Costumes, stereotypes and Image of the Fendahl (1977)

image fendahl

“I like your new dress” says the Doctor to Leela, early on in Image of the Fendahl. He’s stretching the definition of ‘dress’ to a new extreme. Dress? It’s a beige leather leotard, isn’t it? The Doctor has been travelling with Leela for about a year now so you’d think he’d have noticed. Up until now, Leela’s just had the one ‘dress’, another leather swimsuit affair, but in a dark brown. She was in that one when the Doctor met her on her home planet. Which begs the question, where has this new one come from? Did she make it between adventures? Or, worryingly, is there a wardrobe full of leatherware somewhere in the TARDIS?

Unexpectedly, (or perhaps completely expectedly, given that last exchange) I found myself thinking about costuming while watching Image of the Fendahl. And despite Leela’s costume, it’s actually lab coats which are to blame. The story concerns four scientists: Adam Colby (posh English paleontologist), Thea Ransome (posh English chronologist), Dr Fendelman (German? South American? Electronics expert, but also, um, archaeologist maybe?) and Max Stael (No idea, though perhaps his surname is Belgian and no idea, although he can conduct a post mortem).

Anyway, we know they’re scientists because they’re all wearing lab coats. And they wear them throughout, whether they are working in labs or not. Their commitment to the lab coat as a fashion statement for all times and places is unstinting. The latter three wear them to their deaths, and Colby is still wearing his as he scampers away from the story’s conclusion.

The lab coat love is a bit funny, but it’s an aspect of TV grammar. Costumes are shorthand communication with the audience. You can see that fellow’s in a lab coat, so I don’t have to keep telling you he’s a scientist. It saves time. In the same way, we know that Mrs Tyler’s tied to ‘the old ways’ because she’s wearing well worn clothes. And we know Jack’s from the country because he’s wearing a pork pie hat. That and his mummerset accent.

The characters in Image are well defined and well performed, but that doesn’t stop them being broad brush stereotypes. And that’s not a bad thing, that’s a function of a fast moving show like Doctor Who. Like a handy lab coat, a stereotype saves you time and helps you push along the plot.

Fendelman, for instance, is the ‘mad scientist’ type. Ultimately, he’s shown to not be the true bad guy, but he’s still a shifty piece of work. Hence the mustache. It is he who by use of a sonic time scan is hoping to produce the eponymous image, which we never actually get to see. He’s played by the highly entertaining Denis Lill, he who delivered some high camp in The Awakening. He has many great lines usually played to maximum capacity. But my favourite moment is when he says, “About ten years ago, when I was working on a…” Here the slightest pause and a sheepish wince “…missile guidance system”. Nicely played there.

Thea Ransome is the ‘sexy female scientist’ type. She’s brunette, because as actress Wanda Ventham explains in the story’s DVD documentary, female scientists aren’t allowed to be blonde. While the male scientists all refer to each other by surname as much as by first name, our female brainbox is always ‘Thea’, never ‘Ransome’. There is the inevitable hint of a romance between her and Colby, which adds an unfortunately sexist note to proceedings. Thea is eventually transformed into the Fendahl Core, when her lab coat disappears and is replaced by a grandiose gold lame ensemble, complete with eyes painted on her lids. With hair curling snakelike from her head and a stare with the power to transfix, she’s basically golden Medusa. And thus is transformed into another stereotype, the femme fatale.

Then there’s Adam Colby, not quite our hero (that’s Tom Baker, mid tenure and using his star power to tinker with the script), more wisecracking sidekick. He’s one of the good guys, so naturally he’s blonde haired and blue eyed. But he’s not lily white; he takes little convincing from Fendelman to delay reporting the death of the hiker. And under pressure he becomes a rude snob. “Don’t you threaten me, you swede-bashing cretin,” he snaps at Jack in Part Four, underlining the class division between the RP speaking scientists and the local rustics. But he’s funny and handsome (his shirt exposes a surprising amount of chest at one stage), so we know he’s one our side; Leela even gives him a peck on the cheek to underline the point.

He’s also part of Image’s two most disturbing moments, when down in the cellar, technology and occult superstition meet in unholy union. The first comes when Colby and Fendelmen have been tied up by bad egg Stael (he’s the ‘just nuts’ type). Colby is forced to watch when Stael shoots Fendelman in the head. It happens offscreen, but it’s still an arresting moment; you certainly wouldn’t get it in New Who. Colby, being the resilient specimen that he is, takes this gruesome event in his stride. Whereas surely it would leave any real person deeply traumatised. But this is Doctor Who, the plot rolls on and so do we.

The second nasty moment comes when Stael, transfixed by the Fendahl Core, asks the Doctor to bring him a gun, and thus assist his suicide. It’s ghastly. Whether or not the Doctor’s role in it bothers you (as it does me), it’s clearly unnecessary. Stael could have had the gun on his person, or reached it through a colossal mental effort. Having the Doctor bring him the gun means he plays an active part in Stael’s death, which sits uncomfortably the Doctor as we know him.

There’s a few other moments in Image where another look over by the script editor might have helped. There’s the infamous bit where someone inexplicably lets the Doctor out of a locked room, but we never find out who. But there’s also some obvious padding in Part Three when the Doctor and Leela go back to the TARDIS and travel to the solar system’s dead fifth planet to discover that it’s trapped in a time loop. “We’ve been on a wild goose chase,” says the Doctor, but at least it has helped fill up an episode. Then there’s a whole lot of guff about them being late returning to the Priory (and the plot), which is nonsense considering they’re in a time machine.

But the story’s most contrived moment comes when Leela takes a brief nap. It’s so she can dream about the Fendahl attacking her, but I think it’s never a great idea for one of your main characters go have a sleep in the middle of a supposedly thrilling adventure. In addition, there seems to have been no money for a bedroom set, so she sleeps in the floor of the console room. Really? That cold hard floor? Those bright white lights? Perhaps warriors of the Sevateem are trained to sleep anywhere. And make replacement clothes for themselves.

I said earlier that Image’s characters are played to type, and in lots of ways this is a typical Doctor Who story, at least pre 1996. It’s got a country manor, a big green monster, physical transformation and a long hidden alien influencing humanity. But it’s typical in some less positive ways too – the Van Danniken plot’s a bit dated, the pace is stop/start, some of the effects are dodgy, it’s a bit sexist, it’s a bit classist and – with its baddies being foreign and its goodies being English – it’s a bit racist. Really though what it is, is typical 70s Doctor Who.

LINK to The Girl Who Waited. In both, a character is keeping a disabled robot as a pet (Handbot Rory and K9).

NEXT TIME… You’re rubbish as a human! Long ago in an English autumn, it’s Human Nature/The Family of Blood.

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