Image of the Fendahl ****

The Doctor and Leela encounter an ancient skull with a terrifying power in a spooky English mansion

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Doctor Who story guide
Patrick Mulkern
Patrick Mulkern
Image of the Fendahl ****

Season 15 Story 94

"The Fendahl absorbs the full spectrum of energy, what some people call a life force or soul. It eats life itself" - the Doctor

Storyline
The Tardis is dragged off course by a sonic time scan emanating from Fetch Priory in the English countryside. A team of scientists led by Dr Fendelman are experimenting on a fossilised skull thought to be 12 million years old - a date that confounds their knowledge of human evolution. The Doctor realises the skull is a remnant of the Fendahl, a creature from the Fifth Planet that "grows and exists by death". Over eons it has engineered humanity to re-exert itself in the present day using energy from Fendelman's time scanner…

First transmissions
Part 1 - Saturday 29 October 1977
Part 2 - Saturday 5 November 1977
Part 3 - Saturday 12 November 1977
Part 4 - Saturday 19 November 1977

Production
Location filming: August 1977 at Stargrove Manor, East End, Hampshire
Studio recording: August/September 1977 in TC6

Cast
Doctor Who - Tom Baker
Leela - Louise Jameson
Thea Ransome - Wanda Ventham
Martha Tyler - Daphne Heard
Dr Fendelman - Denis Lill
Ted Moss - Edward Evans
Jack Tyler - Geoffrey Hinsliff
Maximillian Stael - Scott Fredericks
Adam Colby - Edward Arthur
David Mitchell - Derek Martin
Hiker - Graham Simpson

Crew
Writer - Chris Boucher
Incidental music - Dudley Simpson
Designer - Anna Ridley
Script editor - Robert Holmes
Producer - Graham Williams
Director - George Spenton-Foster

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
I recall meeting the Doctor, for the second time, in September 1978 quite vividly. Well, you would, wouldn't you? I'd won a local newspaper competition, along with maybe a dozen other young fans, for an audience with "Tom Baker" at the Bull Inn, Gerrards Cross. A towering figure, he turned up with trademark scarf and flouncy hair, and in benevolent Gallifreyan mode fielded such demanding questions as "What's your favourite story?"

"Ooh, erm, I really can't remember them all," stalled the Doctor. "I know! What was that one set in the big mansion?" "Pyramids of Mars," suggested one acolyte. "Seeds of Doom," ventured another. "Eh? No, no, no," he puffed, dismissing these treasured classics. "That one last year. At Mick Jagger's house." "Image of the Fendahl?" I piped up. The Doctor beamed at my 13-year-old self. "Yes, that's it. That was a good one."

I don't remember him justifying his choice, but Image of the Fendahl is indeed a "good one", if not quite great, and a highlight of a dodgy season. Tom Baker evidently enjoyed it. You can see that on screen.

He's fully engaged with the drama, providing a pleasing balance of gravitas and flippancy. He conveys wads of potentially awkward exposition about the function and intent of the Fendahl almost without blinking. And there are comedic ad-libs: the Doctor offers the skull a jelly baby; he reminds Colby to flee in three minutes, but holds up four fingers. There's even an address to camera ("Time's running out") that for once doesn't irk me.

Baker also seems more responsive to Louise Jameson. In rehearsals, between themselves, they've worked out small moments of "business". In part three he falls bodily across her and rests there without a hint of anything untoward. "You are very heavy," Leela moans. In part four, after she's tumbled to the floor, he assists her, his hand fleetingly caressing her left breast.

In several respects Leela has been toned down. She's still brave, ever ready for battle or exertion, but the juicy threats of violence barely surface and her knife seems more of an emblem than a weapon now. And have we skipped a harrowing adventure in which Leela's skin was bleached and her lustrous hair was singed off? (In reality, Jameson had to pin her hair up after a BBC coiffeuse hacked off six inches.)

Somehow Leela has also sourced a new pale-skin outfit, which drains her of colour. On the BBC DVD, Jameson reveals she still owns this costume and takes it to conventions - "Not on me, I hasten to add!"

Young viewers anticipating any K•9 action would have been sorely disappointed. A late addition to the cast and therefore these scripts, he's inactive in the Tardis while the Doctor fixes "a little corrosion in its circuits". The control room set itself looks wretched with beige walls, an unconvincing metallic finish to the console and a dilapidated central column.

But on with the story. Image of the Fendahl is often cited as the last gasp of the horror sub-genre prevalent in earlier seasons. But punches are pulled. The hiker's decomposing corpse isn't shown, and both Fendelman's murder and Stael's suicide occur off camera.

With its spooky mansion, slithering menace in the woods, occult coven and spectre of the Fendahl, this actually reads more like a tale of the supernatural. There's atmospheric night filming and an unusually eerie soundscape. Musician Dudley Simpson takes a back seat, while Dick Mills lets rip with some pervasive radiophonic reverberation.

Chris Boucher's scripts are his strongest for the series, pairing colourful dialogue with a small band of broadly drawn characters. Each serves a purpose, most of them genetically predicated over eons to be at Fetch Priory by the Fendahl. Daphne Heard is magnificent as the "loony old trout" Mother Tyler, dishing out charms full of rock salt and murmuring, "In my mind, it called me… Hungry… It were hungry for my soul."

The white-coated archaeologist/scientists fare less well perhaps: Fendelman with his cod Germanic accent, Stael suddenly becoming a villain, his motives unclear, and Colby puffed up with wearisome sarcasm. The performances are so arch, I don't really believe in any of them as people.

Boucher has freely admitted he borrowed from Quatermass. And the concepts of an ancient artefact being dug up and an alien influencing evolution aren't new to Doctor Who. But there's something innately creepy about the glowing skull with its embedded pentagram. "A form of neural relay," says Fendelman. "This is where the energy is stored. It is interesting, is it not, that for as long as man can remember, the pentagram has been a symbol for mystical energy."

The complexity of the Fendahl as a gestalt creature, comprising a core and 12 Fendahleen, is highly unusual and imaginative - even if its individual parts pose little credible threat. The core (Thea transformed into a golden goddess) is strikingly beautiful but she just swivels on a dais swishing her gown.

It's easy to spot that her "eyes" are painted over Wanda Ventham's own closed eyelids. The full-size caterpillar Fendahleen is borderline laughable, too, with its ungainly wobble and foreskin-like hood.

The lasting image of the Fendahl is of a serial that is the sum of its admirable parts, of a production that was one of the least fraught behind the scenes in season 15, and of a happy band at work. No wonder Tom Baker remembered it fondly.

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Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

[Available on BBC DVD]