“We play the contest again, Time Lord.” – Fenric
This one is a huge favorite of mine. Perfectly paced to build tension and emphasize the growing threat of the Haemevore vampires. Much of it plays like a true horror film—corpses eyes suddenly opening, creatures rising from water, vampires appearing out of the mists of the graveyard, and more. Other parts are a complicated game. I love how it starts out with an odd barrage of characters and a total lack of clarity of what the threat is (several false leads and red herrings). There are brilliant moments of dialogue that dovetail with each other (“And the greatest of these…”) and a great motif of Viking lore* (“Why is everyone round here so interested in Vikings?”) mixed with ancient evil and global politics and the ethics of war. There are also many true surprises throughout.
The Doctor and Ace get to be brilliant in this many times over. The story is the ultimate example of the Seventh Doctor’s game playing—mirrored this time by his enemy who has used not only the people the Doctor meets but even his own companion as pawns in a long game stretching back centuries. Indeed, we learn the Doctor has faced, and defeated, this “evil since the dawn of time” before, again implying he is not simply the universal vagabond we had always thought him to be. More than any other story before, we also get to see the companion as a growing character whose background has a real tie to events on screen. Ace deals with her emotional issues and, in quite a surprise sci-fi twist, unwittingly creates her own future. She and the Doctor also finally clash over his heavy-handed manipulation and there are lots of good little moments for them both: the Doctor’s quite clever trick at the clearance letter, Ace satisfaction at figuring out the logic puzzle (“And the half-time score, Perivale six hundred million, rest of the universe nil.”), their banter at the church, the Doctor’s faith (supposedly in his companions as this is reportedly what he is muttering under his breath).
Besides our main characters, there are a number of story characters introduced that have some really interesting backstory, most noticeably tortured minister Wainright. We see him go on a personal downward arc of fear and self-doubt that leads to his own destruction despite our really rooting for him and hope that Ace and the Doctor have helped him overcome it. It comes with a huge pacifist message in the middle of a World War II setting. Many other characters are interesting or at least used in interesting ways in the course of the game—brave Sorin, the doomed Jean and Phyllis, irascible Judson. Since it’s a story about pieces of a game coming together, it’s filled with great little nods to this: the way the Viking runes and Russian intelligence match up, the church being a fortress (“I don’t think there’s a record of any battles taking place here.” “Today’s events haven’t been written down yet.”), Ace’s mother, and more. Plus you have plenty of scare scenes: the vampire girls going after Miss Hardaker, Judson rising as Fenric, the soldier aiming at the girls, the mysterious appearance of new runes, the whole crew of cryptograph ladies as vampires. There’s a lot to like here.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
Though there are lots of eerie moments, I think one of the creepiest comes at the disappearance of Jean and Phyllis in the mist on the water followed by our first sight of them as vampires. They deliver a perfect Brides of Dracula vibe with their words and delivery:
“Yes, a man.”
“ Are you looking at us?”
“Yes, he’s watching us.
“He’s got to come into the water with us.”
“Yes, you’ve got to come into the water.”
“Blood warm. Nobody’s forcing him. Nobody ever forces you to come into the water.”
“But everybody wants to. Deep down, everybody wants to come into the water.”
“Come on. Come play with us.”
People do laugh at how the vampire make-up and fingernails make the actors have to walk so slowly and awkwardly that they don’t seem to be much of threat. (I am however happy enough to ignore this and enjoy the intended malevolence.) Having watched the ‘extended’ video version as a kid, I was also worried the original was completely different but thankfully it still stands the same–but I am sorry that a few certain scenes didn’t make the original cut. I do kind of wish they had not tried to shoehorn in the bit about the Ancient One being from an industrially destroyed future. It’s an attempt at an environmental warning message but it unnecessarily complicates this story. (Of course, it also would require the Doctor having a different argument to convince him to switch sides.)
* It’s interesting to read the full account of the inscriptions:
We hope to return to the North Way, carrying home the oriental treasures from the Silk Lands in the east, but the dark curse follows our dragon ship. Black fog turned day into night, and the fingers of death reached out from the waters to reclaim the treasure we have stolen. I carve these stones in memory of Asmund, Grimvald, Torkal, Halfdan, brave Viking warriors slain by the curse. The dark evil lies waiting in the sea. It has followed the treasure we stole. We cannot see it, but we know it is there, beneath the surface, beyond seeing, but it is there. And one by one, our crew is being killed. I warn of the day when the earth shall fall asunder, and all of heaven too. The Wolves of Fenric shall return for their treasure, and then shall the dark evil rule eternally I am the only one left alive now. I raise these stones to my wife Astrid. May she forgive my sins. The day grows dark, and I sense the evil curse rising from the sea. I know now what the Curse of Fenric seeks. The treasures from the Silk Lands in the east. I’ve heard the treasures whisper in my dreams. I’ve heard the magic words that will release great powers. I shall bury the treasures for ever. Tonight, I shall die, and the words die with me. Let the chains of Fenric shatter.