Shows - Review
Doctor Who (1963-1989)
Episode: The Curse of Fenric (Part 1)
Review by: Michael Hickerson
"You know what's going on, don't you?"
"You always know... you just can't be bothered to tell anyone. It's like it's some kind of game and only you know the rules. You knew all about that inscripiton being a computer program, but you didn't tell me. You know all about that old bottle and you're not telling me! Am I so stupid?!?"
"No, that's not it."
"Why then? I want to know!"
"Evil, evil since the dawn of time..."
"What do you mean?"
"Will you stop asking me these questions?"
"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, yet somehow, somehow the evil force survives... an intelligence of pure evil."
"And that's Fenric."
"No, that's just Millington's name for it. The evil has no name, trapped inside a flask like a genie in a bottle."
--Ace and the Doctor.
I'm not generally a big fan of special editions. If the film or television program was good enough in its original form, I don't see the point in going back, updating it the special effects or changing entire plot points from the original. This reaction even extends to the process of colorizing old movies -- if it was made in black and white, it should remain in black and white. (Hence why I can praise the Restoration Team for restoring the color to the old Pertwee stories that were only available in black and white -- color is the way these stories were meant to be seen!)
Over the past decade or so, several high profile filmmakers have seen fit to go back and tweak their classic films into "special editions." George Lucas did it was the Star Wars trilogy (I've heard he'll make even further edits when the movies finally hit DVD in a few weeks), Steven Spielberg did it to ET and they even went and made a longer version of Apocolypse Now. In each of these cases, I'm not sure getting the "special edition" treatment really made that big a difference. It didn't necessarily make the films in question any better and in some cases, it made them a bit less (Greedo shoots first?!? Come on!)
It also makes things far more interesting for the hard-core fans, who want to possess every possible edition of their favorite movie or TV show. Bringing out a special edition means we'll have to shell out our hard earned cash, again, to update our collection to this new version that the director or writer thinks is better for us.
Thankfully, the Doctor Who Restoration Team gets it.
They have the technology to update the DVD releases, giving them super new special effects, but yet, for the most part, they choose not to do it. Sure, they've done some updating for stories such as The Ark in Space, Dalek Invasion of Earth or Earthshock, but, for the most part, these are left as an extra on the DVD. It's something that's fun to look at now, but part of the joy of being a Doctor Who fan is the tatty special effects and bad model shots from all those years ago. Having digitally done Daleks running about would be something close to Greedo shooting first... it just can't and shouldn't happen.
But then, along comes a story like The Curse of Fenric. Admittedly, this is my favorite Doctor Who story of all time, so it's hard to really come to it and be as critical as I normally should be. But I'll say this -- it's one of the only times when a special edition actually makes the original viewing experience better. When I first saw the story in 1990, I was amazed at how good it was, but I will admit that the first episode of the original edition was a bit too choppy for my liking. The editing was too quick and it jut felt as if the Doctor and Ace moved about geographically too quickly. If anything, Fenric seemed in such a hurry to set us up for the great stuff to come later that the first episode suffered as a result.
After that, it was sheer brilliance as the plotlines Ian Briggs introduced slowly began to play out on screen, culminating in the final battle of wits between the Doctor and Fenric and the betrayal of Ace.
Fenric was so popular among fans right out of the gate, that it was quickly pushed into the rotation for release on VHS. But it wouldn't just an episodic release of the story. Instead, JN-T took the footage that was cut due to time and released an extended edition. Now, we had
a truly definitive version of the story -- episode one was less frantic, more calm. We got a clearer understanding of things in episode four and along the way, we had a few nice moments added in as well. And it had all the cliffhangers there, including my all time favorite, "We play the contest again, Time Lord!" to end the third episode.
In my mind, the extended edition was the perfect version of Fenric.
And it was the one I strongly feel should have been released on DVD.
However, the Restoration Team had other plans. With the DVD release of Curse of Fenric, we got the best of both worlds. We got the original, episodic version of the story, complete with a choppy episode one, bad on-screen captions and all the cliffhangers and then we also have a super deluxe, extended movie-edition special edition of the story that keeps much of the extended edition, drops a few things and adds in a few other scenes I'd not seen before. Also, some of the order of scenes are switched about to make the story flow more evenly. Personally, I'm not a huge fan of movie format Who, but apparently director Nicholas Malett felt that some Who stories like Fenric would work better in movie format. For me, the jury is still out -- especially since the production notes indicate the author Ian Briggs intended this story to be four episodes, built around three cliffhangers (there was talk of making it five episodes).
What we get is a verison of Fenric that is 12 minutes longer and still very entertaining. Is it the definitive version? I still have to give that edge to the VHS extended edition, but only because I like my Who with cliffhangers. But the rest of this special edition is just flat-out brilliant from start to finish. We get a newly done 5.1 sound for this one, some updating of the special effects and some reordering of scenes to make a bit more sense and flow better. About the only glaring error I can find is that in episode four, Fenric comes off as a bit stupid when he sends the two girls to summon the Ancient One twice within two to three scenes. But other than that, the special edition of Fenric is just that -- special. And it won't taint your love of the original version in the least. In fact, this DVD will make you appreciate the story that much more.
The story is a complex one. As Ian Briggs points out in one of the many great little DVD extras, it's all about the subtext. It's about characters growing up and things buried deep down coming to the surface -- both literally and within the characters. It's all about just how far the Doctor is willing to go to win and it's the perfect example of just how dark the seventh Doctor could go. It's also the turning point of the McCoy years -- with Ace finally getting fed up with the Doctor's game and demanding an explanation. Fenric is full of great scenes and the confrontation between the Doctor and Ace is one of the best ever done in Who. It also sets the stage for the NAs.
Now, I know there was reaction to the NAs going too "adult" but I'd argue that trend had already begun in Who. Both Ghost Light and The Curse of Fenric show a new, adult edge to Who. It's all there in the subtext -- from the questions about Millington's sexuality to the two virgins going out into the water. There are questions within questions and Briggs' script wisely doesn't come out and force answers upon us. It assumes the audience has half a brain and can figure these things out, something I've always admired and respected about this story.
And it creates such memorable, well-defined characters.
Even a one-dimensional victim like Ms. Hardaker gets some shades of gray. We see her be an unbelievable hard-ass to Jeanne and Phyllis, but yet we also see her enjoy the music. The story sets up a lot of characters who will be killed off over the course of four episodes -- just about all the principles in the story but the Doctor and Ace die. But the story's brilliance is that we come to have strong feelngs about these characters before they go -- in some cases, we're sorry to see them go, but in some cases, they've got what's coming to them.
It's also a story about games. Up to this point, we've seen that the seventh Doctor is the master of manipulation and playing games. But it's here that we see how far he'll go. He arrives into events set in motion, but he actively manipulates events and people to play his own game. He's not even above playing Ace. We saw that in Ghost Light and we see it here -- especially in one of the added scenes to the DVD -- after the Doctor and Ace escape the firing squad, the Doctor tries to find out why Ace said something about her mother. Indeed, the only terribly obvious part of this story is the baby is Ace's mother, but Briggs uses it so well, that in the end, you don't really mind.
All in all, The Curse of Fenric is Who at its best and always spectacular.
And the DVD of this one is nothing short of spectacular. As the defnitive story from the McCoy years, this is the defnitive DVD release from the McCoy years. On disc one, you've got the original episodic vesion and then on disc two, you've got the newly enhanced special edition. I can say this -- I watched both editions relatively close together and loved every minute of both. You won't be bored by either edition of Fenric and it's one of those stories that I come away from watching eager to see it again. So, seeing these two great versions together was a treat.
The extras are up to the usual high standard of excellence for the Restoration Team. The audio commentary track features Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred and Nicholas Parsons, who played Rev. Wainright. I've stated before that I think the best tracks come from a combination of folks who worked on the story -- both in front of and behind the camera. But this one clips along well enough and is entertaining enough to keep me interested all the way through.
Some of the comments made by the team about the relevance of the story today with the threat of biologial weapons is a bit chilling. Of course, there's the requisite text track, which reveals quite a few things about the story I didn't know -- including that it was scheduled to air first in seasons 26. I viewed both the commentary track and the text track at the same time and it was amusing how the two tracks would bring up the same comments and information within a few seconds of each other. Also, listening to both, you gain a large measure of respect for the work that went into Fenric. Based on all the havoc going on behind the scenes -- espeically the weather -- it's amazing that the story turned out as great as it did.
I do wish they's had a commentary from some people behind the scenes for the special edition. I heard this was planned but had to be scrapped at the last minute due to time constraints.
The DVDs are also jam-packed full with a lot of other extras. One fascinating feature examines the Who production team scouting out locations for the story. It's odd to see the backgrounds that become Fenric before they become part of the story. Also, there is some discussion of the masks used in the story and some of the special effects. All of them are worth a look, though I'm not sure how much long-term replay value they'll actually have.
There's also a music only track on the episodic version of Fenric, which is good if you don't have a CD of Mark Ayres' brilliant score.
But the real highlights of the extra are those that look at the story in greater depth. We get a nice little discussion with author Ian Briggs about the story, the subtext, etc. This is fascinating to watch and worth the price of admission. Of lesser interest is a panel of some of the cast and crew at Nebula 90. Not terribly enlightening in terms of the rest of the extras, but it's intersting to hear how much fun the cast and crew had making this story. But the real highlight is an extra that looks at the hows and whys of making the special edition. I have to say I found this compelling and interesting to watch. Part of it may be that this is my favorite Who story of all time, but I think it's mostly that it's fascinating viewing.
Indeed, with all the great extras, The Curse of Fenric may be the best Who DVD to date. It's got two great versions of one great story and a wealth of fascinating extras. It's worth every penny to get this new edition and it's one that I'm glad to see in my Who DVD collection. Curse of Fenric is now my new gold standard of excellence for Who DVDs.
Which, since the story itself is my gold standard for Doctor Who stories, is not really that surprising.
Last Updated: 10/25/2006
Other Reviews by Michael Hickerson
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