Thursday, 19 May 2016

Story 154 - The Curse of Fenric

In which the Doctor and Ace visit a military base on the north east coast of England. It is during the height of the Second World War, and this base is the location for a new device designed to crack the German U-Boat codes - the ULTIMA Machine. This is the brainchild of Prof Judson, who is here overseeing its operation. The base commander, Millington, has fashioned his office to look like the naval headquarters in Berlin, so that he can capture the mind-set of his enemy. Millington and Judson were old school friends. The Doctor forges a document that allows Ace and himself free access around the base, Little does she know it, but the manipulative Doctor is once more inquiring into Ace's background. A group of Soviet commandos have landed at Maiden's Point on the coast nearby. They have come to steal the ULTIMA Machine. Russia and Britain are allies, but both sides are looking towards what will happen once the war is over. The Doctor and Ace visit the local church, St Jude's, and meet the vicar - the Rev. Wainwright. Ace befriends two young evacuees from London - Jean and Phyllis. They are unhappy to be billeted with the puritanical spinster, Miss Hardaker. The Russians come under attack from some unseen enemy, some of their number being found drained of blood, with wounds on their throats. Judson is also interested in the church, as it contains some ancient Viking runes in its crypt. They would make an ideal test for his machine. The Doctor notices some of the gravestones bear names of Norse descent. Visiting the beach at Maiden's Point later, the Doctor and Ace are captured by the Russians, who are led by Captain Sorin. The Doctor convinces them to let them go free. He knows of their mission, and something of the evil that is stalking them.

Back at the base, Ace meets a WREN named Kathleen Dudman, who has her baby daughter with her. Ace becomes besotted with the child, though she dislikes her name - Audrey - as this is her mother's name. In the crypt, new runes appear out of nowhere, and some soldiers clearing tunnels nearby unearth an ancient ceramic flask. The tunnel links the crypt with the base. Jean and Phyllis go swimming at Maiden's Point and are pulled under the water. One of the Russian soldiers witnesses this, then sees them emerge a short time later. They are now vampires, and kill him. The Doctor and Ace are confronted by Millington in the church crypt. He takes them back to the base and shows them a store room full of bombs - all filled with a natural toxin that drips from the walls of the tunnel. He lets the Doctor know that he is expecting the Russian attack, and intends to let Sorin take the ULTIMA device. Hidden within it is a flask of the toxin. After the war, when Russia and Britain are enemies, a code will be broadcast which the Soviets will attempt to break. The word "love" will trigger the breaking of the flask at the heart of the Kremlin. Jean and Phyllis summon allies from beneath the waves at the Point. These are vampiric Haemovores. Their first victims are a number of Russian commandos, followed by Miss Hardaker. The Rev. Wainwright is suffering a crisis of faith. He cannot accept the deaths of thousands of innocent German civilians from British bombing. He is showing the Doctor and Ace the parish records when the Haemovores attack the church. The creatures can be repelled by faith. Sorin and his men arrive and help rescue the Doctor and his friends. Sorin has faith in the 1917 Revolution, and the Doctor in his many traveling companions.

Millington goes mad, determined to concentrate on the Russians over the new threat. He orders all chess sets to be destroyed, for no explicable reason. He captures Sorin and orders that he, the Doctor and Ace be shot - but they are saved by the arrival of more Soviet troops. The ULTIMA device decodes the Viking runes - unleashing an ancient evil force which takes over Judson. Jean and Phyllis kill Wainwright when they break his faith. They are then sent to summon the Ancient One - a Haemovore that actually comes from the Earth of the far future, when the planet is polluted and dying. The evil entity - Fenric - has it kill all the Haemovores, including Jean and Phyllis, as their work is now done. The Doctor has met Fenric before. He played chess with it centuries ago. Winning, he trapped it in the flask which was found in the tunnels. This was in the Middle East. Over time, the flask was carried through Europe to end up here - leaving vampire legends its wake. Fenric wants to battle the Doctor once more, but the Doctor has left him an insoluble chess problem. Ace inadvertently gives him the solution - the black and white pawns work together. Judson's body is too frail for Fenric so it transfers to Sorin. Ace gives Kathleen the address of her grandmother in south London and urges her to flee with the baby. She then goes to the bomb storeroom where she finds Sorin is now possessed by Fenric. It transpires that all the people they have met have been pawns in Fenric's plan to revenge himself against the Doctor - including her. The baby is actually her own detested mother. Fenric was responsible for the time-storm which carried her to Iceworld and her first meeting with the Doctor. The Doctor has always known this. He recognised the chess set in Lady Peinforte's study as the work of Fenric. Fenric wants the Ancient One to spread the toxin throughout the planet's oceans to destroy all life on Earth. The Doctor convinces it that this will create the wrecked planet that spawned it. Fenric orders it to kill Ace, but her faith in the Doctor holds it back. He must break that faith, and so verbally abuses her. However, instead of attacking her, it forces Fenric into a sealed chamber where it destroys him - and itself - with a canister of the toxin. Ace now knows of the evil forces that have been manipulating her, and comes to terms with the fact that she did once love her mother.

This four part story was written by Ian Briggs, and was broadcast between 25th October and 15th November, 1989.
Though the character was as much the creation of script editor Andrew Cartmel, and producer John Nathan-Turner, it was Briggs who had first written for Ace, so it seems natural for it to be he who brings some resolution to her story arc. This level of development for a companion is unique for the original version of the series, but will become the norm for those that will follow once the series returns in 2005.
Ace is introduced in Dragonfire, and she gives the reason for her being on the alien world as the side-effect of an experiment with her Nitro-9 explosives. The Doctor knows that it was a time-storm conjured up by Fenric. Later, the Doctor will notice the chess game in Lady Peinforte's study (Silver Nemesis). These are the only stated examples given of Fenric's handiwork. The real story arc is that of Ace growing into adulthood, and laying to rest some of her personal demons. She had a bit of a crush on Sgt. Mike Smith in Remembrance of the Daleks, but falls properly in love with Captain Sorin. She also seduces a British soldier in this story to help Sorin and the Doctor escape. Unfortunately, this latter sequence is spoiled by some woeful dialogue. She then goes on to set up her own existence - by sending Kathleen and her baby to her gran's house in Streatham.
Brigg's main inspirations for this story are three-fold. First is the wartime exploits of the Bletchley Circle, and Alan Turing's work to break the Nazi Enigma Machine - the U-Boat communications system. Secondly we have Norse mythology. Considering that the Gods of Ragnarok were the villains of the previous series' final story, it is a pity that they could not have tied this into Curse, and suggests there was no great master plan for Ace's arc. They were often making it up as they went along. Lastly, we have vampires. Haemovore means "blood-eater", and the creatures are certainly vampires - most noticeably when Jean and Phyllis are turned. Scenes cut from the final screened version showed the creatures being staked through the heart. There is a sequence in the Hammer movie Dracula Has Risen From The Grave where the staking of the Count fails to kill him as the young protagonist is an atheist, and so without religious faith. Here, any sort of faith works to hold the creatures at bay. The location of the base on the north east coast is significant, as it was at Whitby in Yorkshire that the Count first came ashore in England in the classic novel.

An excellent cast gives their all. Judson is Dinsdale Landen. Millington is Alfred Lynch. Judson has a personal attendant - Nurse Crane - who is played by Anne Reid. She will return to the series in 2007 as another form of vampire, the Plasmavore Florence in Smith and Jones. Sorin is Tomek Bork. A revelation as the Rev. Wainwright, due to him being mostly known for comedic roles or game shows, is Nicholas Parsons. Miss Hardaker will also be back - Janet Henfrey being the Foretold's first victim in Mummy on the Orient Express. One of the young Russian soldiers (Vershinin) is Marek Anton, seen only a couple of stories ago under heavy latex as The Destroyer in Battlefield. One of the young British soldiers is played by Christien Anholt, who has since gone onto work in US TV, and is the son of Space 1999's Tony Anholt.
Episode endings are:
  1. The Doctor and Ace find a dying Russian soldier on the beach. They are suddenly surrounded by his comrades...
  2. The ULTIMA machine begins to go out of control, and Millington announces that it is too late to stop what is about to happen. C/U Doctor looking worried...
  3. Judson is struck by an energy bolt from his machine. He rises from his wheelchair, eyes blazing, and states "We play the contest again, Time Lord..." C/U Doctor looking worried...
  4. Ace emerges from a swim in the sea. There is a sign nearby warning of dangerous undercurrents. Not anymore, think the Doctor and Ace as they walk away along the beach...

Overall, a highlight of the Seventh Doctor's tenure. Great cast, some fine monsters, and a genuinely creepy, moody story. What a pity things were going so well just before they pulled the plug...
Things you might like to know:
  • Like a lot of Cartmel stories, there was much pruning to keep the story to length, and this has meant some scenes don't always make sense when first seen. The Special Edition on the DVD release is definitely recommended for this. At one point this had been considered as a five part story, but Ian Briggs did not feel there was enough to warrant a full extra episode.
  • The story was originally supposed to have interior shots filmed in studio, but the director, Nick Mallett, persuaded the producer to allow him to film it entirely on location.
  • There has been some criticism of the direction / editing for the second and third cliffhangers - focusing as they do on the Doctor's facial expression, rather than on the cause of it. This was something that was taken to ludicrous extremes during The Trial of A Time Lord, when JNT wanted his then star to be showcased. There is just cause for the camera to focus on McCoy at the end of Part Two, as it is a weak ending, but it really should have settled on Judson / Fenric's face for Part Three.
  • A number of anachronisms / errors have been pointed out. First thing is that Commander Millington wouldn't have been allowed to wear just a mustache. As a naval officer it would have been full beard or nothing at all. There is a sign-post to Maiden's Point, and we all know that road signs were taken down to bamboozle potential invaders. There has also been a question about Nicholas Parsons' sermon - coming from a version of the bible not commonly used in the 1940's.
  • One anachronism that isn't - baby Audrey's Super-Ted teddy. At first glance it does look like it, but this is not the case.
  • A continuity error sees Ace mention an old house in Perivale. This is Gabriel Chase, when Ghostlight was supposed to come later in the season than this story.
  • The baby girl is really a baby boy - the son of the landlord of a pub near the BBC offices in Shepherds Bush, West London.
  • The location shooting was hit by a mix of unpredictable weather, causing all sorts of continuity problems. There was rain when they didn't want it, sunshine when they did, plus snow. The Doctor wears a duffel-coat. This was McCoy's coat to keep warm in between takes, but he felt it suited the period and so he got to wear it on screen. Other cast members weren't so lucky.
  • Claim to fame time, of a sort. Some of the location filming was done at Lulworth Cove, in Dorset. Some friends and I once got lost in that part of the world, and ended up there - because I spotted a road sign, and knew this story had been filmed there. The hotel staff I spoke to remembered this story being filmed. I stayed in the room that Sylvester McCoy had been given.
  • The filming of the underwater stuff with the Viking long boat and the submerged Russian soldier was handled as a second unit by producer JNT.
  • There are subtitles on screen when the Russians first come ashore in the story's opening moments - the first time these had been employed since the Third Doctor had spoken with the Chinese delegate in 1971's Mind of Evil.
  • The novelisation fleshes out the back-story for various characters. Nurse Crane is a Russian agent, and Millington was responsible for the accident that put Judson in his wheel-chair.
  • As Judson was based on Alan Turing, Briggs wanted to say something about his sexuality, but couldn't do so in an early evening family show at this time. He wanted it to be implicit that Millington and Judson had known each other, in the biblical sense, whilst at school.
  • There are a couple of very short Haemovores. These were played by Sylvester McCoy's sons, visiting their dad at work for the day.
  • JNT's dog, Pepsi, can be seen briefly in Miss Hardaker's garden.
  • That controversial Maiden's Point road sign (or a reproduction thereof) is now to be found in the reception area at the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff. It is the assembly point for people doing the TARDIS set and locations tours.

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