As I typed the story title in for this review, I had a vivid sense of fans of the Seventh Doctor reaching for their cutlasses and crying for my blood – evidence (if need more be presented) that I have it in for poor Sylvester McCoy! So let me unashamedly begin by saying that I really enjoy The Curse of Fenric, and as with all stories I am currently reviewing the problem is not that it is a poor story, but simply that I get more enjoyment from the stories above it! And that, really, comes down to personal taste as much as anything else – you will have already noted by the absence of large numbers of Troughton, Pertwee and Tom Baker stories, that their eras are the ones I hold in the highest esteem.
You have probably heard of the anecdote that Peter Davison would have stayed for a fourth season as the Doctor if he’d been given more scripts like The Caves of Androzani in Season 20. In much the same way that I earlier argued for a full length Season 23 (in which Colin Baker would have received the send-off he deserved), I think Doctor Who would have survived beyond 1989 if Season 25 if it had contained more stories like The Curse of Fenric. I confess that it took me a while to warm to – partially because my mum, noting the vampirish elements of the story, strongly encouraged my dad not to let me watch it until I was a little older, and even then I found the VHS hard to follow. Even though it is a slow burner, once you get your head around the narrative it doesn’t disappoint – the Doctor is at his literal chess playing best in facing the baddy of the piece, an ancient being known as Fenric.
As with most McCoy stories, there are several stories going on at once – notionally set at a naval base during the Second World War, the base commander is trying to achieve three things at once – intercept German communications using their decoding machine; deceive their Soviet allies into stealing a booby-trapped decoder that will devastate Moscow when used; and to discover the power of Fenric that is alluded to at a nearby Viking encampment. Of course, as with all humans who dabble in higher powers that they do not actually understand, Fenric overpowers the base scientist to reanimate himself, and possesses many of the base population to be his slave army.
Rather than explain the convoluted resolution of the tale, I would simply advise watching the DVD – then watching it again a day or two later when you have had time to digest it! Half of the enjoyment comes from not understanding what the Doctor is up to, but also the resolution of certain aspects of Ace’s backstory – there is the very poignant moment where Ace helps a young mother on the base to escape with her baby – to realise later that the baby is in fact her much hated mother. The story undoubtedly paves the way for the exploration of companion backstory that would become a staple of Nu Who – it is a fine example of what the show could have done with the budget and opportunity to evolve from the 80s into the 90s. In that regard, Curse of Fenric is also a rather tragic piece – a lump-in-the-throat inducing ‘What if?’ in the history of Doctor Who.