Doctor Who and the Image of the Fendahl

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Doctor Who and the Image of the Fendahl – Written by Terrance Dicks & Read by Louise Jameson – CD / Audible (BBC Audio)

You can tell almost immediately that Terrance Dicks probably enjoyed writing this novelization.

You can tell because from very early on, it’s clear that he wants you to enjoy reading – or indeed listening to – this novelization. The tells are all there – the lives of even minor characters are decently fleshed out, so that you feel that, even if you don’t know them, you’ve had a sufficient peek into what drives them and makes them tick, just before Dicks, as is his relentlessly jolly wont, kills them off in some horrible, horrible way.

That’s not as easy a trick to pull off as it sounds. It’s been tried in the recent history of Who and it ended up feeling mawkish and manipulative by degrees (Yes, Kerblam!, we’re most especially looking at you). Dicks was always a master of the combination of giving just enough information to get the mood or motive of a character across so we’d buy into them, and then killing them off, mostly to mess with us but crucially also to deliver some advancement in the storytelling. In Image of the Fendahl he practically gives us a pre-credits death, before bouncing us into the business of mysterious human skulls where they should be impossible, time scanning equipment, and a living version of death, a gestalt creature made up of twelve sluglike, tentacle-mouthed Fendahleen, and the core of their being, a previously rational scientist named Thea Ransome. There’s something gleefully demented in Chris Boucher’s original TV script which, to his credit, Dicks maintains in the story of these deathslugs who are fatally allergic to salt (the irresistible idea that the story emerged from the practice of killing actual slugs in this way, and possibly the idea of them wanting some payback, flits through the mind when listening to it – especially when the Doctor rather casually does a thing which was only rarely done in Classic Who, though more and more in New Who in the Russell T Davies era, dropping in the notion that the Fendahl was a creature from the myths of the Doctor’s own people, and later confirming it when we understand that the records about how the Time Lords dealt with their slug infestation have been time-looped so they can’t be accessed). The story, like some others that would come after it, blends ritualistic mumbo-jumbo with scientific flapdoodle and creates something which is a heady mixture of both, but in which against all the odds you never for a moment doubt the reality of what you’re told or shown – there’s a quite gruesomely high body-count in this story, and that helps convince you of the seriousness of what you’re dealing with, even in the face of relative absurdity, with power-hungry dark witches in the basement, salt-dispersing white witches in the village, time-tampering scientific archaeologists with really dodgy names and more besides.

Dicks, in bringing all this to his novelization, does not in any sense hang about. It’s not a rushed delivery, and it also never feels too thin or brief in its coverage of the world or the dangerous scenario with which it’s faced, as for instance, his Robots of Death novelization rather did, but it belts along, taking us in a reasonably logic sequence of events from the Doctor and Leela being forced down to Earth by the effects of Professor Fendelman’s time scanner, through the sudden escalation of events once the riddle of a too-ancient human skull is uncovered, through witchcraft one way and another, saving the world from temporal implosions and ultimately throwing a skull into a supernova.

As you do. Week after week on Classic Tom Baker Who. Because why the heck wouldn’t you?

Louise Jameson’s reading of this story matches her tone and speed to that of the novelization, so you get quite a jolly romp, with the quirky Time Lord and his ‘noble savage’ companion rushing into danger with a relatively cast iron sense of right and wrong, mixed with an underlying darkness always pulsing along through the beats of the story’s structure – a combination which more or less defined Jameson’s time on the show as Leela, and which not without reason continues to make that period one of the fandom’s firmest favourites.

It’s rare that the sense of good and evil has been as distinctly painted as it is in Image of the Fendahl, because for all it deals with gestalt entities and distinctly ugly sluglike creatures, its fundamental philosophical position is that the Fendahl is simply…death. ‘How do you kill death?’ asks the Doctor at one point, and it’s a question that seems ultimately unanswerable – which means the best that can be done is to keep killing off individual Fendahleen so the Fendahl itself never reaches full realisation…and then of course to throw the skull that houses its existence into the nearest supernova you can find. It’s not death for the Fendahl, exactly, it’s more the Naughty Step Of The Fendahl, where the incarnation of death itself can think about its actions in a nice warm environment until someone or something sees fit to break it free again.

In addition to this black-and-white battle of life versus death though, the human stories are what keep us enthralled in the story: Thea Ransome, guilty of nothing but falling in with a moderately psychotic crowd; Max Stael, probably destined to be a wrong ’un no matter what walk of life he fell into; Dr Fendelman, his destiny probably manipulated since the dawn of human ascendancy to reach this moment so he could unwittingly serve the power of death; Ma Tyler and her grandson Jack, trying to merely get along when the ultimate evil drops into the lives.

You should of course feel entirely free to speculate on your own headcanon in which Jack Tyler grows up to be the father of a son named Pete, and a granddaughter named Rose, and that the whole of New Who as we know it is actually a dark Fendahl plot to engineer another encounter between the Fendahl and the Doctor. You should feel free to go entirely nuts with that. But meanwhile, the audiobook release of Image of the Fendahl is punchy, well-rounded, delivered with verve both by Terrance Dicks and by Louise Jameson, taking you back to one of the several ‘golden ages’ of Doctor Who and blending science and witchcraft together in a way that absolutely shouldn’t work – but absolutely does. Tony Fyler

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