Doctor Who‘s twenty-sixth season marks a creative high-point in the show’s history, showcasing one of the most interesting Doctors in Sylvester McCoy‘s seventh incarnation, as well as one of the best companions in Ace (Sophie Aldred), some intriguing running story-lines (thanks to script editor Andrew Cartmel) and a great selection of stories, with Ben Aaronovitch‘s Battlefield, Marc Platt’s Ghost Light, Ian Briggs‘ The Curse of Fenric and Rona Munro‘s Survival.
With that in mind, it’s a pity that the series was cancelled part-way through broadcast, but if nothing else, Season 26 is a fantastic season to go out on, and with Doctor Who: The Collection – Season 26 being released on Blu-ray on 20th January 2020, I hope these fantastic episodes reach a whole new audience!
My favourite story from Season 26 – and quite possible McCoy’s era as a whole – is The Curse of Fenric, so I was naturally very excited to hear that the BFI were screening the new HD remaster of the serial’s special edition edit on 23 November (Doctor Who day!). The special edition re-imagines the serial as a feature film, with all four episodes edited together and with deleted scenes reincorporated into the mix. The structure has been altered somewhat as well to fit the original intentions of Briggs’ script, and I honestly can’t imagine a better way to watch this story, it’s an intricate puzzle-box of moving pieces and to watch a shorter, episodic version may be more “purist” to fans, but the special edition is the best one for full appreciation.
The Curse of Fenric is just a terrific Doctor Who story through-and-through, from Mark Ayres‘ eerie score to Nicholas Mallet‘s impressive direction. The whole serial was shot on location, which means there are no awkward cuts between studio and location footage. There is the real sense that this a low-budget Doctor Who horror film, with a brilliant sense of atmosphere maintained throughout. Not only does it feature the surprisingly creepy-looking Haemovores, but it also features a terrifically enigmatic villain in Fenric (“how very British”, he remarks later on in the story, “everything stops for tea”) and stellar performances from McCoy and Aldred as the Seventh Doctor and Ace. Ace’s character development over the course of her time on the TARDIS is one of the great things about this era of the show, and The Curse of Fenric builds further on her backstory, her relationship with the Doctor and even her fears – which ties nicely in with Ghost Light from earlier in the season.
The guest stars here are also on fine form, whether it be Nicholas Parsons as a doubtful Vicar, or Dinsdale Landen‘s quirky performance as Dr Judson, or Alfred Lynch‘s surprisingly subdued performance as Commander Millington. Tomek Bork is surprisingly likeable as the Captain of a group of Russian soldiers caught up in the events, whilst new-Who fans will recognise Anne Reid who later played the Plasmavore in 2007’s Smith and Jones. The characters all feel surprisingly well-rounded, which makes for an interesting group of people to follow in a story following the rise of pure evil and an attack from a horde of barnacle-covered vampires. The Haemovores are a brilliantly-realised concept and whilst the vampiric side is never focused on too much, even thirty years on the make-up work is phenomenal.
If there is an issue with The Curse of Fenric, it is that the story is very complicated and some key plot-points seem to be overlooked, even in this extended edit. We never get to see any of the Haemovores staked through the heart (we only see patches of goo with stakes stuck in them), and as the Doctor and Ace go to-and-from various locations so frequently, it can occasionally be difficult to follow where they’re going and why. At this point in the show, the Doctor is enigmatic and calculating and likes to check-up on events to make sure they’re unfolding according to plan. It may ruin the fun for some people, but I think it gives a unique flavour to McCoy’s Doctor: he knows what Fenric is planning and he’s already worked out how to stop him, he just has to play the game. However, The Curse of Fenric alone is enough to make this boxset worth a purchase in January, especially alongside such other great Doctor Who stories, but the team at BBC Studios have gone above and beyond to provide a terrific new set of bonus features.
At the BFI screening, we got to see some of the entertaining outtakes from the making of Season 26 (a particular highlight of which was seeing Courtney out-of-character and having a laugh with McCoy), as well as a glimpse at the new making-of documentary for The Curse of Fenric from Series 11 and 12 writer Pete McTighe, Marc Platt discussing Ghost Light (and his unmade story Lungbarrow) with his peers in The Writer’s Room: Season 26 and a host of Doctor Who stars enjoying Fenric in the new series of Behind the Sofa. There are plenty more to enjoy on the set when it releases in January, including the VHS extended edits of Battlefield and Fenric, as well as the special editions for both stories, a workprint edit of Ghost Light,and a brand-new documentary Showman: The Life of John Nathan-Turner – a look at Doctor Who’s longest-serving producer. On top of this, there are even more special features, as well as full HD remasters and 5.1 surround sound mixes on every single episode. And if that doesn’t convince you to part with forty quid, I don’t know what will!
It was an absolute joy to revisit The Curse of Fenric – Special Edition on Doctor Who Day itself, and the new boxset looks absolutely fantastic. I cannot wait for January.