Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Image of the Fendhal written by Chris Boucher and directed by George Spenton-Foster

This story in a nutshell: An unearthed skull leads to revelations about mankind…

Teeth and Curls: The Doctor thinks that Leela’s ancestors have a habit of self destruction that borders on genius (although to stick up for herself she mentions that she doesn’t like the way he keeps talking about her ancestors). Tom Baker embodies the role of the Doctor to such an extent now he is equally convincing in exclaiming ‘Good morning ladies!’ to a field full of cows as he is in suggesting that in one year there will be just one human being left alive. The Doctor has been at this sort of game long enough now that when they meet a yokel he knows exactly what sort of things to say to prompt the man into talking (the strangers, the haunted manor, the ghosts…). It's like he understands the genre he has walked into and plays up to the fact, a subtle way of breaking the fourth wall and winking at the audience. He storms into the Priory and takes charge immediately, demanding to know how many deaths there have been and for once he seems genuinely haunted by events because this time the danger is a creature from his own mythology. Leela insists that the Doctor has great knowledge and gentleness and we cut to a scene of him aggressively kicking some boxes because he has been locked away. When Leela kicks the chair away from him and he lands on top of her and you pause it at the wrong moment you could be mistaken into thinking that you have wandered in on a very different kind of programme altogether! He loves fruitcake and his own special recipe (mix the peanuts with the treacle and throw in the apple cores hard, put the lot in a tin a bake in a high oven for two weeks) is enough to shock Mrs Tyler out of her fear! When asked how he knows so much he says that he reads a lot. Controversial it might be but I love the scene where the Doctor willingly gives the gun to Stael to commit suicide knowing there is nothing that he can do for him. They would never get away with that now and I’m surprised that they did then. The ‘I’m sorry’ ‘Thank you’ exchange between them is one of the most powerful of the era.Image of the Fendhal is one of the last times Tom Baker chooses to play the role entirely straight until JNT and Bidmead forced him to in his last season. From now on it's knowing winks, comedy trips and teeth and curls all the way.

Noble Savage: It had been a long held belief of mine that it was her three stories in season fourteen that utilised Leela the best and that she became a little watered down and generic in the first Williams season. One of the things I have learnt doing this marathon is that clearly this isn’t the case and aside from Underworld she is one of the most consistently interesting and independent of companions. Horror of Fang Rock used her hunting and protecting skills to the fullest, The Invisible Enemy took the time to highlight the differences between her and the Doctor, The Sunmakers and The Invasion of Time both see her strengths as a leader rallying the underdog and Image of Fendhal sees her used for both comic and dramatic purposes and exposes the fun dynamic between her and the Doctor. With Louise Jameson in the driving seat, Leela was always going to be watchable but it has impressed me that the writers have made a real effort to keep her character interesting. Not all companions are given the same respect after their initial handful of stories. There is a lovely debate between the Doctor and Leela about her calling K.9 a he and him calling the TARDIS a she, which Leela wins when the Doctor suggests he is in complete and constant control of the ship just before it tips to one side! However the Doctor cannot resist one last insult and suggests that primitive thought patterns such as Leela’s appeal to the ship. I'm surprised he didn't get a knife to the gut for that one. Poor Ted Moss was sent by the Council to cut the verges when Leela attacks him and holds a knife to his throat (‘Your council should choose its warriors more easily…a child of the Sevateem could have taken you!’). Moss thinks she must have escaped from somewhere and the Doctor agrees that she simply cannot go around attacking everybody they meet. Leela is very gentle with Ma Tyler and has great respect for her wisdom and superstitions. Rather than sneaking past the guards Leela can’t resist giving one of them a good chop to the neck. When Colby gets out of line Leela shoves her knife in his face and warns him if he doesn’t shut up he will meet a quick end. The Doctor sweetly tells her that good marksmanship isn’t a matter of luck. It is unlike Leela to be as afraid as she is at the end of episode three, the approaching Fendhaleen rendering her paralysed and unable to fight. Watch as she tosses about salt containers with delight and revels in the destruction at the Priory at the climax. And was it me or was there something a bit kicky going on between her and Colby?

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘There’s a corpse in the woods!’ ‘What sort of corpse?’ ‘A dead one what other sort is there?’
‘You know I don’t think these cows know anything about the Time Scanner.’
‘You’ve both escaped from somewhere’ ‘Frequently.’
‘I have been used. You have been used. Mankind has been used!
‘The Fendhal is dead. How do you kill death?’

The Good Stuff:
· In any other story the first scene would be the hiker in the woods but Fendhal is going for a new, more naturalistic approach and shows scientists at work in a mundane fashion rather than going straight for horror angle. However lets not skip over the scenes with the hiker which are about as effective as horror scenes come in Doctor Who as he rushes away from some unseen horror and the camera slides terrifying through the misty woodland after him. The way these stalking scenes overlay with Thea being touched by the glowing skull is probably the slowest and tensest build up of tension Doctor Who ever offered up…we’re not entirely sure what is going on (Who is chasing the hiker? What is happening to Thea?) but that just adds to the mystery and stomach clenching violation of the atmosphere. Plus there is something very creepy about overlapping Wanda Ventham’s beautiful face with such a hideous skull.
· The wood panelled sets are quite remarkable in this tale and really stress the sense of community in the Priory – I especially love the spacious kitchen which feels very homely. It’s a story that relishes in its domesticity so that something horrible can invade it. The latter half of the story moves down to the cellar like a good horror movie and it proves a deliciously creepy and shadowy setting for the rebirth of evil.
· There has been some real effort in the writing and the casting of these characters to make them stick in the mind and it is one of my favourite guest casts of any story. Dennis Lill brings a manic edge to the brilliant and enthusiastic Dr Fendhelman and throughout you get a sense that he is tittering on the edge of being a hero and villain and I enjoy the ambiguity (‘In that case you are hardly behaving in a manner conducive to your own safety…’). Wanda Ventham was quite a coup, casting wise, at the time and she is worth every second of screen time they give her. It is a part that could easily tip over into melodrama and yet Ventham ensures that she stresses Thea’s humanity even as she is gripped by the mark of death. Her struggle to retain her sense of self as death spreads through her like a plague is one of the most convincing portrayals of possession we have seen. Appropriately so, since this is one of the last examples of a theme that has been overused (but always used well) of late. Stael is a cold and calculating character and one that slips menacingly into the background of scenes and observes quietly. I have heard people criticise Daphne Heard’s (before finding fame as ‘Mrs Pooh’ from To The Manor Born) portrayal of Ma Tyler as being a stereotypical country bumpkin and whilst there might be a few moments of truth in that argument I just love how she refuses to be frightened and takes the lead in the last episode, heading to the manor and taking on whatever evil is brewing inside. I found her mixture of superstition and ordinariness rather wonderful (‘’Ere! That aint the way to make a fruit cake!’) and I was howling as she beat up Mitchell with her handbag! But my favourite character by far has to be Edward Arthur’s Adam Colby who takes arrogance to a new level and yet manages to remain extremely likable because of his humour and gift for the one liners. Arthur’s natural charm leaks through into the role and no matter how full of himself Colby can be (and he really throws out some insults in the later episodes) you can’t help but enjoy spending time with this lovable idiot (‘Gently Mrs T! Remember your varicose veins!’).
· Lots of scary bits to mention in a story that seems to revel in making its audience wait to see the monster to maximise the fright factor and the director seems to enjoy the lack of music to create an atmosphere of silent terror. The first cliffhanger is one of the best, the purring, sucking noises of the Fendhal sounds approach the Doctor through the shadowy woods and we look through the creatures eyes as it spies its dinner. Mitchell sits and drinks his coffee alone in the darkened kitchen as the camera slowly pans across the room suggesting the movement of the approaching creature before the door flies open and a screams sounds. The mini Fendhaleen appear all over Thea as though they are leeching off her humanity. Because the nature of the Fendhal taps into something that humanity longs to know (what is the meaning of life) there is something skin crawling about learning that our development was interfered with by this deadly alien force and watching it consume Thea is a cruel portent of what awaits the rest of us. The Doctor is all smugness and light in the face of the skull (hoho) and in a simple but spine chilling cliffhanger it wipes the smile off his face as it starts glowing and attacks him. The Williams era could do with a few more moments like that. Whilst the adult Fendhaleen has been scoffed in the past I still think it is one of the most effective monsters of the Williams era, it might not be particularly stealthy but there is something horrible about a giant green snake with bloody tendrils that shoot from its mouth. It’s a shame about the painted eyelids on Thea because the glowing pentagram that heralds the rebirth of the Fendhal is a striking set piece (aided by Dudley Simpson’s outstanding music). The smile on the painted face as the Fendhal murders the brethren always gives me the willies. The mini Fendhaleen surrounding the glowing skull on the altar – has there ever been a more forceful visual representation of horror in Doctor Who?
· Chris Boucher writes an extremely strong script which not only resists showing the Fendhal until the last possible moment but also gives you all the backstory you need in intelligent, methodical stages. The history for the Fendhal is cleverly conceived and integrated into the story and I was impressed by the amount of detail the writer went into to pull off this shocking revelation about the manipulation of mankind’s evolution. The Fifth planet broke up 12 million years ago and released the Fendhal which fell to Earth where it affected the development of mankind. With the scanner Fendhelman manages to trace the moment of death for the alien traveller, an in pouring of energy, a concentration of power as if to store it. X-raying the skull revealed a pentagram which is part of the bone structure, a neural relay that stores the energy. The energy is still within this neural circuit and can only be released with applied advanced technology, the release of which would act as a signal that there was intelligent life on this planet 12 million years ago and at last mankind would meet its next of kin. It is using appropriate genetic material from Thea to recreate itself, growing and existing on death, absorbing the soul to regenerate. There is no record of the Fifth Planet because the Time Lords placed it into a time loop with all memory of the planet erased and hide the fact from posterity. Fendhelman realises at the last minute that it is only to reactivate the skull and to bring life back to the Fendhal that he and his forefathers have lived – mankind has been developed to a stage where it can bring the Fendhal back to life. When it came to Earth it released that energy so that any life it came into contact with was altered into something that it could eventually use – it affect the evolution of man. The Fendhal is made up of twelve Fendhaleen and the core. It eats life, even that of its own kind. The only way the Doctor can think of to contain the skull is shove it into a star that is going supernova.
· Telepathy and precognition are natural for anyone who has been brought up near a time fissure. Every haunted place has a weakness in the fabric of space and time, that’s why they are haunted because of a time distortion. This is just a throwaway scene and yet it is another fantastic example of the thought going into this script.

The Bad Stuff: For a story with such wonderful dialogue for the most part it is shocking to open with a scene with some very clunky exposition (‘I accept without reservation your potassium/argon test!’). They resist any cheap SF design tropes in this story for the most part but the designer cannot resist turning the time scanner into a flashing, winking fruit machine. Unfortunately the reprise of the first cliffhanger isn’t as strong with Tom Baker losing it for a second as he tries to make his legs move like a pantomime character. The TARDIS is looking really tatty in this story…it needs a good lick of paint. With tarot cards and a secret cult thrown in for good measure there are a few moments when you think Boucher must be parodying every horror film he has ever seen. One of the brethren is either a child or a midget. There’s a very awkward moment when the Doctor and Leela throw salt at a Fendhaleen that should have been a lot scarier than it is. I’m not sure we needed the ghostly apparitions at the end as well, perhaps that was one horror cliche too far. 

The Shallow Bit: Is it just me or is that hiker a bit of alright?

Result: One of Doctor Who’s most sophisticated horrors which doesn’t revel in clichés for its own sakes but thinks up an intelligent and bone gnawing terror which is rooted in real science. Thanks to the efforts of George Spenton-Foster and Chris Boucher they manage to make an inert skull the most butt clenchingly terrifying foe the Doctor has ever encountered. The pace is slower than usual but that just increases the tension and Boucher takes great pains to make his guest cast as engaging as possible to provide some levity to the serious tale unfolding. Stylistically though, this story is in a league of its own with some atmospheric location work and terrific set design. Science, superstition and mythological terror mix to great effect and there are even some wonderful monsters thrown in for good measure. Some people might think a lot of Doctor Who was like this in the mid seventies but whilst there are plenty of horror pastiches that delighted during the Hinchcliffe era this is a very unique and original tale that just so happens to enjoy scaring the pants off you. It doesn’t surprise me at all that this story began with 6.7 million viewers and ended with 9.1 million. The audience were beguiled and so was I. A shame that this would be the last true representation of horror for many a yea, but Williams was about to take the show in far less horrific and far more entertaining direction: 9/10


Audrey the Leviathan Vampire Girl said...

The info dumps are almost certainly the work of Anthony Read. Boucher had just become script editor on another science fiction show... I forget which ;)... and so was unable to complete rewrites to the script.

Alex Wilcock said...

Excellent review – it’s one of my favourites, but one that seems often dismissed by fandom, so I was wondering what you’d have to say about it. I turned six the day after the first episode was broadcast, and happily remember it as the last TV Doctor Who story to scare me, so I particularly enjoyed lines like:

“Plus there is something very creepy about overlapping Wanda Ventham’s beautiful face with such a hideous skull.”
“The smile on the painted face as the Fendhal murders the brethren always gives me the willies.”

Absolutely – she’s the apotheosis for me of that most Doctor Who of all deaths, when someone dies only to rise, hideously transformed. Not having your remarkable stamina, I’ve dropped way behind with writing my ‘Fifty Great Scenes’ for the fiftieth anniversary, but I did pick Thea-skull and the Part One cliffhanger as one of them. Still terrific. Then there are all the subverted expectations, the funny bits as well as the building terror, and the very idea of the monster that the Doctor had nightmares about…

I was mildly surprised you didn’t talk about how much of an influence the story seems to have had on Russell T Davies-era Who, and indeed Torchwood, from names (Tyler, Jack, Martha, Adam, Mitchell) to plot points: I’ve written about that, too, along with the infamous question of the locked door, which is probably the least interesting thing about it but where I opinionatedly claim to have the definitive answer.

Anthony Pirtle said...

This one never did anything for me. I get what you like about it, but I was bored to tears by the end of episode 3.