|Bloody hell, is it the Arockalypse again?|
It’s October 25th, 1989. Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers are at number one with “That’s What I Like,” which is unseated after two weeks by Lisa Stansfield’s “All Around the World,” which rides out the story. Phil Collins, Belinda Carlisle, Kylie Minogue, and New Kids on the Block also chart. This being rather dismal, let’s note that Kate Bush’s The Sensual World comes out during this story, which is an altogether more fitting analogy.
In real news, Nicaragua ends its ceasefire with the US-backed contras, and Douglas Wilder and David Dinkins become the first African-American governor in the US and mayor of New York City, respectively. The General Assembly of the Church of England votes to allow the ordination of women. Increasingly desperate measures are taken to deal with an ambulance strike in Britain. And oh yeah, the Berlin Wall falls.
While on television we get The Curse of Fenric, which is one of the best things ever. It is also, of course, oddly incoherent. The biggest howler by its own logic is pointed out by Tat Wood. Much of the plot hinges on the fact that everyone at the base is a descendent of the viking settlers. These would be, of course, the viking settlers who were all killed by vampires, according to the inscriptions. Oops. And yet I’ve watched Curse of Fenric more than any other Doctor Who story, and I never noticed this problem. I’ll bet that an overwhelming majority of you haven’t either. And this is an important observation that provides a lot of insight into how we have to understand Curse of Fenric.
Rather more of you, I suspect, have noticed things like the fact that the chess puzzle and its solution are completely non-sensical, that a mate-in-one puzzle that stumps an ancient god for ages is ridiculous, that nordic runes are a strange way to make a logic diagram, that no understanding whatsoever of how to crack a German code would also be able to translate a language, and that the inscription does not, in fact, read “let the chains of Fenric shatter” but instead reads “Leek, Abracadabra, Presto Chango, Leek.” (OK, possibly only my good friend Anna noticed that last one. Incidentally, there’s a big line of commentary I’m just dropping here about the Norse mythological roots of this story. That is because towards the end of August Anna is providing us with a guest post on the relationship between McCoy’s Doctor and Odin.)
It may seem strange to harp on the plot holes of this story, given that I don’t usually do that. After all, it’s not like the understanding of Norse runes in this story is actually any weirder than the series’ understanding of physics in many other stories. But there is something subtly different about the distortions here. For one thing, this starts to tack towards playing fast and loose with history, something Doctor Who has, of course, never ever done in any way shape or form. But more broadly, Curse of Fenric relies on distorted versions of things that are understood, as opposed to impossible (or at the very least colossally improbable) versions of things that are not yet understood. There is, in other words, something fundamentally different about creating a wonky version of chess than creating a wonky version of faster than light travel.
All of which is a long way of saying that Curse of Fenric continues Ghost Light’s approach of allowing the story’s logic to be associative rather than strictly causal. But whereas Ghost Light invites a compulsive, scurrying picking through of its themes and links, Curse of Fenric lurches forward with mad, claustrophobic adrenaline. Tat Wood chalks it up to the wartime setting, and it’s true that this helps, but there’s so much more to it than that. It’s also the return to a straightforward horror film setup, and the willingness to just linger in extended sequences of unbridled frights. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s the way in which the story starts in Act III.
This is something the McCoy era has played with before. Remembrance was effectively an Act III to an unscreened Act I and a half-remembered dream of An Unearthly Child as Act II. Greatest Show in the Galaxy played at starting at the end, but didn’t quite make the concept hold together. Battlefield was Act III to a story whose first acts were yet to come. But here in Curse of Fenric we finally get the unadulterated version. Fenric is the final part of a story that has skipped the beginning and instead gone straight for the climax. And so everything spirals up to massive, apocalyptic proportions at a dizzying rate.
The mistake that it’s easy to make is to think that because the story is driven forward at such an unrelenting pace that it’s the least bit facile in what’s going on behind the scenes. This isn’t something like 24 that holds together an absurd penny dreadful with the unceasing suspense of a ticking clock. Or, if we want to stick to Doctor Who terms, it’s not Earthshock, where the sole point of the exercise is the adrenaline of the plot being pounded out. No, the urgent, demanding rhythm of the plot is just that – a rhythm over which the story is playing. Yes, the rhythm smoothes the transitions among the story’s many ideas, but it’s still the ideas and their interplay that are important here.
The result is what is, in my experience, the single easiest piece of classic series Doctor Who to show someone who has never seen it before. And for my money, with good reason, because I think this really may be the classic series’ finest hour. It doesn’t require any excuses beyond those allowed to it by being from 1989 (indeed, the transmitted version, with its use of voiced-over dialogue combined with scenes of things happening and unfolding, largely comes off as ahead of its time), it moves at a great clip, and it’s very, very smart. And it’s the sort of thing only Doctor Who can do: underwater World War II vampires demonically possessing Alan Turing. If that isn’t your idea of how to spend two hours of your life, quite frankly, you’re just in the wrong fandom.
As with Ghost Light before it, everything in this story is curled into a tight thematic knot. The story goes back to World War II, the main event of the twentieth century, and revisits the same tangle of evolutionary and historical progress that animated Ghost Light. Here, though, this is a more compacted strand. Where Ghost Light meticulously flayed this issue and sought to explore its depths, The Curse of Fenric takes one vary interesting perspective on it and begins combining it with new themes. (This is another reason why, to my mind, Fenric is better served in its transmitted position. Having explored the theme in Ghost Light, Fenric builds on it. Whereas positioning Ghost Light after Fenric makes its exploration into a footnote to Curse of Fenric, as opposed to a triumphant lead-in.) In this case, the clever idea is that Curse of Fenric accepts the idea of historical teleology, but then suggests that the end product might be monstrous. It presents us with an end point of the world that is a toxic wasteland populated by fish vampires, and says “this is what the world will become in the end.”
Similarly, the historical end everyone in the story is obsessed with is Ragnarok. Which, not to tread on Anna’s feet too hard (if only because she has fabulous taste in shoes), is significant. The Norse worldview does, at least in most popular conceptions, move inevitably towards a bleak and apocalyptic end. In Freudian terms – terms which apply well to the bulk of this story – we’re talking about the death drive. Curse of Fenric posits a self-destructive, suicidal instinct within history and biology itself.
In this approach Fenric becomes the literal embodiment of this – a quasi-physical manifestation of the death drive itself. He is, after all, a force intertwined entirely with history – existent since the dawn of time, and slowly, invisibly guiding events. And, of course, the Doctor gets cast in the oppositional role, struggling to remove Fenric from human history.
But if we take this Freudian approach we run into an interesting problem. Inasmuch as there’s a counterpart to the death drive it’s the sex drive. And this story is very big on dualism, even if it does eventually implode its dualisms with giddy aplomb. It’s telling that the “good” force that primordially opposes Fenric is never accounted for after its seeming destruction, with the Doctor slotting into the opposition role. So if we read Fenric as the death drive it becomes very difficult not to shift the weight of the sex drive onto the Doctor.
In contrast to almost everything that has come before, however, the story doesn’t try to resist this. Indeed, it seems mostly content to have the Doctor be linked to sexuality. It just displaces it slightly onto Ace. Ace is not, however, the Doctor’s proxy or double in this story. Instead she gets positioned as the subject that the Doctor and Fenric are both fighting over. (This risks making her into a passive object to be fought over by men, but largely avoids it given the extent to which both the Doctor and Fenric are historical processes in this story, and thus the extent to which it is less a battle for Ace herself and more a battle of which drive will dominate in her self-identity.) So on the one hand Fenric is trying to get her to help him bring about Ragnarok, while on the other the Doctor is trying to get her head straightened out so that she can dive into the water, an action that is symbolically linked to sexuality. (The sexuality, of course, remains largely symbolic, framed, as ever, in the trappings of children’s television. I’d go on a defense of the slightly stilted Ace seduction scene, but anyone who’s been reading knows how I’ll defend it, so let’s just note that Ace’s tacit equation of her children’s show time traveling with sexuality is absolutely brilliant.)
We could stop here. A Freudian vampire story about historical progress that positions sexual liberation as the solution to war would be sufficient to rank this story among the classics. But astonishingly, it goes further. Because on top of all of this the story is hugely invested in the question of language and encryption. This is a complex nexus – in many ways to this story what evolution and history are to Ghost Light – so let’s just accept that we’re going to rack up the word count here and take our time.
At the most basic level it’s clear that Curse of Fenric is playing with images of logic and computing. These are among the standard issue set of Cold War anxieties, and we’ve been seeing them in the program for years now. The crux of it is that the Cold War is based on a ruthless, pragmatic calculation by both sides, and thus is utterly intractable. With nuclear weapons being inexorably linked to computers (hence the classic anxiety of the hacker who gains control of the nuclear weapons) the idea of how computers would wage war against each other and what the consequences of a computer going wrong would be were standard Cold War anxieties, and the use of chess and of computers playing chess is similarly straightforward, as is all of Millington’s “think like the enemy” rhetoric. (Of all things its Destiny of the Daleks that provides the most obvious antecedent for Curse of Fenric.) Like Battlefield two stories earlier and Survival after it, Curse of Fenric is the series’ last play at the Cold War.
But what’s interesting about Curse of Fenric is that the Cold War is displaced slightly within it. It takes place in World War II, when the Russians and the British were still allies. And yet everyone is aware of the Cold War and aware that it looms inevitably over them. This is a clever inversion of the Cold War/computing link – if the Cold War is a consequence of logic then it must be a historical inevitability that could be predicted and foreseen. So the Cold War’s logic gets allied with the death drive and Fenric as the future continually haunts the past, threatening to happen.
The key line in all of this is Millington’s musing on the idea of thinking machines and his wondering whose thoughts they’ll think. What’s significant is not merely the Cold War future that the Ultima machine augers, it’s the fact that this future is conceived of as a train of thought. This ties in neatly with what computers were actually being developed in World War II for, namely the process of deciphering German codes. The purpose of computers, in other words, is to understand speech and language – to allow us access to the thoughts of another.
But the thoughts of another are, in The Curse of Fenric, dangerous, both for the undercurrents they carry and for the possibility of for their own totalizing nature. Hence the strange parallels between the Viking inscriptions and the Russian documents – because somewhere in the words and language themselves there’s this unknowable thing lurking, dragging everyone towards a monstrous teleology.
(At this point, if only for a handful of my readers, I need to mention Lacan. One of the most obvious grad school papers about Doctor Who would be a Lacanian analysis of this story. If you play the digital media aspects up enough it’s probably even publishable. Having now appeased the academic wonks, we return to our regularly scheduled post.)
Central to all of this is Doctor Judson, the story’s stand-in for Alan Turing. It’s become so standard these days to praise Turing and to tut mournfully about his (genuinely appalling) post-war treatment by the British government and his (genuinely tragic) suicide. With the novelization even getting around to implying a homosexual past between Judson and Millington, the link becomes even clearer. Turing, of course, is famous for suggesting that being able to convince a person that you are also a person is sufficient to demonstrate that you are thinking. And so the idea of a line of thought that extends out of computers and dooms humanity to Ragnarok, and of computers having an intimate connection with language is a straightforward transformation of the standard Alan Turing package.
Except for two little things that nobody ever covers in the standard primer on Alan Turing. First, you are almost certainly wrong about what the Turing Test is. Second, you’ve probably never heard of the halting problem, which is really unfortunate. We’ll start there.
For metaphoric purposes, the halting problem should be thought of as another variation of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem and the Uncertainty Principle. All three are cases in which it turns out that there are fundamental and absolute limits on knowledge. Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem shows that there are statements in mathematics that cannot be proven true or false, and, more importantly, that it’s impossible to identify these statements, thus putting an absolute limit on mathematical certainty. Heisenberg shows that there is a level at which our ability to have knowledge of the physical universe hits an absolute limit. But Turing does something altogether creepier – he indicates that thought itself may have an absolute limit.
One of Turing’s biggest ideas – one that’s usually treated as something akin to a value-added extra on the standard Turing package – is the idea of the Turing Machine. On a simple level, the Turing Machine is a theoretical model for a computer – that is, a way of processing data that one can use to create algorithms that solve problems. What’s interesting about a Turing Machine is not actually its design, but the fact that to date nobody has found a design for a computer that can do anything that a Turing Machine can’t. Plenty that can do things more efficiently, but nothing that can actually solve a problem that a Turing Machine can’t solve.
The big question this implies, of course, is whether the human brain is just a fancy and efficient Turing Machine. The answer is… we have no idea. Certainly there are things humans can do that computers can’t, but since we don’t understand the particulars of how the brain works we can’t tell if this is because we haven’t figured out how to design an algorithm to do these things or because the brain can do things computers can’t. But inasmuch as we understand problem solving the Turing Machine is as good as it gets.
OK – so the Turing Machine is a theoretical computer. Now I want you to imagine a specific instance of a Turing Machine, which we call a Universal Turing Machine. Basically, what a Universal Turing Machine can do is accept a program written for another Turing Machine as input and perform calculations on the machine. In other words, it’s a Turing Machine that can run programs about Turing Machines. Now, one of the most basic questions you can ask about a Turing Machine program is whether it’s ever going to stop on its own. Some programs, after all, don’t – the classic schoolboy BASIC program of “10 PRINT “BUTTS” 20 GOTO 10,” for instance, does not halt. Whereas a program that takes two numbers, adds them together, and returns the answer does halt.
The halting problem, simply put, asks whether a given program and a given input is ever going to halt on its own or not. In other words, it asks whether it is possible to determine if a given problem has a definite solution or not, at least in terms of Turing Machines. And one of the absolute biggest things that Turing ever did, and something that’s routinely left out of the standard package, was to show that there is no general solution for the halting problem that can be encoded on a Turing Machine. That is, you cannot build a Turing Machine that can look at another Turing Machine and tell if it’s going to halt or not.
Given the continual difficulty of establishing that there is any type of computer more capable than a Turing Machine, this is an absolutely mammoth result in that it suggests a fundamental level of uncertainty to thought in the general case. The only way out, of course, is whether or not it is possible to construct something more powerful than a Turing Machine. Which brings us to another giant part of Turing’s thought, the Turing Test. Which, as I said, you are probably wrong about.
See, you probably think that the Turing Test involves some form of sitting someone down with an IM window and seeing if they can tell whether the person they’re talking to is a human or a computer. Perhaps they face their interlocutor one-on-one, perhaps they face both a human and a computer and have to identify which one is which, but in any case, the idea is that if a computer can fool a person into thinking that they are talking to a non-computer then the computer can think. (And, implicitly, albeit not mathematically, that the human brain is just another Turing Machine)
This is not true. In fact the Turing Test, as proposed by Turing, starts with what Turing calls the imitation game. In the imitation game, a man and a woman both exchange IMs with someone, and the person they are talking to tries to figure out which one is the man and which one is the woman, with, obviously, the man trying to fool the questioner. The Turing Test as proposed by Turing says that if a computer can do as well as a human male at fooling the questioner then the computer can be said to think. This is, first of all, a considerably harder standard – especially given that the popular misunderstanding of the Turing Test, where a computer can fool someone into thinking they’re any sort of person at all, hasn’t been passed yet.
But second and more interestingly, it moves the bar from a bland “thinking is as thinking does” standard to suggesting that thought is based on the ability to imitate. Aside from having a clear-cut (and I would argue, for Turing, intentional) connection to Aristotle, this version of the test defines thinking not as the ability to put up a facade but as the ability to successfully imagine the thoughts of another person and to think them.
Getting back, at long last, to Curse of Fenric, what’s interesting about this is that Briggs’s script, for all its wonky understandings of major concepts, actually has a very good understanding of the real Turing. Millington’s line about whose thoughts the computers will think is a wonderful gesture in this direction. Because, of course, thinking other people’s thoughts is the very definition of a thinking computer.
But what’s more important is that while Judson represents the standard image of Turing, the Doctor gets to represent the real image of Turing. The Doctor’s perpetual championing of an unfixed universe in which it is impossible to know everything is easily read as an embrace of the consequences of the halting problem, while McCoy’s endless tricks and traps, creating situations that imitate one thing but are in fact another shows that he understands the real nature of thought. It is not merely enough to, as Judson’s Ultima machine does, read and understand language/systems/stories. It is also necessary to be able to play with them and subvert them through imitation. Real thought is mercury.
But the Doctor also embraces the undercurrent of the Turing Test. It is impossible not to read Turing’s fascination with gender impersonation as a facet of his own sexuality. In essence (and allowing for some bleeding of homosexuality and transgenderism that is not inappropriate for 1950’s limited understanding or room for expression of either concept), Turing suggests that the definition of thought is the ability to live in the closet. And so in the larger system that Curse of Fenric offers, the act of thought is equivalent to the liberation of sexuality from the tyranny of cold logic’s death drive.
And so these ideas build towards something that Doctor Who had not really done since the days of Ian and Barbara – a story in which the resolution depends entirely on the interiority of the companion. The Doctor sets up what appears to be a flawless execution of the mythic final battle that is a central part of the death drive’s obsession with Ragnarok. (“He pulled bones from the desert sands and carved them into chess pieces” being the most brazen lapsing of the story’s events into the straightforwardly and unclutteredly mythic.) But in reality it’s not the mythic death drive, but a plot to get Ace to work through her own angst. The real purpose of the exercise was to free Ace from Fenric’s influence – to psychoanalyze her and use the breaking of her faith in the Doctor as a catharsis to liberate her sexuality.
And so we suddenly make a seamless transition from the rhapsodic epic register of the final battle between good and evil to a scene about Ace’s angst. The sequence of the Doctor breaking Ace’s faith is one of the best in the classic series – hence it getting recycled wholesale by Toby Whithouse. And for the first time the series pulls off this switch perfectly. It’s an absolutely brutal sequence. Briggs, McCoy, Aldred, and, credit due, Nicholas Mallett outdo themselves, getting the impact of Ace’s agony and the Doctor’s own guilt at having to do it to be as strong as the mythic buildup. And this is no mean feat, given that the incessant tension of the mythic buildup has been the driving engine of the story, and so has been done incredibly well. But they pull it off, and the story, at its climactic moment, seemingly effortlessly goes from ancient myth to a young woman’s psyche, the whole arc of history and evolution, the very nature of the soul and of human reason, and the final battle between good and evil suddenly turning out to be perfectly encapsulated by a girl learning to forgive her mother.
It is, for my money, the point in the McCoy era where the program not only steps out of the shadow of the early 80s but steps out of the shadow of the Hinchcliffe era and of Robert Holmes. Curse of Fenric is unabashedly a Holmesian epic. It delivers the promise of alchemy being rooted in the realm of the material perfectly. And it does it while delivering a spruced up and more muscular version of the Hinchcliffe era’s standard trick of doing an intimate sequel to an untold epic. But where the Hinchcliffe era did this because it was a way to get at the epic without having to break the budget, here we have a story that’s doing a sequel to an epic that is unabashedly epic in its own scope, with armies of vampires unleashed in the middle of World War II. It’s an intimate sequel to an untold epic that nevertheless sounds bigger and more fun than the original story.
And it is, for my money, the best story of the classic series. A piece of truly epic mercury that dances dizzyingly through as many ideas as Ghost Light before ending in a piece of moving character drama, all without missing a beat. Never mind the best story of the classic series, this is flat out one of the greatest pieces of television ever.