‘I was frightened in childhood by a mythological horror,’ the Doctor confesses at one point. References to his childhood are few and far between – Pertwee’s Doctor occasionally mentions his youth, when he visited the hermit on the mountain, but I think it’s largely in the Williams years that we start to hear about Time Lord children (or Time Tots), and get a glimpse of the scared little boy that Moffat riffs on in The Girl in the Fireplace and Listen.
Alongside the Doctor’s fear, and susceptibility to the Fendahl’s power we get Max preparing to sacrifice Thea to the Fendahl in a black magic altar which features modern banks of computers, in best Nigel Kneale fashion (as is the reveal that all ghosts are Stone Tape style time distortions). The scientists at Fetch Priory have barely interacted with the Doctor at this point, and are still squabbling between themselves, culminating in Fendelman’s brilliantly creept: ‘Mankind has been used.’ All this, plus the shuffling Fendahleen slithering through the oak-panelled corridors make this episode scary.
But, mindful of the new direction, it’s not too scary. Even the darkest parts of the Hinchcliffe seasons were leavened by funny lines (often by Robert Holmes). That’s true of Image of the Fendahl. But beyond that, Tom Baker is pitching his performance differently: suddenly this is the way he’s played the Doctor pretty much ever since, especially in Big Finish, suddenly declaring, sotto voice, ‘I love fruitcake.’ I think he’s brilliant in this: judging just how far to push the comedy before he flips. The TARDIS trip to the fifth planet is even weirder than the trip to 1980 in Pyramids of Mars. The Doctor and Leela have already barely been part of the main events at Fetch Priority, so finding another way to delay them crashing in is pushing it. But it’s worth it for Tom’s brilliantly cranky performance, snapping at Leela then apologising, and seeming grateful for the way she excuses his inability to think of everything.
Next episode: Image of the Fendahl – Part Four