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Doctor Who and The Curse of Fenric

These days most folks associate Doctor Who with folks like David Tennant and Matt Smith.  But die-hard fans of the show remember the Time Lord’s previous incarnations.  One of the last episodes of the series original run aired in 1989.  Long before Twilight or The Vampire Diaries or True Blood or Being Human, the world’s most famous time traveler encountered vampires in “The Curse of Fenric.”

Viewing this episode today can jar a bit.  Apart from the different format (4 episodes of 25 minutes each) and a very different Doctor (Sylvester McCoy as this middle-aged, almost clown-like eccentric whose mask slips every now and then, revealing the ages-old schemer within), we confront the budget.  The very small budget.  As a result, special effects don’t seem all that special by our standards.  In particular, the really old vampires–or haemovores as the Doctor dubs them–all too obviously consist of people in rubber masks.  In those days, though, the show (officially at least) aimed at an audience of children.  Which makes for another bit of disorientation, at least to Americans.  As Harry Potter shows, the Brits don’t mind showing elements of real horror to children.

During World War II, the Doctor arrives off the Northumrian coast with his companion Ace (Sophie Aldred), a teenaged semi-juvenile delinquent with severe parent issues.  She trusts and even loves this oddball man she called “The Professor” though.  A pair of misfits exploring time and space, with the Doctor acting as surrogate father.

The town of Maiden’s Point turns out to have quite a history.  A viking ship landed her over a thousand years ago, leaving descendants as shown in the names on gravestones.  Today a government station exists to eavesdrop on German transmissions and decode them using the ULTIMA machine, a primitive computer.  Commander Millington (Alfred Lynch) is in charge, and has his own agenda.  A brilliant scientist named Judson works on ULTIMA but also hopes to use it to translate runes found in catacombs beneath the local church.  A team of Soviet soldiers have arrived with orders to steal ULTIMA, because (as everyone knows) the western powers have only a temporary alliance with Communist Russia.  After the war, tensions and rivalries will erupt once more.  Millington knows this as well.  That is why he has been storing up nerve gas, as part of his own plans.

Ace pretty soon befriends a couple of girls her own age, Jean and Phyllis, relocated from London and staying with an extremely stern old woman Miss Hardecker (Janet Henfrey).  They are among the first ‘taken’ and transformed.  For under the water of Maiden’s Bay the ship of the original viking settlers remains.  More, some of those vikings begin to stir–no longer human but malformed things called haemovores, clawed vampires not unlike the look Johnny Depp assumed in this year’s Dark Shadows.  In truth these “fresh” haemovores make far more frightening creatures than the men in rubber masks and gloves that emerge out of the water and threaten all those nearby.  Very Night of the Living Dead, that.

Interestingly (and much more in accord with folklore) these vampires suffer no ill effect from sunlight, but find a certain psychic ‘tone’ generated by pure faith unbearable.  Thus a Soviet officer keeps them at bay by holding up the hammer-and-sickle from his uniform, the emblem of Communism in which he totally believes.  Ironically, the local Vicar fares less well.  He has too many doubts, especially amidst a war in which too many innocents die.

Fenric it turns out is the name of an ancient Evil bested by the Doctor in a chess game and so trapped in a vase, one found in the catacombs under Maiden’s Point church.  As he was imprisoned, Fenric managed to reach across time to the far future, when a polluted ruined Earth supported the last remnants of humanity–the grotesque Haemovores.  One such, dubbed the Ancient One, he pulled back to the ninth century and used to prepare for this day–when Fenric escapes and faces the Time Lord once more!

“The Curse of Fenric” marked one of the last episodes featuring the Seventh Doctor (Matt Smith, the current one, numbers Eleven).  Produced while Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, it can be seen (as were several such) as a critique of her Conservative policies.  Millington’s ruthless plans, for example, involved letting the Soviets steal ULTIMA in order to use the machine to kill them via a built-in booby-trap.  Likewise other episodes heaped scorn on ruthless competition, on the natural consequences of conservatism carried to an extreme, etc.  Many assume this helped end the series’ production.  Certainly the show had ever-increasing sophistication in terms of storyline and character development.  By then, everyone knew adults watched Doctor Who.  And perhaps inevitably over the course of the series’ run, almost every kind of icon from fiction made its appearance–from ghosts to sea monsters and werewolves to invading aliens (lots of those) and omnipotent gamesters.  Little wonder the show had several vampires.  This might be the most “pure” form the Doctor ever encountered.  At least so far.

The 2003 DVD of this story edited all four episodes into a full-length film, redoing the special effects and including twelve minutes of unaired footage.

Anyone else remember “The Curse of Fenric” and its Nosferatu-esque undead?

 

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david • May 20, 2012


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