CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO - Image Of The Fendahl

Image Of The Fendahl

October-November 1977

‘You must have been sent by providence’
‘No, I was sent by the council to cut the verges’

An ancient skull, having downloaded the Fendahl core, is reactivated in an English country garden. Soul eating slugs get a dose of salt from old Ma Tyler and her new friends the Doctor and Leela.

The Hinchcliffe/Holmes exploitation of high gothic finally comes to a close here and appropriately references the king of ‘extraordinary events in ordinary situations’ – Nigel Kneale. I think the story is best summed up with the image of the TARDIS arriving in a field full of cows – reality and the fantastic in context. Fendahl is a similar rewriting of human origins as posited by Kneale’s 'Quatermass and the Pit' or a neat riff on his science/supernatural play 'The Stone Tape'. If you like 'Fendahl' I suggest you give these two a watch

This is just as serious not only in its scientific reasoning for what happened millennia ago but also in its judgement of ‘the old ways’ as exemplified by Ma Tyler. She’s not reduced to a figure of fun and nor are her ideas ridiculed (see Miss Hawthorne in 'The Daemons') and again she typifies the themes of the story in that lovely scene where the Doctor wakes her from a trance state by discussing a recipe for fruit cake. The ordinary overlapping the extraordinary throughout and where the Doctor seemingly stumbles in on an already on-going situation where the characters are already established, have lives before and beyond the narrative that we see played out in four episodes.

For me, it is also trying but not quite articulating something about the power of the feminine. It’s something that the programme rarely tries and here we have several female figures – the evil goddess, the wise mother and the innocent virgin – with some of these attributes overlapping in several of the female characters. Is Chris Boucher also equating the deathly soul eater with the feminine as well as legitimising the old wives folk wisdom and savage innocence. Are they all the faces of the same goddess in fact? Is the whole of masculine patriarchal society based on the dual feminine nature of the Fendahl/woman?

I like 'Image Of The Fendahl' because it has a sense of reassurance about it in that Williams hasn’t completely thrown both baby and bathwater out at this stage. It purposefully recycles all the Quatermass/Stone Tape/ancient astronaut tropes via a contemporary setting swirling with fog and soul-eating monsters. It’s perhaps the last of a dying breed in the programme before it sets off down the literary satirical SF route in later seasons. There is a genuine attempt at creating mood with discreet use of lighting, vision mixing and that vital element – conviction from those involved. The threat is palpable and believable and realised fairly well with the Fendahleen creatures. It does veer off into camp science fantasy with Wanda Ventham’s goddess manifestation – all silver make up, ringlets and billowing robes – and the plot does a little too much side-tracking, especially the blind-alley journey to the Fifth planet. It’s quite a complex tale and requires a bit of thought to understand what exactly is going on, especially towards the end as many plot elements begin to collide and information is coming at you thick and fast.

George Spenton-Foster directs all of this with a sure hand and uses music sparingly and very well to suggest the darker undercurrents throughout. The surrealism in the images is well executed, particularly the Fendahl creatures slithering down the wood panelled corridors of a country house and the really sublime vision mixing of Ventham's face and the glowing skull. Visual effects are OK but the creatures look somewhat dated now but at the time were probably just about acceptable. Foster manages to get enough of a build up behind them to make them work even though they are ultimately fairly disappointing creations. The destruction of the house is also a very unconvincing effect at the end of episode four.

In terms of the characters, Max, Thea and Adam are a symbolic triumvirate – the misguided, the victim and the reluctant hero – and the performances all work to a degree. Wanda Ventham is going great guns until she ends up as the goddess and then doesn’t get any more lines but her couture improves I suppose, Scott Fredericks just about convinces us he can rally together a Satanist coven and be a scientist at the same time but Edward Arthur does tend to chew the scenery as the sneering anti-hero Adam and for me is the weakest of the actors in the production. Daphne Heard completely steals the show as Ma Tyler despite the reliance on the ‘mummerset’ accent. Denis Lill is good as Fendelman but the German accent instantly puts a barrier up between the performance and the audience for me because it just has ‘I’m doing my German accent’ in big red neon flashing every time he appears.

As for our regulars, Tom and Louise are on good form as usual and getting their fare share of the witty lines. Alas, K9 is made redundant as the script editor and writer don’t quite know what to do with him yet. It'll be an ongoing problem for sometime.

Along with 'Horror Of Fang Rock', this is pretty much a stand out story in the season and it’s sandwiched between what would eventually be Williams penchant for the series – ambitious, satirical, futuristic tales made on a shoestring. Ah, well. I enjoyed it while it lasted.


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