The TARDIS materalises at a secret naval base off the coast of Northumberland during the Second World War. Dr Judson, a scientist there, has created the Ultima Machine, an early computer designed to break German codes. But Judson also has a much more sinister use for the machine. He plans to translate the ancient runes in a crypt of the nearby St Jude’s Church, which will release Fenric, an evil entity from the dawn of time whom the Doctor trapped seventeen centuries earlier.
As Fenric’s Haemovores attack, the Doctor must once again face the entity in a battle which will reveal devastating truths for Ace…
The Curse of Fenric is widely held up to be one of the best examples of late 80s Doctor Who, and to an extent I do agree with that opinion. It is a good story, which attempts to tie up the loose ends left from some other Seventh Doctor stories, and also shows this Doctor at his most manipulative. It’s also a chance for the companion to take centre stage, with Ace’s plot perhaps being a sign of things to come in the revived series, with the focus being more on the companion.
The story is good, although it does feel quite choppy to begin with. I’m not sure if it’s down to the writing, directing or editing but the story jumps quite suddenly and seemingly at random to different scenes which I found to be quite jarring. It settles down in the latter two parts, which is to the story’s credit. I also found that the story stretched credulity a little when it came to Millington’s office being modelled on an equivalent office in Germany. Otherwise, as he is Ace’s creator, it is unsurprising that this is a strong story for Sophie Aldred’s character, concluding some of the mystery surrounding the Time Storm in her bedroom and her family history. Some of this comes across as more melodramatic than intended, however moments like when Ace’s grandmother Kathleen learns of the death of her grandfather Frank, this is really touching. Moments like this are more familiar to viewers of the revived series, having had companion’s families playing a prominent role in the first four series. Ace’s relationship and conflicted feelings over her mother make her feel more relatable to the audience and the roots of this being a part of the show when it came back can certainly be seen here. Having Fenric be responsible for bringing the Doctor and Ace together, and also being responsible for Lady Peinforte’s knowledge of the Doctor in Silver Nemesis is an interesting way of bringing dangling threads to a satisfactory conclusion. I really like that strong faith in something is able to keep people safe from the Haemovores, and equally that the Doctor’s faith is in his previous companions, which is something the story could make a little bit clearer, but it’s still a nice idea.
One of the story’s other strengths is the location work, with filming taking place at Lulworth Cove in Devon and Hawkhurst in Kent, and like other stories that aren’t studio bound, there are some really memorable scenes. One that particularly stands out it the Haemovores’ attack on the church which makes full use of St Lawrence Church, including the roof and the ringing chamber. This is one of the best directed sequences in the story, giving a real sense of threat and urgency. Combined with the rightly iconic shots of the Haemovores rising out of the Bay, this is probably one of the horrifying and gothic stories since the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era. Equally, there are some really nice close-ups here, potentially best when the Doctor realises that Fenric has possessed Judson rather than Millington at the end of Part 4, but equally, the close-up on Millington’s face when he realises that his actions have prevented the base being able to call for reinforcements are impactful.
We play the contest again, Time Lord.Fenric (via the possessed Dr Judson)
The guest cast here are largely good. Nicholas Parsons is one of the real stand-outs here, as on the surface he would appear to be yet another example of producer John Nathan-Turner’s stunt casting, like casting Beryl Reid as a spaceship captain in Earthshock. What the late Parsons manages to do is give this character a genuine sense of nuance and realism to a vicar who has begun to doubt his faith due to the deaths of innocent people caused by the British bombing raids on German cities. Of course, in a story where strength of faith is all that can keep the characters safe from the Haemovores, Reverend Wainwright’s card was always going to be marked, but Parsons makes us care about his character that his death makes an impact. Equally Dinsdale Landen is good as the disabled scientist Judson, and even better when he is possessed by Fenric, and the same can be said for Tomek Bork, even if his time as Fenric is relatively limited. Two performances that really don’t work are those of Joann Kenny and Joanne Bell as Jean and Phyllis, two young evacuees to the countryside from London. It may be partially because the story doesn’t do them any real favours – like the fact that they immediately seem to strike a friendship up with Ace from nothing – but they are pretty irritating and their London accents are excruciating, making it a relief when they are turned to Haemovores relatively early on.
And the half-time score: Perivale 600 million, rest of the universe: nilAce
With the focus being firmly on her character, Sophie Aldred puts in a great performance as Ace. As mentioned above, some of the storyline is a bit melodramatic but Aldred largely accredits herself well, with perhaps the exception of the flirting with Sorin’s guard, but I think that might be more to do with the writing. I really liked how proud she was of being able to solve the inscriptions before the Doctor tells her that this will create more problems and that she finally calls the Doctor out about keeping secrets from her about things that might be important. The final confrontation scene with Fenric is really powerful as we realise how much Ace trusts the Doctor, despite his scheming and manipulation, and we see the Doctor take full advantage of this and, to an extent, destroy it, labelling her, amongst other things a social misfit. Sylvester McCoy takes more of a backseat here to his companion, but is utterly convincing as the Machiavellian schemer. On the lighter side, I love the way Ace and the Doctor manage to blag their way onto the base, criticising the guards for being tardy and the Doctor typing up letters of authority.
Verdict: A strong story, falling as the penultimate entry in the ‘Classic’ series, The Curse of Fenric demonstrates Doctor Who as a show potentially regaining its confidence. There are some good (and not so good) guest performances here and there are still problems, but it is a good story. 8/10
Cast: Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace), Dinsdale Landen (Dr. Judson), Alfred Lynch (Commander Millington), Stevan Rimkus (Captain Bates), Marcus Hutton (Sgt Leigh), Christien Anholt (Perkins), Tomek Bork (Captain Sorin), Peter Czajkowski (Sgt Prozorov), Marek Anton (Vershinin), Mark Conrad (Petrossian), Nicholas Parsons (Reverend Wainwright), Janet Henfrey (Miss Hardaker), Joann Kenny (Jean), Joanne Bell (Phyllis), Anne Reid (Nurse Crane), Cory Pulman (Kathleen Dudman), Aaron Hanley (Baby Audrey) & Raymond Trickett (Ancient One).
Writer: Ian Briggs
Director: Nicholas Mallett
Behind the Scenes
- Working titles included The Wolves of Fenric, Wolf-TIme, Powerplay and Black Rain. The title seems to have only been decided on late in the day, as the Radio Times stated in the prgramme listing for Ghost Light that the next story would be The Wolves of Fenric.
- The story was intended to combine studio and location filming, however, Nicholas Mallett eventually persuaded John Nathan-Turner that the story being entirely shot on location would be more effective and realistic.
- Ace mentions an old house in Perivale – this was originally intended to be broadcast before as the season opener but the rearranging of broadcast order means that it refers back. The story was also supposed to be the debut of the Doctor’s darker coat but it made its debut appearance in Battlefield instead.
- The character of Dr Judson was based on Alan Turing and Ian Briggs intended for the back story between Millington and Judson to be that they were former lovers. It was considered an inappropriate plot point for a character to be grappling with his sexuality in a family show, so Briggs changed this to him struggling with being crippled in the finished story. The sexuality subplot, which revealed that Millington crippled Judson during a rugby match in a jealous rage, made the novelisation.
- Dinsdale Landen was originally cast as Ganatus in The Daleks but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts and had been considered to play Lord Henry Palmerdale in Horror of Fang Rock.
- Marcus Hutton went on to appear in the Big Finish Main Range plays The Church and the Crown and The Kingmaker as well as appearing in Bernice Summerfield and Iris Wildthyme stories.
- Marek Anton makes his second appearance in this season, having previously appeared as The Destroyer in Battlefield.
- Janet Henfrey would go on to appear in Mummy on the Orient Express and also appeared in Big Finish plays An Eye For Murder and The Day of the Comet, amongst others.
- Anne Reid would go on to appear in Smith and Jones.
- Future Doctors Christopher Eccleston and Peter Capaldi were considered for the role of Reverend Wainwright.
- Two of the Haemovores are played by Sylvester McCoy’s sons, Sam and Joe Kent-Smith.
The Haemovores rising out of the water is a fantastic scene, and rightly iconic.
Love and hate, frightening feelings, especially when they’re trapped struggling beneath the surface.Seventh Doctor
Previous Seventh Doctor review: Ghost Light
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