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The Curse of Fenric

Review by Paul Bowler

The Curse of Fenric Doctor Who episode

When the TARDIS lands in a top secret naval base by the Northumberland coast towards the end of the Second World War, the Doctor and Ace meet Dr Judson – a crippled scientist who has built a new computer to crack German codes. However, the base’s Commander Millington intends to allow a Russian commando unit steal Judson’s Ultima Machine, which has been booby trapped with a deadly nerve agent that has been developed.

Dr Judson is also researching some ancient runes in the crypt of the St Judes church, using the Ultima Machine to translate the symbols on the walls. This unleashes an ancient evil called Fenric, a being who the Doctor met in third-century Constantinople, where the Time Lord defeated him at chess and imprisoned him in a shadow dimension – sealing his essence inside a flask that was eventually brought to England by the Vikings in the ninth century. One survivor of this doomed voyage settled here, spawning generations of ‘wolves’ that bore the genetic code of Fenric Now the Curse of Fenric is about to be unleashed, having manipulated these descendants to engineer one last game of chess with the Doctor, where Ace will discover she is also a pawn in Fenric’s grand design.

As the Russian commando team, led by Captain Sorin, arrive at the beach some of his troops go missing, and strange things begin to happen as night falls. One of them is found on the beach the next morning, his body drained of blood; soon the Haemovores rise up from the sea, undead humans who have been transformed into horrifying vampires by the Ancient Haemovore. This creature is the last survivor from a future Earth, where the world has been destroyed by pollution, has also been brought back in time by Fenric.

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With all the pieces in place on the board the Haemovores turn two young evacuees, Jean and Phyllis, into vampires, and together they lead the attack on St Judes. While Ace fights the Haemovoers on the roof, Rev Wainwright and the Doctor are attacked inside the church. Captain Sorin leads his men in helping them, while the Doctor uses his faith to repel the Haemovores, giving them time to escape back through the secret tunnel to the base. Rev Wainwright tries to buy them more time, but his faith falters, and he is killed by the Haemovores. They are too late to stop Fenric possessing Dr Judson, but when Fenric faces the Doctor to complete the chess game, Judson’s fail body begins to deteriorate.

Ace inadvertently tells Fenric the solution to the chess game, unaware that Fenric has now possessed Captain Sorin, and it uses the younger man’s strength to complete the game. The Doctor and Ace are trapped by Fenric and the Ancient Haemovore. Fenric taunts them as Sorin, revealing how Judson, Millington, Wainright, Sorin, and even Ace have all been used as pawns in his conflict with the Doctor, and how he plans to unleash the deadly toxin stored at the base – which was discovered seeping from the stones beneath St Judes Church – to destroy the world.

In order to defeat Fenric the Doctor must break Ace’s faith in him; he succeeds and manages to turn the Ancient Haemovore against Fenric, who drags Sorin into the chamber to destroy Fenric’s host body and sacrifices itself in the process. The Doctor and Ace go to the beach as they prepare to leave, with Ace finally coming to terms her relationship with her mother, after learning that the woman she saved from the Haemovores – Kathleen and her baby daughter Audrey – was actually her grandmother. Ace dives into the water, no longer afraid, and ready to embrace the future.

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The Curse of Fenric (1989) is the penultimate episode of Season Twenty Six, and this story in particular is one of the highlights of Sylvester McCoy’s third year. In a season full of exceptionally good stories, writer Ian Briggs’ tale is rich with Norse mythology and vampire legends that fully embrace script editor Andrew Cartmel’s new ethos for the programme. Nicholas Mallett’s superb direction also makes this a thoroughly atmospheric adventure, with the discovery of a lost artefact, an ancient evil rises from the mist shrouded waters of Madien’s Point, and the Haemovores assault of St Judes church all recall similar elements from John Carpernter’s 1979 horror film: The Fog. This is not the first time Doctor Who has drawn on themes from horror films, some of its best stories have been rooted in the genre, and The Curse of Fenric is all the more enjoyable for it.

Sylvester McCoy gives one of his finest performances as the Doctor in The Curse of Fenric. He breezes into the story with an air of authority, walking straight into the naval base, and there is a great moment where he types his letter of authorisation – showing he is ambidextrous as he forges the signature of the Head of the Secret Services and the Prime Minister simultaneously with two pens. It seems that the Doctor has been aware of Fenric’s plan, even before he met Ace, and it is here that the 7th Doctor’s darker, more manipulative side is played to great effect by McCoy as events force him into shattering the faith of his loyal companion Ace to defeat Fenric.

The development of Ace is one of the major factors that make Season Twenty Six so entertaining to watch. Sophie Aldred brings such depth and sensitivity to Ace’s performance in The Curse of Fenric, her characters story arc reaches a defining moment in this story, as Ace not only faces up to the inner demons that have haunted her for so long, but she also shows just how much she has grown as an individual in her own right. Ace is now more mature, enjoying the thrill of adventures, but wise enough to heed the Doctor’s warning about Maidens’ Point, when she refuses to join Jean and Phyllis for a swim. Her flirtation with the sergeant during the third episode, to give the Doctor the chance to free Captain Sorin, shows Ace as a confident young woman, one far removed from the troubled tomboy who we first encountered in Dragonfire (1987). Ian Briggs was the writer who created Ace and he does a great job of developing her character in The Curse of Fenric. Ace is bold enough to stand up for herself now, even challenging the way the Doctor manipulates people, and the closing scene at the beach where she confidently dives into the water perfectly concludes this excellent story.

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The Curse of Fenric has a terrific guest cast: with Alfred Lynch as the base’s Commander Millington, along with Dinsadle Landen as the crippled Dr Judson who gives a great performance as the cantankerous scientist, before becoming cold and sinister after he is possessed by Fenric. The Russian troops are led by Commander Sorin, played by Tomek Bork, and he also gets to show both aspects of his character as well after he is also possessed by Fenric.

One of the pivotal moments in The Curse of Fenric comes as the church is attacked by the Haemovores, led by the newly transformed vampires, Jean and Phyllis, who spearhead the assault on the building. These scenes are brilliantly staged by director Nicholas Mallett, with Ace and the Russian soldiers fighting back the Haemovores on the roof, while the Doctor and Rev Wainwright are trapped inside. When they are overwhelmed and the Haemovores break in, the Doctor uses his faith in his companions to repel them, reciting the names of his companions to drive the creatures away. Captain Sorin uses a similar method to escape as well, using his belief in the revolution to make a path through the bloodthirsty ranks of the Haemovores.

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Joann Bell and Joann Kenny are wonderfully creepy as the evacuees, Jean and Phyllis, who are transformed into vampires after swimming in the waters. They entice another of Sorin’s men to his doom, luring him into the water, before the Haemovores arise to claim him. Jean and Phyllis also take their revenge on Miss Hardaker (Janet Henfrey), before attempting to claim Rev Wainwright. There are some really striking underwater scenes in The Curse of Fenric, which all help to build up the suspense, leading up to the moment where the Haemovores rise form the sea to attack in force.

The Curse of Fenric

Nicholas Parsons is superb as the Vicar of St Judes. He has some great scenes with the Doctor and Ace, and plays a pivotal role in the story. The moment where he is confronted by Jean and Phyllis in the graveyard is chillingly surreal. His faith isn’t enough to repel them and the Doctor and Ace save him, and when the Haemovores attack the church he is powerless to stop them. His doubts about the war have given Wainwright cause to question his faith, and when he bravely decides to stand his ground against the Haemovores his belief crumbles and ultimately proves to be his undoing.

The Curse of Fenric is a highly evocative story, offsetting the morality of warfare against some stark ecological issues, whilst skilfully juxtaposing it with the faith of all the characters involved in this adventure. Even though the Doctor’s actions seem deceptively enigmatic, events quickly begin to escalate according to his design, until the time is right for the Time Lord to face Fenric again and play one last game of chess. Fenric is another example of a disembodied force, or ideal, against which this 7th incarnation seems perfectly tailored to counteract.

The Curse of Fenric deals with plot thread that stretch right back to Ace’s debut story, Dragonfire, as Fenric delights in revealing how it was the one who was responsible for the Time Storm that brought her to Iceworld. From the moment the Doctor saw the chess set in Lady Peinforte’s house in Silver Nemesis (1988), the Time Lord was aware of Fenric’s involvement. There might also be some connection with the Gods of Ragnarok, who the Doctor encountered in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (1987), although they appeared to exist in another dimension. The Curse of Fenric was released on DVD in 2003 in a special two-disk set that featured the original episodes, along with a number of extra features and commentaries, as well a re-edited Special Edition with extra footage and added special effects.

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The Curse of Fenric is one of the best stories from the 7th Doctor’s era. It illustrates the full potential that McCoy’s darker incarnation of the Doctor had to offer, and Sophie Aldred’s journey as Ace is unique in the shows original run. Few companions ever enjoyed as much character development as this. The McCoy years were over before we realised what we had, its only now, with the power of hindsight that we understand just what could have been. The Curse of Fenric is my favourite 7th Doctor story, it’s a thrilling adventure, and a great example of this era of Doctor Who.