Doctor Who at Newton's laws of television

Viking Nights

by Matthew Newton

An image of Fenrir the wolf god
Doctor Who writers seem to have their imaginations fired by many things, be it human biology, dishrags or the ubiquitous horror film. Some authors turn to more classical sources, especially Greek myths which were responsible for influencing a couple of the least popular stories of the seventies (to say the least). However, one fact about the myths involving Jason and his Argonauts and the Minotaur is that they are generally well known, so the resulting Doctor Who stories are very obviously science-fiction versions of them ("Oh look it's a talking Minotaur who lives in a maze and demands sacrifices from a place which is meant to be Athens..."). In contrast, if one travels north from ancient Greece one reaches another rich source of mythology - the beliefs of the Vikings - which although consisting of powerful stories are not particularly known. This must have occurred to one Ian Briggs and "The Curse of Fenric" manages to subtly use Viking legend as a starting point for the most acclaimed story of the show's final years.

Back in 1989 when "The Curse of Fenric" was transmitted, some fans were classing it as a traditional Doctor Who story in the Hinchcliffe mould as it apparently shamelessly rips off a horror film, in this The Fog. Having never seen said film, I am unable to comment on this, but if one digs a little into Norse myth it is possible to find a very definite source for Briggs's script, although as we shall see he was not the first writer to pilfer from this source.

Many of the Viking legends are recorded in a number of poems which can be tedious in a way that makes you think that it can't be a coincidence that Norse is an anagram of Snore. However, the poem that concerns us here deals with the cruelest and most horrid demon of Norse mythology - Fenrir (also known as Fenris). Mmm. It's also probably not a coincidence that in Doctor Who Fenric's servants are called the Wolves of...erm...Fenric, as Fenrir was the wolf god; in Norse myths the wolf was the most viscous of animals and Fenrir was the worst of them all.

Unlike many writers, Briggs borrowed more than just a name for "The Curse of Fenric", but the whole concept of the story. In legend, Odin and the other important gods foresaw what damage Fenrir would wreak so resolved to put him out of the way by chaining him. Fenrir broke the first two chains used on him, but the third was worked by dwarves and was a special magic chain that the wolf god was unable to break. For some inexplicable reason, the wolf allowed himself to be chained if one of the other gods placed his hand between Fenrir's jaws as a pledge. Tyr, one of the lesser known deities whose job it was to feed Fenrir, volunteered to do this. Fenrir was bound, but Tyr lost his hand in the process. The influence on the Doctor Who story is clear. The Doctor was Tyr (something implied by Briggs's own novelisation), trapping Fenric in the flask instead of chaining him and with no limb-severing taking place. The result was still the same with great evil rendered harmless.

The Gods of Rrrrrragnarok In both versions, Fenric/Fenrir escapes, although there is little similarity here (after all, there weren't that many code-breaking computers in Norse mythology). The most interesting connection here is that legend says that Fenrir will break his bonds and bring about the end of the World - when Fenric is free he attempts to destroy mankind, which after all would have been the end of the world for us. The Vikings called the time leading up to the destruction of the world "The Doom of the Gods", the Norse for which is Ragnarok, which influenced Stephen Wyatt when naming the Gods in "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy" and subsequently irritated Briggs when he had to write a story about Norse legend without mentioning Ragnarok. This could have produced connections between the two stories and I remember after part three of "The Curse of Fenric" there were some suggestions that Fenric was a God of Rrrrrragnarrrok.

Although Fenrir/Fenric is the main link between Doctor Who and legend there is also another possible link. In Norse mythology we also meet Fenrir's brother, Jotmungand, who as well as sounding uncannily like a Terry Nation character was a sea dwelling monster. The very Ancient Haemovore, perhaps?

Although not in the "Underworld" or "Horns of Nimon" class (in any way!), "The Curse of Fenric" seems to have been heavily inspired by myth. However, it appears that Ian Briggs was not the first writer to be inspired by Scandinavian legend; some five years earlier Steve Gallagher wrote "Terminus" with more than passing reference to Norse stories. On the surface there is little connection between the Davison story and the tales of Fenrir and his contempories and certainly the background to "Terminus" was borrowed from elsewhere; it is certain names from the story which are familiar from the Viking poems. I first spotted this on discovering that an alternative name for Fenrir is Garm. Hmm. So this is why Gallagher's Garm has a somewhat canine appearance, although the creature's benign nature resulted in the wolf-like characteristics being softened into those of a domestic pet. Also, in Norse mythology there were two tribes of gods, one of whom were named the Vanir, which just happens to be the name of the staff of Terminus, and an influence which seems to have been picked up on by the story's designer with the Vanir's costumes being decidedly mythological, not technological as may have been expected. One of Gallagher's Vanir is called Bor (and never was a character more aptly named) - who shares his name with the son of Odin in the legends - and another is Valgard, which seems to be a derivation of Valgrind, the entrance to Valhalla (Viking Heaven). A third Vanir is Sigurd and there are literally HUNDREDS of characters in Norse mythology who have this name.

So we have seen that the legends of the Vikings have had more than a passing influence in Doctor Who, joining the list of weird and wonderful things to have formed the basis for a story. Some people would chastise writers for using such things as inspiration, citing a lack of imagination. Personally, I find it fascinating discovering where the roots of Doctor Who stories lie, and provided such things are done subtly I feel that it all adds to the legend that Doctor Who is itself.

Originally published in Think Tank issue 26 (Autumn 1991).

More on Doctor Who at Newton's Laws Of Television main page 

Copyright MJ Newton 2003. All rights reserved.
This article may not be reproduced without permission