Doctor Who - The Curse of Fenric

Continuing his journey through classic Doctor Who whilst he waits for the new series, Steve Hendry watches The Curse of Fenric...

They’re big, they’re blue, they’re coming after you, Haemovores, Haemovores!

There have been many truly outstanding Doctor Who stories, but rarely have two such serials been broadcast consecutively. The Curse of Fenric following Ghost Light is one such example. I can remember recording this in 1989 on a VHS tape (ask your dad, kids) when I was knee-high to a Zarbi, and pretty much wore it out until the DVD release. The Five Doctors apart, I reckon I’ve seen The Curse of Fenric more than any other Who story. I’ve never watched it with the intention of writing a review afterwards though, so I decided to try and find some fault in it somewhere, in the interest of balance. Epic fail (ask your kids, dads). For a change, I am loath to offer too many outright spoilers in this review. It really is something you should see for yourself if you haven’t already and benefits from multiple viewings.

TCoF is faultless, there is just so much going on and not a second is wasted. Very often, four-part serials would suffer from Doctor Who Episode Three Syndrome. This unfortunate and common affliction will often consist of repetitive capture/escape sequences, pointless dialogue and twenty-five minutes of ultimately inconsequential build-up to a cliff-hanger to bring the viewer back for the concluding part. Ian Briggs’ masterpiece tests negative for this condition though, and if this isn’t Who’s best ever episode three of four then I’m Nicholas Parsons. The tension around the naval base is ramped up to ten with the Haemovores’ emergence from the sea and siege of the church the best highlight of many, before the stunning climax at the end. Not only are we treated to Parsons’ excellent star turn (among others from a high calibre supporting cast), Curse features Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred’s finest performances as Doctor and companion, and if any story leaves fans mourning the premature end to the Cartmel Master Plan (ask a geek, casuals) then it is surely this one. Ian Briggs created the character of Ace in Season 24’s Dragonfire, and along with Rona Munro in Survival writes her better than anyone here. Ace set the tone for new series companions like Rose and Clara in this story, central to the plot and as vital to its resolution as The Doctor himself as she is revealed as one of the Wolves of Fenric.

I once wrote a thesis about how progressive views held by the show’s production team and leading cast got it cancelled by a BBC infested with Margaret Thatcher’s minions in 1989, and these shine through in Curse. Each side in war uses some god or other as a beacon of righteousness and Ian Briggs exposes this and other lies fed to troops and civilians alike by politicians during conflict. The Curse of Fenric has real depth and a social resonance that Doctor Who has often delivered well. Doctor Who and the Silurians, Warriors of the Deep and even Aliens of London have delivered important messages about the immoralities and injustices of war, yet none have quite hit the spot like this.

Season 25 was meant to be the catalyst for a huge chain of events that would alter Doctor Who forever, yet the 26th would instead be the final full season until 2005. The events of Remembrance of the Daleks and Silver Nemesis the previous season give credence to the theory that the Last Great Time War is already in full swing, along with Kathleen Dudman’s conversation with The Doctor in episode two. “Do you have any family yourself?” she asks him, “I don’t know,” he replies, “I’m sorry, it’s the war isn’t it? It must be terrible not knowing”, “Yes” answers The Doctor, wandering away sadly.

This isn’t Who’s first or most recent vampire story, but it wipes the floor with State of Decay, Smith and Jones and Vampires of Venice. It is more than a story of blood-sucking and stakes through hearts. There are heroes, anti-heroes, revelations of betrayal, and conflicts of faith, a menace from the dawn of time, chilling visions of a future Earth and family secrets. Above all though, Briggs’ finest achievement is his ability to weave all this together with such amazingly well-written characters. Sorin, Millington, Wainwright and Judson, even minor characters like Nurse Crane, Kathleen, Jean and Phyllis are all so full-bodied and integral to the plot that it is nothing short of a miracle that all this is shoehorned into four episodes. Even better is the extended, feature-length cut available on the DVD release. Doctor Who couldn’t be like this every week, it would just end up being far too dark for its own good. But every story really should have its characters drawn as richly as this one does, and it is to RTD and The Moff’s eternal credit that they have largely been successful in making this happen post 2005.

I found the fault in the end. Towards the end of episode four, look at The Doctor’s left hand as he and Ace run from the exploding bunker in the mud. His hand is filthy, yet when we see the close-up of it on Ace’s shoulder it is clean as a whistle! I can forgive that minor blip; after all it’s taken me 25 years to find it.

Image - BBC.

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