Monday, February 20, 2006


The Curse of Fenric (Special Edition)

An even more intelligent tale from 1989, this complex and political horror story moves very quickly and definitely needs your brain in gear. It too has underlying themes, though they’re less obviously spelt out than in The Ice Warriors; religion, sex, environmental catastrophes and evolution jostle with masses of film references and the idea that no side is right in war, though – in a Cold War thriller before the Cold War – some Liberals may raise an eyebrow at its apparent friendliness to Stalinism, or at least Leninism. This one’s set during the Second World War (without Nazis, who would probably have derailed its moral equivalence), where… Well, there's a lot going on, but let’s just say that the British are trying to trap the Russians while the Doctor and an ancient, evil intelligence are trying to trap each other, the latter with the aid of some rubbery blue vampires from the future. But they’re not important right now. It’s Richard’s favourite story and one of mine, and the most striking prototype on screen for what to us is the only continuation of the series in print that really compels, the 1990s Virgin ‘New Adventures’ range that now reads like the missing link between the old series’ end and the hugely successful relaunch last year.

This was the only one of the stories we watched that’s out on DVD, and it’s a superb release. Added to impressive extras of the ‘documentary’ sort, there’s a ‘Special Edition’ cut, which isn’t quite the perfect version that exists in our heads but is well on the way there. A goodly number of new scenes significantly improve a story we loved to begin with, and most of the new effects and reworked score are successful, meaning it looks and sounds better than it's done before, but rather misses having cliffhangers in it. The trouble with editing together a feature-length version of something that was written and made to be episodic is that the pace is shot to hell, but you can’t have everything.

So what’s so good about it? Well, the multi-layered story intermixes the grimness of World War Two with Norse mythology, Dracula and a touch of The Arabian Nights, and makes clever use of the difference between a 1940s and 1980s mindset through the Doctor’s then-modern-day companion. There’s a lot on the good and bad sides of faith (it never really comes down on one side or the other), including a superb moment where a hammer and sickle badge wards off vampires when a Bible has failed, as it’s not the symbol but the belief that repels them; it’s probably fortunate that this went out a few weeks before the Berlin Wall fell. Several of the guest actors are rather good, too, especially Nicholas Parsons – yes, Nicholas Parsons – in his first ‘straight’ role for about 30 years, and Dinsdale Landen, who switches from waspish Turing-inspired scientist to being possessed by charismatic evil incarnate.

Now, there’s a reason why I skipped ahead to The Curse of Fenric here. It and The Deadly Assassin have a lot in common: both top-notch stories; both treating Doctor Who not just as sci-fi but as an attempt to fashion modern mythology; both highly intelligent; both borrowing from multiple sources but fizzing with ideas of their own; both inspiring huge numbers of other Who stories in either their themes or their detail; both highly controversial among fans, who tended either to love them or hate them. Unfortunately, there's a quite different variety of link between The Deadly Assassin and Arc of Infinity, so I’ll look at those now...

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