Psychic grandmas, the theory of evolution, and a gun-weilding Tom Baker makes for one of the most tension-filled Doctor Who outings of the "classic" era.
Doctor WhoDistributor: BBC Warner
Cast: Tom Baker, Louise Jameson
UK Release Date: 2009-04-20
US Release Date: 2009-09-01
Yes, Tom Baker just used a gun.
Much controversy surrounded Russell T. Davies' reboot of the beloved Doctor Who when, during a 2005 episode simply titled "Dalek", the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) holds a gun up to a dying Dalek, threatening to kill it. Hardcore fans bemoaned the gesture, as the Doctor never, ever uses a gun (much less wear Converse sneakers as he did during his 11th incarnation). Then again, in that very episode, a Dalek was seen flying for the first time -- that is, if you don't count for the fact that one had already been seen flying in Sylvester McCoy-era serial Remembrance of the Daleks.
Though the Doctor in fact rarely uses a gun to settle a matter of extra-terrestrial importance, he has before, and does so again during a critical moment in the stellar Image of the Fendahl, a story of remarkable dramatic restraint that poses many deep questions.
It all starts with a scientist named Dr. Fendelman (a fantastic Denis Lill), who has discovered a human skull buried in Kenya that defies all logic: it is 12 million years old, beating out the oldest known human remains by only millions upon millions of years. With his small group of scientists in tow, Fendelman experiments with the skull excessively, and notes how a very modern symbol is unmistakably on this ancient find: that of a pentagram. As Fendelman fiddles with his creation using different technologies and frequencies, a series of mysterious deaths begin happening around his estate, and it's not long before the Doctor (Tom Baker) and Leela (Louise Jameson) show up to figure out what's going on.
This brilliant-paced episode unfolds rather slowly, keeping focus on the Doctor and the scientists in equal measure, slowly letting one detail slip after another, keeping the audience in the dark while still building tension as the bodies begin to pile up. During this time, several questions are posed about scientific ethics, the theory of evolution, and religious fanaticism, all of them culminating with a climatic scene involving exploding houses, monsters with the ability to teleport, and a rather bleak suicide. Though humor and classic character moments are still to be found (thank goodness we have a warrior like Leela to balance out the Doctor's non-combative stance in a time of crisis such as this), this is a rather dark, rather creepy Who serial, one that's unafraid to be a bit darker than the usual Who-fare and all the better because of it.
Though there are a few classic flubs still to be found (one particular shot in Part Three shows that a rather large room of note has no ceiling speak of -- you can see the retractable platforms well above the set), the BBC is remarkably restrained in its inclusion of extras this time out. Usually filled to the brim with clips and quotes and behind-the-scene documentaries, we here only receive one retrospective featurette (the rather dry "After Image"), a Baker-lead commentary track, and another run of "Deleted and Extended Scenes" which -- as is usually the case with classic Who episodes -- are rather unnecessary and drawn-out. It's a bit of a shame, too, as this remains one of the most tension-filled Baker episodes of note, and calls out more external analysis and background.
Ultimately, Image of the Fendahl -- with its Tarot deck, psychic grandmas, and disintegrating corpses -- remains a prime-era treat for Doctor Who fans, a keen reminder that some of the best episodes were in fact during Tom Baker's reign, and that yes, the Doctor has definitely used a gun before.