Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Doctor Who: The Curse of Fenric

Part One

“I like looking at the sea. It makes me feel small.”

Translation subtitles. Crikey. That’s rare. The subtitles are pretty shoddy compared to the ones we saw in The Mind of Evil, but fortunately this is a much better story.

It’s the North Yorkshire coast, it’s the Second World War, and the Doctor and Ace are striding purposefully into a top secret military research complex. We begin with a brilliant set of scenes in which the Doctor effortlessly bluffs his way into everyone’s confidence as only this Doctor can, blatantly asking for two pens and using them to forge the signatures the Prime Minister and MI6 in front of everybody.

We meet Dr Judson, in a scene contrived to make Ace look clever, and then move on to the scary Miss Hardaker, her two cockney charges, and the Rev Wainwright, a mystifyingly fantastic performance from Nicholas Parsons. We also meet Millington, who has designed his office to mimic exactly that of his German counterpart. When I first watched this twenty years ago I initially thought he was supposed to be Hitler. He certainly has the hairstyle.

There’s loads of atmosphere- mist, Vikings, games of chess- to sustain us while we introduce the cast and before the plot can get started. And also something I noticed this time around; when the Doctor looks at Joseph Sundvik’s grave, you can clearly see that one of his daughters had the married name “Millington”…

With everything in place, Millington kick starts the plot by mystifyingly ordering Judson to use the Ultima machine to translate the inscriptions, in spite of the fact that there seem to be more pressing uses for it; there is a war on, you know. Also seemingly significant is the parallel between the Vikings described by the inscription and the Russians today, both intending to return to Norway with treasure. There’s also something beneath the water which killed half of the Russian party, and there’s a scene with Ace, Kathleen and her daughter Audrey which will pay off later.

Part Two

“I’m not an invalid, I’m a cripple. I’m also a genius, so shut up, the pair of you.”

More creepy stuff happens; new runes are inscribed in the crypt as the translation is read, while the Doctor and Ace discover a secret passage in the crypt. Millington, obsessed by Norse mythology in ways which for once, as we’ll see, actually relate the myth to elements of the story, is producing a strange green poison, a chemical weapon to be dropped on to German cities. Not only that, but the Russians are intended to steal the enigma machine, which will release the Ultima machine as soon as a certain word transmitted by British intelligence is translated: “love”. Blimey. That’s a bit hasty. Can’t they wait until the Cold War actually starts?

We also get a great scene showing the vicar to be losing his faith, and Jean and Phyllis get turned into vampires and lure a Russian soldier to his death in a scene which might, possible, just about have some sexual undertones. On a minor note, some old jar is found underneath the church,

That’s a lot happening for only episode two. And there’s an awful lot here that foreshadows the ending, most blatantly in Millington’s order for all chess sets to be burnt. Millington has also drawn a picture of that old jar. Gosh, do you reckon it might be important?

Miss Hardaker gets killed, which technically means that, old dragon though she may have been, she was in fact right all along.

It’s all kicking off now. There are Haemovores everywhere, the vicar’s having a particularly bad day, and that old flask has started glowing…

Part Three

“Just look for something… evil.”

Gosh, what a coincidence. This is Whitby, where Dracula came ashore in Bram Stoker’s novel, and there are sort-of vampires running around. What are the chances, eh?

We’re told the Haemovores are the inhabitants of the Earth in a polluted future and, in a slightly more domestic vein, that it was Millington who caused Judson’s accident twenty years ago. Meanwhile, the Doctor takes some time to realise that Ace has the flask. Oh, and the church is under siege by hordes of Haemovores. Almost forgot that one.

The Haemovores are defeated by faith- the Doctor’s in his fiends, as we can see by the fact that he’s mouthing the names of all those who have travelled with him. Sorin- well, his faith is in the revolution; he’s a true believer. Ace also clearly likes him and the script clearly intends him to be a good guy. And that’s the one problem I have with this story. Because he’s, like, a Stalinist. And you can’t just present a Stalinist character as a hero. Especially when you’re contrasting his character with that of Millington, shown being an utter git as he abandons two soldiers of the Motherland to their deaths.

Said commie then reveals himself and loudly asks to speak to Commander Millington. Somehow I suspect this may harm his ability to remain concealed. But from this point on things become darker. Kathleen receives a letter telling her that her husband has been killed, and Ace confronts the Doctor about his secretiveness. This scene is not really about what much of fandom seems to think it is; the Doctor’s manipulative side seems to have been much exaggerated compared with what we actually see on screen. Ace’s problem with the Doctor is simply that he’s been too preoccupied to tell her what’s going on.

Naturally, I let out a huge cheer at the line “Evil! Evil since the dawn of time!” At last we get to hear about Fenric, our mysterious big bad. He’s an old enemy of the Doctor, who has been trapped inside that flask for ages. Er, ok. Perhaps we don’t actually get to hear all that much.

We then get quite an extraordinary scene. Essentially it consists of Ace distracting a guard by flirting with him, but it’s all highly metaphorical; clearly none of the dialogue here is meant as a literal reflection of what is said. This seems to be intended as a kind of sexual awakening for Ace (“Professor, I’m not a little girl any more”), but I’m not sure it entirely works; for all the cleverness of the metaphorical dialogue, it doesn’t seem to be saying anything beyond “Look! Here are some sexual undertones of an unspecified kind”.

Oh, and if you hadn’t already guessed there were sexual undercurrents here there’s a sign at Maiden’s Point telling you to beware of undercurrents!

The Doctor frees Sorin, and the Judson gets possessed by Fenric. Oh dear…

Part Four

“Don’t interrupt me when I’m eulogising!”

Fenric has been trapped for seventeen centuries in the “Shadow Dimensions”, apparently. Gosh. He must be a bit cross, then.

The Doctor, Ace and Sorin are about to be executed for treason, and unfortunately the weather’s rotten. Fortunately, the firing squad is interrupted, but unfortunately the rain carries on. The Doctor then rushes off to, er, set up a chessboard, while the Great Haemovore makes himself known. He’s also known as the “Great Serpent”, apparently, so we get an allusion to the Midgard Serpent to go with the earlier allusions to Yggdrasil. This is more actual Norse mythology that we got with the Gods of Ragnarok in Greatest Show, to put it mildly.

The Doctor almost defeats Fenric by, er, repeating his trick of seventeen centuries earlier by setting him a chess puzzle he can’t solve. But rather unfortunately Ace rather ruins it all by telling Fenric the solution: for the pawns of both sides to join together, as the British and Russian soldiers are doing. Er, that wasn’t a legal move the last time I checked.

Ace briefly alludes to Gabriel Chase, but that experience is nothing compared to what she’s about to experience. Fenric’s “wolves”, descendents of all the original Viking settlers, include Millington (shot); Judson; Sorin (now possessed); the Great Haemovore; and even Ace. This is where the “undercurrents” really start to get dangerous.

It turns out that the baby Audrey is in fact Ace’s mother, and that she’s just created her own future. But still, Ace has faith in the Doctor. Until the Doctor demolishes that face by stating that he’s seen Fenric’s hand in many things recently, such as the chess set in Lady Peinforte’s study. But the big revelation here is that the time storm that took Ace to Iceworld in the first place was Fenric’s doing, and the Doctor knew this all along, only tolerating “emotional cripple” Ace’s presence because of it. This devastates Ace.

Crucially, though, the Doctor doesn’t mean any of it, has a very good reason for saying what he does, and doesn’t do anything wrong here. Earlier, he persuaded the Great Haemovore that to follow Fenric would be to create the very future he comes from, a doomed and apocalyptic future which he does not wish to come to pass. (And, incidentally, when we’re told that the Great Haemovore was brought back in a “Time Storm”, that’s a bit of a clue as to what happened to Ace in Dragonfire a few minutes before it’s revealed.) The Doctor destroys Ace’s faith in him; the Great Haemovore is able to act; and the Great Haemovore kills Fenric. Very neat.

Crucially, a line is symbolically drawn under this is the final scene as Ace goes for a swim, symbolically cleansing herself. There’ll be no more “dangerous undercurrents”.

Wow. That was brilliant. A moody, atmospheric thriller with moments of high excitement and a lot going on under the surface. 5/5.

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