Doctor Who complete reviews: The Curse Of Fenric
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Gothic horror returns to classic Who, in a fine tale brilliantly told...
Like birds scuttling around for a few scant crumbs, Gothic Horror fans were presumably wondering when the next thrilling 1980s Doctor Who adventure would see a return to the Hinchcliffe/Holmes style of storytelling. A good proportion of 1980s Doctor Who horror stories took their inspiration from trendy blockbuster epics and video nasties, but interestingly, Gothic Horror stories were few and far between in the decade. The only two notable examples were State Of Decay and The Curse Of Fenric, the penultimate adventure of the original run of the series.
The Curse Of Fenric doesn't disappoint though. Not only should it please the horror fans, it's a cracking adventure in its own right, which like all good Doctor Who stories, has several different themes and undercurrents lurking under the surface. It's a bit like Ghost Light in that there's maybe too much happening at once, and on first viewing, fans were again left a bit confused. Fortunately, both the video and DVD release came up with extended versions that allowed clearer insights – the result is one of my favourite stories of all time.
Curse proved that Doctor Who was not the dead horse that BBC execs thought it was. It's exciting, scary, thought-provoking, well shot and generally well cast. That's not a show that's about to meet its maker, unlike, say early 90s BBC flop Eldorado, which was dead in the water within the first 10 minutes of the first episode. It's a welcome return to the Hinchcliffe/Holmes style of storytelling, but with a 1980s sheen. It arguably draws inspiration from classic sources (in this case, John Carpenter's 1979 chiller, The Fog), provides a memorably gruesome monster, kills most of its guest cast off by the end credits and also serves up an alien Doctor who's one step ahead of everybody else.
"Boy, does this story show the darker side of the 7th Doctor"
Yes, having put Ace through the mill in Ghost Light, The Doctor's still not through with her yet. He's more evasive than ever, shutting Ace out of the equation – to the point where she has a go at him for not telling her the whole story. Worse than that, it turns out that Ace has been a pawn in The Doctor's game to defeat Fenric, since it transpires that he created the time storm that whisked the stroppy teen off to Iceworld – and just to finish off, he can only defeat Fenric by making Ace lose her faith in him. Cue more insults and verbal abuse than the end of shift in a Gordon Ramsay kitchen (“You're an emotional cripple,” mutters The Doctor at a weeping Ace) – it's all a cunning plan to catch Fenric off guard, but boy, does this story show the darker side of the 7th Doctor.
It's a long way from the pratfalling clown of Time And The Rani, and in fact, I'd say that this is Sylvester's best performance. There's still the odd light-hearted bit of humour (such as when he drops a heavy draw on his foot by accident), but both the script and Sylvester's excellent acting combine to form a darker, more mysterious Doctor than before. This is a Doctor with the whole universe on his shoulders at times – look at his sad chat with Kathleen about his long-lost family. He simply replies “Yes” when Kathleen says that it must be terrible not knowing what's happened to his family, but The Doctor's long face tells the audience exactly what he's thinking.
There's also a really good confrontation with the two vampire kids, Jean and Phyllis. And again, The Doctor doesn't get much dialogue in this scene, but the way in which he hisses at them to “Go! Go!” is full of understated power, not to mention the evil glare that he gives them.
This is also a good story for Ace, and for the most part, Sophie Aldred delivers. I say 'most part' - there's that cringe-inducing bit where Ace has to try and flirt with Sgt. Leigh – which is like viewing a nerdy am-dram student on Blind Date. Actually, this isn't really Sophie's fault, more the hokey dialogue which sounds like pretentious candy floss.
But otherwise, Ace gets a good chunk of the action, and Curse is probably the story in which she comes of age. This is the story in which she meets her oft-mentioned mother, albeit as a baby with a mysterious time-travelling Superted cuddly toy. Over the course of the story, she unwittingly grows close to Kathleen and baby Audrey, to the point where she helps them to escape from the clutches of the Haemovores, and gives Kathleen her nan's address.
And so creates her own future.
"Altogether, a Doctor/Companion team at the top of their game, thanks to superb performances from McCoy and Aldred."
In fact, this is the story in which Ace is put through the wringer the most. She's not only forced to deal with the fact that she's met her family and created her own future, she's also apparently let down by The Doctor and also loses her potential love interest, Captain Sorin, who becomes possessed by Fenric at the story's conclusion. It's probably The Doctor's betrayal that wounds her the most – we see that she's grown attached to her new friend since the days of Dragonfire. She repeatedly says that she believes in The Doctor, but it's this faith that stops the dreaded Ancient One (King Haemovore) from destroying Fenric. So while The Doctor uses reverse psychology on Ace to break the spell, it's greatly shocking to see him break her down so brutally. At least by the end, it looks like the two are friends again, as The Doctor gives Ace that trademark tap of the nose. Altogether, a Doctor/Companion team at the top of their game, thanks to superb performances from McCoy and Aldred.
Faith is very much the key element of Curse. The story proves that faith isn't exclusively linked to believing in the big man upstairs, but by having faith in people (The Doctor keeps the Haemovores away by muttering his companions' names under his breath) or in Sorin's case, the Revolution. In fact, religious faith proves to be a problem for one particular character, the Rev Wainwright, a vicar who's having a crisis of belief. In the first part, we see him as an openly cheerful sort, trying his best to curry favour with hatchet-faced old battleaxe Miss Hardaker. As the story progresses though, that mask gradually falls away, as he confesses that he doesn't know if he believes any more. “I used to believe that there was good in the world,” he says to Ace quietly, but it's the devastating effects of World War Two that have shaken his faith.
Wainwright is constantly hounded by the two she-devils Jean and Phyllis, who know full well that he's lost his faith. “You stopped believing when the bombs started falling,” snarls Phyllis, referring to the British bombs falling on German cities and killing children in the process. This all comes to a head when Wainwright attempts to ward off a vengeful gang of Haemovores near the end of part three. When I first saw this, I wondered why Wainwright didn't hang around with The Doctor and Ace for protection. Looking at it now, it's very much a case of Wainwright putting his faith to the ultimate test. Since Haemovores can be held at bay with faith, initially it looks like Wainwright may win the battle, but quickly, he realises that he's not as strong as he thinks. “You are weak yourself,” says Phyllis. “There's no good in you!”. At which point, Wainwright is rapidly overpowered and killed by the bloodthirsty mob in a pretty grim scene.
"An excellent choice for the part, Nicholas Parsons is just one of the many fine actors gracing the story"
What's surprising is that the role of Wainwright was taken by someone that you could regard as being a left-field choice. Nicholas Parsons was at the time better known for being gameshow host extraordinaire on Sale Of The Century, which to the uninitiated, is as cheesy as you can get, with tacky prize bling, beaming shop-window dummy hostesses and tacky organ interludes. However, Parsons nails the part of Wainwright totally. Parsons always makes you believe that his character is undergoing a serious crisis of faith, in well-acted scenes such as that little interlude when he's alone in the church delivering a sermon out loud and then faltering at the end of his speech (“And the greatest of these is...”). An excellent choice for the part, Parsons is just one of the many fine actors gracing the story.
There's a lot of them, adding extra weight to very well-written parts. There's Dinsdale Landen, who gives two performances for the price of one. Dr Judson, a brilliant scientist, is very much a prototype Doctor, with his crabby temper and scientific genius. At the same time, Judson is something of a tragic figure, crippled and helpless (“What about my chains, hmmm?”) - it's implied that Commander Millington was responsible for his accident, and there's very much a feeling of both mutual respect and loathing between the two. Landen is also perfect as the first incarnation of Fenric, and makes the subtle shift from crotchety but amiable genius to crazed monster. He's got a bit of a Reuben thing going on, smiling evilly as hapless characters are brutally murdered by packs of hungry Haemovores.
The same goes for Tomek Bork, who manages the same effective contrast between Sorin and Fenric. Bork makes Sorin the dashing hero of the piece, a captain who's driven by duty but with a very human core. He's gutted at the loss of his friend Prozorov, and also finds himself falling in love with Ace. It's that very humanity that's notably absent from the possessed Sorin at the story's climax. Bork plays Fenric with a creepy, eerie detachment, and it's very effective, especially that odd little high-pitched snigger that he occasionally does. In what's already a bleak story, Sorin's 'death' is one of the most hard-hitting, since you think that he may survive until the bitter end – goodies tend to, don't they? I guess that his burgeoning attraction to Ace meant that he was doomed from the word go.
Even most of the incidental characters work, including those who aren't really any better than cannon fodder. Miss Hardaker may stomp about screeching ominous warnings at the top of her voice, but Janet Henfrey's always very good at playing these evil witch-type roles. Having said that, we even see that she has a softer side, as she starts to relax in her little cottage, listening to music – at which point she's attacked and killed by the possessed Jean and Phyllis. Nurse Crane is another good, well-acted character, and Anne Reid does well as the bluff, no-nonsense mother hen, whose bluster immediately vanishes as she's cornered and sliced to shreds by the Haemovores. Ironically, she'd be on the other side of the tracks as the blood-drinking Florence Finnegan in Smith And Jones.
"The Curse Of Fenric has it all. A scary, gripping plot and terrifying monsters for the kids"
About the only characters that don't quite work are Millington and the Jean/Phyllis combo. Millington's a power-mad baddie, on a par with the Nazis for disposing of his allies so freely – heck, he even uses harmless birds as a test for the new poison gas that he's planning on using. But Alfred Lynch's performance doesn't quite work for some reason – it's too laid back for my liking, and at times when he's meant to explode, his performance is a bit wooden. There's one point where it looks as if he's reading his lines off the chessboard. Joann Kenny and Joanne Bell are actually OK as Jean and Phyllis, but it's the scripting that lets them down. Like Ace in Dragonfire, Ian Briggs can't really write convincing dialogue for teenage girls, and so they have to say “Baby doll” and other such inanities on a regular basis. That said, they do make for quite a creepy presence (especially Kenny as Jean the dark-haired one), and their death scene in which they slowly rot away to smoking skeletons is another memorably grisly demise that only Doctor Who could provide.
There's a hell of a lot of atmosphere in The Curse Of Fenric, and that's down to director Nicholas Mallett. Mallett's a revelation in this story – his previous two stories had been competent enough, but he really ups his game here with terrific visuals. The creepy underwater scenes are very well done, and when there's voiceover dialogue, this takes Doctor Who from an apparent kids show and turns it into a mini feature film. The gritty all-OB shoot adds to the desolate realism of the piece, especially with all that pouring rain. Unsurprisingly, the production values are fabulous – the interior designs are uniformly excellent, courtesy of David Laskey, and the special effects are generally very good indeed. The Haemovores are some of the most chilling monsters of the 1980s, with well-designed decaying corpse masks, and again, Mallett shoots them with pinpoint accuracy. There's loads of memorable Haemovore shots, including the Sea Devils homage in which they rise en masse from the sea, and a great shot in which the camera pans from a gravestone up to a mini army of Haemovores, shrouded in fog. Mark Ayres' music is also very evocative, with a creepy motif for the Haemovores, moody strings for the military parties and even a quick burst of 40s swing music as The Doctor and Ace barge into the military base.
The Curse Of Fenric has it all. A scary, gripping plot and terrifying monsters for the kids. A stark warning about the dangers of pollution (Fenric brings back the Ancient One to destroy the Earth's waters with deadly chemicals). Plenty of interesting things to say about faith and belief. All of this produced with care and thought by Nicholas Mallett, who's also responsible for assembling a generally top-quality cast. You better believe it, The Curse Of Fenric ranks as one of the greatest Doctor Who stories ever told.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.
IF YOU ENJOYED THIS ARTICLE, PLEASE HELP SUPPORT OUR SITE, AT NO COST WITH ONE CLICK ON THE FACEBOOK 'LIKE' BUTTON BELOW:
If you're interested in writing for Shadowlocked (disc and screening reviews, etc, or just getting some extra coverage for your extraordinary writing talent, get in touch with us.