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The Stones of Blood

Reviewed by Phillip J Gray

The Doctor and Romana fit together the first two segments of the Key to Time before arriving at their next destination, Cornwall on contemporary Earth. In their quest for the third segment they are drawn into an adventure involving modern-day druids worshipping at a stone circle, a Celtic goddess, an eccentric archaeologist, and a spaceship stalled in hyperspace...

'The universe is in danger of eternal chaos.'
Script and the balance between plot and sub-plot

David Fisher's script is a good storyline with a minimal number of characters, allowing for their greater development as individuals. It is always difficult when considering stories produced in the late Seventies to know whether a script is good per se or because of the finesse of the script editor and the embellishments made by Tom Baker, but even Tom Baker could only produce wit from scenes with good dialogue to start with. It is appropriate, then, to judge the script to be a good one; certainly there are some marvellous lines for the main characters and the bureaucratically-blinded Megara, although there is also rather more technobabble than is usual in a story of this period, thankfully interspersed with some witty line deliveries from Tom Baker: 'Run as if something very nasty were after you, because something very nasty will be after you!' he tells a concerned Professor Rumford when she asks what to do if the Ogri arrive.

The six stories which make up the Key to Time sequence need to be judged both on their merits as a story (the plot), and for their contribution in the overall thematic sequence. The threads of the quest in The Stones of Blood are handled very well. Unlike The Trial of a Time Lord some eight years later, when the series attempted to repeat the same experiment, the threads of subplot are not only used successfully to encircle the beginning and ending of the story, but also run relatively unobtrusively through the narrative as a whole. At the same time, and this comes about through a combination of excellent scripting, script editing and acting, the subplot is not allowed to weaken the storyline. The first five minutes are spent introducing/reintroducing the audience to the ongoing theme of the search for the segments to the Key to Time. Given that this is the first contact with the casual viewer and is designed to 'hook' them into staying for the full twenty-five minutes, this is a particularly significant move on the writer/script editor's part. It demonstrates their commitment to the season's theme: the opening minutes of the story are, after all, a substantial chunk of narrative which might otherwise be spent introducing the viewer to the setting and characters.

The quest is painted in broad enough strokes, with references to Black and White Guardians and the Doctor's apocalyptic mutterings, while the fact that Romana was unaware of the true identity of the being who launched her on her travels with the Doctor and the reference early in the first episode back to the events of Calufrax in the previous story are presented to followers of the season as a whole. While the formal quest in The Stones of Blood is sublimated by the events at the stone circle and the Doctor's engagement with the Megara, he refers to it in the course of the trial and there are constant references to the fact that the Doctor and Romana are looking for something. The viewer is presented with a number of objects which might or might not be the third segment and is encouraged to believe both by the setting and the story title that one of the megalithic stones is the segment. As the Doctor and Romana become caught up in events the quest becomes submerged in the scenes around the circle and in the spaceship in hyperspace, but obvious clues are left for the viewer to piece together, and for the less investigative viewer, the Doctor and Romana often explain what is happening. This is why The Stones of Blood and the other stories of the season are much more successful than The Trial of a Time Lord: events are constantly explained both overtly and more subtly to the viewer. Romana and the Doctor realise that whoever attacked her disguised as the Doctor must have figured out how to use the segment's transmutative properties. And as the major plot is resolved with the apprehension of Cessair, the subplot emerges with the revelation that the Seal wielded by Vivien Fay/Cessair is capable of bestowing powers of transmutation, justifying the Doctor's recovery of the seal as Cessair taunts him moments before her own final transformation. The final scene in the TARDIS anteroom not only illustrates the Doctor and Romana's achievement with the fitting together of the three segments, but renders the story an enclosed entity by rounding it off in preparation for their next destination.

'I always thought that Druidism was founded by John Aubrey in the seventeenth century as a joke...'
Establishing the pseudo-Celtic setting

The setting is established immediately through the opening scenes with the banter between the protagonists about Earth being the Doctor's favourite planet, but also with the sacrificial ceremony accompanied by fairly blatant chanting. This clearly establishes the pseudo-Celtic background and setting, with the initial scenes at the stone circle introducing the enjoyably pastiche themes of Celtic mythology and archaeology in which the story is set. The Seventies was the era of the theories of van Daniken, in which gods were aliens and lost civilisations possessed advanced technology, and The Stones of Blood fits neatly into this genre. Moreover the characters act as channels of information about the setting while also didactically introducing details in an enjoyable and unobtrusive fashion. The Doctor tells Romana that the monoliths were used for astrological purposes by early humans in the first episode, and further information about the nature of the mystical Celtic places of Great Britain are revealed in later scenes, particularly when Romana, Emilia and Vivien are in Miss Fay's cottage. This perpetuates the mythical atmosphere present in the story, something assisted by the main question directed at the viewer: who or what is the Cailleach, and why are they posing as a four thousand year old Celtic goddess?

'I think you should advise your client that there is little chance of mercy.'
From Celtic escapades to Crown Court in space

As Howe, Stammers and Walker note in The Fourth Doctor Handbook, there is a fairly abrupt change in the nature of The Stones of Blood, with the transfer of several of the major characters to the spaceship in hyperspace in the third episode.1 The initial amusement generated by the Megara and their legalistic dialogue tires, although these scenes allow Tom Baker to demonstrate his theatricality in the previously unseen role of advocate, through a mixture of righteous indignation and sharpness of thought. There is some snappy and thought-provoking dialogue, such as the Megara's response to Vivien Fay's attachment to the truth ray: 'an answer within the legal definition of truth'. But compared with the darkened locations and suspenseful events of previous episodes, these scenes come across as rather flat and tedious. This viewer found himself much more interested in the relationship between K9 and Emilia Rumford guarding the Doctor's machine at the stone circle. John Stout's designs for the spaceship in hyperspace are, it has to be said, nothing spectacular, consisting of grey corridors with little obvious attempt at originality. The control chamber is better: the open space is a valuable arena for the confrontation between the Megara and the Doctor in the final two episodes, and allows for the expression of Tom Baker's physicality, such as his pacing up and down before delivering another verbal blow in the judicial fray. The expanse of the set also allows for the simultaneous presence and distancing from the proceedings of the villainess; Vivien Fay is able to both comment on and draw back from the Doctor's predicament. It is strange for the viewer to be able to watch Miss Fay sit by while the Doctor is interrogated by the officious Megara. In fact, the denouement to the story is one in which the Doctor does not contribute significantly to her apprehension at all. Although he does force the Megara to enter Miss Fay's mind to discover that she is the criminal Cessair of Diplos, it is the justice machines that destroy one of the Ogri, return the party to Earth and imprison Miss Fay with more than a measure of poetic justice.

'Well, you know how it is, Professor, I often get tied up in my work...'
The underscoring of tension with humour

I have argued elsewhere that the use of wit was a major feature in Doctor Who's successful underscoring of both implied and real violence in the Seventies.2 There are many examples of this technique in The Stones of Blood, both of visual and verbal wit. These serve both to entertain and to defuse tension: the umbrella over the head scene when the Doctor leaves the TARDIS, for example, or the Doctor's covering K9's 'eyes' in Part Three when about to examine the body of de Vries. The metaphorical protection the latter demonstrates is a hint to the viewer that something less than pleasant is about to happen and indeed the Doctor's next words are that de Vries is 'Dead. Skull smashed to pulp.' The verbal and physical wit in the story never distract from the plot or threaten the integrity of the lead characters and contribute significantly to the understated menace present throughout the story.

'Vivien and I are conducting a piece of genuine scholastic research.'
Interesting and credible female characters come to the fore

Characterisation is one of the most interesting and entertaining features of The Stones of Blood. The relationship between the Doctor and Romana is firmly established in the opening scene. Tom Baker is his archetypal self of the late seventies: confident, authoritative, witty and entertaining. Romana is a cool and self-confident associate of the Doctor. I say associate, rather than companion, because Mary Tamm injects a degree of self-confidence into the first incarnation of Romana which transcends most of the limitations built into the character as a plot device. But the Doctor is the hero, so while it is the assistant who fits the pieces of crystal together it is the Doctor who reasserts his dominant position within their relationship. Romana's cleverness is accompanied by a demonstration of a degree of impracticality, manifested as frivolity. The viewer is aware that her choice of heeled courts as footwear is probably going to be inappropriate, something confirmed a short time later. Note also that when Romana returns to change her shoes later in the story she also changes her whole outfit! (Speaking of clothes, I would like here to express my undying devotion to the gorgeous pink trouser suit worn by Vivien Fay in the first two episodes!) Romana's naiveté is a useful device for the dissemination of humour - the tennis and Brown Owl references, for example - and also for the introduction of plot elements which alert the attention of the audience, such as the marks in the ground near the stone circle. Although Romana can easily surmise through scientific methods that these were caused by something weighing over three and a half tons, the viewer and the Doctor know, though she does not, that there are no animals in England heavy enough to make such indentations. The other companion is one whom many have no time for; but K9 works very well in this story. He is as wonderfully insufferable as ever (witness the 'noble self-sacrifice scene' when damaged by the Ogri at de Vries' house), and his partnership with Emilia Rumford is never less than enjoyable, the smug automaton and the elderly archaeologist working very well together.

Beatrix Lehmann's portrayal of Emilia Rumford is brilliant, and like Sylvia Coleridge before her she would have been a marvellous companion. Whether riding to the Doctor's rescue on her bicycle, munching sausage sandwiches or teamed up with the Doctor and K9 and operating the Doctor's device for travelling into hyperspace, she is a constantly entertaining yet credible eccentric. The lovable nature imbued by Beatrix Lehmann's performance adds layers to the character. But unlike so many characters in Doctor Who, we learn that she has a life outside of the narrow confines of the storyline. It is revealed to the viewer that she is a qualified and respected archaeologist who has lectured in New York and is concerned for her academic reputation; this can only enhance the credibility of the character. Susan Engel is excellent as the creepy Miss Fay, giving a performance reminiscent of Eleanor Bron at some points. For the first time a character in the search for one of the segments knows how to use its properties, in this case the power to transform objects into the appearance of something or someone else. But the character seems a little motivationless. Surely she would have had many such opportunities to leave in the four thousand or so years since she escaped from the spaceship to Earth? The character seems to lose direction further having revealed herself to be Cessair of Diplos, although there are some good scenes when she despatches Romana to the spaceship and when she confronts Emilia and destroys the Doctor's device for hyperspatial travel. Perhaps this loss of focus is because she spends most of the final two episodes waiting around while the Doctor conducts his defence against the execution verdict delivered by the Megara. Delaying the revelation of Vivien Fay's true identity until the conclusion of the third episode would have been more satisfying.

[Vivien Fay]

Professor Rumford's constant use of the refrain 'girls', the initial pairings of Emilia and Vivien and the subsequent partnerships of Romana and Emilia, and Romana and Vivien confirm the sisterly nature of the story. These combinations work extremely well together; in the third episode Mary Tamm is given the opportunity to take the role of the Doctor and Emilia Rumford becomes the assistant as they search Vivien Fay's cottage for any hint of her alien nature. The fact that the major characters are almost exclusively women is what really makes The Stones of Blood stand out among Doctor Who stories. At first the main character seems to be de Vries (played just this side of OTT by Nicholas McArdle), who occupies the large house and is the leader of the druid worshippers. He dominates the beginning of the story while Romana, Professor Rumford and Vivien Fay are only in the background; the viewer initially has little reason to believe that they are going to perform more than the decorative function of many of the women characters in the series. But the Tom Baker era is unique among the seven Doctors for the presence of strong and credible women characters: Adrasta, Miss Winters, Vira and Amelia Ducat, to name a few. Notice how de Vries' presence is effectively removed by the middle of the second episode, while his death by one of the Ogri summoned by the 'goddess' he worshipped further reinforces the female presence. The women characters in The Stones of Blood not only occupy the present but also the mythological and the real past. Vivien Fay is the Cailleach, and as the Doctor tells Emilia at the beginning of the third episode, her friend is not merely related to the women in the paintings, but that she is the Montcalm and the Trefusis families. Vivien Fay has masqueraded as a Celtic goddess to control access to the stones for nearly four thousand years, a reversal of the norms of power relationships both in society and the usual in Doctor Who.

'Beware the raven and the crow. They are her servants.'
Direction, location filming and atmospheric touches

This is the only Doctor Who story directed by Darrol Blake, the series being the worse for his never returning. Blake has a real feel for the location filming, the final product having a much more polished look than the usual jumpy studio/location production. The simulated night filming (using a dark filter) is impressive, avoiding the tacky brightness which plagued many stories in the Eighties. The story benefits enormously in the first three episodes from the constant flow of action between the stone circle, the TARDIS, Vivien Fay's cottage and the spaceship. One really gets the feeling that the TARDIS is more than simply a machine for time travel when the Doctor and Romana return to it on various occasions to change clothes or to fetch equipment. The sets for Miss Fay's cottage and de Vries' house are excellent and are much more evocative than the usual studio sets. The direction of the studio sequences is more workmanlike, although there is a good shot of the spaceship model in hyperspace where one can see Tom Baker on the inside looking out.

The excellence and subtlety of Darrol Blake's direction is perhaps best demonstrated in the ways in which he builds the viewer up to the gradual realisation that Vivien Fay is the villainess. The character's introduction is accompanied by a threatening thrust of measuring equipment into the ground, the Doctor remarking that she arrived in almost complete silence. The camera lingers on Susan Engel, last among the party to leave the stones, and there is a sting of incidental music which hints that there is rather more than there seems to Miss Fay. When Vivien destroys the Doctor's machine and summons the Ogri there is a striking close-up on Engel, complete with overlaid effects, which adds much to the scene as she stares out from the screen at the viewer. There are also some wonderful little directorial touches: the Hitchcock-like scene when Romana leaves the TARDIS and senses the raven on the roof behind her both emphasises her own alienness and admirably reinforces the Celtic atmosphere.

'How do you kill a stone?'
Monsters and music

The Ogri are probably the most credible of monsters in the sixteenth season, given that they are neither just plain bad as in The Ribos Operation, or brilliantly crap, as with the monster in the first part of The Androids of Tara (also written, of course, by David Fisher). The scenes where an Ogri smashes down doors to get into de Vries' house are rather more impressive than K9 holding them off at the stone circle. They work best as a 'concept' monster; that of blood-sucking aliens disguised as megalithic stones, as demonstrated in the scene where they kill the campers.

As for music, I must confess that this is not a feature I notice especially in Doctor Who. The best incidental music is, of course, the kind which does not draw attention to itself away from the narrative. The incidentals for The Stones of Blood are fairly standard Dudley Simpson fare, pleasant enough in their own way and nothing startlingly inappropriate. There is a nice cello interlude which accompanies the Doctor walking across the field towards de Vries' house in the second episode and some pleasant woodwind later in the story. Also effective is the 'bull-fighting' music used when the Doctor lures one of the Ogri over the cliff top in Part Three and the sucking sound used to denote their approach and presence.

But a few weak points

These ought not to be dwelt upon at the expense of so much that is good. The cliffhangers are not particularly impressive; although that between the first two episodes is handled with some sensitivity and hints that there is still some distrust between the two Time Lords. The impressiveness of the scene where Mary Tamm is CSO'ed onto stock footage of a cliff face and waves dashing against rocks diminishes with its frequency (and I would be willing to bet that the footage was taken from Poldark!) Susan Engel's silly silver make-up when she transforms into Cessair detracts from her credibility as an intergalactic criminal by making her look like something out of Lost in Space, and it restricts her facial expressions and distracts attention away from Miss Engel's smouldering dark eyes.

Conclusion

Not only is The Stones of Blood a suspenseful and entertaining story in its own right, with interesting characters and a good balance of wit and danger, but it also admirably demonstrates that there is room for a thematic sequence in a Doctor Who season if the relationship between the primary and subplots are handled correctly and if the primary plot is a strong story in its own right. The references to the quest for the Key to Time are present and are reinforced overtly at the beginning and end of the story and more subtly throughout, without distracting from the progress of the events at hand. Darrol Blake's direction is skilful and evocative and the acting cannot be faulted, making The Stones of Blood an excellent example of Doctor Who at its best.

Footnotes

  1. Howe, Stammers and Walker, The Fourth Doctor Handbook, p109.
  2. Why the Nimon Should be our Friends. Storytelling and Stylistic Change in Doctor Who, TSV 41, p29-33.

This item appeared in TSV 45 (September 1995).

Index nodes: The Stones of Blood