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Review — The Curse of Fenric

First Published:
Year 12 English essay

Publish Date:

My English teachers must have got so tired of me twisting their assignments to be excuses to write about Doctor Who. This time they wanted a review, which was just so easy to comply with, though you’ll note I did end up writing a very mass-market type review to keep teacher happy!

The Curse of Fenric, written by Ian Briggs and directed by Nicholas Mallett, was first shown as four half-hour episodes of Doctor Who in late 1989. After a very favorable reaction to its initial screening, it was released on video early in 1991 with twelve minutes of footage, originally cut due to time restrictions, restored. It stars Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor and Sophie Aldred as his travelling companion Ace.

The story is set in a top-secret naval base on the coast of northern England during World War Two. The British Navy, using the ULTIMA machine, an early and primitive computer invented by the crippled Doctor Judson, are involved in breaking German submarine codes. They are also, under Commander Millington’s secret orders, making a new and lethal type of poison bomb to end the war. Doctor Judson spends much of his time in the crypt of the local church, translating the Viking runestones there, which warn of the rising of the "wolves of Fenric". To complicate matters, a squad of Russian soldiers have arrived, determined to take the ULTIMA machine. And why is the game of chess so important? Into this confusion the Doctor and Ace arrive, with the Doctor knowing considerably more than he lets on. Then the blood-sucking Haemovores (such a subtle name) — the wolves of Fenric — begin to rise from the sea…

The story is very much one of suspense and horror, with pace and tension building throughout it until an extremely dramatic, and quite startling, finale. The atmosphere of the video is certainly its most notable attribute. While the first half is quite slow, it still holds the attention, and by the last half hour the pace is frantic, even rushed. The suggestion of menace throughout the story can be largely attributed to the omnipresent music. At times the music suggests military overtones, at others political intrigue or the threat of the unknown.

The Curse of Fenric was shot entirely on location, resulting in it looking very slick and impressive, especially in regard to some underwater shots. Only a few times is it obvious that this is being made on a television series’ budget (then again, the budget was a little over £450,000, hardly something to be scoffed at). Some scenes just cry out for night shooting — the potential missed is almost painful. On the other hand, the incredibly bad weather that plagued the shooting of Fenric makes the end result all the better.

This classy look extends to the creation of the Haemovores — their slender twitching hands with long brutal nails are arresting. While close-up their faces may seem a little static, they impress nonetheless. In true monster style, they move slowly but inexorably, and bullets slow but do not stop them. They are frightening — not via the gore of their victims but by suggestion, which was, is and always will be the most effective means of all.

With only a few exceptions, the acting is of a very high calibre indeed. Sylvester McCoy is a highly moody Doctor who finds himself almost out of his depth. The development of his companion Ace takes a great leap with this story, as we learn of her past and relationship with her mother. One particularly striking scene has Ace confronting the Doctor and his manipulative ways, and truly is a testament to both their acting abilities. Another to perform well is Dinsdale Landen in his role as the rather unpleasant Doctor Judson: witness his ‘I’m not an invalid — I’m a cripple! And I’m also a genius! Now, shut up, both of you!’ Nicholas Parsons, long known better as the Sale of the Century host in Britain, gives a very believable and sensitive account as the troubled Reverend Wainwright. Tomek Bork, Marek Anton and Christien Anholt are solid and likeable in their roles as Russian and English soldiers. The only real disappointment is Alfred Lynch as the haunted Commander Millington. His face and eyes fit the part perfectly but his delivery is strangely stilted and occasionally forced. He is, fortunately, very much the exception to the rule.

Despite the fact that extra footage has been restored to expand on the story, sometimes it still feels forced. Subplots and themes don’t fully develop — they are just there, without full explanation. The sheer atmosphere of the story does come at the cost of some plot development. It makes one wonder what was cut this second time around. Before I sound too critical, however, it is very much a case of what further extra bits could have been added, not so much what is missing. The casual viewer with no knowledge of the cuts would not notice.

The Curse of Fenric may be primarily for entertainment (though there is precious little humour in it) but it also raises quite a few talking points. It comments very heavily on the futility of war: ‘War… a game played by politicians. We were just pawns in a game’. The morality of war and weapons like the poison bombs being made is debated — ‘It would mean the end of the war, Doctor. Two cities at most and the Nazis would surrender’. Surely it is coincidence that the atomic bomb was also used on two cities…

Also brought up is the basic nature of man — is man beneath it all good, bad, or a mixture? Are all lost from when they are born? And does faith, hope and love continue? There is an ecological point to be made, as we face ‘the Earth… rotting in a chemical slime. Half a million years of industrial progress.’ Throughout the story the turbulent sea is linked to the mind of Sophie Aldred’s Ace, and the way in which dangerous undercurrents are being brought to the surface of both.

None of these themes need to be absorbed to appreciate the story. It is a sucess in that it works both as a simple monster and good-versus-evil story at the same time. The ability of the story to amuse children and stimulate adults at the same time is one of its prime strengths, and it does so without patronising or ignoring either group.

Thankfully, and quite unusually, the director fully caught onto the ideas of the script of Ian Briggs (who went on to novelise this story), and made quite a thought-provoking — and, more importantly, very entertaining — story. It has to rate at very close to the best Doctor Who produced since its beginnings way back in 1963, and overall is one of the finest pieces of television drama and suspense in general.

End of Review

Here’s the list of the Doctor Who reviews available here:
Benny Adventure: Beyond the Sun
Benny Adventure: Deadfall
Benny Adventure: Ghost Devices/Mean Streets/Tempest
Benny Adventure: The Sword of Forever
Fanzines: Mag Bag #1
Fanzines: Mag Bag #2
Fanzines: Mag Bag #3
Fanzines: Mag Bag #4
Fanzines: Mag Bag #5
Fanzines: Mag Bag #6
Fanzines: Mag Bag #7
Fanzines: Mag Bag #8
Fanzines: Mag Bag #9
Fanzines: Mag Bag #10
Fanzines: Mag Bag #11
Fanzines: Mag Bag #12
Missing Adventure: Dancing the Code
Missing Adventure: Downtime
Missing Adventure: Invasion of the Cat-People
Missing Adventure: Lords of the Storm
Missing Adventure: Scales of Injustice
Missing Adventure: Shadow of Weng-Chiang
Missing Adventure: System Shock
New Adventure: Bloodheat
New Adventure: Death of Art
New Adventure: Dimension Riders
New Adventure: Eternity Weeps
New Adventure: Falls the Shadow
New Adventure: Legacy
New Adventure: No Future
New Adventure: Sleepy
TV: The Curse of Fenric
TV: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
TV: The Happiness Patrol
TV: Season 25 Review
TV: Season 27 Review (the 2005 return)
TV: The Twin Dilemma
→ Or just head back to the Doctor Who Index

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This page last updated by David J Richardson on Wed, 20 Apr 2005.