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Doctor Who: The Curse of Fenric DVD

By Mark Clapham on 14 February 2005

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

With a revival of ‘Doctor Who’ as a fully-fledged TV series on the cards, BBC Worldwide have conveniently released this story from the show’s last season.

By 1989, the series was not so much dying as shrinking, and overcompensating by implying an increasingly godlike power to the lead character. There had always been a disparity between the supposed scale of the stories and what actually happened on screen, but ‘The Curse of Fenric’ takes this to a whole new level. The backstory to these episodes stretches from the dawn of time, through some mythical arabian nights type period and an ill-starred viking invasion, and on into the future, to the end of a polluted Earth. The Doctor is a collosus in stories like this, his influence ever stretching as he battles gods like Fenric from one end of time to the other. At least, that’s what’s on paper.

On screen, what we get is Sylvester McCoy and Nicholas Parsons being chased around a muddy field by some vampires. The on-screen action never leaves the confines of a military research station in World War II and the nearby village.

Now, this disparity really shouldn’t matter, as it’s the natural stuff of on-screen science fiction. In ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, the end of the world always involved the villain and a few goons running around the corridors of Sunnydale High. In ‘Babylon 5′, the scale was galactic but the show rarely left the space station. The difference is that to do this sort of thing effectively, you need to sell the big, macro story off-screen through the actions in the micro, on-screen programme. And the bits don’t add up very well in ‘The Curse of Fenric’. Writer Ian Briggs has some wonderful symbolism at his disposal – Viking runes, the Enigma codes, an eternal game of chess – but never quite ties them up with the nitty gritty of what is going on before our eyes. The computer translating the viking runes is all very exciting, but what does it actually do? How can a chess game trap a god in a bottle? If Fenric can do all this time storm, grand manipulation stuff, how come he can’t just escape at any time?

Which is not to say ‘Curse’ isn’t entertaining, it’s just we’re used to seeing our symbols linked to our storytelling these days. At least it’s a stab in the right direction – I’d rather see ‘Doctor Who’ with big concerns and some use of symbolism, however mishandled, than the usual good alien/bad alien corridor running gibberish. Fourteen years ago the series may have died in a gutter, but at least it was reaching for some stars at the time.

The two-disc set is lavish even by previous BBC standards, and presents the story in two distinct versions. There’s the broadcast, four episode version, which should keep completists and purists happy. Then there’s a new Special Edition edit, with plenty of material cut from the broadcast version restored, a movie-length format, a totally remixed 5.1 soundtrack and some new visual effects. The latter range from what would be thought of as special effects – lightning bolts and such – to more subtle work on the picture quality, adjusting the light levels and bringing a greater sense of atmosphere to the video footage. The sound mix is great, and the revised music has a sense of depth lacking in the tinnier, synth-heavy ‘Who’ soundtracks of the 1980s. The Special Edition is another bold attempt to deliver ‘Who’ stories in a format digestible to a modern audience, and is helped by the fact that there was nothing much wrong with the production in the first place. The period setting is well used, and the direction is pretty good. The guest cast are generally excellent, especially Nicholas Parsons and Dinsdale Landen, who are both superb. Unfortunately, the lead actors are somewhat limited in range – McCoy just can’t do anger convincingly, although he’s good at a sort of low-key melancholy, while Sophie Aldred (as teen sidekick Ace) falls hilariously flat when she tries to do ’seductive’. These are problems that even the best re-edits can’t solve, but anyone expecting all-round brilliance from a ‘Doctor Who’ story is always going to trip over some glaring flaw of casting or production. The problems here are relatively minimal.

Other extras are exhaustive and, frankly, a bit exhausting. Footage of special effects tests, location recces, convention panels and such are interesting to have, but less than thrilling to watch. Two excerpts from broadcast progrannes – Children’s BBC’s ‘Take Two’ and the BSB (remember them?) ‘Doctor Who Weekend’ – are bizarre curios. More interesting are the new interviews with writer Ian Briggs, composer Mark Ayres and costume designer Ken Trew, which show that where the programme lacked budget, it certainly never lacked enthusiasm from its production team. Briggs in particular goes into some depth about the various stories within the episodes, and the inspirations behind the scripts.

Looking forward to a new series, these DVDs look increasingly like the definitive, final words on their respective stories. Very much part of the past, ‘The Curse of Fenric’ stands as a high point in the later part of the old series. Anyone interested in this sort of thing from either a historical or nostalgic perspective will find everything they could want, and then some, on these discs.

Unleash the Wolves of Fenric – or just buy this DVD – at Blackstar.


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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named markclapham.com.




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