Doctor Who #697: The Curse of Fenric Part 1

"In the future there'll be many more computing machines, thinking machines." "Yes, but whose thoughts will they think?"
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD. First aired Oct.25 1989. Though Ghost Light was broadcast before this story, I've chosen to restore the writers' intended episode order.

IN THIS ONE... A top secret WWII naval camp. Russian spies. A church built on a Viking graveyard.

REVIEW: Underwater photography? Foreign languages and subtitles? Ace in period dress? We're watching something special here! Even World War II is a novelty for the program (strange as it is to believe today). The war is only used obliquely, of course, the story being set at a secret code-breaking base. The antagonists aren't Nazis, but a mysterious Russian complement with its own agenda. And the Whovian plot is all about a Viking curse that followed Norsemen to this settlement in the 9th century and may awaken at any time. Throw in a conspicuous chess board, and the table is set for the Doctor showing up not so accidentally. There's a joke in the episode about how easy it is to stroll into this military base, ironic editing showing us Russians arriving at the same time as the Doctor and Ace, but how the Doctor gets himself full access is THIS close to psychic paper, just so much more wonderful. He grabs stationary, starts typing and forges signatures with both hands just in time to prove his "credentials" even as Ace dazzles cryptographer Professor Judson with her futuristic education. It's a great bit. They then go on to infiltrate themselves into the lives of various characters, both at the base and in the village outside, setting the story up as you'd expect from a Part 1.

But what I find really striking is not only how textured and detailed the location and era are, but how those small details have an impact on the plot. They're not just set dressing. So for example, the London girls are evacuees escaping the blitz and rooming abroad (see the more recent Wardrobe Christmas episode, for a similar arrangement), but they're key to revealing Ace's character. Have you noticed how she immediately befriends every teenage girl she encounters? There's a longing there that will only find some resolution (or explanation) in Survival. Of course, something awful will befall them, and there's then tense moment when a Russian sniper prays they don't come any closer (after their swim, they draw fashionable stockings on their legs and move in his direction), so he doesn't have to shoot them. It humanizes the invaders and prepares us for their eventual alliance with the Doctor.  The vicar Wainwright has doubts about Britain winning the war, and as we'll see, faith is a major force in this story. Millington has recreated a German cypher office, filled with off-putting Nazi regalia, so he can make himself think like the enemy. Given the way Fenric will soon start possessing people, it's notable that Millington has already made his mind pliable, and his anxiety about whose thoughts future computers will think has a double meaning - who will win the war and program these machines, and how much he's a programmable machine himself. A crucial clue to his link to the cursed Vikings who landed on these shores centuries ago is to be found on the tombstone Ace and the Doctor remark on. And then there's Kathleen Dudman, a woman alone with a baby, working at the base, reprimanded for bringing an infant to work. Well, that baby has the same name as Ace's mother, which fills the companion with dread. So again, a period detail that feels very real, but it reveals Ace's background (and of course, writer Ian Briggs created the character) and will become important to the plot.

What else fills Ace with dread? The ocean. She's drawn to it, but refuses to go swimming. Dangerous undercurrents? Perhaps inside Ace herself, but she usually runs headlong into danger. In the context of this story's revelations, it would seem there's more at play here than simple teenage insecurities, and that she's connected to the sea. And the sea is very much a presence in this episode. The camera often finds itself underwater, lingering over a sunken Viking ship, or connected to a thrown piece of "treasure" landing in a sea creature's hand. It's spooky stuff, some of it shown under the Doctor's reading of old Viking texts (full props to director Nicholas Mallett for some of these touches). The episode makes us wonder what lurks under the water, but more importantly, what might be hidden under Ace's brave front.

REWATCHABILITY: High - Rich and textured, yet not opaque. A lot of clear and interesting characters, a sense of foreboding, and a few fun bits as well as Ace's three-story arc begins.



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