Image of the Fendahl

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(Doctor Who Story No. 94, starring Tom Baker)
  • written by Chris Boucher
  • directed by George Spenton-Foster
  • produced by Graham Williams
  • music by Dudley Simpson
  • 4 episodes @ 25 minutes each
Story: A quartet of scientists in a country house are using a time-scanner to probe into Mankind's earliest beginnings. The scanner's interference attracts the Doctor, who realizes that an ancient malevolent force from the fifth planet is reawakening, and freezing its victims' legs in place while it approaches to drain the soul....

DVD Extras include:

  • Audio commentary by Tom Baker (The Doctor), Louise Jameson (Leela), Wanda Ventham (Thea Ransome), and Edward Arthur (Adam Colby).
  • "After Image" making-of featurette (26 min.), with Jameson, Ventham, Arthur, script editor Anthony Read, and visual effects designer Colin Mapson.
  • Raw BW Studio footage with deleted and extended scenes (11 min.)
  • Photo Gallery
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • Easter Egg

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.


Here's a story that began with some really great subject matter at the core of its premise, but then had no clue what to do with it, saturating itself in overused low quality horror elements. Both the writing and the directing of this story contribute to its extremely disappointing end result.


All Topic and No Plot

Obviously, Chris Boucher must have been diving into some exceptional material from which his story ideas were inspired. Extra-terrestrial involvement in the evolution of man is one fascinating idea worth a good deal of exploration on Doctor Who, and the history of "the fifth planet" is another. Boucher's script offers tantalizing tidbits of information on these subjects which have a substantial basis in truth. But then, he reduces all motivation for such interplanetary events until it all revolves around his Fendahl creation, which is an exceedingly silly trivialization of several grand and very complex subjects.

But worse than that, what this story really lacks is quality interaction between its characters and other elements. On-screen plot is virtually nonexistent during the first three episodes. Watch in particular how much of Tom Baker's Doctor's potential screen-time is absolutely wasted. Much time ticks by before he appears in his first scene in the TARDIS, and much more time before he manages to land in the pasture. Note that his aim is to get to the time scanner in the priory, and this is delayed until episode four by as many feeble, boring excuses as necessary. A further episode one scene finds him napping instead of searching for the time scanner while Leela captures Ted Moss. Their ensuing conversation is the regulars' only scene of interacting with anyone during this episode. Armed guards surrounding the priory do not serve the story any excitement either, merely preventing further character interaction which this story so desperately needs. The Doctor and Leela are stuck wandering around and getting separated in the dark instead.

"Well of course we're going to be late!"

Episode two begins with the Doctor bursting into the priory, chatting up first Colby and then Fendelman in a very authoritarian manner. This is the kind of scene we so badly need, but it is all over rather quickly, and represents the Doctor's one and only interaction with the priory scientist quartet during the first three episodes. The remaining screen time is wasted on locking the Doctor up for a time, having the door open to let him out later seemingly by itself (a moment never explained at all), after which he wanders about the small house freely without meeting anyone or finding the time scanner that he is looking for. Then Leela comes in, drags him away from the house and its time scanner, they spend some time at Mrs. Tyler's cottage, and then they isolate themselves for most of the rest of episode three in the TARDIS interior, heading for "the fifth planet", only to never arrive or be able to interact with it. What they intended to do there isn't clear; it seemed that telling stories about the place should have sufficed, at least until the Doctor finished dealing with the time scanner. Then they barely make it back into the priory in time for the cliffhanger, which again does not involve any interaction with the priory scientist quartet, one of which is now dead, and another of which will never speak again.

Guests Unqualified

What all this really means is that the quartet of scientists at the priory have to undertake the exploration of evolution and the Fendahl by themselves. Not only is this a Doctor-less story premise, but the quartet make an uninteresting team, repeatedly avoiding a good debate on the issue while their argumentative dysfunctions and dislike for each other dominate their screen time instead. And if Fendelman's scanner can see into the past to shed any light on this, there certainly isn't a single image in the story of it doing so for the audience.

Adam Colby really does play the leading protagonist in the early parts of the story, as he is the one character attempting to put the story's varying elements together in a way that lets the audience understand what is going on. Unfortunately, the script doesn't allow him to do as good a job of that as one can hope for. At times, Colby's head can barely stop bobbing and shaking due to his acute case of sarcasm, an ailment causing him to do his own share of helping the dialogue from the entire scientist quartet go off topic again and again. Given Colby's importance over so many of the other characters, and the fact that he has one of the more interesting roles, played very likeably by Edward Arthur, it is a wonder that his name is next to last in the cast credits, instead of immediately after the Doctor's and Leela, whom he easily upstages in the first two episodes. Really, the Doctor and Leela are best suited to putting everything together for the audience, but Boucher keeps them distant and uninvolved instead, creating Colby as an unskilled substitute.


Maldek in Small Doses

It is the Doctor, however, who owns the element of the history of "the fifth planet". The script is unfortunately ambiguous about which star system this fifth planet belongs to. The constant referral to Gallifreyan legend is suggestive that it is the fifth planet of the same system that Gallifrey also belongs to. But if either Earth or our own sun is the starting point from which "The fifth planet is 108 million miles out....", then it must still lie within our own solar system, and Boucher's reference to the Fendahl taking out Mars on its journey from the fifth planet to Earth seems to be the clearest indication of what he means. In which case, his script must now compete in my mind with other sources of information in the world about a very real astronomical place.

The Doctor's knowledge of this planet therefore proves itself limited when he calls it nameless. One popular name I've heard for it which I prefer is "Maldek". Many interesting books by Zecharia Sitchin have also dug up alternate names for our entire solar system from more ancient human civilizations, offering detailed explanations for those names that sometimes involve extra-terrestrial history passing into myth and legend, and the fifth planet and some of its splinters get their fair share. And so, like the ancients, we could also call Maldek by the name "Tiamat". The common theory is that Maldek's orbit lay between that of Mars and Jupiter, and when it broke up, its remains formed the asteroid belt now commonly known to exist there today. In fact, the Doctor was just in a hospital in that asteroid belt in 5000 A.D. in the previous story! It's where he met and picked up his good friend K9! That sort of makes Leela more successful at getting the TARDIS to the fifth planet than it makes him, doesn't it?


Backstory Undone

This makes it hard to understand just what purpose is served by the Gallifreyan time-loop that supposedly makes Maldek inaccessible twelve million years back. It didn't stop the Fendahl from escaping, and it didn't stop the debris from orbiting the sun 12 million years later and allowing Earthmen to access it, mine it, and colonize it by 5000 A.D. As for malevolent mental energy evolving there and wreaking havoc, the Nucleus of the Swarm is a far more believable end-product character, capable of creating a far more interesting and believable Doctor Who plot than the Fendahl.

As for the Fendahl's supposed goal of sucking the full spectrum of soul energy from all surrounding life, it isn't really very compatible with a desire to restructure the evolution of man. Surely it could just go on eating whatever form of life it came into contact with.

As for extra-terrestrial involvement in the evolution of man, Colby and Fendelman make the typical scientific mistake of thinking that the one Fendahl piece of the puzzle that they've found can somehow explain everything. Some of the other pieces of the puzzle are involvement by other species of extra-terrestrials with varied motivations. One doesn't even have to step outside of established Who mythology to see that: The Daemons would be one piece of the puzzle, involved by their own design, while Scaroth will be another in season seventeen, involved more or less by accident. Thus the Fendahl don't come across anywhere near as important as the script would try to have us believe.

But also note that they have Tom Baker's portrayal of the Doctor to thank for nearly every ounce of a sense of menace that they manage to achieve in the finished program. Without his constant insistence that there is a lot at stake on a planetary and galactic scale, it would be hard to see that there is anything at all at stake on any level.


Tension Incommunicado

This brings us to the story's key idea of reliving the nightmare of not being able to run away from the monster creeping towards oneself in the dark. An excellent idea. I'm among the many people with vivid recollections of such an experience, some VERY close to the time of originally writing this review in fact (2002). No doubt this concept appears very good on paper, both in the novelization which I enjoyed, and on the script which I've heard was Graham Williams' favourite from the season. But it's quite apparent that no one gave much thought to how they would translate that great idea visually and make it gripping on screen. Firstly, they chose not to show any kind of monster before the end of episode three, so one obvious element of visual literacy is missing. But that's not so hard to get around successfully. The real question is: how should we know that a character is actually unable to move during this unseen creature's approach? If an actor simply stands still, not moving his legs, we don't automatically assume that he can't move.

The formula cinematic solution is for the person to come out and say it. If we're watching him in real time, and he's standing there alone, it's not too believable for him as a character to simply start talking about what ails him. Add to that the fact that when a person's legs get telepathically frozen to prevent them from running away, both logic and my own experiences indicate that all other muscles are also frozen, to prevent one from using one's arms for defense, or turning to get a good look of whatever's got a hold of one, or using one's mouth to cry out or call for help or explain the plot to an audience. But both the hitchhiker and the Doctor both get lines of dialogue during their separate encounter with this phenomenon anyway, so we're past those considerations.

We now have to wonder why they still don't get dialogue that explains their difficulties to the audience. The hitchhiker lines are: "I can't. I can't!" Can't what? Articulate yourself, man! Be eloquent! The camera's on you and you're wasting our time! It's not hard. Repeat after me: "I can't MOVE my LEGS." Easy, isn't it? What actually comes across on screen through the hitchhiker's dialogue is that this is just another example of a worn out, cliché form of padding that often shows up in sci-fi stories, when one person says he's too exhausted to continue without having a rest first, allowing the crew to film/tape a long scene in the middle of some vast trek without moving beyond a tiny corner of whatever small set they could afford. Oh, was this hitchhiker involved in something more interesting? It doesn't come across on screen at the time.

Well, the Doctor gets a chance to make things clear for a good cliffhanger to episode one. But instead, he saves his lines for the following week, at a point in which they are no longer so badly needed. Even then, his "Come on, legs. Run. Run!" doesn't really make clear the fact that he couldn't move them earlier.

The concept attempted here doesn't really work on screen in real time on solitary characters. It is perhaps best suited to flashbacks or hypnotic regression, or finding some other way to allow the experiencer to narrate his or her experience to fellow frightened friends. The narrator can then also express his or her own fear in ways that telepathic paralysis won't allow them to do in the moment. Mrs. Tyler gets a chance to attempt this in episodes two and three, yet still fails to mention anything about the frozen legs phenomenon.

The process doesn't really get its due until the Fendahleen encounter bridging episodes three and four. It's a group encounter, giving reason for Leela to cry "I can't move my legs!" to her three friends beyond just explaining things to the audience. Too little too late to save this story's attempted three-episode build-up.


Plus, the Usual Old Guff

On top of those good story ideas that failed to develop well, there are some plain old dull ideas as well. Maximillian Stael and Ted Moss have a little cult thing going. This idea crops up too often in Doctor Who stories around this time, and certainly isn't at its most interesting here. Arrogant threats and insults join slow moving sacrificial rituals to create the usual waste of screen time associated with underground dark-arts cults. Thea Ransome spends a lot of time staring blankly ahead during cross-dissolves between herself and the skull Eustace. If it was meant to be tense and frightening, sorry, it completely misses the mark, and becomes just another confusing gratuitous effect. The golden Fendahl that Thea Ransome eventually transforms herself into is one of the most boring monster-villains ever. She shows up all over the place through trick-dissolves, without demonstrating that she can move or speak or do anything nasty to anyone who isn't already a self-debasing cult-member. Max Stael is also a really bland boring-to-watch character, both before and after he is revealed to be a cult leader.


Tom Baker Salvages the Final Episode

However, when all is said and done, I must give the final episode a certain nod of approval. Max Stael finally becomes interesting when he realizes that things are not going his way, and he and the Doctor get a very worthwhile scene together. The Doctor and Colby finally team up and put their various wild theories together.

In fact, most of what makes the last episode good can be attributed directly to the Doctor, and Tom Baker's wonderful portrayal of him. Not only does he come to grips with all the interesting elements of the story that remain at this point, finally dealing with the time scanner as he originally set out to do and coming out of it as the brilliant dynamic hero once again, but he's also the only element of the story that works to give the Fendahl some sense of menace, through his constant warning of what will happen if it isn't stopped. Without him, the Fendahl has no power to create on-screen tension. What an unthinkable pity it is that he was so underutilized in earlier portions of the story - his first encounter with the skull Eustace concluding episode two being a classic moment that showcases Tom Baker's skill and versatility at creating entertainment value on screen. Daphne Heard playing Mrs. Tyler also gets a few outstanding moments in throughout the story.

The TARDIS interior makes a good showing, but the police box is largely ignored. Even with the extra trip in the middle of the story, there are no materialization effects, or any sight of the police box beyond its obligatory first scene. No extra points there.


This story seems to keen to demonstrate that gothic horror had outstayed its welcome on Doctor Who. The planet Maldek, the evolution of man, and the frozen-leg phenomenon all deserved a more articulate script with characters more deeply involved in an on-screen plot, while the boring old cult adds nothing to the imagination, and the unmoving Fendahl/Fendahleen villains add nothing to the excitement of the piece. "Image of the Fendahl" is definitely Chris Boucher's least effective Doctor Who script, as I'm sure he will tell you himself, and easily wins the Wooden Turkey Award for worst season fifteen story.



This story is now on DVD and VHS video. Click on the Amazon symbol for the location nearest you for pricing and availability:

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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "The Sun Makers"



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