There is a very interesting idea at the heart of Image of the Fendahl, with the full scope of human development being influenced by an alien entity, including the side-effect of the creation of superstitions. This might seem like something that has been done before (and since) with stories such as The Daemons, but that is all about specific tinkering around with human advancement or historical events or mythology. Doctor Who was so keen to explain Atlantis that it explained it three times. But this is far from fitting into that category because it is a much deeper influence, the root of evil itself in the human condition. The reference to the Time Lords getting involved with the Fendahl emphasises the magnitude of the threat. The last time we saw them trying to wipe out an alien race it was the Daleks, so we know they don’t enter into that kind of thing lightly. The Voord don’t need to worry.
A slight disappointment is that the idea of the skull being found in Kenya was not developed and seems to be a redundant bit of throwaway detail. This was an ideal opportunity to show a truly worldwide threat to humanity, so if you are going to talk about a skull being found in Kenya and the evil influence on all superstitions then, well… Kenya has some of those. And they could have fitted in quite tidily to the story. The owl is a major source of Kenyan superstition, which could have been used to good effect, and if you must use salt then combine it with fire to fit in with the Kenyan origins. But as things stand we have a story that shows us a threat imported from Kenya but then uses a very British superstition to defeat it, as if British cultural peculiarities are the only ones in existence. We are used to alien planets being shown as if they were countries with one culture rather than whole planets (e.g. Peladon), and that’s excusable within the limitations of the time allowed to develop a planet’s culture on screen, but there’s really little excuse for showing Earth as if it is the Planet of Britain.
Actually there is an excuse: this was made in 1977. But Doctor Who has often been so amazingly progressive and forward thinking that it is sometimes natural to expect a bit too much, what with the Doctor travelling around with such a strong female role model that she reassures him here that she will protect him: that’s a fabulous role reversal. Watch Life on Mars for a taste of the kind of culture that was prevalent in Britain in the 70s and marvel at how Doctor Who so often manages to be so much better than the era it was springing from.
What is also interesting about Image of the Fendahl is how scary it is and how adult the approach, even to the point of having one of the characters commit suicide. Coming at the midpoint (although made later in the run) of a season that was being crippled by its remit to be child friendly and not upset Mary Whitehouse any more, this is quite remarkable and as far as I know got away with it, which makes you wonder why everyone tried so hard with the toning down of the scariness. I mean, we’re not quite into the territory of the Colin Baker era, which was told to be less violent and responded to that with a story that shaved the companion’s head, scooped out her brain, and put an alien in there instead, but this is still walking a bit of a tightrope if its trying not to attract the attentions of tutting old ladies. Maybe there’s a lesson to be learnt from all this. If you are making Doctor Who and get told to make it less scary, go ahead and make Horror of Fang Rock and Image of the Fendahl, stick a very unscary giant prawn between the two of them and hope nobody notices.
Oh, and if you want to write really memorable Doctor Who characters, make them Tylers. RP
The view from across the pond:
One day, future digital anthropologists or techno-paleontologists will uncover a strange relic called the Internet and find many odd ramblings on it. Some of those ramblings will be about the one TV show that still survives all the way into the far future. I can see it now:
“I say, there’s an odd bit of data here, tally ho!” says Digi-Rog. “Well, bless my stars, it’s a website called The View from the Junkyard, boy howdy!” says Techno-Mike. “Jolly good bit of data, wot! But I wonder why they chronicled Doctor Who in such an odd order, old boy?” Digi-Rog counters. “Well golly gee, I don’t know!” Techno-Mike says in confusion….
Well, to our excessively-cultured future explorers, I will help with this conundrum. This is October; the month of scary stories and things that go bump in the night and we’ve been gently tapping on the door of fear for a few days; it’ll get darker as the month progresses. So why focus on this season, Tom’s fourth, when his earlier seasons were far more frightening? For one, we’re aiming for a slow burn. But two, this is the season that had Image of the Fendahl. Now, let me be clear: when I first saw Image it bored me. I found it an odd amalgam of horror and science fiction. The lab and the basement seemed to jar too drastically from the outdoor woodlands and the local old “witch”. The cast of scientists did nothing for me; it’s only improved by Gran, and to a lesser extent, her grandson. In short, it was not Doctor Who! Then I got older and I was exposed to the works of American author H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft wrote in the early 20th century and may have been one of the greatest horror writers in history because he typically didn’t show us what was terrifying; he hinted at it. He gave us vague descriptions of tentacled monstrosities and slithering evils. He also combined science with his horror to superb effect. There was nothing gratuitous in those stories, they left the horror to the readers imagination which left them desperate for more.
Flash forward to 1977: some trouble at a priory brings us Doctor Who’s attempt at a Lovecraftian tale. Having come to appreciate Lovecraft since my first viewing, I realize this is probably the closest Doctor Who ever comes to a story in his style. It certainly has an air of terror to it. If you take those creepy outdoor-at-night scenes, “Gran” Martha Tyler (Daphne Heard) and the tentacle-faced Fendahleen, the story is very eerie indeed. (Could there be any relation between Rose Tyler and Gran Martha Tyler?) So, yes, I will say that this story got better with age. The outdoor scenes alone are brilliantly executed and incredibly scary. It does a great job adding a lot of what made Lovecraft great: an evil from some indeterminate time, terror that paralyzes its victims, an old priory, a science experiment gone wonky… it’s all there. Even a weird skull that glows and seems to have a life of its own. On top of that, the Fendahleen themselves are extremely disturbing to look at. Unfortunately, the female version of the Fendahl, with its painted on eyes, fails to impress in any way. But is that one thing enough to hurt the episode?
Not at all. Special effects were never Doctor Who’s strong suit, and that’s ok. These stories have to be strong and the actors have to convince. Do that, and the story is sold! However, I’d contend that there are a number of things still going against this story. First off, when you have a guy name John Terroristica as a character and he turns out to be a terrorist, are we surprised? Mike Badguyavo turning out to be a bad guy is, guess what? Senseless. What made the author think Dr. Fendelman was a good name for the guy who works on this project? It wasn’t like he named the creature! If his name was Bob Schmidt, I doubt the creature would have been named Schmidteen… It was like the creature waited for the unlikely event that a scientist would be born who would have a name that was close enough to its own, then it would be ready to come to life. How much time did this stupid creature have to wait for this to happen? And why do Doctor Who writers think human evolution had to be impacted by other species? It’s embarrassing. Why can’t we own our own errors and successes? Oh, and good lord, there’s another time fissure out there. Torchwood, beware… PrioryWood might be the newest defender of earth! Or its biggest threat! But all that silliness still only falls short if you poke holes at it. If you are just going in for a creepy tale, these issues don’t take away that much. The problem is that it still doesn’t feel like proper Doctor Who but equally it’s not proper Lovecraft. Why? Mostly, it does have one critical thing working against being a good Lovecraftian tale and ironically, it’s the biggest strength of the show: the Doctor himself.
See, Lovecraft works best when we don’t know what the thing is. If it were a shadow, or an indescribably entity, that works wonders with Lovecraft. But TV is a visual medium, which makes it nearly impossible to do without seeming cheap! Doctor Who, by the nature of the show and the character himself, tries to understand the villains, monsters, nightmares and interplanetary horrors. In Doctor Who, we get to explore the creatures’ history, see the creature for what it is and find a way to defeat it. And that takes away from what makes Lovecraft so good. Perhaps, what would have been better for the show, (and the limited budget, as present-Roger commented about in his The Invisible Enemy review), would be to only have a shadow of the Fendahleen ever shown on screen. That would have been disturbing in and of itself. And, while defeating the immediate threat, let it go back into the shadows where it may or may not ever be seen again. Instead the Doctor takes the skull and tosses it into a supernova. Yeah, it’s pretty much dead! No secret in that. Cthulhu himself might not know what to do about that. So while my appreciation for the material has grown, it still fails to be truly Lovecraftian or truly Whovian. Sometimes we just need the slithering evils and unknowable horrors to be subtlety present. Turn the shadows, not into living Vashta Narada, but into a place something can hide and then, without giving us the chance to see it full on, give us hints at what the horror is. Don’t do too much of this; we do like, even need, our monsters, but now and then, a good shadow is all it takes to be really scary.
And that, my future historians, is why you have to be careful digging up the past. Sometimes, you get a blog, and sometimes you resurrect an ancient evil that was waiting for someone with a similar name to come back and wreak havoc on all of time and space!
“Well that was errant nonsense and utter claptrap, wot!” Digi-Roger concludes.
“You betcha,” says Techno-Mike, “but that’s the bee’s knees that they had the same names as us, huh? I wonder what would happen if we click this ‘like’ button…” ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Sun Makers