Day 357 — December 23rd 2021

The Curse of Fenric Parts Three and Four

Well it’s no wonder I was expecting ‘We play the game again… Time Lord’ to be a cliffhanger, because it is! Hah! It’s just an episode later than I was expecting. I’ll tell you what, though, it’s one of the very best cliffhangers the show has ever done. Everything about it screams ‘epic’, and it’s a shame there weren’t more people watching by this stage because I think it would have gone down as iconic in the same way some of the mid-1970s ones have.

The fact that this moment plays out a full episode later than I was expecting does highlight one of the problems I’m having with this story, though. It feels like it’s hard to follow partly because everyone is constantly running about between different locations — Doctor Who more than most. All the characters were in place in the right room and the right situation at the end of Part Two, then they all filter off to other areas for a bit before coming back together here just in time for the cliffhanger.

This feels like a problem in other areas, too, with characters going places simply to take place in a scene and then head back to where they were. Ace is a good example — she escapes the Heamovore’s attack on the church by racing up to the roof and climbing down… only to be confronted by more of the creatures and is forced to climb back up and head back to where she started. It should feel as though there’s no escape, and that the enemy is closing in from all sides, but it just ended up making me wonder why she bothered going up on the roof in the first place. It feels like they needed a moment of action, so she went off to have one.

Oh, but as much as I moan, there’s some great images in this episode which make it far easier to overlook any issues in the structure of the story. The sight of the Heamovores advancing along the beach in the mist is brilliant, and I love the vicar’s death even if I’m sad to see him leave the story. It feels like that moment achieves a feeling of there being no escape far better than Ace on the roof — he manages to overcome his enemy briefly, but he’s eventually overpowered. There’s a brilliant shot of his body laying in the mud as the Heamovores file past which I especially love.

Of course the other big thing in this episode is Ace confronting Doctor Who for knowing more than he’s letting on. It feels like ages since we’ve seen a companion legitimately call out Doctor Who for something (as opposed to simply whining at him, which was all the rage for much of this decade), and it’s played beautifully by Sylvester and Sophie. I’m also a big fan of his description about what they’re fighting, which captures my imagination far more than all the Norse Mythology talk in the last episode about the Great Ash Tree and the Soul of the World.

Doctor Who: ‘Evil. Evil since the dawn of time.’
Ace: ‘What do you mean?’
Doctor Who: ‘Will you stop asking me these questions?’
Ace: ‘Tell me!’
Doctor Who: ‘The dawn of time. The beginning of all beginnings. Two forces only, good and evil. Then chaos. Time is born, matter, space. The universe cries out
like a newborn. The forces shatter as the universe explodes outwards. Only
echoes remain, and yet somehow, somehow the evil force survives. An intelligence. Pure evil!’
Ace: ‘That’s Fenric?’
Doctor Who: ‘No, that’s just Millington’s name for it. Evil has no name. Trapped inside a flask like a genie in a bottle.’

I’m also a fan of Millington’s recalling of the sacrifices you have to make in war, when he paints a rather grim picture of the way he’s had to behave in the past. It’s a lovely bit of writing, and comes perfectly to make the horrors being faced by the Russian soldiers in the runnel all the more viceral;

Doctor Who: ‘Open those doors!’
Millington: ‘Many years ago, when I was Chief Petty Officer on board ship,
we had an explosion in an engine room.’
Doctor Who: ‘The Russians are our friends, our allies!’
Millington: ‘I had to seal it off to save the ship, keep the flames restricted
to one section.’
Wainwright: ‘Please, Commander. Those two men won’t stand a chance
against those creatures. They’re inhuman!’
Ace: ‘So’s he.’
Millington: ‘We could hear men screaming behind the bulkheads for nearly
an hour, and then the screaming stopped.’

Overall I’m a little torn by this one. So many brilliant moments mixed in with some slightly odd plotting, and I can already feel myself losing track of what’s going on. I think on balance I’m going with another 7/10 — I’m broadly enjoying the ride even if I’m a little lost as to our destination.

I think it sort of falls apart a little in this final episode, but that might just be down to the fact that I don’t fully understand what’s going on. The solution to Doctor Who’s riddle is for the black and white pawns to work together. Okay. That’s a neat enough idea, and it’s nicely mirrored by the English and Russian soldiers setting aside their differences, but… well, it’s a load of bollocks innit? I don’t know a lot about chess, but I’m fairly sure there’s no way for the two sides to work together towards victory. And come to think of it, if they’re working together, doesn’t that preclude one side winning anyway?

My bigger issue is Ace rushing in and simply blurting out the answer. I know she doesn’t realise she’s talking to Fenric (and fair play, the reveal is brilliant), but it feels so massively out of character for her. It also ties into the problem I was having with Part Three — everyone rushing in for brief scenes and then running away again. Here, Ace encounters Fenric and tells him she doesn’t know the solution. She then runs off to the next room, discovers the solution, and rushes straight back to the chess set with it. Why? Why not go off somewhere else, unless you were specifically going to reveal the answer. I’d buy it if they added a line about her feeling compelled to tell him because she’s a ‘Wolf of Fenric’, but that’s the implication on screen.

On the whole I don’t think Ace comes out of this episode very well. Aside from the fact that she gives up the solution for no apparent reason, she also ends up looking a bit daft for not realising that the baby is her mother. I know it’s an unusual concept to wrap your head around, and it probably wouldn’t be your first thought, but did she not think it a strange coincidence that this girl and her baby happen to have the same names as her grandmother and mother? Especially after she sends her off to her Nan’s house! The reveal is a brilliant moment in fairness, but I think it would have been all the stronger if Ace had worked it out for herself. Build it into her anger in Part Three towards Doctor Who, the complaint that he knew what was going on the whole time. As it is, Ace ends up looking a bit thick and that’s a shame.

I also think she forgives Doctor Who a bit too readily at the end. The scene in which he has to break her faith is brilliant, and a great performance from McCoy, who’s rarely so cold in the part. But we seem to move very quickly from his explanation to Ace diving in the ocean and declaring herself clean of all this. I wonder if this story could have done with a grace note scene like Remembrance had? A service for the people who’ve died, and the implication that Ace and Doctor Who have been here a few days since the final confrontation, and have had time to reflect and build bridges.

It’s not all moaning from me, though. Once again this episode’s got its fair share of brilliant images. The Ancient One rising from the ocean looks great, and it’s a fantastic mask. I wonder if it would have had more impact if the vampires had all been a bit more human? It’s strange that they all get killed off here now the main event has arrived, but might have worked a little better had we been actively building towards him. Then there’s Fenric himself, who’s brilliantly camp but played with enough of a sinister edge to really make the lines work. ‘Don’t interrupt me when I’m eulogising’ — Hah!

I’m dropping to a 6/10 for this one, which surprises me a little as I’ve always thought of The Curse of Fenric as a bit of a favourite, but it hasn’t grabbed me as much as I’d expected. I think this is another one to revisit once the marathon’s over, and this time I’ll watch the Extended Edition that I meant to stick on this time…!

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Will Brooks

English Boy in Wales. Freelance Writer and Designer. Doctor Who Art for Big Finish, Titan Comics, Cubicle 7. TARDIS Fan. Pinstripe Counter.