Friday, August 14, 2009

Amityville Slugger

The Graham Williams era of Doctor Who was not a favourite of mine. He threw a few curve balls (Invisible Enemy), some odd balls (Underworld) and too many downright dodgy balls (most of Season 17) for my liking and it's those that chiefly colour my memory of his stint as producer. In short, to seriously mix my baseball metaphors, a poor batting average. But just occasionally - to mix my baseball metaphors - he'd step up to the plate and seriously up his batting average with something like The Horror Of Fang Rock - as fine an example of quintessential Who as you're ever likely to encounter. Now, possibly that one met with my hearty approval because, frankly, it all feels a bit more Hinchcliffe than Williams - and Image Of The Fendahl is similar in that respect.

It has that 'something borrowed' feeling of familiarity to it as well as producing something new, but unlike much of the Hinchcliffe era its sources are not immediately obvious (to me anyway).

On some level, it's as though someone found an old recipe for Doctor Who and did their best to follow it to the letter, tossing in fairly creative substitutes where certain ingredients were unavailable. The exact measures are lost in time, but basically you'll need some fog, an old priory, a mad professor, a coven, death, more death, a glowing skull, banks of old computers and a sprinkling of pseudoscience, a dash of Time Lord mythology, race memory, giant alien slugs and, crucially, a pinch of salt. Heck, with its occult elements, ancient long-buried evils that have influenced mankind's development, themes of race memory and gestalt creatures, they may have just thrown The Daemons and The Ark In Space in a blender and hoped for the best.

But that assessment does a disservice to Chris Boucher, a Who writer I rate, and he manages to enliven the mixture with flashes of inspired dialogue and a (mostly) colourful selection of characters (helped along by some larger than life performances). The night filming certainly doesn't do any harm to the Gothic horror atmosphere either.

Now I love Ark In Space, but Fendahl even manages to score over that in the horror stakes, both because it's not set in a brightly lit space station and the idea of someone finding themselves absorbed into an alien gestalt is more effective here. Ark boasts its memorable shocks in that respect and explores the notion more fully, but Noah is portrayed in such a stylised, starchy way it distances us somewhat from the character, whereas I found more sympathy with Thea Ransome's fate here.

In a mailing list discussion, it was pointed out to me that a heterosexual male will generally be more sympathetic to the fate of a pretty female - and it's true to say I was always very concerned from a very young age for Sarah Jane's safety. And I think Thea is further painted as a victim by virtue of the patronising sexism to which she is subjected by her colleagues. Doubtless Wanda Ventham was used to it from her fellow officers in SHADO, but ultimately I'd rather be forced to wear a purple wig than end up transformed into a golden medusa. YMMV, as they say.

As to the others, it's a little disconcerting at first to hear Charles from Survivors speaking with a faux Germanic accent, but Dennis Lill lends intensity and credibility to what would otherwise be a standard mad professor shtick. Edward Arthur's got an entertaining line in sarcasm as Colby, even if some of his lines are misfires, and Scott Fredericks as Stael is so positively inhuman, with his cold smarm-school manners, it comes as a shock that I actually felt anything for him when he meets his ultimate fate. Daphne Heard seems over the top as the Worzelly white witch - but I suspect that has something to do with most West Country accents on TV sounding dubious to my Cornish ears - and she's undoubtedly a wonderful character - or caricature, I can't quite decide.

Tom is appropriately dark and sombre (a la Fang Rock), but with enough levity along the way to (just about) offset that truly chilling moment when he fetches Max the gun from the altar. Surely one of the coldest moments in Who. Against that, we have the warmth of Louise Jameson who shines as Leela and although that's about par for the course, we mustn't underestimate the incongruity of her savage ways in the contemporary world setting, to say nothing of her first encounter with cows.

The Fendahleen (aka giant alien slugs) themselves are a great design. The addition of those cobra-like wings was apparently implemented to avoid a phallic appearance, but whatever the reason, it completes their alien appearance rather well. They're somewhat wanting in the execution, with their rather impotent shambling, but they're by no means the worst in that department to have graced our screens in Who.

Storywise, I would have liked more clues sown earlier about the coven/witchcraft angle and it turns out there were some, at least according to the deleted scenes (Ted invokes some prayer to a strange occultish pendant). The ending seems a little rushed and there's a two-level threat which really only works on one level. The large-scale 'all-Earth will be consumed by Death' threat is rather too abstract - a bit like Sutekh (Pyramids Of Mars), in that we are given dire warnings about it and, courtesy of a side-trip to the Fifth Planet, given some indication of Earth's possible future. told about it and unfortunately the isolated setting plays against the Fendahl. More effective is immediate, localised threat, with characters prey to the big alien slugs so terrifying they can root even the Doctor to the spot in fear.

All in all then, a good solid Who story and one of the better deliveries in the Williams innings, but not as enduringly memorable as Fang Rock. Perhaps, in the end, it's just too much of an all-rounder when what was needed was to hit the ball out of the park. Not quite a home run then, but it does cover all the bases.


Phillipa said...

You know, I'd love to leave an intelligent comment, but all I can say is the Borg were scary. What you write is for the Dr Who experts, and alas I am not one, but you write it so well!

SAF said...

Thanks, Phillipa. I will say the Borg were just Star Trek's way of ripping off the Cybermen without leaving the BBC any legal recourse. :-) Thankfully, it's not all about Doctor Who here, but I've just recently hit a run of DVDs. :-)