The Curse of Fenric: DVD Special

Written by:
Ian Briggs
Directed by: Nicholas Mallett
Starring: Sylvester McCoy
Year: 1989
Video Availability: Try

When I first saw The Curse of Fenric it utterly blew me away. A McCoy story with no embarrassing central performances or silliness, coupled with the revelation-packed ending. The concept of an entity that follows the Doctor, surreptitiously effecting his every move (they did a similar thing later in Cracker) is a good one, albeit fannish. However, overexposure - and that the fact that I've watched it so many times I can practically recite it word for word - mean it hasn't really maintained its status 13 years later.

There's a retrospective form of criticism where the McCoy period is concerned. At the time, everyone was slagging it. Nowadays the pro-McCoys (perhaps because the era turned the McCoy haters off the series and fandom?) are possibly in the majority, and I admit I got caught up in it. I've no problem (generally) with Sylvester or his stories. He's fine here, though perhaps lacks the authority of some of the others, The Mighty Trout particularly. However, peer pressure actually made me convince myself that Sophie Aldred was a decent actress. Sorry, but she's crap. And I initially thought Nicholas Parsons was good, too. He's not bad, but listen to the way he pronounces his lines - he sounds like he's reading them from the script. The stage school brats from Grange Hill are still fairly embarrassing ("Make me look like Lana Turner." Christ, she's only got a mascara pencil, love, she's not a plastic surgeon!), though Dinsdale Landen, Tomek Bork and - despite some detractors - Alfred Lynch - are great.

Episode-wise this is above average, if nothing outstanding. Weirdly, it feels like part of a whole narrative, rather than an instalment, meaning that the cliffhanger is somewhat forced.
* * * *

Mark Ayres's music is more distracting than you might recall, though he's no Keff McCulloch.

This seems less involved than I remembered. At the time the series was so wildly veering in terms of quality (throwing up Season 24, Silver Nemesis and Battlefield in frightening succession), that I was just relieved to see one that had a form of decency. And as the story is quite reliant on the era's own mythology then watched out of context it must stand alone. In this respect it's not as strong a story as, say, Ghost Light or Greatest Show.

Again, some things that seemed great on initial viewings - such as the Doctor referring to his family - seem tame due to familiarity. And as for those two woofers turning into sex sirens - I wouldn't touch 'em with yours, even if I was paralytic. Gene and Phyllis - one of them has the word "ugly" before her name, the other "Syp". It attempts horror, but Bela Lugosi never had such a fat arse.
* * * ½

It's amazing how functional a lot of the dialogue is in this story, so few of the lines actually being memorable. Does Ace really run from the Night of the Living Deads? And does one of them really grab her knocker?

Quite sweetly, the Doctor's faith comes from the names of his companions. It all does feel a little silly this episode, however, with an expanded role from Am Dram Aldred and the amazingly rubbery haemovores. Commander Millington talks like he's gargling with shit, but is superbly haunted. Just an okay instalment.
* * *

This seems really messy with hindsight, possessing an unclear plot that holds little appeal for the general audience. And unlike Ghost Light it can't claim to be particularly artistic.

The unplanned rain is fortuitous, and the chemical weapon subplot is alarmingly topical. Yet amidst all the running around, Aldred "acting" and "two pawns together" cheesiness the story is lost somewhat. ("You don't have the emblem this time" - it's on his bloody hat, you blind cow!) The music is also a little repetitive and why would a Russian "see you in Hell?" I thought most of them were Atheists?

However, the extended video release is of interest here as this is the episode with the most additional material. The ending seems more truncated than it used to. If this was any other story then I'd probably be praising it to the hilt, yet it seems anti-climatic for Fenric: after all, I used to rate this as one of my ten favourite stories.
* * * *

A good, yet not great, story. Taken out of the confines of its own era and watched in isolation it lacks a strong enough plot to truly be a classic. Aldred gives a lame performance and Ayres's music has dated considerably. Still a top three McCoy story, but not an outstanding example of the series as a whole.
* * * *


I'll get to the extras in a minute, but traditionally I always start with the commentary and information text. Actually, writing this eighteen months after the above review, I should point out that the version of Fenric on the DVD is the original BBC transmission and not the extended edition that was released on video and referred to above. There is a version with the edited clips reinstated, but we'll come to that…

The information text here is so full and researched that, as I was reading it with the commentary on, I even had to rewind to catch bits. There's also a special still page of text before episode three telling you about the individual nicknames for the Haemovores (Which says two weren't known, despite Ken Trew identifying one as "Prince" elsewhere on the disc) and asks if you can guess which are which. A second page comes up after said episode revealing all. It could be my imagination, but if you watch the third episode without information text, and consequently without these text page, then it seems to take marginally longer to load, as if the disc has to work out how to skip what shouldn't be there. The commentary has got fairly lukewarm reviews, largely from people who wonder what on Earth Nicholas Parsons was even doing there, but it's the twelfth one I've heard and by far the warmest. Okay, Peter's are funnier, but here you feel completely relaxed in the company of people who you can tell really like one another. Maybe hearing a few snide barbs in the direction of Matthew Waterhouse is more stimulating, but this is definitely the most pleasant and amenable, even if Nicholas clearly lives in a different world to everyone around him.

Whatever your feelings on this story, there's surely no denying that this is a first-rate DVD package. A double disc for the usual price tag, where even the Easter Eggs are the original BBC idents (1'49m) or over six whole minutes (6'11m) of Mark Ayres describing how he was inspired by Rachmaninov. Something of a step up from just bunging on a blank title sequence and hoping it'll do, surely?

Actually, talking of the blank titles, then they do get their own section on the menu (2'13m), with the option to view in Dolby 5.1 or stereo. It seems a little pointless given that they look and sound horrific anyway, but it's just one wrong foot on a selection of over 3 ¾ hours of features. With so much on them, then it's only fair to list them in order:

Modelling The Dead (05'11m) - Part of the 31 Who special on satellite, this looks at the modelling of the Haemovore heads, which is diverting enough for five minutes.

Claws and Effect (17'39m) - Largely location recce footage, but also some glances at the effects used for faces dissolving and explosions. Fairly interesting to watch once, but little concession is made for the viewer, and hardly a single shot is broadcast quality.

Photo Gallery (5'54m) - 64 images - a record for a Who release? Yet as I always say, the soundtracks behind these automated galleries are rarely listenable. I know, I know, I get sick of saying it, but if they'd stop then I wouldn't have to, would I? I mean, this one has the sound they make when they're repelling vampires, for God's sake!

Nebula 90 (20'46m) - A Fenric panel of technical staff and some of the actors (but not Sylvester), this is quite an awkward and stilted piece, with half of the panel looking like they'd rather be somewhere else and Gary Russell steadfastly refusing to laugh at any of his guests' jokes. You could have at least smiled politely, Gary. What's more, with dodgy sound, people walking into shot and much flashing of cameras then it's not really good enough to go on a DVD.

Take Two (04'30m) - A kid's magazine programme that took a brief look at the costume design of the story, complete with clips from a production meeting. Worth a look, and JN-T's desire not to scare young audience members too much is touching.

Shattering The Chains (24'52m) - I guess your interest in technical extras depends on how much you're interested in the aspect involved. While lighting and music don't thrill me, I'm keen on writing (not that you'd think it from this site) and so was intrigued by Ian Briggs telling us how he put the story together. I wished he'd told us about how he linked in Silver Nemesis and Dragonfire, and whether it was planned, but it's still worth watching nonetheless. He's not responsible for casting, so we can forgive him suggesting that the two Grange Hill brats were there for "sex" and that Miss Hardaker used to be a siren. But his suggestion that Sylvester can play anger convincingly is obviously the words of a madman.

Recutting The Runes (15'06m) - Quite an interesting look with Mark Ayres at the way they did the Special Edition, including regrading some of the shots. He doesn't explain why "Dangerous undercurrents, Professor?" "Not any more" was omitted, though.

40th Anniversary Celebration (2'59m) - The extra that's on all the 2003 releases. Probably works best in this packed environment, where, as an unrelated feature, it doesn't register in the majority. Quite good fun in context.

Costume Design (17'04m) - Some old queen reminisces about the costumes he devised for the serial.

Special Edition (103'44m) - The ultimate extra? Dedicated to Nicholas Mallett and John Nathan-Turner, this is a recut, remixed edition in movie format. All the reinstated scenes from the video release are there, yet integrated more seamlessly into the action. There's even some scenes that didn't make it the second time around, such as the Doctor asking Ace what "Mum I'm sorry!" was all about. Occasionally less is more - the Doctor adding "inhuman" to Millington's cipher revelation of the word "love" was better cut - but Fenric is a story that rewards this format, even if what used to be the third cliffhanger has too much of a dramatic rush for it to flow easily. It's not just a case of putting back what was originally taken out, as this version allows the scenes to regain their intended pace and flow without the trimming. As I said above, it's a shame they didn't redo the theme tune and titles as well, as this is Doctor Who trying to be more adult and reflective. Despite what I said in the story review, while Fenric may have its flaws, it's commendable on the strength of what it was attempting. The sole negative points of this reworking are the corny way Ace gets a flashback in the final confrontation scene, and the rejigged attack on the church. Not only do more shots of the Haemovores make them look silly, but for some reason Ayres's rescored incidentals come over all Keff. As a whole, though, this is preferable to the original.

* * * * *