Sex, undercurrents and The Curse of Fenric (1989)

fenric

Fenric, eh? Time to talk undercurrents then.

This story was originally called The Wolves of Fenric, a metaphoric reference to a number of characters in the story whose destinies had been predetermined by this week’s evil from the dawn of time. It was, I think, Producer John Nathan-Turner who suggested that because there weren’t any actual wolves in the story, and no doubt also that the concept isn’t completely explained until Part Four, suggested the titular curse as an alternative.

Lots of Doctor Who stories changed titles before transmission, but it seems appropriate for this story, which is as interesting for what it doesn’t say as much as what it does. Fenric is as dense a text as any undergraduate semiotics student ever got their teeth into, and some of its most potent themes, specifically those concerning sexuality, are disguised throughout.

For a start, there’s swimming as a metaphor for sexual awakening. It’s good time girls Jean and Phyllis who succumb to temptation first and dive into the waters at Maidens Bay. “I know what girls who go to Maidens Bay have in mind”, says Miss Hardacre, the shrewish old spinster they’re billeted with. When two girls are transformed into Haemovores, they tempt a Russian soldier into the water, with some heavily loaded dialogue:

JEAN: Blood warm. Nobody’s forcing him. Nobody ever forces you to come into the water.

PHYLLIS: But everybody wants to. Deep down, everybody wants to come into the water.

(Although this is problematic; when Jean and Phyllis go for a swim, they become monsters. By contrast, when Ace dives in at story’s end, the water has a cleansing, emotionally cathartic effect).

But other themes are, like the Viking inscriptions under the church, harder to unearth. Dr Judson, codebreaker and inventor of the Ultima machine is a stand in for WW2 mathematician Alan Turing. Canny viewers may pick up on Judson’s disability (he’s confined to a wheelchair) as a reference to Turing’s personal restriction as a closet homosexual (as noted by writer Ian Briggs in the DVD extra Shattering the Chains). But few, I think, would cotton on to the idea that naval base commander Millington is also gay, and was the cause of Judson’s accident, through an injury inflicted many years before on a rugby field in a fit of jealousy.

For that reading, one has to turn to Briggs’ novelisation. It’s a vivid read if you can track it down Ebay hounds, and reveals a few other juicy morsels, such as Miss Hardacre’s own experiences at Maidens’ Bay (turns out Phyllis’s retort “Just ’cause you’ve never been swimming!” was wrong) and Nurse Crane’s cooperation with the invading Russians (extra points, by the way, if you spotted that Russians are all named after characters in plays by Chekhov). In a way, the book is an admission that there’s more to this story than can be told on television, and more than can be said during family viewing hours.

And on top of the subtexts littered throughout the story, we have the added complication of editing. Fenric ran way over length, and the transmitted version is cut with frenetic pace. Comparing this version with the 2003 Special Edition released on DVD is instructive. The 1989 version features a frantic energy rarely seen in Doctor Who (even by 21st century standards) but scenes start and end abruptly, and characters jump from location to location instantly. It’s an exciting but bewildering ride. The 2003 version reinstates missing scenes and reorders existing ones, and emerges the more coherent version, although it loses some of the exhilaration of the original.

My memories of Fenric are confused between these two versions and the 1991 VHS release which was another, shorter remix. It would take a more dedicated viewer than me to tell you which scenes belong to which version (but actually, just go to DWM369 where David Bryher does just this in The Fact of Fiction). Add this complexity to those thematic undercurrents, and we have something unique in Doctor Who; a choose-your-own-version story, into which you can read as much or as little as you like. It’s Doctor Who to revisit time and time again.

Just a closing word about Millington. He’s a loon, and not just because he’s crazed about the forthcoming end of days. The Doctor and Ace are clearly intruders, but he does nothing to apprehend them (his mate Judson was there when the Doctor forged the letter of introduction, so it’s not like he really thinks they’re from the war office). He’s more concerned with a baby being on base than them. The Doctor only has to mention some Norse mythology and that’s enough for Millington to tell him the Navy’s top secret plans to deploy chemical weapons. He orders the base’s communications equipment to be disabled for no good reason. He orders all chess sets destroyed, even though he could have no idea about the Doctor and Fenric’s unfinished game (and even if he did, what difference does it make to his plans?). Who put this guy in charge? “If this is a naval base”, Ace complains, “I’m Lord Nelson.”  I tend to agree.

Ah, well. At least he meets his end fittingly, shot by the unlikely pairing of a British and a Russian soldier. Which echoes Ace’s solution to the Doctor’s chess puzzle where the black and white pawns gang up on the king. See, there’s another of those undercurrents. This story just can’t help itself.

LINKS to The Dalek Invasion of Earth: World War Two shown thematically in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, is shown literally here. Both feature geniuses in wheelchairs.

NEXT TIME: Thank you Miss Grant, we’ll let you know. Our next random jump takes us to a Frontier in Space.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Sex, undercurrents and The Curse of Fenric (1989)”

  1. Very interesting. The link between Judson and Turing seem so obvious once they’re pointed out, but it never occured to me before. BTW, did you know that Janet Henfrey (Mrs Hardaker) plays the same character in all but name in Dennis Potter’s Stand Up Nigel Barton? Not related to your review, I know, but I thought you may find it interesting.

    1. Hi Dale,

      I didn’t know that about Janet Henfrey. She must specialise in uptight older ladies.

      As for Turing, The Imitation Game is worth a look too. Cumberbatch seems to have cornered the market on tortured geniuses.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Johnny

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s