Curse of Fenric
By Fiona Moore and Alan Stevens
Originally published in TARDIS, November 2003
"The Curse of Fenric" was one of the last Doctor Who stories to be shown, and, coming as it does after the disasters of the previous few seasons, is a welcome return to the intelligent, accessible science-fiction which characterises the show at its absolute best. Additionally, however, the story was shown in 1989, at a time when environmental and sexual concerns were very much in the forefront of people's minds, the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, and when enough time had passed since World War II that it was possible to do a story exploring its moral elements without being considered too controversial or even offending viewers. While it is debatable whether "The Curse of Fenric" heralded, as some claim, a never-realised era of brilliance for the series, it has to be said that it is a well-produced story which taps into the zeitgeist of the time while also drawing on classic themes and ideas.
As well as the impeccable casting, the production of the serial is generally excellent. Admittedly, costuming and effects are easier to do on a story set in the 1940s than in the far future, but even taking this into account, one has to admit that the team have worked miracles with the available budget. The direction is also clever, almost film-like in its use of tracking shots and underwater footage. Even the errors pointed out by the pickier commentators do not distract from the story at all: Sorin's "From now on, only in English" line is quickly forgotten; the fact that the beach patrol were intended to be poorly-trained Home Guard rather than Royal Marines (a fact restored, to the story's advantage, in the book) is not one which will cause problems for the casual viewer; the lack of recent Russian corpses among the Haemovores (a controversial decision taken at a late date) is justified by the fact that this would cause confusion to the viewer, who might mistake them for surviving members of Sorin's patrol. The much-maligned Super Ted (which, according to the DVD, was actually a 1940s knitted toy with a coincidental colour scheme) is seen only for a second, and is unlikely to cause problems for non-English and present-day audiences. Consequently, the hardest-to-please critic has to admit that "Fenric"'s production is virtually flawless, even before one considers the powerful literary and filmic heritage upon which it draws.
One of the most powerful aspects of "Fenric" is the way in which it draws upon classics of horror and surrealist film to build a clever yet frightening scenario. Obvious antecedents include John Carpenter's The Fog (in which a group of undead pirates emerge from the eponymous fog in search of a lost treasure), Marlowe and others' Faust (particularly regarding the way in which Millington and Judson ultimately get what they want but not in the way in which they want it from their deal with the "devil"), the 1970s ATV series Timeslip (whose first serial involved two children travelling back in time to a top-secret naval research base in the 1940s, just as it is infiltrated by a team of Germans bent on discovering a secret weapon), Michael Mann's The Keep (featuring a wheelchair-bound professor, brought in to transcribe an archaic inscription, who attempts to unleash a supernatural force against the Nazis) and Bergman's The Seventh Seal (with its supernatural chess game, apocalyptic imagery, and theme of war or natural disaster as a force for change, good or evil). All of the elements are, however, combined to make up a new whole, rather than being dragged in gratuitously to show how clever the writer is. WWII and Cold War films are also referenced; however, the story plays with the clichés of both genres, doing a WWII film with no Germans and a Cold War film set before the Cold War takes place. Rather than beating the viewer over the head with its filmic origins, then, "Fenric" uses these to enhance and develop the story as it stands.
A more obvious antecedent for "Fenric" is the novel Dracula, as well as (to a lesser degree) the numerous films, television programmes and so forth based on it. Dracula is directly referenced in the script, and the appearance of the two vampiric evacuee girls also recalls events from the earlier story. The sexual elements of the legend are further present; although the line "Maiden's Point? Well, that lets me and Jean out for a start," was cut from the final broadcast version, it is plain to anyone over the age of twelve what girls who go to Maiden's Point have in mind, and why an old maid might find the idea upsetting. Although the scene in which Sorin's men kill Haemovores using wooden stakes was also removed due to nervousness on the part of producer John Nathan-Turner, the stakes are quite clearly visible in their rucksacks beforehand, reinforcing the vampire-film parallel in viewers' minds. Where Fenric transcends the genre, however, is not only through providing a plausible science-fiction explanation for vampire legends, but through updating the myth for the 1980s by introducing themes of evolution and environmental degradation.
"Fenric" also, interestingly, references earlier stories within Doctor Who itself. Most obviously, we have several connections to "Image of the Fendahl", with regard to the idea of latent evil in otherwise-good people, the presence of an ancient unstoppable power which manipulates people without them realising it, a series of mysterious deaths, and the mingling of science-fiction and fantasy elements in the way in which the menace is ultimately defeated. There are visual references to "The Sea Devils" and "Full Circle" in the scenes in which the Haemovores emerge from the sea. "Fenric" outdoes both of these, however, by evoking the zombie story as well; the emerging creatures, thanks to some clever work by the makeup and costume departments, are visibly former humans, and the scene in which a male and female Haemovore loom over the grave of Joseph and Florence Sundvig (suggesting that these may, in fact, be who they are), is very much in this genre.
What sets "Fenric" apart from the average Doctor Who story, however, is the fact that it is not simply a pastiche of classic films and legends, nor an overly self-referential near-remake of an earlier production team's serial. Instead, "Fenric" takes elements from the older stories and creates something totally new, in a way which can only be described as postmodern.
"The Curse of Fenric" sees Doctor Who building on the earlier and (in some cases) clumsier attempts of such stories as "Dragonfire" and "The Happiness Patrol" to produce a story which incorporates postmodern elements without highlighting these. The characters display a postmodern self-awareness: "Don't interrupt me when I'm eulogising," says Fenric, and later on he refers back to the events of earlier Sylvester McCoy stories as well as to unseen contests with the Doctor. Visual conventions are cheerfully broken, always with the aim of drawing the viewer's attention to something else rather than simply for convenience's sake; Millington's moustache, normally unthinkable for a naval officer, highlights his resemblance to Hitler and also alerts the viewer to the general level of strangeness around the base. Reverend Wainwright quotes a translation of the Bible which will not be made until long after the war- but it is a translation more appropriate to the story's themes than the King James Version. The presence of signs warning against the undertow and directing visitors to Maiden's Point- unlikely sights in wartime (although admittedly justified by being part of the trap set for the Russians)- are there to signpost, as it were, events within the story for the viewer, as witness Ace's joke about "dangerous undercurrents" at the story's close. Finally, even the character of Fenric itself is postmodern: when the Doctor asserts that Fenric is not the "evil since the dawn of time" in and of itself, but simply "Millington's name for it," he is saying that evil exists, but people have many names for it and ways of conceiving of it. This statement, an unusually clever one in a series which often resorts to the cliché of suggesting that "evil" is a known entity which can be physically defeated, highlights the way in which "Fenric" uses postmodern elements without patronising or alienating the viewer.
The theme of evolution in the story is also dealt with in a similar way. The idea of the Haemovores is predicated on the postmodern idea of non-linear evolution; there is no progress here, but simply adaptation to a changing environment. Similarly, for the soldiers at the base, winning the war against Germany does not mean the triumph of superior British might, but the instigation of a new and different war against the Russians. Fenric, however, thinks continually in terms of linear progress. He remarks, upon meeting his vampiric allies for the first time, that he was "expecting something more, well, Aryan", for instance, and he berates Ingiga, the Ancient One, asking if s/he (the gender of the creature remains ambiguous to the end) is "the best evolution has to offer," suggesting that by coming from the future, s/he should be better than the present-day humans or else is a failure. The theme of evolution is thus dealt with in an unusually clever way, eschewing the simple idea of progress for the postmodern idea of adaptation to events.
The portrayal of Commander Millington is also interesting in this regard. Throughout the story, Millington, more than anyone else, comes across as a fictional character. When we initially see him, he is sitting frozen in front of a photograph and map of Maiden's Point (right after Ace and the evacuee girls make reference to it). When he moves, it is as if he has been activated, like a character waiting for his cue. The room in which we see him is a representation, as it were, of the character's psyche; he himself explains the unusual décor by saying that "you have to get inside the Nazi mind," and the fact that it is based on the Nazi naval cipher room in Berlin can be taken as a play on the character himself being a cipher, an agent of Fenric rather than a person in his own right. It also references Nietzsche's statement that if you stare into the abyss, it stares into you; by attempting to get inside the Nazi mindset, Millington has adopted it. The two personal items in the room, significantly, are a picture of Millington and Judson at school together before Judson's accident, and a (later booby-trapped) chess game with Viking, possibly Isle of Lewis-style pieces, highlighting Millington's two main concerns.
Millington's behaviour also is that of a character rather than an individual, with Alfred Lynch's ill health lending Millington a haunted and rather stilted quality. His scripted actions are unusual; he breezes past the Doctor and Ace in the WRNs' room, ignoring them totally even when Ace shouts at him, but suddenly displays concern when Judson mentions their presence. This can be taken as evidence of the military mind at work, as in the example of the two soldiers who ignore the Fenric flask simply because it isn't included in their orders. However, there seems to be more to it in Millington's case, as evidenced by the scene in which he orders the Doctor, Ace and Sorin shot. "Why?" Bates asks, and the Commander responds "Because I order you to!" This again could be taken on one level as the military mind in action; there is no reason needed for obedience other than that it has been ordered. However, Millington himself seems slightly confused by his own action, almost as if he doesn't fully comprehend his reasons for giving the order.
Throughout the story, in fact, there is a sense of the people in it as being characters in a play, pawns in a game, or datasets in a computer programme run by Fenric. The characters frequently perform actions which seem unknowingly to serve Fenric's purpose, like Millington's crippling of the base or Ace's finding of the flask. Throughout the story, the "wolves" of Fenric are working to solve his problem: Ace and Judson come up with the answer to the runic puzzle thinking that they are solving a mathematical problem; the solution to the chess game is worked out by Ace using the observations of two men who are very likely also wolves of Fenric. Crane and Judson allow the Doctor to remain on the base, knowing his credentials to be forged, because it fits with their own agendas; in doing so, however, they also further Fenric's own plans for release.
The way in which to foil this scheme, significantly, is by refusing to participate. Millington orders the destruction of two of Fenric's wolves, Ace and Sorin, directly after Fenric manifests himself and the full horror of his and Judson's Faustian bargain becomes apparent: Judson walks again, but as a dead man possessed by an evil spirit. Ingiga ultimately destroys Fenric's scheme by refusing to participate and committing suicide, like a corrupted computer programme or a character in a play developing self-awareness and leaving the stage. It is significant that the only way to solve the Doctor's chess problem is for the black and white pawns to throw off the constraints under which they operate and perform what is normally an illegal move. This solution provides both the way for Fenric to free himself and the way in which he will be defeated; furthermore, although the wolves are working to find the solution, the Doctor already knows it and has implemented it by restoring Ingiga to self-awareness.
As well as playing clever, postmodern games with the script, then, Briggs has also set up a complex scenario with the characters and their motivations for action. Furthermore, the fact that this scenario has characters doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, and vice versa, gives the story unusual moral depth.
Themes of good and evil, and of moral choice, are visible throughout "The Curse of Fenric". The symbolism of Millington killing a cage full of white doves in the experimental chamber is plain, as is the fact that the codeword by which the Russians will seal their own doom is "love"- the word which Wainwright, significantly, cannot speak. Millington's justification for his own actions is the one frequently used to defend the destruction of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki- that it will bring about an end to the war- and the Doctor's horror at this raises the question of whether wholesale killing of this sort is ever justified. Elsewhere, Millington explains his effective murder of two Russian soldiers by referring back to a time when he had to sacrifice two crewmen to save a ship; in this case, however, he could have saved the Russians without undue loss, and is therefore using a past moral dilemma to justify his horrific- inhuman, as Ace correctly notes- actions in the present.
This theme is also echoed in the relationship between Millington and Judson. It is implied in the story that Millington was in some way responsible for Judson's disability, and the character is at least partly motivated to seek a Faustian bargain with Fenric by his sense of guilt over Judson's injury. However, one has to ask whether the reason for action justifies the unleashing of a destructive force- or whether Millington's feelings are really all that noble, as Judson seems to be playing on Millington's sense of guilt to achieve his own ends.
This moral dilemma is one which looks back at an earlier story from the McCoy era, "Remembrance of the Daleks". In this adventure, the Doctor has effectively the same choice as Millington: to shorten or indeed end a conflict by initiating mass murder. However, while in "Remembrance" the Doctor takes the reprehensible step of condoning and indeed bringing about multiple genocide, in "Fenric" the Doctor is horrified by Millington's proposal. In a way, then, "Fenric" is a rebuttal to, and rethinking of, the Doctor's actions in "Remembrance".
Ian Briggs drives the anti-genocide point home by further stressing that good and evil do not follow national boundaries. It is not the German bombing of London which has caused Reverend Wainwright to lose his faith, but the British bombing of German civilians. In the tracking shot which introduces Millington, it is at first unclear whether Millington is a Nazi or a British officer. Even after his uniform is revealed, his moustache and stiff movements continue to blur the distinction between him and the Nazis. The Russians, attempting to steal the Ultima machine, and the British, who intend to wipe out Moscow, are theoretically fighting on the same side. Finally, the theme reaches its culmination in the scenes in which Russian and British soldiers join forces to fight a common enemy, Millington, who is British (with echoes of the Marxist ideal of the international proletariat rising up collectively against the elite); the black and white pawns can only succeed by putting aside their differences and working together.
This can also be seen in the role reversal that takes place between Wainwright and Sorin. We not only have a vicar who has lost his faith, but a "godless" Communist's belief in the revolution allows him to survive where the vicar perishes. This action is even more controversial in a story from the late eighties than it would have been if made at the height of Communist power, because in this case Sorin is embracing what by then would be known to be a lost political cause (and which today, with the horrors of the Stalinist era coming increasingly to light, is even more controversial and poignant). The aim of this exercise is to demonstrate the power of belief; what exactly one believes in is not important (note that, over the story, we see several different foci for belief including one person, several people, a political ideology and a religion), but belief itself is what saves or damns the characters. Jean and Phillis become Haemvores at least partly because they believe themselves to be bad; Wainwright's confrontation with them later is effectively a test of his own faith, of whether he will drive them off or die in the attempt. Belief can thus be a force for good or for ill, but ultimately the lack of it is destructive.
Finally, we come to the most complicated subplot of the story: the relationship between Ace and baby Audrey, who will grow up to become the mother Ace hates. Ace is torn between her love for the baby and her hatred for the adult which the baby will become (although, when faced with imminent death, it is her mother that Ace cries out for). This is paralleled in Wainwright's struggle to regain his faith. He speaks of how as a child the church had a special quality which he cannot now find in it, and recites St Paul's words beginning "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child." Significantly, however, the vicar firstly uses this quotation to dismiss his earlier faith as a "childish thing" to be put away rather than rediscovered, and secondly, having lost the ability to forgive, he cannot acknowledge St Paul's ultimate message: that the greatest thing of all is love. Elsewhere in the story, Ace explores other sorts of love- in the scene, for instance, which still possesses erotic undertones despite the stern application of JNT's anti-sex mandate, where Ace flirts heavily with the guard. The scene in which Ace's 1980s ideas about love and marriage inadvertently offend Kathleen also carries within it an exploration of the possibilities of human relationships. Ultimately, Ace has to accept (as Wainwright fails to do) that it is possible to love and to hate at the same time, and that love and forgiveness are ultimately greater than hatred. Much as many people find themselves working through their issues about their own parents through raising children, Ace learns to love her mother through loving a baby. The path to fulfilment, therefore, is to love, and to love across boundaries and despite the failures of individuals.
There have been many claims made regarding stories from the McCoy era which prove, on closer inspection, to be bogus or the result of overrationalisation. "The Happiness Patrol" is not about the celebration of gay pride, but rather a satire on the appropriation of gay and leftist imagery by right-wing establishments; "Remembrance of the Daleks" is a repudiation rather than an affirmation of the moral themes of Doctor Who. However, for "The Curse of Fenric", all subsequent claims for moral, political and postmodern themes stand up to inspection. "The Curse of Fenric" is a story truly worthy of critical adulation.
Image effects by Fiona Moore