Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Serial 157: The Curse of Fenric

Doctor: Sylvester McCoy (7th Doctor)
Companion: Ace

Written by: Ian Briggs
Directed by: Nicholas Mallett

Background & Significance: With the rise of Nu-Who, one of the questions that comes around regularly is "Where do I start with the Classic Series". There's a few different answers. Perhaps the most popular is to watch "An Unearthly Child" and then go for there. The other answer I hear a lot is to warm people to the show through the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era and see how they like it. The idea here is to ease them into the production values with kickass stories that will make them not care. Then introduce them to other stories.

Me? I did something slightly different.

The other big recommendation is instead of going for more-than-adequate production values, you could always start with the eight 7th/Ace stories. They are the most "modern" in terms of dealing with The Doctor AND his companion as real characters with wants, needs, desires, etc. Ace herself is given an emotional and psychological clarity not afforded to previous companions, and comparing her to a previous companion like Tegan or Sarah Jane it's easy to see. Ace is impossibly specific in her construction and the role she fills in Doctor Who stories, enough so that you can tell that the Nu-Who companions like Rose, Martha, Donna, Amy, etc. were all spun out of the cloth that Ace started with. It's not perfectly there and there's a way to go before then but it's mostly on the page for the 7th Doctor stories, and thusly provides a good entry point.

Which brings us to "The Curse of Fenric".

"The Curse of Fenric" is the twilight of Doctor Who's original twenty six year run and it's something of a doozy. Next to "Remembrance" is considered the best of its era, which is no small feat and if there's one story that's unequivocally about Ace, it's absolutely this one. And why wouldn't it be? Written by Ian "Dragonfire" Briggs, it's a story that delves into Ace's past and pushes both her and The Doctor to a brink, leading to something so immensely iconic that they basically ripped it off and shoved it into "The God Complex" to give that its awesome ending.

And if it's good enough for Nu-Who...

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

Towards the beginning of this story, there’s a moment in which Ace mentions that she wants to go rock climbing on some nearby cliffs and The Doctor teases her “not in that dress.” He then laughs and keeps moving while she stops and sneers.

As a moment, it’s a delightful little character building moment for these two characters we know and love so well, but it also speaks to something deeper and is worth remembering as we go through, especially knowing the larger climax of this story and what that means. Here, what’s important to note is that Ace and The Doctor have reached a point in their relationship where they’re playful and inherently trustful of each other and it’s interesting to see them at the apex of their relationship. It will never ever get better for them, and having now talked about all of McCoy’s stories, I feel it right to mention that.

What most strikes me about this, though, is the specificity with which Briggs goes about writing his tale. That’s not to say other stories aren’t specific, but this story isn’t one that necessarily makes sense the first time. Or at least, it didn’t make much sense to me.

And that’s fine, I think. If I stuck to my first blush impressions I wouldn’t be a Sondheim fan, nor, do I think, would I like just about any music that isn’t classical. No. It’s good it’s like this. That means it’s challenging and that you have to pay attention and you have to absorb and think about what it is you’re watching. It’s not like other Doctor Who stories where you can almost have it on in the background. There’s a LOT of story here and a lot of running around and a lot of diversions that leave it feeling somewhat muddled on a first watch (that is, of course, unless you’re paying attention).

So let’s run through some of the elements, shall we? It’s World War II. The Doctor and Ace infiltrating this military installation in the Northern England. There’s a wheelchair-bound cryptographer named Dr. Judson who’s studying old Viking ruins when he’s not deciphering German codes. There’s a Soviet Special Ops force that has quietly infiltrated the British coast to accomplish some mission that we’re not privy to (although it does have something with the Viking ruins). There’s Commander Millington, who spends his time in an office that’s decked out to look like the German navel cypher room in Berlin so he can better get into the Nazi headspace (and more effectively unlock the German codes). There’s the room full of women intercepting German messages and the one woman whose baby daughter is named Audrey (which is Ace’s mother’s name). There’s Reverend Wainwright, the local vicar, who is aware of the Viking histories of this small principality. There’s the two girls, displaced by the war, who go swimming in what can only be called a haunted bay. And of course, there’s the bay itself, in which we see a sunken ship and strange, clawed hands that can’t possibly be good for our heroes.

There’s a lot of moving pieces and we cross-cut really effectively through all of them, most of the time with The Doctor present, other times without.

It’s one of those things that inspires confidence in the writer because just about all these elements will come to a head in one way or another. It’s remarkably impressive and tremendously encouraging, especially in retrospect. Compare this story to other great Doctor Who stories in the classic era and it’s clear that this just plain has more going on. There are numerous subplots, and to add on to the pile, it’s clear that The Doctor knows a great deal about what’s going on. The way he marches into the camp and starts barking orders is reminiscent of the 2nd Doctor in “The War Games”, only he goes further, flitting from storyline to storyline as he starts piecing all the disparate elements together into one magnificent tapestry.

So it’s… quintessential McCoy isn’t it? Indeed, even the bit where he forges his own documentation IN FRONT OF THE PEOPLE HE’S SHOWING IT TO is one of the hands down best Doctor moments in the entire series, and only comes from a place of “fandom” as it were. It’s no secret that the writers of the McCoy era were a wave of Doctor Who fans who were allowed to write the show having grown up with it. Compare that to Robert Holmes or any of the other pre-Cartmel writers and it’s clear that they’re people who understand Doctor Who (indeed, even get Doctor Who) but there’s a playfulness that’s lacking with them that’s present in the “fandom” writers. Indeed, Doctor Who nowadays is a massive case of “inmates having taken over the asylum”. Everyone writing for the show is a fan of the show and has been going back to their childhood.

Needless to say, moments like The Doctor doing this don’t come often in the Classic series, or at least, they don’t feel as wonderfully smug as this does. So yeah. It’s a good place to start if you’re new to the Classic series because Briggs is writing a Doctor who is playfully familiarer than others would be.

And of course, there’s a discussion of faith, which Wainwright mentions is more than just empty words. Yet, there’s a quality to his mention of it that reveals his true nature: this is a man who learned about faith by (for lack of better term) reading about it out of a textbook. Faith needs to go deeper and bury itself in your soul and not come out. Needless to say, this is something that will be crucial later in the story, but it’s mentioned here, which just goes to show you (again) how deft Briggs’s command over his material he is.

Honestly, is there anything NOT to like in this first episode?

Part 2:

One of the problems with “Snakedance” is the way that it would almost work better as an omnibus story that didn’t have cliffhangers, and I feel that’s the same way with this story, because two episodes in and the cliffhangers are lame.

If that’s what I have to say about it that’s bad, we’re in a good place. I know that’s like my catchphrase by now or whatever, but it’s accurate, isn’t it? The worst thing I have to say about this is that the cliffhanger is a bit rubbish and I want to get to what’s next because this wasn’t a natural stopping point, not necessarily because I NEED TO KNOW WHAT’S HAPPENING NEXT. I mean it is that, but it isn’t the focus of why it’s a rubbish cliffhanger. The problem is we hit the end of the twenty five minutes and that’s our out, so we best take it or whatever because there’s nothing going on that’s better. Yes, I suppose it’s scary that everything is starting and the monsters are coming and we can’t turn it off, but that hardly seems the best way to twist this story in a new direction.

Then again, that might be because this story ran horribly, horribly over time and they had to shift and push everything back or what have you.

But honestly the only other complaint I can level at this story is that Ian Briggs has no idea how to write himself out of the corners he gets into. Or he does, he just can’t do it with the minor story beats that have nothing to do with the major climax of this story. The resolution to the previous episode’s cliffhanger is a great example of that: they are captured by the Soviets and the Soviets just let them go. It’s kinda bizarre? Why wouldn’t The Doctor just blab that they’re there? Clearly the Soviets don’t know how to handle a hostage situation? Or why not just kill them and throw them out to sea or something? Again, fair question.

Same with the Haemovore kids walking away without doing anything except flexing their muscles and saying “We’re here.” We already know she killed what’s-her-name. We know they’re threatening. Don’t just have them come in and say “We’ll be back!” That’s lame.

Despite this, Briggs does a really excellent job of escalating all of the elements he brought up in the first episode. There’s nothing quite so chilling or iconic as watching the Haemovores rise from the water and approach us menacingly. It’s that monster stuff that Doctor Who does exceedingly well and the period touches that they throw in (one of the Haemovores is dressed with a ruff that’s soaked and withered. It’s great costuming and really hammers home the notion that this story isn’t just dredging up the ancient Vikings, but it’s actually saying that this is something that’s been persistent in the interim as well, taking folk from across time.

More than that, though, I love that we’re getting more and more character work. Millington, alone, is phenomenal. I mean, the guy is clearly out of his mind, speaking casually about horrible biological warfare/genocide without much of a care in the world.

Yet, he’s a fantastic addition to this story. He’s hungry for knowledge and a desire to win. Hell, it’s just Bellerophon all over again: he wants to climb Olympus and hang with the gods, and you remember what happened to Bellerophon, right? And you know he’s kinda evil because he murdered some innocent rats using an evil biological agent. So he’s kicking the dog so we know he’s evil. But man, it’s one of those things where you have to wonder about someone who wants to get into the headspace of some Nazis by sitting in a Nazi-themed office. Maybe this’ll have adverse effects on his psyche? I mean, it can’t be good, can it?

And in the middle we have The Doctor, who seems to know exactly what’s going on at any given moment. He doesn’t really interfere too much, does he? But you can tell he’s marking time and making sure that everything’s happening on a particular timetable. His solution to the Haemovore encounter is an almost resounding “not yet.”

Finally, I just have to add that I really, really love Wainwright. I think he’s brilliant and watching him wrestle with his uncertainty is one of the highlights of the story. The quiet moments shared between him and Ace is why this era excels. We have some big cataclysmic stuff going on with Soviets and water vampires and yet the story takes a minute or two to pause and reflect on this man who has clearly lost his faith and clearly doesn’t know what to do about it. It’s… hearbreaking. But wonderful and makes me excited to see where he goes.

 Part 3:

And then like magic the story is suddenly a roller coaster rocketing down the track. What makes it particularly exhilarating is that there’s no real idea where it goes from here. The Haemovores are attacking nonstop throughout all this, and pretty relentlessly. So where does it go?

The answer, we learn, is in the excellent cliffhanger at the end of this episode in which Fenric rises and for real, having found a human host through which he can act. And that, honestly, is great writing. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Fenric could rise. And Fenric does. It gets us to a phenomenal place, and there’s nothing like watching Fenric threaten The Doctor and confirm Ace’s worst suspiscions that The Doctor knows what’s going on and he’s known the whole time. And why wouldn’t he?  Clearly this is an orchestration of some kind. But now it’s on and we’re going to endgame.

But first let’s talk about how incredible this is because boy howdy is it kinda excellent.

For starters, this episode is action packed. The Haemovores are on the move and they are relentless til the very end and it gives this episode stakes and drama and excitement in a way the previous episodes haven’t had. That’s not to say the other episodes were bad (they weren’t), they just didn’t have Soviets shooting Haemovores and Haemovores trying to break into a parrish and a Haemovore trying to suck Ace dry. Nor did the previous episodes have Ace using Nitro-9 to break into the next section of an abandoned mineshaft. And it’s not that Doctor Who needs these things, but it certainly, clearly, doesn’t hurt, does it?

Thematically, though, it’s really a story that punishes hubris. Every character who leans back on their inherent hubris ends up having a fall or another. For Judson, it’s his desire/need to break the Fenric code using that computer he’s so proud of. For Wainwright it’s testing his faith, which he knows is not where it needs to be. And I appreciate the sentiment of Wainwright (Judson is less forgiveable because he was warned), but it’s sad to see Wainwright get crushed by his own insufficiencies. What makes it even worse is that he manages to hold them off for a while, but they wear him down enough that his faith breaks and they murder him in cold blood. So he coulda had it, but he didn’t. And it’s… crushing. And his faith breaks because he didn’t have faith enough in himself because he thought of himself as an evil person? It’s… heartbreaking.

Then there’s The Doctor. And the fact that he can fight off the Haemovores no problem actually has its roots in his own history: it’s muffled, but his faith is in his companions and those who have gone before. And his faith in them is enough to drive the Haemovores away screaming.

As far as statements of faith go, it’s a ridiculously powerful one and reveals a lot about The Doctor and is remarkably unobtrusive to the story (as opposed to other fanwanky bits which have interfered with the storytelling). But it also speaks to his relationship with Ace (more on that in a moment) and how he has faith in her. Clearly they are friends (remember the scene in the first episode) and so clearly he believes in her to do well and to be his companion in the way others have.

Indeed, he even tasks her with distracting the guard for the Soviet commander that they might let him out.

Which brings us to Ace and how… impossibly good she is in this fucking story. Honest to god. There’s nothing like watching her faith in The Doctor get shaken and tested and see how she completely unloads on him at one point. Watching The Doctor realize he’s hurting her and how much that is wrenching her apart (because he knows fundamentally that it’s the right thing to do) is heartbreaking and McCoy plays all the pain of the scene perfectly while Sophie Aldred plays all the adolescent angst to perfect. Her uncle is hiding something from her and people are dying. There’s no point wasting time. Just unload.

And she does. And then he asks her to take care of a guard. So she seduces him.

The seduction scene itself is one of the most… insanely intense scenes of everything. Watching a companion be SO sexualized in the Classic series is… insane. I mean, sure there’s creepy weird male-gaze aspects to companions that make them sexualized. Peri in particular comes to mind for a whole number of reasons. But this isn’t that. This is Ace being wantonly sexual and being impossibly good at it, and as Philip Sandifer would point out, it’s the Problem of Susan taken to its logical extreme. Ace is finally growing up/grown up. And watching her slip into that role is… masterful and feels so impossibly companion that it’s amazing it took twenty six seasons to get here.

But that it’s happening now is amazing. Totally amazing. And perfect for this story. It’s a story about faith and hubris and Ace’s faith results in confidence and self-assurance. It’s the thing that Wainwright never had. He paid the ultimate price for it. I guess the only question is what happens now she has it?

Part 4:

So this story had overruns. It came out like… twelve minutes over time, which was not quite enough for the production staff to bump out the story length to five episodes. Needless to say, they heavily cut down this episode and while you can tell (this story RACES along in this last episode) I can’t say it’s too heavily noticeable. Yes, it does feel like it’s jumping a bit much, but it also feels like they’re just blasting through story and nothing is really given a short shrift. If anything, going from Ace and The Doctor yelling at each other in the rain to when Ace is standing on Maiden’s Point is a bit jarring and I wish they’d had a small beat to just let the tone shift from something raw to something reflective. It needs a bit of a palette cleanser or something, if that makes sense. Because it’s weird to see her go from screaming at him to see her talking about her mother and being self-reflective about everything.

But let’s back up a bit.

What I love about the opening beats is that this story rockets along. Just a few minutes in and The Doctor and Ace are put up against the wall to be summarily executed and it’s… intense. The rain is moving. The shots are all wide and fluid and there’s a part of me that really believes that this is it for The Doctor and Ace. Okay, so perhaps that’s not entirely true. But in the heat of the moment it’s hard to figure out how the hell they’re going to get out of it, and we’re at the point in the story where everything is coming crashing down on top of them. And suddenly it’s the Soviets to the rescue and we have our Han Solo moment, which is… magic, isn’t it? It’s thrilling and exciting and who doesn’t love it?

And then there’s the fact that this whole episode features Fenric running around this installation causing trouble and putting all the pieces on the board. Honestly, putting Fenric in Judson is brilliant casting and who’da thought that Dinsdale Landen had it in him based on how he played the first three episodes? But I guess that says more about him as an actor than anything else. It’s perverse to see him walking around all through the episode, talking and scheming and plotting as he does, and it’s jarring to see him so completely in control of the situation and then to completely fall apart (physically and psychologically) in light of The Doctor’s chess puzzle. I mean… it’s all down to Landen and Mallett and the way they convey the character. Yes, Briggs is in there too, but the performance and direction really do an amazing job of crafting him into this very specific, very powerful figure. And it’s great.

The core of this episode, though? Nothing but Ace. And there’s two major things that are beautiful about it. The first involves Ace’s relationship with her mother and ends with the scene at Maiden’s Point. The second revolves around her relationship with The Doctor.

The relationship with The Doctor is amazing because it features The Doctor being a right asshole (but for good intentions) and a point from which The Doctor cannot REALLY return. And theres nothing like watching him call Ace an “emotional cripple" and saying that she doesn’t matter to him is nothing short of heartbreaking and doesn’t get any easier in subsequent viewings, but at least later it makes slightly more sense. This is a thing The Doctor has to do in order to win, and speaks to the notion that while The Doctor believes in his companions, he is still not above “sacrificing them” in order to achieve his ends. It makes him kind of a dick. And yet… I can’t say I care so much.

He needs to break her faith. And he does by hitting her in all the places that he knows will make her fall.

It speaks to how strong the 7th Doctor is, and why he’s such a fan favorite. His plan is to take out Fenric and the stakes are impossibly high and he has it all worked out. But when the plan shifts he focuses on something else and everything is in play so long as he manages to take out Fenric. His relationship with Ace can be mended (or it could be sacrificed, you never know), but Fenric unleashed upon the world would require more sacrifices and more devastation. What’s one small relationship if it means saving the world? And to think that Ace could be so shaken from their point earlier in the story where The Doctor teases her for her outfit.

It’s all in the way they escape from the explosions in this episode. The first comes when they escape from Millington’s office after trying to steal his chess set. They set off grenades and run from the place like it’s some big action movie, jumping and diving and cleaning the dust off each other.

The second explosion, the one after the defeat of Fenric, when they escape from The Bunker and fall into the mud is beautiful but in a completely different way. Ace wanted The Doctor to leave her there. But he pulled her out and just before the bomb explodes she collapses into the mud, a beaten, battered shell of her former action hero self. It’s hard to watch and it’s… beautiful because you just wanna hold her and make her feel better because… you care about her. And she’s not… she’s just broken. And you care about broken people. And you want her to be better because she just went through hell.

Then there’s Ace’s mother.

One of the things about Ace’s mother that’s really shocking is the way in which she’s not been a major presence in Ace’s life before this story, nor is she a major focus afterwards. It’s simply that Ace’s mother is thrown in to build character.

You know what? I kinda love it. I love that they only make reference to Ace’s mother and that Ace hates her with every fiber of her being. They never explain it, but you know what? That’s okay. It’s not important WHAT Audrey did that made her hate Ace. What’s important is that Ace hates her and [before this story] was incapable of having any sort of compassion or empathy for her. And yet, over the course of this story Ace grows to love her and Ace saves her life from the Haemovores. Everyone else in the camp dies except for her mother and grandmother. And the fact that Ace perpetuated her own existence and her own existence is founded on the basis of love for the woman she hates… it’s beautiful and gorgeous.

Which leads us to Maiden’s Point, where Ace reveals she cannot help but hate her mother despite everything. It's a really… beautiful moment. And true to life. But it shows Ace a side of her that she thought was dead.

And then The Doctor tells her to jump in.

Now, I don’t know about you, but the moment that Ace jumps into the water is… impossibly beautiful. As far as I’m concerned it’s probably one of the five most beautiful moments in the entire classic series. Twenty six years and that’s one of the best. And it’s a lot of things. It’s a callback to Ms. Hardaker’s line about the legend of Maiden’s Point and how “when you stand on those cliffs, you can hear the terrible lost cries of girls who went to that place with evil in their hearts. Girls who are damned forever.” And how Ace is one of those girls who has so much anger and evil in her heart that she needs cleansed.

So she dives in. And receives her baptism. And it cleanses her. Of everything. Her fear. Her doubt. Her hatred. She lets it all go.

And so she is absolved.

And god is it beautiful. To see the moment of metaphor contextualized in an actual event that is relevant to the story is like… It’s my favorite kind of writing. It’s a mission statement moment. It’s the moment that Buffy is swordfighting Angel and he asks her, “That’s everything, huh? No weapons, no friends. No hope. Take all that away and what’s left?” and she catches the sword he swings at her face and says “Me.” God. It’s just so poetic and beautiful and so inherently… human. Is it written? Sure. But I like writing and I like characters and I love that moment when a character accepts what it is they need to learn, when they embrace the change and allow it to infest them full force. And they are changed forever.

It’s… there are no words other than what I’ve said. It’s just a moment of beautiful, elegant poetry that is… unique to the Classic series. And it makes this episode resound as it not only sticks the landing, but throws an extra twist just before the stick. Genius.

Final Thoughts?: Not only is this story easily one of the best McCoy stories, but it's easily one of the best Classic Series stories ever. Period.

I'm not breaking the bank on that one, but I will say it's a story that you kinda have to watch twice to get the gist of. The first time I didn't get it. I wanted real vampires and I wanted something more. But when I came back and watched it again (I actually re-watched it to prepare for Big Finish's "Gods and Monsters") and was utterly gobsmacked by how good it actually was. And then watching it this time I'm even more on board. It might start slow, but that's only by comparison, because the last two episodes are completely insane in terms of what they accomplish. They're exciting and full of adventure and intrigue and utterly relentless in their structure. Once it moves it races and never once lets up until Ace's baptism at the very very end.

But more than that, this is a story that is about characters and themes about faith, hubris, and self-confidence that permeates every scene and beat.

Hell, everything in the endgame is remarkably cathartic and all stems from a place of real character. Breaking Ace's faith is inherent to The Doctor's success and making Ace hate him as she hates her mother utterly breaks and destroys him. He is infinitely remorseful about it, but it proves his faith in her is founded and that his faith speaks to something truly dark. Deep down he knows how fragile she is and he knows that she is the "emotional cripple" he refers to her as. Clearly this isn't the first time he's thought of it because it's so emotionally... specific. It hits her right where he knows it will and does exactly what he needs it to do.

And with Ace... God. Ace is just... I always underestimate just how good she is and how remarkably well-tuned the writers are to her predicament. She's given an emotional and psyhological realism previously unseen and pushed the role of the companion into a much more modern context. She has wants and needs and it's hard to imagine anyone else (Companion or otherwise) going through everything it is she went through. The only thing I can think of in my head at the moment is her baptism at the end, but that disregards the breaking of her faith in The Doctor (which is deeply iconic and something that could ONLY happen with this Doctor and this companion) or her seduction of the guard which is... beautiful in so many different ways. We get a companion who gets a true sexual awakening, and suffers for it in the way only an adult can. Her father figure betrays her. She reconciles with her mother. What other companions could go through this?

It's an incredible story and so good that I would possibly call it flawless and not feel bad about it. It's elegant, beautiful and one of the best offerings in Classic Who. Amazing. Incredible. There are no words.

Next Time!: 6th Doctor! 2nd Doctor! Sontarans! Androgums! Food porn! Seville! And a little dash of cyanide! Our last 6th Doctor story is "The Two Doctors!" Coming Next Tuesday!


  1. During the Sylvester McCoy era I saw only 2 shows: "The Curse of Fenric" and part of "Battlefield". Then the show was taken off the air and I never knew why. I live in the states and at that time I thought Doctor Who was getting too expensive for them to show it on the air. I was young then and didn't know the show was canceled. Quite sad really. I wish there was a continuation of the stories of the Doctor and Ace. Ace's back story was getting interesting.

    The Curse of Fenric by far is my favorite Doctor Who story of all time. It's a well written story and has good character development.

    I was a teenager when I first saw this show. It kind of reminded me of an Indiana Jones story, but without the Nazi's. Having the story set during WWII was pretty awesome! I liked the Soviets in this story and listening to their accents. It was a coming of age story with Ace and I like the short fling Ace has with the Soviet Commander. They seemed attracted to one another and he was quite sweet to her. I wasn't expecting Fenric to take over his body at the end then threaten to kill her.

    You could tell that the Doctor and Ace had a great relationship. She saw him more as a father figure and a mentor. It was heart wrenching to see him tear her apart emotionally at the end to beat Fenric.

    The Doctor was very good at manipulating people and anticipating their every move. It was creative and made the story even more interesting. I had to watch the show twice to understand his schemes.

  2. I'm watching the old school series out of order. A little of 5, then a bit of 1, then back to 4 again and so on, time travelling, you know. Tonight I was choosing between the 4th and 7th Doctors. I started watching this particular story with low expectations, because I have to confess I don't like the earlier 7th Doctor stories.
    At first I was pretty much distracted by Soviet soldiers (I'm Russian, so watching it was funny but, at the same time, I had some positive vibes because the depiction of the Soviets was better by a mile than the Hollywood stereotype). Then there came the manicured vampires - that was too much for a story which was already complicated with Norse mythology, Eastern treasure and WWII.
    But then there was god-like Doctor playing a game larger than the universe. Then there was Ace.
    I'm sure it will take me some time to get back to the previous companions. Now most of them seem to be "just a pack of cards" that have functions but no real intensity. Ace is not a card, whatever her name might mean, she's the life itself.