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Alas, poor skull.


Doctor Who
Image of the Fendahl


As part of the Hinchcliffe era, Image of the Fendahl might have been the apotheosis of all things “gothic horror” in Doctor Who, a Lovecraftian melange of Nigel Kneale-esque folkloric scientism and Hammer-style occult trappings with a splodge of von Däniken. In the nascent Williams run, it’s something different and unrulier, upping the larkiness that would soon become a key motif and settling for production values that are on the ramshackle side (which is to say, the lighting and design work are often very good, but the direction is consistently inconsistent). That isn’t necessarily a criticism, as the story is vibrant, full of personality, wit and inventiveness. Indeed, just drawing attention to the way different producers would have treated the story ignores that the failings here are largely ones of script, or rather structure. Chris Boucher has some great ideas, but he has a funny way of going about stringing them together at times.

The Doctor: You know, I don’t think these cows know anything about the time scanner. Never mind. It’s a beautiful day, and the exercise will do use good. Come on.

While he’s still the biggest person in the story, it’s very noticeable how side-lined the Doctor is from Image of the Fendahl’s action until quite a distance into the proceedings. Anyone would think this was a Colin Baker outing! He and Leela don’t get anywhere near to the unfolding events during the first episode. The Doctor is promptly locked up in Part Two, “breaking” out in time to attach himself to a glowing skull for the (very good) cliffhanger. 

In Part Three, no sooner has he roused Ma Tyler from her catatonia than he’s off on a bizarre pace-puncturing detour to look at the Fifth Planet (the one that used to be found between Mars and Jupiter, apparently. As far as lore on actual alleged former planets in our solar system goes, the Ra Material cites Maldek, destroyed by its inhabitants about 500,000 years ago, its souls consequently coming to Earth to incarnate… as Big Foots. Maldek is really a continent beyond the Ice Wall, however, and these worlds aren’t physical objects at all, but the once-and-lost planet of the solar system also has various fictional antecedents, not least in Doctor Who with Mondas). 

So it’s only in the final part – a slender twenty minutes in length – that the Doctor has a demonstrable impact. And let’s face it, it was Ma Tyler who came up with the salt as an effective measure against the Fendahleen. The Doctor’s main action is to rid the Universe of the skull; otherwise, it would be quite possible to see those on the side of right living in and around Fetch Priory pulling through for themselves.

Thea: I’m a technician, not a human palaeontologist!

Director George Spenton-Foster would be more in his element with the following year’s The Ribos Operation; he’s keen on dumping masonry inelegantly onto the studio floor as a sign of momentous, foundations-shaking events in both, however. For most of the time here, he’s fine. There’s a decent enough atmosphere, if scant sense of geography. It’s in Part Four that his limitations become more evident. Fendahl Thea is striking, but she simply isn’t imposing (as Cumberbatch’s mum noted). The staging in the cellar is all a bit clumsy and haphazard; since it’s the keynote event, it rather lets the side down (it doesn’t help that the story has a monster but no villain, once Max realises he got in over his head; there’s no opportunity for last-minute twists or grandstanding speeches. All that’s required is for the Doctor to blow everything up). 

The monster itself is okay, better in concept design than physical model (the miniatures are much more effective). JN-T was apparently concerned about is phallic connotations (by 1986, such qualms were evidently no longer on his radar). As Tom-era significantly sized menaces go, the Fendahleen’s still ahead of the Wirrn, Krynoid, Skarasen or Rat, though, mostly because it carries with it a stronger, more palpable underlying concept.

The deficits of this more critical vantage point have to be balanced against how sheerly entertaining the story as a whole is, however. It’s filled with vivid characters, even the more vanilla ones. True, Wanda Ventham gets a bit of a raw deal as Thea, unceremoniously inveigled into the summoning and thence reduced to the states of a Fendahl core. Denis Lill lends Dr Fendelman an obsessive air, with Boucher engaging in a spot of Uvanov-esque misdirection, since it’s really Max Stael (Scott Fredericks) who’s the “occult freak” trying to Babalon Work the Fendahl into physical existence; he’s portrayed as dashing but humourless (“Oh, and Max. End the day with a smile”) and granted repentance (shooting himself in the head). 

Fendelman is given the freedom of being highly affluent, Bill Gates style, “one of richest men in the world… They say he made his money out of electronics, but that don’t seem likely, cos he ain’t Japanese” (see also The Ribos Operation for allusions to Japanese wealth). He’s also, presumably, embedded in the military-industrial complex (hence the as-you-do aside “About ten years ago, when I was working on a missile guidance system…”)

The real stars are Geoffrey Hinsliff (Jack Tyler), Daphne Heard (Ma Tyler) and Edward Arthur (Adam Colby), though. Hinsliff would later overdo it a bit in Nightmare of Eden, but his rapport with both Heard and Jameson is great fun (“My gran’s in a hell of a state”; “He reads a lot, you know”). Ma Tyler is one of a selection of formidably eccentric elderly ladies in the Baker era – the principle others being Amelia Ducat and Emilia Rumford. Heard’s both entirely convincing and very funny, chastising an overzealous guard – “Don’ee mind ’e, me lovelies” – or portentously telling of her insights into the threat they face: “I seen it… In my mind. Dark. Great dark. It called me… In my mind and it called me. ’Ungry. It were ’ungry for my soul”. And then there are her erratic superstitions: “Never trust a man as wears a hat”, she suggests of the Doctor, with her son pointing out he also wears a hat (“Ah, but I give it to ‘ee. That’s different”).

Adam: There’s a corpse, in the woods!
Fendelman: What sort of corpse?
Adam: A dead one, what other sort is there?

Perhaps even better, though, just for sheer unapologetic rudeness, is Adam Colby. I half wish he’d become a companion, but there was no way his spleen could have been sustained on a weekly basis (nevertheless, his rapport with Tom in Part Four is encouraging and suggests a more refreshing relationship than Leela’s incessant “What is it, Doctor?”) He’s uber-sarcastic, be it discussing varieties of corpse, the currency of witches (“Cheaper than oil!”) or characterising his employer (“Because you’re mad, Fendelman. You’re mad!”)

Adam’s an unlikely archaeologist – I presume that’s his profession, since he discovered the skull – but the sort who names his find (Eustace). He has a canny line in recognising the Doctor’s stock-in-trade (“wandering armageddon peddler”) and becomes extremely cantankerous when his nerves are frayed. After all, he went from sympathy for Ma Tyler – “Remember your varicose veins, Mrs T” – when she was being called a “loony old trout” in Part One to denouncing her (“This is all your fault, do you know that? Stupid old witch”) and her son (“Look, don’t you threaten me, you swede-bashing cretin”) in the final episode. Despite his manner, Leela takes a shine to him (she gives him a parting peck on the cheek). He’s also allotted one of the best lines of the story, if not the series: “You must think my head zips up the back!

On the companion front, I have to say that Leela is not looking her best. In the same way Tom gets accused of being increasingly scruffy during the Williams run, it’s as if Louise simply showing up was enough and any former savage verisimilitude was “take it or leave it”. The contacts have already been left. Now they’ve just about ditched the fake tan, changed her (dress) skins, and put her hair up (Williams wasn’t best pleased with the latter choice, apparently, down to Jameson’s overeager hairdresser). Along with Jameson’s erratic cadence (not helped by some of her lines), it’s like she’s now a luvvie playing a part rather than the embodiment of a warrior of the Sevateem. Nevertheless: “Whoppers?” She’s also used in an early instance of the Williams era’s yen for the ironic contrasting cut, as Leela expounds on the Doctor’s best qualities – “Oh, he’s very difficult sometimes, but he has great knowledge and gentleness” – only for a cut to him throwing a paddy when his screwdriver refuses to unlock the lumber room door.

The Doctor: Make some tea.
Jack Tyler: Tea?
The Doctor: Tea. She does drink tea? 
Jack Tyler: Well, yeah.
The Doctor: Off you go and make some. Use the best china. Four cups laid out on a tray. Off you go. Oh, and some fruitcake.
Jack Tyler: Anything else?
The Doctor: No. (Tyler goes into the kitchen.) I love fruitcake. Come on, Mrs Tyler. This is no way to behave when you’ve got visitors. We’ve come for tea.
Leela: And fruitcake.
The Doctor: And fruitcake.

Tom’s clearly in proprietorial phase, fully immersed in perhaps his worst improvised tic: the “Shh!” Which is called upon in most scenes, as a means for him to register that he’s in charge and calling the shots. But still, it’s this same quality that gives us a range of incontestably great moments. From “TARDIS, wonderful!”, to his conversation with cows, to his give-a-shit, get-out-of-the-cliffhanger peril (“Come on legs, run!”), to “Alas, poor skull” (while famously offering it a liquorice allsort rather than a jelly baby), to the entire tea-and-fruitcake routine (quite probably mostly written, but for the actual fruitcake recipe: “Throw in the apple cores very hard, put the lot in a shallow tin and bake in a high oven for two weeks”). He’s clearly enjoying himself with Daphne Heard too, but I’d suggest that was true of everyone involved.

The Doctor: You must have been sent by providence.
Ted Moss: No, I was sent by the Council to cut the verges.

The setting is a staple, but it perhaps only seems as if it’s been overused because it’s so memorable when it is: the country house wherein uncanny happenings are happening (Day of the Daleks; Pyramids of Mars; The Seeds of Doom). The occult summoning thus hearkens most to Pyramids. Its von Däniken-ness is, to a degree, less overt, however, since it’s blended with an equally strong – and congruent – line of Kneale-esque race memory. Thus, the Fendelman/Fendahl and psychic Ma Tyler are drinking from the same pot as Hobb’s End and its crashed spacecraft (mix and match the time fissure). However, where the influences in Quatermass and the Pit are more incidental, there are more nefarious machinations here (“Only for this have the generations of my fathers lived. I have been used! You are being used! Mankind has been used!”) This yields the Doctor’s amusing opening line of inquiry, based on the name of the village (Fetchborough): “Tell me about the ghosts” and (of the Priory) “And it’s haunted, of course”.

The Doctor: The energy amassed by the Fendahl was stored in the skull and dissipated slowly as a biological transmutation field. Now, any appropriate lifeform that came within the field was altered so that it ultimately evolved into something suitable for the Fendahl to use. 

Thus, the story slurps from the same pool as both The Daemons and City of Death – and to a lesser extent, The Masque of Mandragora – in terms of ETs exerting a vital influence or offering a key developmental effect on life on Earth. The skull is “millions of years older than the earliest of man’s known ancestors”, leading to Colby musing “You think we’re all aliens?”, a step further than other ET’s imprint, but the Doctor later clarifies the situation; Fendelman is wrong in his thesis (“Man did not evolve on Earth, of this I am sure”). Instead, it’s a case of a vital evolutionary spark (like Scaroth) or “biological transmutation field” (it’s unclear quite how Colby’s line would be actualised, perhaps that the owner of the skull bred with lower primates? The idea that humans are aliens does, though, fit with the suggestion that our DNA comprises contributions from participating ET races in our particular experiment. This would be in contrast to having been designed outright by Anunnaki). We also have one of those Atlantean multiple histories scenarios here, with an alt-explanation for dead Mars (“probably taking in Mars on its way through”).

The science and occultism theme may also be influenced by the likes of Jack Parsons (working on rockets rather than missile guidance) and his Babalon Working, this being Parsons’ (and L Ron Hubbard’s) attempt to incarnate Crowley’s divine feminine Babalon; rather than Marjorie Cameron, Thea Ransome is the vassal for this occult materialisation. The story casts a clear distinction between Ma Tyler’s white witch, habitual of the Old Ways and Old Religion, and the cellar’s black deeds (it’s notable too that the skull excavation site is Kenya; one rather suspects the exotic locale might have been inspired by The Exorcist’s dig in Iraq). 

Mixed in is pseudo-science legitimising the supernatural (but in scientism terms, rather than in and of itself). So the skull’s pentagram, part of the bone structure, represents a neural relay; hence, it’s a symbol for mystical energy and power. It is also a beacon, with energy still within the neural circuit. Second sight and ghosts have nothing to do with the afterlife, but are, rather prosaically, the effects of living on a time fissure (there must be a lot of time fissures about, then!) 

Jack Tyler: Most people used to believe that the Earth was flat, but it was still round.
Ma Tyler: Ah ha, but they behaved as if ’twere flat.

Consequently, this is also a story that quite casually throws in elements we’ve only really seen hitherto in The Daemons (covens in crypts, summoning the devil). Sure, the Doctor does some fortune telling in The Smugglers, but it’s with a plain old deck. Ma Tyler has a couple of tarot spreads (both Celtic Crosses), apparently only using the Major Arcana, and, although it isn’t terribly clear, with much the same cards shown in both episodes Two and Three (The Sun appears to be the significator, The Moon crossing it, Death below and The Hanged Man in future, The Devil is lurking around there – inevitably – and the outcome is The Tower. Which, I guess, is accurate in a literal, priory-devouring way). I also like that, even if she isn’t (volubly) a Flat Earther, Ma Tyler’s unrepentant about most (normal) people intuitively treating it as if it were. Also connecting the story to The Daemons is that it takes place at one of the Wiccan sabbats (Lammas Eve here – the actual production began August 1 1977 – Beltane in there).

The Doctor: Fendahl is death. How do you kill death?

Then there’s the aspect of the Fendahl itself. There’s a conceptually nebulous quality here, similar to the Guardians, in that it’s a primal force of the universe personified. Albeit, with a quasi-scientific spin, such that “about 12 million years ago, on a nameless planet which no longer exists, evolution went up a blind alley… Natural selection turned back on itself and a creature evolved which prospered by absorbing the energy wavelengths of life itself… It ate life? All life, including that of its own kind”. So presumably, given the skull, the gestalt Fendahl has a human form (per Thea), but why its isolated parts are embodied as slugs is unclear (12 Fendahleen and a core). Or perhaps it just so happened that the Fendahl evolved on a planet with human(oid)s and took them over in a similar manner to Thea here, such that the core will comprise whatever lifeform it appropriates (although, this is perhaps contradicted by the pentagram being “part of the bone structure itself”). 

The Doctor: I was frightened in childhood by a mythological horror.

Regardless, what we have here is an inimical force, and thus one that speaks to Lovecraftian ideas of other realms and slithery slithy lifeforms, rather than ones found on a common or garden planet. Obviously, Doctor Who differs rather from HP’s inherent bleakness, but implications thereof are found here and in the likes of Planet of Evil, of the horrors that lurk beyond the veil of perceived reality. We thus find a link here to the anti- (to antimatter, the inverse state of what we live and know), even if it isn’t presented as such (others have connected Lovecraft’s ideas to antimatter theory). 

It’s certainly significant that the Fendahl should have attracted such decisive attention from the Time Lords, placing the Fifth Planet in a time loop (“That’s criminal!” says the Doctor, forgetting he put Axos in one). “A creature from my own mythology” is, after all, puts it in the same strata as other quasi-mythical forces from Time Lord history (Omega, suffused with antimatter, Rassilon, the Great Vampire). We note too the paralysis of victims that is part of both the Zeta-Minor antimatter monster and Fendahl’s modus operandi, and how such states lend themselves to the nightmare of being preyed upon or unable to escape (the dream state is, per the Seth Material, an energetic prelude to the antimatter universe). 

This comes with it an emphasis on the soul as the target of such forces. The Doctor’s inevitably required to reduce any kind of eternal or metaphysical quality to “what some people call a life force or soul”, but Ma Tyler’s “’ungry for my soul” kicks any such rationalisation into a cocked hat (as is often the case with an “arch rationalist” – Sandifer characterising Boucher – the emphasis on explanation rather goes to underpin the efficacy of the inexplicable). It’s the more interesting that the Doctor credits the Fendahl with “the dark side of man’s nature”; others have (rightly) pointed to it being a little disingenuous to conceive that man might have led an utopian existence, were it not for such a force, but the idea that a pervasive and malign influence may have been magnifying and exacerbating our capacity for negativity is entirely legitimate (whether you regard that force as ET, metaphysical, Elite, corporate or plain old globalist). 

Sandifer decried the story as “heavily Doctor Who by numbers” (“Nobody loves it. Nobody hates it… the third best story in the weakest season of the 70s” – no, it’s easily the best of the season). Lisbeth didn’t like the von Däniken-ness, or its “grotesque… cultural imperialism” (get her). Yeah, the first thing I think of when I think of Image of the Fendahl is that it’s “horrifyingly Eurocentric” (Lisbeth must hate anyone who loves this almost as much those racists who think The Talons of Weng-Chiang is the best Doctor Who story ever). But then, I’d suggest we don’t know the first thing about history, so it’s a fool’s errand to be trenchant about the official record. Unless we’re all about virtue signalling… 

Wood and Miles delivered a Defence and a Prosecution. Although, even the Defence falls into the usual trap of claiming its superiority by maligning another story (The Daemons). All that debate over who opened the locked door? I’ve always seen it as a delay of the sonic screwdriver (which is what Boucher says). There’s also overemphasis of how this is/isn’t horrific from all three (Sandifer, Wood, Miles), but the Doctor accepting a villain committing suicide isn’t that shocking, and the blood on Fendleman’s temple is very discreet for a bullet wound.

The Doctor: Oh, if you want an alternative explanation, the Fendahl fed into the RNA of certain individuals the instincts and compulsions necessary to recreate. These were fed through the generations till they reached Fendelman and people like him.
Adam Colby: Well, that’s possibly more plausible.
The Doctor: Or on the other hand, it could all be just a coincidence.

So Thea may die, but Leaky presumably survives. That’s the main thing. It’s another of those hasty Doctor exits, ironic given there were about four-and-a-half minutes spare; it would have been fun to have a final scene sitting around eating fruit – or plum – cake and receiving card readings. Instead, Leela gets her hair and leathers back – but still doesn’t look right – while K9 undergoes gender assignment. Image of the Fendahl comes up a fraction short of full marks for me, but I’d lay that largely at the door of some of Boucher’s less intuitive plotting choices, rather than the scrappier production values commonly held against the era.

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