Image of the Fendahl
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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
efore moving on to work for the other seminal British sci-fi series of the seventies, “Blake’s 7,” Chris Boucher wrote three stories for “Doctor Who”: “The Robots of Death,” a story that’s such a classic it was one of the very first “Who” DVDs released here in the States; “The Face of Evil,” which is a hugely underrated entry, and has yet to make it onto DVD; and his final contribution, “Image of the Fendahl,” a tale that must qualify as one of the most adult the show ever produced. Here’s a story that’s quite simply a refreshing change of pace for “Doctor Who,” and it has such a different feel than most of what was produced back in the day – a feel which both works for and against the story.
The TARDIS is drawn to the Fetch Priory in rural England. A group of four scientists are studying a human skull which they’ve calculated to be the oldest ever discovered – 12 million years old, in fact. The locals aren’t terribly keen on the goings-on at the Priory, especially since Fetch Borough has been long rumored to be rife with supernatural activity. The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Leela (Louise Jameson) collide with the scientists as well as the locals, while, seemingly, all hell begins to break loose. The skull isn’t your run of the mill human remnant – it’s a key to unlocking the Fendahl, a creature that’s little more than a ghost story from the Doctor’s childhood. But the Fendahl is indeed real, and if unleashed, it will spell the end of the human race.
“Image of the Fendahl” features some of the spookiest imagery the series ever produced, and several of its scenes border on being genuine horror. It’s also littered with fine acting and characterizations, especially from the supporting cast, which is an unusually tight group of actors for “Who.” Dennis Lill, Scott Fredericks, Wanda Ventham and Edward Arthur, who play the scientists, each have unique characters written for them, and there’s a huge amount of subtext behind the way the characters are drawn if one bothers to closely study the story. (Also, Daphne Heard’s Martha Tyler is a delightfully batty old lady – the sort of woman who can only exist in a piece of TV or film such as this.) And yet “Fendahl” also must be one of the most dialogue-driven tales the show ever produced, which leads to numerous scenes full of expository speeches that don’t exactly propel the action forward. It’s difficult to call these scenes bad, because they aren’t, but nor are they terribly exciting. The entire affair seems pretty convoluted up until the fourth and final episode, when everything manages to come together. It’s a genuine mystery in that respect, and it’s hard to imagine audiences being able to follow it from week to week back in ’77, when it’s somewhat hard to follow even when presented all on one platter. Really, truly oddball “Doctor Who,” and one that’s frankly difficult to review without discussing the finer points that would eventually lead to spoilers. If gothic “Who” is your bag, then this will probably be right up your alley, but I make no guarantees, as it doesn’t have the same sort of brisk, efficient storytelling of easy to recommend fare like “The Brain of Morbius” or “Pyramids of Mars.”
Special Features: There’s a commentary track featuring Baker, Jameson, Wanda Ventham and Edward Arthur. Nice, fluffy stuff, but given that it’s the first time we’ve heard Baker and Jameson speaking together on one of these, it’s something of a letdown, as it would have been nice to get something a little more personal from the two of them. (Perhaps if the two guest stars hadn’t been present?) “After Image” is a pretty standard making-of, but nothing particularly insightful is revealed, which is a shame, because there’s much to discuss about this story. There are some deleted and extended sequences, presented in black and white and with atrocious video quality, which could be of interest only to people who worship “Fendahl.” There’s a trailer for the story from ‘77, the usual production notes subtitles, photo gallery, and DVD-ROM accessible Radio Times listings, and an Easter Egg in which Jameson discusses the Leela doll that was made in the ‘70s. All in all, a fairly lackluster selection of extras, and had I been more impressed by them, I probably would’ve bumped the review up to four stars.