Review [DW]: “The Curse of Fenric”

26×3. The Curse of Fenric
Writer: Ian Briggs
Director: Nicholas Mallett
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor and Ace travel to a secret World War II military camp, where Dr. Judson’s Ultima machine is being put to use to decrypt German U-Boat cyphers as well as some locally preserved Viking runes, while the sinister Commander Millington plans to create nerve gas weapons and a team of Russian infiltrators prepares to steal the Ultima technology. The decryption of the runes serves to unleash Fenric, an evil force as old as the universe itself and a former rival of the Doctor, while Haemovores – mutated future humans who resemble vampires and are deterred by the power of unwavering belief – begin to attack.

Review: “The Curse of Fenric” is an uncommonly ambitious serial, and it just might qualify as a sort of flawed masterpiece. I can certainly identify some problems with it, most notably: the script occasionally shuffles the characters between locations for contrived reasons; it’s left unexplained why Fenric – who is capable of jumping between bodies – doesn’t just do so again after his host body succumbs to the nerve gas; the origin and nature of Commander Millington’s knowledge of Fenric is unclear; and in general, “evil from the dawn of time” seems like a concept that really shouldn’t work and would be better suited to, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer than Doctor Who. But it somehow makes it work, and it does so many things right that I’m inclined to excuse the few things it does wrong.

For starters, it follows upon “Ghost Light” with some more strong character development for Ace, who befriends Kathleen, one of the base’s WRNS members, and her newborn baby Audrey and later helps them escape the Haemovores’ attacks – only to discover that the baby will grow up to be her estranged mother. Although Fenric taunts her over this and refers to Audrey as “the mother you hate,” we sense that it’s more complicated than that. Ace, despite her brash exterior, is a compassionate person who clearly regrets what has become of her relationship with her mother, and when she believes that she’s about to be executed, her would-be last words are, “Mum, I’m sorry!” This is just one way in which she’s put through the wringer in this serial. At the end, when the power of her belief in the Doctor is blocking the Haemovore known as the Ancient One from attacking Fenric, he pretends to betray her and belittles her as an “emotional cripple,” for which she understandably tells him off even though she eventually forgives him when he explains the purpose of the deception. And yet she is not broken by this turn of events: the serial concludes with her taking a swim in the previously cursed waters, no longer afraid of the “dangerous undercurrents” of which a nearby sign had warned would-be swimmers.

The Doctor receives a nicely balanced portrayal in “The Curse of Fenric.” This turn of events deepens the mystery surrounding the character that was introduced in “Remembrance of the Daleks” and has been building ever since. Not only have we learned that his history on Gallifrey may be more complicated than he’d previously let on, but we now know that he and Fenric – who comes off as almost a sort of elemental force of evil – have squared off before, that Fenric’s manipulations were behind Ace’s initial arrival on Iceworld, and that Lady Peinforte’s chess set in “Silver Nemesis” somehow related to his ongoing contest with the Doctor and banishment to the “Shadow Dimensions.” At one point, the Doctor speaks of *two* such elemental forces – one good and the other evil – locked in opposition since the beginning of time, raising the question: if Fenric is the evil force, could the Doctor himself be the otherwise unidentified good force? The script is probably wise in not attempting to answer this question and instead leaving the possibility out there for audience speculation. And while we as viewers are inclined to be angry with the way he manipulates Ace at the end and to share her impatience with his secrecy, he hasn’t completely lost his moral compass or his connection to others. When he needs to summon his own psychic power of belief against the Haemovores, he recites names of past companions, and he clearly disapproves of Millington’s plans for nerve gas attacks.

Indeed, one prominent theme in “The Curse of Fenric” is that the Allies’ hands were not entirely clean in World War II. Millington, who has perhaps found his goal of understanding the Nazi mindset a little too easily achieved, argues that using gas against German cities might save lives by ending the war sooner, echoing the sorts of rationalizations often deployed to justify, for example, the firebombing of Dresden or the use of the atomic bomb against Japan. In fact, Millington is prepared to go even further – guessing that the alliance with the Soviet Union will not survive the postwar world order, he plans to allow Captain Sorin’s team to steal the Ultima machine and booby-trap it with a canister of the gas, to be released when the Soviets attempt to decode the word “love” – and while the choice of code word might reflect Millington’s twisted psychology, he is apparently acting under orders from the government in setting this trap. This theme is also reflected in Reverend Wainwright, a memorable and well-acted guest character, who finds himself disturbed less by the possibility of Axis attacks than by the tactics used against German cities by the British. And the Soviet troops also have their share of blood on their hands by the end, killing several British soldiers in order to conceal their operation and rationalizing that such things “had to be done.” It’s only when Millington has become visibly unhinged that the one survivor from each group (British and Soviet) team up against him.

All of this is pretty dark and challenging material, even by 1980s Doctor Who standards, and I haven’t even mentioned that the Haemovores are a product of a future Earth where toxic pollution has reached extreme levels, or that the Ancient One only turns against Fenric when the Doctor points out that Fenric’s schemes, if realized, would preclude his future from ever occurring. Both physical and psychological horror abound, perhaps no more so than when Fenric takes control of Judson’s body, turns to the Doctor, and announces, “We play the contest again, Time Lord.” If this were my first Doctor Who serial and I didn’t know the show’s history, I’d have probably felt genuinely frightened for the Doctor and Ace. And yet, this isn’t disturbing and grim just for the sake of being disturbing and grim. The payoff is in the reconciliation between the Doctor and Ace at the end and in the way Ace gains a new perspective on her mother and discovers that she no longer fears the previously dangerous waters. There’s a sense that the two of them have been through an ordeal and have truly earned this moment of respite and relief, and that some measure of hope survives even when the ugliest aspects of human nature are on display.

You will not find me claiming that “The Curse of Fenric” is perfect. A fellow fan once suggested that “perfect” is not something that Doctor Who does, and as much as I enjoy the show, he’s probably right. But it is certainly the most successful thus far of the many ambitious and unique experiments of the McCoy era, and I am firmly in the camp that considers it a classic.

Rating: **** (out of four)