Timestamp #158: The Curse of Fenric

Doctor Who: The Curse of Fenric
(4 episodes, s26e08-e11, 1989)

 

Barkeep, a round of your deepest franchise mythology, if you please.

Two inflatable dinghies are rowed to shore by a detachment of soldiers. By their uniforms, they look like Soviet soldiers. Between them and the talk of Germans, we must be in the midst of World War II.

Elsewhere, Ace and the Doctor stroll in to a top secret naval facility and are soon captured at gunpoint by the Royal Marines. They talk their way out of the confrontation and continue on, arriving at the office of Dr. Judson. The Doctor ingratiates himself by noticing the Prisoner’s Dilemma on the board, and while Ace distracts him with an understanding of logic puzzles, the Doctor forges two letters from the Prime Minister and the Head of the Secret Service authorizing their presence on the base. They find an empty set of bunks and Ace goes to sleep.

The Soviet soldiers wash ashore but cannot find their sealed orders. Meanwhile, the camera is focused on an underwater dragon statue with a great sense of foreboding, and the Doctor is wary of eyes watching the base from the darkness. A Soviet soldier finds the orders, which contain Judson’s photograph, but he’s soon killed.

As morning dawns, the Doctor and Ace arrive at the local church as Reverend Wainwright finishes his sermon and talks with Miss Hardaker and her two charges. Ace talks to the girls, evacuees from London’s East End, but later joins the Doctor as he and the reverend seek out Judson. Ace notes the lack of security surrounding the church’s silver, but the reverend is unafraid based on the Viking superstitions. Judson is studying Viking inscriptions using the ULTIMA machine. Presumably, such a machine must be similar to the Enigma of our reality. Ace hears a mechanical sound, but the Doctor dismisses it as organ bellows before they leave Judson to his work.

Elsewhere, Base Commander A. H. Millington (surrounded by Nazi paraphernalia!) analyses some super secret documents before staring curiously at a chess board. The last time we saw a chess board was in Silver Nemesis.

The Doctor and Ace spot a headstone in the Viking graveyard that is sinking, and the pair decide to walk at Maiden’s Point, the same place where Ace was to meet her new friends. Miss Hardaker forbids her charges from visiting the site due to local superstition, and the Doctor and Ace find the (previously) sealed orders packet. The Doctor takes them to the base while Ace remains behind with a warning to stay out of the water. The girls arrive anyway and go for a swim, but Ace does not join them. The girls later find a strange treasure on the beach but reject it when it tingles in their hands. As they leave for home, a sniper nearly kills them but holds his fire when they veer away.

The Doctor finds Wainwright in the church and shares his hunch that some of the transcriptions have already been translated. Sure enough, the reverend’s grandfather did translate some of them, but Wainwright regrets it. The inscription speaks of a dragon ship, stolen treasure, and the curse at Maiden’s Point. The Doctor worries about Ace, but that worry recedes when she arrives. They head for Judson’s lab and show him the translation – on the beach, the sniper throws the tingly treasure into the ocean where it is caught by a mysterious hand – then peek in on the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) listening station.

Ace meets a baby named Audrey: She’s in love with the baby, but is turned off by the name since Audrey was her mother’s name too. Millington arrives and orders Kathleen (the baby’s mother) to remove Audrey within 24 hours or be dismissed from the service. The Doctor and an angry Ace leave and stumble into Millington’s office, which is a perfect replica of a Nazi cipher room. The Doctor notes that Judson and Millington were classmates before noticing the chessboard with intrigue.

There’s so much foreshadowing in this section of the episode, but it’s done so well.

Millington discusses the Viking translations with Judson, revealing the “Curse of Fenric” – *ding* – which he believes to be nigh. On the beach, the Doctor and Ace find a piece of treasure, a Soviet corpse, and a whole lot of rifles pointed right at them. The soldiers take the travelers to their commander, Captain Sorin. The Doctor tends to another soldier who touched the treasures and is delirious before leaving. The Soviets ambush a British patrol soon after.

Judson continues to decipher the inscriptions, an act that causes more to spontaneously write themselves on the crypt walls and awaken the corpses in the deep. The Doctor and Ace return to the crypt as Judson reports to Millington and receives orders to use the ULTIMA to work on the walls (despite it being needed for the war effort). The travelers investigate the new inscription, then discover a hidden passage and Millington. The commander shows them a natural source of lethal poison, a chemical weapon that could end the war. The Doctor waxes philosophically about the well of Hvergelmir, a place in Norse mythology where serpents spew their venom over the roots of Yggdrasil. Millington is impressed by the Doctor’s knowledge and offers to show him all the rest of the caverns. The Doctor accompanies Millington, but Ace stays behind with a distraught Wainwright. The reverend is having a crisis of faith.

Millington and the Doctor arrive at ULTIMA, where the commander and Judson reveal that (1) they intend to let the Soviets steal the machine because (2) it is carrying a load of the poison. The Doctor then tours the chemical weapons facility and watches a demonstration where only a few drops kill a cage of doves. To his horror, Millington intends to use the contents of the ULTIMA as a time bomb, set to go off when the Soviets decrypt the word love in a coded message.

In the crypt, a wall shakes loose of its own accord and reveals an urn. The soldiers working there ignore it and seal off the room. On the beach, the girls run into the ocean fully clothed – Miss Hardaker took their bathing suits during a hellfire and brimstone sermon about disobeying her – and are swallowed by a mist.

Nothing good can come of either event.

Millington (mindlessly sketching the mysterious urn) orders the base communications cut off from the outside world – an odd move, to be sure – and that all chess sets are burned. It seems that the latter are quite significant. The Doctor questions the chess set order as the soldiers remove them from the women’s bunkroom, and Kathleen asks the Doctor about his family. The Doctor replies that he doesn’t know, and Kathleen presumes that the war is to blame. She says it must be terrible, and the Doctor apprehensively agrees.

Curiouser and curiouser.

On the beach, the girls emerge as pale creatures with claws who lure a Soviet soldier to his death, then return to Miss Hardaker’s residence and kill her. The Doctor returns to Judson’s lab to find the researcher obsessed by the carvings. The Doctor leaves to talk to the girls as Ace helps Judson unlock the inscription using a logic diagram. The Doctor and Ace find Miss Hardaker’s corpse as the girls move on to Reverend Wainwright, who tries to dissuade the girls (who he believes to be vampires) before the Doctor and Ace interfere. The trio race back to Judson’s lab to stop him from decrypting the inscriptions, but they are too late. The vampire creatures rise from the ocean as Millington revels in his victory. He believes that when the chains of Fenric are shattered all of its power will be his.

He’s a bit verkelmpt when he realizes what he’s done, but I can’t tell if it’s regret or joy.

The Doctor explains that the creatures are Haemovores, mutations from humanity’s far future. Ace rushes off to check on Audrey and Kathleen while the Doctor puts plans into motion. The Doctor, Ace, and Wainwright retreat to the church and research. Ace finds the abandoned urn while Wainwright discovers the descendants of the Viking settlers, linking it to the curse of Fenric making its way through the generations. The Haemovores attack the church, and Ace tries to escape but is cut off. Luckily, the Soviet soldiers come to her aid, but their bullets only slow the creatures instead of killing them. Inside the church, the Doctor is able to drive them off by the power of his faith: He recites the names of his former companions, projecting a psychic power through his his faith in their love for his quest.

Everyone but Sorin retreats to the crypt – the captain needs to tend to his troops – and blow their way into the toxin facility. Ace reveals the urn as she tries to mix up more explosives, but the Doctor recognizes it as the treasure at the source of the curse. They are intercepted by Millington at the end of the tunnel and the commander leaves the Soviet allies for dead, much to the Doctor’s dismay. Millington takes the urn and the research to Judson, then confronts and arrests Sorin when the Soviet captain arrives to negotiate.

Oh, it was joy that overwhelmed Millington earlier. Definitely joy.

Ace returns to Kathleen, consoling the woman when she receives word of her husband’s death. She then confronts the Doctor, understanding that the Doctor knows all of the secrets behind this threat. The Doctor speaks of an ancient evil that has existed since the birth of the universe, one that has gone by many names, but this time it is called Fenric and trapped in the urn. His darkness is on full display here.

The third episode ends in rapid fire: Ace distracts the guards while the Doctor frees Sorin; Wainwright faces off against the girls, but his faith is too shaky and he is killed; and Judson is hit by an energy bolt from the ULTIMA as lightning strikes the dragon ship. The crippled scientist rises on his own legs with a declaration: “We play the contest again, Time Lord.”

The Doctor faced off against this evil before, trapping it in the shadow dimension for seventeen centuries by pulling bones from the desert, carving them into pieces, and posing a challenge that it failed. It teleports away and meets with the Haemovores while Millington has the Doctor and Ace taken before a firing squad. They’re freed by a sudden Soviet assault as Millington revels in the prophecy over a chess board. The Doctor says that he needs a chess set of his own to stop the threat, so he and Ace make their way to the commander’s office. Meanwhile, the girls summon the Ancient One from the depths.

Probably not that Ancient One, but similar in appearance nonetheless.

Ace and the Doctor find the chess set, but it’s rigged with poison gas and explosives. They dive into a bunker as the building explodes (and hits the camera in the process). Luckily, they save the genealogical research, which jogs Ace’s memory: Kathleen has a chess set. As the bullets fly and the Soviets discover the chemical weapons, the travelers make their way to the bunk rooms. The Soviet and British soldiers join forces to stop the chemical threat, and the Doctor secures the chess set and takes it to the chemical weapons bunker while Ace guards Kathleen and Audrey, discussing the spooky house in Perivale.

Fenric has his nurse killed as the remnants of the WRNS detachment are turned into Haemovores. He then orders the Ancient One to deliver the poison into the ocean and kill the rest of the Haemovores. More of the creatures break into the bunkroom, causing Ace and Kathleen to flee to a nearby car. Ace tells Kathleen to take Audrey to 17 Old Terrace in London, home to Ace’s family in this time. Kathleen drives off, offering Ace a photo of Audrey in parting. Ace turns to face the girls, who then melt away.

Body count: A lot.

Fenric finds the Doctor and challenges him to the contest. One move on the chess board will win. In the ULTIMA lab, Millington faces off against the remaining Soviet soldiers and loses, taking a fatal shot. The Doctor confers with the Ancient One, persuading him that Fenric’s plan to poison the ocean will only destroy the Haemovore future. Sorin arrives to kill Judson, but since the captain’s lineage descends from the Vikings, he is touched by the curse. Fenric jumps into Sorin.

Unfortunately, Ace figures out the winning move but doesn’t know that Fenric has taken over Sorin, so she unwittingly shares the solution with the enemy. Fenric wins the game and turns on Ace, revealing that baby Audrey is Ace’s mother, and Ace is touched by the curse. Ace’s faith in the Doctor stops Fenric and the Ancient One, so Fenric gives the Doctor a choice: Surrender or he will kill Ace with the poison gas. The Doctor tells Fenric to kill Ace.

What?

The Doctor reveals that he knew that Fenric was coming back when he saw the chess set in Silver Nemesis. Fenric says it was even before that, all the way back to Dragonfire and the time storm that took Ace from her home, but the Doctor knew even then how important she was. In a twist, the Ancient One takes Fenric to the poison testing chamber and unleashes the gas, forcing the Doctor to run with Ace. As the evil threat goes boom, he apologizes profusely to Ace, explaining that he had to break her faith in order to free the Ancient One and end Fenric’s curse.

Diabolical but clever.

Ace and the Doctor return to the beach where she faces her emotions by jumping into the water. When she emerges, effectively baptized and renewed, her fear and anger are gone. The travelers embrace, their wounds and rift healed, and head off to their next adventure.

 

That was a gorgeous story. It opened a ton of space and let Ace and the Doctor – as well as Sophie Aldred and Sylvester McCoy – spread their wings. It was also tightly crafted and flowed well, expertly employed vampire and religious mythos without being trite, and capitalized on franchise seeds sown since Dragonfire. The body count was high (typical of the era), but if this had been the classic finale, it would have been a good place to end the journey.

 

Rating: 5/5 – “Fantastic!”

 

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Survival

 

The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Timestamp #158: The Curse of Fenric

  1. I absolutely adore this one, and I’m so glad that you love it as well. It helps that it’s written by the writer who introduced Ace and that script editor Andrew Cartmel was keen on arcs, hence the connections between Remembrance, Silver Nemesis, and Ghost Light to this story. What I like about the 7th Doctor stories is that they confront the idea of the Doctor’s darkness – and there’s every reason why a character who’s confronted so much pain and suffering over so much time should have some – but at the end of the day they show that at the end of the day that isn’t who he is. Managing to do that without sounding like an after school special is tricky, and they thread that needle so well.

    I feel like any of the season 26 stories except Ghost Light would have made a fitting finale, at one point it was thought Curse of Fenric would start off the season, but I still think Battlefield would have made the best ending.

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