The problem with The Stones of Blood is you can’t see the birthday cake. It was there, and it informs the whole story, but it never made it to screen. You see, this was the 100th Doctor Who story, and was also a whole lot closer to the 15th Anniversary than The Three Doctors was to the 10th. The original idea was to include a birthday cake, but it was decided not to use it in the story. The cast and crew ate it anyway, but the point is that this is a celebratory story. The 15th might be a fairly weak excuse for a celebration, but 100 multi-part stories is actually a major achievement for a television show, and it obviously felt right at the time to mark it in some way. We had already seen the return of previous Doctors, relatively recently, so how best to celebrate the occasion, in light of the fact that we are in the middle of the Key to Time Season?
Here we get to the heart of this story’s reputation as a scary horror pastiche that goes astray, because it is actually supposed to go astray. The Stones of Blood celebrates Doctor Who by showing the different things it can do, all within a single story. It encompasses history and future, Earth and space, horror and comedy. The latter is rather neatly what the previous story tried to do, but in reverse order. The glory of Doctor Who is that it can tell equally compelling stories in a variety of different ways. The Stones of Blood shows these different genres merged into one, and has the Doctor seamlessly transition between them, all within the space of a single story.
For the third story in a row we have a subversion of the usual alien invasion plot, so the Key to Time season is feeling like a very different body of work to everything that has come before. Aliens simply hiding out are a rarity in Doctor Who. They crop up from time to time, but there are only really two precedents within the Tom Baker era: The Hand of Fear and The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Due to the length of time Vivien Fay has been hiding, her presence plays into myths and magic. Her name means “living fairy”, a combination of Latin (vivianus) and Middle French (feie), and the Ogri are sold to us as the inspiration for ogres and Gog and Magog in the book of Revelation (and elsewhere). The original plan was to have the stones transform into walking statues but what we get is actually much more effective. Whether or not it is more convincing visually is debatable, but it’s creepy and more importantly a much fresher idea. A circle of standing stones that do something other than just stand: that’s a brave thing to attempt, and for the most part it’s a success.
The tone of the first part of the story is very familiar, in keeping with Tom Baker’s early Hammer Horror -ish seasons, so the less-popular second half is actually a lot more inventive and fun. It plays to Baker’s strengths incredibly well, and is also a brilliant subversion of the Key to Time theme, which is all about restoring order and balance. The Megara represent order and justice, but their adherence to rigid codes of logic is shown to be ridiculous. The Doctor has always stood for anarchy rather than order. He is being forced to collect the Key to Boringness, but he is as bad a fit for that job as he was as an attaché to the military, or a Time Lord on Gallifrey looking at the well ordered injustices and not getting involved. He will always be the naughty child who sees a door marked “do not open”, and opens it (or “pull to open” and pushes).
Earth, space, past, future, horror, comedy, balance, anarchy. Happy Birthday, Doctor Who. RP
The view from across the pond:
Back in 2006, there was a point-and-click adventure game called Barrow Hill. Based on a real location in Cornwall, England, the player finds themselves investigating some strange goings on at a stone circle, one of which is called “Cailleach”, thus linking the story of Barrow Hill to the classic Doctor Who episode, The Stones of Blood. And why not? These isolated locations are ripe for a good horror story. It’s no wonder Doctor Who would use one. Doctor Who has a history of using places that are dark and shrouded in mystery. It was just nice seeing some game developer who appreciated the significance. And since The Stones of Blood also takes place in Cornwall, there’s the sense that the player is partaking in a piece of Doctor Who lore!
So we come to the 100th story, where the Doctor and Romana learn that after all his visits to earth, one of the segments of the Key to Time was located right here and it took a Guardian to send him on the quest to find it! But this is one of those stories that are not content to stay in one genre. The horror element of the remote location, standing stones, headless corpses, and vampiric stones is undermined when the Doctor finds himself on a spaceship and the story takes a turn for science fiction. Even then, it adds a bit of courtroom drama, putting the Doctor on trial. And yet, I enjoyed this story despite the genre flips; it works well being what it is for each location. The locations seem to dictate what the genre will be. When the audience finds itself in the country setting, the story is steeped in horror, but on board the ship, it can be little else but science fiction (albeit with a hint of courtroom drama thrown in for good measure.) The story captures each atmosphere well in each location.
The Cailleach, also known as Vivien Fay or Cessair of Diplos or Senora Camara or Morgana Montcalm… she goes through as many names as this story goes through genre flips. She is the main villain of the piece and the villains are actually the weakest part of the story. Atmosphere alone worked well enough as the villain, but you can’t really “fight” an atmosphere. You just buy a good light, maybe a scented candle, put on a nice piece of music and atmosphere changes completely. So you need a villain and Cessair serves the purpose but she’s a silver-painted woman who uses rocks as henchmen. And she wears that thing on her head… She is simply non-threatening! She appears as dangerous as anyone would be when they have a mishap with a spray can of silver paint! Meanwhile the Ogri from Ogros may not be pillars of the community but they are pillars that seem to move in exactly the way gold bricks don’t. (Yes, that was intentionally Adams-esque). But their means of conveyance is ridiculous. There would be no threat from them short of not knowing where to find a jackhammer. If one were stalking you, walk up a step. Yes, just one step would be enough. These creatures can’t do what Daleks ultimately do; there’s no levitate command for stones. And are Ogrons from Ogros? Do the Ogrons worship the Ogri on Ogros? If you’re cringing, just realize, I didn’t name them! Then we have those glowing orbs of light that the Doctor unintentionally releases. These Megara are the sort of enemy that makes us scratch our heads. The Doctor releases them from their incarceration, so therefore he broke the law and must be destroyed. I think the Doctor just upsets some people!
Once again, the Key to Time plays an insignificant role in the story. The linking thread between each story for this season is that they have to end with the Doctor coming away with a piece of glass that forms part of a puzzle cube. Surprisingly, they never made a toy of this prop; seems like the kind of thing we could have fun playing with. It’s an odd choice that this great quest is totally insignificant for each story short of the last few moments. And that idea really holds until the end, but we’ll get there when we get there…
One item worth mentioning is what it takes to be an ambassador for the show. I’ve commented on Peter Capaldi being an amazing ambassador and Tom Baker was no exception. Known to be an ambassador in other instances as well, this one just illustrated his understanding of the character and the audience. He did not want to be seen pushing Romana off the cliff because a child fan might be unpleasantly affected by that. Even though the Doctor was supposed to be possessed at the time, he didn’t want the children to suffer. That impresses me to no end and just proves why Tom will always be The Doctor! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Androids of Tara