The military base is directed from “a perfect replica of the German Naval Cypher Room”, by a commander who looks a bit like Hitler. The story sees the Allies considering biological warfare with an insanely toxic weapon that will be harnassed against civilians. “Just think what a palmful could do to a city like Dresden or Moscow.” The two cities mentioned are no coincidence. The bombing of Dresden represents one of the most petty and malicious Allied attacks of the entire war, destroying a town populated with civilians as a show of force. It’s also telling that the officer is concerned with Moscow, preparing for the other defining conflict of the twentieth century before the Second World War is even finished.

The Reverend “stopped believing when the bombs started falling”, and can’t even find the word “hope” to complete his biblical quote. We’re informed that war is “a game played by politicians.”It’s remarkably straightforward when compared to the rest of Briggs’ other ideas, but it’s handled reasonably well for the first half of the story. Even when it becomes heavy-handed towards the end, it’s the kind of philosophical sentiment that is powerful enough to justify being treated in a heavy-handed manner.

It’s a scream…

There are some other nice, and subtle, touches. I like the script’s portrayal of Judson as a man struggling with his disability. He’s obviously a mirror to the real Alan Turing, the man who developed the enigma machine, who struggled with his own homosexuality. Apparently that wasn’t deemed appropriate family viewing in the eighties (which is why we got things like The Happiness Patrol), so Briggs allowed the character to wrestle with a disability. Of course, comparing sexuality to a disability is a very tricky path to walk, as it can seem more than a little bit of an unfair comparison – sexual orientation is not an affliction, and it’s risky to treat it as such. Briggs manages to avoid straying too far into politically incorrect territory, if only because he barely suggests the connection.

The Curse of Fenric is a wonderful little story, and conclusive proof that the series still had more than a little amount of life left in it upon cancellation. It’s a wonderful little story, and I remember it actually being one of the very first classic series episodes that I truly enjoyed, rather than merely appreciating. It’s sad that we didn’t get more time with the heroes of this story – the evolving Ace and the mysterious Doctor – but at least the series went out with its dignity intact.

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