09 March 2014

TV: Image of the Fendahl

Image of the Fendahl gets very little attention from Doctor Who fans, and I can't quite figure out why. It seems to me that it's an instant classic. I saw this once a few years ago, and I don't think I've rewatched it since. I can't think why, though, because almost everything in this serial seems perfect! I have great difficulty finding a flaw in this. It seems to be an even greater synthesis of talent than The Deadly Assassin, filling the same position in the previous series.

If you think the peak of horror stories comes in Series 12 and 13, you really need to watch this. It's a story about about a sentient, soul-draining skull for gawd's sake! To be frank, it blows Robert Holmes' efforts out the water (no disrespect though, they're still brilliant) and just about edges it over Chris Boucher's second script too. This is just superb, and really solidifies this period of the show as one of its strongest. It's an absolute tragedy Chris didn't write for the show again. Imagine how The Invasion of Time could have turned out if written by him or Holmes. If only.

The premise for the story is ingenious enough for three or four stories. Twelve million years ago, the Fendahl evolved on the fifth planet of the Solar System, and began to consume all life, including each other. Eventually only one remained. The Time Lords learnt of this great threat to the universe and placed their planet in a time loop to contain the Fendahl. This, however, was unsuccessful. It transported itself in a great burst of energy past Mars and to Earth, in the form of a skull. It landed in Kenya, where it controlled the evolution of humanity right up to the twentieth century, when the stage was set for its full return to power through the engineered line of Fendelmans - men of the Fendahl. Now, tell me that doesn't sound exciting. Alright, admittedly, I'm not great with words, but the way it's played out onscreen is great

We kick off at Fetch Priory, where we're immediately introduced to scientists (a nicely vague term that sounds impressive and saves time) Adam Colby, Thea Ransome and Max Stael. Colby and Ransome are working on the aforementioned skull, which they've nicknamed Eustace. Even in these early scenes, these three characters are defined so clearly that we instantly gain an understanding of the relationship between them. I thought Colby and Ransome were a couple for quite a while, but it turns out that that's only what the former hopes for. The guest cast for this story are staggeringly good, and I can't single out one to praise over the rest.

As the story goes on, we learn that Dr Fendelman's theory is that humans aren't natives of Earth, but came from another world. He's quite close to what this serial states to be the truth, as already detailed. It's a fascinating concept and a plausible tale too. It has implications for Leela too, as she also stems from this creature. I haven't really mentioned it before, but I think it's a really neat idea to have Leela come from the future, but be less technologically savvy than humans from (then) contemporary Earth. Fendelman is working with Stael to try and gather evidence of his theory, hoping for perhaps a Nobel Prize as result of their work. What he doesn't know is that Stael is the leader of a coven who worship the Fendahl. As a result of their elimination from all records by the Time Lords, the creatures have passed into legend, and this is the result of one such myth.

Stael leads a ceremony which sees Thea (who seems to have some sort of connection with Eustace) transformed into the Fendahl Core in a really impressive display of editing, costume, direction and (less so) make-up. The twelve gathered worshippers begin to become Fendahleen, and Stael realises the same fate awaits him. In a really dark moment, the Doctor hands him a gun to prevent the Fendahl from becoming whole.

And so, to the Doctor and Leela. I think this may be the strongest performance so far for both Baker and Jameson which, if you've been following these reviews, is quite a feat. The Doctor is again authoritative, whimsical, intelligent and, newly, frightened. The Fendahl passed into the legends of Gallifrey as well, which adds depth to the Doctor's fear of them, and increases the threat by putting him on the level of viewers. Everyone is less able when frightened, and so it makes it more interesting seeing him so utterly scared. No more is this true than the superb cliffhanger to Part Two, which you've probably seen, even if you haven't seen the story. It involves the Doctor finding himself drawn to the skull, similarly to Thea, just as she switches on the time scanner. This causes Eustace to begin draining the Doctor's life force, and he lets out a horrifying scream. It's a really grim moment.

Leela is again fantastic, if sometimes a little overshadowed by the guest cast this time around. She still has plenty to do though, and Louise Jameson plays her so brilliantly once more. The highlight of the savage's time in this story for me are the scenes she shares with Jack Tyler. She strikes up a really moving relationship with him, sharing an almost sisterly bond. It's a nice touch too that Leela respects the elderly, and another example of Boucher proving that he writes the character better than anyone else. The moments between the Doctor, Leela and K9 are enjoyable too (although K9's innards look pathetic), with the arguments in the first episode about calling the dog 'him', before the Doctor does just that in Part Four, claiming "I can call him what I like, he's my dog". As much as I love K9, I'm glad he doesn't really feature in this story due to still being under repairs, as he just wouldn't have fitted in and probably would've confused the tone.

The scenes between Ted Moss, the Doctor and Leela in Part One (following a glorious encounter with a herd of cows) are just so enjoyable, and it's here that some of my favourite lines of the story (from a great many) herald. The pinnacle of this exchange is the following couplet:-

The Doctor: You were sent by the Providence?
Ted Moss: No, I was sent by the Council to cut the verges.

This had me in stitches, it's so wittily written and faithfully performed by Baker and Edward Evans. The great irony is that Moss is (unknowingly) bringing about the destruction of Earth through his participation in the Fendahl cult. Other similarly comic aspects of the story that won me over were the last few lines between the Doctor and Leela where he complements her on her new dress, before she informs him that it's her old one, mirroring a similar exchange at the top of the story; and at the beginning of Part Two when the Doctor encourages his legs to move. Although we later learn this is because looking into the eyes of the Core or a Fendahleen, it was still a really enjoyable moment. I felt it matched the tone of the scene and the story just right, and wasn't one of the overplayed moments Baker later indulged in.

Moving on, George Spenton-Foster fulfills his role excellently, directing with determination and pace. In his first of only two turns on the show (the second being The Ribos Operation), he uses inventive framing and smart editing to get the best out of his (admittedly sublime) cast. His high angles and creeping cameras really mix it up from the norm. His work here is on a par with that of David Maloney. A particular highlight for me, in this area, is the cliffhanger to Part One. Smoke curls around a paralysed Doctor as an unseen predator stalks towards him. Saving the reveal of the adult Fendahleen for Part Three was also a good decision, as it allows other elements of the first two installments to take precedence, and provides a healthy injection of danger at the time of its arrival. Some may also argue that the costume wasn't very good, so it was a wise decision to keep it disguised. I wouldn't agree though - I think it's great. The sections of its body cocoon into each other as it moves and it writhes around when stationary. I was mightily impressed.

I don't often credit Dudley Simpson's incidental scores, wrongly. Occasionally they don't do a whole lot for me, but I usually enjoy them so much that I don't notice them - if that makes sense. I made a deliberate mental note to pay attention to it during Image though (which I did have to keep reminding myself of as I got caught up in the story) - and I really enjoyed it. It matches Spenton-Foster's direction, building the tension when necessary and exaggerating the danger at appropriate instants. I'm far from an incidental music expert (although I do enjoy listening to isolated television scores), but I thought Simpson's contribution here was strong, with use of organs (none human, thankfully) appropriate for the more classic horror tone of the serial.

The sets are beautifully designed. I always love the combination of the old manor house and the modern technology. The oak panelling and laboratories look superb here, and perhaps Anna Ridley's work has been subconsciously manipulating the sort of stories I want to tell for years. The crypt is another gorgeous example of her design. It's a shame that this was her only contribution to the show, as she offers a fresh look again for the series after the multi-levelled gorgeousness of The Deadly Assassin, The Talons of Weng-Chiang and Horror of Fang Rock, and the white-futureness of The Invisible Enemy. A personal highlight for me would have to be the giant Star of David (no relation).

There is of course an aspect of the story I haven't really mentioned, which is perhaps one of its strongest: the Tylers. Martha Tyler, a white witch who has lived near the time fissure the Priory's built on all her live, and her lovable grandson Jack. Mrs Tyler is superstitious and (rather handily, as it turns out) makes her charms out of rock salt. These two complete the guest cast in style, and although it could be argued their inclusion is surplus to requirements, it's these kind of masterstrokes that make Boucher one of my favourite writers, particularly during this period of the programme.

I think that covers most aspects. If I was to comment on two things I didn't like, it would have to be the over-exaggerated eye makeup over Wanda Ventham's eyelids, and Leela's temporarily ginger hair. I think those points more or less express themselves, so I'll leave them there.

On a positive note, what a title! Isn't a Fendahl a brilliant and inventive word?! And the image is a clever reference to both re-incarnation and the fact that man was created in the image of the Fendahl. Also, did anyone else notice we don't actually see the Doctor dispose of Eustace? This is the first story of this mini-marathon to feature a monster not brought back by Big Finish - which has both its positives and negatives. I'm not entirely sure off the back of such a strong story that I want another starring it for fear of it undermining this serial.

To conclude, Image of the Fendahl is a fine tale of a malevolent force returning to claim Earth for its own. It offers a credible explanation for mankind's development - which many do believe can't be down to chance - and offers reasons for many parts of our culture we take for granted. A lazier writer may have just used the number of thirteen composite elements as a coincidence, but Boucher makes the Fendahl the reason for thirteen being a superstitiously unlucky number. Twelve Fendahleen (infant or adult) and a Core combine to make a full Fendahl. This use of the idea of gestalt organisms is clever, and sums up this serial in a word. All of Boucher's brilliant ideas, writing and dialogue join with Spenton-Foster's marvellous direction, Ridley's authentic design and career-high performances from Tom Baker and Louise Jameson, thrilling guest performances from Dennis "MANKIND HAS BEEN USED!" Lill, Wanda Ventham, Scott Fredericks and Edward Arthur, ably supported by Daphne Heard and Geoffrey Hinsliff. In Holmes' final story as script editor, his presence is felt as much as Simpson's delightful score. These are the golden thirteen elements of this story - I'll leave you to decide which is the Core.

After years lingering mid-poll, this simultaneously shoots instantly into my Top 10 (if not higher) and to the top of my rewatch pile.

In a Nutshell: Truly outstanding, the best horror story by a country mile.

an easy

You can buy Image of the Fendahl here - do it if you haven't already, seriously - or read Joe from Doc Oho's review here.

PS - I must just mention Clayton Hickman's stunning cover (which I had to remove Eustace from to make it fit the AR format - sorry!)

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