The Stones of Blood [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but until recently rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  This has changed in the last couple of years as I have been using birthday and Christmas money to buy some of the old episodes, usually enjoying them with one or two of my nerdier daughters. This year, though, my wife and I bought a year of Britbox for each other as a gift, which gives me access to nearly all of classic Who.

The Stones of Blood

Starring Tom Bakerl as the Fourth Doctor.
Companions:  Mary Tamm as Romana and John Leeson as the voice of K9.
Written by David Fisher  Directed by Darrol Blake. Produced by Graham Williams. Script Edited by Anthony Read.

Format:  4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  October – November 1978 (Episodes 9-12 of Season 16).

The Stones of Blood is the third serial of Season 16, which means that it tells the third part of the over-arching Key to Time storyline. Back in those days, the idea of a season-arc was a complete novelty. That gave every story that year a special focus. My Doctor Who rewatches have been highly non-linear–I’ve been skipping around Doctors and eras–but whenever I circle back to Season 16 I have at least been watching these in order (see The Ribos Operation and The Pirate Planet for instance), so its been fun to see this mega-plot progress, even if I know in advance that the final resolution is going to be a bit disappointing.

Spoilers Ahead!

As noted, The Stones of Blood comes in the middle of a big story arc, and the script does a nice job re-establishing the what is going on. First, it shows the Doctor and Romana (she still in her costume from the previous episode) putting together the two pieces of the key that they have found so far. Then it features an unexpected voice-over message from the White Guardian (though not the same actor as before) warning them to beware the Black Guardian, which gives the Doctor a chance to restate the universal stakes that are at play.

The story then follows this deft bit of writing with a lot more that works well, as the Doctor and Romana run into an adventure on modern-day earth focused around around England’s stone rings. There is an ancient cult worshiping an ancient druidic goddess and monsters that look like the stones themselves. Surveying the stones is a delightful older lady named Professor Amelia Rumford who functions as one of those companion stand-ins that are regularly part of the show. She is played by Beatrix Lehmann, a distinguished British television actress who according to one report only took the job because she wanted to see how K9 worked.

She is a really fun character who makes a great addition to the character dynamic, and one could easily imagine her continuing to be part of the Doctor’s life.

There aren’t actually that many other characters and as a result, it’s not hard to figure out that the only other one still alive by the end of the second episode is the story’s villain. Susan Engel is good as Vivien Fay aka the Cessair of Diplos, although her silver body paint looks a little silly when she’s finally revealed, and it’s a bit tricky understanding what exactly she wants (other than to be left alone).

Presumably it’s something to do with permanently getting away from the justice machines that are after her, although I have to confess that it escapes me at the moment. It could be that she’s supposed to be working for the Black Guardian, which would make a certain amount of sense. I guess it doesn’t matter–if her pet Ogri are out there crushing people and eating their blood, that’s not something you want to be just left to do their own devices.

The Ogri certainly take a little suspension of disbelief to accept, but if you can provide that they are pretty creepy monsters. The fact that they are giant stones gives them a indestructible vibe, and anything that sucks your blood is inherently disturbing. There is a pretty chilling scene where the Ogri kill a couple of hapless campers which was apparently there to dispel the humorous image that they killed their victims by falling on them.

The Stones of Blood moves along at a bit of a languid pace, which is something that works to its advantage. In the midst of the action, there is time for lots character moments, whether that be Vivian struggling to build the Doctor’s machine, or K9 boasting that he understands hyperspace, or the Doctor disapproving of Romana’s impracticable shoes (and Romana coming to regret her choice). I think the little exchange where K9 and Romana are speaking about tennis and he takes her literally when she says “Forget it” is particularly funny. These bits add color to the action and make it feel much more real and engaging than it would have been otherwise. It also gives time for the story to visually linger in the English countryside, which is a plus.

Incidentally, this is one of the few stories of the era which filmed both its interiors and exteriors on video. This was a decision by director Darrol Blake, one presumes, for the only Doctor Who serial that he ever worked on, and it gives the whole story a nice uniform look, avoiding as it does the jarring experience of swapping back and forth between video and film.

In the later parts of the story, the action shifts largely to the hyperspace prison vessel, which is something that I have mixed feelings about. The location looks cool, and the show does a good job with the look of the Megara (the Justice Machines).

I quite like their role in the story as well but they are a little absurd–almost all-powerful but also kind of dumb. The whole focus of the drama at the end moves from defeating Cessair to navigating their legal requirements which. It’s unusual and funny but does diminish the horrific threat of the story. Maybe if the Doctor hadn’t pulled a barrister’s wig out of nowhere it wouldn’t have felt so goofy.

Still, even with the shift in tone, I quite like The Stones of Blood. David Fisher’s first script for the show is witty and clever, and the regular cast of Tom Baker, Mary Tamm and John Leeson all work together extremely well. It takes its time when it needs to but never bores. It makes me eager to see again David Fisher’s other contributions to the series, even if I know one of them is the oft-derided Creature from the Pit.

2 thoughts on “The Stones of Blood [Classic Doctor Who]

  1. I don’t remember feeling disappointed by how this one concluded. But I certainly appreciated how the bond between the Doctor and Romana was strengthened. Especially for Mary Tamm’s first chance to fully shine as Romana. Thanks, Ben, for your review.

  2. A good one, with extra interest for drawing on British folklore about stone circles. I did think the shift to the Justice Machines weakened it a little, but not disastrously.

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