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Article — Cursed References

First Published:
Sonic Screwdriver #83

Publish Date:
March 1994

Do I look like I’m obsessed with The Curse of Fenric? Well, maybe!

Computers, most obviously in the form of the Ultima machine, play major roles in The Curse of Fenric. There are many references to computers within it, some obvious and others not. In the first part this piece I provide background on WWII computers and their appearances in Doctor Who, while in the second I look at some rather convenient names used in The Curse of Fenric.

A little history first: the Ultima machine in Fenric was made to break German submarine codes. These codes were made simply by swapping letters — therefore, in a particular message, all occurrences of the letter A might be replaced by D, D by A, and so on through the alphabet (although a letter could not replace itself). An enormous range of possibilities arise from this extremely simple method (to be precise: 7,905,853,580,625).

As you might expect, the Germans did not have their messages encrypted manually because of the sheer awkwardness of doing so. Instead, they created the Enigma machine. It did the tedious work much faster and without error (although, due to mechanical limitations, it did not even nearly utilise all the possibilities theory said it could). It was actually quite a simple machine with a few rotors inside that, when placed randomly by a German assistant, determined which letters were swapped. They started with four rotors, but by the time of The Curse of Fenric were up to six for more complexity, as mentioned by Doctor Judsen to Commander Millington on page 45 (his casual nature in reporting it is quite unbelievable, as this would extend very markedly the time needed to crack the code). A considerably simplified diagram for the Enigma machine process is shown on the Fenric book cover with Alister Pearson’s initials about to be encoded — maybe the process will be from AJP to EGO.

With such a (relatively) simple method of encryption, anyone, given enough time, could decrypt the German messages easily enough, by trial-and-error. That extra time, however, was simply not available, especially as many of these messages could be useless within a few hours. So the War Office in Britain decided some machine was needed to translate the messages quickly. They turned to mathematician Alan Turing, who had been the first to, in 1936 with his paper On Computable Numbers, with an application to the entscheidungsproblem, mathematically show that computers, as we visualise them today, could be made. Thus was the Colussus machine made. It worked by brute force, simply trying possibilities at a speed far beyond any humans until key words were recognised (ie. the translation made sense).

In The Curse of Fenric, we see an extension of this history. In this version of the past, the British Navy resents the influence and power the War Office is gaining through the Colossus project. So they get their own genius — Doctor Judsen — and make the Ultima machine. This was all done in secret. This explains Millington’s outburst (page 59 in the novelisation) when he hears of the Doctor’s and Ace’s arrival — ‘You fool! They’re from Bletchley! The Army has sent them to discover the details of Ultima… We shall have to kill them. We cannot allow the army to discover the secrets of your work.’ Bletchley was, as you might guess, where Alan Turing and his team were based. A little rivalry can be a dangerous thing…

Alan Turing, I hear you murmur. You know you’ve heard the name… somewhere. To put you out of your misery (and to stop patronising all those who know) Turing is mentioned a few times in the Remembrance novelisation, in relation to Rachel Jensen and her work with him. Look them up on pages 58 and 76, and the final page. That’s another piece of trivia which nobody needs to know (but don’t you want to, anyway?). There are several autobiographies of Alan Turing available — have a look in your local library if you want to learn more of this incredible man, and of the Colussus machine (but be prepared to use your mind a little more than you had to for this piece).

For those that are picky about structure, the second, and somewhat shorter, part to this marvellous piece starts here. A beginning note: a thesaurus can be a most useful tool. Much of this second part has come from within the depths of my thesaurus. Anyway…

As somewhat of a follow-up to my article in Strange Matter #7 which showed considerably more of the characters in Fenric were related to each other than was obvious, now we discover three major ones have computer names. I’ll start with my weakest argument: the Doctor himself. As Ace is quick to point out, he is sometimes called the Professor. My Roget thesaurus tells me "the Professor" is slang for computer. A beginning…

Onto the next main character: Ace. From 1946 to 1948, with beuracracy and shortsightedness stopping the project in the end, the British government had been involved in the process of making one of the few early (multi-functioned) computers. It was called… ACE (Automatic Computing Engine). With the initial spark provided by… none other than Alan Turing. Starting to fit into place?

The crowning piece of conviction (for me, at least) is Ace’s mother, Audrey. Again the thesaurus has revealed the answer: AUDREY, or AUtomatic Digit REcogniser, was another early computer. Computer spawns computer?

Oh yes: (and this is the conclusion for all those who need to be told so) one final note. There is no way that the Ultima machine, if it was what it appeared to be, could translate the Viking runes. It could only "translate" 26 letter alphabets that used letters as English does, and had been scrambled in the specific style of the Enigma machine — it would have no chance against the 16-letter scratchings of the Vikings. More glaringly yet, the Ultima machine had no way of running the "program" of the runes — it was most certainly a one-function machine. Forget the rest — now that’s a real plot hole.

End of Article

Here’s the list of the Doctor Who articles available here
A Bit of Adric in All of Us
Ace Timeline
Cursed References
Doctor Who Collectible Card Game FAQ
Doctor Who Collectible Card Game Tips
Doctor Who in America
History of the Daleks
History of Doctor Who
History of the fanzine Sonic Screwdriver
How I Killed a Fanzine (or, What’s an EFG?)
Survival the (Con)vention
The Doctor and I (First Memories)
The Doctor and I (1985 — Move to the USA)
The Doctor and I (Organised Fandom? Huh?)
The Doctor and I (Doctorin’ Ithaca)
The Doctor and I (Back to Melbourne)
The Doctor and I (Whovention)
The Doctor and I (David, Meet the DWCV)
The Doctor and I (Enlightenment)
The Doctor and I (The Blankety Blank Era)
The Doctor and I (Q Who)
The Doctor and I (DWCV Committee, Meet David)
The Doctor and I (Whovention II (Control))
The Doctor and I (Sonic Screwdriver, Meet David (and Marco and Matthew))
The Relative Confusion of The Curse of Fenric
What Makes a Warrior?
What’s in a Name?
→ Or just head back to the Doctor Who Index

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This page last updated by David J Richardson on Fri, 25 Apr 2003.