Much like classic Doctor Who tales the main thrust of The Curse of Fenric is to stop an impending apocalypse however, the one doomsday scenario that the Doctor couldn’t prevent was the shows own impending destruction.
The Curse of Fenric was penultimate serial to be aired before the shows cancellation and, judging by the what’s on show here, the show was just about to unearth a rich seam of storytelling that could have proven to be the patented last-second reprieve from damnation that the Doctor usually revels in.
Often when we speak of change in Doctor Who, we speak solely of the person playing the Doctor but regeneration isn’t limited to an occasional change of face. The biggest change outside of replacing the fired Colin Baker with Sylvester McCoy was hiring writer Andrew Cartmel, who after a less than auspicious first season, had combined with McCoy to really push the boundaries of what the show could be.
By the time they reached their third and final season, the pair had reinvented the Doctor – gone was the buffoon of Time and the Rani – leaving us with a bumbling but ultimately wise and unknowable figure who served as a surrogate father figure to companion Ace. This character dynamic between Ace and the Seventh Doctor really hadn’t been tried before. During the Classic era, companions tended to come fully formed – that’s not to denigrate the likes of Sarah Jane and Jo Grant, they’re still wonderful characters; they just happen to arrive as wonderful characters and largely stayed true to who they were. There were some attempts to fashion a different dynamic, take Leela and the Fourth Doctor and their Pygmalion-esque journey which largely petered out after the novelty wore off. The first real attempt to develop a relationship beyond that first initial impression was with Turlough and the Fifth Doctor. It wasn’t until Ace arrived that we got a full character arc for the companion.
During the last few seasons, Ace was often confronted with situations – often through the Doctors devising and game-playing – that would force her to grow. It’s a dynamic that’s largely been kept intact right up to Bill and the Twelfth Doctor.
The Curse of Fenric takes this burgeoning dynamic and tests the boundaries of what the show could be and it’s admirable that Doctor Who was still trying new things even as the shutters were being lowered.
By and large, the Doctor’s trips in the TARDIS are thought to be random. However, in this and Ghost Light, we know that’s not true. The Doctor has a hidden agenda; a plan to take Ace to locales across time and space that are important to her without telling her. At this point, the pretext of taking her on the slow route back to her home has for the most part been put to one side (it’s interesting to note that a lot of Ace’s story echoes that of Leela’s – you could easily argue that it is either an attempt to do that storyline justice or that the idea of a companion undergoing a My Fair Lady style reinvention was ahead of its time).
On this sojourn of their trip, she’s forced to confront her anger towards her family at a military base during World War II, where she meets her grandmother when she was a young soon-to-be war widow caring for an infant girl—Ace’s mother.
The Curse of Fenric gives Ace several moments to showcase just how far she has come. There’s her sort-of-but-not-quite seduction of the soldier in episode three which, while played vampy, is written as cosmic and unknowable. Ace says several things that should probably have elicited nothing more than a blank stare but in revealing a little more than perhaps she intended to about her time with the Doctor, she actually connects with him on a level beyond the sexual. Perhaps Ace was the first manic dream pixie girl?
Then there’s a small moment on the beach where, eager to obey the Doctor’s warning that she avoid going in the sea at all costs but also aware that she simply cannot tell her two new friends why she can’t go for a swim, blurts ‘Swimming is stupid’ which captures someone who’s on the cusp of accepting responsibility but still an adolescent and prone to peer pressure.
Beside Ace’s family problems, there’s also Lovecraftian monsters, vampire teenagers, WWII intrigue, Norse mythology, a sunken Viking ship, a classic costumed monster in the form of the vampiric Haemovores whose backstory has something to do with the evolution of humanity and also Dracula, and the enigma machine. One hardly has the time to draw breath before another idea is presented.
However, the concept behind Fenric has much to recommend it.
In terms of the history of the show, Fenric recalls Sutekh from Pyramids of Mars, albeit without such a clear motif – Fenric seems to be of a specific time and completely unknowable. There are clear references to Viking iconography with the less than convincing ruins and then there’s the fact that he calls his minions ‘wolves’ which seem to suggest the Fenris Wolf of Nordic mythology. Fenris or Fenrir as it is known, is the son of Loki and is foretold to kill Odin at Ragnorak however, he was killed by Odin’s son Víðarr.
Fenric is part of the ‘bound monster’ motif of Norse mythology, wherein ancient monsters who were bound or restrained in some way were destined to break free during the time of Ragnarok and wreak havoc.
At first glance, this doesn’t seem to gel with implication by the Doctor that Fenric is an evil spirit that predates the universe or that he once bested Fenric at a game of chess in an ancient desert (what’s a wolf doing playing chess) but there’s something delightful in way the old myths meet hoary clichés of how absolute power looks or speaks. While the two interpretations often feel like two different characters, there’s something appealing in the way myth is manifested in the body of Dr. Judson and how this ancient battle must once again take the form of a game of chess – albeit one with a very human cost.
Then there are the Haemovores who are perhaps the most intriguing monsters of the series since the Mare from Kinda. Their origins are quite diffuse; mixing together elements of Swamp Thing’s ‘American Gothic’ Vampires, H.P Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth, John Carpenter’s The Fog, and the traditional motifs of the Vampire mythology – but, the one key difference is their aversion to faith, not religion. In the best moment of the serial, the Reverend Wainwright finds out that regaining his faith isn’t enough to outweigh damage the war has wrought on his faith in humanity. Even with their convoluted backstory that gilds the lily with the idea that the king of the Haemovores is actually the last representative of the future evolution of the human species, captured by Fenric and sent back to the far past, apparently to build a vampire army, doesn’t detract from their obvious potency.
While The Curse of Fenric couldn’t save the show from being place on hiatus, it’s mixture of intelligent storytelling, character development, atmospheric visuals, evocative scripting, and, let’s not forget, nerve-wracking adventure, certain showed that Doctor Who was still in rude health right up to the end.