Written by: Ian Briggs
Starring: Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace)
Originally broadcast: 25th October – 15th November 1989
Soldiers row to shore through a grey mist and discover a dead comrade on their landing and superstitions of a local curse begin to do the rounds. It is 1943. The TARDIS materialises inside a top-secret military base and The Doctor and Ace decide to have a look. They soon encounter the wheelchair-bound Dr. Judson, who has created ULTIMA – a machine that can decode any cypher, including German transmissions. Meanwhile, the soldiers are revealed to be Russian, and their objective: to steal the ULTIMA core.
Story-wise, The Curse of Fenric is well conceived. It mostly revovles around the Doctor and Ace investigating stories of a local Viking curse and the Doctor generally keeping everyone in the dark about his suspicions. In that respect, it’s a very dark story for classic Who. Sylvester McCoy’s version of the Timelord is well known for developing a darker streak in his later years and this story is the ultimate manifestation of that. The way in which he desperately explains to Ace why he has to keep her in the dark about things, and the scene in which he coldly manipulates the Ancient One into betraying Fenric are chilling displays of character.
What else is interesting about this episode though is that, given its production in the very late stages of the cold war (even though the episode is set in the 1940’s), the Russians actually come off very well. The story ends with the British and Russian soldiers putting aside their differences and deciding they won’t be “pawns” in the larger game of chess by the politicians any more. This proclamation is strangely prophetic as, after seeing the ending in which everybody (even Ace) are revealed to be pawns, the viewer is left with mixed feelings about how far the Doctor must go to beat Fenric. The Russians go from allies-come-traitors to heroes by the end of the story.
Also worthy of note is that The Curse of Fenric was one of a rare breed of stories in classic Who to draw together strands from previous series into a single story-arc. This has been seen recently with the Silence arc stretching over nu-Who Series 5, 6 and (it would seem) 7, but wasn’t common for the old show. The Key to Time arc or the E-Space stories are similar examples but were much more obvious than the clever revelations explained in Fenric. Subtle, almost Moffat-like references have been scattered throughout the Doctor’s journey with Ace that all point to Fenric, and even Ace, (and subsequently her relationship with her mother) is revealed to be the product of Fenric’s schemes. To put it lightly, there was a big pay-off for anyone who had been watching since Dragonfire.
The scene in which Fenric is defeated is by far the best in this story. As all the strands of the episodes, and indeed the previous two series, draw together we are given a glimpse of a far darker side to the Doctor than we have ever seen before.
Master manipulator, cold and unfeeling, he makes even Ace believe that he only brought her with him because he knew she was “tainted” by Fenric. Though really, he is allowing Ace’s psychic barrier (of belief in him) to break down so that the Ancient One can destroy Fenric – something the Doctor has ensured will happen, through one of his earlier moves. As Fenric and the Ancient One go down together, there is no time for explanations as the Doctor pulls Ace off the floor and they escape.
The Curse of Fenric, for 80’s Who, is actually pretty good. Obviously, production quality is an issue in certain scenes and the acting of some cast members is questionable at times, but fortunately the whole story being shot on location seems to have done the episodes a big favour. The story is complex and a bit hard to follow at times, with so much going on, but the final conclusion is a very satisfying one. Most fascinating though, is the story’s approach to the Timelord’s persona. As the Doctor puts it, the forces of good and evil are always at war – but somehow evil always survives. Because of this we are taken into the morally grey zone, filled with long games and hidden agendas, and we are shown that good and evil are not always clear cut. To defeat Fenric, the Doctor has to lie, manipulate and emotionally break the person closest to him. These are big ideas for what was a Monday night tea-time, family show at the time. Bravo Ian Briggs for doing them justice.
Did you know?
- Previous titles for this story were The Wolves of Fenric and Wolf-Time.
- Anne Reid, who plays Nurse Crane, would also later appear in the revived series 2007 story Smith and Jones as the Plasmavore. This story also featured the introduction of companion Martha Jones and the alien Judoon.
- Interestingly, in the novelisation, Reid’s character was revealed to be a Russian spy who had aided the red soldiers in their infiltration, but this was taken out of the script as the story was already too long.
- The references to past episodes that reveal Fenric’s scheme to the Doctor early on are (in chronological order); Ace appearing in Iceworld through a time storm (Dragonfire), the chessboard in Lady Peinforte’s house and her relocation to the (past) modern day by time storm (Silver Nemesis).
- This episode was one of a few classic stories to be shot almost entirely on location. The locations most used are Crowborough Training Camp (which was the secret army base) in East Sussex and Lulworth Cove (which was the beach area where Fenric’s “wolves” attacked from and where the soldiers landed) in Dorset.
- There are many story aspects, such as the Doctor wearing a coat for the first half of the story (which was meant to partly hide the new brown jacket that symbolized a character change) and Ace referencing the story Ghostlight as if it were in her future, that were originally supposed to have happened before they did in this story. This is because scheduling delays forced the production team to shuffle the episode orders of this series round.
- Two of the “Haemovore” monsters in this story were played by Sylvester McCoy’s sons; Sam and Joe Kent-Smith.
- A reference to Ace having lost her virginity to Sabalom Glitz in an earlier story (Dragonfire) was removed from the script.
- Though this story involves many references to Norse mythology, all references of Ragnarok (the end of the world) were removed by request of the production team, so as to avoid confusion with the Gods of Ragnarok from the previous story The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.
- The way that the Doctor needs Ace to lose faith in him to defeat Fenric is similar to the way he later needs Amy Pond to lose faith in him in The God Complex to defeat the Minotaur.
Next time in Blueshift
Thanks for reading another Blueshift! Next time I’ll be revisiting the Ninth Doctor story The End of the World.