Doctor Who: The Curse of Fenric Review

James Gray reviews the Seventh Doctor release for the 40th Anniversary. Coming in two versions, one a specially re-edited movie version with 12 minutes of extra footage, new effects and remixed 5.1 Surround Sound, this is one of the most impressive disks for the series so far.

The Curse of Fenric absolutely terrified me when it was first on. I was at just the right age to see it – old enough to know what vampires were and what they could do to you, but not yet old or cynical enough to see the latex and occasional dodgy effect that might break the illusion. To this day it is the only Who story to actually scare me, and as such holds a special place in my affections. For this reason I was immensely pleased when it was announced that it would be the story chosen to represent Sylvester McCoy’s tenure as the Doctor in the fortieth anniversary year. I hadn’t actually seen it for some years, my VHS copy having long since died a death, and so was both anxious and apprehensive to see if its power had waned at all in the intervening years.

Fenric is “an ancient evil from the dawn of time” whom the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) fought and defeated some seventeen centuries before the story starts, trapping him genie-like in an oriental flask. By the early 1940s, as the Allies and Third Reich wage war against each other on mainland Europe, the flask has found its way to the catacombs of an old Viking fortress that is now used as the local church. The vicar there, Wainwright, is one of the “wolves of Fenric”, who is manipulated into helping secure the entity’s release. Other wolves include Doctor Judson (Dinsdale Lansden), a scientist stationed at a nearby Army Base who has invented the Ultima machine which can decode any German ciphers, the base’s commander Millington (Alfred Lynch), and Sorin (Tomek Bork), a Russian Army Captain who has been sent to steal the Ultima Machine for the Communists to use post-War. Unbeknownst to her, Ace (Sophie Aldred), the Doctor’s companion, is also a wolf, destined to play a crucial part in the final battle between good and evil that the Doctor has decided it is time for. To help him, Fenric has vampiric haemovores, the creatures that mankind will evolve into half a million years into the future, while the Doctor… well, the Doctor has a chess set.

It’s an intricate tale from Ian Briggs that reflects producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Andrew Cartmel’s desire to push the series into a new, more sophisticated area of storytelling. Innovation was the watchword during this era of the programme, and nowhere can it be seen more blatantly in this story than with the depiction of Ace – in fact, it could be argued that this is even more a story about Ace than the Doctor. We see her blossoming from the slightly one-dimensional teenager we’d had up until now into a confident, sexually aware young woman – witness her new found ability to seduce a private while the Doctor has a nose round Millington’s office, and her first serious attachment in the series, to Captain Sorin. This awakening is reflected in the metaphorical usage of the coastal sea, a sea which has hidden dangers lurking beneath its enticing waves – near the beginning of the story the Doctor warns her not to go swimming at the appropriately named “Maiden’s Point”, and will not allow her to swim there until the evil has passed and her eyes are open to the dangers that might lurk within. Witness what happens to Jean and Phyllis (Joann Kenny and Joanne Bell), two London evacuees, who are warned off from there but go anyway, only to be turned into evil soulless creatures.

So it’s a story about maturing and becoming adult. But it can also be read as a retelling of the very Norse legends and myths that are constantly referenced throughout the story, or as a warning at environmental damage, the ground underneath the base literally poisoned by the lethal toxin of Fenric. Another vital theme in the story is the power of absolute faith, as Sorin’s belief in the Revolution and the Doctor’s in his companions is able to deflect the vampires whereas the Reverend Wainwright’s in people and his God, shattered by the images of the Allied bombing raids on innocent Germans, cannot. The villain is, in fact, ultimately defeated only when the Doctor breaks his companion’s belief in him, a spine tingling scene where he refers to her as a hanger on and an emotional cripple. Single-minded faith, the story seems to be saying, can be both a blessing and a curse. On the other hand, of course, it could just be a Doctor Who story about fighting off evil monsters, which is what I thought it was when I first watched it some fourteen years ago.

Thankfully, the cast and crew rose to the challenge of the script and all give superlative performances. Special mention should be given to Sophie Aldred who is finally given something substantial to sink her teeth into (no pun intended) as Ace, and Nicholas Parsons, who gives a completely straight and rather moving portrayal as the vicar who is beginning to realise the faith on which the foundation of his life is built is crumbling, mirrored in the subsidence that his church is slowly succumbing to. Producer Nathan-Turner was often criticised for casting “light entertainers” in roles on the show, but here it pays off completely. Direction, too, by the late Nicholas Mallett, is beautiful, and the benefits of shooting completely on location can be easily seen, the army base and church crypts having an authenticity that otherwise would have been near impossible to achieve. It is perhaps this realism that makes the story so unnerving – you cannot be comforted by the fact that these aren’t really church catacombs, and that it’s all made of cardboard – this is the real stuff and you’d better get out of there while you still can.

The production is not completely flawless. There are a couple of scenes, like the Ace seduction mentioned above, that are slightly silly and it is clear at times that the weather while filming was not as was meant to be in the script (witness the scene where we see it raining but in the background clear blue sky shines away). The Special Edition puts some twelve minutes of missing footage back in which clarifies some of the less obvious plot points – – but it can still be a bit of a head scratcher the first time you watch it.

These are all minor flaws in what is one of the great jewels of late Doctor Who. It is so frustrating to watch it and think what might have been had the series been allowed to continue for another few series. Like Ace in the story, we might have seen the Seventh Doctor’s run progress from its childish beginnings into an era of real maturity and depth. As it stands, it is the last great story from a series that had many greats, and can proudly stand with its head held high against other era’s finest moments. Wonderful.

The Special Edition video overall looks quite nice, but there are still occasional flaws – there’s one very noticeable … of artefacting during a tunnel scene that is quite jarring, especially as it doesn’t match the look of the rest of the time. Overall looks good though.

There are two options – original sound or a new 5.1 mix. I find these mixes where none originally existed a little artificial at times, and this is no different. It sounds good but feels overdone every so often. There is also an isolated score which is nice as the music is another exceptional aspect of the show – even more so considering some of the dreadful other scores at the time.


Special Edition
As mentioned in the main review, the Special Edition version improves on the originally transmitted story in several ways. The most obvious is that the weather situation, which at times on the original had such bad continuity (rain turned to sunshine turned to rain again, often between shots) as to be distracting, has been significantly improved. The Restoration Team have run the entire story through a colour grading scheme, so now when it is meant to be cloudy and grey it looks cloudy and grey , and when it is meant to look sunny and clear it does so – you can still spot discrepancies if you look hard enough but it is much less noticeable. They’ve also digitally added rain in shots that should have had it but didn’t. Other special effects added or amended include a more convincing dissolving of Jean and Phyllis’ bodies, better lightning strikes, and a better look to the scene of the runes being burnt into the stonework. There are other, more subtle changes as well – sinister glows have been added to several props or creatures, and the scene where Ace triggers the gas canister has been touched up to make it less obvious that she and the Doctor should have instantly keeled over and died. Rather disappointingly given that these things are always fun to spot, a couple of bloopers have been edited out as well – two shots of microphones and one of a scuba diver have been airbrushed out, although producer John Nathan-Turner’s dog still makes an unscripted cameo appearance. The only change I was less happy about was the omission of the last two lines of dialogue after Ace comes out of the water – the RT website has a justification for it, but I still think it made a nice bookend to the story. That aside, the Special Edition does look much better, and is by the far the more preferable one to watch now, both from a production point of view and the story making more sense. Occasionally, it feels as if they’ve put in a shot for the sake of it – I could have done without some of the added establishing shots as I didn’t feel they added anything new – but overall it’s been really nicely done.

Modelling the Dead
This is a five minute clip from BSB’s Doctor Who Weekend broadcast back in 1990 consisting of two members of the make up team, Sue Moore and Stephen Mansfield, demonstrating how they made the Haemovore masks. Both they and the presenter sport rather frightening haircuts but it’s vaguely interesting in a nostalgic way.

Claws and Effect
Raw footage shot by the production team as they scouted out the locations for the story and tested some effects. Some interesting stuff here, including a look at a location they were going to use until they actually went to see it, more on the masks, and some of the underwater filming, as well as of course showing what the locations looked like before they were dressed up (surprisingly sparse in the case of the army base). A nice inclusion.

Shattering the Chains
A twenty five minute interview with writer Ian Briggs, where he outlines the major themes and inspirations of the story as well as his opinion on the production. Quite interesting, although you do feel that it would have worked better as part of a commentary track.

Recutting the Runes
A fifteen minute interview with composer Mark Ayres who oversaw the creation of the Special Edition. Again, very interesting, but as with Shattering the Chains you feel it would have worked just as well in a commentary. As it is, I would have liked to have seen some before and after contrasts shots to show the differences in action.

Costume Design
An interview with Ken Trew who, surprise surprise, designed the costumes. This area of production doesn’t really interest me and I found this, even at only seventeen minutes, a bit dull, although his affection for working on the series at the end is touching.

Nebula 90
Edited highlights of a Q&A panel from a convention in 1990 conducted by Gary Russell. You probably had to be there but from the removed distance of viewing it on DVD some thirteen years later it seems a little flat and lifeless. There are a couple of minutes of humour but otherwise this is a bit turgid and generally repeats facts that have been covered elsewhere on the disk (only two members on the panel – actors Tomek Bork and Joann Kenny – do not appear otherwise on the disk, and everyone else talks more in depth about their contribution than here.) The major pity is that director Nicholas Mallett was not on the panel, as he’s one of the two main contributors to the story (the other being, naturally, JNT) who sadly was unable to contribute to the DVD. Again, nice to have for completeness but it doesn’t make me wish I’d been there.

Take Two
Five minutes extract from a children’s show presented by Philip Schofield from the late 80s, featuring the making of “The Wolves of Fenric”. Presents nothing new that doesn’t appear elsewhere, but has a nice scene of the production team making plans.

Photo Gallery
I find photo galleries rather dull for the most part but this has some nice behind-the-camera shots. More for reference than to sit down and watch, though.

Audio Commentary
This is with Sylvestor McCoy, Sophie Aldred and Nicholas Parsons, and consists almost entirely of Parsons explaining the unique appeal of Doctor Who, despite blatantly not having a clue what it is. He starts as he means to go on by asking what time frame Fenric is set in, continues by pointing out that the story makes no sense but that’s what “the fans” like and what makes it all so wonderful, and ends up by asking the other two, in the fashion of his radio 4 show Just a Minute, if they can describe the appeal of the series. “No,” says the sensible Aldred, who is really the only one who has anything useful to contribute, although even she bangs on about the weather too much. Very entertaining, but not for the right reasons.

Text Commentary
At the beginning of episode three it has a short notice about the naming of various Haemovores with an invitation to see if you can spot them.

Easter Eggs
There are two included, one on each disk, the first being more of Mark Ayres talking about the musical changes, in a similar vein to Recutting the Runes and the second being the continuity announcements from when the show was first broadcast, which are nice to have.

Recognised as one of the few gems of the last few years of Doctor Who, The Curse of Fenric is a wonderful story that deservedly gets an excellent release. The Special Edition is extremely well done, and while the extras sometimes lack depth they are at least comprehensive, making this one of the best Who releases of the year.

James Gray

Updated: Dec 29, 2003

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