SPOILERS BELOW! Don't sacrifice the unknown - watch before reading . .
PLACE THE SCRIPT ON THE SLAB . .
The Doctor and Leela land the TARDIS in a country field next to a patch of ancient dense woodland. They start off their latest adventure into the heart of gothic darkness, by, err - getting to meet and greet a few local cows (the first alien creatures that Leela seems genuinely scared of!) before heading off into the woods and encountering a strange man from the council (is there any other kind?) called Ted Moss. Who may be a man out trimming the verges - or a deadly tax collector from Pluto (sorry; quick flashback to previous episode - The Sun Makers!). Leela holds a knife to old Ted's throat to find out.
The time travelling, slightly odd couple, soon arrive at Fetch Priory where a group of scientists, including Dr.Fendelman, Thea Ransome and Adam Colby are working on dating a 12 million year old skull; found 8 million years before it could have existed. The team carry on their work despite the warnings of a local white witch called Martha Tyler; that some things are best left alone. Especially 12 million year old skulls with a pentagram carved on the top.
Sure enough, the skull soon reveals its lifeline to a race of mind-controlling aliens called the Fendahl that have been planning the eventual destruction of humankind over some millions of years. One of the humans in Fetch Priory is cursed with a Fendahl bloodline. Now all they need is a High Priestess for the complete Fendahlisation of Earth! The only thing that stands in their way - a superstitious old woman, a terrified Time Lord and barely-dressed savage. The end of the world is clearly nigh . .
Usually a plan for world destruction that takes so long couldn't possibly fail; but with the Doctor around - it usually does. The trouble is; this time around the Doctor is facing one of the few (banished) alien races that the Time Lords are actually scared of - so when a hulking great fendahleen creature spitting red tentacles and waving its towering, deep-ridged green body above him appears out of the woodland or, later - the wooden panels of Fetch Priory; it's not just paralysis stopping him dead. It's fear . .
RAISE THE FENDAHLEEN!
Mid-70s gothic Who is certainly among the most revered - especially the start of Baker's residency in the role with risk-taking producer Philip Hinchcliffe at the helm. This was the man that the BBC later got huge cold feet over and demanded that Hinchcliffe's replacement; Graham Williams - exterminated the horror with slapdash comedy, despite the two mixing perfectly before. There were a couple of '77 season stories of gothic chill remaining from the Hinchcliffe blueprint though, before Williams had to make the final chop with the past: both Horror of Fang Rock and Image of The Fendahl were truly chilling despite budget limitations (in fairness; the satirical The Sun Makers that followed Fendahl also remains one of the best examples of the show at its crotchety, vibrant, spiteful - if a bit less violent, best).
Tom Baker in Fendahl is on top eye-staring; gothically grimacing, playful form and Leela has never looked more powerful, ravishing and dangerous - a single, unscripted kiss on the cheek of a male scientist also revealing her playfulness (and possibly - some repressed desire; should you wish it that way!). The rest of the cast are perfect; notably Dennis Lill as Dr. Fendelman - played with clipped authority and eventual bewilderment.
Wanda Ventham as terminally threatened Thea Ransome oozes white-coated sex appeal but adds a deliciously determined and resourceful edge to her pseudo-scientific mumblings - she's no dumb brunette (and Ventham actually was asked to wear a brunette wig; a change from her usual blonde - stereotypes existing even back in the 70s!). Her scientific companion - Adam Colby, played by Edward Arthur is wonderfully dashing and bumbling in equal measure; but also deadly serious when he needs to be.
The end of the first episode has one of the best treble cliffhangers in the series history as the skull glows, the Doctor meets the Fendahl in the fog-shrouded woods and Leela faces a man with a shotgun after a creepy perimeter exploration of the gorgeously brick-walled grounds around the old gothic mansion (the sprawling Stargroves estate in Hampshire - used and owned over the years by rock stars from Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart to The Who and Led Zeppelin).
The director of Fendahl - George Spenton-Foster; an old-hand at TV spookiness, shoots scenes with an atmosphere of heavy dread and with effective use of night shooting; despite production being held up by a generator bursting into flames on the first night - spooky! There are some shocking moments throughout: the Doctor assisting the suicide of a scientist faced with Fendahleen death especially traumatic (though toned down - you just get to hear the shot in the transmitted version, rather than actually see it) and the menacing creatures lurking down oak-panelled corridors; rendering their victims paralysed with fear - is terrifying, and will sends chills down even the most rigid of spines (ignore the doubters who think they can spot the costume joins).
The old spooky - but still just lovely - woman and her son too, are straight out of Hammer Horror and gloriously played with cackling warmth and a fistful of warm tea bags by Daphne Heard and Geoffrey Hinsliff as Mrs Tyler and Jack. Characters in this adventure could easily have earned themselves their own series - imagine the scientists working in the Priory and the superstitious locals working together on further mysteries. Yes; stereotypically superstitious locals, but still - sometimes a little bit less political correctness can be fun!
Some elements drag; there's quite a lot of pseudo-scientific chat (scriptwriter Chris Boucher was unable to finish revisions on the script and so incoming script editor Anthony Read stepped in and beefed up the exposition). And some claim the Fendahleen are poorly realised monsters. In the audio commentary on the DVD (with Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, Wanda Ventham and Edward Arthur) we find out that the appearance of the Fendahleen (the monstrous side of the Fendahl core) down the corridor caused a few outbreaks of giggles.
Apparently Daphne Heard was quite a riot on set - chuckling away and keeping everyone amused between takes. Tom Baker spends most of his DVD commentary time remarking on how gorgeous looking Louise Jameson is (who has her hair tied up short here thanks to a set hairdresser who accidentally kept chopping those Seveteem tribal locks off by mistake). Benedict Cumberbatch's mum - Wanda Ventham - keeps remarking how beautiful the male cast members are too; clearly not just Baker on heat again here!
Ventham actually appeared in Fendahl shortly after the birth of son Benedict and tells the others on the commentary that he now has a role in a rather arty and - Ventham confesses; hard to make sense of, but still revered, play on the London stage. Baker remarks that Benedict has to be too young to play the role. Also, that he doesn't trust a play if it's one that nobody understands what it's even about. It's often just bad writing, covered up with pretension - he seems to be saying. Somehow, Baker always sounds like a man who must be talking sense (like his Doctor always did); even when at his most anarchic and caustic - or just plain crazy.
And Tom Baker's Who era is often wise-cracking and anarchic. Caustic even too, at times. That's mainly down to Baker's input into the production and hacking of the scripts. Do you even care if the Fendahleen are a bit phallic and rubbery at times? I don't - these towering hulks were built with love (Fendahl's Visual Effects Designer - Colin Mapson confirms the amount of effort they took to sculpt and operate the aliens in a fascinating behind the scenes extra where such secrets as the glowing skull that Baker picks up being able to glow with light - even when not powered with electricity - are explained). Old dark woods; the creaky oak-panels of an old priory; constantly rolling-in fog; local legends and superstitious fruitcake-loving white witches armed with bags of rock salt - these are the things that scare us. The Omphalos fully approves!
Also watch the lost footage on the DVD that has a selection of extended creepy wood fright scenes mainly involving the ill-fated hitchhiker; the monochrome and poor quality making it all eerily extra creepy. I was about to comment that they should have replaced some of those long, languid scenes with the scientists in the Priory chatting away and being terribly civil with each other with more of those spooky woodland scares. But actually - maybe not. Because those scenes inside with the scientists hard at work and safe in the bright light while the darkness throbs downstairs and outside; all around them - really develops the characters and make you care more about them.
That sense of entrapment within ancient walls and woodland - despite all the scientific 'protection' on show - is all very 'Quatermass'; the ancient terror alongside the something more modern. And when the monsters actually do arrive here (very late in fact) it means the fear is far more deserving of your sweaty palms and outclasses any doubt that these things are ravenous creatures that are more than death-bringers - actually are death.
Also; this adventure wins an Omphalos award for the best line ever in a Doctor Who episode:
LEELA (Crouching beside Ted Moss in the woodland - a knife held to the old man's throat): He came armed and silent.
DOCTOR: You must have been sent by providence.
TED MOSS: No, I was sent by the Council to cut the verges.
What more do you want?
Words: Mark Gordon Palmer
All Images: BBC