Flat Earth Society

The greatness and uniqueness of ‘Image of the Fendahl’ is shown in the scene where the Doctor “explains” what’s going on to Adam Colby. Of course, he doesn’t actually do any such thing. He suggests two possible explanations. He favours the first but his listener is sceptical so the Doctor offers an alternative which his listener finds more plausible. The Doctor also says that it might all be a coincidence. His tone is flippant but there is no real reason to suppose that he isn’t being serious. It is clear that the Doctor is theorising and that he doesn’t have the final answer.

This is fascinating and, as far as I can recall, unique in classic Doctor Who.

The Doctor has often been seen to behave superficially like a scientist (mucking about with test tubes, talking about oscillators, etc.) but this is the first and only real occasion when he really acts like one (like an idealised, Baconian one, that is). The Doctor is admitting that he doesn’t know and doing his best to come up with workable explanations which fit the facts. Moreover, the person the Doctor is speaking to is a scientist who has demanded answers and is coming to his own conclusions about how plausible the Doctor’s ideas are. No final decision is reached or stated as to which solution (if any) is correct. Fendleman’s rant to Stael before his death tends to support the Doctor’s idea about genetic manipulation (Colby’s preferred option, possibly because he heard Fendleman speak) but the Doctor seems to prefer his first idea about a “biological transmutation field” which Colby might doubt simply because he doesn’t know what one is.

This is all highly appropriate in a story that is preoccupied with the tensions between science, evidence, theory, supposition, superstition and belief.

The story opens with Colby fretting over a dissonance between established scientific facts (the age of the skull) and the apparent impossibility of their implications. (Someone once asked J.B.S. Haldane if any scientific finding could disprove evolution; “Fossil rabbits in the pre-Cambrian” was his gruff response.) Meanwhile, Fendleman spends much of the story trying to convince Adam of the validity of his theories. Wonderfully, Fendleman gets it partly right and partly wrong (something else that doesn’t usually happen in tales like this). His theory about the pentagram being a neural relay seems to be borne out, but his idea of the nature of the power it contains is woefully mistaken.  Nobody is really entirely Right or Wrong about anything in this story, which is very refreshing.

Stael is an interesting character. His employment of the occult ritual is self-consciously ironic and cynical. He rejects Colby’s taunts about being a Satanist and claims to be unimpressed by “the grimoires”. Nevertheless, he employs occult language and ceremonies… this might be meant as showing unconscious drives. Scott Fredericks (an actor with a lot of interiority) even seems to be working to endow Stael with a repressed sexual interest in Colby. Stael’s ideas exist on that deeply-70s line of thinking along which the occult, paranormal phenomena and science intersect.…

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