Image of the Fendahl – end of an era? In praise of Chris Boucher
There’s something just a bit sad about watching Image of the Fendahl. Because even when it’s really good, you know, in hindsight, that it’s really the end of an era. The era when horror rather than sci fi defined the series is now at an end.
Chris Boucher wrote three rather fine adventures – Face of Evil, Robots of Death and this, Image of the Fendahl. This is stop notch spook archaeology stuff with a glowing skull and a gestalt villain that’s part slug and part creepy goddess with painted eyelids. Oh, and there’s an old “wise woman” who “knows” things, who is forever on the cusp of actually saying “I saw something naa-aa-aasty in the woodshed”. The slugs are dealt with using salt (of course) but the creepy painted eyelid goddess is considerably more threatening. Face of Evil is more conceptually ambitious, Robots of Death is more perfectly plotted and executed, but Image of the Fendahl still deserves a look. Best of all, K9 isn’t in it at all until the brief jokey coda.
(Mind you, Robert Holmes’ Sunmakers followed immediately on from Fendahl – not “horror” but pleasantly “horrible”.)
The whole thing is set in an ancient priory in haunted grounds – lighting, pacing, and Dudley Simpson doing the all the work of suggestion and excitement as usual. As usual, the best way of implying that something is really frightening is to point a camera at the faces of people who are really really frightened. In defiance of T.S. Eliot, you could call this the “subjective correlative”.
Philip Hinchcliffe is gone at this point and Robert Holmes is clearing out his desk. Complaining bitterly about some of the best scenes from Seeds of Doom and Deadly Assassin, Mary Whitehouse has apparently succeeded in implementing a “tone it down” policy at the Beeb which will steer the series away from horror towards a jokier version of sci fi. Boucher himself is a magnificently grumpy leftie, whose best writing owes much to Malcolm Hulke as well as Robert Holmes. Hulke and Holmes create wonderfully dystopian versions of political corruption and venality.
Another part of the reason for the reason for Doctor Who’s relative decline in the late 1970s would have to be Blake’s Seven, script editor – Chris Boucher. Many of the darkest and most compelling imaginations in the Whoniverse would be diverted to Blake’s Seven. Terry Nation, Robert Holmes, Chris Boucher, Dudley Simpson, David Maloney, Roger Murray Leach… the list goes on. The BBC had, in the shape of Blake’s Seven, a dystopian sci fi programme, and Doctor Who inevitably looked a bit lightweight standing next to it at times.
Now I had a great love for Blake’s Seven. It blew my adolescent mind with the stylishness of its sheer nastiness. But there was a price to be paid for its strangely British bitterness, and that price was paid for by Doctor Who.