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Image of the Fendahl

story 94 | season 15 | serial 4x
Ed Martin

When I was young, I’d rave about anything. Would you believe at one point I loved The Twin Dilemma, and thought Battlefield was a good story to show to a newbie? These days, as a jaded 20 year old (I’ll be 21 in six weeks at the time of writing so I’m milking it for all it’s worth) it takes quite a lot to blow my mind, and while many have been good only two Doctor Who stories have ever managed it. One was Ghost Light; the other was Image Of The Fendahl.

What’s noticeable about this episode is how it focuses on the guest characters, with a relatively small role (initially anyway) for the Doctor and Leela. This allows for some excellently drawn roles, without going too far in this direction as the otherwise-good Revelation Of The Daleks did. It’s handy then that the guest roles are generally well acted, with the exception of the slightly stagy Edward Arthur as Adam Colby. Dennis Lill as Dr. Fendelman, taking the “mad scientist” baton and playing his little heart out while just managing to avoid playing for laughs (although take that remark with a pinch of salt when it comes to his death scene). None of this could work though were it not for the wonderful script from Chris Boucher; lines such as Adam’s plea to Max to “end the day with a smile” are the kind of nuances that take a good story into the realms of greatness.

Oh man, I hate writing reviews where all I do is lavish praise. Still, I suppose getting to watch such an excellent episode counters this.

The visuals are appropriate to the story and are generally solid – it’s interesting to note that the other excellent stories of Graham Williams’s time as producer (Horror Of Fang Rock and City Of Death) also feature above average design. Makes you think, that. However, it must be said that this serial does the televisual equivalent of grabbing you by the lapels and screaming “GOTHIC!” at you until you pass out. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The scene with the hiker in the woods is very creepy and atmospheric, and the glowing skull effect is terrific. The only flaw is, like most programmes older than about five years, the computers look very dated.

George Spenton-Foster is a superb director on this story (his work on The Ribos Operation is more open to debate, although he was never terrible) and there are some wonderful touches such as overlaying the image of the skull over that of Thea. The hiker’s death is good, as the unseen monster’s powers of paralysis are scary enough on their own without any other details.

After some little time now we get to the first scene with the regulars. K9, even though he never speaks or leaves the TARDIS, seems incongruous in such a dark story, and Leela’s line of “don’t cry about it” illustrates her shift to being a slightly more easy going character (by her standards, anyway) over the course of the season.

After a brief scene in which the Doctor delivers a lot of technobabble (just focus on the “world will be destroyed” sections, they’re the important bits), we’re back to the scientists. The script seems to dry up whenever Max Stael opens his mouth – when Scott Fredericks hammily delivers lines like “it is never easy to die” he might as well have the words “bad guy” written on his forehead, and no amount of shifty behaviour from Fendelman can draw attention away from that. On the whole though this is still very good, even though it’s weird to see Wanda Ventham and Dennis Lill together on screen outside their vastly different roles in Only Fools And Horses. The post-mortem examination conducted by Stael on the hiker further emphasises that there’s some evil force around (the trouble with invisible monsters is that we need constant reminders that they’re there), and the atmosphere is helped at this stage by the lack of music. One point of contention though: who in their right minds names their dog Leaky? “’Scuse me, I thought you said she was housetrained-” “Gotta go!” VROOOOOOM…

The Doctor and Leela spend this episode enjoying a walk down some country lanes where they meet Ted Moss, naturalistically played by Edward Evans; the scene where Leela holds him at knifepoint is a high point of the story. At this stage I should say that even he cannot hold a candle to the superb Daphne Heard as Martha Tyler, hands down the best actor of the season.

The cliffhanger to the first episode is ambitious in its dual nature conceptually great, but it is let down by the fact that Tom Baker just standing there staring blankly doesn’t give the impression that the Doctor is in danger, especially since the darkness hides his face. Also, the scene of Leela being shot at is undermined in the next episode by one of the most annoying directorial devices possible in serials of any sort: a re-edited reprise showing that Leela was never in danger.

It is now that the Doctor makes a superb, commanding entrance to the manor house. He knows what’s going on from the moment he sees the embryo Fendahleen, and we see him delivering portentous hints as to what the danger is for the rest of the story. The plot is original, complex without being nonsense and very frightening; the Doctor’s warning about “four thousand million” people is a great line although simply saying “four billion” would have been more elegant. One of the most praiseworthy aspects of the plot is that Boucher uses the idea of the Fendahl’s continued influence, already a good idea in itself, to ease the plot delivery as it justifies all the amazingly well-informed guesses of Fendelman, which in a lesser story would be mere laziness.

Jack Tyler and Leela have some good dialogue together and Martha’s use of Tarot cards give another spooky dimension to an already captivating and mysterious plot. The cut from Leela praising the Doctor’s gentleness to him demolishing a box is a delightfully understated moment of comedy, the kind just appropriate for the story.

Episode three sees a change of pace now that the Doctor involves himself with the plot. It is quite tightly packed with plot explanations, a drawback of having such a slow paced, character driven first half. Anyway, it’s nothing that can’t be said of 90% of other stories’ third episodes. Also, it’s commendable that Boucher was able to use the Doctor like this so successfully, maintaining the mysterious atmosphere as long as possible by preventing him from entering and spoiling the plot too soon.

The scene where the Doctor uses fruit cake to restore Martha to her senses is quite simply marvellous, blending humour with a genuinely clever idea. Jack asks the Doctor how he knows so much, and his response of “I read a lot” is inspired and a quotation I use whenever the opportunity arises (or at least I would use it if I gave the impression of knowing stuff). That’s not her best china? Blimey, it’s better than mine.

There is noticeable music for the first time now, and it’s quiet and unobtrusive – a rarity for Dudley Simpson. The TARDIS scene feels like it has been crowbarred into the narrative to provide further exposition, but in a plot this good it hardly matters.

All a bit of a rush now really, as Thea is prepared for transformation in the cellar. This is a dazzling scene, both visually and musically, although it is let down slightly by being split across an episode break. Dennis Lill’s death scene is truly spectacular, reminding me a bit of Professor Zaroff’s infamous cry of “Nozzing in ze vurld can shtop me now!” in The Underwater Menace, although with a less hackneyed script.

The adult Fendahleen looks brilliant and is probably the best monster of the season, although the puppet embryos are less successful with their stiff movements of the bend down-straighten up-wiggle tail-repeat variety. Also, I have a feeling that Jack’s cry of “my legs! I can’t move my legs” is a throwback to The Daleks, where Ian says an almost identical line after being paralysed. The Doctor’s explanation of psychotelekinesis is the kind of technobabble that would have Russell T. Davies spitting blood and William Hartnell strangling himself with his own vocal cords but in the context of the scene it works, largely because of the tongue-in-cheek writing and delivery.

The Fendahl Core looks good apart from the painted eyes, and her faint smile is very creepy. It is a shame – although necessary, and it helps to retain the enigmatic ambience – that we never get to see the completed Fendahl gestalt. Stael’s death is unbearably dramatic, and it effectively illustrates the gravity of the situation to see the Doctor assisting in a man’s suicide. There is a magnificent shot of the Doctor and Leela running through an apparition of the Core, but the standard explosion ending is a bit of a disappointment after such a good story. Still, it’s nothing sufficient to damage the overall quality of the episode.

This is an often overlooked story, rarely appearing in top ten lists. In fact, I’m not sure if I’m honest that it even makes mine – but the fact remains that it is a superb, flawlessly constructed story that is by some margin the finest story of season 15, and one of the best of Graham Williams’s productions.

Paul Clarke

Much like 'Horror of Fang Rock', 'Image of the Fendahl' feels very much like a product of the Hinchcliffe era, encapsulating the same feel of gothic horror that permeated many of the stories from the previous two seasons. In many ways, it bears similarities to 'Pyramids of Mars', with an ancient and powerful evil that even the Doctor is afraid of seeking release after millennia of inactivity, with revelations about the origins and evolution of humanity, and set as it is in an old priory with wooded grounds. Whilst it doesn't achieve quite the same reputation as its Egyptian-themed predecessor, it nevertheless repeats this same basic formula with impressive results.

A large part of the success of 'Image of the Fendahl' is due to the brooding horror of the Fendahl itself, despite the fact that it doesn't actually get the opportunity to do much. From the moment the hitchhiker is killed by an unseen, slurping, thing in Episode One, the tone of the story is set; mist-shrouded woods, glowing skulls, and rapidly decaying corpses all create a sinister atmosphere. Once the Doctor starts to realize what he is facing in Episode Two, Baker's delivery of the Doctor's lines is as crucial to the suspense as it was in 'Pyramids of Mars', as he describes an ancient evil that has passed into even Gallifreyan legend. The revelation that the Doctor is frightened by the Fendahl is delivered in a subdued, quiet fashion, in Episode Three, but plays a significant role in emphasizing the danger of the Fendahl, as does the Doctor's grim assertion that if it isn't stopped there will be only one human left alive on Earth within a year. It is in this way that the danger posed by the Fendahl is conveyed; never quite complete during the story, and with no lines, the actual creature does little, but is carried by its reputation. The Doctor and Leela's abortive trip to the Fifth Planet in Episode Three is often described as padding, which isn't entirely unfair but benefits the story by revealing that the Fendahl is considered to be so lethal that the normally non-interventionist Time Lords took the precaution of time-looping its home world.

The gulf between the Fendahl's actions and its reputation is nicely bridged by the ingenious concept of making it a gestalt entity. By ensuring that it never manages to complete itself, Boucher is able to write about a monster of enormous power, without necessitating a contrived means of defeating it, as was unfortunately the case with Azal in 'The Dæmons' and to a lesser extent with Sutekh in 'Pyramids of Mars'. With the gestalt incomplete, the Fendahl is vulnerable, the Fendahleen susceptible to the effects of salt. On the other hand, the story shows the Fendahl to be powerful enough even whilst it is recreating itself, having influenced mankind's evolution over millions of years in order to orchestrate its resurrection, able to create Fendahleen out of pure energy, and able to transform humans into other Fendahleen and of course the Core. The production generally rises to the challenge of making the Fendahl a foreboding menace; the Fendahleen look reasonably good (although the full sized model is far better than the model embryos), and although the director foolishly adopted the tactic of painting obviously false eyes on Wanda Ventham's eyelids, the Fendahl Core still manages to look chillingly austere, an effect aided by its eerie silence throughout.

The tension and overall effectiveness of 'Image of the Fendahl' are also greatly aided by some great characterisation and acting. Although Edward Arthur's Colby is both obnoxious and irritating, the other characters are all engaging. Denis Lill is superb as the intense Fendelman, who misdirection initially casts as a villain, given his ruthless dedication to his work (his calculating attitude to the discovery of the hitchhiker's corpse does not create a favourable impression). His eventual realization of just what has underlain his work is well written, and his final appeal to Stael as he tries to convince him that "mankind has been used!" is delivered with an impressive air of desperation. Wanda Ventham is also quietly impressive as the doomed Thea Ransome, increasingly overwhelmed by terror as she finds herself being affected by the skull. Scott Fredericks' Maximillian Stael is a ranting madman, who veers over the top at times, but Fredericks' manages an enjoyable performance nevertheless, and Stael's eventual suicide is very well handled, as he achieves a kind of redemption after nearly unleashing a force that could have destroyed all life on Earth. However, my favourite guest cast member is Daphne Heard as Mrs. Tyler. Unusually for Doctor Who at this time, Mrs. Tyler is portrayed as somebody with a long interest in and knowledge of the occult, without being patronized by the Doctor. He quietly explains the scientific basis underlying her "gifts", but also accords her respect and doesn't make announcements such as "superstitious rubbish". I've never had any reason to believe in magic, but even so the Third Doctor's arrogant and patronizing dismissals of Miss Hawthorne in 'The Dæmons' left an unpleasant taste in my mouth, so I'm glad it isn't repeated here. Heard's performance is spot-on, mixing eccentricity and common sense in just the right amounts to create a likeable if slightly cantankerous character, and her delivery of the line "it were 'ungry for my soul" further adds to the implied menace of the Fendahl. She also gets some other great scenes, such as when she illogically argues with Geoffrey Hinsliff's Jack Tyler about distrusting men who wear hats.

The regulars also do well here, as usual. K9 is sidelined due to his last-minute inclusion in the TARDIS crew (at least from Boucher's point of view), effectively giving the Doctor/Leela duo one last outing. Baker is still on fine form here, treating the story with great seriousness whenever necessary and convincingly suggesting that the Doctor is in great pain at the end of Episode Two. Jameson is as a good as ever, and Leela's character shines under the pen of her creator once more; her warrior instincts are on full display, and despite being unsettled by the Doctor's fear of the Fendahl, she demonstrates her usual approach to death, which is to face it head on with knife in hand. The rest of the production matches the high quality of the acting and scripting; the location filming meshes perfectly with the sets, and Dudley Simpson's incidental score works well without being intrusive. Overall, 'Image of the Fendahl' feels like the triumphant last gasp of the Hinchcliffe era and as one of Doctor Who's last real stabs at gothic horror it is a fine end to the era.