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"We hoped to return to the North Way, but the dark curse follows our dragon ship."
on September 15, 2007
"The Curse of Fenric" tries so hard to be a quintessential Doctor Who story. Pseudo-historical tales are a hallmark of the show, and this one is set at a British naval base during World War II but features an extraterrestrial (extradimensional?) threat very much true to form. Like some of the most beloved classics especially from the early seasons of Tom Baker, "Fenric" takes classic and cliche motifs from known horror movies and translates them into a science fiction idiom, in this case any number of "living dead" type movies like "Evil Dead II" or "Prince of Darkness" (to name the ones I've actually seen, not being a big fan of horror films myself): the emergence into our world of a demonic being through some sort of activating text and/or ritual, his bringing an army of zombies or vampires to bear against the heroes, surrounding them in a frail safehold and besieging them there, and yes, we even have the poor ill-fated priest who ineffectually waves a Bible or cross at the creepies only to be promptly overtaken by them. "Fenric" also features an ecological undertone similar to many of the greats from Jon Pertwee's time (especially "Inferno") as the zombies are in fact a badly mutated version of humanity from some polluted industrial meltdown of a future. Then too there's a Cold War fable a la "The Armageddon Factor" (among others) as the Russian and British soldiers decide to stop their clandestine maneuvers against each other so as to fight their common enemy, evil itself (originally airing in 1989, this may well be one of the last of its kind). Why, with the final chess game between Fenric and the Doctor, there's even a whiff of "The Celestial Toymaker" from way back.
And yet it all comes across as trying too hard. Knowing in retrospect that this is the next-to-last story in the show's classic run it may be too easy to say this, but it almost seems as if the producer and his staff are attempting to jumpstart the waning popularity of Doctor Who by haphazardly throwing in everything that ever worked--missing the basics in the process. First of all, they left out the heart: The spirit of fun and adventure just seems to be missing, and the combination of quintessential elements seems artificial and contrived rather than natural and creative. Second of all, they forgot the brain: once again as with "Ghost Light" a fledgling writer is doing his best but not apparently getting the direction and feedback he needs from the script editor. As a whole the story is far more coherent, thank goodness, but there are still far too many fuzzy points, plotline tangles, and sheer implausibilities for a final draft--and overall the horror-to-sci-fi translation is incomplete and unripe, with too many things a trifle too supernatural and unscientific for the Doctor Who fictional universe. Finally, they lost their courage: the story bends over backwards painfully to cast the Soviet soldiers in a good light while vilifying the Brits--to the degree that it winds up as an embarrassing display of self-persecution. If only they'd had a wonderful wizard to consult with on these matters.
Still, for all that, "The Curse of Fenric" is reasonably enjoyable and entertaining, and it has its moments. This is the BBC, so the historical sets and costumes are top-notch. Having the believably clunky British decryption computer summon forth Fenric by spitting out an English translation of his cursed verses from Norse is clever. McCoy does great as the Doctor, and at one point rambles off a quick summary of what must be Time Lord Theology (and Theodicy) which is rather interesting and convincingly abstract. The way he bumbles in and somehow makes himself at home in a top secret naval base really is classic Doctor Who, utterly uncontrived. And the story as a whole nicely and intriguingly thematizes faith and doubt, giving it more multilayered texture than the average monster movie. All of this makes "Fenric" worth watching despite its flawed nature, but none of it justifies making this a double-DVD set by including a director's cut version of the same story over again.