Who Review: Image of the Fendahl

Scientists working in a remote English village are experimenting with a skull found in Kenya. According to their best estimates, the skull is about 12,000 years old, much older than evolutionary science estimates the age of humans on Earth. They use a sonic time scan on the skull which has some unexpected side effects. First, the skull starts to glow. Next, it sucks the life force out of a young man who happens to be walking in the nearby woods. Also, for some reason, it seems drawn to one of the scientists, a lady named Thea, who goes into a trance-like state while the skull is glowing. Finally, it gets the attention of the TARDIS crew who pick up on the use of the time scan, and travel to Earth to investigate. The Doctor is shocked to discover that the skull is an artifact of the Fendahl, a creature from Gallifrey’s mythology. And this Fendahl is continuing to feed off the energy around it, and will continue to do so until there’s nothing else left. Unless the Doctor and Leela can stop it…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

“Image of the Fendahl” was written by Chris Boucher, who previously gave us “The Face of Evil” and “The Robots of Death,” two very good stories. “Image” is good, but doesn’t quite hit the same high as Boucher’s previous two efforts. It’s possible the reason for this lies in the fact that during production he was offered the job script editing a new sci-fi series called “Blakes 7” for the BBC. He accepted, and was, therefore, unavailable for script re-writes. These were left to Anthony Read, who was training to take over as Doctor Who script editor from Robert Holmes. So the mixing of the two very different styles probably accounts for the slightly less than dazzling script.

As I said, though, it’s still a good story, if a little convoluted. The initial idea of an ancient skull arriving on Earth thousands of years before man, and influencing man’s development has a lot of potential. The added twist that this skull is from the Fendahl, which was supposed to have been the stuff of Time Lord legend, was good, too. But then we get into how the Fendahl is drawing energy, and making use of Thea who then becomes the core of the Fendahl which it uses to convert members of a cult group into Fendahleen, which it plans to use to form a gestalt entity… you following? See what I mean.

There aren’t many special effects which, in fact, works to the story’s credit. As we saw with the previous story, “The Invisible Enemy,” lots of bad special effects can detract from a good story. For almost three episodes of “Image” the acting and plot take center stage, and you can appreciate it for the moody drama it is (along the lines of other British classic mysteries like “Sapphire and Steel” or “Tales of the Unexpected”). But then the Fendahleen come on the scene. Louise Jameson (Leela) says that when these large sea anemone-like creatures came shuffling down the corridor, she laughed. I don’t blame her. It’s not at all frightening, which means the actors are having to work doubly hard to convince the viewers that it really is scary (which it really isn’t).

I liked the fact that episode one had a double cliffhanger. Leela opened the door to a cottage only to be shot at, while, at the same time, the Doctor was being chased by the Fendahl energy. It’s not often we get two reasons to tune in next week, and having just watched “The Invisible Enemy” with its three pretty lame cliffhangers, this helped to compensate.

Also unusual for Doctor Who is the level of gunshot violence. In fact, there are two deaths by gun that I don’t think they would be allowed to do in modern Who. The first is where one of the scientists is shot in the head. We don’t see the actual shooting, but we hear the gunshot, and then the Doctor looks back, and we see the dead scientist with blood running from his right temple. Normally, Who tries to keep death bloodless, so this is highly unusual. The second is, I contend, even more controversial, since it involves another one of the scientists this time choosing to take his own life rather than become a Fendahleen. The Doctor actually passes the gun to the scientist, and, once again, we hear the shot off-screen. Not only is this a suicide (very controversial for a family show in 1977), but the Doctor is directly complicit in it. I’m sure the BBC had a lot of complaints that week.

This story is worth watching for the intrigue factor, if nothing else. It’s a bit of a different style, and all the actors put in very good performances. Really, aside from the twisty explanations (which you may well have no problem with) and the disasters that are the Fendahleen monsters, it’s a good serial. Watch if you have the time and opportunity.

One thought on “Who Review: Image of the Fendahl

  1. John

    As you said, the ancient skull influenced man’s development. The Doctor confirmed that the bio-transmutation field altered anything that came within its area; we can deduce that it was the developing human species which had been shaped in the ‘Image of the Fendahl’. This explains why the mysterious skull appeared to be both 12 million years old and human. We were used as a host life-form.

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