The Curse of Fenric is so dense it could be analysed like a religious text. The 1989 Doctor Who serial, like its immediate predecessor, Ghost Light, is filled with so many plot elements it feels a bit like a hopeless tangle. Every time I watch it I notice something I completely forgot or didn’t notice the previous time. Can it even be looked at as a cohesive whole? I put in some extra effort this time because, unlike other things this complicated, it never feels muddled or dull.
Ghost Light was originally a four part serial condensed to three which explains why it feels a bit overstuffed at times. But The Curse of Fenric was never intended by writer Ian Briggs to be longer than four parts and, according to the Wikipedia entry, he even shot down the suggestion that it be expanded to include a fifth episode. Personally, I think this story needs at least twelve episodes, if only to allow room for atmosphere to accumulate. In one scene in the church, Ace (Sophie Aldred) spots some water on the floor and Reverend Wainwright explains it always happens when there’s an east wind when it rains. The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) quickly points out it’s not raining and the wind is coming from the wrong direction. This exchange happens so quickly that I’m just figuring out what water Ace is talking about by the time the sea monster vampires burst into the room. It should have built up much more slowly, maybe with the camera slowly panning along the moisture on the ground before revealing the three quickly poring over the records Wainwright’s father kept. Then maybe Ace glances over, says something, and it takes a moment for Wainwright to stir himself out of his focus in order to explain something he instinctively takes as trivial, and so on.
Some shots of Ace gloomily folding her arms and trudging along Maiden’s Point would’ve been nice build-up too. Wainwright points out in a quick aside that this is the same location where Dracula came ashore in Bram Stoker’s novel (which presumably makes the location Whitby). Appropriate, given that it’s a vampire story. Though maybe it has more in common with The Shadow Over Innsmouth.
The vampires have fish and tentacle parts, exemplified by the Ancient One revealed in Part IV, one of the best examples of makeup work in the classic series. I love how his gills move.
Most of the “Haemovores” wear mouldering outfits from different historical eras, implying that they’ve been transforming underwater for centuries. But the Ancient One is actually from the future. I had to watch the Doctor’s confrontation with Ancient One a couple times before what the Doctor was saying really sunk in:
DOCTOR: “Another of Fenric’s games . . . He carries you back in a Time Storm to pollute the Earth’s water with chemicals. To destroy your future.”
At first I thought, that doesn’t make sense because it’s the chemicals that create the Haemovores in the future. Then I realised, the Doctor’s saying Fenric’s meddling leads to humanity evolving into the Haemovores prematurely, thus destroying the Ancient One’s reality as he knows it.
Fenric is a menace from the past, the Haemovores are a menace from the future. This is important thematically for the story’s political components. I haven’t even mentioned the thing is set during World War II at a British base being infiltrated by Soviets. But wait, as Ace continually points out, weren’t the Soviets allies of the British during World War II?
The Soviets are there to steal the Ultima machine, a translator being developed by Doctor Judson (Dinsdale Landen), a character based on Alan Turing. According Wikipedia, Briggs originally intended Judson to be struggling with concealing his homosexuality but shows weren’t permitted to do this directly. So Briggs made Judson disabled, forced to use a wheelchair and be attended by a nurse. I’m not sure that’s a sensible substitution but I like it better as it is because then you have the scene later where Judson, possessed by Fenric, gets revenge on the nurse for treating him like “a child”. I’m not sure what the nurse would’ve been doing if the wheelchair was turned into homosexuality.
The child thing is important, it comes up again and again. Reverend Wainwright preaches the “When I was a child I spake as a child” lines from Corinthians, later revealing that he’s been mulling on the faith he had as a child when his father was vicar. Ace tells the Doctor, “I’m not a child,” before using her feminine wiles to seduce a British guard into walking away from his Soviet prisoner. Then, later, when the Doctor and Ace are about to be executed, he pleads with the gunmen that she’s still just “a child”.
And Ace meets her mother as a baby, directly inverting their relationship and it’s seeing her mother as a child she instinctively adores that causes Ace to question her hatred for her mother (yep, that’s another subplot). The past is the future is he past, just like the Haemovores. We learn Fenric arranged Ace’s meeting with the Doctor, leading to Ace saving her mother in this story—thus Fenric uses Ace to create Ace as he’s using the Haemovores to transform humanity. All of this spells instability, a hard situation for anyone to have faith in.
Wainwright is having a crisis of faith, that’s why he’s thinking back to his childhood, when his faith was solid. Faith is connected to childhood as a period when it’s easier to have faith because a child makes fewer of their own moral judgements, instinctively deferring them to adults. Twice in this serial, Ace accidentally helps the enemy when she solves puzzles the Doctor deliberately avoided solving (not unlike the Doctor did in Tomb of the Cybermen, incidentally). Ace is a misfit, rebelling against her mother and school, but she’s also instinctively looking for leaders she can trust. The Wikipedia entry erroneously mentions her irrational fear of water—whoever wrote the synopsis evidently forgot the Doctor told her not to go into the water when she accompanies two local girls who plead with her to join them for a swim (leading to one of my favourite Ace lines; “Swimming is stupid!”). The girls were told not to go swimming by a harsh authority figure; the girls rebel and become Haemovores. So authority may take the wrong tack but that doesn’t mean authority is wrong.
This is an interesting serial to watch after “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances”. People criticise the 13th Doctor era for being political but in some ways it’s far less political now. Does no-one remember the Ninth Doctor praising Marxism in “The Empty Child”? I used to think Curse of Fenric was pro-Marxist, too, but now I’m not so sure. I think it might be philosophically the opposite of “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances”. Where the Ninth Doctor story follows suit with several other Russell T. Davies era stories in a slightly odd, fervent patriotism, The Curse of Fenric directly questions British moral superiority. The Fourth Doctor had done that in Robot in a funny exchange with the Brigadier but Fenric goes so far as to blur the distinction between the actions of the British and the Nazis.
The commander of the base, Millington (Alfred Lynch) has a whole office dressed up to look like Nazi HQ in order to learn how to think like the enemy. Seems an awfully big effort for such a vague goal and pairs suspiciously with his veneration for Norse mythology (maybe this story really needed to be 20 parts).
There’s a hint that there’s romantic chemistry between Ace and the Soviet Captain Sorin (Tomek Bork). He notices she’s got a Soviet pin on her jacket—of course, in the 80s, rebelling against the culture of Margaret Thatcher, Ace would be drawn like many teens to a superficial Communism. But is this just another sign that she’s a child, looking for an alternative authority to have faith in? Sorin’s faith in the Revolution saves him from the Haemovores while Wainwright’s faith in Christianity proves too weak.
No-one mentions how this stacks up with the Soviet view on religion but everything does look pretty pro-Communist—except, in the climax of the episode, Ace blunders because of her faith in Sorin and then the Doctor has to trick Ace into thinking he doesn’t care about her in order to break down her faith.
Wainwright’s faith is shaken because he’s contemplating British bombs hurting Germans just as we see German bombs hurting British civilians in “The Empty Child”. His lack of faith eventually costs him his life while Sorin’s strong faith leads him to being completely dominated by Fenric (Briggs might’ve thrown in a line or two about how faith in Communism might have allowed Stalin to commit heinous crimes but I suppose it’s not like there’s a lot of space to fill in this serial). Ace’s faith misleads her but the Doctor uses his faith in his companions to shield himself.
So what is Briggs trying to say? Faith is good except when it isn’t? By its nature, faith isn’t something you can shut on and off for strategic purposes. Then there’s the contradiction between the usefulness of collaborative efforts and the usefulness of doing things alone. The British officer and the Soviet soldier learn it’s better to work together but usually when Ace trusts someone it backfires. Meanwhile, nothing would’ve gotten sorted out if the Doctor hadn’t been working entirely on his own secret agenda. One could look at the meddling between the future and the past as a metaphor for propaganda which seeks to rewrite the past to use it as a weapon in the present.
Maybe the point is that the utility and nature of faith represent part of the murky waters of adulthood, thus leading to the end of the serial where the Doctor encourages Ace to go swimming. Or maybe I’ll notice something else the next time I watch this serial.