Image of The Fendahl
by Alan Stevens
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 311
All three of Chris Boucher's stories for Doctor Who have been highly regarded by commentators on the series, and "Image of the Fendahl" is no exception. A powerful and clever horror story, albeit slightly let down by some poor script editing and aspects of its production, it has a good deal to say about faith, evolution, and human nature.
"Image of the Fendahl" was the last story to be commissioned by Robert Holmes. Consequently, when Chris Boucher found himself without enough time to do all of the rewrites (due to his new job as script editor on Blake's 7), incoming script editor Anthony Read took over. This fact explains why, for a Boucher script, the story is unusually full of info-dumps (whereas they tend to crop up in Read's work, e.g. "The Horns of Nimon") and also explains the rather twee scenes involving K9 (who did not feature in the original version, although Boucher has said that he would have written the material had he been asked) at the beginning and end of the story. The final scene with K9 is also unnecessarily confusing, as, on the original broadcast, four weeks would have passed since the first scene in the TARDIS, and so the Doctor and Leela's references (which were apparently improvised by the actors) back to their conversation about whether to call K9 "it" or "him" would have been lost on all but the most attentive viewer. The script is also a mix of brilliant lines (a few examples: Colby [being held at gunpoint by Max Stahl] - "Dr Fendleman, I think you have an industrial relations problem"; Leela and the Doctor - "Shall I kill him?" "No." "Why not?" "You'll upset the dog." Colby - "You must think my head zips up the back") and clunky ones (Colby - "I accept without reservation the results of your excellent potassium-argon test"), no doubt also down to the difference in styles between Read and Boucher.
The production is atmospheric, with visual references to Greek goddesses in the appearance of the Fendahl, and to the film Nosferatu in the scene where the Core rises up off the ground. The Fendahleen as realised are reasonable for the time, but are poorly lit, giving the one which appears at the end of episode 3 a slightly risible look (Boucher has described it as "this cuddly caterpillar... which you'd want to take home and pet"). There is another slight production problem in that, when the time scanner is first activated, a monitor screen showing the running log is briefly visible, set to zero; by the time it reads 98 hours, less than three days have passed in the story, and the scanner has not been continuously on during this time. Jack Tyler also has a cod West Country accent which makes Leela's sound more than usually cut-glass in comparison; one of the flaws of the story is that it buys into the traditional horror-film idea that people living outside the M25 are ignorant, devil-worshipping hicks (even if, in this case, the psychic powers are caused by a time fissure rather than a Satanic influence). The series has also seen a distinct toning-down since the Hinchcliffe era; the corpses' faces (which are said to show terror) are turned away, whereas a year earlier they would have been visible to the audience, and Scott Fredericks has said that the director told him to underplay the scenes in which he menaces Edward Arthur with the pistol in order to make it less frightening. Similarly, Colby does not seem to react at all to the sight of the Fendahleen appearing on Thea's body; although it makes sense that he would not tell the others (as he thinks Fendleman is mad, and doesn't want to upset Thea), he should really seem on the edge of hysteria after experiencing such a challenge to his worldview. The dialogue is also much less stronger than needed (e.g. "you murdering lunatic!"). The original ending of the initial scene with Ted Moss, in which he pulls a pentagram pendant from inside his shirt, was unfortunately lost during editing, which puts a whole different cast on the scene as well as explaining why his hand goes to his throat when the Doctor asks about ghosts. With the possible exception of the last point, however, these are relatively minor problems, and the script itself still manages to transcend its production difficulties.
The story itself is influenced by the palaeontology craze of the mid-1970s, when the Leakey family and Donald Johanson, all shameless publicity hacks, were competing with each other over whose finds were the most significant in the public eye. Colby's naming the skull "Eustace" recalls both parties' tendency to give the hominid skeletons which they found amusing nicknames along the lines of "Zinj" or "Lucy." The scientists' dog is also named "Leakey," ostensibly because he is an "old bone hunter," but with an additional connotation of poor housetraining. There is a suggestion of Lovecraftian influence on the story, with the Fendahl recalling Lovecraft's dead god Cthulhu, who will awake and devour humanity once "the stars are right," and the sinister religious overtones of the cult recalling the way in which Cthulhu is worshipped by humans. Boucher does acknowledge Quatermass and the Pit and Dennis Wheatley as influences; additionally, he mentioned in a 1992 DWB interview (Issue 107) that he was also thinking of a short story he had read, in which a society of primitive life forms developed civilisation and built a space ship, at which point an alien being emerged from hibernation, took the space ship and flew away, leaving the life forms to degenerate once again into their primitive state.
The focus of the story is the impact which the revival of the Fendahl has on a team of scientists and locals in and around an isolated country house, the Priory. Three of the team, Colby, Fendleman and Thea Ransome, all have fairly clear job descriptions (Colby is a palaeontologist, Ransome a dating specialist and Fendleman an electronics expert and the team's financial backer). It is less clear what exactly Maximilian Stahl is, beyond Fendleman's trusted right-hand man: although he wears a lab coat and has a degree of casual authority, he is not referred to as a doctor; he operates a computer for Fendleman early on, but later performs an autopsy (apparently with considerable skill). It is possible, judging from this, that he could be a pathologist, but then this begs the question of why exactly Fendleman would want one to be present, as the team were not expecting to find any dead bodies. Stahl's name and looks are Germanic (Scott Fredericks is of recent German descent), but he does not have an accent, where Fendleman, whom the script never suggests is anything other than English, does; this was presumably worked out between the actors themselves, most likely in order to lessen the confusion which might derive from having two characters with foreign accents on the set, as well as lessening the suggestion that all foreigners are villains.
Thea Ransome ultimately becomes the medium for the rebirth of the Fendahl, becoming the Core of the gestalt creature. There seems to be no explicit reason for this to be the case: narratively, of course, she takes this role firstly because of the Dennis Wheatley tradition of women being taken over by the devil (and/or an allusion to the fate of Julie Christie's character in A for Andromeda), and secondly because of the ancient Greek representation of Nemesis as female. Within the story, however, it is unclear whether anyone could have been the medium: Thea appears to have been selected most likely because she was the one who was alone in the laboratory with the skull when it first activated. Leela and Mrs Tyler both see it in dreams, but both are said to have a sixth sense. The death of the hiker in episode 1, incidentally, appears to be simply because he is near the time fissure (as the Doctor defines it, "a weakness in the fabric of space and time. Every haunted place has one"); the Fendahl, absorbing energy from the scanner's action on the fissure, takes the opportunity to feed off the hiker as well. Later, the Fendahl appears to try to switch over to the Doctor, presumably regarding him as a more suitable medium; it is clearly not trying to kill him, but to rearrange his genetic material like it does with Thea, as the Doctor subsequently refers to the skull as a "mutation generator," which was trying to recreate itself using similar genetic material (he also refers to it as psychotelekinetic, or able to control people's muscles telepathically). However, this scene suggests that there may be issues of compatibility or genetic suitability present. The situation might thus be like that in Quatermass and the Pit, where some people are more genetically predisposed to be influenced than others, explaining why Colby seems to be unaffected, and why Stahl succumbs more slowly than the rest of the coven; it could equally be, however, that Colby's sceptical personality saves him from being taken over.
This aspect of Colby's characterisation reflects one of the key themes in the story. Boucher, a self-confessed atheist, here portrays belief as the key to unleashing evil; also, the explanations presented for it are resolutely secular, as, although the Fendahl has divine aspects - performing miracles and having mysterious motives - it is also said to be an alien being, and Mrs Tyler's psychic powers are said to stem from the time fissure. The Fendahl also, significantly, does not speak; earlier, Boucher had been similarly resistant to writing lines for the messianic computer Xoanon in "The Face of Evil", on the grounds that one could not write dialogue for God. Despite this secular bias, Boucher seems to have a sneaking fondness for Mrs Tyler, who is probably the most sympathetic one-off character in the story (Colby, the other broadly sympathetic character, is nonetheless that stock Boucher figure, the ambitious young man whose desire for advancement causes him to go along with Fendleman's decision not to inform the police about the finding of the hiker's corpse). Although her beliefs about the Fendahl are couched in spiritualism and superstition, she does know what it is and how to combat it. She also correctly interprets Ted Moss' nature and the way in which he will meet his fate; just before he arrives, we see in her cottage a partial sequence of Tarot cards involving the Moon card crossed by the Sun, with Death below it and an inverted Hanged Man beside it; although we do not see the lower two cards on the right-hand side, the upper two are the Devil and the Tower, indicating that a person who is characterised by deceit (the Moon; Moss is later said not to know truth from falsehood), ruled by order (the Sun), transformation (Death) and sacrifice (the Hanged Man), will perform a sequence of actions ending in the Devil and chaos. In the scene in which she and her son debate the nature of belief, Mrs Tyler says that if most people believe something, it makes it true; when he argues that "most people used to believe that the earth was flat, but it was still round," she retorts "Ah, but they behaved as if it were!" The implication here is that any sort of belief is playing into the hands of the Fendahl - including Fendleman's secular beliefs about it - and thus that only sceptics are safe; however, there seems to be an acknowledgement at the same time that religions may, sometimes, inadvertently come up with the right answer. Stahl's act of suicide as the Fendahl starts to manifest itself is redemptive; although Stahl himself is a bastard, his sacrifice has prevented the creature from achieving its full potential immediately. Boucher's image of religion is thus not a simple condemnation, but an acknowledgement of the good and bad aspects of faith.
Mrs Tyler and Jack's conversation also highlights another aspect of the story: that facts are always coloured by human interpretation. In the case of the pentagram in the ancient skull, for instance, Fendleman's belief that it is in fact "a neural relay" does not fit the material; nerves, being soft tissue, would not show up on the bone in this way, and furthermore, Colby thinks that it is simply the way the skull was put together, and, being a trained paleontologist who is not acting under the influence of the Fendahl (as well as the man who actually put it together in the first place), he is in a better position to know than Fendleman, indicating that the whole skull is the relay, not simply the symbol. Although the Doctor suggests X-raying Thea's skull, and she reacts to the sight of a pentagram by touching her head, the most likely implication is that people are seeing patterns whether or not they do in fact exist. Similarly, it is improbable that the Fendahl originally resembled a sort of Medusa-like Greek goddess; it is more plausible that this is Thea's own subconscious interpretation of what a divine female being with an association with snakes should look like. It is made clear in the ritual scenes that it is not that the pentagram is powerful because of the Fendahl, but because this is how the Satanist coven interpret the nature of an evil being and the way in which one raises it. Significantly, the pentagram appears in the story both as inverted and as right-side up, both of which have been interpreted by various groups as connoting good and evil respectively, again demonstrating the influence of human interpretation on the symbols used in the ritual. Even the way in which the Fendahl obtains its power is misinterpreted by Stahl and Fendleman; it is not the scanner itself that is the source (although Stahl wires the skull up to a power cable running from the scanner), but the damage caused to the time fissure by the scanner beam, which is also not scanning time in and of itself, but exploiting the already-extant fissure to do so. The sequence in episode 2 in which the Doctor begins to say something about X-raying the skull but doesn't finish his sentence, and it is then interpreted by everyone who hears, brings this home. Throughout the story, therefore, facts are presented about the Fendahl, but their meaning is subject to interpretation.
At many points in the serial, also, it is difficult to tell which actions stem from individual motivation and which from the Fendahl working through particular characters. Thea, for instance, could have gone into the time scanner room at the end of episode 1 out of simple curiosity, however, there has already been a link established earlier between herself and the skull, which could therefore be using her to try to kill the Doctor, Mrs Tyler and, possibly, Leela as well (using Ted Moss as its agent). Later, Thea starts to confuse herself with the Fendahl, which the Doctor subsequently suggests is due to the Fendahl restructuring her brain (which it has probably been doing from the moment it first activated). Again, there are personal reasons why Stahl would cut the telephone lines, and why he would secretly release the Doctor against Fendleman's orders (hence how Stahl knows, later on, that the Doctor has escaped), but both these actions again serve the Fendahl . In particular, if the Doctor is not locked up, he cannot give Thea the advice she is looking for, and he is also in a weak position, hiding from the security men and unable to oppose the Fendahl openly. The guard excluding Mrs Tyler from the Priory in her first scene could be simply a jobsworth security man, but, in light of subsequent events, it could also be the action of the Fendahl, as she has more awareness of what it is, and how to fight it, than the others. Even though Colby is not directly influenced by it (and he unknowingly acts against it at points, for instance by switching off the scanner and thus preventing the Fendahl from killing Mrs Tyler), he can be influenced indirectly by the others in the Priory, who manipulate him. The motivations of the humans and the Fendahl thus blend into each other throughout the story, making it difficult to tell which is which.
The Fendahl itself is the most arresting figure in the whole serial. It is referred to in the singular, but is later said to have fed on its own kind, implying that there may initially have been many others on the Fifth Planet, but that one of them became all-encompassing. The Doctor clearly sees the creature as evil, and yet Boucher has also said, "I don't believe there is such a thing as fundamental evil. I suspect it's awfully easy to stumble into evil and to stumble into being evil, or into being what is perceived as evil, but I don't believe that it starts out that way," suggesting that the Doctor is simply ascribing post-hoc rationalisations to the Fendahl's behaviour. The Doctor predicts that if it becomes active on Earth, the population of four thousand million will be reduced to one. Although the Time Lords place its planet of origin in a time loop, it nonetheless manages to escape; this could have taken place before the planet was time-looped, as is suggested in the story, but then again, since all records relating to the Fifth Planet have also become invisible, this implies that anything connected with the planet should vanish too. It is also worth remembering at this point that the Doctor is an unreliable witness when it comes to the Fendahl; he is terrified of it, and is relying entirely on myth and legend about its nature and characteristics. He also casts the skull into a supernova at the end of the story, despite having asserted that the Fendahl is indestructible, suggesting again that he himself is susceptible to its influence (as witness the scene in which, as the script makes clear, the Fendahl forces him to place his hand on the skull).
It is thus more likely that the Fendahl is so powerful that it was able to escape the time-loop and come to Earth through a time fissure, either creating its own or exploiting an extant one, implying that it is able to travel through time and space. The destruction of the Priory, also, seems to have a temporal aspect (involving as it does explosions seeming to run fast, slow and backwards). The Doctor suggests that the Fendahl took in Mars on the way to Earth, in a nod to Quatermass and the Pit (the implications of this for the evolutionary development of the Ice Warriors is open to debate), it is, however, possible that the Doctor might be mistaken, as it could turn up anywhere it wants if it has that degree of control over time. Ultimately, the Fendahl arrives on Earth twelve million years ago, and goes into hibernation to exert an indirect influence on the evolution of the population, either because its journey took too much energy out of it, or because it was hiding from the Time Lords, or as the result of a natural life cycle focused around periods of feeding followed by periods of dormancy (what the time scanner picked up was thus not the creature's death, as Fendleman believed, but the beginning of its period of hibernation). There is of course no point in simply turning up in 1977, as it needed to start from scratch to create its host animals.
The idea of the host animals also raises an interesting point with regard to the relationship between humans and Time Lords. Humans, having been shaped by the dormant Fendahl, resemble the Core; interestingly, so do the Time Lords. If the Doctor is anything to go by, also, they are equally susceptible to its influence; they have a similar race memory and mythological horror to humans. Significantly, also, there are thirteen parts to the Fendahl gestalt, and the final one is Death (paralleling the Time Lord regeneration cycle). As Boucher tends to operate on the idea that all things that look human have a common origin, there is an implication that Time Lords are related to humans, even if neither party seems to have made the connection on their own. The serial also takes place in a season in which there are a number of stories featuring Time Lords, or else Time-Lord-like or -influenced figures (e.g. "Underworld"); whether this point of commonality stems from coincidence, or from the writers using a common source (Boucher has said that when Graham Williams took over he had "this extremely weird framework that he had come up with for the series, which involved time paradoxes and various esoteric formulae") is unknown, but it is definitely present. Ironically, then, had the Fendahl not escaped, or the Doctor succeeded in preventing it from coming to Earth, the Time Lords might have wound up retroactively aborting themselves.
In the end, the Fendahl's motivations remain mysterious. What is indisputable, however, is the fact that it is powerful, having influenced the evolution of both humans and Time Lords (and apparently being responsible for a connection between the two), and that the ways in which the various characters react to it reveals a good deal about Boucher's takes on evil, belief and interpretation.
With thanks to Alex Wilcock.
Effects copyright Fiona Moore