Wednesday, March 11, 2009

curse of fenric

28-02-09 “Curse of Fenric”
“If you want a job done right, let a girl do it.” --Ace

I watched a lot of Doctor Who this weekend, courtesy of Jamie’s collection of DVDs. There was the good, the bland, and the really good, but the clear stand-out for me was “Curse of Fenric,” making “Dragonfire” and “Happiness Patrol” the only McCoy adventures I haven’t seen (which is sad in a way since the element of novelty and adventure will be gone . . . though I guess I still haven’t seen the end of “Ghost Light”). My thoughts upon finishing “Curse of Fenric” were dismay that the series had been cancelled in 1989 because this serial was so damn good, how could anyone not want to the series to go in in this vein?! Season 26 was where they’d really hit their stride, but I guess in most people’s minds it was too late, the McCoy era had started out uneven so no one was going to bother with it. A shame.

Like the comic adventure “The Futurists” that I reviewed in Betrothal of Sontar, one aspect of “Fenric” that works so well is that it combines two historical periods, in this case 1943 and when the Vikings visited Northumbria (which of course the Doctor experienced firsthand in “The Time Meddler”). Other aspects are strong and interesting characters, excellent production values, a real sense of the Doctor as a conflicted, alien being, Ace and a side of her we hadn’t really seen before, and some elements of real horror. Can I find anything really wrong with the story? Well, we’ll see, but overall my impression is very favorable. We ended up watching the film version with the episode endings taken out. I’ve watched long serials like that before just because that’s how they were broadcast on American TV, and it doesn’t always work especially well, but it seemed quite good here.

Having “just” been dressed up in her pseudo-Victorian clothes, Ace seems somewhat annoyed to again be donning a skirt, stockings, and a hairnet to fit in with the local crowd, though the Doctor finds delight in teasing her about it—“no need to worry about the outfit” and “not in those clothes.” Landing at a secret naval base (which clearly the Doctor expected to find; this is the height of dark manipulative McCoy after all) Ace and the Doctor are rather amused to be confronted with guns. “How do you know we’re not Germans?” “You don’t look like Germans, ma’am.” They are taken to the base to see Dr. Judson, and the Seventh Doctor anticipates psychic paper by having Ace distract Judson long enough so that the Doctor can type up an official-looking letter. It’s most amusing and has shades of “The Doctor Dances” in it. Judson is delighted that Ace was taught logic in school and introduces a Major Plot Point. It goes over my head because logic was never my strong point. Judson, who seems to have a smidgen of Dortmun in him as he’s a genius in a wheelchair, has a dull nurse named Crane. As she’s played by Ann Reid I wonder if RTD had this in mind when he cast her as a Plasmavore?

Out on the spooky, foggy coast, a Viking ship underwater seems to suggest doom as a squadron of Russian soldiers (I’m stupid, okay, I didn’t realize they were Russian for a long time) decides to practice their English-speaking skills. With the benefit of a lot of moody location work, a lot of credibility is lent to the story. Captain Sorin berates one of his men “stupid Armenian superstitions” as there seems to be the work of vampires or worse out on the rocks. Ace thinks it’s “ace” that she and the Doctor get bunk beds (well, thank goodness they didn’t have to share the same bed—I don’t think I’m ready for that one). Ace goes to bed with her hairnet and clothes on, for some reason.

Commander Millington, who is trying to think like the enemy in order to break the codes, which is what Judson is doing by the way with an early version of the computer, is first shown in his office which is made to look like the exact replica of the code breakers’ room in Berlin. I’m learning tons about WWII already. “Of course we’ll win the War . . .” In the village, the Doctor and Ace pay a visit to the church, where the vicar Wainwright has just finished a service that is not adequate to the standards of the thoroughly irritating and sanctimonious Miss Hardaker. Ace falls in with her nieces (?) Phyllis and Jean, though, right away (which is a cute aspect of Ace’s character; I remember it from “Battlefield”) and they go off, even though the aunt has warned them against the “eeeeeeevil of Maiden’s Point.” At Maidens Point, Phyllis and Jean call Ace a “baby doll” for not going in the water with them (in their fabulous ‘40s bathing suits, yes?). Too bad, they were getting on so well. There’s an underwater shot where you’re convinced something awful will come out of the water and attack—but it doesn’t!

The Doctor talks to Wainwright about the church and the Viking inscriptions in the basement. “Asking questions is never a waste of time.” Back at the base, Judson gives a philosophical statement about the de-coding machine—“thinking machines . . . whose thoughts will they think?” Ace, in a rather hilarious presentiment of Rose, says disingenuously, “I didn’t know they had personal stereos in 1943!” She means, of course, the room full of women working for the war effort intercepting communications (at least I think that’s what they’re doing) including Kathleen Dudman who introduces Ace to her young baby. I wondered why the heck Ace would be interested in babies suddenly, but then I remembered the twist at the end of the story (it’s something you can’t have not come across even if tried not to spoil yourself on the story before you watched it). The baby’s name is Audrey, which Ace hates because it’s her mother’s name (they don’t get on, apparently). Judson thinks Ace is “a mathematical specialist.”

There’s quite a cool effect as more Norse inscriptions are burned into the church wall, much better than I would have expected for the year! (Though I did wonder why Ace couldn’t read it if she’s been in the TARDIS and its translating abilities.) Milllington reveals his plans for booby-trapping the computer so that when Captain Sorin and the Russians come to collect the codes, they will be exposed to the toxin. This is Millington’s version of patriotic duty; like the atom bomb, “it’ll mean the end of the War. . . .You and I, we have seen hell.” Like Rose talking to Nancy in “The Doctor Dances,” Ace tells Kathleen, “The future’s not so bad.” Chess sets start burning, Miss Hardaker tells Phyllis and Jean that there will be “pitiless damnation for the rest of your lives” if they go back to Maidens Point, and the Doctor is asked if he has any family himself. “I don’t know,” he says ruefully. Kathleen accepts this because it’s the War—“it’s horrible not knowing, isn’t it?”

Just as I’m beginning to wonder if Phyllis and Jean have lost their marbles and want to be constantly swimming, I realize that they’re getting possessed by the vampire creatures in the water because they’ve been in contact with it. Aaaagh! “Vampires are just superstition.” Poor Reverend Wainwright is having a crisis of faith just as the ‘80s-Goth-possessed Phyllis and Jean arrive at his doorstep with their creepy long fingernails. “No one is lost,” Wainwright insists. “Everyone is lost,” say the possessed girls. Fortunately the Doctor comes to his rescue by showing that human belief, rather than religious faith per se, is enough to drive these evil creatures. This is rather a heartening section and makes a lot of sense if you’re going to try to justify supernatural forces like vampires in the cultural/historical index. Out of the sea also come the Haemovores, who look quite horrible and yet cool ‘cause they’re all dressed in their historical outfits—an Elizabethan in a ruff, a Regency Haemovore in a frilly cap and a high-waisted gown, etc. I can see it’s the same costume and design team that gave us the Destroyer in "Battlefield," which dates it a bit, but not to the point that I’m not just a little weirded out. I really don’t know how to react to Phyllis and Jean destroying Miss Hardaker—is it justified revenge for an overly strict lady or stomach-turning murder?

It’s plain old Doctor Who monster fighting as the Haemovores descend on the church. “Today’s events haven’t been written down yet . . .” The Doctor exudes power by showing his belief in his companions and Ace in him, while Wainwright struggles with his Christian faith. I think it’s wonderful that Sorin’s faith in “the Revolution” is more than enough to drive off the monsters. Ace gets to use her signature explosives when an attack on the roof as she mounts a daring escape goes awry. I love her interaction with Sorin when he offers her his star and his scarf. (Ace does a lot of maturing in this episode. “I used to think I’d never get married but now I’m not so sure.”) Ace and the Doctor have just had their conflagrant confrontation about the Doctor manipulating her into the Perivale house she burned down as a teenager in “Ghost Light,” and she accuses him again of pulling the marionette strings: “You always know!” She wants to know what’s going on this time, and fair enough—“am I so stupid? Tell me!!”

I just read a review that accused this story of being poorly plotted and the ending being clumsily soldered on, but I completely disagree. I like how the story and its disparate elements have been teased out bit by bit, almost as if Ace were the narrator, even though the Doctor knows everything (or nearly everything) from the beginning. There is the inscription in the church about Fenric and his wolves (all from Norse mythology with which I am woefully unacquainted); the mystery of the grave and the daughters of the line who married from the shipwrecked Norsemen; the strange-looking artifact Ace picks up nonchalantly and wants to use to scrape off nitrate in order to create an explosion; the Russians and Millington’s scheme to end the War early, with his prescience of the Cold War and his bizarre insistence on burning the chessboards, as if he were in Sleeping Beauty and trying to burn the spindles in the kingdom; the horror of the Haemovores; and how Ace and the baby fit into all this. “Evil has no name,” says the Doctor.

The Doctor needs to buy time and distract the guard in order to rescue Sorin who Millington has captured, and this is possibly one of the strangest sequences in the entire story. Ace distracts the squaddie with something clearly akin to flirtation, but it’s done deadpan and she says such things as “There’s a wind whipping up. I can feel it through my clothes... Have to move faster than that if you want to keep up with me. Faster than light.” “Faster than a second hand on a watch?” “We're hardly moving yet... Sometimes I travel so fast I don't exist.” It’s strangely transfixing, and the squaddie apparently agrees. Yet this is still kids’ Doctor Who so these bizarre and enigmatic comments will have to do—“I’m not a little girl anymore.” Indeed.

I complain occasionally about Doctor Who books where the narrative really never kicks into a higher gear, but “Fenric” has just gone into its higher gear when the spirit of Fenric himself jumps into Judson’s body and announces to a perturbed Doctor, “We play the game again, Time Lord.” Millington is off to have the Doctor, Ace, and Sorin shot against the wall, execution-style (heavy stuff for a kids’ show!). Before she’s about to die, Ace shouts, “Mum, I’m sorry!” They don’t get shot, however, and instead have to leap away from the building as it explodes. There’s a rather adorable scene of the Doctor and Ace wiping each other’s blackened faces. “We’re all playing games . . .” Fenric, it seems, was challenged to a chess game by the Doctor which he lost, so the Doctor imprisoned him in a flask (shades of a Bernard Capes story) which was brought by the Vikings from the East and left in the church. Fenric picked up the Ancient One and brought him back in time so he was linked to the flask. (The Ancient One is the original Haemovore from the far distant future when humanity has turned into a rotted soup. The costume and prosthetics rather scream Destroyer, again, from “Battlefield,” so it’s hard for me to take this character seriously.) This was all part of Fenric’s plan to lure the Doctor there with his wolves, in order to get revenge and make the Doctor pay. For a being from the dawn of time, this isn’t such a stretch, I suppose . . .

Mary Whitehouse would probably have disapproved of Wainwright being killed by Haemovores as his faith disintegrates. Ace, on the other hand, believes that “the Doctor never fails.” Ace helps Kathleen and baby Audrey escape to her nan’s house in Streatham (by now you, too, will have figured out the baby’s identity) as the Doctor tries to reason with the Ancient One not to poison the seas, as Fenric wishes. “You’ve just created your own future.” Tricked, Ace unwittingly helps Fenric win the chess game once he’s jumped into Sorin’s body (too bad, I kind of wished those two had gotten together—poor Ace, she also liked Billy in “Remembrance of the Daleks” but what a racist bastard he turned out to be). I really loved this. If the Doctor turns his friends and companions into his silent killers, as Davros alleges in “Journey’s End,” then surely the reverse is true, that others turn the Doctor’s friends into unwitting elements of his own destruction? Despite everything else in this story, I think the core of it may well be when the Doctor has to hurt Ace, make her lose her belief in him, in order to save her from Fenric. Fenric has revealed that she is one of his wolves, manipulated since “Dragonfire” and that the Doctor has known this since “Silver Nemesis.” This is pretty mind-blowing stuff; think of poor Ace. While she’s going through that, she seems to hear the Doctor betray her and call her “an emotional cripple.” Remember that Morgaine in “Battlefield” tried to make her lose her faith in herself and the Doctor so she would step out of the protective circle. Ace is much more vulnerable than she appears even though she is maturing as a character. I like that Big Finish presents us in the audios with an older, more mature Ace in contrast to the young Hex (who nevertheless has a crush on her) but I think I would miss the young Ace.

I found this great music video on the internet a long time ago which is “Run with Us” from The Raccoons set to scenes of the Doctor and Ace. It exemplifies their relationship and the level of understanding and trust between them. A lot of the scenes come from “Fenric” which threw me for a long time since I didn’t understand what was going on. The video ends with the scene that finishes “Fenric,” wherein Ace jumps into the sea as a demonstration of her renewal of faith in herself and the Doctor. As she and the Doctor walk away along the beach, they note the sign that advises “dangerous undercurrents,” and the Doctor says that they are no more. It’s a great ending to a very good story that I’ve no doubt not done justice to. I feel like watching season 26 chronologically now because it’s really quite strong.

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