Curse of Fenric was one of the earliest Who DVDs released and (as most of my early experience with the show in the 90s was isolated from a fandom to engage with) was probably my first experience of disappointment with an over-hyped story (thanks to the usually quite honest liner notes and the internet bigging it up). Fenric’s often described as a classic story, one of the best of the McCoy era - which is quite strong generally anyway - but I’ve always found it a fairly crap story.
One of the biggest hurdles is that it has some really awful performances in it. The East End girls Ace befriends are particularly bad, with hammy actresses struggling with awkward dialogue. Their taunts calling Ace a “baby doll” never feel natural. Even when they and other characters are turned into pseudo-vampires, they don’t work. More unnatural dialogue (such as the bit luring the Russian into the water) and a ridiculous design consisting mostly of elongated fingernails splayed out as menacingly as they can ever be (not very). There’s a narrow range of length for fingernails to be threatening and Fenric overshoots it by about two feet.
Fenric himself is a weird villain. The Doctor knows him of old, having duelled him in Constantinople, but he was trapped in a flask in the Orient. This was captured by Vikings, who all got cursed. The curse passed down through their descendants, making them come together and open the flask, except none of them really do that? And if Fenric can curse people into that action, why not the original Vikings? And if he’s in the bottle, how did he summon the Ancient One and all the haemovores in the water by the naval base? His plan, once out, seems to be to just kill everything on the planet (ho-hum) with Millington’s chemical weapons, but Millington seemed pretty well poised to do that anyway. The story ties itself in knots trying to weave a complicated plan for both Fenric and the Doctor and throwing in twists, such as with Ace being amongst the cursed descendants, and doesn’t really achieve anything. The haemovores are pretty naff, posited as the source of vampire mythology, and then just get discarded near the end of the story for no real reason. The Ancient One is summoned late in the day and mostly just stands around having conversations (and like most of the cast in episode 4, just seems to arbitrarily teleport around a few different locations to do so, despite there supposedly being a battle going on across the base).
Ace is another problem here. It feels like Briggs hasn’t watched/read any episode featuring her since he wrote her debut in Dragonfire. She thunders around the story, being stupid by showing off how clever she is. Her instant undying love for the (seemingly) random baby she meets feels really out of character, culminating in her saying “I will always love you”. To a baby she met like six hours ago and has spent maybe ten minutes with. It’s a connection that feels forced by the plot rather than naturally developing for the character, whose default position is abrasive. Briggs did the same thing with Ace in Dragonfire, where he had her open up to Mel, for no real reason, about her real name. It feels like he’s had these ideas for emotional moments and has to crowbar them into the story, even though they don’t really fit.
But the baby, it’s really Ace’s hated mother, you see! The bit of dramatic irony, when she tells the woman who is unknowingly her nan, to go to the address her nan lives at, is just odd, not least because she only really needs to flee the base/town, not go as far as London (especially with the war on). Is Ace sending her nan to an empty house that she ends up living in? Is she sending her to the house of some random guy she’s going to end up marrying, that Ace remembers as her granddad? Is she sending her nan to her paternal grandparents? Who knows, don’t worry about that, just concentrate on the forced emotional drama for Ace.
It’s all part of a ham-fisted attempt to develop and mature Ace, but it doesn’t work. There’s a scene where she volunteers to seduce a guard as a distraction. It’s feels completely out of left field. They literally needed to get the guy out of the little hut. There’s any number of ways the Doctor and Ace could have achieved that, but Briggs wants Ace to be all mysterious femme fatale about it and it just doesn’t fit. He ends up writing this boringly cryptic thing where she flirts about physics which I suspect is meant to be deep, but is just cringey.
In the end, the only element of Fenric that works for me is, surprisingly, Nicholas Parsons as the vicar. Presumably there as part of JNT’s light entertainment actors in drama fetish, Parsons is the best part of the ensemble. He imbues a real vulnerable humanity to his faithless priest character.