“THE CURSE OF FENRIC” – Season 26, Serial 3, Story 155 – The Seventh Doctor and Ace head back to World War II and do a slow burn to brilliance. The TARDIS sets down in a northern English coastal village where the Brits are codebreaking German messages with the ULTIMA machine. There’s evil in the air and evil in the water as an ancient Viking curse comes to the surface. There’s British soldiers and Russian soldiers and Haemovores all killing each other. There’s Fenric and the Ancient One, plotting and swerving. There’s the Doctor reducing his Companion to tears. And there’s Ace, little girl lost and manipulated and coming into her own, physically and figuratively caught between her past and her future as she becomes one of the most important Companions in the program’s history. This is classic Who’s penultimate serial and instead of the series crumbling away it’s building a blueprint for the future. Because The Curse of Fenric Is The First Serial of the 2005 Revival. Believe It.
THE CURSE OF FENRIC is big boy television. There are a hundred different ways in which DOCTOR WHO has improved since Colin Baker and Eric Saward were replaced with Sylvester McCoy and Andrew Cartmel. The biggest difference is having a script editor and actor on the same page, but the most obvious difference is confidence – confidence in their own shared abilities, confidence in their individual talents, and confidence in the material. There is nothing in this serial that gets you to think anyone involved in this production didn’t believe in what they were doing.
The serial starts slowly, taking its time to put the pieces in place for the pay-off in Parts Three and Four, and at the end of the first episode I was a bit worried that Harrahy had gone off the deep end in saying this was the best serial since TALONS OF WENG-CHIANG.
He hasn’t. FENRIC just takes time to unfold, but when it does start coming together, it delivers a fantastic final two episodes.
We’ve seen Part One seemingly a hundred times – the Doctor and Companion arrive someplace, people are acting suspiciously, a scientist is on the verge of a dramatic discovery, people start dying, something supernatural is in play … what’s striking here is how committed the serial is to seeing all of these elements through.
There’s no shame here, no running away from what the program or story is trying to accomplish. So often during the runs of the Fifth and Sixth Doctor it felt like the writers didn’t even want to be writing a DOCTOR WHO story. Especially during the Saward/Baker II years, it often felt like the Doctor was a guest star in his own program. I’ve never felt that way about the Seventh Doctor’s run, but there are stories – the preceding story, GHOST LIGHT, and here in FENRIC – where the Doctor seems to slide into the background.
The difference? In Saward’s run, when the Doctor was pushed to the side or back, his screen time was replaced by the story, or by brand new characters. In what was probably Saward’s best story (as a writer and scriptwriter), REVELATION OF THE DALEKS, he devoted a lot of screen time to the relatively minor characters of Jobel and Tasambeker. They were semi-interesting characters playing out a semi-interesting sub-plot, but they didn’t really have anything to do with the Doctor.
Here in Cartmel’s tenure, when the Doctor gives up screen time, it’s primarily given to his Companion, Ace, and in focusing on her we’re often learning about the Doctor, too, either directly or indirectly. Even when we’re not, though, we’re learning about her and since she’s on board this crazy TARDIS ride, too (although the TARDIS set is becoming less frequently used), screen time given to her enriches, rather than detracts, from the program.
Devoting this much attention to developing a Companion is one of two big contributions that Cartmel has added to the series that has been picked up by the showrunners and writers of the relaunched 2005 series. (We’ll get to the other one in a minute.) As important as Doctors Nine, Ten, and Eleven are to the show, the primary Companions (Rose, Martha Jones, Donna Noble, Amy Pond) have all had stories built around them, too. As great as some of the previous Companions have been, they typically serve three basic functions: to ask questions, to scream, and to complain.
She rarely screams or complains and when she does ask questions, they’re usually driven by honest inquisitiveness to inform and improve her position in the story and not to clarify things for the audience.
Sophie Aldred has done an increasingly good job at developing Ace; always willing to adventure (except for moments involving clowns or evil houses from her childhood, but even then she pushes through it), Ace is beginning to assert her own position in the TARDIS, openly questioning the Doctor’s actions. In an extremely powerful scene here in FENRIC, she unloads on the Doctor, accusing him of “always knowing what’s going on” and not telling her, and that it seems like he’s playing a game in which only he knows the rules. She’s legitimately upset and hurt at not being told; she gives her undying loyalty to the Doctor and it hurts her that it’s not returned.
We’ve seen this come up in each serial this season. In BATTLEFIELD, she’s upset when the Brigadier frames her as just another Companion and not THE Companion, and in GHOST LIGHT she feels betrayed by the Doctor bringing her to her least favorite place in the universe without telling her that he was doing it.
The Doctor and Ace relationship comes to a shocking head at the end of FENRIC, when they’re facing off against Fenric and the Ancient One. The Doctor has implored the Ancient One to betray Fenric because Fenric wants the Ancient One to dump chemicals into the ocean, which will end up destroying the ocean, which will lead to the future where the Ancient One is the last Haemovore alive. The key to keeping a Haemovore (vampire like sea creatures) at bay isn’t a cross or Bible, but one’s strength of faith in whatever they’re thinking about.
For Ace, that belief is in the Doctor, which creates a psychic barrier that keeps the Ancient One at bay, which would be a good thing except the Doctor needs him to move to kill Fenric, who’s defeated the Doctor by figuring out the winning move in their game of chess. (Thanks to Ace, for giving it to Sorin, the Russian soldier she’s been making googly eyes at, not knowing that Fenric had taken over that soldier’s body.) The Doctor needs Ace’s faith broken, so he breaks it.
He does this by mercilessly destroying her with sharp, pointed, cutting words, breaking her faith and dropping her to the floor, shattered and crying.
The acting is brilliant. McCoy is unflinchingly cold in his surgical dismissal of Ace, and Aldred is achingly shattered as his words bring her own fears about herself to the surface.
The Doctor’s verbal destruction of Ace brings in Cartmel’s second big contribution to this series, which is the way he builds on small moments in one story to get to get to big revelations in others. (On a personal level, I love employing this technique in my own writing, and I’m always thrilled to see it used so wonderfully as it is in Season 26.) The Doctor’s assault centers around him telling Fenric that he’s known all along that Ace had the stink of Fenric on her.
Fenric has an ability to alter the decisions and lives of those original Viking families that had buried the flask in which the Doctor had trapped him centuries before in an non-televised story. This includes Ace, because Ace’s mother is in this story as Audrey, the recently born daughter of Kathleen, whose a descendant of one of the original families.
The Doctor’s monologue focuses on this connection between Fenric and Ace. Fenric threatens to kill Ace if the Doctor doesn’t kneel before Zod, and the Doctor simply tells him to kill her. He tells Fenric that he’s known about the evil within Ace all along. Why else, he demands to know, would he take a social misfit and emotional cripple along with him on his journeys? As Ace begins to look horrified, the Doctor condemns her by pointing out the disconnect between her intelligence and what she’s been able to accomplish: she couldn’t even pass chemistry, the Doctor seethes, but was able to create a time storm in her bedroom? The Doctor tells Fenric he knew of his involvement once he saw the chess set in Lady Pienforte’s study back in SILVER NEMESIS, and that he’s just been using Ace to get Fenric to come to him.
Ace is broken, her faith shattered, and the Ancient One is freed to kill Fenric.
The Doctor has to pull her out of the room before it explodes, and then explains to Ace that he only said those things because he needed to break her faith, and if there’s a fault in the serial it’s that she forgives him a bit too easily. She has to go for a cathartic swim as she ponders how she can love the baby Audrey and yet still hate her mother, but in the few moments between the explosion and end of the episode, Ace forgives the Doctor and they go off together.
Both of these Cartmellian sensibilities will become hallmarks of the relaunched series a decade-and-a-half later. There are other elements here, too, that will emerge later, including an undercurrent of potential homosexuality – both by two Russian soldiers and by two older British friends (Commander Millington and Dr. Judson).
There’s plenty of fantastic characters and the mystery unravels slowly and powerfully and when it’s all finally out in the open, the “curse of Fenric” manages to be exactly what you thought it was and then so much more beyond it.
It’s great television, and director Nicholas Mallett deserves a ton of credit for blending the structured world of the military with the supernatural world of the Fenric. This is Mallet’s third directorial effort in DOCTOR WHO and he fulfills the promise hinted at in his two earlier serials: the Sixth Doctor’s THE MYSTERIOUS PLANET and Seventh Doctor’s PARADISE TOWERS.
The ratings for the serial were terrible (averaging just a shade over 4 million viewers an episode, so the writing must have been on the wall to the cast and crew that cancellation was a possibility, but it didn’t stop them from making a bunch of terrific serials on their way out the door.