‘Black Archive #23: The Curse of Fenric’

❉ This is another outstanding release from Obverse Books, every bit as thoroughly researched, well-written and entertaining as others in the Black Archive range.

“It is easy to trace the greater focus upon the companion in the post-2005 series to ‘Fenric’ in particular, and McCormack is passionate in her enthusiasm for this approach and convincing in her arguments for its importance on both Doctor Who’s future and science fiction as a whole.”

Doctor Who is, in my mind, a children’s television series.

There, I’ve said it.

The Curse of Fenric on the other hand is arguably not a children’s story.  Its themes and plot are knotted, adult and complex; its callbacks to the show’s recent past are off-putting to a casual audience (but that’s okay: not every story can or should be written for everyone); and the novelisation is fantastic but written for a very niché audience: teenagers or above and, more importantly, fans alone.

Because of this relative complexity, I was fascinated to see what the Black Archive treatment of it would be.  As I’ve noted when reviewing other releases in this range, I know the idea of dissecting a children’s show with an academic knife will be sneered at by some, but what about when it’s done to a story aimed at an older audience?

“The tragedy well-known to Doctor Who fans is that the series was rediscovering its feet and smashing through walls with amazing confidence just as it was cancelled, and this essay only reminds you of that.  Ace was ahead of the game in so many ways.”

The answer is that the resulting essay by Una McCormack is every bit as thoroughly researched, well-written and entertaining as others in the Black Archive range.  This does not surprise me at all given its author but it bears repeating all the same.  McCormack’s essay does not have to try as hard as some releases to find the depth it seeks in its text, but that just makes the two of them “dovetail beautifully” as a Gallifreyan in Paris once remarked.

The essay looks at many aspects of Fenric, but one of its main focuses is the ramifications the story had for Doctor Who and its treatment of companions.  While I would argue that Survival is the story most like the series when it was revived in 2005 it is easy, too, to trace the importance of and greater focus upon the companion in the show post-2005 to much of Season 25 and 26 and Fenric in particular, and McCormack is passionate in her enthusiasm for this approach and convincing in her arguments for its importance on both Doctor Who’s future and science fiction as a whole.

(Be in no mistake, mind: the same tedious fans who hi-la-ri-ous-ly called Series 9 Clara Who would have had the same reaction back then. This here is Ace’s story and this period of the show is Ace’s series through and through.)

I especially enjoyed McCormack’s use of Feminist critical studies of science fiction as a prism through which to study Ace and her handling by Ian Briggs and Andrew Cartmel.  The tragedy well-known to Doctor Who fans is that the series was rediscovering its feet and smashing through walls with amazing confidence just as it was cancelled, and this essay only reminds you of that.  Ace was ahead of the game in so many ways.

Another section of the essay I found fascinating was the brief look at the many different versions of Fenric and how they differ.  It’s something I always find interesting; that argument of what is a definitive text or iteration of a fiction.  In this instance, is it the book? The televised version? The VHS edit? The DVD movie? All of the above?

While McCormack does not dwell upon this for too long, it provides food for thought and I’d love to see more of these direct comparisons in future Black Archive essays: Remembrance of the Daleks would be a great candidate for this.

I’ve only scratched the surface of this essay.  We also get comparisons with how other Doctor Who stories treat history and/or World War 2, contextualisation of Fenric with contemporary history, anti-Thatcherite themes in the McCoy era and more besides.  This really is another outstanding release from Obverse Books.

As for The Curse of Fenric, whatever version of it you prefer, it stands tall as a good example of the show’s renewed strength in its dying days.  It is often cited as one of the crowning jewels of the Sylvester McCoy era and I suspect this essay will be held up similarly when people look back upon the Black Archive in years to come.


❉ ‘Black Archive #23: The Curse Of Fenric’ by Una McCormack is available from Obverse Books, RRP £3.99 – £7.99. Order directly from Obverse Books.

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