Dangerous undercurrents. Doctor Who – The Curse of Fenric


The Curse of Fenric is a bleak, cynical story.  So it’s hard to believe that, for many people at the time, Doctor Who was still seen very much as children’s television – although some of the performances, which we’ll come to later, did have a feel of “children’s tv” about them.

One of the interesting things about Fenric is how it portrays the British during their darkest hour.  The government are seen to hatch a plan which will cause mass slaughter in Russia at some unspecified point in the future.  It doesn’t go as far as to say that Churchill knew about it, but the implication is there.

MILLINGTON: Just think what a bomb full could do to a city like Dresden or Moscow.
DOCTOR: It’s inhuman.
MILLINGTON: It could mean the end of the war.
DOCTOR: And Whitehall thinks that Moscow is careless enough to let you detonate one of those things inside the Kremlin?
MILLINGTON: Oh, that’s the beauty of it, Doctor. We won’t detonate it. They’ll do it themselves. They’ll use the machine to decrypt our ciphers, but Doctor Judson has programmed it to self-destruct when it tries to decrypt a particular word. And, once the political climate is appropriate, we will include the word in one of our ciphers.
DOCTOR: And the word is?
MILLINGTON: What else could it be, Doctor? Love.

As the above extract indicates, there’s a little confusion in the scripting.  At one point, Millington (Alfred Lynch) discusses how the chemical weapons could signal the end of the war – but he plans to use them against the Russians, not the Germans, so how is this possible?

Faith is an important part of the story.  The Reverend Wainwright (Nicholas Parsons) doesn’t have faith any more and it proves to be his undoing.  I remember the outcry amongst a certain section of fandom back in 1989 when Parsons’ casting was announced – it seemed that another Ken Dodd comedy turn was expected.  But Parsons was wonderful as the conflicted Wainwright (not that this should be a surprise, since he had plenty of acting experience).  He has some lovely moments in the story, such as this scene with Ace.

ACE: Funny church, this, isn’t it?
WAINWRIGHT: I was just remembering when I was a child. My father was the vicar here then. It seemed such a warm, friendly place in those days.
ACE: Things always look different when you’re a child.
WAINWRIGHT: Now I stand in the church every Sunday, I see all the faces looking up at me, waiting for me to give them something to believe in.
ACE: Don’t you believe in anything?
WAINWRIGHT: I used to believe there was good in the world, hope for the future.

ACE: The future’s not so bad. Have faith in me.

But sadly he didn’t have faith in her or anyone else, so he meets his end at the hands of Jean (Joann Kenny) and Phyllis (Joanne Bell).  They’re two of the weak links in the story – they’re not particularly impressive before they’ve been taken over, but afterwards they’re somewhat diabolical.  Maybe it’s the fingernails or the stilted delivery, but it’s not good.

There’s better acting elsewhere though.  Dinsdale Landen has a nice touch of humour as the wheelchair-bound Judson and is even better when taken over by Fenric in the last episode.  But it’s a pity that episode three didn’t end on a close-up of him, rather than a shot of the Doctor looking mildly worried (but it’s not the first cliff-hanger of the era to end on a limp shot of the Doctor by a long chalk).

Fenric was always a story that didn’t quite work in its original broadcast format and both the VHS and the DVD had different edits which benefit the story by including various scenes that had to be cut out due to time restrictions.  There’s possibly too much plot in the story for the episode count – the Haemovores, the Ancient One, Millington’s agenda, the Russian’s plan to steal the Ultima machine, the return of Fenric, it’s certainly all going on.

Losing a few of these threads (particularly the Haemovores who contribute little to the plot) would have tightened things up a little.  And episode four, whilst it has some great drama (especially when Sorin has been taken over by Fenric) can’t help but feel like something of an anti-climax.  It is a little hard to take Fenric that seriously when he wants to drop everything to pick up the game he was previously playing with the Doctor.  Yes, I can see that chess is a metaphor – but it’s a somewhat clumsy one.

The scene where the Doctor attempts to destroy Ace’s faith in him is nice though – and it’s either a skillful weaving together of plot-threads from various stories during S24 & S25 or an opportune scramble to explain some of the plot-holes from those same stories.  I’ll leave you to decide.

SORIN: The choice is yours, Time Lord. I shall kill you anyway, but if you would like the girl to live, kneel before me.
ACE: I believe in you, Professor.
SORIN: Kneel, if you want the girl to live!
DOCTOR: Kill her.
SORIN: The Time Lord finally understands.
DOCTOR: Do you think I didn’t know? The chess set in Lady Peinforte’s study? I knew.
SORIN: Earlier than that, Time Lord. Before Cybermen, ever since Ice World, where you first met the girl.
DOCTOR: I knew. I knew she carried the evil inside her. Do you think I’d have chosen a social misfit if I hadn’t known? She couldn’t even pass her chemistry exams at school, and yet she manages to create a time storm in her bedroom. I saw your hand in it from the very beginning.
ACE: Doctor, no.
DOCTOR: She’s an emotional cripple. I wouldn’t waste my time on her, unless I had to use her somehow.
ACE: No!

I’ve never quite understood how Ace never twigged that the baby was her mother.  Did she not know her maternal grandparents or did she just think it was a strange coincidence that Kathleen and her husband had exactly the same names as her Nan and Grandad?  And the less said about the “Sometimes I move so fast, I don’t exist any more” scene the better, I think.

Not a perfect story then, but there’s enough going on to make it a worthwhile, if sometimes flawed, watch.