How do you kill a stone?
While the prior two stories in Season Sixteen’s Key to Time arc utilize the segments of the Key in minor plot roles, as befits a MacGuffin, newcomer David Fisher’s contribution, “The Stones of Blood” (Story Production Code 5C) integrates the segments’ transmutation ability into the proceedings more directly. Disguised as the Great Seal of Diplos, a planet in the Tau Ceti system, the third segment hangs as a pendant from the neck of Vivien Fay (Susan Engel), who also happens to be known as the Cailleach, a Celtic goddess of war, death, and magic, and as the wanted criminal Cessair of Diplos. Her welter of identities dovetails nicely with the story’s wild tonal shifts, from gothic gloom to shocking horror and from broad farce to courtroom drama. Just when viewers think they have “The Stones of Blood” figured out, Fisher and director Darrol Blake change gears, not always smoothly, resulting in one of those herky-jerky stories only Doctor Who could (more-or-less) pull off.
Events begin on contemporary Earth, in England as ever. The tracker leads the Fourth Doctor and Romana to Boscombe Moor, site of an ancient stone circle whose megaliths have a disconcerting habit of moving on their own. But once they arrive, the tracker no longer registers the segment’s presence. Shortly thereafter, one of the leading scholars of the location, Professor Rumford (Beatrix Lehmann) arrives to conduct a survey with the help of her assistant, Vivien Fay. Oddly, the tracker registers once more when Rumford and Fay are nearby. After the Doctor points out evidence of a recent blood sacrifice in the circle, the Professor tells him about BIDS—the British Institute for Druidic Studies—a group that conducts pseudo-Druidic ceremonies at the site. The Doctor goes to their nearby headquarters in an old convent to investigate, while Romana stays behind to keep an eye on Rumford and Fay.
Between scenes of the cultists pouring blood on the stones in the circle and the creepy manor house with dust covered walls, to say nothing of the excessively dismal location shooting, Fisher and Blake employ the visual language of horror films throughout this four part story. Far more than earlier cult-laden, terror-tinged stories, like “The Daemons” and “Image of the Fendahl,” “The Stones of Blood” leans heavily into the threat of imminent violence. Blood, bones, and skeletons abound, as though Mary Whitehouse’s crusade were but a distant memory.
When the leader of BIDS, DeVries (Nicholas McArdle) knocks out the Doctor and prepares to sacrifice him to the stones, the long curved blade glints menacingly near the Doctor’s throat, a visceral level of danger seldom seen of late. The overall effect would be spellbinding, were the Doctor not saved by the fortuitous approach of the Professor, walking her bicycle nearby, scaring away the cultists out of all proportion to her relative strength. Indeed, the only things less frightening in the story than the septuagenarian archeologist and her bicycle are the blood-fed stones themselves, as they waddle after any victims incapable of moving faster than a snail…
The visual appearance of the killer stones leaves something to be desired as they grind across the screen, glowing harshly all the while. They do manage to claim several victims, two cultists (including DeVries) crushed in the convent and two campers drained of life and flesh after the stones use their old hunting trick of standing very still. Yet any remaining sense of seriousness about them dissipates as the Doctor plays matador with one on a cliff edge, replete with bullfighting music in the background and a very convincing “Olé!” from Tom Baker as it tumbles into the sea below. This humor, both intentional and otherwise, dilutes the horror to more palatable levels.
Contributing to the levity, despite all the mangled bodies on display, Beatrix Lehmann plays Professor Amelia Rumford to the hilt as a plucky scholastic, demanding that the Doctor capture one of the stones, for science! With Romana sidelined for a good part of the story, being captured by Fay, Rumford serves as the audience stand-in, allowing the Doctor to explain plot details such as the stones’ origins: they are Ogri, globulin-absorbing silicate life forms from the planet Ogros in Tau Ceti, whence Fay took them. Lehmann’s character calls to mind Amelia Ducat (Sylvia Coleridge) from “The Seeds of Doom,” the easily overlooked comic figure in a horror-based story who nevertheless helps save the Doctor in a time of need.
The overall threat to the Doctor lacks coherence, however. In pursuit of the Key to Time, he and Romana stumble on an inexplicable con being run by Vivien Fay, who for thousands of years has used the transmutation power of the third segment, currently in the form of the Great Seal of Diplos, to turn herself into the Celtic goddess Cailleach. Appearing both as a raven and as a befeathered humanoid, she has inspired a continuous cult of worshippers who, in turn, procure regular blood sacrifices for the Ogri she purloined from Ogros. Yet to what end?
Vivien Fay, née the Cailleach, began life as Cessair of Diplos, an intergalactic criminal wanted for murder, theft of the Great Seal, and illegal transportation of Ogri. Four thousand years ago, a spaceship run by the bio-mechanical law machines known as the Megara attempted to apprehend her on Diplos, but with the power of the Key to Time segment she stole, Cessair stranded it in hyperspace right above the stone circle at Boscombe Moor.
The Doctor realizes, as he is wont to do, that Fay has trapped Romana in hyperspace and sets about building a rather fanciful machine to take him there. The story’s transition from dim on-location scenes in the moors to studio shots of a brightly lit spaceship completely changes the story’s direction, ultimately adding to rather than diminishing the audience’s store of questions.
The Doctor and Romana release the Megara (Gerald Cross and David McAlister, voices) from a sealed chamber on the spaceship, after opening other doors and finding only desiccated bodies and malfunctioning machines. The Megara, legalistic balls of flashing light, immediately put the Doctor on trial for opening their chamber without authorization, ignoring the fact that Cessair orders her Ogri to attack them. Because the Megara apparently never made it to Diplos, and with the biological officer onboard who was intended to identify her long since dead, the law machines cannot recognize her as their prisoner, so they simply ignore her.
Much of the final episode revolves around the Doctor, adorned with a barrister’s powdered peruke pulled from his pocket, attempting to outwit machines that think only in legalities. He finally tricks them into zapping him as well as Cessair, which allows them to scan her brain for signs of injury, with the result that they learn she is their long-deferred quarry.
When the Megara carry out their sentence against Cessair—perpetual banishment—they do so on Earth, turning her into one of the megaliths at Boscombe Moor. The outcome simply does not make sense, but before anyone can ask about it, the Doctor uses the Great Seal of Diplos/third segment of the Key to Time, which he rips from Cessair’s neck, to zap the Megara back to the ship in hyperspace. Thoughtfully, he set the controls to send the ship to Diplos, noting wryly that he probably only has a few thousand years before they come back to carry out his execution for unauthorized chamber opening.
Just how and why Cessair trapped the Megara ship in hyperspace remains unexplored. By the Megara’s account, they had not yet reached Diplos to apprehend her, so perhaps the ship’s flight path passed over Earth, allowing her to capture it. That, though, does not explain why Cessair ever went to southwestern England in the first place, let alone remaining for four thousand years, pretending to be various people in a long lineage of owners of the megalithic site, particularly given all the powers the Great Seal of Diplos put at her command. And further, why would she need lumbering Ogri at all, if the Megara can, as shown here, zap them into oblivion with nary a thought. Indeed, the entire backstory remains one of those plot thickets best left unweeded.
Though burdened with an absurd role (and, for the final episode, a coat of silver-gray paint), Susan Engel does a nice job of playing all three facets of Fay/Cailleach/Cessair, imbuing the right degree of possible malice in the part when acting as Fay and exuding a finely honed hauteur as the four thousand year-old Cessair. She, along with Beatrix Lehmann, provides needed gusto to keep the story moving despite its inadequacies.
Tom Baker shines, as usual, in the comedic bits; his deadpan delivery when tied up on the sacrificial altar turns what would be an over-the-top scene, were it played straight, into a more nuanced moment, where the Doctor shows he’s still in control of even the most hopeless situation. His repartee with Beatrix Lehmann also does much to smooth over the obligatory technobabble scene where the Doctor and K-9 must explain the concept of hyperspace.
The script does Mary Tamm few favors, alas, forcing her to trudge about the moors barefoot after Romana decides to wear heels; and even when she comes up with evidence to help the Doctor convince the Megara of Cessair’s guilt, by the time she reaches him he’s already solved the problem, rendering her significant efforts to get back into hyperspace after escaping completely useless. She is shown to be quite technically adept, certainly the most scientifically inclined companion since Liz Shaw or Zoe. That near-equivalence with the Doctor tends to make her useless as a target for his explanations, though, frequently forcing writers to bring in another character to be on the receiving end of the exposition and sidelining her as a result.
With all the violence and general adult theming in the story, the most horrifying moment of all—at least for the show’s younger viewers—doubtless comes courtesy of K-9 (John Leeson, voice), who suffers near-fatal injuries, thankfully offscreen. K-9 fends off an Ogri, saving the Doctor but winding up with exposed wiring and a dubious prognosis, so severe that the Doctor even suggests disconnecting it. Romana comes up with a solution to save K-9, and by the final two episodes, the metal mutt is using its new force beam power to hold Ogri at bay for as long as the plot requires.
Much as “The Daemons” and “Pyramids of Mars” attempt to suggest alien visitors directed human history and inspired the notion of demons and pyramids on Earth, respectively, the von Däniken conceit continues in “The Stones of Blood” with the supposition that the origin of all of Earth’s megaliths stems from the appearance of the Ogri, whose name gives rise to the word “augury” as well. Or perhaps the Megara frequently house prisoners on Earth disguised as megaliths, making Stonehenge an alien prison?
This blending of the fantastic, the alien, with the fabric of human history is one of Doctor Who‘s strongest narrative tricks. But here, it just feels like a trick, unearned by the supporting story. If the first two installments of the Key to Time arc gave short narrative shrift to the Key segments themselves, “The Stones of Blood” gives it pride of place and yet use it as a, well, sonic screwdriver, capable of whatever the writer needs it to do.
The story is undeniably fun, with solid acting, interesting settings, and a plot that one wants to see succeed. The shift of scene from the hazy moors to the dazzling spaceship provides one of the finest visual surprises on Doctor Who in years. In the end, though, we’re left like the Fourth Doctor, trying to fit the pieces of the Key to Time together. It should work, it should make sense, but darned if all these pieces fit together somehow. They’re pretty, though.
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Post 103 of the Doctor Who Project