Most of what Doctor Who was doing right in 1978 is on display in “The Stones Of Blood,” the third story in the six-part, season-long Key To Time arc and close to the exact midpoint of producer Graham Williams’ three years running the show. It’s the Williams aesthetic in a nutshell—a fun story with a quip-laden script that gives Fourth Doctor Tom Baker plenty of opportunity to display his comic charms, and capitalizes on its setting to build up spooky atmosphere without letting things get genuinely horrific. For the most part, “The Stones Of Blood” is highly entertaining, albeit nothing brilliant or particularly new. But the weaknesses of the Williams era are thick on the ground here too, which is what keeps this one a step or three down from classic status—in fact, it’s a pretty forgettable story.
Not actually bad, mind you. It’s a breezy, fun romp that coasts along on David Fisher’s quip-laden script and Baker’s considerable charm. It’s far more successful at being funny than the previous story, “The Pirate Planet,” which is no small feat considering Douglas Adams wrote that one. And in the Williams era, that was the main aim. For Doctor Who, humor now counted for a lot more than horror had just a couple of years earlier. Sure, “Stones Of Blood” has killer pagan cults, an evil Celtic bird-goddess and her psychic ravens, and 12-foot-tall blood-drinking rocks. It’s got the alien monsters and galactic threats you expect from Doctor Who, but it’s not out to terrify the way “The Brain Of Morbius” and “Pyramids Of Mars” were. It’s going for Ghostbusters over The Exorcist, Roger Moore’s James Bond over Sean Connery’s James Bond, Godzilla vs. Monster Zero over the original Godzilla. It’s awfully easy for that to turn campy, and the Williams era often did, but when it works, it’s wonderful. But “Stones Of Blood” also suffers from a dull lead antagonist, and a lazy, formulaic take on the familiar Whovian sci-fi/gothic tale, in this case centered around the trappings of ancient Celtic pagan religions and mysticism. At least, it’s formulaic until it suddenly isn’t, after a mid-story twist that yanks the plot in a completely new direction, making most of what came before it irrelevant.
Despite the quest storyline that snakes through the Key To Time season, the individual stories don’t really have very much in common otherwise, other than some fairly half-hearted linking material like the ghostly warning to “beware the Black Guardian!” that opens the story here. There’s not much exploration of what the Key is, what its powers are, or why its reassembly is so important that we didn’t learn in the first episode of the season opener. And I think the showrunners really missed a trick by failing to have the Black Guardian field his own agent to track down the six segments of the Key—the Master might have been the perfect choice. It would have added some much-needed depth to the arc story if the Doctor had had an antagonist dogging his steps all the way through the season, as well as some much-needed urgency if there was some real doubt about whether the Doctor would finish his mission. Instead, the quest element links the six stories of season 16 only weakly, which seems to miss the whole point of linking them together at all. The story of how the Doctor gathers the Key segments, at least as it stands halfway through the arc, is not really a story, just a sequence of events. He and Romana have an adventure and find the first segment, then they have an adventure and find the second segment, then they have an adventure and find the third segment. Want to bet this pattern continues?
Still, this doesn’t necessarily hurt the season’s six serials when you consider them as individual, unconnected stories, since that’s the way Doctor Who functions ordinarily anyway. “The Stones Of Blood” starts out as something of a throwback to the early Fourth Doctor years, with a a strong flavor of Hammer Studios-inspired gothic horror. Tracking down the Key’s third segment, the Doctor, Romana and their robot dog K9 visit an ancient stone circle in southwestern England called the Nine Travellers, where a mysterious pagan cult conducts secret nighttime rituals involving blood sacrifice to their goddess, the Cailleach. Romana’s readings detect the presence of the segment at the henge, and yet nothing appears to be there.
Investigating, the Doctor quickly runs afoul of the cult and its apparent leader, a balding man named De Vries who looks almost exactly like Hank Kingsley from The Larry Sanders Show, and turns out to be about as competent. Given orders by his goddess to sacrifice the Doctor, the cult screws this up when De Vries and all his followers run away because an old woman on a bicycle comes too near. When he’s killed off by the angry Cailleach, it’s easy to see why. Evil minions aren’t supposed to get spooked by grandmotherly archaeologists whose main weapons are a thermos of tea and a long, rambling story about some bitter academic squabble.
As an aside, it’s hard not to love Beatrix Lehmann’s performance as the dotty old Professor Rumford. Her role is big enough here that she almost qualifies as a full-fledged companion in her own right, and having a good-natured if irascible retirement-age woman in the story makes quite a change from the Doctor’s usual friends and helpmates. It’s almost like having a female version of the First Doctor on hand. (Though like William Hartnell, Lehmann also displays a frequent tendency to fumble her lines.)
De Vries, of course, is just a placeholder villain, there because the formula requires a pawn who can be swept off the table to make the bigger chess pieces look more dangerous. These are the Cailleach and her real minions, the Stones of Blood themselves, a trio of monstrous aliens called the Ogri. In longstanding Doctor Who tradition, they’re simultaneously frightening and utterly bonkers in concept—they’re essentially the rocks of Stonehenge turned into bloodthirsty killers, sliding over the ground like a 10-ton sandstone snail. Even more so than the Daleks, their obvious physical limitations put them awfully close to complete ridiculousness. They have no apparent personalities, no moving parts, almost nothing to make them relatable. They’re just big rocks.
And yet, at least for me, that very limitation gives them a surreal, almost Daliesque quality that makes them truly nightmarish in a way that few monsters achieve. Big rocks that want to drink your blood: These are demons who live in the dark of your bad dreams. Though they’re slow, they’re unstoppably massive and will track you for miles and smash down your house to get you. Because they can’t communicate in any way, they’re not suitable for any role larger than “evil henchmen” and are most effective when used sparingly, but as a kid watching this years ago, I thought they were one of the coolest things I’d ever seen on the show—like the monolith from 2001 given the personality of Michael Myers from Halloween.
The Ogri are also an interesting mirror image of the Doctor’s robot dog K9, since they’re sort of his, as sidekicks whose serious mobility issues repeatedly threaten to derail the action. K9 is problematic. As a character, he makes a terrific addition to the main cast, especially given John Leeson’s endearing vocal performance. Humble, straightforward and sensible, he makes a great straight man to Baker’s flippant clown, giving the Doctor something solid against which he can play the eccentric alien gadfly. Only the Brigadier ever did that better. But the K9 prop is a different story, a slow and cumbersome remote-controlled machine that forces the actors to invent clumsy workarounds to try to cover up that it’s not working right—like walking briskly instead of running because the prop is too slow to keep up, or moving the prop by hand so a stagehand offscreen can pull it out of the room on clearly visible fishing line because the motor has stopped working at all.
The second half of the story shifts gears radically once the Cailleach reveals her true identity—Cessair, an alien thief from the planet Diplos who’s been masquerading as a Celtic goddess on Earth for thousands of years after hijacking her own prison ship. In the course of snooping around that ship, the Doctor accidentally sets her jailers free—the Megara, a pair of psychotically rulebound justice machines who sentence him to death for rescuing them because he had to break an official seal to open their cell door. The resulting trial and appeal take up most of the final episode, which on the positive side puts the Fourth Doctor absolutely in his element, outwitting the stuffy, humorless forces of authority like an avatar of chaos. I’m less enthusiastic about how appearance of the Megara shoves everything about Cessair’s Celtic cult to the sidelines, dropped without ceremony and wiping away all the gothic atmosphere created in the first two episodes. Cessair herself had only just started to become a compelling character, having spent most of the story in disguise as the Cailleach and Vivien Fay, and not acting openly. Now, she’s reduced to making snide remarks on the sidelines of the trial, just as her potential to drive the story had been put into play.
And it leaves unresolved what, if anything, Cessair thought she was accomplishing. What exactly was her plan, anyway? Maybe she never had one. (No one knows who she was, or what she was doing...) She’s apparently done nothing for 8,000 years but hang out within a few miles of where her ship landed. Sure, she impersonated a goddess and founded her own cult, but her ultimate aim in doing so was, it seems, nothing more than controlling the land around her spaceship so she could live undisturbed and provide a steady supply of blood for her Ogri servants. Compared to, say, a typical scheme of the Master’s, it’s practically as criminal as jaywalking. She’s not out to conquer the galaxy or destroy the world or mind-control the entire human race, she just wants to be left alone on her little plot of land in rural England. And to kill a few people every now and then so her pet rocks can drink their blood. Is that so wrong?
Not that every Doctor Who story has to be about some universe-ending threat—on the contrary, the really big-scale stories lose their impact if there aren’t smaller-scale ones like this alongside them. But I can’t shake the feeling that the real reason Cessair seems to have no plan is because the story hasn’t bothered to give her one. The expected Doctor Who formula needs a final-boss villain in the fourth episode, and so there’s Cessair. She’s there to fill an established function. The sudden introduction of the Megara obscures this problem by usurping her role, but doesn’t make it go away—Cessair is ultimately just a bore.
Having the Megara as the story’s ultimate antagonists raises a point about the Key To Time arc story—is it necessarily a good thing for the Doctor to be searching for the Key at all? After all, who’s he working for? The White Guardian is the representative of cosmic order, but the Doctor is fundamentally a force of chaos—particularly No. 4. And in two out of three stories so far this season, here and in “The Ribos Operation,” the main opposition has been the characters who most represent the forces of stifling control. It undercuts the notion that the White Guardian is on the side of the angels, or that he has any particular claim to moral superiority over the Black Guardian. Without spoiling things, this will play directly into how the Key saga wraps up at the end of the season, but it’s going to be an interesting ride getting there from here.
• Originally broadcast Oct. 28-Nov. 18, 1978.
• I like the characterization that Prof. Rumford is such a woolly-eyed academic that she’s only slightly surprised by the revelation that her friend Vivien is actually a millennias-old alien criminal. Still, it seems like we lost out on a good scene without her expressing some sense of shock and maybe even betrayal. After all, not only has her friend been lying to her, but she’s been lying to her about archeology—in fact, Vivien practically is archeology!
• Upcoming schedule:
• Doctor Who Classic reviews will publish monthly at 2 p.m. CST on the first Saturday of the month. For the next few months, every other review will tackle the Fourth Doctor’s “Key To Time” arc from 1978, skipping around to other seasons inbetween. Coming up:
• Nov. 1: :”The Keys Of Marinus”
• Dec. 6: “The Androids Of Tara.”
• January: Something from the Third or Fifth Doctors, perhaps, or maybe the Fourth’s “The Robots Of Death.”