What does ‘evil’ mean?
For the first of a run of Torchwood stories using old Doctor Who villains, new range writer Tim Foley lands the Fendahl, a composite creature from the darker end of Tom Baker’s Tardis time, composed of several Fendahleen (rather touchingly and accurately described in this story as ‘Worms of Death’) and a core, usually a human being – indeed, usually a woman. The Fendahl rarely if ever pulls its punches – it’s evil, it’s ultimate, it brings death, game over.
But with the freedom to open up the idea to a more adult interpretation here, Tim Foley genuinely asks the question: what does ‘evil’ mean? Is the Fendahl making choices, or acting on the instincts it has that things need to die simply because of its existence? Is that evil? And if not, then what is?
Director Scott Handcock tweeted when this story was released that it was ‘honestly, the darkest thing I’ve ever worked on.’
He’s not wrong, because the story explores the difference between grand, cosmic, ego-driven ‘evil,’ all inescapable and huge and universe-ending, and real, human, rarely-even-making-headlines evil, of a kind that’s going on out there in our world today. It slams ‘Doctor Who Evil’ up against ‘Real Evil,’ and the result is disturbing in the extreme. If this one doesn’t make you shudder, you might want to check your nervous system.
In terms of the Fendahl, there’s a degree to which the original story is re-played – we’re back at Fetch Priory, and budget movie entrepreneur Marco (played with a deep, brusque vein of hating everyone by Gerald Tyler) is at the house to create, it seems, the climax to a deeply unpleasant film, based around the events of the original Fetch Priory horror. Based loosely, to be sure, and Marco has what he feels is a larger agenda, but that’s the set-up of the piece. Derek, the director of Marco’s movies, is a more down-to-earth scumbag, and Gavin Swift gives him a combination of unctuousness and viciousness that is horribly, horribly believable. Ged the techie, played by regular Big Finish writer Guy Adams, gives the misogyny in the room its most businesslike, semi-professional feel.
And then there’s Phil. Phil the actor, who sports a jockstrap and wields a prop sacrificial dagger as a priest of death.
Wait…it is a prop…isn’t it?
In among this crew of vastly, viciously, believably unpleasant men, there needs to be one woman. The victim.
‘The Scientist’ who re-enacts the events at Fetch Priory, giving over control of her body and what happens to it to the men in the room.
Because whether the men know it or not, what’s going on at Fetch Priory is more than a re-enactment for a film. The Fendahl is returning, entirely for its own purposes, its own grandiose, hungry understanding of ‘evil’ – but here, the Fendahl actually acts as something of an avenging angel, because here, there’s a darker, more insidious evil at work. The evil of men against women, for the pleasure of men, going beyond the lines of exploitation-porn, though that’s the baseline on which this story’s deeper darkness connects with the everyday, unseen, unscourged reality of far too many girls and women. Rooms full of men, with one, or two or however-many women in them, where consent might be ‘agreed’ but is never real, never given without a twist of coercion or a thrust of violence. Rooms beyond the agreed transactional consent of legitimate porn sets, where performers and their comfort are valued. Rooms where exploitation is the point.
Here, because this is Torchwood – the people who brought you Countrycide, remember – the line is pushed even further back, the gulf of human horror shown to be even deeper and darker than coercion, violence and rape, to the extent that the whole ‘Return of the Fendahl’ element feels almost like light relief by comparison. Worms of Death? No bother, because they exist in the mindscape of the grand guignol, of over-the-top spectacular movie horror.
Real horror is in the mundanity of the men who come to Fetch Priority to finish their movie, an anthology piece that’s seen lots of blondes go in front of the camera before Gwen Cooper steps into the limelight. Real evil is in that mundanity too, and it’s a point made all the more potent by the character of Phil, searching for ways to help Gwen out, then searching instead for justifications for what he’s about to do to her, in the ‘obviousness’ of her bad motherhood, in the fact that she’s there at all.
As for what happens to the men in this story – there’s a connection to the original Fendahl story, certainly, but there are also levels of justice at work, and there’s even a call-back to Doctor Who story Boom Town, in the philosophy of a change of heart, and whether it’s enough. Whether it can ever be enough.
Be advised – Night of the Fendahl is deeply dark, and if you have history of being compromised or overpowered or feeling prey to men and the conditions they engineer, consider this a trigger warning, because you’re in for a hard listen. It probably only works within Torchwood’s hard-edged, grown-up, looking-things-in-the-face remit, and certainly you could never do this in Doctor Who – it’d be inherently too dark for that audience. Within the Torchwood remit though, while it still pushes the envelope, it’s a brilliantly constructed piece of drama, using one of the most overtly black-and-white monsters of the horror era of Doctor Who as a spirit of both vengeance and justice against the real horrors of evil men who are everywhere, right now as you read this, in rooms where women are terrorised for profit, for porn, for the pain they can feel for the pleasure of others.
Eve Myles of course, we know from long experience, has brilliance in her, and frequently deploys it in her Torchwood career. Her journey in this story will remind you all over again of just how breathtaking she can be, as she takes Gwen from being an almost sleepwalking, accepting victim, through Seventies-style eldritch horror, to the real power of Gwen Cooper and the sense of natural justice at the end of the piece. Particularly in scenes with Phil (played with a lightness of touch that allows him a real journey of his own by Bradley Freegard), she delivers a Gwen here that stands in stark contrast to all the scumbags in the room – a fully-rounded person to whom they are willing that very bad things should happen, but who shows them the shame of themselves by the end of the night.
Take a deep, deep breath before you play Night of the Fendahl. But play it. The fact that it will disturb you so much is a mark of quite how brilliant it is in its writing, editing, playing and direction. The fact that it goes as far as it does, and then balances on the knife-edge of darkness and justice, puts it up there with Countrycide, but stops it falling off into the territory of exploitation and gives it a point beyond its pretty high shock value. You might not replay Night of the Fendahl for a while once you’ve heard it – but we can guarantee you won’t stop thinking about it for a week at least. Tony Fyler