The Curse of Fenric – Special Edition is something which I have always found to be a bit of a troublesome prospect. For some reason – probably the purist in me – I generally prefer the original version of things. Directors’ cuts and the like have never overly appealed to me, usually because I find them too self-congratulatory – Avatar, for example, or the god-awful new versions of the original Star Wars movies. Often, they are simply money-spinners – Lucas’ epics, for instance, are now incredibly rare in their former glory, instead only being made available in the newer reboots, with new-fangled FX and sound. Not that there is anything wrong with that, per se. Only that I personally feel it is robbing future generations of the magic of the original movies.
Thankfully, The Curse of Fenric – Special Edition doesn’t do the same. For one thing, the original is still readily available on the DVD release, sitting in the foreground on Disk 1, where it belongs, much like the SE versions of Enlightenment and Planet of Fire. Secondly, and perhaps surprisingly, this new version is brilliant. Absolutely fantastic, in fact. Rather than working to the detriment of the original, it builds upon what was already a firm base – probably Sylvester McCoy’s greatest work as the Doctor, in fact – and enriches the story. Many of the additional shots are barely noticeable; a lingering shot on Parsons’ priest here, an extra shot of the Haemovores there. Rather than distracting from the action, they genuinely do build on the tension. The third thing about SEs in general is that they take what originally happened in an episodic format, and transfer it into what is essentially a movie. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. In Planet of Fire, for example, I didn’t feel that it worked. Here, however, it genuinely does feel epic enough to be pulled off. There is enough gothic horror, tense military sequences, multi-lingual exposition and, most importantly, terrific performances to create an outstanding piece of Doctor Who history.
Enough of that though. When I bought the DVD upon its release, I watched the episodic format, for the first time in years. Since then, I have rewatched this version of the serial 3 or 4 times, but never brought myself to slip the second disk in. And what a fool I was. When I was younger, this serial terrified me. And it still has that same effect now. The Haemovores emerging from the sea made me nauseous, as the pure virgins gently beckon the soldier to his early grave. The floating corpse by the longboat, suddenly opening his eyes. Judson stepping up from his wheelchair, eyes glowing. Each of these are outstanding moments of horror, which thrilled and horrified me.
From the outset of the episode, and the arrival of the Doctor and Ace, it is evident that something is amiss. The Doctor is still more aloof than usual, as he considers everything – as far as the Cartmel master plan is concerned, this is the perfect serial to watch to see how this idea came to the foreground. The moment in which he takes complete control of the soldiers who surround them, and then completing the necessary paperwork in front of Judson and Nurse Crane, is brilliant, and always makes me laugh. However, despite the obvious design being to push the Doctor into darker waters, as a more manipulative and secretive character, this story is predominantly one about Ace. Now, the Seventh Doctor has never been my favourite. Entertaining, yes – but I never felt that McCoy had the gravitas to pull off some of the more heavyweight stories, and yet the scripts for his more comedic serials didn’t give him the chance to thrive either. Likewise, I had always found Ace to be a one-dimensional caricature of the hip, street-wise 80s child that she represented. Sophie Aldred was good, but again much of the material didn’t help her to thrive. Here, though, she shines. The inner aggression, darkened eyes, sultry, sexually-aware teenager has the chance to make a difference, and to truly interact with the plot. It was during Season 26 that both Aldred and McCoy really started to get into their stride, with better scripts allowing stronger performances from each of them.
The basic premise is that an evil entity, Fenric, lost a game of chess to the Doctor, leading to his permanent exile from the real world and imprisonment within an ancient flask. The Doctor is entirely aware that they will have to rematch, and decides that the 1940s is exactly the time to do so – with Ace in tow as one of the many Wolves of Fenric, descendants of the Vikings and puppets to his will. Other Wolves include Captain Soren, Dr. Judson, Reverend Wainwright and Commander Millington. Each of these characters plays some role in the protection and release of Fenric, some knowingly, others unknowingly.
What is most interesting is that each of these characters is so well-rounded. In most serials of Doctor Who, you have a lead character that is given emphasis – Mavic Chen, Tobias Vaughn, Professor Travers, Count Scaroth, Sharaz Jek and the like – in addition to the Doctor and his companions, but often most other characters are broadly drawn. In The Curse of Fenric, though, every character is given these extra dimensions, this subtlety to their character, yet not weakening the plot or the pace at which it is told. Indeed, it is testament to McCoy and Aldred that in such a strong supporting cast, they are not overshadowed; rather, they thrive on the cast working with them.
Dinsdale Landen’s portrayal of Judson is spot on. The disillusionment he suffers as a result of his accident is excellent, as is his loathing of his reliance upon Nurse Crane. The scenes between him and Alfred Lynch’s Millington are equally superb, with an underlying homoerotic tension between the two which is palpable, as is the references to Millington’s responsibility in the accident which led to Judson being bound by his own “chains”. Whilst Lynch can, at times, seem a little camp and overtly ‘nasty’, this drive works in the favour of the character – he is a man so driven by purely selfish means that he doesn’t care who he has to shove out of his way to get them. That Fenric possesses Judson, rather than Millington, is an excellent touch, as we see that all of his drive was for nothing, as Fenric could not care less about Millington. Indeed, the only weaknesses within the cast are Jean and Phyllis, whose 1940s lingo is painful – one more ‘baby doll’ and I may well have thrown the remote through the screen.
These conversations are equally the main weakness within Briggs’ writing. Another weakness is the rather old-fashioned discussion about good and evil, and how Fenric is, in fact, “an evil from the dawn of time”. Through this, it reinforces the idea of the Doctor as Time’s Champion, but it simply doesn’t ring true with the mythos of the show up to that point, and indeed since then. The other scripting weakness is the scene in which Ace flirts with the soldier on guard. Her lack of lyrical fluidity had been reinforced since her introduction in Dragonfire. She is rarely capable of stringing together anything of beauty, rather using words like “ace!” and “brilliant” to show her appreciation of the amazing, dreadful and wonderful things she sees. So to hear her whispering things about “undercurrents” and the like felt rather out of place with her characterisation up to this point. This may be as a result that, despite being one of the most terrifying episodes of the serial, it is, after all, a children’s TV show, and so Ace talks with a childlike poetry which does not do justice to the character.
Of course, that is all simply nit-picking for faults. Overall, Briggs’ script rings true in almost every way. Hardakre’s disgust at the wanton nymphs living with her, the priest’s difficulty to with his own faith, Ace’s “tell me!” speech, are all incredibly realistic and effective, adding a sense of urgency to proceedings, as we are desperate to discover how this game will play out. The most powerful moment in the piece, however, must be the sequence between Fenric and the Doctor, where he must destroy Ace’s faith in him to win. The cold, cruel uttering of “kill her” is breathtaking, even when you know his reasons for doing so, and the gradual destruction of Ace’s faith, through the reference to her being an “emotional cripple” and a “social misfit”. It’s a heart-breaking moment, and one delivered perfectly.
Faith is the predominant idea to be criticised by this piece, and the faults that lie therein. That a priest can lose his faith during the time of war so readily, and that it takes such harsh words to push Ace away from the Doctor, highlights that faith, no matter how strong, can readily be destroyed by any person wishing to push hard enough. Nicholas Parsons is something of a revelation, despite evidently being cast purely to cater to J N-T’s fixation with celebrity cameos. He delivers his lines, and performs, like a man wracked with guilt and haunted by the acts of evil which surround him – the central theme of the piece.
The other theme is that of maturity – the events which lead to a person’s maturation. Ace has grown hugely since her introduction in Dragonfire, with events affecting her in a number of ways. The throwaway reference to Ghost Light, and the hatred she feels for her mother, are pushed to show how she is able to mature into the young woman who refers to herself as no longer “a little girl”, able to use her womanly wiles to get what she needs. The evacuated ‘children’, Jean and Phyllis, similarly, are shown to mature, as a direct result of going against Hardakre’s advice to avoid losing their innocence. By entering the water, they lose all sense of innocence and are consumed by desire.
All told, this serial simply further emphasises the tragedy that the scrapping of Doctor Who happened at all. Whilst the series had waned somewhat in the years up to Season 26, due for the most part to weaker scripting and stunt casting, McCoy’s Doctor, and Aldred’s Ace, had really begun to come into their own with the parts, and the show was beginning to find its feet. Had we not been given the poorer additions to the series, like Delta and the Bannermen and Paradise Towers, then who knows where the series would have gone? If this is any signpost to the future which never happened, then it surely would have been fantastic.