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Well, it's happened. The most complex, intelligent, emotive, and down-right brilliant season of Doctor Who has been shown on Australian telly, so now all us fanzine editors can admit we've seen it, and no-one will try to hit me everytime I mention The Curse of Fenric. But what did it all mean?

That's not a bad little question really, because there was much in those four short stories that goes unexplained and generally unnoticed. Did you know that much of Curse of Fenric references movies and plays written in 1943, including a lengthy section taken verbatim from a movie called The Outlaw (Ace's 'distraction' of the guard)? Did you pick up all the in-jokes and quotes in Ghost Light (from Gilbert & Sullivan to Tolkien to Dragonfire), let alone work out the plot? God, just hearing all the dialogue is hard enough.

However I'm not going to concern myself with individual stories here, and those interested in such things can check out what went on in Dark Circus and Aaron Brockbank's Luminous Force, among others. But Season 26 is not just four individual stories, and while stylistically they are all very different the same themes, ideas and sub-plots can be found running through both those four stories, and the previous two seasons as well.

We've been told that before Season 25 the producer, script-editor, writers, and regular cast got together and discussed the show's direction in detail, especially the brand new companion Ace. Those discussions formed the basis for a new look, a much darker, more manipulative Doctor, far more involvement for the companion then is usual, and a cohesive frame-work to build the stories upon. In this article I'm going to look at those underlying ideas and see if we work out just what did go on.

How much of this was done deliberately, and how much is just us reading things into the stories is anyone's guess, and some of it will get controversial and just a tiny bit obscure. But if it is all accidental, the coincidences just keep piling up.

Oh yes, those disliking the flagrant over-use of footnotes, stop reading now. You have been warned.

* * *

For those of you who don't think in seasons (and I didn't until recently) the Sylvester McCoy era goes as follows:

Season 24
Time and the Rani
Paradise Towers
Delta and the Bannermen

Season 25
Remembrance of the Daleks
The Happiness Patrol
Silver Nemesis
Greatest Show in the Galaxy

Season 26
Ghost Light
The Curse of Fenric

Seasons 25 and 26

An overview

by David Carroll

First Appeared in Burnt Toast#6, 1990

Plot-wise, the most obvious place to start is with Ace. Dorothy, a 'problem' child who hated her parents, perhaps her whole life, in Perivale, 'boredom capital of the universe.' A brilliant student, particularly with regards to chemistry, she ignored her school-work and applied her skills more towards the creation of high-explosives. Thrown out of school after an incident with said explosives, she was working as a waitress, a job she again hated, until an accident with a chemistry experiment opens a worm-hole in time and space and transports her, via a 'time-cyclone', to Ice World. Here she would again only be able to find work as a waitress, confirming for her that all hope of a better world was shattered. That is, until she meets the Doctor.

The parallels between this event and The Wizard of Oz are obvious and, on their own, are actually quite silly. It is only later, when we see the big picture, that it all begins to make sense. Ace is not simply a tough but emotionally scarred youngster at odds with the universe, but the creation of Fenric, only one facet in a grand and truly Machiavellian plot to entrap the Doctor. Ace's time storm is not only a reference to Dorothy's cyclone, but apparently Fenric's preferred means of transport, using it both for Lady Peinforte's trip to the twentieth century, and the Ancient One's journey back to 1943.

Lady Peinforte's experience is perhaps the most interesting of these, as our only explanation before Fenric was that she concocted a magic potion, using human blood, with information given to her by the Nemesis statue. This always bothered me (I conceded it may have been a variation of Dæmon science -- though who knows what the precise nature of the magic in Battlefield is), and is a point I'm glad they cleared up, if only indirectly, by reference to the chess set in her study.

As a pair of seasons, 25 and 26 could be justifiably renamed 'Ace Goes Through Hell'. Already despairing of hope when she first met the Doctor, she was then put through some of the most horrific and personally aimed nightmares imaginable. Most of the friends she makes during her travels either die horribly (some even coming back to haunt her, such as the vampiric Jean and Phyllis) or, with those she puts a more intimate trust in, betray her. Both Mike in Remembrance and Sorin in Fenric confront her with concepts or evils she cannot face, and even the Doctor, seemingly the only stable element in her life, turns on her, both in Fenric and Ghost Light. Naturally enough he is only doing it for her own good, but even with this in mind his actions, especially in Ghost Light, seem more than a little reprehensible. In letting her confront her fears he is hoping she will mature (into a ladylike?) but, as the author Marc Platt says of his story, 'he is fascinated by her fear and it arouses his curiosity -- he pushes her at her expense and as a result she is badly hurt by bringing up part of her past she'd sooner forget' [1].

Ace is our ticket to these adventures, a 'mere mortal' all too identifiable with, caught in situations and power struggles too big for full comprehension. Her appeal as a companion, the feeling she inspires, isn't exactly sexual (though I'd be lying if I said that wasn't a component) but more one of protectiveness. She's one tough kid, but the universe is a whole lot tougher.

Ace's other parallels with The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and the numerous chess references through-out will not be covered here, but in detail in next issue's Dangerous Undercurrents.

Related to the above discussion about Ace is the subject of racial intolerance. Every story from the last two seasons has had at least one black or other minority group member (minority for England, anyway) on the cast, but it goes much deeper then that. Ace's comments in Ghost Light: 'then they burnt out Manisha's flat: white kids firebombed it' and the presence of Nazi elements in Remembrance and Silver Nemesis, with related ideas in Fenric show this is a subject on the writer's minds.

The walking dead may seem a strange theme for a group of stories, but have a think about it. Some nine of the last twelve stories have had this as an element. A quick run through sees: the Chief Caretaker's possessed body from Paradise Towers, Kane's mercenary army from Dragonfire, both the half-cybertised humans ('they were already dead') and the statue ('it is the Nemesis ... come alive') from Nemesis, Captain Cook from Greatest Show, Arthur's supposed rise from the dead in Battlefield (something that never actually happened of course, which means they're twisting their own themes), the insects, and indeed 'the whole place' that came alive with the energy from Light's ship in Ghost Light and finally, and most obviously, the Haemovores from Fenric, dead humans complete with period costume from various eras (my favourite is the milkman).

The Hand of Omega (a flying coffin) from Remembrance can also be seen as fitting this category, and according to the Happiness Patrol novelisation the Kandy Man was an android containing the psychotic brain of Gilbert M's deceased colleague in chemistry, Seivad. The closely related concept of vampirism is also hinted at in Survival, not necessarily as part of the plot, but in the form the possession by the Planet of the Cheetah People took. The fangs, the hunger felt by those possessed, the reversion to a more animal state, are all suggestive of the most famous of the undead. Once again Fenric's use is obvious, but this type of transformation was also seen in Greatest Show with Mag's lycanthropic tendencies.

Believe it or not but S26 is the green season, subtly the most ecologically sound season since Jon Pertwee's era. Battlefield has strong messages about nuclear warfare and Fenric contains its own messages about both war, chemical or otherwise, and pollution. However it is the theme of evolution that dominates, from Greatest Show's talent contest -- 'Survival of the fittest, old boy', to rather more explicit references in Ghost Light and Survival, and even Fenric sees the final, sorry form humanity will evolve into, the Ancient One.

And speaking of Greatest Show and Fenric how can we go past Norse Mythology. The Gods of Ragnarok is a reference to the Norse legend of Ragnarok -- the battle at the end of the world:

There shall come the Fimbul Winter, after man's evil has reached its height. For brother shall slay brother, and son shall not spare father, and honour shall be dead among men...

Then all bonds are loosened: the Fenris Wolf [2] breaks free; the sea gushes over the land as Jormungand [3] the Midgard Serpent swims ashore. Fenris advances with open mouth, and Jormungand blows venom over sea and air: terrible is he as he takes his place beside the Wolf Fenris [4].

In the ensuing battle, as all the Gods wage war, Odin, the father of the Gods, battles Fenris Wolf while Thor fights the Midgard serpent, killing it but succumbing to the serpent's poison. Odin is slain by Fenris Wolf, but is avenged by one of his son's, Vidar, who slays the wolf. Then Surt (from the fiery realm of Muspell) spreads fire over the earth, and all things perish. The end of the world.

Well, sort of. In a seeming attempt to make light of a fairly grim mythology the Norse also added an ending where the two survivors of Ragnarok, Vidar and Vali, create a new world, and all is happiness:

Then, shining among the grass and flowers, they saw the ancient golden chessmen of the Æsir, and collecting them began to play once more on the board of life [5].
The Curse of Fenric isn't exactly a blow by blow re-enactment of Ragnarok (for a start there a great many more combatants in the actual event and the ending is considerably different), but the parallels are all there, especially when considering the background of World War II, for example the Fimbul Winter, or fimbulvetr, will last three years, the period of time for which WW II had already been fought. Even the ending of the war, America's bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki seems similar to the myth, as if Ragnarok was being played out on a global scale, but its full destructive force was prevented from occuring by the key events just outside Whitby.

Within the story the Doctor plays the parts of both Odin and Thor, though unlike his legendary counterparts he does not die during the battle. The similarities between the Doctor and the God of Thunder especially go even further then this. Take this extract from The Gods and Myths of Northern Europe for example:

Thor in Asgard spends much of his time 'out killing trolls', or arriving home to dispose of some unwelcome giant who has penetrated the realm of the gods. His adventures are tinged with comedy, and he appears as a being of great strength and uncertain temper [6].

The giants slain by Thor have no special characteristics except that they are huge, powerful, and greedy, being specially jealous of the possessions of the gods...

Nor did he only fight these battles on behalf of the gods; it is clear that [Thor] was also regarded as the Defence of Men (alda bergr). He was struggling for mankind, and for the precarious civilization which men had wrested from a hard and chaotic world...As the sky god, he drove his chariot over the circuit of the heavens...In Asgard he kept the goddesses of peace and plenty safe, so that they could grant their benefits to mankind; on earth, in the stony and storm-beaten lands of the north, he battled with the monsters of cold and violence that unceasingly threatened men's security [7].

Besides the existence of Thor and Odin Norse mythology has had only the tiniest of impacts on our culture's literature, especially when compared to legends from elsewhere. This is a definite shame, considering our historic background with the Norse, for example they provide the origin for the names of our weekdays. However if you are interested in other examples you can take a look at the recent Eric the Viking, and it seems to have more then a little influence on Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. There is even a new book on the shelves at the moment called Ragnarok.

From a strictly plot-wise point of view it is unknown what the relationship is between Fenric and the Gods of Ragnarok, if indeed any such relationship exists. One possible theory is that while they are both fragments of the primal chaos the Gods are of a rather different composition then Fenric. He is pure evil [8], while they are perhaps best summed up as neutral, they are simply waiting round for the end of all things -- drawing people to themselves to keep them entertained. This isn't evil in the same way that Fenric is evil, it simply shows a monumental lack of caring on their part.

But this is not the only link between the two stories. The Curse of Fenric takes place at the spot where Dracula was reported to have come ashore in Bram Stoker's novel -- the town of Whitby. Whitby's other claim to fame is the upbringing of one Captain Cook, he who discovered Australia. Is this the source for the name of Greatest Show's most mysterious villain?

This is not the place to go into detail about it, but Season 25 was the anniversary season in more ways than one. Apart from Silver Nemesis' obvious links, Remembrance was sort of a condensed history of Dr. Who on Earth in four episodes, while Greatest Show drew metaphors for the program from behind the cameras. As far as I am aware no article in Australian Dr. Who fandom, or indeed elsewhere, has been written about the first point, but see The Eyes Have It from Dark Circus#3 for more on the second.

'An evil older than time.' So the Doctor spoke of Light, the mysterious and insane villain of Ghost Light (well, one of the mysterious and insane villains, anyway). In the very next story we meet Fenric, a splinter of Evil from before the Big Bang. And according to the novelisation of Survival the Planet of the Cheetah People is the original planet, its force the oldest in the universe. Back in S25 the Doctor said 'I have been fighting the Gods of Ragnarok throughout all time' [9]. This is all starting to get beyond a coincidence and falls into the category of an 'underlying framework', whatever that is.

And finally the Doctor, and his rather darker image these days; the hints that he's 'more then just a Time Lord'. After Season 25 Kate wrote that 'The nastier side of character has always been there ... but now he actually seems to be embracing that darkness', listing the main theories about why the Doctor seems intimate with events millions of years before he was supposed to be on Gallifrey [10]. Since then little that can be definitely stated has changed, with really only the Doctor's reference to his family in Fenric providing us with more clues to his background [11]. The 'dark' nature of the show has increased, with the Doctor's new coat and the sole, lowly lit TARDIS scene from Battlefield being definite indicators. This trend has also continued within the Doctor's characterisation, and not only that, but an essentially mythical element has been added (though Greatest Show especially had already hinted at it). Now the Doctor is more then just one of the original Time Lords, and it is probable that even the Nemesis, and thus Lady Peinforte, did not know the whole of it. This is apparent not only in his future role as Merlin the Magician and the similarities to Thor mentioned above, but especially in Curse of Fenric (yet again, notice how it's the story that keeps coming up) in the scene where Fenric refers to the Doctor's trapping him after pulling chess pieces from the desert sands and carving them into chess pieces. That is an incredibly powerful moment, and it is this that finally confirms for me that the Doctor is far more than he seems. Not in terms of strict power levels -- he isn't about to chuck fireballs round the place at whim, but a true Mythic hero for the nineties, an age when heroes are out of fashion.


[1] Doctor Who Magazine issue 158, Marc Platt interview.

[2] Also known as Fenrir and undoubtedly similar variations, depending on the book you read (as do most Norse names, seemingly). Davidson's book (see later footnote) describes him as: The wolf, said to be son of Loki, who was bound by Tyr, and will break free at Ragnarok.

[3] Also known as simply the World Serpent, who would gnaw constantly at Yggdrasill, the Great Ash Tree, from within the Well of Hvergelmir.

[4] Myths of the Norsemen, the Saga of Asgard, by Roger Lancelyn Green, Bodley Head, 1960, pp187-8.

[5] Ibid, p189.

[6] Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, by H.R. Ellis Davidson, Pelican, 1986, p89.

[7] Ibid, p91. Actually this isn't such a coincidence (though it has made way for lots of jokes about hammers with question marks on the end), the hero figure from any story being the product of the same or related cultures, usually has marked similarities with other such figures, more so than the norm in this case. However, the fictional character that seems to have the most in common with the Doctor is Gandalf the Grey from Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings.

[8] Or is he? Oh God, to further complicate matters I've just read Ian Brigg's very, very interesting (if decidedly flawed) novelisation of Curse of Fenric, and am still reeling. During it the Doctor claims that his speech was a simplification -- there is no such thing as Good or Evil, only nature -- and Fenric is only a piece of nature out of balance.

[9] Well, he said something like that, anyway. Somebody once asked me how I could make a fanzine without a video, and I'm just not sure.

[10] The Question Mark, issue 8 (Dec '89).

[11] Officially, that is. Unofficially we have all sorts of things to draw from, for example the 'let's just say I'm multi-talented' quote that was excised from Survival (see DWM#160, S26 Program Guide), and this extract from The Curse of Fenric novel:

At first, Aboo-Fenrán did not reply; but presently he said, So, El-Dok'Tár; as you are Light, so I am Dark. I think I know your true identity. I think, that you also come from the time before Time.

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