A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2009.
The DVD release schedule can throw up unique narratives of its own. Recently, for example, we’ve heard from Doctor Who’s three principal 80s script editors – telling us how wonderful things could have been if only everyone else was as clever as them. Each had a very different take on the show, so it’s been amusing to see if we agree with all, one or none. (Send your vote to: Lady Hamilton Bidmead, 45 Eileen Way, E-Space, WV0 2M.) This month we have compare-and-contrast fun with the 1977 adventure Image of the Fendahl, illuminated in an unexpected way by the fact it follows Attack of the Cybermen to the shelves of Sainsbury’s.
Though your reviewer had never considered it before, the two stories have much in common. Once more, the Doctor is slow to join the action, with the TARDIS landing some distance away from this week’s guest stars, allowing our hero a leisurely saunter to the drama. Both he and his companion pack heat – this time using shotguns to fend off slugs the size of shire horses. And again, the plot leaves many key questions frustratingly unanswered. The point is: if we’ve used these sticks to beat one story, it’s only fair they are employed against another.
Image of the Fendahl takes us to Fetch Priory, where Dr Fendleman is operating a time scanner, which allows him to probe history. Passing up the chance to stalk Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln, Fendleman has found a 12-million-year-old skull which, when the mood takes it, blazes with malign power. Either that or he’s found Ozzy Osbourne’s bedside lamp. And Dr Fendleman is something of a mystery himself. What is that accent? “Aderm! Aderm!” he says to his associate, Adam. “Jus’ theenk for a momend, eh? Zee woods uh suppose’a be haun’ed, eh?” They must be very proud of his success back home in the Austrian ghettos of Mexico City. Meanwhile, a hiker in zee haun’ed woods has his juices sucked out by an unseen force – not as nice as it sounds – and the scanner’s dangerous instability draws the Doctor and Leela to Earth to investigate.
The pieces are all in place for some definitive Doctor Who, but Image of the Fendahl fails to pull everything together. While writer Chris Boucher clearly loves his own characters, he rails against involving the Doctor in his spooky tale. As mentioned, our hero takes an episode to reach Fetch Priory, and as soon as he tips up is shoved into a cupboard. Dr Fendleman is the most interesting figure here, but the Doctor spends mere seconds in his company. The Time Lord is then shunted out of the way for most of Part Three on a wild goose chase. This problem of integration could have been easily fixed by having the Doctor properly investigate the death of the hiker and the mystery of the skull. Unfortunately, he arrives already knowing the whole story, and then has to be kept busy until he can blow it up.
A few months ago, apropos of something else entirely, this page described Image of the Fendahl as “creepy and confident”. However, it’s important your reviewer keeps an open mind as each DVD arrives, and not be driven by tastes and prejudices forged in his youth. It’s impossible, but he should try. And while this story is certainly creepy – the various aspects of the monster are all scary in different ways, and Parts One and Two deliver cracking cliffhangers – it now feels more difficult to argue ‘confident’.
Unfortunately, Image of the Fendahl keeps tripping over its shoelaces. The Doctor offers three different explanations for why the monster has manifested here and now, the final of which is the entirely lame: “On the other hand, it could all be just a coincidence.” Never have bets been more hedged. And for each piece of rousing, trailer-friendly dialogue – “There are four thousand million people here on your planet. And if I’m right, within a year there’ll be just one left alive…” – another line falls flat. One remark, made by archaeologist Adam to his technician friend Thea – “I accept without reservation the results of your excellent potassium-argon test” – is so contrived it sounds like a cue for a song. (All together now: “Geo-chronology is deeply fascinating! But forget the skull, dear Thea… It’s this man you should be dating!”) Later, after Adam stumbles upon the blinking-and-bleeping time scanner, he quips: “I always say that if you’ve seen one jukebox, you’ve seen ‘em all.” Always? How often is that, Adam? Is every night in the Fetchborough Arms enlivened by this hilarious bon mot?
It’s Image of the Fendahl’s pure-cut melodrama that keeps it enjoyable. There’s even a touch of drawing room comedy, as characters constantly sidle in and out of rooms to share nuggets of plot. Someone opens and then closes a door 46 times in less than 100 minutes, which must be a record for Doctor Who. It’s a shame Fetch Priory is short a set of French windows. Adam could bound in, tennis racket in hand, and deliver a wry put-down to the time scanner, just as Leela exits stage left, pursued by an ancient evil from Time Lord mythology. Pop it in the West End and it could run and run.
So, while Fendahl shares some of the flaws of Attack of the Cybermen, it at least lacks the whiff of the torture chamber. This may not be Doctor Who at its most fluid and assured, but it certainly sticks to the show’s cardinal rule: if you’re not being scary, be funny; if you’re not making ‘em laugh, make ‘em jump. Some of those laughs may be unintentional – eh, Aderm? – but they’re no less welcome for that.
Sadly, the bonus material on this disc lacks some of the educational rigour we’ve come to expect. Having recently learned: i) the secret of great black pudding; and ii) how to equip his favourite baseball cap with sonar, your reviewer now earns a respectable second income by raiding pig farms in the dead of night. At the very least, we might expect Fendahl to deliver a decent fruitcake recipe. And are we supposed to master our potassium-argon tests single-handedly? Standards are slipping.
Happily, there’s plenty to learn about your actual Doctor Who. The award for the most delightful nugget of trivia goes to the ‘info text’, where we learn that the props buyer took 4lbs of Jelly Babies on location. 4lbs! That’s a lot of confectionary considering we only see a single sweet on screen. Perhaps the production manager gorged on the remainder at the end of filming. One can imagine him, driven crazy by a sugar high, screaming “I’ll be in charge of all this one day!” before toppling face down into a ditch.
The production documentary – with the disappointingly sane title After Image – is solid stuff, telling an upbeat tale of a happy team who loved working together. Everyone had a right old laugh at rehearsal, applied themselves in studio, and adored Daphne Heard’s turn as Ma Tyler above all. “She honours a text when she works,” says Louise Jameson (Leela), with RADA profundity. Daphne is certainly marvellous, and it’s nice to think of her sat alone in a corner of the rehearsal room, carefully teasing out every nuance of the line, “I b’aint your grandma! Don’t ee grandma me!”
There’s black-and-white timecoded video of ‘Deleted and Extended Scenes’, offering a couple of alternative takes and some additional moments of woodland wandering. “BLANK SECTIONS FOR COW INSERTS” reads one explanatory caption, which must be unique. It’s not material any of us will watch more than once, but it’s nice to have and thanks are due its donor.
A warm commentary features Louise Jameson, Wanda Ventham (Thea) and Edward Arthur (Adam) reporting from planet Earth, with Tom Baker beaming in from his own dimension. Eccentric he may be, but Baker soon fingers Fendahl’s chief shortcoming. After silently watching 10 minutes of scientists staring intently at oscilloscopes, our star grumbles: “When do I come on?” Later, he muses: “There’s something missing here… Oh yes, it’s me.” And he’s not wrong. Meanwhile, Ventham has a lot to say about her wig and her shoes, though she tackles weightier issues as the story progresses – commenting wistfully during Part Two: “I really want to see a shot of that cooker again.”
If you listen to the commentary as you watch the ‘info text’, there’s a moment of deliciously cruel irony. Boucher’s script was treated roughly during the cast read-through, and a caption recalls a memorable DWM interview with the writer. “For a long time,” he said, “my ambition was to see Tom Baker die in a cellar full of rats.” Seconds later, we have Baker on the commentary: “Who wrote this? Who? Chris Boucher? Isn’t that funny. I can’t remember him at all.” That’s show business! It also reminds us how times changed. Doctor Who writers can be celebrities these days. Russell T Davies was recently mentioned in EastEnders, and that sort of thing never happened in the 70s. Well, unless a lost episode of Crossroads saw Amy Turtle hobble up to reception saying: “I’ve jus’ bought a copy of Doctor Who and the Zarbis, Miss Jill. It’s signed by Bill Strutton an’ all!”
As the story slithers through Part Four, Baker is increasingly contemplative. “Life’s been downhill ever since I left Doctor Who,” he muses, and we’re left to ponder which of the other Doctors would agree with this sentiment. One thing’s for sure – David Tennant will escape Baker’s fate. He’s a Doctor Who fan after all, and so will know the one great lesson to be learned from Image of the Fendahl…
As one door closes, another opens.