Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The Curse of Fenric written by Ian Briggs and directed by Nicholas Mallet

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor defeats an evil from before the dawn of time…

Master Manipulator: Since The Curse of Fenric is Sylvester McCoy’s penultimate adventure it is a good chance to see how he has progressed since Delta and the Bannerman, which I reviewed a short while ago. In some ways he has evolved out of all recognition becoming a much darker, brooding, melancholic sort of man, one with a plan up his sleeve for every occasion and has everything sorted before the story has even begun. It's something of a backhanded compliment to say that the Doctor might be a lot more interesting in this mould but Sylvester McCoy isn’t. McCoy is much more of a convincing performer than he is an actor and from listening to him on commentaries it is clear that he is a genuinely funny, entertaining sort of guy. But forcing him into the deadly serious role of the Oncoming Storm plays against his strengths and whilst there is the odd moment of dark intensity (his performance in Ghost Light is mostly sublime) for the most part we get McCoy gurning, spitting and growling his way through a histrionic script. So perhaps the Doctor has grown into a more responsible character but I feel that the material pushes McCoy too far and the result is an unbalanced, cumbersome performance. I genuinely believe the most natural performance we ever had from McCoy was in Delta and the Bannermen; dancing, running around the countryside and being sweet and gentle. The Doctor strolls into a top-secret military base and starts barking orders - he has certainly come a long way since pratfalling around in Time and the Rani. Is the Doctor the Prime Minister and Head of Secret Service at some point or is he just an excellent forger? He walks around the base at night time, quietly brooding and keeping secrets. His ‘eyes watching’ moment appears as though he is trying to be deliberately creepy, rather than simply making an observation. I love the gentler moments between the Doctor and Ace (such as when they wrinkle their noses at each other), McCoy and Aldred’s love for each other comes bleeding on screen. He gently ruminates over his family in a dark moment that proves that McCoy was at his best when kept quiet in the shadows rather than screaming his head off. The Doctor spitting ‘go!’ to the vampire girls comes across as exactly what it was, a children’s presenter trying to be scary. When the lead actor in a show can't even say a single word like that convincingly, we're in trouble. It's great to see that the Doctor draws his strength from his previous companions, although I would say that the moment isn't stressed enough (you'd have to be a real fan to understand the names that the Doctor is mouthing). It’s such a shame but McCoy completely fails to convince during the ‘evil since the dawn of time’ sequence – it's exactly the sort of speech that Colin Baker would have excelled at but McCoy simply does not have the gravitas or believability to bring such a portentous speech to life. It makes me worried that Ace should so readily be fooled by the Doctor’s condemnation of her character because it’s so sudden, improbable and preposterous. It gives the conclusion an emotional sting but given their unspoken affection everywhere else, isn't the slightest bit convincing. I think one of my problems with The Curse of Fenric is that the guest cast are so strong they rather show up McCoy and Aldred as amateurs and it is painful at times to watch them trying to match their standards.

Oh Wicked: On the other hand Sophie Aldred’s Ace has managed to somehow managed to deepen throughout Ghost Light and she seems perfectly comfortable with the more sombre material. She looks gorgeous in her period costume and its wonderful to get her out of that horrid badge strewn bomber jacket. Her relationship with Jean and Phyllis is very sudden, they meet and they are instantly the best of friends and having a great laugh together. If only life was so simple. I don’t like the way they overwrite her emotions all the time, when Ace discovers the baby’s name is Audrey she practically hurls her at Audrey. Once upon a time Ace would have dropped anything for a bit of excitement but now she’s thinking about people. She used to think she would never get married but now she’s not so sure. Finally Ace pulls the Doctor up on his manipulation of her and its great to see somebody finally take him on. The idea of her creating her own future and sending her mother to address she was brought in was lovely, very subtle but it's derailed by agonising moments of theatrics (‘I didn't know she was my muuuummm!’). Ace’s metaphorical baptism in the sea is perhaps a little too deep for Doctor Who but I appreciate the effort. Ace's scenes sit much more comfortably in this story than the Doctor's (except that dreadful 'wind whipping through my clothes' flirting scene) but the material stumbles towards the hysterical far more often than I would like. Some of the domestic drama is subtly played and at other times I felt as though I was watching a particularly hysterical episode of Eastenders. It's an odd mix, which appealed to me much more when I was a teenager (because they are all a little hysterical) but now I wish we could jettison the latter moments and simply enjoy the gentler ones.

Sparkling Dialogue: Amongst all the histrionics there are some brutally thoughtful moments and the dialogue has the ability to wind you on the odd occasion.
‘But whose thoughts will they think?’
‘There is a storm coming.’
‘I was hoping for something a little more, well…Aryan.’
‘How English. Everything stops for tea.’
‘Ah the sound of dying. When it comes to death quantity is so much more satisfying than quality.’
‘I feel this is what Dr Judson would have wished…’

The Good Stuff: The opening scenes feel like a movie in their scope and location work, Russian soldiers coming to shore through a mist swathed coastline. After Battlefield’s lousy production and the studio bound Ghost Light this feels like the expensive story of the season. Dinsdale Linden and Anne Reid create a fantastically nasty patient/nurse relationship with relatively little screen time. The soldier being stalked on the beach at night is some of the creepiest scenes of the era, an unknown presence pursuing him across the shingle. Nicholas Parson completely aces (hoho) his role as Wainright almost to spite those who might have doubted those that thought he didn't have it in him. There’s no hint of a game show host in this impressively intense performance. The vicar’s conflict of faith is the strongest character work on display in this tale, even if it did upset a friend of mine who couldn't quite get his head around the fact that a devout Christian might lose his faith during wartime. Given the atrocities that were committed I would have thought that was the one time you could justifiably lose your faith in humanity. There are some wonderful locations selected throughout the story including the sun blistered graveyard and the vertiginous cove overlooking the coast. Sometimes Doctor Who would pull some truly spectacular location work out of the bag and The Curse of Fenric is the best example of that in the McCoy era. The pull back to reveal Millington in his Nazi surroundings is startlingly dramatic. It says a great deal about his character before he utters a word. The effects of the runes writing themselves manages to be both simple but highly effective, especially in the special edition version. A natural source of lethal poisons, chemical warfare is a very nasty business and not the sort real world ugliness that Doctor Who dabbles in. That's commendable. One of the stronger ideas is the ULTIMA machine as bait for the Russians with a chemical bomb at its heart that will be used to poison Moscow once the war is over. I’d like to say Ms Hardaker is an overwritten religious zealot but unfortunately I have met a fair few Ms Hardaker’s in my time. We are treated to one of the iconic moments of the eighties when the Haemovores rise from the ocean. What is it about Doctor Who monsters rising out of water that tickles me so much? Is that really what we are going to evolve into thousand of years into the future, creatures with an insatiable hunger for blood? It's a grim portent of what will happen if the Doctor doesn't intervene in Fenric's plans in this story. The Haemovore attack on the church is very well staged, using the location to full effect and accompanied by a thrilling Mark Ayres score. Is this really the same Nicholas Mallet that gave us Paradise Towers? There is plenty of hysteria pretending to be drama in Fenric but Kathleen discovering her husband has been murdered is a real moment of tragedy that hits home. Linden’s Fenric is superb, a silky voiced villain with some wonderful lines.Just as people say about Jacobi's Master, I could have done with much more time with this unnerving villain. I find the rain lashed firing squad sequence a moment of winding realism. It really feels as though the Doctor and Ace's time has run out and they are going to be dispatched almost as an afterthought. How frightening are those vampire girls advancing on the soldiers in the tunnels after they have been shot in the stomach? Smoke pouring from their mouths, nails outstretched, Fenric grinning like a madman...Doctor Who hasn't pushed horror content like this for years. Nurse Crane’s death is very nasty because you know Judson and Fenric is enjoying it. Sorin carries the baton from Judson and makes a very different but just as terrifying version of Fenric.

The Bad Stuff: The script for The Curse of Fenric is troublesomely disjointed and cluttered as though Ian Briggs had a million ideas but no clue how to dramatise them. The storytelling really doesn’t flow smoothly, it’s like a needle in a record jumping over the place constantly adding new elements and not dealing with those that have already been presented. Joann Kelly and Joanne Bell both give two of the least convincing performances in the shows history (‘You should ave cum inta the water with us’ and ‘Ooh its like electrick!’). As London based evacuees I get that they are supposed to be as common as muck but this really is overstating the case - maybe it is a good thing that Ace never had the opportunity to sport a decent cockney accent if this would have been the result! They are also the least sensual vampires you are ever likely to meet, looking like the crowd that recently appeared on Channel 4's Benefit Street. I certainly wouldn't be enticed into the freezing cold English sea to sample their goodies. Nicholas Mallet is an odd choice of director for this piece given that his last work on this show was Paradise Towers. You have to wonder if JNT ever looked back on the work of his long term directors and judged what worked and what didn't and allocated them appropriately. I'm guessing not if the work of Ron Jones, Pennant Roberts and Nick Mallet are concerned. Whilst Mallet does pull off some surprisingly complex sequences, there is also a remarkably sloppy feel to some of the scenes in Fenric that occasionally feels like some fans took a camcorder out to a misty coastal village and decided to film their own Doctor Who story. Overall it would have been far more professionally shot had it been Alan Wareing or maybe even Andrew Morgan bringing it to life. The transition of scenes is very odd; there is nothing smooth about how the story leaps from one scene to the next (compare and contrast with Ghost Light) and there are some sudden reaction shots within scenes that you can tell have been filmed aside and inserted in jarringly. Whoever was editing the piece needed a crash course in his trade (and I'm not just talking about the hacked together story as originally transmitted, the Special Edition has serious, stuttering problems too). As good as the location work is it is such a shame it is shot on video because it looks far more like it has been filmed on a home video camera. Imagine how atmospheric this would be on film? We could have done without the excerpts of the parish records, which hold up the action interminably. Cartmel was a great ideas man but he wasn't always hot on cutting out extraneous material that slows down the action. I might be stupid but I never figured that Audrey was Ace’s mother when I first watched the story but I am reliably informed by everybody from my mother, my husband and several friends that it is significantly signposted as to make it obvious. There are too many co-incidences in the script, the Doctor and Ace discovering the body, Millington finding them in the crypt. Why does the Doctor start talking in cod Norse mythology…who on Earth would start a conversation like that? The vampire girls in the water should have been really scary but their obsession with their nails distracts from their generally ghoulish appearance. How on Earth did Ace work out that the encryptions are a logic diagram for a computer programme? Characters make the most random of conclusions to push the plot forwards. Unfortunately after their dramatic reveal the Haemovores stroll along the beach like geriatrics on a day trip along Eastbourne front. The references to Judson’s accident are irritatingly vague, why introduce plot elements like this if you aren’t going to follow it up and give us some sort of explanation? Why does Ace pick up the flask and why doesn’t she mention it? There are some dodgy POV shots on the Ace's climb up the church tower. Where does the romance between Sorin and Ace come from – like her friendship with the girls it is taken as a given after their first meeting that these two are deeply in love when no time has been given to make this even slightly plausible. Lust at first sight? Why does the Doctor chastise Ace for carrying explosives when they come in handy in Remembrance (blowing up the Dalek in the junkyard), Silver Nemesis (destroying the Cybership), Battlefield (‘Ace we need a hole’) and here? How precisely does faith work as a deterrent against evolved human vampires?  Ace’s cod existentialist dialogue when flirting really makes me vomit, why doesn’t she just snog him? One of Doctor Who’s ugliest moments comes when Wainright is killed; it’s the death of faith. What the hell is Millington talking about at the end of part three? It's astonishing that they would hire an actress of Anne Reid’s calibre and not give her anything to do after her first few scenes. If Fenric is such an ancient evil why didn’t the Doctor kill him when he defeated him? He had no trouble destroying Skaro in Remembrance. There is a whole army of vampire girls with stupid nails and red lippy…Simon hates that ridiculous scene. Melodramatic shrieking does not substitute genuine drama and there is plenty of the former in the last episode (‘Haaaaaace!’ 'I didn't know she was my maaaaaaaaam!'). As Simon pointed out to me the solution of the pawns working together makes no sense whatsoever. Whenever Fenric gets mentioned he always brings up the nonsensical conclusion. The Great One is another element added to an already crowded script. He comes with complicated and nonsensical explanations of a paradox where he poisons the oceans and creates his own future. How did Fenric manipulate anybody when he was trapped inside the flask? Did he really set all this up just so he could beat the Doctor at chess? Why such a convoluted answer to explain Ace’s embarrassing time storming backstory? I prefer to think of it as an accident. What is the point of the chess set in Lady Peinforte’s study? This 'arc' is as made up and narrative strangling as one of Moffat's! ‘He can’t penetrate Ace’s psychic force!’ – Fenric is occasionally adult enough to let us figure out things for ourselves...and occasionally feels like it has to point out the obvious. Surely if the Great One kills Fenric and doesn’t release the chemicals then none of this should have happened and the Haemovores shouldn’t exist? What is Millington’s motivation? Why does he go from investing so much into trying to plan the next fight with Russia and then on a sixpence decide that everybody is fair game?

The Shallow Bit: Of all the babes of the McCoy era Sorin is possibly the best looking. I never could resist a man in uniform. The soldier that Ace flirts with is another hottie. This story certainly doesn't scrimp on eye candy.

Result: I don't want you to get the impression from the section you have just read that I am not a fan of The Curse of Fenric. It is a frustrating story because it comes with a shopping list of problems but its better moments are so good that they automatically elevate it to something that is way above average. It has trouble juggling it's shopping list of plot elements but gets some of them so very right it is hard to argue with those people that consider this the best story of all time. The characters are vivid and (mostly) played to perfection, the production is packed full of terrific location work, action sequences and genuinely thrilling and scary moments. However it feels like this story is continually throwing things at you until you submit...curses, ancient evil, war, poisons, vampires, paradoxical mutations, domestic drama, politics. It’s a remarkably sloppy piece of writing, proof that if complicate things needlessly you tie yourself into knots of illogic, poor motivation and unanswered questions. And yet the dialogue is frequently excellent and delivered by such strong actors it almost makes you forget how slapdash the narrative is. The Curse of Fenric has a fantastic number of resources which it uses well and Nicholas Mallet's decision to take the story out on location was the best one he ever made when helming a Doctor Who story. The last episode in particular is the most exciting and slick single piece of Doctor who since the last part of The Caves of Androzani, furiously paced so that you are left clinging onto its coattails. A flawed piece of horror that provides a thrill ride on a scene by scene basis but doesn’t hold up to serious scrutiny: 7/10


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed it completely, and think it's the finest serial since Caves of Androzani.

It's not free from faults in my eyes - I wish it had been given another episode or half an episode (but even without it it works fine, unlike the previous story). I agree completely on the Ace POV shots during the tower siege (it's even more glaring than the usual film/video transitioning). Being someone who prefers some hard SF, I'm not often wild about inexplicably magical fairy tale style god-like creatures (I mean, really, taking time out to play chess with them? And then being handcuffed by the inability to solve the puzzle?), but Doctor Who more often uses them well (celestial toymaker, great intelligence, The Mind Robber, Enlightenment) than not (Greatest Show). And this is no exception, justifying it's inclusion.

You raise too many issues to really address, but I'll try to address a few. If there's one story where coincidences are explicable, it would be this one because everything was being manipulated by Fenric.

"Why does the Doctor start talking in cod Norse mythology…who on Earth would start a conversation like that?"

But the Doctor *isn't* of Earth. :)

"How on Earth did Ace work out that the encryptions are a logic diagram for a computer programme?"

It's not that hard when the diagrams of both are literally side by side on the blackboard. Though I wouldn't have pegged Ace as analytical (despite her proficiency in chemistry) - presumably fenric manipulated her into taking the flip-flop class.

I disagree on the Parish records, they are a clue in the mystery of fenric (though it's possible it might have worked better at another point in the story - I'll have to keep an eye out the next time I watch the story)

Judson's accident and being crippled was supposed to stand in for his being gay but being unable to be open with his sexuality (the character was designed on Turing), but I believe much of this was cut out (another reason I think it deserves another episode). IIRC, there's more background in the novel.

carlr said...

I think it's a great story. As you argue, it is certainly flawed, but in terms of mood it is a *huge* return to Doctor Who being genuinely goth-scary, as it hadn't been since series 15 or 16. If we regard it all, including its apparent plot-holes, as a kind of latter-day Hammer throwback, then it all makes sense I reckon. I think the main aspects it shares with folk-horror is that it highlights that Northern Europe has its own horrors, it is and has been the origin of horrific things, however we try to bury this.

Peakius Baragonius said...

I see this one is growing on you, seeing as it was a 6/10 on the last review ;) Perhaps further viewings will reveal that it does hold up and merit a 10/10...muhahahahahahahahaha!!!!!

Looking forward to more of your audio reviews by the way - your thoughts on the latest batch (Afterlife, Antidote to Oblivion, The King of Sontar, Stoyn Parts 2 and 3) will be interesting to read (especially the first three given your strong opinions on their TARDIS teams and the FDA's creative steam)!

Audrey the Leviathan Vampire Girl said...

I've never been able to get into this one... there's no Mrs. Remington for a start. ;)

carlr said...

One part which was pretty weak: the zombie 80s teenage girls were scary to me - I was at school in that time and some of the girls really *were* terrifying - but the way they shuffle off in retreat after the Soviet soldier affirms his faith in 'Soviet communism' - which had been a joke for most conscious people since at least 1968 or 1956 - looks really silly and naive based upon what we know these days, and it fatally undermines the hazard posed by the haemovores. But it's 80s Who I guess... normal rules of critical conduct don't always apply, and the sublime is inextricably tangled with the excruciating.

Martin Parsons said...

'We could have done without the excerpts of the parish records, which hold up the action interminably' - I love all that stuff! Every slow, talky bit just ramps up the atmosphere. Plus I think the 'ooooh it's all tingly, like electric' feels very authentic.

Anthony Pirtle said...

This doesn't come close to being my favorite Seventh Doctor TV serial (that's Ghost Light), but it may be my favorite turn by Ace (who also gets a lot of development in the aforementioned story). Rarely did the writers decide to treat her like an adult, and that is an issue that continued for years into her Big Finish stories. This story, coming on the heels of Ghost Light, should have been an opportunity to radically change Ace from the bat-wielding punk rockette we know into something more mature.