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Doctor Who: The Curse of Fenric

by Ian Briggs, Target. Reviewed by David Carroll

First Appeared in Burnt Toast#9, 1991

It is easy to dismiss this novelisation, Ian Brigg's second, as being unworthy of its televised source. Without the hard, realistic edge that makes Survival my favourite S26 book, nor the simple narrative genius that make Remembrance my favourite in the range, it wallows under the same old problems that adapting image to print brings. Not to mention some of it's written quite badly. You might be able to imagine my disappointment as I sat, reading it on the train home from town, wondering what had happened.

Easy to do, but not terribly helpful. After all there are some people out there who like the Fenric novelisation (hell, I'm told Ghost Light and Battlefield are also fairly well received -- and while I didn't think they were too bad, neither did they do much for me). And of course there are even one or two people who seem to like the New Adventures novel, Timewyrm: Genesys. I seem to recall someone in DWM saying it was unputdownable, or words to that effect. I don't know, after ninety-eight pages I was able to put it down quite easily, and have no desire to pick it up again.

But, back to Fenric, and enough of this belly-aching. Because one thing is undeniable, this is certainly one of the most interesting books released in the range. It not only expands on the events of the story but explores the characters to a greater depth that at times is truly worthy of being called brilliant. It does this in a way that would almost seem unthinkable a year ago, introducing 'mature-age' concepts, not for any apparent voyeuristic reason, but because the way the world works often isn't suitable for 7:30.

Teenage sex, male and female homosexuality and 'controversial' religious issues are all looked at within this book's 188 pages, not too mention Ian Brigg's finally got to use the word 'knickers' (edited out of his previous (and, as I've said before, brilliant) novelisation, Dragonfire). All this on top of a televised script which isn't exactly a pleasant and picturesque jaunt through pre-Thatcherite Britain.

And not only is it done intelligently, but in such a way that the kiddies, who will certainly make up part of the actual, if not intended, audience, won't notice much amiss.

For those who haven't read the book the main 'surprise' is the exact nature of the relationship between Commander Millington and Doctor Judson. As the Doctor points out in Millington's office the two certainly knew each other before Judson's accident, but perhaps even he can't know of the events on a rugby field during their University days. When Millington sees Judson smiling at one of the other players, 'a tall, blonde boy with clear blue eyes and a strong body', and in a fit of 'stabbing jealousy' and 'black anger' rams Judson with enough force to snap his spine. (Or perhaps the Doctor does know and, as always, just isn't telling anybody.)

Another scene, far later in the book, sees Millington grief-stricken and holding Judson's used and abandoned body in 'a distorted pietà' (pietà being, according to Chamber's Twentieth Century: 'a representation of the Virgin with the dead Christ across her knees.')

I won't spoil things by going into detail about any of the other revelations, but they include a rather less innocent Jean and Phyllis then indicated on TV.

Worth mentioning, however, is the book's attitude towards religion, another potentially touchy subject, and one that didn't go unnoticed:

As a Christian I consider Mr Briggs' comments upon Christianity in the book to be both offensive and untrue...

His depiction of Christian belief ... demonstrates a lack of understanding of what Christians actually believe. Christianity is more than just a belief in Jesus Christ and a commitment to Him and His teachings.

Jeremy V Fox
You on Who -- DWM#172
So, what is there within that prompts such a response? As you are undoubtedly aware one of the major themes of Fenric is the morality of war, and one aspect being brought out in the conflict within the Reverend Wainwright. He loses faith in his religion not because there is evil in the world, but because both sides are committing atrocities. In such a situation he sees no evidence of the love of a benign God. Indeed the author puts it in no uncertain terms:
The book won't do you any good," mocked Jean. "You don't believe."

"We'll see," challenged Mr Wainwright, as he grasped the book tight and closed his eyes. He concentrated on his faith -- his two-thousand-year-old faith. After two thousand years, there must be truth in it. There was good and there was sin. A two-thousand-year-old truth -- he must cling to it and believe in it: no half truths; no compromises with a complex and changing world -- just good and sin...

"Look at us!"

He couldn't help himself. He looked. And the two-thousand-year-old lie shattered.

Another area where this subject is touched upon is when Ace finds herself to be slightly telepathic. The Doctor says it won't do her any harm, 'But I should steer clear of fundamentalist religious bigots, if I were you. You'll probably find they give you headaches.'

The point of all this seems to be a break from the traditional DW stance of dualism, as represented here by standard Christian values (see BT#3's BoJ for a short discussion on dualism in DW, but I'm not going to get enmeshed in talking here about it's degree of importance to Christianity). In fact with the concept being such an entrenched part of the show's symbolism it is not surprising an explicit rebuttal of it can prompt responses such as this:

How can a story about human and supernatural evil end with a man (who we have seen fighting evil through time and space) saying "if only everyone ... could realise that good and evil don't exist... have never existed"? How can we accept this and go on caring about anything the Doctor has ever done?
Nathan Bottomly
Data Extract#82
It's a very important point, not necessarily because it's correct or not, but because of it's implication. Can DW remain valid without concepts of good and evil, right and wrong? Ian Briggs seems to think so, and there is a lot more evidence in his story, on both paper and screen, then a passing remark in the epilogue to support his case. In fact if you think about it, it's a stance that is prevalent throughout seasons 25 and 26.

The whole issue of religion within the genre deserves a wider discussion then herein, and it is a shame that much horror fiction, from Stephen King to Edward Scissorhands, stereotypes the subject as unhealthy fanaticism. In fact two of the most intelligent discussions of the subject I can remember anywhere are in the novelisations of K9 and Company and (almost inevitably) Remembrance of the Daleks.

And, as well as the above two points, Curse of Fenric also has many more fascinating details such as the existence of a Russian spy already within the camp, background documents, character histories and more.

So, you ask. Why didn't I like it?

All I can say is that all I've discussed here gave the novel the potential to be the best in the range, but it simply wasn't carried off well.

In the review I quoted above Nathan Bottomly says the prologue reminds him of Kurt Vonnegut. It puts me more in mind of Clive Barker's Weaveworld, but we both agree it is a poor imitation. The documents are a good idea with some great moments (Bram Stoker's letter works well, as does the Doctor's asking price for defeating Aboo-Fenrán), but as a whole they don't gel. The worst example being the comment about young Millington's essay -- it simply isn't an extraordinarily vivid piece of writing, and doesn't convey belief that any such myths will come true. The Doctor's 'dark' side is handled badly, from the melodramatic 'ancient powers' playing over his face to the scene where he mentions his family and ends up not making any sense.

And, worst of all, despite the obviously enormous effort and detail that has gone into this piece of writing, it never becomes real. Watching this story on TV can literally make the skin on my arms react with tension, reading a good novel gives me a sense that the events are happening to characters I care about. This does neither.

Perhaps this is only a bad book by contrast, after all I am a collector of vampire novels and with the best of them this offers no competition.

But all I can say is, damned good try, but try again.


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