Thursday, October 28, 2021

Doctor Who 15.3 - Image of the Fendahl

In October 1977, Jack Kirby's Eternals came to an ignominious non-conclusion. It had been a gosh-wow treatment of the theory that human mythology and superstition is based on race-memories of alien visitations. 

Also in October 1977, the first episode of Image of the Fendahl premiered on BBC 1. It was a spooky, gothic treatment of the theory that human mythology and superstitions are based on race-memories of ancient alien visitations. 

Nature abhors a vacuum. Maybe even the universe can't bare to be without a decent set of space-gods. 


"How do we follow that?" asked producer Graham Williams. "We are only on our third story, and we have already had a Giant Alien Brussel sprout and a Giant Alien Prawn. What could possibly be more scary than that?" 

"I know," replied writer Chris Boucher "What about a Giant Alien Penis?" 

(This didn't really happen, as you very well know.) 


Image of the Fendahl is not so much a story as a headlong rush through a sequence of Doctor Who tropes. Things happen, not because it makes any kind of sense for them to happen, but because they are the kinds of thing which happen in this kind of Doctor Who story. The components are all in place: a lab full of oscilloscopes; a pretty lady chained to a pentangle; a glowing skull; a Giant Muppet Phallus Monster (and lots of baby phalluses); a foggy, foggy, wood; and an old lady who don't be holdin' with this kind of thing. 

In the cracks between the tropes is a lot of exposition about Time Lord legends, rifts in the fabric of time, evolutionary blind alleys and gestalt entities which feed on life itself. It turns out that the human race has an extraterrestrial origin. (And then it turns out that it doesn't.) The ancient aliens' visit explains why the pentangle is a universal symbol of power and why we throw salt over our shoulders for good luck. Almost definitely. 

It is based around a strong set of characters, several of whom are not cliches. It is overacted and melodramatic: but it's 1977. Everything is over-acted and melodramatic. The confrontation between scientist Colby and scientist Thea in Episode Two would probably have gone down a storm on Play For Today. Director George Spenton-Foster has a nice line in intercutting short scenes to keep up the pace and does his level best to use close-ups and shadows and reaction shots to make the Giant Space Penis look less risible than it would otherwise have done. The production is cast and dark red autumnal colours; we are in the visual world of Talons of Weng Chiang and Pyramids of Mars. It feels like a piece of grown-up TV, where Invisible Enemy felt like a comic strip (and not in a good way). 

But it is all surface. There is much chat about race memories and the extraterrestrial origins of the occult; and about how a Time Lord put the Fifth Planet into a Time Loop (which 'twas against the rules) but it all seems to be made up on the spot. Boucher knows that he wants hubristic scientists fooling around with an alien artefact; and he knows that he wants a Dennis Wheatley human sacrifice scenario in the cellar; but he seems to flail around wildly trying to find a route from one to the other. When Leela asks, not unreasonably, how the Giant Space Penis got from the Fifth Planet to Earth without a space ship, the Doctor replies that it used its stockpile of energy to project itself; and that human belief in astral projection is a race-memory of this method of travel. Leela says "you mean the way lightening travels". 

But when the creature has menaced everyone in the corridor in part four, the Doctor says "it can only have been created out of pure energy while the skull was restructuring Thea's brain." Travelling like the lightening? Astral projection? Or created out of pure energy by an alien skull? Which is it? No-one knows.  

It is never a good sign when companions begin sentences with "You mean....?" (Colby has a nice line in sentences beginning "Are you telling me...?") 

Perhaps Graham Williams had come to the conclusion that most people only watched Doctor Who with half an eye. On any given Saturday, some people would have been coming home late from the football or the shops or the Sunday School concert. It can hardly be said too often that there were no re-runs, no streaming services and no Betamax videos. At any given moment, most of the audience could be assumed to be saying "I don't understand that; but it was probably explained in the episode I missed." And if they are resigned to doing that anyway -- if being confused is part of the fun -- then why not allow even the kids who managed to get home by 6 o'clock four weeks running go away agreeably bewildered? 


There are four scientists. A Sarcastic One, a Grumpy One, a Foreign One, and a Girl One. A hiker is hiking through the foggy, foggy woods, whistling to keep his spirits up. The Sardonic One says that the skull can't possibly be as old as the Girl One thinks it is. The Grumpy One goes to a secret lab, and the Foreign One says "now ve can begin". They switch on their oscilloscope. There is a rising high-pitched sound effect; the skull starts to glow. It is superimposed over the face of the Girl One. The hiker in the woods is scared. He is attacked by something invisible. 

And then we cut to the TARDIS where the Doctor and Leela are talking gobbledegook about continuums, displacements and implosions. 

A week ago, to the delight of small boys and the dismay of serious Who fans, the Doctor acquired a robot companion, K-9. One week later, K-9 is in pieces on the TARDIS floor. Fan-fiction writers bless the production team for this: it means that at least one, and probably lots of adventures must have taken place between Invisible Enemy and Image of the Fendahl. (Has there been a Big Finish about How K-9 Got Corroded?) After all the build up, we won't get to see K-9 as a part of the regular cast for another month. One assumes that the radio controlled hound didn't function on location shoots with uneven floors. Or perhaps Chris Boucher simply felt disinclined to add another companion to his script at short notice. 

There is a little bit of banter about pronouns. The Doctor refers to K-9 as "it" and Leela refers to them as "he" (although he calls the TARDIS "she"). This gets a pay-off four weeks later, when the Doctor announces that he is going to call K-9 "he" after all ("he's my dog"). 

There is an essentially similar scene at the beginning of Robots of Death, when Leela thinks the Doctor's yo-yo is integral to the working of the TARDIS. But that scene was played straight: when Tom Baker explains why the TARDIS is bigger on the inside, he seems to believe it, which allows Leela to believe it; which in turn allows us to carry on believing in it. This week's TARDIS scene is played -- if not exactly for laughs -- then at any rate, facetiously. 

-- What did you say, Leela 

-- Leela said... 

-- I know what you said 

-- Then why ask me? 

There are as yet undiscovered tribes in New Guinea that knew that as soon as the Doctor says that he is in "complete and constant control" of the TARDIS, the ship would lurch off course, throwing everyone to the floor. It's an example of that joke format which TV Tropes calls the Gilligan Cut. It crops up again in Episode 2, Leela says that the Doctor is very gentle, and we cut to him kicking boxes around out of frustration. Once the TARDIS is back on course the Doctor says "she" is wonderful and Tom Baker (presumably) ad libs a little football chant ("TAR-DIS! Won-der-ful!") 

The message of Robots of Death was that the TARDIS is a wondrous alien machine that Tom and Louise want us to believe in. The message of Image of the Fendahl is that it's a silly plot device that can safely have the mickey taken out of it. 

But the terminal diagnosis comes as they leave the TARDIS. 

-- Come on then. 

-- No. The one who leads says come on. Come on. 

"Come on" and "Let's go" were both certainly cliches of the period. (I recall some spoof writer's guidelines for Blakes 7 in a fanzine saying that if Avon said "Let's go" then Tarrant couldn't.) But as soon as the characters start to become aware of the cliches, the writing is on the wall for your TV show. 

*

Leela says that it is obvious that the Doctor cannot control the TARDIS. This is rather odd. The series is now predicated on the idea that the Doctor can control the TARDIS and has to be given reasons to go where he is going. (The whole of next season will be predicated on one particularly convoluted reason.) Last week he was called to Titan base to answer a Mayday; next week he'll be forced to land on Pluto because the TARDIS is broken. This week, the Doctor chooses to go to Earth because The Foreign One's oscilloscope is really a Time Scanner, and (as everyone knows) if you fool around with a Time Scanner you risk ripping a hole in time. Which would be a Bad Thing. The Foreign One is brilliant at electronics; he used to make missile guidance systems; and he is one of the richest men in the world; but quite how he managed to invent something so dangerous is not covered. It doesn't matter: the Time Scanner has no actual bearing on the story. In Episode 4 the Doctor switches it off and says "Whew! We've saved the planet", and everyone who is not taking notes says "You what?" 

The skull is a Mysterious Anachronism, exactly like Eldrad's hand in the Hand of Fear. It's a human skull, but it is millions of years older than any human skull has a right to be. It was dug up in Kenya. (The Sarcastic One's dog is called Leakey because it digs up bones, and not for any childish scatological reasons). Obviously, an African skull is bound up with pentangles, witches covens, and traditions about salt, rather than, say, ancestor worship or Kikuyu. 

In Episode Two, the Foreign One says that the Skull is extraterrestrial, and that this proves that man did not evolve on earth ("of zat I am sure"). The Time Scanner has revealed (somehow) that when the Skull's owner died, it absorbed a huge amount of energy. When something as sophisticated as a Time Scanner -- or maybe just an X-Ray machine -- is turned on it, it releases all this energy, telling the other members of its race that intelligent life has developed on earth. This is a perfectly fine sci-fi trope: it's very much the function of the Black Slab in 2001: A Space Odyssey (which also mucked around with human evolution.) But in the actual story, the Skull seems to operate by possessing people, killing them, and turning them into Giant Rude Looking Caterpillars. We don't see it acting as a beacon or summonsing device. Why the Fendahl need humans to be capable of developing time scanners and radiography before having them for lunch is not explored.

But there is more to come. The Skull is connected, in some way, with creatures from Time Lord mythology -- who were destroyed when the Fifth Planet blew up. The Doctor knows this because after she has been possessed by the skull, Thea, the Girl Scientist faints and tiny little phallic Fendahl appear on her body. Why do they appear? And, indeed, where do they go? Is the thought that the Skull, as well as sending out a signal, has used the nearest human as some kind of bridgehead or teleportation terminus? A cynic might say that the only reason for the Baby Monsters to appear is because Boucher can't think of a better way of appraising the Doctor of the identity of this week's bad guy. 

We aren't told what Time Lord myths are attached to the Very Genocidal Caterpillar. We aren't told if the planet which blew up is the fifth one in our solar system, or in Galifrey's or if it is connected with the number five for some other reason. (Planet of the Pentangles, possibly?) The idea that the Fendhal is a legend rapidly falls away; it becomes simply a Bad Alien that the Time Lords fudged their non-intervention policy to get rid of. And anywhere, their relationship with the Time Lords has no bearing on the story. It's just a spurious way of making the story pointlessly hyperbolical. Not only are the Fendahl  evil aliens who are going to consume all life on earth; but they are the kind of evil life-consuming aliens that Time Lords tell each other scary stories about! 

But there is more to come. Fendalman, the Foreign One, is clearly coded as the villain in Episode One; but in Episode Two it turns out that the main human baddy is actually the Grumpy One, the improbably named Maximillion Stael. It isn't enough to say that the Skull might be the source of some human legends. There has to be some actual Hammer Horror black magic going on. Superstitious villagers regards Stael as Leader of the Coven; and in case we were in any doubt, he has to deliver lines like "I shall be a god!" and "It is too late for all the meddling fools!" 

In Episode One, an elderly lady who runs errands for the scientists has a run-in with the security thugs who Fendalman has called down from London. After she thumps him with her hand-bag Colby (the Sarcastic One) remarks sarcastically that he can see why people used to burn witches. In Episode Two it turns out that Mrs Tyler really is a witch. (She do be following the old ways, me 'andsome, on account of 'ow folks round here were raised in the old religion, so they were etc. etc. etc.) It could be that Colby's reference to witches is a cack-handed piece of foreshadowing; but it is very tempting to think that the joke came first and the plot twist came afterwards. 

I imagine that in the 1970s, some people really did meet up in secret places to perform what they imagined were ancient ceremonies. They could have been rich, Hell-Fire Club, Crowley-influenced decadents; well meaning new-age flower children; or even sincerely spiritual neo-pagans. But Boucher thinks that once you travel west of Basingstoke all the locals speak with thick accents and talk about The Old Ways. Not only is this patronising, but it's a literary cliche. The four scientists are, by Doctor Who standards, fairly naturalistically drawn. The Mummer set yokels are straight out of Cold Comfort Farm. Jack Tyler, (the wise-woman's grown-up grandson) gives the impression that he's going to break into a rousing chorus of Brand New Combine Harvester at any moment. 

A comparison with Jon Pertwee's the Daemons is rather salutary. The Daemons is almost entirely an occult story, in which burial mounds are opened and existentialist vicars say "so mot it be" in crypts. The cloven hoofed alien is defeated because of Jo's self-sacrificial love for the Doctor -- very much how you would expect someone to defeat Satan in a horror story. The sciencey explanation -- that Daemons are not supernatural figures, but aliens from the planet Daemos -- is a secondary gloss. It gives us permission to enjoy what is essentially a fantasy story in the context of Doctor Who. And Miss Hawthorn is a middle-aged, posh, tea-drinking, church of England white witch and not at all a Granny Weatherwax cliche. This was before Terry Pratchett. 


Half way through Episode Three, we get another scene on board the TARDIS. We do not see Leela and the Doctor go to the TARDIS, we do not see the TARDIS take off, we don't even see the Doctor saying "Let's go to the TARDIS". We just discover them in space. The Doctor has taken the Ship ten million years back in time and millions of miles through space to visit the Fifth Planet where the Fendahl originally came from. (Which rather gives the lie to Leela's claim that he can't control it). There is a jumble of pseudo science, and they go back to earth. We don't see the TARDIS materialise and we don't see them get out of it. 

There is nothing wrong with pseudo science. Doctor Who has always been driven by it. But you generally expect it to have some connection to the plot. "The Doctor uses [gobbledegook] to discover that the alien is really trying to [gobbledegook] and can be stopped by [gobbledegook]". But this scene leaves us with no better idea of what the Fendahl is up to than we had before. We are told that the Fifth Planet has been hidden in a Time Loop (and not destroyed at all) which ought to be a set up for a Big Reveal that the Master or Rassilon or the Meddling Monkey is behind the whole thing. Needless to say, no such revelation occurs. 

Maybe Boucher is lamp-shading the fact that his script makes no sense. What is the Fendahl? I don't know and you don't know and the Doctor doesn't know because the Time Lords have put a No One Is Allowed To Know sign around their planet. Or maybe he had spotted that the story was really about Mad Scientist Fendalman, Mad Occultist Stahl and Eccentric Witch Tyler, and needed an excuse to absent the Doctor from the main action? Or perhaps the script was simply too short and the TARDIS scenes were added to pad it out? (Episode Three runs a standard twenty four and a bit minutes, but Episode Four finishes its business in twenty.) 


By the final instalment, a sense of desperation is setting in. The Weird Occult Ritual in the cellar is spooky enough fun. There is some genuine drama; particularly when Stael takes his own life rather than become possessed. We are told that the BBC was running scared of Mary Whitehouse and had toned down the horror; but the rule appears to be that that kids won't be harmed by suicide (or human sacrifice, or executions or torture) provided they happen off-screen. 

The Doctor suddenly remembers that the Fendahl is a Gestalt Entity. That's another good idea: when twelve witches get together to perform a summonsing ritual, what they are really doing is channelling a composite alien being which is made up of twelve lessor beings. But the story rolls in exactly the same direction that it would have done if the people in the cellar had been bog-standard witches calling up a bog-standard bogeyman. Thea turns into a glam-rock Greek goddess, menaces everyone for a bit, and then gets zapped. The Fendahl may be life-consuming death bringers who the Time Lords are scared of, but they have a rather simple Kryptonite Heel. "Obviously sodium chloirde affects the conductivity, ruins the overall electrical balance and prevents control of localised disruption to the osmotic pressures" explains the Doctor. Fortunately Leela is on hand to translate. "Salt kills it.".

And then the Doctor changes the backstory. 

And then he changes it again. 

And then he furiously back-pedals. 

Take your pick: 

1: The Skull is the extra-terrestrial ancestor of the human race. 

2: No, it isn't. Its alien energy merely affected terran life-forms which caused them to evolve into humans. 

3: No, it didn't. It simply manipulated the DNA of some primitive humans so their descendants would eventually summons the Fendahl. 

There is nothing wrong with unreliable narrators and mad scientists who leap to the wrong conclusions. You thought that this was what was going on -- but in fact it was THIS all the time. But there is no sense of a big revelation, of layers of the onion being peeled off until we see the terrible truth that man was not meant to know. It is merely confusing. A simple, interesting premise is incrementally replaced by sixteen or seventeen more complicated ones. 


But why be concerned? The explanation is not part of the story. Witches covens summons Giant Alien Dicks because reasons. 

"On the other hand" says the Doctor, giving up completely "It could just be a coincidence." 


Image of the Fendahl has, in 100 minutes, completely rewritten the history of the human race. Life on earth has very nearly been wiped out, and by my count, at least fourteen people are dead. Mrs Tyler has learned that the religious faith she has followed her whole life was, at best, a cargo cult. So what do the survivors do? Do they spend the rest of their lives in a mental asylum, wishing that the human mind were less able to correlate its contents? Do thet pour oil on their clothes and set themselves alight? (And do their families deny that they ever existed?) Or do they, in point of fact, go back to the cottage and have tea and plumb cake off the best china? 

Keep Calm and Carry On became a silly reactionary cliche. But it does, I think, nicely sum up a story that the English really do like to tell themselves about themselves. And as stories go, it's not a bad one. We really did help to defeat Hitler; our capital city really was bombed flat; and we really did brush our hair and polish the front step every morning during the Blitz. 

In Terry Nation's Survivors, the English middle class are the only people left alive after a pandemic: they continue to iron their C&A dresses, put vases of flowers on the table, and sing We Plough the Fields and Scatter once a year. The Doctor and Leela seem more and more to live in the TARDIS, playing chess, tinkering with K-9, learning to read, trying their hand at painting. Adventures are the interruption to this relatively idyllic existence. 

This is a product of the format. But it is also a core part of the aesthetic. Doctor Who has to reboot at the end of each episode. The toys have to go back in the boxes, ready for the next adventure, and the one after that. If Pyramids of Mars, Image of the Fendahl and the Daemons were all "true" then the Earth would be a surrealistic hybrid, unrecognisable as the world we know. And the story has to start in the world we know because although the Doctor is a disruptive anarchist, he is also a defender of the status quo. 

Cosmic horror is an interruption to domestic life: but it doesn't over write it. The stories, under Graham Williams, will get bigger and bigger, as we move from Gothic to Space Opera to a Douglas Adams parody of Space Opera. But the concerns remain small scale. The human race migrates to Pluto via Mars, but the focus remains on one little guy who can't pay his tax. 

Cosmic horror which is not interested in cosmic horror. Sweeping galactic science fiction which is not interested in galaxies or science. 

You cannot preserve the village green if it was concreted over in the previous story. Lord, keep within they special care, 121, Cadogan Square.





1 comment:

Unknown said...

I am afraid I take exception to your penis: not a phrase I was expecting use any time soon, or indeed, ever. Specifically, when I was at college, some people took the kind of pulp adventure, sci-fi, Ray Harryhausen monster, FRPG genre quite seriously. It may not be great art or literature, but nor was it always pantomime. Either you accepted that the hero was in a life-and-death struggle with the monster, or you were basically wasting your time not even on consuming garbage, but on pushing garbage around your plate. 'Image of the Fendahl' appears to be on the level of a quite-good RPG scenario: the heroes have to deal with a cast of suspicious-seeming NPCs, with as much personality as the referee's acting skills run to, with weird science and dark magic, and with a monster that looks like something that crawled out from under a stone, only of nightmare size, and which you can't run away from. If one of the players had compared it to a male generative organ, then the referee might have reasonably told the player to take things a little more seriously, or perhaps to find some other way of occupying their Saturday afternoon, or just said nothing and then let the monster kill the player's character. I am afraid that with most episodes of old 'Who', I am interested in the craft of pulling together an adventure story for young people, how to improvise settings and costumes, the topical references and playing with adult genres, that pre-CGI monsters could be either silly pantomime stuff or actually quite good, and that I am in the company of people who enjoy this stuff. Compared with more modern SF&F with bigger budgets, stronger source material and a sizeable fan following, old 'Who' is not worth poking fun at, any more than it is worth referring to vintage Spiderman as 'Bug Boy' and grumbling about the limits of four-colour artwork.