The Image of the Fendahl
|Dates||Oct. 29, 1977 -
Nov. 19, 1977
With Tom Baker, Louise Jameson.
Written by Chris Boucher. Script-edited by Robert Holmes.
Directed by George Spenton-Foster. Produced by Philip Hinchcliffe.
|Synopsis: A being of energy embodies itself in a skull, and is accidentally awakened by human scientists.|
A Review by Kevin Guhl 17/1/97
Okay, first of all, bite your lip when this story's villains appear. Image of the Fendahl is yet another Who tale where a compelling story makes up for cheesy special effects!
Image plays like an old horror film, with meddling scientists ressurecting ancient evil through a dirty old skull. Villagers begin to suffer mysterious deaths and people are not what they seem. An intriguing tale so far, yes, but then the Doctor shows up with Leela. As they begin to encover the mystery, we learn of the Fendahl's place in Gallifreyan legend and of more illegal Time Lord meddling. Then comes a fast-paced and enjoyable struggle against the Fendahl and the coven that is bringing it to Earth.
All in all, this story is fun but falls short in a few places. Most noticeable are the much-anticipated villains, who don't awaken too much terror. Although the Fendahl pulls a little semi-transparent creepiness in the lab's hallways, her giant slugs are quite laughable. No wonder the Doctor isn't too chilled by these legendary horrors! Explainations of the Fendahl's history and the village's legends are muddy, but the confusion isn't too distracting.
While not a very deep story, Image is entertaining. The acting is superb, with Tom Baker and Louise Jameson sharing a nice rapport. Even the supporting characters do a nice job! So, those with heart conditions will not endanger themselves with Image of the Fendahl. You will, however, hang on the edge of your seat anticipating the quickly unfolding events and of course, for most guys, Leela! ;)
A Review by Keith Bennett 16/7/98
Like most Doctor Who fans, I was scared by the programme when I was a little tike, but when I became a "serious" viewer/reader/fan, the fear of the Daleks and their ilk left me. I enjoyed the show for entertainment and rarely felt chilled in any way.
The Image of The Fendahl, however, is one story that genuinely scared me when I first viewed it. The sight of the taken-over Thea Ransome floating around in that old house, with that haunting music accompanying her, covered me with goosebumps, and I'm glad that I can watch it today and still see that it is an outstanding piece of horror.
This is a near-brilliant story and, I think, Chris Boucher's best. The script is full of fantastic dialogue, with such classic lines as "You must think my head zips up at the back" and "What kind of corpse?" "A dead one. What other kind is there?" giving goosebumps of a different type -- one of thrilling joy. The character of Colby is one of the shining lights, and one of the best supporting characters ever to appear in Doctor Who. His sarcastic, offbeat and amusing personality is so refreshingly different from your average scientist and, while Doctor Fendahlman IS the tradition scientist, and Stahl is the traditional madman (with those eyes, what else could he be??), Colby is just so unusual and a joy to watch throughout. Jack Tyler and his grandma are a delight as well.
The Fendahleen are superb, probably helped by the fact that, apart from looking good, they're not in it a lot, so they are more effective. The whole story rattles along beautifully, with The Doctor and Leela shining as a first rate team, although the latter has on an even more revealing outfit that she used to, and that could distract viewers for... er... various reasons, depending on your tastes. But that final episode with Thea Ransome is horror at its best. Only on close up, when we can see that the wide eyes are obviously painted over her real closed ones, is any effectiveness lost. And the implosion at the end, even though helped well by some reversed music, really doesn't look good, and continues to show Doctor Who's weaknesses with climactic ex/implosions.
But this is a marvellous tale overall. Entertaining, scary, funny and just plain wonderful. 9/10
Gothic Folly by Edward Kellett 8/8/01
I can honestly say that, to give Image of the Fendahl its due, it was the one story whose beginning genuinely frightened me when I saw it several years ago. Chris Boucher's personal take on the Hammer horror style of the Hinchcliffe era accommodates the atmosphere of the genre effectively enough but fails in the complexity of its plotline. Nevertheless, the first sequence in which Thea Ransome falls under the spell of the malevolent skull, her features overlaid with its glowing crevices, is superbly unsettling and makes great use of a writhing, susurrating sound effect for the skull being activated. When counter-pointed with the chilling death of a hapless hiker in a fog-strewn forest, the opening of the story is highly atmospheric and sets the scene for another potent tale of horror and tragedy. On a technical level, Image is a virtually flawless production, director George Spenton-Foster enhancing well the darkness of Fetch Priory's oak-panelled corridors with several ominous pauses and moments of uneasy silence. The only quibbles are the moderately clumsy Fendahleen creatures and even they are acceptable in the shadowed cavern beneath the Priory, their serpentine appearance acting as visual shorthand for the malignant nature of the Fendahl. Equally the final cataclysmic implosion of the Time Scanner is achieved with plenty of impressive pyrotechnics on screen. The real problem with the story lies almost entirely in Boucher's garbled plot and characterisation. The premise of the scientific team is handled well enough and there is some great interaction between the quartet, but the dialogue they and indeed the other characters are given is terrible - oscillating between melodramatic proclamations and facile quips that do not progress the story at all. As the fanatical Dr Fendleman, Denis Lill overcomes his forced Germanic accent to deliver a convincingly intense performance, but it is something of a let-down when it is revealed that Stael, not he, is intending to summon the power of the Fendahl. Fendleman is left as a rather redundant part, since all his theories about the evolution of mankind are summarily dropped in favour of turgid mysticism about the godly power of the Fendahl. Scott Fredericks' Maximillian Stael is similarly beset by clich? maniacally declaring his intention to rule without being given any back-story as to how and why he possesses this remarkable insight. Some semblance of normality is restored by the peevish Adam Colby, whose glib observations become increasingly incongruous amid such theatricality, but he adds a refreshing down-to-earth air in the story's final stages. Additionally he is left to carry the typical Boucher role of the disbelieving sceptic, as witnessed in his scornful exchanges with Fendleman over the skull.
The Fendahl as death itself is a potentially horrifying concept and, when embodied in the grinning bone of the skull, makes for an excellent motif. The notion of its origins as predating the first homo sapiens initially promises a familiar but no less absorbing retread of the ideas of human development presented in Quatermass and the Pit, but somewhere along the line this plot thread is lost. More should have been made of the tragic destiny of Wanda Ventham's lissom Thea Ransome as the ultimate vessel for the recreation of the Fendahl, instead of being unsubtly hijacked by Stael in Part Three. It's debatable whether the blending of this ancient evil with the local village superstitions works very well, since old Martha Tyler's second sight again leads to some rather corny and predictable dialogue. Some of the minor characters work extremely well - the brief seen friction between the snide, conniving Ted Moss and Geoffrey Hinsliff's stoical Jack Tyler is a particular highlight. Difficulties arise from the moment the Fendahl is actually reborn as a golden empress with menacing eye-shadow, who swishes her robes around the place and converts the unwitting acolytes into more Fendahleen. Granted, it is surprising for those expecting the usual hooded, decaying misfit but the Fendahl never does anything to threaten the Doctor and co. before she is unceremoniously blown to kingdom come.
Notice that this is the first time I have even mentioned the Doctor. In what must be one of the contributing factors in the story's failure, Boucher refrains from involving the time travellers in the main plot at almost every stage. They spend the first episode tramping around in the woods to get to the Priory, and when the Doctor meets the scientists for the only time in the first three episodes he is simply imprisoned and then escapes again. By the time he does finally get involved in the action, after a painfully obvious section of padding concerning the Fifth Planet the Fendahl came from, it's too late to create anything particularly ingenious and the Doctor simply engineers a big bang to destroy the core. It may be termed a scanner implosion, but it's still essentially the same thing. This is symptomatic of the major drawback of Image of the Fendahl, namely its confused and contrived technical explanations. In a bizarre mixture of poor sound quality and mumbled speech the incredibly overwrought reasons for the Fendahl's presence provided by the Doctor simply do not register with the viewer. Just when you think you have the hang of the story, the writer springs another piece of unwarranted jargon and contrivance on you, and the overall effect is a disappointingly inconclusive narrative - something that can ultimately be attributed to the failure of the story as a whole.
A Review by Daniel Spelner 20/2/02
This is a perfectly adequate story in all respects. Image was written with the intention of discomfiting the viewer until the eventual horrifying sight of the Fendahl is revealed. And thanks to the writing and the efforts of the director, the 'discomfiting' bit of it is done rather well but the design team failed with the 'horrifying sight' bit with a unfortunate rubber-suit attempt that deflates much of the unease created by the build up. Image is essentially a fusion of the gothic Hinchcliffe era and Graham Williams lighter style, the link being script-editor Robert Holmes (who quit after this story). In spite of the Fendahl's appearance it works, remaining entertaining to the end.
More than just an Image by Mike Jenkins 3/7/02
Someone (Some people) have observed (believed) that Image of the Fendahl was created merely to observe some of the most grotesque, vile, yet comically looking monsters in the history of the programme. Not to mention some of the most gripping scenes of horror you might accidently come upon in this television show. Though on its approach to the chronologically significant age of a quarter century, the story has not dated in the slightest. If feels as though it were written then transmitted only a modest number of years ago. The story could've allowed itself to degenerate into a substandard remake of it's accompanying classic Pyramids of Mars, with its themes of ancient artifacts haunted by an alien prescence, yet takes it into more of a post-modern abstract malevolent threat.
The precise nature of the menace is not entirely revealed until close to the end of the story. This along with superbly sordid, morbid, creepy direction induces fear in mastery tale of suspenseful dramatic on-screen tension. No surprise then that the incidentals are perfectly suited to their respective roles, Tom is his usual self-effacingly charistmatic, charming humourous self, and this is perhaps Louise Jameson's best perfomance (the only possible exception being her tremendous on-screen chemistry with the plethorous bill of actors in The Horror of Fang Rock). Not so much overlooked as it is misunderstood. And certainly not as disregarded as the previous story, The Invisible Enemy. All outside factors and opinions aside, it will forever remain one of MY favorites.
Rushed and confused by Tim Roll-Pickering 27/9/02
This is a story that is very difficult for one to get excited about. It carries over many of the themes of Philip Hinchcliffe's period of the show but the realisation is much looser and there's a resort to far more humour by Tom Baker than previously seen. Additionally Chris Boucher's story is complex to follow and at times it is easy to get lost and confused by events, such as the mystery of who releases the Doctor when he is locked up.
At its heart Image of the Fendahl is another story of an alien entity that has been influencing humanity's evolution throughout history and which has left many traces of its existence in magic and culture. This is by no means original - The Daemons did it six years earlier - but this in itself is not the story's problem. What lets it down is the general failure to present the story in an easy to follow form that is particularly memorable. The exact nature of the Fendahl and its relationship with the Fendahleen is never made especially clear. The impression given is that the story has had a substantial rewrite by someone other than the author, with the result that much clarity has been lost in the process.
On the acting side, Tom Baker now begins to exhibit some over the top tendencies that at times can take his portrayal close to caricature. Of the guest cast, Daphne Heard gives an extremely clich? performance as the 'old wise woman' Martha Tyler whilst Denis Lill's performance as Dr. Fendelman is let down by an extremely exaggerated accent. None of the other cast members give any particularly noteworthy performances apart from Wanda Ventham who manages to bring a sense of tragedy to Thea Ransome as she is slowly possessed by the Fendahl.
On the production side the story is generally competent but let down in some minor areas such as the realisation of the Fendahleen which fails to generate an especial sense of terror, or the make-up for Wanda Ventham as the Fendahl Core which shows all too clearly that the eyes are painted on over the eye lashes. George Spenton-Forester's direction is competent and the night filming does give a strong sense of darkness to the story but it doesn't help to make the story stand out any more. After a run of many 'Gothic horror' stories, Image of the Fendahl is a significant letdown. Most of the problems arise from the script but there is a noticeable lack of co-ordination between the various elements of production which is usually the secret of success for a story. With more time and attention this story could have worked better but as it stands it is an incomplete mess. 3/10
The forgotten masterpiece by Joe Ford 6/10/03
Mike Morris recently (and somewhat unfairly) dismissed season 15 as one that 'barely deserves to be watched'. Every season of Who has something of merit (even, and it pains me to say this, season 20) and this season is no different. Because smack bang in its centre lies one of my all time favourite televised stories, a story so audacious and entertaining I am at a loss for words (a rare occurance) to explain why no one seems to remember it.
At its heart Image of the Fendahl is a really scary horror story. It understands all the responsibilities that go with the genre and dishes them out appropriately. Early scenes depict a faceless character (who plays no part in the story accept to die horribly) being stalked by a horrific menace and meeting a grisly end. This serves to merely whet our apetitites. Then a body is discovered by one of the central core of characters, a reminder that death is close by. There are a number of horrible people (like that guard who calls Mrs Tyler a "loony old trout") who are just hanging around to be Fendahl fodder, obvious victims because they are so nasty. And like in all good horror films there is a character who has a supernatural ability who can 'sense' the gathering evil. Add to this mix a touch of the occult and a late appearance of a big disgusting monster and you have every single cliche covered.
Why this story works so well is because it seems to understand its predictability and plays these scenes so seriously it is impossible to not get caught up in the atmosphere of it all. The hiker being struck down in the woods is very stylishly shot, at one point the camera advances through the trees suddenly, a 'blow to the stomach' effective shot. Scenes of Thea's face overlapping the skull are subtle and terrifying as a result, her staring eyes are truly frightening in these scenes. The location work is very sumptuous, later scenes of mist rolling in on the gothic looking house as the Doctor and Leela enter the gates could be straight out of a horror movie. Even the Fendahleen, with its horrid, slimy wormlike appearance, it appears enough money has been treated so the big bad is appropriately scary.
And what about the cliffhanger to episode one as the Doctor is rooted to the spot as something emerges towards him from the woods? Brilliant stuff!
But it also scores points in the intelligence of the script. Chris Boucher is not one to waste his words and he imbues the story with a strong scientific plotline about the evoloution of man. It is fascinating stuff and balances the thrills elsewhere with some real content. The pentacle star is a vivid smybol, used effectively throughout the story. I love the scenes between Colby and Fendahlman as he takes him through his accumulation of evidence, whilst everyone else is rushing about doing the scary stuff the story takes a breath to explore its ideas.
So it's scary and clever, anything else? Oh yeah it's got a terrific supporting cast too. Edward Arthur is brilliant as Colby, he is clearly determined to be the dashing hero of the piece despite the scripts attempt's to make him comic relief. I think his voice is so damn sexy! Dennis Lill provides some gravity to the story as Fendahlman, his flaring temper and devotion to his subject (even down to covering up bodies and locking people up) make him one to watch. And the delicious Wanda Ventham provides the story with some beauty and some strong moments of psychological horror ("Why don't you ask me? Go on ask me who did it? I did! I DID!").
But best of all is the mad eccentric Mrs Tyler, Daphne Heard getting a huge thumbs up from me as she hams up the role for all its worth. "'Ere! That ain't the way to make a fruitcake!" she cries brilliantly, breaking free of her psychic shock. "Sooner or late 'eel get what's coming to 'im!" she shrieks ominously in epsiode one. "Loony old trout!" she barks moments before. You get the picture, an excellent comic performance in an otherwise serious tale.
Louise Jameson seems very comfortable with the story, she gets to play up Leela's strengths. Her instincts and agression are vital to the story and she seems glad to be an acting participant rather than a bit of leg on show. Oddly Tom Baker plays some of the story tongue in cheek but this is merely another attempt by the actor to suggest the alieness of the Doctor. I love it when he grabs the skull and says "Alas, poor skull" and then gets tortured as it glows malevolently. His "Mrs Tyler!" as she wakes up always gets a laugh too. But it is his quiet reaction when he gives Stael the gun to commit suicide that lingers the most after watching this, a shocking act that he barely acknowledges.
The pace is excellent with a good scary bit every couple of minutes. Later episodes have the bonus of the nasty Fendahleens (both miniture and full size versions) to stalk the corridors of the house. There are some truly memorable scenes in this story... the full orchestral music as Thea succumbs and lifts from the star, the Doctor holding Stael to the light and telling him it's too late for him, Fendahlman's realisation that "Mankind has been used!" before he is shot to death, the Doctor asking the cows if they have seen the time scanner... it's typical Boucher, giving strong material to everyone.
It does work all the better for not having K.9 too, his presence would have added a horrible layer of camp to a story that manages to remain fairly straight throughout.
I just love it. It stands up to constant re-watching thanks to George-Spenton-Forster's gorgeous direction (another very under-valued director from the show). It hardly seems to have aged at all (except for obvious stuff like haircuts and special effects). The core of the story, how do you kill death, could be used today and I certainly believe if this was a modern movie they would ruin it with an overload of effects and bland characters (like The Haunting and Ghost Ship). Good horror needs to be quieter than that, seductive and creepy (Like The Others, one of the only decent horror films of modern times). Image of the Fendahl knows how to manipulate its audience, it doesn't let you relax for a second and as a result it is one of the most powerful stories in the show's canon. It compares favourably to anything in the Hinchcliffe era and manages to be better than most of them.
A stunning four episodes of visceral and psychological horror.
A Review by Brian May 2/11/03
My very first viewing of Image of the Fendahl enthralled me. Some twenty-one plus years later, I can still proudly make this claim, lauding this as one of my all time favourite pieces of Doctor Who.
Although part of the Graham Williams years, where the programme sought to become more upbeat and whimsical, this is well and truly a legacy of Philip Hinchcliffe's tenure as producer. This is a wonderfully terrifying and suspenseful tale - one of the best, and most successful, attempts at Gothic horror in Doctor Who. Other examples start off well, but either fizz out and become boring at the end (Terror of the Zygons) or shift away from the initial atmosphere for reasons of narrative or plot (The Stones of Blood), but Image of the Fendahl maintains a dark and foreboding tone throughout its four episodes.
The opening moments encapsulate the story's mood perfectly, with the inter-cutting of the hiker's fateful trek through the fog shrouded woods, Thea's encounter with the skull and the experiments with the time scanner. The glowing skull is frightening - blending its image over that of Thea's face is disturbing. We feel the fear of the hiker as he runs from his unseen pursuer. When Stael and Fendleman work in the laboratory it is unsettling, as we know it is affecting the above scenes.
The end of the first episode is just as atmospheric. Leela following the mysterious hooded figure, more blending of Thea and skull, the Doctor standing transfixed as the unknown horror approaches him. In the remainder of the story there is Martha Tyler's prophesying; Fendleman and Colby in the laboratory discussing the skull and its implications for mankind; Leela's dream that she is being chased and unable to move; Fendleman's "Mankind has been used!" speech, followed by all the goings-on in the cellar as the Fendahl is resurrected. As a mood piece, the story is exceptionally well constructed.
What makes this really possible is the special sound, providing eerie noises and hums that exemplify a slow, creeping terror. The entire opening scene is devoid of music and would have been ruined if there had been any. The sound effects are a hundred times more nerve-wracking than any dramatic score would have been. The incidental music in the first half of the story is kept to a minimum, thereby preventing it from being intrusive. It steps up in the last two episodes, especially in the cellar, but the mood here is more appropriate, as the unveiling of the evil lessens the sense of mystery (but fortunately retains the horror element). The music at the finale, when the priory implodes, is spectacular - the parts played backwards most fitting for this story.
In terms of plot, the theme of awakening evil and its influences on mankind has been done before in Doctor Who, most notably in The Daemons - but the Jon Pertwee tale lacks the atmosphere of dread that saturates this story. The concept of the Fendahl's intangibility - it's not a singular monster, more a collection of different creatures (a gestalt, as it is described) - makes it a far more terrifying enemy. It has no real identity - rather it is an entity and unable to be confronted in the traditional sense.
The characterisations are good, as are their interactions, especially among Fendleman and his team. Adam Colby is a mixture of naivety and ambition, obviously the one most sympathetic to the audience. Stael's bug-eyed, emotionless stares and cold demeanour indicate there is more to him than meets the eye - his slow advances on Thea as he prepares to chloroform her are nothing short of creepy. He is clearly a megalomaniac, but still induces sympathy when he realises that he too is a pawn. The audience knows that Thea is the victim, and as the story progresses it becomes more and more evident that she will not be saved. Her final transformation into the Fendahl Core is marvellously eerie, but makes for a sad moment more than a terrifying one. Actingwise, all the performances are pretty good, except that Scott Fredericks tends to be a bit OTT in his portrayal of Stael, in particular the cellar scenes in part three. Dennis Lill's Germanic accent is far too cliched - we already know he's an eccentric scientist!
Tom Baker and Louise Jameson are on fine form. Leela spends most of the first two episodes separated from the Doctor, giving her a chance to show her skill and resources. This is one of Baker's best portrayals of his "wide-eyed wanderer" Doctor - he walks into the priory and assumes everybody will listen to him. He has some wonderful moments - when he eavesdrops on Stael and Ted Moss and makes sure his hair is curly! The Doctor has a subtly horrified reaction upon seeing the embryo Fendahleen surrounding the unconscious Thea (thereby realising what he is up against). Baker also handles very well the quiet scene when he admits to being frightened by the legendary monster, showing a rare, vulnerable side (especially for the fourth Doctor). What I also like is that the Doctor and Leela are incidental to the plot - the story would still happen if they were not there. The aforementioned opening scene does not include them at all; in part two the Doctor is encountered briefly by Fendahlman, locked up, escapes, and is largely forgotten, mentioned only in passing. A lot of the best scenes, and the best character exchanges, involve the guest cast. The regulars are largely superfluous - except when it comes to saving the day, of course!
The story has its imperfections. A few mistakes: how does the Doctor know about the hiker? - how does he know Mitchell's name? - how is he freed from the locked room? The much derided adult Fendahleen are not spectacular, but when all is said and done they're really not that bad - they are fairly standard looking Doctor Who monsters. The time scanner is largely irrelevant - it's just a plot catalyst and makes for some technobabble - fortunately it's not the basis for the story and consumes no valuable time. One part of the story, the TARDIS's journey to find the fifth planet in episode three, has also been criticised as padding. On this I don't agree. It makes for some interesting scenes - Leela's dream and the Doctor's admission of fear, both of which I have already talked about. It also allows for the plot to continue without them, reinforcing what I said in the paragraph above.
Time, or fickle fandom, have not changed this story. I loved it when I first saw it, and I love it now. I've never had more fun being frightened! 9.5/10
A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 3/1/04
Image Of The Fendahl harks back to the Hinchcliffe era as the story has a gothic feel and atmosphere. It is perhaps underrated too, but still has a lot going for it. Tom Baker is once again at his best, though not as intense as in some tales and Louise Jameson is also on fine form as Leela. Of the supporting cast it is Mrs Tyler who makes the greatest impression, not only because of her beliefs, but due to the fact that the Doctor supports her theories. There is also a great deal of tension, coupled with memorable images such as the transformation of Thea, the Doctor and the skull and the realisation of the fully grown Fendahleen. Possibly the strongest story of the season.
Death, with a Pinch of Salt by Mike Morris 3/4/04
You know, I can't really figure out why I've not reviewed Image of the Fendahl before. I find it one of the most fascinating Doctor Who stories, one of the most interesting, one of the most constantly amusing. One of the best then? Well, no. To be honest, the first time I saw this I thought it was, overall, the biggest load of crap I'd ever seen Tom take part in. Of course, Image of the Fendahl is a bit of a moody story, and ten o'clock on Sunday morning with a hangover that would obliterate Switzerland doesn't create the right frame of mind for melodramatic horror. And over the next three weeks UK Gold followed it up with The Sunmakers, Underworld and The Invasion of Time, just to show me that "load of crap" is a relative term.
Anyway, I changed my mind about it a long time ago. Admittedly, Joe Ford quotes my "barely deserves to be watched" line from my Season Fifteen review in his piece above; but in fairness, Joe's taken that line vastly out of context - I was speaking of the season as a whole, from an objective viewpoint, and although it's maybe a harsh statement I don't think it's at all unfair (Would I advise someone to stay in on a Saturday afternoon and have a Season Fifteen marathon? No I wouldn't). Anyway, in the same piece I was pretty complimentary about this story and said that in many ways it was better than Pyramids of Mars, and this is the angle I'm coming from now. I find Image of the Fendahl to be one of the most rewatchable and enjoyable Doctor Who stories. Bits of it are brilliant, others are woeful, it's a bit drawn out at the end and some scenes are absurdly dated. Overall, it's smashing. And assembling everything I want to say about this gold-mine is tough.
First up; it's a crossover story, and they're always fascinating and always flawed. It belongs with Robot, Meglos, The Claws of Axos and Four to Doomsday (although it's much better than any of the aforementioned); stories at the start of a new era that bear many of the traits of the previous era, and hence come across as a weird mish-mash. Image of the Fendahl is the most Hinchcliffe-y of stories in one way, but subtle differentiations make it sharply different. Some of those differences are better, some worse. As a whole it straddles Hinchcliffe and Williams (hee hee, insert your own double entendre here) and stands out as a rather delightful oddity.
You have to be in the mood though. Image of the Fendahl goes for the melodrama with its teeth, and as such it falls apart if you don't get pulled in. On that Sunday morning, I remember howling with derision (well, whimpering really - it was a rotten hangover) at the early vision mixing with the skull. It goes on forever, and let's face it, while skulls might have been scary to ten year olds in the seventies they're not frightening enough to get ten minute's screen time, whether they glow or not. There are countless scenes that are similarly risible; the Fendahl itself looks rubbish and does sod all except hang around in a cellar, much of Stael's dialogue is appallingly hammy, and every yokel to feature in a Pertwee production appears to make a comeback. Oh my.
But if it's late, and you're not quite tired, and you're on your own... well it's really very frightening. OTT lines like "I shall enjoy your terror" aside, Stael is a soft-spoken, deluded maniac played completely straight, and he's a haunting bad guy (his "I shall be a god" is fabulous). Scenes like Thea's collapse are played and shot very theatrically and stoically, and they're extremely effective. The Doctor's entrance is possibly the best ever - he storms into the room, shouts "don't touch her", and moments later has another one of those wonderful melodramatic lines - "If I'm right, in a year there'll be just one left alive. Just one."
And there's the scene. Now, very occasionally, a Doctor Who scene actually leaves me breathless; heart pumping, fists clenched, arms wrapped around my body, legs crouching up towards my chin, gasping, a half-grin on my face in amazement at just how good that last bit was and in flushed anticipation of what's to come. Image of the Fendahl is one of maybe seven or eight stories to leave me like that.
Part Three's conclusion, of course. "The Doctor asked me if my name was real. Well don't you see? Fendelman... man of the Fendahl... only for this moment have the generations of my fathers lived. I have been used. You are being used. Mankind has been used!"
It's a scene that is up there with the greats. Really, the entire story seems to exist to create that pulsing moment of realisation. We build up to it slowly and mercilessly, creating tension and undercurrents that are spewed out in that one shining d?ouement. It overrides all the other concerns; that it was bloody obvious about Fendelman's name, that his German accent is crap, and that the Fendaleen we see a moment later is a bit shit-looking. I'll happily believe that Chris Boucher came up with that scene one night, then wrote the entire story around it.
Anyway, that's the moment at which the death 'n' doom atmosphere sweeps any resistance aside. The rest of the time, the whole thing is wavering between "tense" and "overplayed"; if you're in the mood it's effective, if not it's laughable. This is a good example of the Hinchcliffe/Williams tension. God-like aliens with great powers are far more Hinchcliffe's forte than Williams', as they're intrinsically melodramatic and the one thing Williams does is take the piss out of melodrama. So Image of the Fendahl is much more obviously melodramatic than, say, Talons or Pyramids. Of course, that's part of the charm, the fine line the story treads between terrifying and silly. It deviates from that fine line frequently; and many aspects of the story do that too.
(Okay, I'll try to stop saying "melodramatic" now)
The dialogue, for one. If I was doing a Discontinuity Guide-style set of "Dialogue Disasters" and "Dialogue Triumphs", I could fit half the script in one column or the other. On one side there's "You must think my head zips up the back," or "they say he made his money on electronics, but that can't be true because he ain't Japanese" or "a dead one, what other sort is there?" or "I was sent by the council to cut the verges" or "never trust a man as wears a hat" and many more. Then you've got a whole ream of crap; "I bain't your granma, don't 'ee granma me" and "only the uninvited ones that I suspect of murder" and "they're investigators, they come to investigate!". At one point, Stael actually says "soon it will be too late for all the meddling fools!" No, really, he does! Shame he died, or he might have mentioned pesky kids...
And the characters; they're great-and-crap too. Colby is a real gem; a very real, funny, slightly irritating and only-just-about-likeable white-bread smiley git with a caring heart. The script also does good work with Thea Ransome, and there are lots of interesting bits of power politics with the scientists. There's a tremendous irony in the way that Colby and Stael both have inferiority complexes towards each other; a few snide remarks establish Colby's resentment of Stael's closeness to Fendelman - he reacts with his smarmy teasing ("Maxy, end the day with a smile") that Stael appears to take in good humour, his resentment surfacing when he finally has Colby in his power and regards him with a special hatred. This is the kind of thing that Hinchcliffe never really did, a real and deceptive subtlety of motivation. Similarly, although there's only one oblique reference to it when Stael says that it's "fitting" that Thea should be the key to his power, it's very obvious that he fancies the tits off her and resents the flirty relationship between her and Colby. Stael himself comes across, in spite of a bunch of very overdone lines, as the kind of villain who was bullied as a kid, and there's a desperation to him that makes him more believable than one might expect.
On the other hand there's the yokel-fest. Bloody hell, could Mrs Tyler be any more overplayed and overwritten? She's almost incomprehensible, and unwisely she's played for laughs as well as being the village wise-woman. The scene where she says "there isn't a dog born as'd attack me boy" would be very good, but we can't forget that moments before she was clattering some security guard around the head with her bag and being warned about her varicose veins. She's dodgily written anyway, but Daphne Heard's performance roars over the top and feels like a bad audition for the opening scene of Macbeth. She's not helped by having Ted Moss and Jack Tyler as backup, both of whom are gormless and really rather featureless when one probes beneath the "oo-arr" accents. There's an attempt to get a small-village spookiness feel, as per The Wicker Man, but the cast is too small and the setting to limited for it to really come off. It's quite funny sometimes though.
Still; what a plot. Oh what a beautiful plot.
This another example of the Williams/Hinchcliffe dividing line. The obvious comparison is Pyramids of Mars, as both stories have a similar tone and identical premise (all-powerful alien with fanatical followers seeks to get free). Pyramids, though, is much more simplistic and actually doesn't make any sense. If the Osirians wanted to imprison Sutekh, why do it on a populated planet? Why bury him with everything he needs to build a space-time tunnel? Why not seal him in completely? Meanwhile, Image of the Fendahl plays the game for real, without resorting to the old-fashioned horror plot conventions that Pyramids employs. The alien stores its DNA in a skull which it sends to earth, subtly affecting the DNA of the indigenous life form to create a suitable shape, and implanting the impulses to release it in certain individuals. Now that's genius. It's a huge concept, a dynamic idea, and it gives Image of the Fendahl a realistic feel that Pyramids doesn't really have.
And yet, that's a bit of a double-edged sword, as the more realistic edge makes the more Hammer-esque moments stand out clearer. Pyramids of Mars is Hammer all the way through, simply asking the viewer to accept what it is, which is less laudable in the abstract but also less jarring. So somehow, Fendahl is both less and more believable than Pyramids of Mars is.
All that considered, it's all verging on blissful for the first three episodes or so. Reference has been made to the third episode dragging a bit, but I've never really noticed and I think the TARDIS trip is rather good - the timeloop idea is appropriate and well-used. However, the real problems set in when the Fendahl finally appears.
Terrence Keenan recently referred to this story in his excellent piece on forays into the occult, and made the point that the Fendahl is really there to symbolise Death - and as such the Doctor can't confront or reason with it. Of course, if the Fendahl really was Death, then there'd be another issue. The Doctor couldn't beat it. Which prevents an obvious problem for the scriptwriter.
So he does beat it, and rather easily too. He throws some salt at it. The sheer crapness of this is difficult to describe; the Fendahl can (as it happens) be destroyed by some standard chemical like any old creature, and (as it happens) that's been put in the shotgun cartridges that Leela shoots it with, and (as it happens) everything sorts itself out. I can't believe people moan about hexachromite but not about this, it's a pathetic plot convenience.
The knock-on is that the Fendahl is instantly relegated from being a powerful elemental being to just being an alien. As Terrence says, Azal and Fenric are both defeated by conceptual means, rather than some clever-dick solution which would despatch them in a physical way. Because of this, Azal and Fenric feel like God and Satan dressed down as aliens, and have a real gravitas; the Fendahl, however, is a bog-standard alien dressed up as death. The script explicitly refers to it as Death at one point, but really it's shouting out the aims because the realisation has come up short. And once that's been stripped away, we're left with the fact that Part Four features an alien in a cellar pointing at things and then getting blown up. It's only twenty minutes long and it still drags. The ending combines three unsatisfactory elements; technobabble (all the stuff about the Doctor making a direct continuum implosion), the abundant Achilles heel (salt? Oh, how fortunate, there's loads of that around!), and a big bang (all stories must end with an explosion). Oh, and who exactly believes that painting eyes onto an actor's eyelids looks convincing?
Tom's on good form. There's already a lighter feel to his portrayal on occasion - chatting with cows, offering Ted Moss a jelly baby, overacting in the forest ("come on, legs!"), and the "gentleness" jump-cut. Still, he's very straight much of the time, admirably refusing to send up a story that would have been easy to ridicule but wouldn't have benefited from it. Leela, as is usual at this stage in her tenure, is really just a savage with a knife and not much else. However, Boucher infuses her with some arch wit (I love her reaction to the Doctor's tale of being frightened in childhood), and her banter with the Doctor is very nice; whatever about behind-the-scenes complaints, there's a tangible affection between them, each taking the piss out of the other in a light-hearted way and working very well together.
Really, I could talk about Image of the Fendahl all night. Whatever else, it's not boring. It's a Doctor Who story I really, really enjoy, although I can't quite take it as seriously as it wants me to. I suspect that, if Part Four weren''t such a let-down, I'd be raving about it. Even so, I wholeheartedly recommend this tale; a full-blooded stab at horror that sometimes works completely, and at other times remains good fun. It's similar in that sense to the film Sleepy Hollow, and is enjoyed in much the same way.
And one more thing should be said; Best Story Title Ever...
Glow in the Dark by Joe Briggs-Ritchie 30/10/07
Image of the Fendahl is probably my favourite story. I say probably because I can never make up my mind when it comes to favourite things. Death to the Daleks would also be a strong contender. Yes, that's right, I said Death to the Daleks and if anyone has a problem with that, I'll gladly take them outside. As we all know, Image of the Fendahl is the last regular "gothic" story and, for my money, the best and most gothic of them all. Yes, here we have pentagrams, black magic, an old priory, haunted woods, secret covens, lots of night scenes and superstitions such as the use of salt and the number thirteen, all mixed in with a good dose of science-realism such as the origins of the human species, race memory and telepathy. As ever in Doctor Who, mystical forces have a scientific explanation. Comforting or what?
The early scene with the hiker is superbly effective and just about sets the tone for the remainder of the story. In fact, this scene is a good example of just how brutal Doctor Who can be, killing off the poor man within a matter of minutes of introducing him. For a programme that always stresses the importance and value of life, Doctor Who certainly has a high body count. Of course, I couldn't write a review without mentioning that opening shot of the skull. No music, just a gradual pull back from the very object that the entire story revolves around. I think it's a very nice establishing scene, explaining the dilemma of the skull being eight million years older than it possibly can be. This also introduces us to the guest cast and what a wonderful guest cast it is. Edward Arthur as Colby is dynamite. Smarmy, cocky, full of himself. Gets some great lines. What more can I say? Then there's poor old Thea Ransome, played very sensitively by Wanda Ventham who really brings a sense of inevitable tragedy to the character. These two really have some good chemistry with each other. Denis Lill as Fendelman is truly a misguided scientist in a class of his own. And Scott Fredericks makes Stael one of the most chilling Who villains. I mean just look at the guy's eyes. He's a complete psycho. I think it's rather sweet how he achieves a kind of redemption by blowing his own brains out. That'll teach you not to meddle with forces you don't understand. Geoffrey Hinsliff and Daphne Heard turn in what is essentially a double act as Jack and Granny Tyler. A very entertaining double act, I hasten to add.
Tom Baker. Yes, well. There isn't really anything to be said that hasn't already been said before. We all know he was born to play this part and his performance here is as riveting as ever. He displays his usual knack for taking charge of a situation in episode two when he storms into the Priory, examines the body of Mitchell (gone to meet his maker at the tendrils of a Fendahleen; you can also see Derek Martin being zapped by an Axon in The Claws of Axos - cannon fodder) and then proceeds to give Colby a potted history of the Fendahl. Oh and casually tells him that within a year there'll be just one person left alive on Earth. Quite a sobering thought, one would imagine. There's a clever contrasting touch later on when Leela is explaining to Jack about the Doctor's "gentleness" and the next shot is of the Doctor throwing a tantrum and kicking some boxes around. He also gets many good lines such as when he sniffs that artefact in lab and say "Mmm. Twelfth century", and later when he muses on the fact that Leela's tribe would have wiped themselves out if they'd ever developed guns. It's not often that this incarnation ever admits to being frightened but here he does. Frightened by a "mythological horror". He's also wearing a new scarf. It's an improvement on the last one, I must say. Leela is continuing to develop and her ignorance/continual threats to kill people is very amusing. K9 is wisely kept out of the proceedings. I don't have a problem with the character in the way that some people do, but he slows the pace, trundling around everywhere. He is also something of a super convenience for the Doctor. And the Doctor already has the sonic screwdriver - something which has been ridiculously overused in the new series and seems to have taken on almost magical qualities.
On the subject of costume, the scientists at the Priory are all wearing lab coats which always look cool but are something of a bad omen. Think of all the lab-coated scientists in Doctor Who that have met unpleasant ends. Dr Lennox in The Ambassadors of Death, Professor Stahlman in Inferno, Goodge in Terror of the Autons, Professor Whitaker in Invasion of the Dinosaurs... the list is endless. Stael's coven are all sporting hooded cowls. Again, very stylish but wearers of hooded cowls also tend to come off badly in Doctor Who. Look at DeVries in The Stones of Blood.
It's the design of this story that really it to me. The Priory sets are gorgeous to look at. In a season of CSO caves, silly model spaceships and a somewhat shoddy-looking Gallifrey (perhaps the Time Lord economy is collapsing), this story and Horror of Fang Rock really stand out. Obviously most of the money went on these two. The glow-in-the-dark skull is fabulously spooky. This is one story where the humour isn't allowed to trample the horror into the ground. The Williams' era is know for its silly humour but it's an era that begins with stories more worthy of Hincliffe. Dudley Simpson delivers a very atmospheric music score with lots of appropriate organ parts.
There are far too many good lines to mention them all but some of the best are Colby's remark about "an industrial relations problem" and when he tells Fendelmann that he is mad.
A superb story. Simply superb. Be enthralled.
"Gonna summon up the devil, huh?" by Hugh Sturgess 14/4/13
It should be great, but it's far too long and the Doctor and Leela do basically nothing. It's got a villain with huge amounts of potential but little to do, and the production is let down by an attack of taste. It's a beast out of its time, the ultimate "gothic horror" but not in the era of gothic horror, a Hinchcliffe story made under Graham Williams. Hinchcliffe and Holmes would have been able to handle the tone better than Williams and Read did, but the script has some whacking great problems in it too.
A comparison is with Pyramids of Mars. Both stories involve an ancient evil older than time itself being reawakened in the present day by a witless scientist and a cult and then going on a rampage. Both villains are said to be the most horrendously dangerous thing ever. The stories even share their setting: a priory where the evil is done (both filmed at Stargrove) and a cottage that serves as the Doctor's base of operations. The difference is that Pyramids knows exactly what it wants to do and it does it. The story starts the instant the TARDIS arrives and it goes like a bullet. Image of the Fendahl, by contrast, seems relaxed. It's not sure where it wants to start its story. Most people would say that a Doctor Who story starts when the Doctor enters the plot and begins to break down the world around him. Here, the Doctor strolls around avoiding the plot until the end of episode three. He doesn't even reach the priory until the beginning of episode two, whereupon he is hustled out of the story again by Fendelman. Things reach a nadir during his pointless trip to the Fifth Planet in the TARDIS. He declares it to be a wild goose chase once they're there, but what was he planning to do in the first place?
The Tylers are nice, and Ma Tyler's dialect is an improvement on the usual "ooh arr pig bin" Mummerset hillbillies in the Doctor Who universe, but what is significant is how unimportant they are. They too are just another blind alley that the story leads us up before abandoning. Ma Tyler's (offscreen) encounter with the Fendaleen doesn't yield anything of significance, and the knowledge that "it 'ad a 'uman shape" doesn't affect the heroes' actions at all. (And, in terms of the audience, if you hadn't realised the skull was trying to possess Thea by this stage, Ma Tyler's line wouldn't have helped.) The priory is where the skull is, the priory is where the time scanner is. It should be the Doctor's primary area of interest, and yet he seems to find excuses to avoid it. You could read his professed childhood fear of the Fendahl into this - he really could be deliberately avoiding the place - but Tom Baker doesn't give us any hint of this in his performance: his Doctor laughs in the face of fear, but here the script and the performance are pulling in opposite directions, leaving the Doctor looking rather bland and ineffectual. Reviving Ma Tyler by incorrectly reciting a recipe for fruit cake is an odd moment of loveliness, but until he goes back to the priory at the end of episode three, he's running on the spot.
In another story, the Doctor's mention of "the hiker and Mitchell", when he never knew Mitchell's name and doesn't know the previous victim was a hiker, could be overlooked with the explanation that he learnt about them off-camera. But here he's had no opportunity to do so, unless he asked the security guards before they bundled him into that cupboard. The first important action either he or Leela take in this story is to shoot the Fendaleen at the beginning of episode four. Prior to that, he's been circling the story waiting for the plot to reach the stage at which he can race in and resolve it. Keeping your protagonist out of the action for most of the story because you know he'll save the day before it needs to be saved is a problem.
Chris Boucher is much more interested in his original characters, who get the majority of the story. Fortunately, they're great. Adam Colby sets out to be unlikeable right from the start: he's bitchy, smug, a smart-arse, and is thus great fun. Boucher's dialogue is merely good; Edward Arthur takes it and turns Colby into something almost iconic. Most Doctor Who supporting characters fall into two camps: the ones who believe/trust/support the Doctor, and the ones that don't. Colby, on the other hand, despite doing nothing of significance, steals the show. He's practically the main character; in fact, he almost is, with the Doctor hovering on the sidelines like Van Helsing to Colby's Jonathan Harker. His irreverence is a hoot: responding to Fendelman's lament of "I trusted him", he hisses "I didn't, and I'm going to end up just as dead as you are, if it's any consolation"; his mockery of Fendelman's theory: "You're expecting an attack by little green men from - where, Venus?" Thea is sweet and even Fendelman gets a moment or two. In his case, I'm more willing to credit Dennis Lill than Chris Boucher: it's Lill who adds that little sheepish shrug when he admits his previous work involved a missile-guidance system before getting onto what he considers more important.
In other words, these three characters seem more like real people than is normal for a Doctor Who story. In a plot-based series like this one, characters are mostly vehicles of investigation and exposition, to be made life-like mainly due to the actors' work. Boucher does what he does in The Robots of Death, and gives the characters a life outside of the adventure. Thea's rebuke to Max for not making breakfast is a nice piece of verisimilitude that you don't often see in Paleo-Who.
Of the four scientists, it's Max that loses out. Through no fault of the actor, he's pulled out of the story's arse as a villain to add some much needed plot development, but we're left with no idea why he did what he did (his wish to see Colby's terror suggests a man who's had his grant applications rejected one too many times), or what he was hoping to achieve. How did he come to realise that he could "become a god" through the skull? How did he realise all the hocus-pocus would serve to release its power? He goes from being sensible if humourless to being a genuine maniac who says things like "too late for all the meddling fools" and "it is fitting that you shall be my path to power". After three episodes of realism, it's ridiculous to see the story deliver such a camp twist with po-faced seriousness. Colby laughs at Max's Aleister Crowley impression, and Fendelman, even after he's had a gun pointed at him, asks whether it's a joke. He comes across as being exactly what Colby's thinks he is: "One of those feeble inadequates who thinks he communes with the devil."
Despite this, the cult subplot could have been great. Necromancy, satanism and a power older than time itself! But here, that attack of taste I mentioned earlier stalks into the story. If your story features a thirteen-man cult sacrificing a woman in a pentagram to invoke ancient powers, then you've already gone too far outside the realms of realism and good taste, and the only course of action open is to plunge on and make a virtue out of it. Play it up! Give Max a satanist's robes under his white lab coat, have blood-red lighting, doomful organ music and chanting. Instead it's done as though this is all perfectly normal and no more sensationalist than the science stuff earlier. It's nowhere near as effective, for instance, as the dreadful resurrection of the Master in The End of Time (all "and this was written!" and "the secret books of Saxon spoke of the potions of life"...). What this needed was a greater appreciation of its campness. Hinchcliffe could have pulled it off: this could have been to Dennis Wheatley what The Talons of Weng-Chiang is to Victorian pop literature. Instead, by attempting to dead-pan the ridiculousness of the twist, the production has simply made that ridiculousness more obvious by treating it so humourlessly.
The Fendahl, too, is undermined - as a consequence stealing the story's punch - by being a bit listless. Again, it's great in concept, but somehow that gets lost between the conceptual stage and the screen. In concept, the Fendahl is a Lovecraftian nightmare from before time. It was so dangerous that the Time Lords time-looped a whole planet to trap it, but it projected itself across the solar system, leaving Mars desolate en route (maybe killing the insectoid Martians of Quatermass and the Pit, given the obvious debt this story owes it, and freeing up space for the Ice Warriors?). It landed on Earth, before being promptly buried in a volcanic eruption. It spent the next twelve-million years as a fossilised skull, and it is still dangerous enough to summon up Fendaleen from nothing to kill passersby and plot its resurrection. It isn't even dormant - it's just waiting. The Doctor implies that it's unkillable. He also implies that it bears a hefty responsibility for the creation of the human race. (Scaroth, Osirans, Azal and the Silence: you're welcome.)
And yet somehow the Fendahl comes across, in the final analysis, as underwhelming. On one level, I quite like what the production team does here, and I respect it. To introduce the Angel of Death and the root of all evil as a pretty girl with gold makeup and spacey music is nicely counter-intuitive, and some of what the Fendahl does after she stands up is interesting: for instance, she smiles beatifically without a hint of evil when she turns Old Ted into a slug. But the real problem, I think, is structural. Like the Cybermen in Tomb of the Cybermen, the Fendahl wakes up and the story realises that there isn't room for it to do anything before the Doctor has to put it back to bed again. Standing around obliviously waving its arms while the Doctor runs in, chats with people, has tea, steals the skull, tap-dances in front of it and then walks slowly away doesn't do anything but make the Fendahl look stupid. This is the deathless terror from the Doctor's childhood? The Fendaleen are cool, with their ability to freeze their victims' limbs nightmare-style, but their Achilles heel - salt - is a bit bathetic. It's like the aliens in Signs, for whom water is a caustic agent: Earth is probably the one place you would avoid if this was your fatal weakness.
The build-up to the Fendahl's resurrection is effective, though. The glowing, pulsing skull was my primary memory of the story as a child. The mystery surrounding the impossibly old skull, the pentagram structure inside it, Fendelman's ideas about its role in the evolution of humanity - these are all very cool and spooky... and yet they're all ruined somewhat by the Doctor stalking into the story at the beginning of episode two, declaring the foe to be the Fendahl and knowing everything about it already. When he says that his childish fear of the Fendahl is preventing him from thinking clearly, we see no evidence of this, beyond Tom-Baker-on-autopilot, mumbling. The humans' slow process of coming to understand the skull and its nature feels slightly pointless, as we know that the Doctor could give us the full story inside five minutes - as indeed he does. A know-it-all belongs in this story as much as a mind-reader does in a murder mystery.
For dedicated Torchwood-spotters, here we have an advanced scientific research project involving a kind of time-telescope, a technology that emerged from an unidentified "missile guidance system". Fendelman doesn't seem to be connected to a university or academy, and yet must have substantial funds for his work. Most suspiciously of all, when the shit hits the fan, he asks Max to contact a man named Hartman to arrange for armed security guards to patrol the priory. He's not Yvonne Hartman (obviously), but it could be her father, a kind of family tradition that might explain why Torchwood One never thought it suspicious that a man looking just like Captain Jack was on their books for over a hundred years.
At the risk of being unfair, I'm tempted to blame Image's failure on the Williams production team. Hinchcliffe and Holmes, one senses, would have tightened up this story; if necessary, ripped it apart and rebuilt it to make it work. Fundamentally, Image of the Fendahl has a structural problem: it's just too long, and that fact alone is the single greatest flaw in the story. Boucher is more interested in his original characters than the regulars, but doesn't have enough things for those characters to do. It has too much air to breathe. The slow opening episode could have worked, had the story really kicked into gear once the Doctor raced into the priory's kitchen to meet Colby. From there, the Fendaleen could have closed in, picking off the characters and gradually backing the survivors in a corner. Instead, it's a near collision between bodies and then the Doctor returns to his previous orbit. It has the lushness of a Hinchcliffe era story, but it has none of its energy. The comparison with the story in this slot of the previous season is telling. That was The Deadly Assassin, and Image of the Fendahl, for all its good points, isn't fit to lace its boots. It's lovely, but this story ought to have been a living nightmare that could never, ever, be described as "lovely".
Deja Vu, No? by Sean Plummer 15/8/21
It should come as no surprise to learn that Doctor Who made a big impact on me. It stoked a childhood love of science fiction and horror that would lead me to become staff writer at a renowned horror magazine (Rue Morgue) where I get paid to write about monsters and aliens. Having been turned onto the show by Grade 5 school friends at a screening of 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Who also likely shaped my romantic life, as in adolescence I found myself gravitating to (and later marrying) adventurous brunettes. (Hello, Sarah Jane Smith.) My wife can also blame my predilection for fedoras on Tom Baker.
In turn, I would use Doctor Who to influence those around me. The show provoked precious laughs and gasps, for instance, from my then 6-year-old son, which led us to stage pitched battles between Sea Devils and Daleks on the living room couch. And watching the 1977 serial Image of the Fendahl on an early date with the Who virgin I would later marry would inspire her to get a beautiful exploding TARDIS tattoo. She also continues to wear a rather fetching Hot Topic TARDIS dress. (Alas, she has to make do with me wearing TARDIS slippers.)
As for the show, Doctor Who has of course had an impact on much of the sci-fi produced in its wake. I could, for instance, note the similarity between the Cybermen and Star Trek: The Next Generation's The Borg. And is it just a coincidence that Bill and Ted time travel in a phone booth? But just as intriguing as tracing Doctor Who's cultural influence is seeing what stories impacted our favourite Time Lord's various adventures.
Take, for example, Image of the Fendahl.
The third serial in the show's fifteenth season sees the Fourth Doctor and Leela unexpectedly dragged back to Earth to deal with a mysterious space-time disturbance. This leads them to Fetch Priory, a country manor inhabited by Dr. Fendelman and his team of scientists. Fendelman is exploring a skull unearthed in Kenya that predates known human history by millions of years. The Doctor discovers that it contains the trapped energy of the Fendahl, a powerful race of creatures that feed on death itself but were supposedly wiped out by the Time Lords in a kind of Gallifreyan black op. The skull in turn influenced human evolution, pushing it forward in an effort to resurrect itself. (It's no coincidence, for instance, that Dr. Fendelman has the name he does.) Meanwhile, a coven of local occultists is determined to bring about the Fendahl's return.
The most obvious influence on Chris Boucher's script is the 1967 Hammer film Quatermass and the Pit. There, humanoid skeletons predating the known fossil record are dug up alongside a spaceship (and its insect-like pilots) during excavation of a London tube station. The Doctor-like Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) learns that the bizarre scene is likely the result of a landing gone wrong and that the humanoids, which are more advanced than our ancestors would have been at that time, were altered on a dying Mars and brought back to Earth as a kind of "colony by proxy" for the Martians. As in Fendahl, Quatermass and the Pit ends - spoiler alert - with the resurrection and subsequent destruction of the malign alien intelligence.
So you see key Quatermass ideas and images at play in Fendahl: an otherworldly creature directing our evolution, impossibly ancient human remains, and a brusque but well-meaning scientist fighting an off-world evil. It has also been speculated that Doctor Who, which debuted in 1963, evolved as a response to the popularity of the three Quatermass serials the BBC broadcast in the '50s. Ironically, Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale was allegedly invited to write for Doctor Who but turned it down, as he hated the show.
Now, which came into my life first, the Doctor or the Professor, is up for debate. The BBC premiered Fendahl in October 1977, but I wouldn't have seen it on my local Southern Ontario PBS affiliate until sometime in the very early '80s. And I knew Quatermass and the Pit under its American title, Five Millions Years to Earth, having watched it on Buffalo station Channel 29's Saturday afternoon "Creature Feature" program somewhere around the same time. It wouldn't be until the 2000s that I would rediscover Quatermass (and the original late-'50s BBC serial upon which it was based) on grey market DVD. I was building up my Doctor Who collection at the same time, and Fendahl was one of my first purchases.
But the significance of both stories on my life didn't become apparent until I fell in love with a witch with degrees in archaeology, paleoanthropology and midwifery. While I had always had interests in both science and superstition (and the relationship between them), living with a pagan who could both cast a binding spell and safely deliver a child made clear the importance of both. Maybe superstition embodies what science has not yet explained: Quatermass in ...Pit suggests that ghosts are simply natural phenomena that have been "badly observed", while the Doctor in Fendahl explains the history of hauntings around the Priory as the result of a time distortion - but both serve their purposes. For instance, my wife's science background meant we had masks to combat COVID-19 way before anyone else on our block, but our mutual love of the uncanny meant we married on Halloween.
When asked to write for this website, I picked Fendahl because it was an important part of an important courtship. Then I had to examine that love and discovered what you might call the influence of influence. It may be an exaggeration to say that Image of the Fendahl is emblematic of how love is passed down from one generation to the next - Chris Boucher loved Quatermass, so he wrote Fendahl, which I then loved and showed to my child who might show it to his son - but it feels true. And so it is.