Hot on the heels of the last Doctor Who 40th Anniversary release, Doctor Who - The Two Doctors comes Doctor Who - The Curse of Fenric, but this one is a little different. It offers fans a little more than the previous releases, which have already set high standards. Doctor Who - The Curse of Fenric is, at this point, the penultimate Doctor Who story, but with new adventures due in 2005, that will of course change.
The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and Ace (Sophie Aldred) arrive back in England during World War II and as usual step right into another mess of trouble. They have arrived at a Northumberland naval base where top-secret intelligence is being carried out as mathematicians, scientists and dedicated code-breakers work diligently to crack German military codes. Professor Judson (Dinsdale Landen) has invented the Ultima Machine, able to crack all sorts of codes, and a forerunner to modern-day computers. However, the base’s chief, Commander Millington (Alfred Lynch), has secretly arranged for a Russian commando unit to steal the machine, not knowing it to be filled with a toxic gas.
Our intrepid heroes, much to their own disbelief, just waltz on in and demand to be taken to Professor Judson, which they are.
Meanwhile, the commando Russians land on the beach, but are immediately in trouble when not one, but two of their number are attacked by forces unknown and left dead or very close to it.
Ace, meantime, has made friends with a couple of local girls, Jean and Phyllis (Joann Kenny and Joanne Bell), who have been evacuated from London, and arrange to meet Ace at Maiden’s Point, but few people seem to think this is a very good idea, for strange things happen in the waters there. Strange things indeed as Ace’s two friends enter the water for a swim, only to leave in a very vampiric state.
When Professor Judson finds ancient Viking Runes in a local church, he enters them into the Ultima Machine, which awakens the long-silenced Fenric. This is an evil creature that the Doctor entrapped in an old Chinese vessel centuries ago, who is not a happy camper upon release. Along with his hideous henchmen, the Haemovores, creatures that us humans will become in the future thanks to chemical weaponry, Fenric attacks the naval base and the church and takes over Judson’s body in an attempt to get close enough to the Doctor to wreak revenge.
Forced to switch bodies when the Doctor wises up to his plan, Fenric reveals that he has been using Ace, Judson, Millington and the local vicar, Wainright (Nicholas Parsons), who are all ‘wolves of Fenric’ in his battle against the Doctor and will release toxic gas stored at the base. Faced with overwhelming odds and numerous obstacles, the Doctor must make some quick decisions that will save not only himself and Ace, but also the naval base staff, and indeed the whole world.
There is a lot to keep track of in this Doctor Who adventure, but that was a characteristic of many stories in the final seasons. There are numerous sub-plots that require a little more attention than is usual for Doctor Who, but it all manages to remain the right side of complex. Themes such as faith, growing up, environmental awareness and trust are all explored.
The big difference about this release is that it is included on both discs of the set. Disc One has the story as originally broadcast in four 25-minute episodes, and Disc Two has a Dolby Digital 5.1, full movie-length episode with almost 12 extra minutes of footage. Your on-screen display may say Dolby Digital 2.0 but ignore this. This version is longer even than the VHS version released in 1991 that was of movie-length but included only five extra minutes. There is no commentary for this longer version, even though one was planned.
The production values for this story are rather good, and the whole thing was shot on location which was a rarity for Doctor Who. The acting is generally good, the monsters still tend to look like stuntmen in rubber (because they are) and the effort, thought and detail that has been put into such things as explosions and gunfire gives the show an unusually polished look. Some of the rainy outdoor scenes don’t stand up to close scrutiny, and I would think that real monsters such as the Haemovores would be a lot more vicious and Naval soldiers would be a little more likely to flee than stand there and be overwhelmed by vampiric assailants. Still, someone has to die to make the threat a reality.
There are numerous digital enhancements made, such as newly added lightning strikes, and several unwanted microphones and a wayward frogman have been removed. Certain other scenes have been touched up, dying vampires have been remodelled to look more real, and two lines of dialogue at the end have been removed due to the technical limitations in cleaning up those particular frames.
The two leads were well established as a team, and their on-screen chemistry is obvious. There are some solid verbal exchanges, and it was good to see a companion finally taking a more assertive approach to time travel.
Both versions are full frame, as originally broadcast in 1989. The Restoration Team have again worked on the release, but this time their work was more on technically improving the show with some digital enhancement and the removal of such things as unwanted boom microphones and human hands where monster hands should have been. Most viewers will never notice. The image is perhaps the sharpest Doctor Who we have yet seen, with grain not really an issue. Colours and skin tones are natural, solid and present very few problems.
There are no marks such as dirt and tape glitches are non-existent. There are some examples of aliasing and shimmer, but these are not a distraction. Generally, this is as good, perhaps a little better, than the other Doctor Who releases and is undoubtedly as good as any will ever look, at least until 2005. The most noticeable changes are with the colour grading, offering a definite improvement. The original recordings were a little dubious weather-wise - sun, then rain, then sun and so on - but the Restoration Team have given the rainy scenes a grey look with digital rain added, and the sunny scenes have been lightened.
Those traditionalists who opt for the four-part version will get a decently presented Dolby Digital stereo track that, again, is more than adequate with good volume, clarity and fidelity. There is noticeable separation, especially in the musical score and the few action scenes. Synchronisation is good, and if it weren’t for the presence of the Dolby Digital 5.1 track on Disc Two for the movie-length version, no one would bat an eyelid.
This is only the third Doctor Who DVD to be given 5.1 treatment, the others being The Five Doctors and Resurrection Of The Daleks. Although the original source was only stereo at best, this 5.1 remix is rather good, with subtle yet noticeable use of the rear channels for various sound effects, off screen actors and the musical score. The low level sounds are noticeable and enhance the atmosphere of the show. Some of the dialogue in the small indoor and tunnel scenes sounds a little echoed, but overall it is a nice change.
All dialogue is clear and well synchronised, emanating mainly from the centre channel bar a few lines. The 5.1 surround mix has a way of drawing you in, and this is something that we can only hope for in future Doctor Who releases.