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Throwback Thursday - Doctor Who - The Curse of Fenric

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Throwback Thursday is a weekly article in which we look back at our favourite TV episodes from the past.

Doctor Who Series 26: The Curse of Fenric
Directed by Nicholas Mallet & Written by Ian Briggs
First Broadcast: 25 October 1989
Last Broadcast: 15 November 1989

The Doctor and Ace arrive at a secret military base during the second world war on the British coastline. Everything seems normal as far as secret military bases go; but it isn’t long before a centuries-old Viking curse descends on the base and all those living nearby. Can they survive a terrifying vision of mankind’s future brought about by an age-old threat, escape the vampire-like monsters known as the Haemovores, and thwart both British soldiers and Russian commandos?

It helps as someone who grew up on the current series of Doctor Who from the very first episode, Rose, that The Curse of Fenric is something that certainly shares a lot of DNA with its modern counterpart; providing plenty of character growth for Ace in particular which is much more than what we’ve seen for her character so far in the show since her introduction in Dragonfire at the back end of Series 24. Building on the back of the previous serial, Ghost Light, The Curse of Fenric forces Ace to be confronted with her past, putting her relationship with the mother whom she hates under the spotlight, and Sophie Aldred more than steps up to the task. Ian Briggs uses this as a branch-off point tackle a pretty serious subject for Ace that would come to define her character; addressing her faith in The Doctor and how it can be broken down and crushed which is the main talking point from this serial of just how downright manipulative the Seventh Doctor actually is, and how much scarier he is than almost any other Doctor (Time Lord Victorious had NOTHING on this). The Doctor’s heartless rant to her about how much of a failure she is and the fact that she was only recruited as a companion because of her connection to Fenric is a pretty dark moment; even for The Doctor, something that Sylvester McCoy relishes in having the opportunity to perform, and with everything that she’s recently learned about her mother it almost becomes too much for Ace to bear; breaking down in a crucial moment that almost costs her dearly. It turns out it’s all part of The Doctor’s plan, after all, to save the day by breaking the stronghold that Ace has over the Haemovore allowing it to escape from its curse and stop The Ancient One, but it’s Seven at his most manipulative and cruel and, incidentally, shows just what separates The Curse of Fenric from the rest of McCoy’s admittedly, very good and very underrated run.

Up until this point with a few exceptions, Ace has largely only been given a few things to do here and there; odd token gestures whilst the main focus is on The Doctor. She’s constantly told to go back and wait for The Doctor to save the day and solve the crime, which usually ends with Ace disobeying The Doctor’s orders, breaking through to his rescue when he’s inevitably captured and blowing stuff up. Stories like Battlefield, the Series 26 opener, was a real victim of this reliance on the trope about Ace’s character in particular despite Ben Aaronovitch writing her well in the past, particularly in Remembrance of the Daleks. Which is partly the reason why I loved The Curse of Fenric so much. It’s a zero-win situation for the character that requires some much-needed depth to be written about Ace, and The Curse of Fenric more than delivers. It establishes a relationship with her grandmother and later on, her mother, spending most of the arc caring about the baby before realising she’s rescued and put her faith in someone who she will later despise. It’s the humanity present in all of Doctor Who that makes Ace’s arc across The Curse of Fenric hit home, and the fact that she actually had an arc is notable in its own right for The Doctor's companion, building on Ghost Light, with it not being a coincidence that both serials took an unknowing Ace for a trip to revisit her past.

The mythology around Fenric is certainly interesting and Briggs crafts a fascinating backdrop for the monster, who encountered The Doctor in the past – Constantinople in fact, losing at a game of chess. It’s an age-old monster that runs throughout history being named so by the Vikings, with a curse that explores generations of “wolves” that carry Fenric’s taint even if they’re not infected themselves, they are descendants. Crucial among this is that Ace is a descendant who carries Fenric’s taint; her rescuing her mother Audrey through Kathleen who turns out to be her grandmother in part four and telling her to go and find a relative of hers is something that arguably not only fits with the time period that would lead to Ace being born but also ends up leading her to confront her entire existence. There’s certainly a valid point to be made that raises questions about why The Doctor teamed up with Ace that the show explores in this episode with shocking results. Much of this serial is built around defining her and who she is as a character; well before the big reveal even happens, with Ace mentioning the old house in Perivale to her grandmother that may have had more of an impact on her than first thought, given how crucial a part Perivale plays in Ace’s upbringing.

The Curse of Fenric feels like a true mystery box storyline that J.J. Abrams would have been proud of - it wouldn’t feel out of place for Steven Moffat’s run in current Doctor Who like the story arc concerning Amy and The Silence, and the "Impossible Girl" saga that dominated the early days of Clara's time in the TARDIS. It seems clear then that in the last series of the show’s run before it was ultimately cancelled, it wasn’t just finding its feet, it was thriving, with Ace being a perfect example of a companion who was ahead of her time. And it seemed only appropriate that the writer to explore Ace’s character and make her confront her greatest fears was Briggs, the writer responsible for her introduction to the TARDIS team. Unfortunately by this point in the show the writing was sadly on the wall for Doctor Who and cancellation followed after the end of Series 26, before its eventual return in 2005. But that said, the series itself was a victim of cruel scheduling - if Doctor Who hadn’t been scheduled against Coronation Street back when it aired; would we have had a Series 27 following and would the show have changed forever? McCoy was certainly given the option of returning for another series, so who knew how things could have turned out had history been different? After all; Ace is the only companion who doesn’t get a proper send-off on television as a result of the series’ cancellation, left to spend eternity wondering space and time with The Doctor after the series' last serial, Survival.

The dawning of a new, computer age along with the darker tone represent a clear break from the lighter, campier affair that was Dragonfire, drawing on real-world inspiration. The influences of Alan Turing and his decryption of the Nazis’ ENGIMA machine are felt in the creation of Dr. Judson (Dinsdale Landen) and the Ultima Machine that plays a vital part in The Curse of Fenric. It’s a storyline that’s looking forward to the future as much as it is looking back into the past; once again using unrelated monsters to explore the concept of Norse mythology but avoiding any direct mention of Ragnarok or the end times itself, after The Greatest Show in the Galaxy had already tackled The Gods of Ragnarok being the main villains of the serial. The series itself feels more Viking-adjacent rather than an actual Viking serial, but their presence is still felt in particular with the establishment of the setting of the area surrounding the cursed beach of Maiden’s Point (in actuality, Lulworth Cove, a beach that’s a lot nicer than the reputation of Maiden’s Point suggests). The sense of location is aided by the series' on-location shooting which really goes some way to establish the unsettling mood and atmosphere of this serial, which does a very good job at establishing a sense of unease and eeriness from the very beginning. Much of the first episode is focused on the set-up that would follow The Curse of Fenric to the end, largely keeping Ace seperate from The Doctor so she can become friends with two girls, wartime evacuees from London, who would later get turned into Haemovores the more time they spend swimming in the water, defying orders from the local inhabitants near the army base who are too scared to leave to even set food on Maiden's Point. The first episode of the serial is very much a calm before the storm, but when the storm comes, it doesn't take too long for all hell to break out.

The World War Two setting adds a unique look and feel to Doctor Who, the show is uniquely critical of its generals who sit back and do nothing whilst the soldiers are frequently shown to be involved in the bloodshed doing the actual fighting. Much of The Curse of Fenric is built around a chess game between The Ancient One and The Doctor, replicating their battle in Constantinople centuries ago. Here an idea presented to defeat The Ancient One comes across pretty quickly which Ace is able to work out before being tricked by the Haemovores – the pawns divided cannot win, but the pawns united stand a chance. Allegiances in warfare do not matter to the time travellers; they navigate both sides of the Russians and the British, with Ace even developing a strong attachment to a Russian soldier who gives her his medallion as a believer in the cause; a gesture made doubly important by the strong belief of faith that runs through this show, offering a twist on the mythology that Mark Gatiss and Moffat would later explore in their recent miniseries Dracula, it is not the object itself that stops the vampire alone, it is faith, and the object in question does not matter - it doesn't have to be a cross. Ace’s faith in the Doctor, the Russian soldiers' faith in their cause.

It is entirely no coincidence that Reverend Wainright falls victim to the vampire curse; as does the British Commander Millington (Alfred Lynch). Like with the show utilising the foot soldiers to form an alliance in order to survive; the show doesn’t hide its disdain in the pencil-pushing generals; a theme that has been common throughout the Seventh Doctor’s run, with an anti-Thatcherite theme and Cold War politics running through the era portrayed most notably in The Happiness Patrol with Shelia Hancock portraying the villainous despot Helen A as a Thatcher-esque character. In regards to the episode itself, Script editor Andrew Cartmel stated that "Helen A was a terrific character, and I’m not sure at what point we got the notion that it’d be good to write her like Margaret Thatcher, but I think it probably came from Graeme, and I did nothing but encourage it. We didn’t brief [Hancock], we didn’t take her aside. She saw right away what we were getting at and boy, did she run with it. She gave a magnificent performance." Cartmell further made it clear - “my exact words were: I’d like to overthrow the government," and McCoy himself was on board, claiming that “The idea of bringing politics into Doctor Who was deliberate, but we had to do it very quietly and certainly didn’t shout about it. We were a group of politically motivated people and it was the right thing to do.” Whilst the political subtext is not quite as obvious as The Happiness Patrol, it still plays a huge role in this particular serial and should not be understated. Another important reminder that in addition to political subtext, Briggs had planned to showcase a past relationship between Commander Millington and Dr Judson that unfortunately never made it to air, which would have been groundbreaking for the era, especially in a family show.

Above all, The Curse of Fenric shows Doctor Who’s greatest strength in action, the ability to completely reinvent itself whenever it wants to and flick a narrative switch even without necessarily changing The Doctor or the companions. The darker tone present in The Curse of Fenric builds on gradual changes as something that McCoy and Cartmel both advocated for over their run, as rather than just a simple traveller; The Doctor is a mythological being and mystical figure for the history books. Battlefield touches upon this most notably, where The Doctor is literally Merlin himself – and even Series 25 tackled the famous question: Doctor Who? in an attempt to add to The Doctor's mythological status even if it was largely unsuccessful in doing so in the series’ anniversary serial, Silver Nemesis. But the idea was put in place, and several years later in the show's revival, Moffat would latch onto the idea during his tenure, expanding the concept brilliantly to its full effect using the guidelines laid down in the era of the Seventh Doctor. The Curse of Fenric grounds the battle between The Ancient One and The Doctor as something that is taking place throughout all of history itself, making The Doctor’s battles with the creature have a knock-on effect with his relationship with Ace, with it playing an important role in her coming of age as a character and transforming into someone who's getting ready to grow up - no longer as keen to defy The Doctor's requirements swim in the water with her friends; contemplating the idea of being more open to marriage than before. She even falls for a Soviet Commando, Captain Sorin, played by Tomek Bork.

With everything taken into account, the complex themes that The Curse of Fenric deals with and its ahead-of-its-time development for Ace’s character, the shoddy practical effects and creature design that were a victim of Doctor Who’s notoriously low budget can be forgiven. The ambition and realisation of the serial is clear, it is skilfully told over the four episodes, meticulously paced and plotted, each cliffhanger raising the stakes and keeping the action in suspense until the end. It tears down Ace and The Doctor’s relationship and builds it up again in an incredibly successful way, forcing both characters out of their comfort zone and daring to take the series down a darker path where not everyone makes it out alive.

It’s a serial that may not have aged too well visually, its cheap direction being clear particularly in crucial chase scenes where Ace escapes by climbing over a tall building with a ladder; and although the plot can feel a tad bit convoluted at times and it feels like it almost could have used six episodes to tell its story rather than the tightly woven four, The Curse of Fenric leaves a distinct impression on the audience, emerging as a true highlight of the Seventh Doctor’s run and a testament as to one of the most underrated TARDIS teams around, acting as a worthy forerunner to the current era of Doctor Who. Presented as a glorious blu-ray upgrade in the limited edition Collection Boxset that comes packed with tons of special features and loaded with a treasure trove of content for Doctor Who fans, The Curse of Fenric is absolutely worth your attention as a jumping on point to the previous era of the iconic science fiction series.

Author's Note: I've attached a list of sources for the multiple quotes used in the article.
Cartmel, A. "Who Do We Think We Are?" (BFI, n.d.)
Cartmel, A, quoted by Burk, G. & Smith, R. "The Doctors Are In: The Essential and Unofficial Guide to Doctor Who's Greatest Time Lord"
McCoy, S. The Sunday Times, 2010.

Doctor Who: The Curse of Fenric is available for streaming on Britbox along with the rest of the classic series.

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