The Curse of Fenric, by Una McCormack (and Ian Briggs)

When I first watched The Curse of Fenric in 2007, I wrote:

The Curse of Fenric had been strongly recommended to me, and I adopted the suggestion that I watch the extended director’s cut version on the DVD rather than the show as originally broadcast (in keeping with the non-sequential traditions of the show, this was actually the last story of the four that I watched, during a three-hour stopover in Ankara airport last Friday).

Well, it is indeed a good story – most memorably, Nicholas Parsons, of all people, playing it straight as the doomed vicar Mr Wainwright; a setting in the second world war that actually looks a bit like it might be the 1940s; vampire villains which now seem an eerie foreshadowing of Buffy; secret codes and ancient evils, and the crucial importance of faith. Indeed, of the four last stories, it is the one which most resembles classic Who at its best.

I was not utterly convinced by the plot; I never like stories which crucially depend on some unbroadcast and untold past adventure of the Doctor’s. And although I did like Tomek Bork’s portrayal of Sorin, I was not totally convinced by the behaviour of the Russian soldiers (and to a lesser extent of the British) – as soldiers, that is. However, in general, this was a good ’un.

When I came back to it for my Great Rewatch, I wrote:

I watched the original version of The Curse of Fenric this time rather than the director’s cut, and noticed only one significant difference – we cannot hear what the Doctor is saying when he makes his profession of faith to ward off the Haemovores, whereas the director’s cut makes it clear that he is reciting the names of all his companions in a litany. It’s another excellent story, with the plot of human conflict being exploited by non-human forces which has a venerable pedigree in Who, and the continuing accumulation of details about what the Doctor may really be up to – and, almost two years after her arrival, more about what Ace is there for – I think only Turlough acquires a comparable amount of back-story in the course of his time in the Tardis, and Ace’s tale works much better. My only quibble about The Curse of Fenric is that I have never been impressed by the Haemovores, whose costumes are a bit cheap-looking to the point that we have to be told to be scared of them by scary music.

Rewatching, I wasn’t quite as impressed as I had been on previous occasions – and I note that both times I had seen it before in the context of the rest of the season; this was the first time I had tried it as effectively a standalone. It feels frankly a bit under-directed; too often the actors are just moving from point A to point B without doing much else, and the cinematography is workmanlike rather than interesting. Also this time around I watched the original TV broadcast, which is not as good as the subsequent edits, and that may have been a mistake. I’m glad that Cartmel was trying to revive the show, but he had not yet got there.

Here’s a weird one for you. Pyramids of Mars, already covered by the Black Archive, and Full Circle, also already covered by the Black Archive, were broadcast on exactly the same calendar dates as The Curse of Fenric: 25 October, 1 November, 8 November and 15 November, in 1975, 1980 and 1989 respectively. The first two were shown on Saturday nights, and The Curse of Fenric on Wednesdays. The day after Episode 3 was shown, the Berlin Wall fell.

When I first read the novelisation in 2008, I wrote:

Ian Briggs, on the other hand, does a masterful job with The Curse of Fenric, perhaps the most adult of any of the Who novelisations (in the sense of talking about sex). The most striking change from the TV original is that the vicar, Mr Wainwright, is explictly young (rather than Nicholas Parsons). Apart from that, the whole narrative feels very soundly rooted both in itself and in Who – particularly with Ace’s introduction in Dragonfire (which of course Briggs also wrote). For once, the Doctor’s-hidden-past motif actually seems to make sense rather than feeling like a bolted-on idea (the only other story that achieves this is The Face of Evil). An excellent read.

Also a comfortable pass for the Bechdel test, what with Phyllis, Jean and their landlady on the one hand, and Katharine, Audrey and the Wrens on the other, with Ace wandering between them.

The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

A thin trickle of villagers, all dressed in their grey Sunday best, were making their way home down the country lane. Only Miss Hardaker, a sharp-faced spinster in her fifties, and two teenage girls lingered on the church porch where the young vicar listened patiently. Miss Hardaker was determined to make her point.

Rereading the novelisation, the same points struck me again; it’s a surprisingly adult book for the range, with the London girls and Ace bantering about sex. And given the timings, it does make more sense for the vicar to be a young man, rather than 66-year-old Nicholas Parsons. There are a couple of good interludes as well, one of which appears to have a drown-up Ace marrying a Russian aristocrat ancestor of Sorin’s. It’s one of the best of the 160+ novelisations.

Both of my Black Archive reads for this month are by writers who I consider friends. Una McCormack is a sparring partner on Twitter:

In this monograph, she has gone for an approach of developing at length four of the interesting themes of The Curse of Fenric, rather than an all-round justification of the story, and as someone who loves the story less than she does, I found it helpful and redemptive. I love most of all the Black Archive books that explain to me why I like some of my favourite Doctor Who stories; but I probably get more out of the ones like this that challenge me to think again about some that are less high up my personal list.

The short introduction sets out her stall, making the link between the timing of first broadcast and the Fall of the Wall, and asserting boldly that “The Curse of Fenric is the best story in what was, at that point, the best season yet of Doctor Who. In other words, I love it.”

The first chapter convincingly positions the story and the entire era in the context of a decade of Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher (who as it turned out would last only another year), and the culture wars waged by government supporters, particularly on and in the BBC. The solution to the chess puzzle of the story is, after all, for the pawns to break ranks and join forces against their common oppressor.

The second chapter points out that this is the first Doctor Who story to explicitly use the Second World War as a setting. (Surprisingly, the Nazis in Silver Nemesis are not named as such.) The war itself is of course a crucial cultural historical experience for the UK, as for other countries. But it’s interesting to look, as McCormack does, at the other later presentations of the war in Who, some of which work and many of which don’t, and to explore the good and bad side of using it as the background for a Who story.

The third chapter looks at Ace as a character, arguing that her arc is the first example of the more modern approach to companions that we have seen in the New Who era, and applying some good feminist analysis to the Doctor and his relations with the women who he tracvels with. The second paragraph of the third chapter, including a quote from Joanna Russ, is:

Russ, in her essay, and in typically acerbic fashion, rapidly sketches and dispenses with the clichés of science fiction: the ‘intergalactic suburbia’ in which the 1950s household remains intact and the woman is wife, mother, and home-maker; the ‘passive and involuntary’ women as prizes or motives for space-faring ‘He-Men’; and the domineering Amazons of matriarchies, waiting to be brought to heel by the arrival of men. Her most illuminating criticism for our purposes, however, is of Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. This novel, published in 1969, a Nebula Award winner and generally accepted to be ground-breaking in its treatment of gender, concerns the inhabitants of the planet Gethen, who have no sex or gender, except that every four weeks they pass through a cycle in which they become either male or female, and sexually potent. The story is motored by the arrival on Gethen of a male human observer, who becomes immersed in Gethenian culture and politics. Russ skilfully argues this is a book from which women are absent:

‘It is, I must admit, a deficiency in the English language that these people must be called “he” throughout, but “put that together with the native hero’s personal encounters in the book, the absolute lack of interest in child-raising, the concentration on work, and what you have is a world of men.’4

4
Russ, ‘Image of Women’, p215.”

The brief short chapter reflects on myth and Doctor Who, and the way in which Cartmel was setting up the Doctor as a mythic figure and using themes from mythology to help tell the story.

I guess my biggest complaint about the book is that it’s a bit short. But you can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | Full Circle (15)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8)
6th Doctor: The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25)
Other: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The God Complex (9)
12th Doctor: Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)

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1 Response to The Curse of Fenric, by Una McCormack (and Ian Briggs)

  1. RF99 says:

    I think I am the odd one with Curse of Fenric because I’ve never seen the serial but I love the novelisation (particularly Sorin).

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