Doctor Who #700: The Curse of Fenric Part 4

"Love and hate, frightening feelings, especially when they're trapped struggling beneath the surface. Don't be frightened of the water."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Nov.15 1989.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor's final game with the original Bad Wolf, and Ace creates her own future.

REVIEW: If the above phrases make it sound like I'm talking about New Who, it should! The focus on the companion, a lower-class girl with a greater destiny involving a Wolf. Timey-wimey shenanigans. Yeah, this season cannot be denied as a major inspiration to the BBC Wales series. The companion does the "I believe in the Doctor" shtick RTD and Moffat are so fond of, and Fenric even says the Doctor banished him to the Shadow Dimensions for 17 centuries, which kind of sounds like the Void to me. So Part 4 has tons of revelations and they're uniformly exciting. The time storm that brought Ace to Iceworld was Fenric's doing (he brought the Ancient One back in time the same way), and the Doctor spotted it right away and recruited her as a counter move. Ace, in fact, has the cursed Viking blood, by way of her mother, revealed to be the baby in this story, a baby she sends to her nan. The somewhat remarkable bond Ace has to baby Audrey isn't so much a subconscious mother-daughter link (after all, she hates her mother), but is really the same as the equally odd attraction she and Captain Sorin share - the Wolves of Fenric are somehow drawn together.

These connections are very important to Ace, and looking back, she's always trying to make connections that are important to her. She's the kind of person who falls in love and friendship easily, who wants to believe everyone has good in them, and so reacts strongly when they betray her values or trust. In this story, she bonds with the Jean and Phyllis who are turned into monsters. With baby Audrey, who will become her hated mother. With Captain Sorin, who is possessed by Fenric. Most importantly, it's her relationship with the Doctor that's most tested when he must destroy her trust in him to allow the Ancient One to act (and thanks to a deal struck earlier, he acts to stop Fenric, not help him). Ace's reaction is heartrending. The whole episode is one big massacre, but this is what's most painful. The fear that her adopted father thinks she's a failure, just like her mother presumably does.

So it's not all just big reveals - which can be gimmicks when the characterization isn't there - because thankfully, Ian Briggs takes good care of his creation. When she thinks she's going to be executed, Ace feels the need to apologize to her mother. And by the end, can't resolve her mixed feelings for Audrey. She loves the innocent baby, but still can't bring herself to love her mother, and that hatred she turns inwards. The undercurrents she fears are the evil that is inside her, not just literally through the Fenric curse, but metaphorically, like the evil we're all capable of. Loss of innocence is equated with giving in to evil in the story, and Ace, who has been trying to resist "growing up" all her life, unable to face the evil she has already done and magically running away to a future Oz, is encouraged throughout this story to do so. The girls egg her on to come into the water (the story's symbol for the evil under the surface), she refuses. She almost seduces a soldier, but runs off. At the end of this episode, the Doctor tells her to jump and she does, coming out of it cleansed of her fear, but if we read the symbolism correctly, having merged her evil and good selves to create a more adult, more morally gray, person. And this is a metaphor for the entire series at this point. The Doctor too has grown darker, has given in to an evil streak, but tamed his ruthlessness to good's agenda. This is another strange moment, more poetic than literal, but Doctor Who is moving into a more coded space, open to interpretation, that rewards multiple viewings. The advent of VHS is surely responsible for this shift.

THEORIES: Another timey-wimey bit that deserves a little attention is Fenric's plan and the Ancient One's role in it. Hard to say WHEN the Ancient One becomes the last survivor of a doomed, polluted planet Earth, but it doesn't seem to gibe with any version of the future we've seen. It looks like this is a self-fulfilling future, just like Ace's, in which the Ancient One can only exist if Fenric is successful. Fenric pollutes the Earth's waters in the 1940s leading to a future where the planet is dying from toxic pollution and humanity has evolved into gross Haemovores as a result. Once the Doctor stops Fenric from doing this, the Ancient One's future won't come about, making him the last survivor of a closed-off timeline. Sacrificing his life so it wouldn't come to pass is legitimately heroic.

The DVD includes a movie-length extended cut/special edition that is, frankly, the best way to watch The Curse of Fenric today. If the story in four parts has a flaw, it's that it moves too quickly. The director was forced to cut a lot of lines for time, and the result is too frenetic an edit, as we cut back and forth between scenes to cover the joins. The special edition lets it breathe, restoring those lines, but also reaction shots and lead-ups that better explain how we jumped from one scene to another. The bigger restored morsels include Phyllis and Jean joking about not being maidens and later having more of a good time with Ace, Fenric wondering why his Wolves aren't as Aryan as he thought they'd be (as Viking descendents, though it also links to the Nazi strand of the story), and moments tying Haemovores to the vampire legends of yore (Sorin makes and then uses stakes, the Ancient One's fuller back story includes him time storming to 9th-century Transylvania, etc.). The only bit I don't think we need is a flashback when Ace realizes her mother and the baby are one and the same, a flashback to just a moment ago (and yet the edit also oddly removes lines apparently overdubbed to make things clearer to denser audience members). The special edition also benefits from a couple of effects made to glow more interestingly, a new arrangement for the score, better color grading, and more modern subtitles for the Russian. The Target novelization ends on an epilogue that leaves Ace (now Dorothee, older and reminiscing with the Doctor) in 1880s Paris, a map showing the flask's circuitous route, chapters that follow the Viking settlers and tell the story of Fenric's initial capture, and background on virtually every character, even the puritanical Miss Hardaker.

REWATCHABILITY: High - What an ending! Ace is catered to beautifully, both in terms of SF and characterization.

STORY REWATCHABILITY: High - One of the best Doctor Who stories ever, The Curse of Fenric puts the companion center stage, is redolent with meaning, and crafts a textured, powerful epic. A must.


Madeley said...

This is great, Siskoid, a damn good overview of Ace's (and the show's) development over the story.

Coincidentally, I've just finished reading the Target novelisation myself. To be honest, it's not very good. Ian Briggs hammers home everything that's subtext in his script, unfortunately, and his prose is awful. It's a testament, actually, to the actors, director and script editor that they produced something with so much nuance from a pretty heavy handed source. For example, Millington is shown to be a homicidal madman from his first scene, intending to kill the Doctor and Ace as soon as they show up.

That said, the story of the Doctor's first contest with Fenric is shown in the book as an extract from an Arabian Nights-type fable, and it's fantastic. Plus, in the epilogue with Dorothee, Briggs backpedals on the "before the dawn of time" thing, leaving it a bit more ambiguous what Fenric, and by implication the Doctor, actually are, which I thought was a nice touch.

Siskoid said...

Thanks for the kind words, Madeley!

And that's why the Target novelizations are canon only when we want them to be!

Timothy Brannan said...

This is McCoy's Doctor at his very best and one of the best Doctor arcs ever. Damn. I really need to rewatch this one.

Siskoid said...

And I need to show it to people at public screenings!


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