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The Last Ghost of Gothic
on 2 August 2014
`Image of the Fendahl' was the last story in the legendary Gothic era of `Doctor Who'. It has all the elements of a classic of this period but I'm not at all sure that it is. 4* with reservations.
In ancient and creepy Fetch Priory, deep in the modern-day English countryside, four scientists are delving into the mysteries of the origins of humanity. They have discovered a skull which is 12 million years old, many times older than the first of our species - so who (or what) is it?
Two of the scientists are English and very posh, the other two are German and at least one of them is very mad, although this isn't obvious at first (the mad part). Dr. Fendelman (Denis Lill) has made a vast fortune from electronics and is spending it on his pet research project. He built and used a `sonic time scanner' to locate the skull in Africa and brought it back to his base where he is studying it with apparently loyal assistant Max (Scott Fredericks). But Max secretly dreams that "I shall be a god!" In fact, the real villain is elsewhere, manipulating those around it ...
The `sonic time scanner' sets off major time ripples that hit the TARDIS, bringing the Doctor and Leela (new short hair, very short new costume) down to Earth in a field of cows to investigate. If the scanner isn't stopped before (a suspiciously round) 100 hours of operation it will cause "a direct continuum implosion" and suck the Earth into nothingness. Top-quality performances from Tom Baker and Louise Jameson once again, Leela is right at home in the dangerous, haunted atmosphere of Fetch Priory, knife in hand and ready for anything. Unfortunately they are kept slightly out of the story for long periods, including a tension-sapping side trip to the asteroid belt halfway through. And the tension is also sucked out of the time-scanner implosion sub-plot when the Doctor (quite reasonably) just flicks the off-switch with lots of spare time left!
They have landed in present-day rural England (circa 1980) so (to put it mildly) it's a surprise to find all the villagers are quite so `oo-arrr'. If the story was set a century earlier, then all the Mummerset-voiced locals and talk of "the old ways", covens, rock salt and "Mother" Tyler the kindly Wise Woman might have seemed slightly less patronising. Really, rural England wasn't at all like that in the 1980s (or even the 1880s I suppose!) Being positive, let's assume the `time fissure' running through eerie Fetch Wood has not only given Mrs. Tyler her second sight but somehow `held back' the locals from the modern world. I want to be positive because Mrs. Tyler is brilliantly played by Daphne Heard and her cheery grandson Jack (Geoffrey Hinsliff) and their bonding with Leela (who's also from a world of `old religion') are the best part of the story. They are well written and superbly acted although as characters incongruously out of their time, but with nice tea and fruitcake for their guests. They also carry magic charms and a shotgun, but then so might anyone living in a cottage in Fetch Wood!
Back at the Priory, pleasant English scientists Adam (Edward Arthur) and Thea (Wanda Ventham) are rather out of the loop and out of their depth. Adam seems to be in the story mostly to give the Doctor an extra companion to talk to when Leela is off in action with the Tylers. Adam appears to have an understandable attraction to eye-catching Thea, but any romance is doomed from the start. Thea as a person barely exists in the story, she is sinking deep into alien possession from the very beginning and there is worse to come ...
Enter the Fendahl, slowly at first, stalking hikers through the darkness of the wood at night before bursting onto the scene in the final episode. It's a complex idea of a gestalt or group monster, made up of 12 `Fendahleen' and the golden Core. Thea's transformation into the Core is a superb and quite chilling variant on an ancient myth, a golden Medusa, beautiful but evil and fatal to look upon. The `Fendahleen' are unfortunately less successful. Costs meant that only one full-size monster was built and although Mrs. Tyler memorably describes her vision of it as "hungry for my soul!" it looks more hungry for her cabbages. The DVD features and commentary describe 15 minutes of laughter when the cast first encountered it. It's not that bad, but would have been more effective if made less visible...
The model `baby' Fendahleen work far better, like particularly sinister little cobras. There is a bizarre moment when Thea collapses in a golden glow and two baby Fendahleen monsters appear sitting on her body. Bizarre, because it's effectively done and a dramatic moment, which everyone then seems to forget about within five minutes, including Thea's assumed boyfriend Adam, whose next scenes with Thea are mostly spent worrying about a disconnected telephone!
If the Fendahleen aren't scary to look at, the wonderfully dark Priory sets and the extensive night filming in misty Fetch Wood create an ambience of lurking, ghostly shadows matched by few other `Doctor Who' stories. Excellent lighting, and direction by George Spenton-Foster lay on the Gothic gloom to full effect. The effects in the last episode (apart from the Fendahleen) are excellent, the ghostly golden Core showing the way this story should have gone with its monsters - less substantial and as a result more frightening.
So parts of the story are patchy and parts of the monster are disappointing, but the acting, sets and filming are excellent and `Image of the Fendahl' still generates Gothic atmosphere in plenty. I saw the original broadcast, read the novelisation, bought the VHS and now the DVD - so I keep coming back to Fetch Priory, which is very curious because I'm always vaguely underwhelmed by this tale and enjoy it less than I think I should. Perhaps I too am being manipulated by the Fendahl? Let's hope not... 4*
The DVD Special Features are few in number but very good and add to the release.
An enjoyable commentary, some nice anecdotes from Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, Edward Arthur and Wanda Ventham.
`After Image' is an excellent `making of' feature with a great set of contributors - Louise Jameson and Colin Mapson (Visual Effects) are especially interesting.
`Deleted and Extended Scenes' - from a low-quality copy of the location filming, but interesting to fans.
A fun little Easter Egg.