Doctor Who – The Curse of Fenric

Doctor Who story 158 – The Curse of Fenric

A Russian soldier walks through a haemovore crowd.“The Curse of Fenric” seems to be the hinge on which the McCoy era pivots. In this story we learn that the Doctor has been manipulated since his regeneration (or at least since “Dragonfire”). An ancient evil, a force of chaos, has been playing a game with the Doctor. Apparently they had been in conflict once before (just off screen, it would seem), and now this ancient evil has been laying the groundwork for a rematch. Ace was a pawn in this, although she never realized it.

So, in a way, reading the McCoy era up to this point as a deconstruction of previous versions of Doctor Who is somewhat relevant. We were supposed to see the Doctor redefined before our eyes. We were meant to see a build-up to the Doctor as a grand manipulator. We were meant to see him in a new, god-like light. It hasn’t just been Doctor Who deconstructed, it has been the Doctor deconstructed. “The Curse of Fenric” sees a conclusion to a character arc that re-defined the Doctor and the beginning of an arc about Ace. “Ghost Light” is problematic, then, as it also deals in equal parts with deconstructing Doctor Who and exploring the development of Ace. Where, exactly, does “Ghost Light” fit best in this progression? On some level, I think I prefer a viewing order with “Fenric” first and “Ghost Light” second. This is out of broadcast order, but there is more satisfaction with having Ace meet her grandmother in “Fenric,” revisiting a traumatic event from her childhood in “Ghost Light,” and returning to Perivale during her personal timeline in “Survival.” This order also traces a type of feminine awakening in Ace, moving her from a semi-childish mentality to womanhood. (Which is a subtext in “Fenric” and more overt in “Ghost Light.”) Symbolically, these follow Ace as a developing character.

In addition to these character arcs ending and beginning, “Fenric” also invokes the cosmic chess trope by layering it on top of a story about human war. The Doctor and Fenric are playing a game, Ace and the haemovores are pawns and all of time is the board, just as the British, German, and Russian generals are playing a game of war with soldiers and civilians as pawns. Interestingly, British intelligence has developed a trap for the Russians that is reflected in the trap Fenric has laid for the Doctor. The layering of themes in this story is fascinating and it has surprising depth. Such a shame it has gone out of print on DVD here in the U.S. Maybe it will be up for a Revisitation release soon.

Doctor Who – Ghost Light

Doctor Who story 157 – Ghost Light

The Doctor and Ace are threatened by a hunter.
Mount his head on the wall with all the other action figures in the collection.

I feel like I’m in a bit of an interpretive rut. I’m seeing virtually everything in the McCoy era as a commentary of the past, a refutation of what came before. This seems too similar to how I read the Colin Baker era, full of stories interacting with the past, trying to determine what is successful Doctor Who, and the most successful expression of that was the Saward-penned “Revelation of the Daleks,” a Doctor Who story in which the Doctor and Peri were largely sidelined. Sawardian Doctor Who rejects the Doctor.

But in the McCoy or Cartmel era, the tension is found between burning the house to the ground and constructing a phoenix from the ashes of Doctor Who. Which brings us to Marc Platt’s “Ghost Light,” a story about a supposedly haunted house that Ace burned to the ground in the 1980s. On some level, the story starts out clumsily because the Doctor is bringing Ace to this pivotal location, a place that has horrified her for much of her life. Only we have just heard about it now, in episode one. Granted, based on some small amount of passive research, I believe “Ghost Light” aired out of the originally planned order. “Curse of Fenric” was supposed to set up this story, but “Fenric” was moved to later in the season. Thus, we are unexpectedly thrust into Ace’s nightmare with no warning or set up.

But that aside, “Ghost Light” takes the haunted house trappings which would not be unfamiliar in the Hinchcliff/Holmes era, merges them with elements of Darwinism, and ultimately reveals an alien/mystic force, Light, that collects life-forms. Light was also worshipped by the Neanderthal tribe from which Nimrod the butler originated.

Okay, so these are some strange, disparate elements combined into a strange and slightly-less-than-surreal-than-Warriors-Gate-story. This story has been divisive, people loving it or hating it, and as a self-proclaimed-Marc-Platt-fan, I am determined to like it. Thus, I go to my fallback position that the story is about crafting a new vision of Doctor Who. The gothic haunted house is destroyed in the end (symbolic destruction of the Hinchcliff/Holmes vision of the show) while paying tribute to the show’s origins, which is signposted with discussions of Darwinian evolution (human origins being equated with Doctor Who’s origins) and a Light-worshipping Neanderthal (Tribe of Gum worshipping Orb aka the sun). The Darwinian evolution elements also thematically argue for the evolution of Doctor Who as a constantly changing television show. This evolution is held back by Light, a collector of life-forms, monsters and characters, who desires to preserve things in a static state, the fan who’s impressions of Doctor Who were defined once long ago and left unchanging. Everything in “Ghost Light” screams of change and evolution. In the end, the Doctor and Ace speak of destruction of the house. Burning it down isn’t good enough; it should have been blown up.

And there we have it: the only way to continue Doctor Who is to destroy it. Change requires death of the previous form, which in this case was everything built up by the JNT/Saward version of the show. Interesting that the JNT/Cartmel argument is to destroy it.