Doctor Who: Image of the Fendahl (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson Bros cast a critical eye-stalk over Doctor Who: Image of the Fendahl...
Season fifteen of Doctor Who blew a wind of change through the production of the series; the previous season had seen the 'gothic' era of Doctor unleash some of the best stories of the series so far (Pyramids of Mars, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, etc). Producer Philip Hinchcliffe had departed and was replaced by Graham Williams. If Hinchcliffe’s stamp on the stories that he produced screamed 'exciting' and 'gothic', then some would argue that most of Williams’ stories whimpered 'dull' and 'pedestrian'.
Cast adrift in the sea of mediocrity (or in the case of some stories, downright awfulness) were one or two good stories. Image of the Fendahl is looked upon by many fans as one of the few bright spots in a pretty dismal season—one only has to look at what it was alongside that year and you’ll need little in the way of convincing—the only other decent story in season fifteen was Terrance Dicks’ The Horror of Fang Rock, though pretty much anything stacked up against the likes of The Invisible Enemy and Underworld would look like a masterpiece in comparison.
Experiments conducted on a mysterious twelve million year-old skull draws the TARDIS to present day Earth and the Doctor and Leela leave a (conveniently) non-operational K9 to investigate a series of mysterious deaths.
The dynamic duo soon realise that something is very wrong and that these deaths occurred through unnatural causes; the poor sods who suddenly ceased to enjoy the benefits of being alive were bumped off by the Fendahl, an ancient enemy of the Time Lords, who thought that they had successfully vanquished the life-sucking creature by throwing it into a time-loop.
As the Fendahl’s influence increases, the threat to the human race grows and only the Doctor, Leela and a couple of country folk can stop them…
Image of the Fendahl is a hugely entertaining story—it’s well-written, fast-paced and there are some wonderful performances from the cast, both main and guests. The direction, by Who newcomer George Spenton-Foster (who would go on to direct The Key To Time’s opening story, The Ribos Operation) is taut and the cinematography is appropriately shadowy and moody.
There is a hilarious moment in the first episode where Louise Jameson breaks the fourth wall and gives a momentary look into the camera; this occurs just after the Doctor makes a backhanded compliment about Leela’s intelligence. Little moments like this really serve to highlight the fact that Leela was an entirely different sort of character than had previously been seen in Doctor Who (Baker was quite aware of this and was fairly vocal in his disapproval at the time).
There is a creepy atmosphere that pervades the proceedings that was fairly exclusive to 1970s British television shows. Image of the Fendahl owes some its’ gothic atmosphere to the writings of Nigel Kneale, who was most famous for the Quatermass series. There are a few striking similarities between this particular Doctor Who story and Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit, most notably having a bunch of scientists who discover a skull that goes against established theories on human evolution.
The sequences where the skull draws Thea Ransome ever closer into its power are just wonderful—the shots are lined up so well and the simple mixing between the actress and the skull prop is arguably more effective than any other type optical effect they could have come up with at the time.
The subplot involving the Doctor and Leela banding together with nearby residents Jack Tyler (do you think that Russell T Davies liked this episode?) and his mother, the local wise-woman, Martha adds a level that is usually missing from ‘classic’ Doctor Who, but present in spades in New-Who: the involvement of ‘ordinary’ people in the affairs of the Doctor; much of the time, many humans drawn into the extraterrestrial/supernatural goings-on in the original series of Doctor Who were military personnel or scientists. The Tylers are about as rural as they get—a couple of country-dwelling types who are suspicious of the activities of the inhabitants of the priory.
It really is a pity that such a great story is harmed by the arrival of the Fendahleen at the end of episode three—looking like a cross between a Venus fly-trap and dribbling penis (they would have gone hand-in-hand—or something-in-something—with Trial of a Timelord’s Vervoids…). The Fendahleen wouldn’t have looked quite so silly if they had been lit a little better; granted the show still retained some of the low mood-lighting that was employed to great effect during numerous previous Tom Baker stories, but as little light as possible should have been employed as the rampaging monster looks more than a little silly.
The first three episodes of Image of the Fendahl are wonderful to sit through, evoking memories of the ‘gothic’ period so memorably brought about by Philip Hinchcliffe and the writers during his tenure on the show. There is much creeping about in the woods, complete with hooting owls and judicious use of a fog machine and shooting the location footage on film all helps to sell much of the story as something akin to a Hammer movie.
It's a pity that things go a little off the boil shortly into episode four, as the transformation of Wanda into the chief Fendahl turns her into a fairly run-of-the-mill Doctor Who villain—she was more interesting as an adversary when she kept tuning in and out during the first three episodes. After she gets a golden makeover, she spends much of the last instalment spinning around and vogueing like Madonna on overdrive. What we have just said about the final part may sound harsh, it’s just that all of the mystery and suspense built up in the first three parts seems to evaporate as the story is crystallised in order to produce a climax—episode four is certainly not a write-off.
Baker is on pretty good form here, still showing the sense of self-restraint that was characteristic of the earlier half of his time on the show, and certainly before his absurd over-the-top performances that characterized season seventeen. When Baker is at his best, he can inject a sense of foreboding into even the most risible of scripts—he could quite possibly read the menu of a Chinese takeaway and make it sound like end of the world was nigh—but fortunately, Baker is given a good script to work with and the atmospheric design, photography and direction all complimented his performance to make something special.
The unceremonious dropping of K9 from this story brings to mind the ‘go guard the door, Shemp’ era of Three Stooges shorts, but whereas Shemp Howard had the excuse of being dead as far as being written out of a story was concerned, K9 was merely dropped out of this one because he wasn’t seen as a recurring character at the time Image of the Fendahl was scripted.
The supporting cast are impressive, with Wanda Ventham is just great as ill-fated scientist-cum-supernatural-conduit Thea Ransome; she was a female scientist in a time when women in such positions of power were still frowned upon or not taken seriously—it's just a pity that some feminists would perceive her transformation into the Fendahl core as a misogynist's way of saying that women should know their place (preferably in the kitchen) or suffer the consequences. Regardless of this possible interpretation, Ventham exudes a coolness that really brings out the sinister side of the story and is also damned attractive on top of that.
Dennis Lill is also good as the obsessed scientist Doctor Fendelman–his Teutonic accent at times threatens to cause a few sniggers, but nothing really that approaches the ‘nothing in ze vurld can stop me now!’ level of cringe-inducement from Professor Zaroff in The Underwater Menace.
This story came after the furore with Mary Whitehouse and the increasing levels of violence in Doctor Who—The Deadly Assassin seriously got her goat and as a result, the Beeb ensured that Doctor Who toed the line; Image of the Fendahl seemed to slip under the radar somewhat, because as well as the rich gothic atmosphere, there are several controversial moments to be had, the main one being the moment where the Doctor hands a doomed character a gun so he can shoot himself—such a thing would never be allowed in New-Who.
On a more flippant note, with the prominent usage of a mysterious skull during most of this story, one almost expects to see Arthur C Clarke dressed in a safari-suit walking into shot at the end to debunk the entire mythology of the Fendahl.
This particular Doctor Who story has had the usual treatment by the good folks at the Restoration Team, but a little more care and attention was lavished upon it than usual, as the master of the first episode suffered from a considerable amount of video dropout, but this has been painstakingly and lovingly restored. The original film elements for this story, like so many others, disappeared decades ago, but the Restoration Team have cleaned them up as best as they can and the results are quite pleasing, looking brighter and more colourful than ever before.
The Restoration Team’s Mark Ayres has worked his usual magic on the soundtrack, presenting it in a way that is cleaner and more audible than any previous release (certainly better than any UK Gold screening…)
Audio Commentary: assembled for your aural pleasure are Tom Baker (the Doctor), Louise Jameson (Leela), Wanda Ventham (Thea Ransome) and Edward Arthur (Professor Adam Colby), is entertaining enough, with Baker tossing out the odd amusing non-sequitar, but this is a perfect example of how a Doctor Who commentary track needs at least one person from the production side to act as a counterbalance to the luvvie-chat—Ventham even mentions her shoes several times, for God’s sake! Baker gets slightly maudlin at one point where he realises just how much the role meant to children whilst he was the Doctor and almost having a sense of delayed shock at stepping down from the part. Baker also gets to exclaim ‘Christ!’ now and again, along with tossing out the odd ‘phwoar!’
After Image: This twenty-six minute documentary is an interesting look at the production of this highly-regarded story. As well as Ventham and Arthur from the audio commentary, script editor Anthony Read and visual effects designer Colin Mapson are on-hand to add to the proceedings. Like the commentary track, there is an imbalance between thespian and technical information; Reed and Mapson try to redress the balance, but their contributions are overshadowed by the talent in front of the camera. Generally, this is fun but a more detailed look at the genesis and production of the story would have been appreciated.
Deleted Scenes: Though the original film elements have long since vanished, a black and white time-coded copy of some of the excess film footage is presented. There is nothing particularly earth-shattering here, but there are some interesting scene extensions and an alternate take of a scene near the end of the story.
Trailer: In something of a rarity for Doctor Who stories of this era, a BBC trailer announcing the story has been included here—it’s short but very interesting nonetheless.
Production Subtitles: As usual, there is a constant stream of informative and fascinating subtitles detailing the nuts and bolts of the production of this story.
Radio Times listings: In PDF format for your viewing pleasure are the clippings from the Beeb’s long-running publication (other television listings guides are available).
Coming Soon: This is a brief look at the next Doctor Who release from 2Entertain, which is companionless Tom Baker story, The Deadly Assassin. Cool.
There is an amusing little Easter-egg if you look for it, which has Louise Jameson giving her thoughts upon a certain piece of Who merchandising...
Image of the Fendahl is an exciting and enjoyable slice of Tom-foolery, with an appealing cast (and Baker taking things very seriously) and wonderful direction and lighting; this was the closest that the series came to recapturing the feel of Philip Hinchcliffe’s ‘gothic’ period. The actor-heavy extras are a little infuriating, but this is just a minor niggle, and this DVD release of a great story is tough to fault. Highly recommended.
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 20th April 2009
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Aspect: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono English
Extras: Audio Commentary, Featurette, Deleted Scenes, Coming Soon Trailer, Production Subtitles, Continuity, Radio Times Listings
Easter Egg: No
Director: George Spenton-Foster
Cast: Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, Wanda Ventham
Length: 94 minutes
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