Doctor Who: Image Of The Fendahl Review

Mike Sutton reviews an excellent serial from 1977 with Tom Baker as the titular Time Lord.

Season Fifteen is a very peculiar time in the history of Doctor Who. It seems caught between past and future, pitched between the gothic horror endeavours of the Philip Hinchcliffe era and the whimsical caprices of Graham Williams’ time as producer. As a result, the season as a whole is a rather incoherent mixture of the two with no overarching style to pull it together – partly because Robert Holmes was replaced by Anthony Read halfway through and partly because Graham Williams was not quite bedded down in the job. However, it’s only fair to point out that the season managed to throw out a couple of classics in the shape Horror of Fang Rock and Chris Boucher’s excursion into SF-horror, Image Of The Fendahl.

Returning to 1970s Earth, the Doctor (Baker) and Leela (Jameson), become involved with activities of a group of scientists at Fetch Priory, Dr Fendelman (Lill) has unearthed a mysterious skull and is using a Time Scanner to run experiments upon it. However, what he doesn’t realise is that the skull is a relic of the Fendahl, a creature which exists by consuming the life force of everything around it, and that his experiments are having a dangerous effect on one of his colleagues, Thea Ransome (Ventham). Meanwhle, another colleague Dr Stael (Fredericks), has a sinister agenda of his own. As people begin dying in mysterious circumstances, the Doctor realises that the threat is far from limited to the inhabitants of the priory.

This is a full-blooded Gothic tale with many a nod to the work of Nigel Kneale. Considering Kneale’s oft-stated loathing for Doctor Who, he might not have been too pleased at the number of times his writing was borrowed for the series. However, Kneale bestrides the world of TV SF like a colossus and it’s hard to write anything in the genre which doesn’t reference him in some way. In this case, the references are to Quatermass And The Pit with the Fendahl taking the place of the Martians as a key player in the evolution of man. As in the Quatermass story, the impact of the Fendahl on man is ultimately malevolent and has set in train a series of events which lead to an inevitable conflagration – one thwarted only by the intervention of a brilliant scientist. There are also the winks at old magic to combat the demon; iron in the case of Kneale, salt here. Boucher’s script also has obvious links to The Devil Rides Out in its depiction of Stael and his robed and hooded acolytes.

What impresses most about Image of the Fendahl is how full-blooded the horror manages to be at a time in the series’ history when horror was in abeyance thanks to the intervention of the dreaded Mrs Whitehouse. The opening scene, involving a hiker who finds himself frozen in terror at the “frightful fiend that close behind doth tread”, is beautifully achieved and genuinely unnerving and the various stages in which the Fendahl is revealed to us are done with great skill on the part of director George Spenton Foster; he creates an aura around the female form of the monster in the last couple of episodes which is authentically uncanny, despite the somewhat ludicrous make-up on Wanda Ventham. Chris Boucher’s notion of the Fendahl is commendably epic, in the way that Lovecraft’s vision of the Cthulhu Mythos is epic, and for once, the future of the world really does seem at stake. There’s much technobabble at play of course, adding some pseudo-science to the mix, but this is, at heart, an old fashioned horror story with SF trimmings, and none the worse for that.

It wouldn’t work, however, if Tom Baker wasn’t at his best and managing to take it seriously. Had Baker decided to send up the proceedings, the rubber monsters might have seemed laughable. But because the Doctor sees them as a dangerous threat, so do we. He’s very capably backed up by Louise Jameson – the two have created a very likeable relationship by this point – and a brilliant performance from Denis Lill who, dodgy accent aside, seems totally committed to the role of Dr Fendelman and delivers the all-important “Mankind has been used” monologue with complete conviction. Excellent work from Wanda Ventham is important too; one feels rather sorry for her character who is the fall-guy for a particularly nasty alien take-over. I’m less convinced by Edward Arthur’s public-school elocution – he seems to have strayed out of a Bulldog Drummond story – but he’s solid enough in the rather dull role of the hero. Everyone is put into shade, however, by Daphne Heard’s canny old woman, totally unphased by the arrival of giant slugs on her doorstep.

The weaknesses in the fabric can mostly be found in the third and fourth episodes. The trip to the Fifth Planet seems unnecessary and undertaken solely to fill in time in a story which is, if episode four is anything to go by, seriously under-running. There’s also a lapse of logic here – if the Time Lords put the Fifth Planet in a time loop to stop news of the Fendahl’s activities leaking out, how could the Doctor have been told about it as a child? It’s a nice idea – scary bedtime stories for tiny Time Lords – but it’s done better in State Of Decay. I’m also unconvinced by the appearance of the Fendahleen which is all too rubbery. One has some sympathy for Chris Boucher here however – if you spend two episodes building up a fearsome monster, how can it be anything but underwhelming when it finally appears? More than that, isn’t everything just a bit coincidental unless we really do believe that the Fendahl can cook up this specific situation 8 millions in advance?

The Disc

One of several Tom Baker titles released in 2009, Image Of The Fendahl has received the customary treatment from the admirable Restoration Team who take old episodes and make them look as if they were first transmitted last Saturday. That said, although the disc is well up to scratch in terms of audio-visual standards, the extra content feels a little below par in comparison to some of the other Who discs we’ve seen recently.

The episodes have been restored from the original material stored in the BBC archives. As usual with mid-70s drama, the story was shot on a mixture of videotape in the studio and film for exteriors. The VT material is excellent throughout and the film material is pretty good, although the prevailing darkness occasionally leads to a picture which is a little murky. The mono soundtrack is, as ever, exceptionally clear with no obvious problems at all – Dudley Simpson’s ominous music score comes across particularly well.

The main extra feature is a 29 minute featurette which concentrates on the making of the story. This is pretty solid, covering the background of Anthony Read taking over from Robert Holmes as Script Editor, and continuing with interviews from the cast. There is much affection for George Spenton Foster displayed by the cast. Louise Jameson comes over very well indeed as she always does. It’s interesting enough but perhaps a little too tied to actor’s anecdotes with not much about the technical or scripting side of things.

There is also a commentary track featuring Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, Wanda Ventham and Edward Arthur. Like most commentaries which involve Mr Baker with a group of actors, this is full of irrelevant anecdotes and asides which will either charm you or drive you to distraction. Tom comes out with all his usual comments, Louise keeps things on track and Wanda Ventham is almost, but not quite, as luvvieish as Jacqueline Pearce. Meanwhile, Edward Arthur is relentlessly enthusiastic and reveals a surprisingly good memory of his time on the show.

There are also 12 minutes of deleted and alternate scenes which consist of footage from the 16MM filming at Stargrove Manor. These are interesting for die-hard fans but don’t offer much for casual viewers and add little to the story. The quality is mediocre throughout but that’s only to be expected from this type of material.

As usual, we get a photo gallery, a 1977 trailer for the story, production subtitles which are witty and informative, Radio Times cuttings in PDF format and a coming soon trailer for The Deadly Assassin.

There are optional subtitles for both the episodes and the special features. An audio navigation menu is also available.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the excellence of the bonus content on The E-Space Trilogy and The Rescue/The Romans, but this release felt a little lightweight to me. Still, the excellence of story makes up for a lot and this is certainly a disc to which I’ll be returning soon.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Mar 24, 2009

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