Doctor Who #698: The Curse of Fenric Part 2

"Everybody wants to. Deep down, everybody wants to come into the water."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Nov.1 1989.

IN THIS ONE... The London girls are turned into vampires and the Ultima machine runs wild.

REVIEW: The Curse of Fenric is really playing with expectations. In the A-plot, it reveals a deadly "natural" poison seeping out of the earth, which Millington's men are tapping to make chemical weapons. This is meant to be the classic Whovian "superstition scientifically explained" trope, with the ancient Viking curse having been caused by this phenomenon (but see Theories). And yet, this can't explain why corpses are awakening and the girls from London have been turned into vampires... can it? Or how new Viking runes are manifesting and causing a code-cracking computer to go crazy with Ragnarokian ticker tape. Just when you think you know what's going on, you're thrown for a loop. There's more under the surface, and that's as true of the script's structure as it is of its content. (After all, this will turn out to be the secret origin of Ace, but you just can't tell yet.)

Similarly, there's something quite odd about many characters' behavior, which at first might smack of Briggs going too poetic, or the editing doing away with too much information (some early scenes do seem to suffer from this, which is why the extended cut is superior). However, once you know the solution to the puzzle, they start to make sense. Millington wanting to burn all the chess sets or doodling the very treasure that's glowing down in the cellar is quite possibly caused by the same thing responsible for Ace's incredible leap when she sees the Viking inscription as a "logic puzzle" for a reality-altering computer. The characters in this story can apparently tap into the script itself, subconsciously feeling those things below the surface, and working toward goals that are not their own, even instinctively "knowing" information they could not possibly be in possession of. Even the old lady screaming about the girls' damnation (a prophecy), or the vicar's guilt-ridden crisis of faith (somehow sensing what Millington is up to?) could be part of this. The episode explicitly states that human belief is a force in the universe, so perhaps belief in Fenric, an ancient god, is warping reality.

Wainwright's crisis of faith is in fact very important to the story's themes. He's an interesting character, a man of the cloth who questions things, just like the Doctor does, but unlike the Doctor, he's a man who can't handle the answers. He lost his faith when the bombs started falling, but wasn't motivated by despair. The twist is that it's the BRITISH bombs killing innocent German civilians that is torturing him. He's motivated by national guilt. And this is crucial, because Millington and Judson are planning to use the chemical weapons drawn from under his village to poison the Russians who would steal the Ultima machine. It's a premeditated genocidal act against the next enemy power block once the Germans have been defeated. And suddenly, you don't know who to root for. The vamps saying that everyone wants to come into the water (where people get turned into monsters) also plays with this idea. To defend one's country, are we ready to commit atrocities against another? Evil is so very close to good at times, you might cross the line without noticing it. In Doctor Who, it means Fenric corrupts you. In the real world, you can't fob off responsibility so easily.

THEORIES: Toxic green slime in the bowels of the Earth? This sounds just like Inferno. In that story, the slime mutates people and turns them into green-skinned werewolves (Primords). In THIS story, it has a link to Fenric and his Wolves. Coincidence? Or was Inferno one particular attempt at bringing about the Apocalypse? It worked on a parallel world, just not on our own. But since Inferno happened in 70s, so Fenric was defended 25-30 years later, right? Well, maybe Primords are what happens when that slime affects people without Fenric in play, an echo of him, perhaps even an attempt at a rebirth. But then you start wondering if there really was a Doctor in the parallel world (there didn't seem to be) to destroy THEIR version of Fenric, or if the end of that world was assured by his still living. No wait, who trapped him in the flask in the first place if there was no Doctor? Maybe I shouldn't have opened that can of worms...

Strong themes are coming to the surface and WWII isn't used as window dressing. This is turning out to be one of Doctor Who's most mature stories and complex stories.


snell said...

You mention the editing possibly "doing away with too much information." My only criticism of the story--and it applies to the season as a whole--was the show's adoption of a quick-cut, hyperactive editing style, which made many, may scenes feel truncated.

The apparent need to cut away as quickly as possible after a character's final sentence in scene after scene left little time for the audience to absorb the information they'd just been given, and robbed us of actors' nuances such as reaction shots.

There's a time and place for such hurley-burley. But Season 26 surely overdid it--it's as if someone behind the camera had a stopwatch and a time limit for every scene, and everything had to end with an exclamation point, with no room for periods, or commas, or ellipses...

Siskoid said...

It may have been a function of scripts running long, and a particular weakness on Cartmell's part, indulging his writers and not wanting to cut any of the stuff he thought was brilliant.

When the director came to cutting the show together, a lot of lines and breaths were sacrificed for time (the Cartmell seasons have lots of deleted scenes and lines on their DVDs; obviously, the show was also being shot differently, with editing possible, which wasn't the case for the done-as-plays episodes of earlier eras).


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