Sunday, October 31, 2010

Monsterthon: Random Who Report: The Curse of Fenric (1989)

Curse of Fenric DVD cover and Amazon link
Picking a “monster-centric” installment of DOCTOR WHO seems kind of difficult, since monsters are a major part of the show on any given week. But some stories are more horrific than others, and “Curse of Fenric” is arguably the most Halloweeny of them all. It aired during the final season of the show’s original run, when few people were watching despite a really admirable creative recovery. After the show’s hiatus and a jumbled creative period during Colin Baker’s last season and Sylvester McCoy’s first, script editor Andrew Cartmel and producer John Nathan-Turner came up with a unique “master plan” to return some mystery to the character of the Doctor by making him more than another Time Lord, and darkening the tone of the show a bit. McCoy’s Doctor, originally just a broad clown type, became more of a grand manipulator, with a friendly and humorous exterior hiding some deep and almost callous calculation. “The Curse of Fenric” takes this approach to a rather grim extreme in a dark and scary story of soldiers, vikings, and mutant vampires from the future.

The TARDIS lands on a British naval base during World War II, the Doctor (McCoy) wanting to meet with a Dr. Judson (Dinsdale Linden), a wheelchair-bound cryptographic expert working on the British Ultima Machine, a massive codecracking computer. The base and town itself have been built on top of old Viking settlements, and in the basement of the local church Judson and others are investigating ancient runes and a legend of a treasure the Vikings stole from somewhere in the east, a treasure bearing a terrible curse. A group of Russian soldiers have shown up hoping to steal the device (or at least the relatively small central component of it), while the curse starts to awaken due to the efforts of Judson and others, include companion Ace (Sophie Aldred), who gives him the idea to run the latest set of runes through the Ultima Machine. The program triggered awakens legions of the dead and drowned from the ocean, now turned into mutant bloodthirsty Haemovores, and in time releases Fenric himself, a bodiless ancient evil force from the dawn of time, who lost a contest with the Doctor centuries ago and is itching for a rematch.

The Doctor is playing a long game from the start, never telling Ace- or, for that matter, us- why he’s here until he absolutely has to. A sense of mystery and uncertainty runs through the story, as we’re not sure what all these plot threads have to do with each other for the first couple of episodes. It’s engaging enough not to be frustrating, but it shows how the manipulative nature of the Doctor was changing how the standard formula worked; instead of exploring and seeking out new evils to combat, the Doctor is driven places by what he’s done before and what he has to do now to bring his plans together. For once he’s opposed by an equally manipulative enemy; Fenric turns out to have engineered not only many of the events in this story, but events in episodes from seasons past (including ones that didn’t really make sense at the time.)

The effect of all this on Ace is particularly interesting; though she doesn’t strictly have a lot of agency in the plot, the story is in some ways about her faith in the Doctor and how it’s tested by these events. She develops emotional attachments to people who end up being expendable pawns in the larger game, whether they’re killed by Haemovores, soldiers, or Fenric himself. In an interesting expansion of this theme, faith turns out to be the one thing to which the Haemovores are vulnerable- instead of being repelled by crucifixes and communion wafers, the Haemovores are driven back by the psychic power of human belief, whatever it happens to be in. The Soviet Commander Sorin (Tomek Bork) repels them through his faith in the revolution, at one point wielding his Red Star pin like a cross; the kindly and thoughtful Rev. Wainwright (Nicholas Parsons), on the other hand, has trouble, because the horrors of war have strained his belief in the goodness of mankind. And while in retrospect it’s a fairly obvious liberal-humanist-whatever subversion that a Soviet (and so presumably atheist) soldier has more faith than a clergyman, the story doesn’t really bludgeon us with this and we’re left with the sense that Wainwright is a decent person.

The story is bleak stuff, just about as bleak as DOCTOR WHO can or really should get; lots of innocent people die in a very unpleasant way, and the atmosphere is that of a horror film throughout. For a show that, especially near the end, was contending with low production values and short schedules, “Curse of Fenric” looks gorgeous, with lovely location work, lashings of rain and fog, and impressive battle scenes. The incidental score by Mark Ayres is particularly lovely. The Haemovores themselves are strikingly ugly- a little rubbery in close-up, perhaps, but the visual is nice. The Ancient One (Raymond Trickitt), a beast from humanity’s chemical-poisoned future brought back in time by Fenric to sire the other Haemovores, is a particularly interesting creation.

An epic story like this can’t always go right, and despite writer Ian Brigg’s admirable attempts to pull everything together there are some less effective parts. The arc of Jean (Joann Kenny) and Phyllis (Joanne Bell), two bawdy London evacuees watched over by a shrill caretaker (Janet Henfrey), has a weirdly puritanical slasher-movie element to it that rings a little false, and I’m not sure they were the best people to deliver some of the more melodramatic dialogue. It’s a bit unclear why there’s no concerted attempt to get at least some people off-base when the Haemovores attack, and at some points the characters run around not being too inconvenienced by the danger. There’s also a scene where Ace attempts to distract a prison guard that, due to the limitations of family television, just turns out weird. On the other hand, Aldred is pretty good throughout, especially in her interaction with Kathleen (Cory Pulman), a radio operator who’s raising an adorable baby whom Ace falls totally in love with. She looks good in forties get-up, too.

The story had to have some of it edited out for time when it was first broadcast, though the VHS release restored those moments and the DVD offers them as part of an expanded feature presentation with some CGI-enhanced effects. The additional scenes aren’t essential but they do expand on a few things, and they point to just how much background the story really has. “Curse of Fenric” is a triumph of style, but has a lot of substance to it as well; it really shows how unfortunate it was that the show was cut off just as it was finding its legs again. It’s not my favorite DOCTOR WHO story or even my favorite story from the McCoy years, but it’s one of the show’s classics and a scary good time nonetheless.

Written by Ian Briggs
Directed by Nicholas Mallett
Produced by John Nathan-Turner
Aired October 25-November 15, 1989

Grade: A

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