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BICYCLE? You’ll die with blasphemy on your lips!

Television

Doctor Who
The Stones of Blood

 

A story of two distinctive parts (albeit, it’s a four-parter), and one with equally diametric views held over which is better, The Stones of Blood’s appeal, I would argue, is that both sections (or segments) support, inform and contrast with each other. It won the DWAS season survey back in 1978, although some would probably argue that’s about as significant as feting the most popular (least unpopular) entry in Season 24. The story returned the series to an increasingly rare (in the Williams era) Earth setting and indulged the “gothic horror” that had become the defining force of the Hinchliffe run. Albeit, “gothic comedy” might be a more accurate description.

And it saw the introduction of the underrated David Fisher to the show, who’d pen a handful of stories over the next two years. The most surprising notable point on this revisit, however, was the shock realisation that, having been most familiar with the VHS release, “PLYMOUTH? Martha, the Callieach will find us wherever we run!” is a deleted scene and has been consigned to the DVD release’s extras. For this, amongst many other capital crimes, the Restoration Team should be taken out and exposed to blindingly over-saturated colour.

The Unfolding Text only mentions The Stones of Blood in respect of Graham Williams vetoing the birthday-cake scene (Tom’s humour was permitted only up to a point, and his producer stressed that “I was conscious more than anything else actually in that three years of keeping him on a rein… Just like guiding a very strong and fierce horse”).

It’s some fans’ eternal bugbear of that Tom went too far during these three years (that, the cheapness, and the “undergraduate” humour permeating the show). It’s curious, then, that in terms of self-conscious humour (I should stress, not in terms of the actual quality of that humour) nu-Who takes more leaves out of the Williams era’s book than any other (and none other than Sir Ian Levine, continuity freak that he is, sees only its obeisance to that aspect, rather than the very element – the humour – he was so vocally critical of in The Unfolding Text).

Indeed, Steven Moffat, in one of his pre-nu-Who diatribes, launched into the later Tom years like a mechanical digger (while singing the virtues of Davison, for Peter’s sake). He suggested that “some drunk old lardie like Tom Baker would come on to a sudden, shuddering halt in the middle of the set (and) stare at the camera because he can’t bear the idea that someone else is in his show”.

The irony is, if you substitute Executive Producer for lead actor, you pretty much get Moffat’s proprietorial attitude to a series he ran into the ground with lame continuity, risible retcons, and making every character sound exactly the same. Tom could go too far in this era (although, more often than not, his additions, and his attitude that it should revolve around him, were spot on), but it’s infinitely preferable to the tiresome show-off antics Moff forced on his pair of Doctors (from fezs to sunglasses to electric guitars to the incessant, gnawing, interminable, self-infatuated, aggrandising speeches).

Where was I? Oh yes, those who rate the first two episodes as opposed to the second two, and vice versa. I find it difficult to gauge the story in those terms, as I like the whole thing (indeed, I’m easily pleased by Season 16; among the first four stories, I find it quite difficult to state a preference for which is best). If there’s a more popular tendency, it’s probably towards rating the first two higher, for usual reasons of Hinchliffe-ness (Carry on Hinchcliffe, more like).

Accordingly, The Discontinuity Guide announced “The first two episodes are delightfully Hammeresque, but the last half of the story… is woeful”. And, while it gave rounded approval, it’s notable that The Television Companion emphasises Stones’ atmosphere rather than laughs – because that makes it “proper” Who – most of which can be found in the earth-bound scenes (the ravens, the campers, although, as it notes, there’s a certain claustrophobia to the hyperspace vessel).

In contrast, there’s Alan Barnes inner nine-year-old reverie for the season in DWM 290, which amounts to suggesting there’s nothing there but what’s on the surface. He proposes “You should definitely prefer the hyperspace scenes to the occult and all that magic bit earlier on”. Philip Sandifer too, argues the merits of the hyperspace episodes. Although, like most of his arguments, he’s prone to exaggeration for effect.

He has some solid points as ever, but harping on about how Stones continues the season’s “anti-epic” stance is really just a fancy way of recognising the comic spin the Williams era throws at everything, so really not as schematically configured as he suggests. Likewise, his pronouncement that the Key to Time is really about the need to “upend rigid definitions of the world”. It’s more resultant of a vague overriding concept at the outset than express intent, and besides, if one were to go with his reading, one would surely have to consider the possibility that there is no rigid definition of what the Key to Time is about, or indeed, what it takes “to bring about the proper balance of forces” (he does make a good case for the Megara fitting into his balance-skewing argument, though).

It’s in Sandifer’s suggestion that this is “the most fun Doctor Who has ever had being anti-authoritarian” that his tendency to oversell his pitch begins to chafe. As with his treatise on punk, he’s too in love with his trailblazing, armchair posturing, and when he passes judgement on those who find the demise of de Vries and Martha funny (“loved ironically by geeks who want to pretend they’re hipsters” – Je-sus!) he’s really talking about himself (he’s the one with the chin beard) and his inverted-commas pseudo-academia. Along the way, he also mentions he was once married (so as to imply he’s had sex at least once).

The DoctorYou move very quietly, Miss Fay. I didn’t hear you approach.
Vivien FayI used to be a Brown Owl.
RomanaReally?

Where Sandifer scores in his analysis of Stones, though, is in taking apart Lawrence Miles’ miserablist position on the Williams era. The eternally grumpy Miles held no truck with the story (“wretched Spanish bull fight music” being the least of his complaints), and Sandifer rightly identifies that there are many different levels on which one can appreciate a tale, and they don’t all have to reduce to suspense and whether the Doctor can “get out of that”. He proceeds to make a strong case for the manner in which Stones subverts traditional narrative explanations (even if, again, he goes too far in the opposite direction to make his point – that it’s having more fun than anything in the Hinchliffe era – since its apples and oranges; if you’re talking narrative audacity, The Deadly Assassin is at the forefront of being hard to beat).

He also makes sound comments on post-modern appreciation of narrative forms, and identifies “a good double act and inventive plot twists” as important. And he sticks up for the Megara, and likes the wig joke (a sticking point on the level of Teach Yourself Tibetan for some). Which rather takes us to the main point here. That the reason Stones works, above all, is that it’s funny, and clever. The plot twist Sandifer points to, of setting the story up to look like one thing and becoming something else is largely the case – although, there are caveats, such as the Doctor’s “Keep an eye on those two. There’s something very odd going on”; it’s pretty clearly established that Vivien is under suspicion as soon as the Doctor meets her –  and delightful for that, but beyond its narrative ingenuity, it’s how much fun it is that is most significant.

There appears to be a general reluctance to dwell on this, by Sandifer, and even Tat Wood, who defends the story against Miles but has to fall back on effective dramatic moments to do so (although, Miles has already observed there’s “so little dramatic content here”, mistaking dramatic for serious). I don’t think the story is “effectively creepy”, save the odd shot of a crow, but the location work has an admittedly distinctive flavour (despite being on video), and Dudley Simpson’s hyperspace ambience delivers a commendably unearthly quality.

However, I have no idea how Wood can attest to the story’s unsettling quality yet dismiss Children of the Stones as “likeably earnest but wholly hilarious”. That rather smacks of defensive fan snobbery. He’s too grown-up for a different kids’ show (one that really is sinister in places)? There are other bum notes in About Time’s analysis (“the Arthurian story par excellence”? Really?) but Wood’s “If you can’t take this, you’ll never really like Doctor Who” is the same kind of daft overemphasis Sandifer goes in for.

It’s the campers scene that gets called to the stand by The Stones of Blood defenders (against charges of excess frivolity) as proof of its value. Here’s the horror to prove it’s proper Doctor Who! And it is a good scene, mostly because of the committed performances of James Murray and Shirin Taylor and the take-no-prisoners bleakness (and, lest you think they’re out shagging in sin, the novelisation establishes them as newlyweds).

But like the “What’s it for?” scene in The Pirate Planet, it’s an exception that proves the Williams rule. Wood uses it to impress on us that the Ogri aren’t really the shittiest Who monster ever, but I didn’t think they were anyway. It’s not as if they’re that much worse than other patently immobile creatures, like the Wirrn, Tractors, Daleks or Kyrnoid. And they have great sound effects. Besides, on the scale of old Who believability, well, how many really qualify?

RTD, in The Complete Fourth Doctor Volume Two claimed “The slaughter of the campers is one of my favourite scenes in the whole of Doctor Who”, going on to say it was shocking, cruel, cheap, well-acted, arbitrary. All good points. Unfortunately, he then unleashes a hot stream of unfiltered garbage; the reason for the scene is, we are reliably informed, “That death can happen, anywhere, any time. The universe isn’t safe. We need the Doctor… But somewhere in the universe, right now, there is a man with two hearts. A man who never met these innocents, but who knows nevertheless that innocents exist. A man who will never let this happen again. Cessair of Diplos is turned to stone forever, and Pat and the Man are finally given some sort of justice. Because of the Doctor. He’s coming back.” Thank goodness RTD would never actually have someone spout such nonsense in the show itself…

The DoctorBeware the Black Guardian.

The Stones of Blood also comes under fire for failing to makea whole lot of sense. Craig Hinton (in DWB 83) suggested “the plot was pretty non-existent, full of inconsistencies, and not particularly enthralling. And Romana had become a screamer” (well, she screams, but it’s not like it was the beginning of a career path).

There are definite problems here, from the much repeated, baffling ignorance of hyperspace, to the Callieach’s precise motivation (she does seem quite content just to hang out in the area, however wise that may not be), to the manner in which the Doctor sends the Megara packing once he has the Seal (why couldn’t Vivien do it? She didn’t grasp its full properties?) Points are raised and dropped (“The one foretold” is never explained and forgotten entirely with de Vries’ demise). While I don’t have much patience for the idea that Vivien’s an agent of the Black Guardian (she does absolutely nothing to support that theory), her obsession with crows might at least explain why the Guardian later sports a dead one on his head. Generally, though, loathe as I am to admit it, I concur with RTD, just not expressed in quite such toe-curling a fashion: “Maybe all those elements don’t quite tie together, but who cares when it’s so much fun?

Vivien Fay: Typical male. Strands you here in the middle of nowhere with two complete strangers while he goes off somewhere enjoying himself.

Because there’s a lot of that slightly suspect reason for liking a Who story, and subversions other than the purely narrative that come with it. Ann Summerfield, quoted in The Television Companion, refers to the story as female gothic, something Steve O’Brien repeats on the DVD release doc, and while I can see her point, it does rather require you to accept that the story is gothic, rather than principally comedy extolling the virtues of sausage sandwiches over Celtic sacrifice.

She suggests the Doctor is rather overwhelmed at first, and that “Before venturing into hyperspace’s futuristic and industrial environment, it is the women who offer solutions or who solve problems”. This is, however, played entirely humorously, from the lesbian undertones of the Vivien-Amelia double act, to their repeated comments about typical useless men, to Vivien’s invitation for Romana to take a bike ride with her (“Hop on the back – it’ll be a new experience for you. No need to be afraid”).

So too, the Doctor-Romana relationship, where he is positioned from the start as the fool/child to her adult (“Romana, I’ve just decided to go and find out where our next destination is”). Sandifer asserts the Romana/Amelia subplot, when the Doctor is in hyperspace, is pointless because they don’t save Doctor, which rather misses the point of enjoying their interaction, and that suspense doesn’t need a pay-off to be suspenseful (which is to say, I never even noticed this as an issue until he raised it, so the chances are most people won’t care either).

AmeliaProfessor Amelia Rumford, author of Bronze Age Burials in Gloucestershire.
The DoctorOh! The definitive work on the subject.
AmeliaYou’re too kind, Doctor. But, of course, you’re perfectly right.

Beatrix Lehmann is marvellous as Amelia, of course, a bra-free wonder who, as observed in the DVD doc, manages to out-eccentric Tom and has an amazing knack in her delivery of “appearing as though she is inventing the next line” (“All that mumbo jumbo nonsense. No, Vivien and I are conducting a topographical, geological, astronomic, archaeological…”).

Her interaction with Baker is a delight, from his look of giving up the will to live when she starts droning on about her studies, to her enthusiasm for the adventure (“It’s getting rather exciting, isn’t it?”: “Yes, yes of course. Let’s hope it doesn’t get too exciting, hmm?”), to this rather lovely exchange:

AmeliaDoctor, may I ask you a personal question?
The DoctorWell, I don’t see how I can stop you asking.
AmeliaAre you from outer space?
The DoctorNo. I’m more from what you’d call inner time.

Elsewhere, my favourite moment in the story sees them looking in opposite directions to ponder the dread implications, after the Doctor has explained the makeup of globulin.

Tom’s on great form with almost everyone, though. He starts as he means to go on, discarding his brolly out of shot when it proves unnecessary, and the greatest shame of de Vries’ demise is that Baker’s scenes with Nicholas McArdle sparkle so.

The DoctorHello. I hope that knife’s been properly sterilised.
De VriesBlasphemer!
The DoctorNo, no, no, no. You can catch all sorts of things off a dirty knife.

Tom’s quick to take a proffered glass of sherry, of course, but I most love de Vries’ The Hound of the Baskervilles-inspired explanation of the missing portraits; it’s great stealing played for comedy, as he behaves as if each picture is still hanging (“And that’s a Brazilian lady, or would be if she were here”; the Doctor’s “Was there a Senor Camara?” is as close to asking if she was a lesbian as the story gets: “He doesn’t seem to have survived the crossing from Brazil”). Curious that Fisher would be at that again in City of Death, but more corporeally.

RomanaWhere are you going, Doctor?
The DoctorI’m going to see Mr de Vries.
RomanaWhat, after what he did to you?
The DoctorBecause of what he did to me. I think Mr de Vries is a very worried man, and very worried men often sing worried songs. Come along, K9.

While McArdle’s performance seems like it’s walked in from ’Allo ’Allo! (minus the French accent), its OTT-ness is irresistible. He and Martha (Elaine Ives-Cameron) seem exactly the sorts to have really dull day jobs, and McArdle’s delivery is alternatively ominous (“Beware the raven and the crow, Doctor. They are her eyes”: “You don’t really believe that, do you?”) and hilarious (“Bicycle?! You’ll die with blasphemy on your lips!”)

K9I’m not programmed to bark, master.
The DoctorNever mind that now. I’ve got a job for you. Now, you’ve always wanted to be a bloodhound.
K9Negative, master.
The DoctorYes, you have! Yes, you have!
K9Negative. Negative.

K9 also deserves a word a comment or too (“Have I got a dog!”) John Leeson’s spirited delivery ensures he gets one of his finest showings. His insistence, to the Doctor’s avowal otherwise, that he doesn’t want to be a bloodhound is only topped by his plaintive (“So.. strong…”) on having his energy banks depleted by continual Ogri convergences.

Vivien FayDon’t be afraid, it’s only a crow.
RomanaOoh, it looks evil.

Romana gets a patchier ride. She’s has to endure that really daft Episode One cliffhanger (due to Tom refusing to play an apparition of himself), and is asked to make uncharacteristic remarks for the sake of eliciting a spooky effect (would she really say something looks evil?) On the other hand, her aloofness generally works as well as ever when she’s playing to type, and it makes for a welcome change to have a story where the Doctor represents the gender minority.

Vivien FayToo late now, doctor. You’re trapped in hyperspace forever!

If Romana gets a crap cliffhanger, Vivien gets a great one (“simply an evil laugh” as RTD put it), and her greatest strength, as performed by Susan Engel, is that she’s a villain who really loves being a villain. Engel’s having an infectiously good time with the role, and like everyone else here, she pitches it perfectly in terms of the overall tone (I doubt very much that Honor Blackman would have).

Megara OneI defended you.
Megara TwoI was judge. You were found guilty.
The DoctorBut I wasn’t there.
Megara TwoImmaterial. Your counsel was. He was most eloquent on your behalf.

Then, in the last two episodes, there are the Megara, variously put down as part of the story’s prevailing cheapness, but their chirrupy, Willo the Wisp quality makes for an effective contrast with their “machine” status. And their line in hidebound logic and complete lack of empathy, as haughtily voiced by David McAlister and Gerald Cross, really does reinvigorate the story at a point where many are beginning to run on fumes (“I will plead with my colleague for a swift, painless death for you”; “We are justice machines. We are the law… Judge, jury and executioner”).

If The Stones of Blood has a flaw, and I don’t really take on board most of the criticisms, the episode-one cliffhanger aside, it’s that it rushes to an ending that doesn’t make a lot of sense. The Pirate Planet also scrambled post-haste to its conclusion, though, and in both cases, it’s a minor drawback to otherwise hugely enjoyable stories. Season 16 is three for three. And it would continue to maintain the high standard…

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