Friday, August 01, 2008


Image of the Fendahl: the Doctor at Death’s Door

A happy Lammas to all of you at home, and what better time to look at a Doctor Who story set over Lammas Eve? It’s dark, scary and full of bitchy workplace arguments, so it must be a British Summer. Tom Baker stars in a very fine sci-fi ghost story with a clever script packed with Hammer horror, subverted expectations and character names that pop up all over the new series. So why is it that most discussions about Doctor Who: Image of the Fendahl centre on how the Doctor gets through a door? Spoilers and arcane detective work follow…
“The Fendahl is death. How do you kill death itself?”
That was perhaps the single most memorable line on the back of any Doctor Who novelisation, and for me it summed up the terrifying appeal of this story. I’ve loved Image of the Fendahl since it was first broadcast back at Halloween 1977, and Halloween seemed a more appropriate time for it – most of the story takes place across two cold, dark nights after ‘long’ Summer days that pass with uncanny speed (except for the Doctor, who may spend one of them locked up in a storeroom). And this is the most perfect Halloween ghost story the show ever did. It even manages to make up an authentic Time Lord fairy tale about death, not just an Earthly one. I was just turning six back then, and this was effectively the last adventure in ‘Doctor Who – The Scary Years’, after three years that had had me watching, petrified but compelled, through the crack of the door (I’ve never understood people who go behind the sofa; how do you run away?). It may just be the scariest of the lot, and was the last that really frightened me.

An ancient alien god is waking to swallow the world, done in a distinctively Doctor Who way that’s somewhere between Quatermass, HP Lovecraft and Dennis Wheatley, a mix of science and superstition set firmly in contemporary Britain. The first episode is unmatched for building terror towards its cliffhanger, aided by unsettling cross-fades between a skull and Wanda Ventham, mysterious deaths with a nasty slobbering sound and an eerie mechanical throb that perfectly marries technology and ancient horror. Unusually for the series, there’s the very Hammer movie device of focusing the horror on a glamorous woman, leading to both the most visually dodgy and visually striking effects, with unconvincing painted eyes but also the stunning moment where a crucified woman is transformed to an angel of death that rises like Nosferatu. All the night filming adds to that uncommonly Hammer feel; if you’re interested in such things, it’s filmed at one of Mick Jagger’s mansions, and you can even spot Eastenders and Coronation Street regulars-to-be, too. It stars that most iconic old Doctor Who team of Tom Baker – ranging from laid-back to haunted, chatting to cows or whispering of terrors from his childhood, all while wearing the hugest possible scarf like a toga – with Louise Jameson’s leather-clad huntress Leela and, er, a malfunctioning K9 who doesn’t really fit in with the Gothic horror, so blink and you’ll miss him.

As well as scaring me out of my wits, one of the reasons this has stayed a favourite of mine through the years is that the script isn’t full of dumb shocks; it’s intelligent enough that there’s always something more to find in it, and more of your expectations to be subverted. Ma Tyler is introduced as a colourful comedy character, appropriately for a soon-to-be star of To the Manor Born, but her later performance is positively haunted. The barking mad scientist with the dubious name, accent and whiskers that say ‘look at me, I’m the villain’ turns out to be quite sane and grasps (rather too late) what’s really going on. The villain performs occult rituals in a white lab coat with the aid of the latest technological breakthrough, and then finds out to his horror that he’s not really the central villain after all. The Doctor has a whole series of reversals: Tom Baker here becomes more flippant than he’s ever been before, but is faced by about the only monster who never says a word and wants only to consume him, so his glib tongue’s no use at all for talking his way out of it; the Time Lord with the fabulous mental powers is taken over in a double-heartbeat by something that’s been dead twelve million years; and the brave, bright Doctor gets afraid and runs off on a wild goose chase while events continue to run out of control in his absence. Perhaps most impressively, that most Doctor Who of all forms of death – when someone dies only to come back, hideously transformed – reaches its apotheosis here, with Death personified turning out not to be just a slug or a skull but a beautiful woman, and the ‘helpless, abused female victim’ being much more aware of what’s happening than her tormentors then rising in hideous omnipotence to take revenge on all the pleading, screaming men around her. My friend James even suggests a clever explanation for the counterintuitive midsummer setting; Lammas is a harvest feast, and the story revolves around the idea that the Fendahl has nurtured its strain in humanity and now returns to consume us.

There’s a lot of it that’s very funny, too, with scientists working on high-tech archaeology bitching, wise-cracking and eventually threatening each other with pistols and ritual sacrifice – just like any other workplace – as well as a priceless scene where Leela threatens to cut a local’s throat and the Doctor pumps him for all the local gossip (while slyly prefiguring the story’s suggestions of predestination):
“You must have been sent by Providence.”
“No, I were sent by the Council to cut the verges.”
Meanly, I always laugh at a mistake in another online article about this story, too. I really ought to e-mail a correction – the Doctor Who Guide is an invaluable if excessively serious source of story information, and much faster than flicking through the book or popping in a DVD or video to find what you’re looking for – but somehow the sum total of human happiness would be reduced if their entry reported that Mrs Tyler asks, as she does, for “fresh cake” rather than their strangely unappetising “fishcake”.

Fotocopy of the Fendahl?

If you’ve come to Doctor Who through the new series and happen to watch this story, you may find elements of it uncannily familiar. A time fissure that causes outpourings of energy and psychic powers, bringing a team of investigators connected to someone called Hartman to site their base on top of it? No, it’s not the one in Cardiff but in spooky old Fetch Wood, though Torchwood: Dead Man Walking is pretty much a photocopy of this story with its brain taken out. It even does the Gorgon myth far more scarily, intriguingly and originally than in The Sarah Jane Adventures, though admittedly Eye of the Gorgon was rather fun. And if you’re wondering where names for the Doctor’s friends such as Jack, Martha, Adam, Mitchell and the Tyler family came from… I suspect that the mention of heads unzipping may be a coincidence, though. The debate over the locked and unlocked door may even make this story one of those Russell T Davies was thinking of when he decided that in the new series, the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver would be so powerful that the Doctor would never, ever get locked up again. Except when every villain in the Universe has licensed a patent magic door-fixing charm ‘Deadlock Seal’, but that’s an entirely different argument about improbable locks than the one I’m coming to.

Like the new series, too, we don’t see Time Lords other than the Doctor here, but instead they’re used to add a mythic scale to the events of the story. Here we’re given the brilliant idea of a creature from Time Lord mythology, the monster that the Doctor had nightmares about, but that also inspired human mythology and so makes old horrors seem that much bigger. Comedy has ‘laughter tracks’ to tell you when to laugh; horror has reaction shots as ‘scream tracks’ – we know something’s scary if characters are scared by it – and this uses the Time Lords as the biggest reaction of the lot by giving us the monster that frightens them. And for Richard and I, the strange connection between the thirteen deaths in the Fendahl and thirteen lives of the Time Lords has always been the most intriguing mystery of the story. But I’ll leave that to Millennium one day to include it in his famously intellectual series of Mysteries of Doctor Who. For some utterly bizarre reason, though, the famous ‘mystery’ that’s long obsessed fans about this story is far more mundane…
“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. Just one.”
If some boggle-eyed trespasser in a scarf strode into your workplace spouting that sort of warning, just as you’ve found a mysteriously horrible corpse and one of your colleagues has had some sort of breakdown and collapsed, how would you react? Unsurprisingly, one of the people here thinks he’s an overdramatic loony, but is rather spooked by things the wandering Cassandra appears to know, while the guy in charge suspects him of murder or, worse, being someone who might link the corpse to his own mysterious experiments and, worst of all, being someone who might tell the police about it. Still less surprisingly, then, the boss has the Doctor locked up in the storeroom (this workplace being one of those frivolous ones without a block of cells round the back).

So far, so usual.

What then happens is that the Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to try and get out of his stockroom, not fancying a conversation with the dreary piles of boxes. The attempt is unsuccessful. The camera cuts away to various other people, and when it cuts back (immediately after Leela tells of the Doctor’s “great knowledge, and – gentleness”), the Doctor is angrily kicking a box and slamming down his screwdriver. Then there’s a rattle and click from the lock – which sounds very much like a key – and the door swings open. Who or what exactly did this has been a peculiarly prolific source of argument, usually under the puntastic heading of:

(Oh, all right) ‘Who Let the Doc Out?’

The most obvious explanation is that it’s a delayed reaction from the Doctor’s sonic manipulations. There’s no-one outside the door when the Doctor leaves, so it could be possible, and Tom’s performance gives hints both ways; he looks from side to side as if puzzled, but then he picks up the sonic screwdriver and, seen from behind and in long shot as he leaves, brings it up to his head – either to check it’s all right, or possibly to kiss it (which would suggest he’s thanking it for the door, or perhaps apologising for knocking it about). Despite that, the direction does nothing to emphasise the screwdriver, so even if Tom does give it a peck, it could just be another of his ad-libs. When asked years later, scriptwriter Chris Boucher has said it’s a delayed reaction from the Doctor’s attempt with the sonic screwdriver, while novelist Terrance Dicks says it’s a delayed reaction from his kicking the door (which we don’t see on TV). Both of these work for the book, but on screen, there’s that awkward sound of a key in the lock. So most people agree it’s a person. Who, then?

Inspired by John Sutherland’s rather interesting collections of literary puzzles, Doctor Who Magazine 303 boasted a collection of Who mysteries by Tat Wood, Is Benton a Murderer? This concludes that it’s palaeontologist Adam Colby, who ordered one of the security guards to do it. A couple of years later, Tat co-wrote the extensive, argumentative About Time 4, in which he recants and meanders all over the place before saying as a probably comic aside that Ma Tyler’s got psychokinetic powers.

Now, I have to admit, I don’t think this ‘mystery’ is really interesting enough to justify all the column inches and repeated Internet discussions devoted to it, so I’m aware of the irony of my adding so many more. But I have a vain hope of getting this whole argument put to bed.

My view is that it’s probably a cock-up. In the writer’s head, it was probably that sonic screwdriver, but the script wasn’t clear enough and the direction didn’t know what to do with it. That means the probably-intended explanation is neither satisfying nor probable from what we actually see and hear on screen. I suspect it’s because Chris Boucher’s so highly regarded that this rather trivial ‘mystery’ gets far more attention than it would in a sloppier story by a sloppier writer. In one of those many Internet debates a few years ago, a different famous Doctor Who author told me that “you're right, seems like a cock-up. It seems like the kind of thing that happens when you move scenes round in an edit. Chris Boucher's normally such a careful writer I don't want to believe it's his fault.” I don’t, either, as I’m a great admirer of Mr Boucher too, but to save him – and perhaps to save fandom from calling this very minor puzzle ‘one of Doctor Who’s greatest mysteries,’ though any hope of that needs a pinch of salt – I’m going to twirl my non-existent moustache, exercise my increasingly little grey cells and call all the suspects together to form my own theory.

The Doctor


The highest. He’s locked up and is actively trying to get out.


None. He’s inside the storeroom, and his attempts with sonic screwdriver (and possible unseen kick) have failed; it’s someone outside who does it. So unless it’s his future self, it can’t be him.



She’s the Doctor’s companion. After him, she’d be the person most likely to want to get him out.


None. She’s over at the Tylers’ cottage with Jack; she’s never been to the converted Priory where the Doctor’s being held; she doesn’t know the Doctor’s in there anyway; she doesn’t have the key; and even if by some Doctor-scrying, teleporting, key-sensing miracle she got there, she’d hang around to see him. It can’t be her.

Jack Tyler


Nice enough guy, and probably not in favour of locking people up on a whim. But he’s not even met the Doctor yet, and doesn’t know he’s in there.


He’s with Leela. So he can’t do it.

Martha Tyler


The local wise woman’s not even met the Doctor yet, either, though she might let him out to cock a snook at the security guards who’ve just made her storm out of the house in protest. But she doesn’t know he’s in there.


She’s just walked out. So she’s not there. And if she’s got psychokinetic powers and the ability to use them in favour of people she doesn’t know locked up in a room she doesn’t know, she hasn’t shown it.

Adam Colby


He might want to cock a snook at the security guards, too, but on the other hand he’s gone along with everything Fendelman’s done so far, despite complaining about it. While he’s plainly disturbed to think the Doctor may have a point, he was earlier complicit with Fendelman over concealing a mysterious death in the grounds, and Fendelman is now blackmailing him with his part in that deception to prevent him mentioning a second death to the authorities, so he wouldn’t want the Doctor alerting them and getting him into trouble. Oh, and he thinks the Doctor’s a loony, so not the best motive to let him out, is it?


He’s arguing with Thea, including complaining of being “beset by wandering lunatics,” when the wandering lunatic he’s taken a dislike to escapes. It’s possible there’s a clumsy edit / directorial cheat that means the scenes are out of sequence, but as there’s no evidence for it, why not make up that any apparently concurrent scene is in fact at a completely different time? Plus, where would he get the key? Or if, as has been argued, he orders the security guards to free the Doctor for no fathomable reason, why would they obey him? Everything else on the story makes it plain the guards wouldn’t listen to Adam if his quiff was on fire.

Thea Ransome


Ooh, quite strong, despite the fact that she’s been so passive about her worries – observing and talking rather than acting on them. But she pretends to feel ill and goes off to seek the Doctor’s advice, as he’s the only person who seems to understand what’s happening to her.


Unfortunately, the very evidence for her motive proves it wasn’t her. Not only was she arguing with Adam when the Doctor was set free, but she does of course then go to see him, only to discover he’s gone. Which she wouldn’t need to, if she’d already let him out. If the Fendahl had done it through her by some form of telekinesis, she’d still have known – consumed by guilt, she’s blaming herself to Adam for all the things ‘she’s’ done, so she’s aware of it and now believes her ‘dreams’ to be real. Which they are.

The Fendahl


It’s a god, so it’s not impossible that it exercises some telekinesis we don’t know about through Thea, but the evidence is that by this stage, at least, she’d then be aware (and guilt-stricken) about it. And she’s not.


The skull’s clearly partial to a bit of Doctor later on, so it’s got an interest, and it’s a god, so its motives are at least in part inscrutable (it never speaks, for a start). But if it wants to mutate the Doctor into part of itself, letting him wander about on the off-chance he finds it rather than having him safely locked up for afters is a bit risky. Besides, would the Fendahl just let a Time Lord out to wander around? As its planet was destroyed by his people, it would have much more of a sense of him as a danger than anyone else.

Dr Fendelman


The best. He’s in charge; he can get the key; he can order the security guards to let the Doctor out any time he likes. After all, he had him locked up in the first place.


None whatsoever. Quite the reverse. After all, he had him locked up in the first place, says in public that he suspects the Doctor of murder and is privately paranoid about the Doctor spying on him – so he’s the only person who absolutely definitively wants the Doctor imprisoned. And if for some reason he changed his mind… He’s the only person who has no reason to conceal it, because he’s the one in charge.

Max Stael


Pretty good. He’s Fendelman’s (unwisely) trusted right-hand man, who’d be able to get at the key and is in direct authority over the security guards.


On the face of it, improbable, as he’s usually the sort who sneers at the Doctor as a meddling fool and has him thrown in chokey. However, the more you look at it the more the motives stack up. There are some reasons that he might want the Doctor just out of the way; everything’s starting to go exactly the way Stael wants it to – he thinks – so he may be hoping this random element will just clear off, or possibly get shot trying to escape. More importantly, as in this story the Doctor’s not been locked up on the orders of local loony villain Stael but those of Fendelman, Stael might be worried that Fendelman plans to question the Doctor and that this unplanned-for intruder might somehow then tip him off about something that might upset Stael’s plans (Stael’s even just cut the phones to make sure no inconvenient chats take place, so he’s a man who likes to be in control). With the Doctor legging it, that risk disappears. More importantly still, he might be worried that the Doctor – who seems much better-informed about what’s happening to Thea than anyone else – could advise Thea to get out of there, just as he plans her apotheosis (well, he thinks it’s to be his, but he needs her for it). In order to get Thea in place, Stael is of course just about to drug her and drag her away – so releasing the Doctor has the added bonus that there’s a scapegoat wandering about on whom her disappearance can be blamed.

Finally, of course, Stael is the only one who knows the Doctor’s escaped – we don’t see him or anyone but Thea discover that the cell’s empty, yet despite that, Stael tells her that our hero’s escaped. Only her. He knows, but he hasn’t told anyone else and he doesn’t sound the alarm, which for a control freak like him quite heavily suggests that he’s covering it up.

The most likely explanation for all of this, then, is that Max is responsible.
Now is it too much to hope that everyone could get on with the much more interesting bits of the story? Until someone with a better theory comes along…

Richard usually adds that, when it comes out on DVD (soon, please!) the sharper picture may enable us to spot one of the Seventh Doctor’s post-it notes fluttering in the background, as that incarnation frequently mucked about with cause and effect. But that’s mainly Richard’s theory because he a) loves Sylv and b) is always looking for an excuse to do a very bad Scottish accent.

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I really enjoyed this reading, though the door thing I put down to an editorial or directorial glitch.

This was also the last scary story of Doctor Who for me - I still get occasional nightmares with glowing skulls, sleep paralysis will summon a bloody Fendahleen! Of course, around the same time I'd seen "Quatermass And The Pit" and a Hammer Horror featuring Peter Cushing and a living(?) skull; possibly a portmanteau film.

It's a little gem of a story, still gives me the willies! I think Dr. Sandifer's treatment is a tad harsh.

Thank you, John!

And interesting to hear that you had the same experience. I suppose quite a few of us may have had, with the change in style over the following few years...

I wonder if your film was Cushing's The Skull (of the Marquis de Sade)? Or it may have been one of several by Amicus...

I agree with you on TE being too harsh. But then, I think I put up a spirited defence there!
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