Friday, October 18, 2013

A Doctor A Week: Sylvester McCoy: The Curse of Fenric

11 weeks. 11 Doctors. 11 stories. Right up to the fiftieth anniversary, Russel will be reviewing one story a week for each Doctor. He will try and relate each story to a larger picture and how it relates to each period. He will occasionally make fun of them. But he will try and show you what a varied and brilliant history the show has. As well as overcoming his own prejducies about certain periods in the shows history. Each review will have spoilers and will assume a certain level of knowledge about the story in question.

Its de-rigeur among certain Who fans to hate on McCoy. To view him as the silly Doctor, the little man who played the spoons, who had daft adventures and who ultimately killed the franchise. If the evidence was based only on McCoy’s first season, then this would be true. His early stories had some occasional promise but were hampered by cheap budgets and a production team struggling to find a way forward.

This all changed somewhere around Remembrance of the Daleks, a dark and brilliant adventure that saw the Doctor return to Totter’s Lane, where his story began, and face off against the Daleks in 1950’s England. This was adult Who, suddenly. There were explorations of racism and fascism. There were deadly serious scenes and a real sense of death. More importantly, the Daleks could climb stairs (people made a huge fuss of this when it happened in the Ecclestone era, but McCoy got there first!).

And from then on, aside from odd mis-steps such as, say, Silver Nemesis, Doctor Who began to get its groove back. McCoy was allowed to stop clowning around and darken up his appearance. He became more sombre, more removed, more alien. His odd appearance, with those thick eyebrows, became inscrutable.

He became more than just another Time Lord. He was a manipulator. On the side of the angels, but often employing darker tactics. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Curse of Fenric.

Curse of Fenric is the story that scared me most as a child. With the rotting Vampires (more properly called Heamovores) descended from cursed Vikings, its deep themes of faith and corruption, and that eerie soundtrack, it became too much for me and I couldn’t get through the last two episodes. But now it has become one of my favourite Who stories. Beyond the very real and visceral horror aspects, its a layered and gripping four episdes of Who that shows the McCoy era at its finest.

The Doctor has brought his young companion Ace to an army camp in 1944, where Doctor Judson - who lost the use of his legs several years ago - is working on a code-breaking machine that will make Enigma seem like a child’s toy. But the base commander - the strained-looking, almost-certainly-mad Commander Millington - has other plans for the machine. He is looking to create a trap for Britain’s Russian allies by having them steal the machine and decode one message that will cause the machine to unleash a deadly toxin. A toxin that is peculiar to the area near the army camp. A toxin that is decidedly not natural.

Add into this the sudden resurrection of long dead vikings (now blood sucking heamovores), a Russian platoon tasked with stealing the code machine and an ancient evil named Fenric who may have met the Doctor once before, and you could have an overcomplicated mess. Luckily, the script, for the most part, zooms along nicely, and the period setting really does the story justice.

The Doctor is the darkest he’s ever been, manipulating his companion to insane degrees, utilising her own fears and doubts to his own ends. The affection and Ace have for each other has never been clearer, but this is a Doctor who knows the bigger picture, and who has to difficult moral choices. The McCoy of only a few years ago would never have been up to the task. But having settled into the role, he really does sell the part convincingly. No one is sure which side he’ll jump to or what his gameplan is.

The cast is mostly admirable, with the exception of smaller parts (the squaddie Ace seduces with her ludicrous monologue is terrible, a throwback to the UNIT extras of the Pertwee years) and the evacuees, Phyllis and Jean are either terrible or passable depending on how generous you’re feeling. But the real surprise is Nicholas Parsons as a morally conflicted reverend, who has lost his faith in the midst of war. He can’t reconcile his idea of God with the idea of children being killed by British bombs, and of course, this is his downfall in the end. He wants to have faith but has been looking in all the wrong places.

The scripting is excellent, although some of the dialogue does feel wooden despite the gamest efforts of the cast. This is typical of the later era of Who, when the attempt to find depth in dialogue resulted in words that never quite felt natural; there was a stageyness to the era that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t (Ace’s watch speech is beautiful but never feels quite right coming from her). But in the grand scheme of things, Fenric is cracking telly and while the script sometimes tries too hard, you have to applaud its ambition and the fact that it lives up to it so often.

I still think its a shame that the first era of Who ended right when it was finding its feet again. The show was raring up for the nineties, and while there is an odd finality to McCoy’s speech at the end of Survival, I think it survived everyone when this now very grown up series came to an unexpected end.


- When Ace’s Nitro Nine blows a hole in the crypt wall, the hole is perfectly door shaped. A rather unforgiveable blunder on the part of the design team...

- There’s real horror in Nicholas Parsons death. Nothing is shown on screen, but when the Heamovore’s break down his faith, there’s a sense of horror that pervades the scene. I remember this as the moment I was unable to continue watching as a child.

- Why are Phyllis and Jean the leaders of the Heamovores? Chronologically speaking they are the youngest after all. Maybe its because they speak the language of the times. Or maybe no one really thought about it.

- The music is very effective in this episode. A score of creeping dread.

- As much fun as he is as a villian, Millington is something of an enigma. I think he’s supposed to be morally confused, but mostly he’s just as a mass of unexplained contradictions.

- The chess motif is excellent, underpinning all the logic games going on in this story.

- When the Doctor finds the thing in which he has faith, he murmurs the names of all those who have travelled in the TARDIS with him. Including Adric. Oh dear, Doc. I know he died, but even you have to admit the smartarse maths genius was one of the most annoying people you ever met.

- The Judson/Nurse Crane dynamic is brilliant. Especially the reversal when Fenric takes over Judson’s body. His relish at gaining revenge on Crane shows us something of Judson inside Fenric.

- “from now on, everything in English” - - after all, the viewers can’t be arsed with all these subtitles.

- Its slightly sad how my memories of the underwater heamovores are undermined by the fact that the glimpse of their hands is clearly someone wearing a badly fitting prosthetic. Ahhh, well.

- And to add all the themes and symbolism everywhere, there are great whacking references to Dracula, too.

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