Female Power & The Curse of Fenric

One of the nice things about the Seventh Doctor era is the wealth of strong and interesting female supporting characters. Ace, like Mel before her, is a companion who tends to seek the company of other young women, making instant bonds of friendship and allowing for Bechdel-approved shenanigans. The Curse of Fenric, ostensibly a story about a (male) ancient evil returning for a final duel with his enemy the Doctor, surrounded by soldiers on a military base, turns out to be a story that explores several different aspects of female power.

I find it interesting how many descriptions of the story’s plot online talk about the Haemovores (kind of watery vampires, though act more like zombies in many instances) come out of the water, without acknowledging how they got there. Right at the start, we are introduced to two fun loving Cockney girls who have been evacuated from London (thus probably under 18) and who ignore their uptight landlady’s warning to go swimming at the local beach.

Now, if I know my British wartime social history, a pretty major reason not to go swimming at this time was because of mines and barbed wire set up to stop Germans landing on the shores, but in this case, there’s a far more paranormal reason for the warning, and either a fog, gas or otherworldly presence turns those girls into watery vampire creatures with long fingernails. There’s an odd vibe about the landlady’s fears for and attacks upon the girls, and you could read the whole turning-into-Haemovores thing as a punishment for wayward young women, but the upshot of the whole affair is that the two most ‘human’ and personalised monsters terrorising the village are women. There’s also a fabulously powerful and chilling scene in which we see a whole cabin full of Wrens (female naval clerks) transformed similarly into creeping, long-nailed monsters (who mock, threaten and overpower several male characters in the narrative of the story)

Ace doesn’t go into the water, and escapes the same fate of her friends, despite mocking peer pressure from them. Does that make her a good girl, not a bad girl, thus the only one who “deserves” to survive? Possibly. But this whole story is about how deeply she trusts the Doctor and listens to what he tells her (except when he tells her not to bring explosives on a day trip), and how that maybe isn’t something he entirely deserves.

There’s a raw, sensual vibe in this story which is lacking from most Classic Who. Not only is there a sense that the slightly wicked Cockney girls have become sinister, predatory femmes fatale, but we also see Ace herself getting in touch with her sexy side, flirting with a guard to clear a path for the Doctor (though I have to say her methods of flirtation are bizarrely esoteric – it’s fun to see her playing up the woman of mystery, though) and embarking on a deep romance-of-meaningful-gazes with the Soviet Captain Sorin.

The most important relationship in the story, though, apart from that of the Doctor and Ace, is the friendship Ace forms with Kathleen, the only Wren to escape the horrors of the Haemovore invasion. Kathleen represents the women who went out to work to serve their country during WWII while their menfolk were abroad, and the kind of problems they faced in juggling this with family responsibilities – in this case, lacking suitable daycare, she has to bring her baby on to the base and keep her in a basket under her desk.

There’s an adorable scene in which Ace is surprised to hear Kathleen is married, not having heard mention of the husband before, and is taken aback at Kathleen’s horrified reaction at the thought that Ace could POSSIBLY have thought she was an unmarried mother. It’s a nice snipped of social history and how values have changed, reminiscent of the sort of conversations-with-girls-from-other-times-and-places that Rose often has in New Who.

Kathleen’s baby Audrey shares a name with Ace’s mother, which brings up her dark, angry feelings about her Mum all over again (this is a running theme through Ace’s whole story and yet we never really get the details about why things are so bad between them, nor do we get any real closure to the relationship apart from what’s offered in this story). It’s important to see such a strong emotional arc for a companion, something we rarely got to watch in Classic Who.

Just look at the other 1980’s companions: Nyssa only got to show occasional flashes of emotion in response to the horrific killing of her father and the theft of his body by the Master, and Tegan likewise had to mourn her aunt very briefly but didn’t get a lot of follow through. Peri had very powerful emotional issues with her stepfather which were dropped after her first story, while Turlough got to save up his entire emotional/personal arc until his very last appearance – which suggests the writers hadn’t thought of giving him one until that moment.

Ace, however, is a bundle of angst, frustration and rage issues, and it’s lovely to see that depicted. Far more than the slang they dropped into her scripts, it’s the aspect of these scripts that makes her feel like an actual teenage girl.

There’s a scene I had entirely forgotten, possibly because it was a cliffhanger accidentally edited out of my old VHS, but there is a scene where the Doctor, Sorin and Ace are lined up to be shot by firing squad, and it’s a very compelling bit of characterisation: the Doctor is talking nineteen-to-the-dozen, trying to get them to relent in the case of the very young Ace, whereas she faces what she thinks is her death with a single screaming outburst “Mum, I’m sorry!”

The more I think about it, the crankier I get that we never saw Ace face her Mum when she went home, in the story after this one.

The other women in the story (and yes, it does pass the Bechdel Test several times over because Ace and Kathleen talk about issues as well as the Doctor & Kathleen’s gone-to-war husband) are Miss Hardaker, the aforementioned landlady who spends most of her time telling the Cockney girls how wicked they are (another Bechdel scene!), until they retaliate by eating her (honestly, it’s hard to fault them for that, given how determined she is to be proved right that they’re evil) and Nurse Crane, who spends most of the time hovering around her patient, the wheelchair-using Dr Judson, until he turns evil and kills her.

I found their final scene quite fascinating in an awful way, as he, possessed by the all-powerful Fenric, turns upon her and accuses her of patronising him and treating him as a child, basically harassing this poor woman for doing her job. I know that people can be incredibly patronising towards those with disabilities, and there were signs that she was that sort of person, but it wasn’t like he was not in a position of power over her as her employer, and he certainly treated her like an indentured slave throughout the story. Why did he have a nurse at all if he didn’t like it? (you can argue this is Fenric, not Judson, but he does seem to be conveying the real character’s inner thoughts) Her death is an ugly end to a disturbing relationship, though performed very well by both actors (and ironic that the actress Anne Reid, who played Nurse Crane, returned to Doctor Who to play the straw-sucking vampire alien in Smith and Jones).

So yes, lots of women in this story, and sure LOTS of them end up dead, but there’s also a whole lot of material exploring power relationships between women, which I found crunchy and compelling. This is such a strong story for Ace, whom we see not only being very physically capable (the scene where she climbs down her dinky metal rope ladder only to be surrounded by Haemovores and have to physically punch, kick and pound her way through them until help arrives is really quite extraordinary) and despite her general placement as someone from a poor, underprivileged and didn’t-respond-well-to-education background, we also see her using her smarts in this. Sure, she twice figures out important information and accidentally gives it to the wrong person, but the fact that she figures it out on her own is important.

I really enjoy the early scenes where we see Ace positioned as an intellectual equal to Dr Judson – he may be a learned professor and a genius of his time, but her basic comprehensive education from the future has made her a match for him, with ideas that are revolutionary in his time period now being take-it-for-granted facts and skills in hers.

Then there’s the other huge aspect of this story, which is that Fenric and the Doctor both hold a significant amount of information about Ace’s past which she is only now becoming privy to – and that much of this is revealed at a point where the Doctor has to be deliberately cruel to her in order to break her faith in him.

Faith, incidentally, is dealt with in a fascinating way in this story, with the origin of the ‘crucifixes scare vampires’ myth taken to a broader interpretation, where faith in ANYTHING keeps the haemovores at bay. The story of the vicar who has lost his faith because of British war atrocities is a minor but vital subplot, and we see indications of faith expressed in ways that tell us so much about their characters: Sorin believes in the Russian Revolution, and Communism. The Doctor believes in his companions, and mutters the names of early friends (Susan, Ian, Barbara, etc.) to keep the monsters at bay. (This is one of those things I only learned from fandom because it never occurred to me as a kid watching the show that his words were intelligible)

Ace, of course, believes in the Doctor, and at a crucial moment when he needs the Haemovore to be freed so it can turn upon Fenric’s current host and save the day, he has to break her. This scene was remembered by many when a similar plot twist was used in recent New Who story “The God Complex,” and rightly so. Ace learns all at once that the time storm she thought she herself had accidentally created in her school lab to send her into space was part of Fenric’s design; that she is one of his descendants through bloodline, and that Kathleen’s baby which Ace had adored is really the mother she hates. Worse, she discovers that the Doctor always knew this about her.

A softer, more sympathetic revelation comes later, and we see the Doctor churned up by having hurt Ace, but at the same time it is very clear that he has always been playing the role of protective patriarch to her, and she has been the child.

She forgives him rather quickly, at the behest of the narrative, but I do have a deep soft spot for the scene in which she takes off and leaps into the water (now safe from haemovores but rich with metaphorical significance) and literally swims out her angst. It’s a nice symbol for her having time to think about what has happened (how else do you convey this on screen – frowny face montage?), and decide whether or not she is going to allow all this new knowledge to destroy her friendship with the Doctor.

When she returns to him, cleansed and cheerful, they start again. It feels like an imperfect and overly simplistic end to her emotional arc – and indeed there’s one more story to come that addresses Ace’s past and her angst before Classic Who ends altogether with Ace’s story unfinished, but it does feel like a new beginning for these two beloved characters, and suggests that from now on it will be more of an adult partnership rather than a father-and-child relationship.

RAELI’S (Age 7) REVIEW:
I don’t like this Doctor much, but Ace is my favourite now.

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PRODUCTION NOTES
“Curse of Fenric” (1989)
Season 26: Production Code 7M

Writer: Ian Briggs
Director: Nicholas Mallett
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel

Starring:
THE DOCTOR:
Sylvester McCoy
ACE: Sophie Aldred

7 comments

  1. Kmasca says:

    So glad you reviewed this – it’s one of my favourite Classic episodes. I remember feeling slightly surprised, after the revival, when people first started crediting RTD with placing companions front and centre. Obviously we see a lot more of Rose’s homelife but I really felt the process of foregrounding companions’ emotional arcs was evident with Ace.

    • I think RTD deserves plenty of credit for bringing so much focus on to the female companions and their narratives, but certainly what he was doing was a continuation of what they had started back in 1987 with Ace.

      Also, so many of the New Who writers (especially those in Season One) were part of the novel writing scene with Virgin in the 90′s (or influenced by them) which was extremely experimental in all kinds of ways, but was particularly strong on the emotional development and point of view of the companion characters.

      Still, the success of Jackie Tyler really does make me cranky about the lack of a real Ace’s Mum story in this season.

  2. The other fascinating thing about this episode is that they intended for Judson to be Turing — and since they weren’t allowed to make the character gay, they decided to give him a disability that was the source of his frustration instead.

    My favourite feminist moment of the whole episode is when the Doctor has figured out that the point where Ace has gone is evil or whatever, and he’s about to go rush off to save her in traditional Doctor style, and then she shows up and quips that she’s fine. Why else have that moment but to show that Ace — and by extension the Doctors other companions — are competent enough to take care of themselves?

    • It is interesting, isn’t it – that’s an element I’ve only recently become aware of, about this story. Goes to show that having gay themes discussed openly in Doctor Who hasn’t been imposed on the show – more that the restriction against such themes has been dropped. All the more interesting because the producer of the time, JNT, was also gay, but not in a position to make that change.

      I do like the way that the Doctor and Ace often subvert expectations of the narrative – she is a very capable character considering her youth, and often achieves quite a lot when separated from him.

  3. [...] almost tacked this on the bottom of my review of Curse of Fenric, but decided it would work better as a separate [...]

  4. Andrew says:

    An extra facet to Nurse Crane is that she’s selling Judson’s secrets to the Russians. I think that’s only made explicit in the novelisation though, to be fair. The Curse of Fenric works for me because everyone in it is compromised to some extent, even the Ancient Haemovore doesn’t have his (her?) mind on the job.

    Oh this story terrified me when it first broadcast. Literally. I couldn’t be left alone at all, day or night, for several days after episode 2. And that cap of vampires in cardigans does make me feel a bit of an idiot, even if I was only 10 at the time…

    Sylvester McCoy wasn’t just my Doctor, I became a fan shortly before Season 25 aired, so the Doctor and Ace were my crew. There’s that paternal, educational bond between them that I see now, but I really saw them as a partnership at the time – and that’s what they really were in plot terms. The Doctor is very clever and alien, and when that doesn’t work Ace blows something up. And McCoy and Aldred had such brilliant chemistry together… I love the fact that they wandered off together at the end of Survival because in spite of all the various continuations of Ace’s story in the NAs, comics and audios, it just feels to me as though they went on having fantastic fun together forever, like Winnie the Pooh and Piglet in space and time.

    • I didn’t remember that! It’s a Loooong time since I’ve read the novelisation. I haven’t watched the movie-edited-extra-bits version yet either, or even the DVD extras.

      I do like the muddy, no one is what they seems portrayal of all the characters.

      Your description of Ace as being a partner for the Doctor sparked off a thought in me – that while no one is his equal, the ones who FEEL like that are those that offer something different, and that Ace is actually closer to the Heroic Bloke model of companion in some ways, doing the thumping violent stuff so the Doctor doesn’t have to – as with Ian, Steven, Jamie, the Brigadier, Jack Harkness in season 1, etc. Leela worked in much the same way.

      Having a very physical companion allows the Doctor to be more cerebral, just as having a very human, emotional companion allows him to be more mysterious and alien.

      I love the Seven-Ace team too! She is the character I most want to stay with the Doctor and the TARDIS for ever and ever

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