The Curse of Fenric part 2

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    Craig @craig

    And here’s where things start to get spooky. The Doctor knows there is some sort of evil killing the invading Russians and gets them to delay their attack.

    A new inscription mysteriously turns up in the church and Commander Millington is desperate for Judson to decrypt it. Millington, who seems to have something of ‘Bomber’ Harris about him, is part of a terrible plan to end the war which he ever-so-proudly reveals to the Doctor.

    While swimming, the evacuees disappear in a mysterious fog only to emerge from the sea later. And they have changed…

    Poor Janet Henfrey (Miss Hardaker), she doesn’t have much luck in Doctor Who.

    Once again, we’re discussing this story one episode per week, as it was originally broadcast. If you’ve seen it before, for the convenience of anyone approaching this for the first time, NO SPOILERS for subsequent episodes please.

    blenkinsopthebrave @blenkinsopthebrave

    OK, I am trying to like this story, I really am! But…

    As I said of last week’s installment, I pretty much gave up on BG Who after Peter Davision, (thanks to you, JNT) and have seen little of Sylvester McCoy. Sure, there were bits in here that worked, but, for me, anyway, so much that didn’t. In some respects it seemed like it was a poor imitation of much better shows by others from 10 years previously–specifically, John Carpenter’s “The Fog” and the excellent BBC Western Isles-set thriller “The Nightmare Man”, directed by Douglas Camfield and scripted by Robert Holmes. But in comparison to both of them, it was pretty ropey. The two evacuee girls as possessed vampires was high school acting at best.

    But it wasn’t just that. The story is impossibly complicated; there must be at least three separate stories competing for attention, and the 80’s relativist attitude (all combatants are equally guilty) rankles with me. Having Millington sit in an office styled on his Nazi counterpart in order to “think like him” is, well, a trifle lacking in subtlety, perhaps?

    Who knows, great things might happen in the next couple of episodes, but I have this feeling (which I got from the other stories of the late JNT period) that this is more a simulacrum of “Doctor Who” than it is Doctor Who.

    Anonymous @

    @blenkinsopthebrave I  also got the impression that Part 2 and 1 also, was over-complicated in 25 mins with too many stories competing for attention – the girls looked better as vampires than humans!  But yes, as they leaned over the body of Mrs Whatsit, and the camera stopped as they paused… -it really was quite awful. It is Ace who under-plays her part that I like, now, and also the Doctor, not striding around as ‘main star’ who is gently compelling. In these episodes the rapport between McCoy and Aldred is quite addictive and works so naturally. Certainly the cliff-hanger ‘action’ in both of these parts was worth the wait.

    BadWulf @badwulf

    @blenkinsopthebrave it was pretty ropey. The two evacuee girls as possessed vampires was high school acting at best.

    Too true, particularly the delivery of the line “You should of come into va wawtah wiv usss.” Cockney urchin Gollum, as channelled by 1980s teenagers.

     the 80′s relativist attitude (all combatants are equally guilty) rankles with me

    It might rankle, but in terms of the actions of Bomber Command, it is a view that has some merit. And it was the “british bombs” line that is the important part of this story. No nation came out of the War showered in untarnished glory – all sides engaged in brutal acts against civilians.

    (And, as I mentioned in the previous episode’s thread, there is a tendency in modern British interpretations of the Second World War to cast the Russians as victims in the conflict, when they are at least as culpable as the Germans in instigating it.)

    @purofilion It is Ace who under-plays her part that I like, now, and also the Doctor, not striding around as ‘main star’ who is gently compelling.

    I’m enjoying McCoy and Aldred’s performances better this episode, although the Doctor is still sometimes performed theatrically abruptly – focuc turning on a sixpence – that seems to me to be a problem in editing.

    One thing that I particularly disliked, though, was the Doctor’s unsubtly prejudiced line regarding Judson, “He’s a typical blinkered scientist.” Whilst it is unclear whether he is grouping Judson with only those scientists who are blinkered, or whether he considers it typical for any scientist to be blinkered, it certainly isn’t a science-positive line. Christopher Bidmead must’ve been appalled (if he was still paying any attention).

    Still, there is nothing wrong so far with the *story* itself – merely with some of the execution. If it had been submitted to the AG production team, it would have fit in very nicely as a two-parter.

    blenkinsopthebrave @blenkinsopthebrave


    It is not that they highlight the actions of Bomber Command that rankles with me (indeed it is a powerful corrective to a sanatized interpretation of the war). Rather, it is the complete absence of historical context that is the approach of postmodern relativism that I recoil against. There is no notion presented of why the war is happening, or what the stakes are, there is just the simplistic “the British were as bad as the Nazis” lesson (minus the whole Holocaust issue, of course). And, then, as you point out, there are the plucky Russians heroically killing off the English soldiers (who have been tarnished by the brush of Bomber Command), or being unfairly sacrificed to to evil vampire monsters.

    I don’t really want to derail discussion of what is, after all, Doctor Who (or, as I think, a rather pale reflection of a once great Doctor Who) into a serious discussion of historical interpretation, it is just that I used to teach the subject and saw, as did @purofilion, the pernicious effects that postmodern relativism had on the academy in the 80s and 90s, and, like the Norse thingy under the water, this has awakened an old professional anger in me!


    Arbutus @arbutus

    Well, despite the flaws here and there in the execution, I still think this is a properly creepy story. The scene in which the vampires accost the reverend, who is vulnerable because he has lost his faith, always resonated with me. Because how easy it is to suffer moments of weakness! The Seventh Doctor was always a bit of a chameleon, but like @purofilion, I enjoyed him when he was understated, as he is for much of this. And I loved Ace’s quiet pleasure in having solved the puzzle for Judson, then turned on its head when she realizes that the Doctor didn’t want the puzzle solved!

    Regarding relativism, it doesn’t feel to me that the story as a whole is taking a relativist stance, but only presenting an example of a view that does have a history. Both my own great grandfather and my husband’s grandfather were ministers and served as chaplains during WWI; both later rejected their faith due to their wartime experiences and took up other careers. Reverend Wainwright’s point of view would have been a familiar one to them, at least. In a sense, the notion that war is a breeding ground for ugliness and human weakness means that such a setting would be a likely place for vampires to hunt!

    @badwulf     I agree that the “blinkered scientist” line is potentially problematic. I have to assume that the Doctor doesn’t mean this to refer to all scientists, because of course, at many other times during the course of his adventures, he seems to have great respect and liking for scientists. I actually enjoyed the characterization of Judson in this; he was a bit of a stereotype, but a little more layered than we often get, with some interesting twists.

    Bluesqueakpip @bluesqueakpip


    it is the complete absence of historical context

    The thing I think you are forgetting is that this episode was broadcast in the United Kingdom in 1989. There was absolutely no need for the story to provide ‘historical context’. None.

    The historical context had already been provided. By grandparents, and by comics, and by The Great Escape and The Battle of Britain being shown on the telly practically every year. By children’s books set in World War II and drama series on the telly. By ‘Allo ‘Allo! and Escape from Colditz.

    I think every child watching knew we were the good guys, that the Nazi’s were the bad guys, that the stakes were the invasion of our country and the murder of our people. And the ‘glasnost’ then happening in the old Soviet Union meant that it was a good time to remind people that the Soviets were our allies in WW2. The children would have been properly horrified at the thought of poison gas, and quite ready to accept that this was the evil of Fenric at work.

    The ‘moral relativism’ was for the adults. Was it really right for us to bomb civilians? Was that when we lost our faith in ourselves, when we helped to kill children and create the Dresden firestorm?

    You have to understand, that the eighties were the first period when it was really possible to ask that question. For those who’d been bombed to bits by the Luftwaffe, there was no question. They didn’t give a shit whether it was ‘right’ – they just wanted to strike back at the bastards who’d killed their children and destroyed their homes.

    In the story, Dresden is mentioned as a target for the poison; adults would probably recognise the reference.

    Victory of the Daleks asks a very similar question, but in a different sort of way; and assumes a lot less background knowledge. The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe casts a bomber pilot as a brave man doing his duty.

    Which is, I think, right.

    blenkinsopthebrave @blenkinsopthebrave


    The thing I think you are forgetting is that this episode was broadcast in the United Kingdom in 1989. There was absolutely no need for the story to provide ‘historical context’. None.

    Well, there are so many things I disagree with about that, it is hard to know where to begin. Actually, I wasn’t forgetting where and when it was broadcast. Strangely enough, for someone who was teaching at university at the time, I was (am still am, actually) all too aware. I was (and am) also all too aware that there is ‘always’ a need for a story like that to provide ‘historical context’. Always.

    As both I, and @purofilion, reflected on, postmodern relativism was a horrible, pernicious thing that seeped, like a gangrenous bowel movement, through the academy and out into popular culture. Whenever I see evidence of it infecting popular culture, particularly something as special to me as Who, I feel it is incumbent on me to say something. Which I did. I cannot see I have anything to add to my original thoughts on the subject.

    But who knows, episode 3 may redeem itself in my eyes. Postmodern relativism never will.

    JimTheFish @jimthefish
    Time Lord

    I don’t want to get a reputation as being Captain Controversial and causing flaming disputes every weekend, I’m afraid I’m not sure that postmodern relativism counts necessarily as a ‘bad thing’. I’m not sure the story needed to go deeper into historical context — and the story is so complex anyway that I’m not sure it could have bore it. And I’d argue that the events of episode four will have a direct bearing on all this discussion of moral relativism and perhaps bring it into sharper focus.

    In general, I’d agree with some of the criticisms of this episode. The girls are still awful. And the bulkhead scene is fumbled badly, I think. But I still believe the show is to applauded for the ambition and scope of a story like this. Compare to even any story of the previous series. There’s an awful lot it doesn’t get quite right, or doesn’t have the resources to pull off properly, but McCoy is great and it definitely sets the template for the Virgin New Adventures and then the new series itself.

    Bluesqueakpip @bluesqueakpip


    Well, I don’t like postmodern relativism either. I just disagree that this episode is an example of it.

    Why on earth would a story need to say ‘by the way, the Earth is round, we have winter every year, and Britain is an island?’

    I mean, you do have to set the scene a bit if Who lands in the Peninsula War. But World War II? In an episode broadcast when it was within the living memory of half the population? No.

    Anonymous @

    goodness I wake up to gangrene and bowel movements? Not mine, you understand. Yeah, I get the point, it is a problem when even a great show like this  suggests a post modern and revisionist stance. A whiff of it and I blanch. Call it a personal thing. But practically, departments and universities virtually fell because of it. It’s hard to let that pass. Still, moving on… again, it’s difficult.

    blenkinsopthebrave @blenkinsopthebrave


    Hello Captain Controversial, my fishy friend.

    I’m not sure that postmodern relativism counts necessarily as a ‘bad thing’. I’m not sure the story needed to go deeper into historical context

    Oh well, I suppose I will have to reply to this as well.

    I will do it by repeating something I said in response to discussion of our viewing of the wonderful Quatermass and the Pit earlier this year. I said this (and yes, it was in response to something you had said):

    Anyway, now that the utterly, utterly brilliant Quatermass and the Pit is over, I wanted to add a feeble contribution to the excellent reflections of @bluesqueakpip, @phaseshift and @scaryb. This show must rank as one of the most important, and fabulous TV shows of all time. And what is its theme? Tolerance. I cannot think of another show intended for a popular audience that has made the point so effectively that we should always be sceptical, particularly of our own pretentions to certainty; of our own hubris.

    It is a show that dealt with themes that were both universal, and very specific to a time and place. I refer to the Notting Hill race riots of 1958. Back on the board during discussion of the first episode the ever-excellent James of the piscine persuasion took offence at the representation of the Teddy Boy who was presented as a clueless twit when interviewed by the reporter. At the time, @craig rightly encouraged us to refrain from any talk that might reveal spoilers, so I bit my tongue. But in light of the themes that have become so clear by the end of the show, we should remember that the Notting Hill race riots were vivid and immediate to both the makers and the viewers of the show.  And it was, in large measure, racist Teddy Boys who were responsible for the violence directed to the black inhabitants during those race riots. With knowledge of that context, the representation of the Teddy Boy was remarkably restrained, in my view. Historical context is really rather important when appreciating an historical document like Quatermass and the Pit. But no offence intended to the wonderful James of the piscine variety.

    So, what is my point? It is that historical context is always important. And it is also that postmodern relativism necessarily does count as a bad thing.

    I could go on about this for some time, but quite frankly, I had to fight so many battles over this that were so toxic over so many years, that I think that is all I really want to say on this topic.

    This is, after all, Doctor Who. It is a wonderful place to be and so is this website, and I want, desperately, to keep it that way.

    BadWulf @badwulf

    @bluesqueakpip And the ‘glasnost’ then happening in the old Soviet Union meant that it was a good time to remind people that the Soviets were our allies in WW2.

    And yet so many nowadays also forget that the Soviets were one of the parties that started the Second World War for their own territorial gain. This is something that seems to always be omitted that could probably do with a little bit of counter-revisionism.

    I mean, you do have to set the scene a bit if Who lands in the Peninsula War. But World War II? In an episode broadcast when it was within the living memory of half the population? No.

    It really depends on what is considered an acceptable challenge to the audience’s preconceptions at the time – as you say, ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’ were the buzzwords of the time, so there was something of a drive to make the Soviets appear more comfortable and to ignore the atrocities that they committed, which were entirely comparable with those of the nazis, and which happened for a much longer time.

    In the same way that the show now would probably not be willing to say, “The United States was founded on slavery, genocide and treason,” because this would probably be too great a challenge for the intended audience (especially as the show is supposed to be sold to international markets), and could be rejected ‘postmodern relativism’. Nonetheless, that is a perfectly justifiable position to take based upon the evidence.

    As the cliché states, “those who forget the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it”, and we find that we live in an age where our leaders are keen to bomb other states, and use drone strikes (which are the modern equivalent of the nazis V-weapons, and which kill ~30 bystanders for every actual target – regardless of the extrajudiciality of an execution carried out remotely and without a trial). A little bit of relativism that asks us to question the righteousness of dropping bombs under whatever circumstances is, in my opinion, a positive contribution to the discussion. After all, it is not Germany dropping bombs right now, is it? They seem to have remembered that lesson for the time being.

    BadWulf @badwulf

    @blenkinsopthebrave I could go on about this for some time, but quite frankly, I had to fight so many battles over this that were so toxic over so many years, that I think that is all I really want to say on this topic.

    Oops! Apologies – I only read this after I had just posted. I hope that this has not become toxic – I find it an interesting topic for discussion.

    My academic background is in Economic History, and one of the texts we used was Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross: the Economics of American Negro Slavery. I don’t know how familiar you are with it, but the authors’ premise was that the US Southern states’ system of slavery lasted for so long because it was in actual fact a reasonably efficient economic system, and they backed it up with all sorts of detailed and fancy econometric tables and calculations.

    It was a very interesting analysis, but one which entirely missed the point. It was a useful exploration for us as students to be able to take a step back from the analysis and actually use our modern perspective to say (essentially) “How can these guys say it was an ‘efficient’ economic system when they ignore the fact that a large fraction of the population are excluded from the measurement of wealth distribution by the simple fact of being classed as property?”

    We perhaps would not have so easily reached this conclusion had we not had Fogel and Engerman’s revsionist/relativist work to analyse in the first place.

    JimTheFish @jimthefish
    Time Lord

    @blenkinsopthebrave –all fair points which I totally respect and a big Yes to tolerance of ideas in this forum. And this is obviously a subject which means a lot to you and I totally respect that too.

    However, I’m not sure I’d say the historical context is of vital importance, rather than just of secondary interest or resonance, largely because it is something that (necessarily) changes over time. At the risk of going wildly off-topic, the Quatermass 2 is a good example. Yes, a contemporary viewer of Q2 would have found different resonances with the Teddy Boy race riots. But at the end of the day, the show is a piece of SF horror, not a piece of social history. All you really need to take away from it is that even as ‘civilised human beings’ we have murderous instincts towards persecution that the show later posited a reason for. Yes, a modern viewer is going to ‘read’ the Teddy Boy character differently to a contemporary one (or one steeped in the social history of the time) but that doesn’t mean that one reading is automatically flawed or inferior to the other. All we need to know is that such tensions exist within the story, we don’t need to know the specific details. We just need to know enough to understand what the wider story is trying to tell us.

    I’d argue that a similar argument can be made for Fenric’s use of WWII but I fear that it will have to wait until the discussion of episode four, for fear of spoilers.

    PhaseShift @phaseshift
    Time Lord

    I didn’t have a chance to watch last weekend, so I have a double bill of McCoy to enjoy…..and I’m enjoying him a great deal. When he was first announced as the Doctor I didn’t think he’d work, and his first season was pretty awful. By this point though, I think he’s great in the role.

    Hats off to Sophie Aldred as well. It may not be apparent if you are simply watching this story, but I think Ace has shown a degree of growth over her episodes. By this point she’s less of the sulky teenager and invests some warmth towards other people. I like her attempt to reassure the Reverend that the future isn’t as bad as he may fear. And her obvious happiness that she’s helped Judson with his problem.

    The evacuees from Stage School still grate. Being undead fiends now means they’ve discovered extra long fingernails, and more tellingly, a hair crimper and backcombing to go for the Goth look. Because nothing says “Evil undead fiend” like crimped hair.

    Millingdon is obviously not playing with a full deck, and his odd orders don’t seem to be troubling the troops. Destroy all communications and chess-boards? Hmmmm.

    And the cliffhanger. It all seems to be kicking off as the undead come from the water. I actually love some of the costuming here. It’s a mish-mash of historical gear (love the Tudor look on one of them) that tries to indicate that these have been gathered over a great deal of time. The distorted faces are quite chilling and effective too. Well, more than back-combing anyway.


    I think I understand your point, but I would say it was pretty difficult not to indulge in a certain amount of relativism in the 80s. If only because that decade saw, under the UK 40 year rule, lots of documentation that was formerly classified being released into the public domain for the first time.

    For instance Millington’s choice of office decoration was actually shared in real life by a head of Secret Intelligence Service, and for the same stated reason. He thought it would help him think like the enemy. That came to light because it was apparently a running joke through some Whitehall documentation.

    Anonymous @

    @badwulf  some revisionist texts are worthwhile but this is Revisionism with a large R that concerns @blenkinsopthebrave and myself. Helen Garner’s Revisionist stance discussed at length by Robert Manne, a good friend and colleague was an inexcusable and inexplicable statement about ‘History’ -a version, she herself subjected herself and ‘her’ department to.

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