You know, I don’t think these cows know anything about the time scanner.
Set on contemporary Earth for the first time in six stories, Chris Boucher’s “Image of the Fendahl” (Story Production Code 4X) nevertheless ranges far back into the past for its antagonist—some twelve million years. While the Doctor and Leela confront mad scientists, evil cultists, and a gran with a mean handbag throughout the tale, their real foe turns out to be an ancient humanoid skull, dated some eight million years older than humanity’s earliest known ancestors. Being a skull, albeit one with a pentagram etched inside it, it doesn’t actually do much for most of the story’s four episodes, relying instead on the aforementioned scientists and cultists to carry out its nefarious plans. The gran, thankfully, turns out to be on the Doctor’s side.
To Boucher’s credit, he keeps the audience guessing as to the source of the story’s danger, weaving multiple, broadly sketched plots in and out of focus, though all centered around the skull somehow. The resulting surprise when the various groups realize that they have been but puppets to the force within the skull comes as a refreshing twist on the otherwise tired tale of secretive covens bent on reviving their long-lost masters, as seen in “The Daemons,” “Pyramids of Mars,” and, most recently, “The Masque of Mandragora.”
Doctor Fendelman (Denis Lill), a wealthy scientist, along with his associate—and part-time cultist—Maximillian Stael (Scott Fredericks), have been conducting experiments on the skull intended to examine the energy that he claims is locked within it. The “sonic time scan” they use generates a temporal disturbance so threatening to the fabric of space-time that the Doctor must investigate, leading him and Leela to a rural village, ostensibly somewhere in England, that just so happens to nestle near a haunted woods.
The time scan does more than offend the Doctor’s sensibilities, however—it causes the skull to glow, which somehow also kills a nameless hiker in the nearby mist-shrouded woods and begins to control another scientist working with Fendelman, Thea Ransome (Wanda Ventham). The effects team overlays the amber-hued skull over Ventham’s face, shifting the focus back and forth in time with a droning background rhythm, while the hiker screams and stumbles, filmed by director George Spenton-Foster in quick cuts and jarring camera angles. The overall effect creates definite unease in the viewer, with the linkages between events both obvious and yet completely inexplicable; the tension persists palpably, at least until the Doctor starts talking to cows…
With a shift in producers to start Season Fifteen, a softer edge emerges in Doctor Who, shying away somewhat from out-and-out horror. As seen with our bovine interlopers here and in the Doctor’s stop-and-chat with the Rutan in “Horror of Fang Rock,” producer Graham Williams, along with script editor Robert Holmes, begins to temper the frightful with frequent witty asides. Seldom does a death or other grisly moment occur without some beat of attempted humor quickly following.
No figure in “Image of the Fendahl” illustrates this softening process more than Martha Tyler (Daphne Heard), an elderly woman gifted with telepathic and precognitive gifts due to growing up in the shade of a time fissure in the “haunted” woods. In a tale told straighter, as it were, her warnings about an evil force seeking to eat her soul in her dreams would serve as a potent plot driver, overlaid with bombast and menace. But in Boucher’s script, she’s as often played for laughs and comic relief, with other characters obviously humoring her, earning them well-deserved thwacks with her handbag.
If the audience is conditioned to dismiss Martha Tyler as comic relief or local color, however, the Doctor recognizes her value, seeing in her a direct link to humanity’s “race memory” about the Fendahl, a mythological creature from the Doctor’s own past, said to devour not just life energy but souls themselves. The Fendahl somehow escaped the destruction of its home, the mysterious Fifth Planet, time looped out of existence by the the Time Lords themselves twelve million years ago, and managed to secret itself on Earth.
All of the practices of the local “old religion,” embodied here in Gran Tyler’s insistence on charms to ward off evil spirits and her use of the Tarot to interpret her dreams and experiences, stem, according to the Doctor, from humanity’s “race memory,” akin to what C. G. Jung called the collective unconscious, the latent ancestral memory shared by human beings. Far from being a superstitious bumpkin, Gran’s connection to the collective unconscious holds the key to defeating the Fendahl, which just so happens to be the contents of her charms: rock salt. The habit of throwing salt over one’s shoulder turns out to be derived, in this telling, from an ancient means of warding off the Fendahl.
The Fendahl itself takes shape as a series of thirteen linked entities, one the central controlling element and twelve Fendahleen sub-creatures, each effectively a cross between a worm and a cobra in appearance. The Doctor’s working theory is that the skull, buried for millennia under volcanic rock, subtly altered human evolution to bring about the conditions necessary for the immense energy in the skull to be released, allowing the Fendahl to take physical form once more. So Doctor Fendelman and his ancestors were manipulated—through targeted RNA changes, the Doctor helpfully if incongruously suggests—to spend their lives seeking out the skull; and Thea Ransome, whose skull bears a similar pentagonal symbol as the Fendahl skull, likewise was born to serve as the host for the creature’s “core” manifestation. Even Stael, along with other members of the nearby village, was predestined to serve the cult dedicated to returning the Fendahl as a means of becoming gods themselves.
It’s all very much a logical leap, playing primarily with the idea of alien intervention in human evolution, again as seen in “The Daemons.” Both the cultists and Fendelman’s mad scientist schtick, linked to the unexplained “time scanner” that will blow up the planet if the Fendahl doesn’t kill everyone first, serve mostly to obscure the fact that there’s not a lot of heft to the plot itself. To be fair, the audience shares both Fendelman’s bemusement and the cultists’ horror at having been tools of the Fendahl’s return, but once the Doctor realizes that rock salt will defeat the Fendahl’s physical form, the final episode consists of the Doctor and Leela throwing bottles of salt at the Fendahleen (with, it must be noted, all the marksmanship of a UNIT solider), grabbing the skull, blowing up the building where the experiments were taking place by overloading the time scanner, and then throwing the skull in a nearby supernova. And we don’t even get to see the supernova.
Tom Baker seems very much at home with this “gentler” version of the series; he’s taken to broad physical comedy even more than Jon Pertwee, if such is possible, and the Fourth Doctor in this story seldom goes five minutes without a witticism or kindly observed sarcastic remark. Of note, his trademark long scarf has become an integral component not just of his wardrobe but of his acting; Baker is forever fiddling with it, bunching it, or wrapping it around himself. He’s also begun offering jelly babies to all and sundry; even the skull gets offered one.
He does strike some hard tones, however. When Stael, already mentally transfixed by the Fendahl Core, asks for his pistol, so that he might kill himself rather than be transformed into a Fendahleen, the Doctor obliges, recognizing that Stael could not be saved. The Doctor likewise dismisses any chance of saving Thea from her transformation into the Core. Such off-hand condemnation of people to their fates has become more and more a part of the Fourth Doctor’s character.
For reasons unexplained in the story but possibly (and regrettably) easy to guess, Leela undergoes a change in both outfit and hairstyle. Louise Jameson is outfitted in a much tighter off-tan bodice with a low-cut front, and her hair is pulled back into a small bun. While the new outfit does provide slightly more consistent upper leg coverage in her frequent action sequences than her usual red-and-brown outfit, the overall effect is clearly designed to “appeal” to the “lads and dads” watching along with the target Saturday afternoon audience.
Happily, the story’s ending sequence shows Leela back in her usual outfit and hairstyle, with the Doctor absentmindedly commenting that he likes her “new,” which is to say old, look. Given that two of Louise Jameson’s strongest performances come in stories where Leela is dressed in period appropriate clothing (“The Talons of Weng-Chiang” and “Horror of Fang Rock“), one might wish the series would keep to changing her outfits to blend in rather than stand out.
As for the character of Leela, her initiator Chris Boucher manages, for the most part, to capture that rare combination of bravery, inquisitive guilelessness, and loyalty that marked her debut stories. She saves the Doctor, yet again, from certain physical death when he grasps the skull with his bare hands, faces the Fendahleen without fear, and pushes back against the Doctor’s difficult mannerisms more than once, while still recognizing his inherent kindness.
Not to be forgotten, K-9 does feature, only to be shown in a state of disrepair and thus unable to participate in a story likely written before the decision was made to integrate the tin canine into the series on a regular basis. Just as well, since the climactic events take place in a cellar, and K-9, like many a Dalek before it, just doesn’t do stairs.
It bears mentioning that, seen as individual episodes a week apart, the way Doctor Who is intended to be viewed, Boucher in “Image of the Fendahl” does manage to create a story at once mysterious and reasonably coherent. Only when viewed as whole cloth does the threadbare nature of the plotting stand out. Fendelman and the cultists provide sufficient tension, each just enough, to move the plot along; that they are jettisoned as soon as the grand set piece begins—Thea transforming into the oddly angelic Fendahl Core, reminiscent, perhaps, of Medusa—matters little in the moment.
Our heroes save the day in an entertaining, visually spectacular manner, Gran Tyler breaks out the good china for some tea, and all is right with the world until next week. As with “Horror of Fang Rock,” this story would be much different had the humor been stripped out and the story played as straight and incessant horror, but then it would have collapsed under a self-serious weight. No, it might not be deathless drama, but it’s a fine example of what Doctor Who in this era strives to bring about week in and week out, and one would be hard pressed to deny that it is successful on those terms.
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Post 97 of the Doctor Who Project