After the outrageous lunacy of 'The Pirate Planet', 'The Stones of Blood' is something of a comedown. Initially, it almost harkens back to the Hinchcliffe era in terms of style, with a distinct gothic horror feel, but as it progresses it totally shifts its emphasis and becomes more comical, with a fairly unremarkable ending. Sadly, this results in the story feeling oddly disjointed, which is a shame since it boasts a great supporting character, unusual monsters, and one of Doctor Who's rare female villains.
'The Stones of Blood' starts promisingly, featuring in its first two episodes human sacrifice, sinister ravens, a Celtic goddess, Hammer-esque druids, and a gothic mansion. This dark approach, a distinct change from that of the previous story is rather effective, and the script exploits these trappings by creating an air of mystery, as the Doctor and Romana investigate the stone circle and learn of the Cailleach, a mysterious woman who has owned the area for centuries. The entire production contributes to the sinister feel created, with night filming, stark location work, and of course an old mansion owned by a villain, a recurrent phenomenon in Doctor Who. The monsters of the piece, the Ogri, fit perfectly into this story, and work rather well considering that they are artificial glowing boulders on trolleys. Whilst there are far more memorable Doctor Who monsters in the series' history, the Ogri are conceptually striking, since they are in effect vampiric rocks that can neither speak nor show any kind of physical expression; all they can do is rumble remorselessly after people. This sounds daft on paper, but it is made to work on screen thanks to some nice camera work and one noteworthy scene in which two Ogri kill a couple who are camping, sucking them dry until mere skeletons remain. With an ancient goddess controlling these creatures, all of the ingredients necessary for classic Doctor Who are present; then, during Episode Three, everything changes.
As soon as the action switches to hyperspace in Episode Three, the whole tone of 'The Stones of Blood' changes irrevocably. The introduction of the Megara amidst a brightly lit spaceship set heralds the beginning of the explanations as to why the Ogri and their mistress are on Earth, but sees all of the sinister atmosphere of the first half of the story evaporate. There is no reason why the approach adopted by the latter two episodes shouldn't work and indeed it does have a certain appeal, but it clashes horribly with what precedes it. Suddenly, the story becomes more comedic, as the script pokes fun at the rigidity of the law via the Megara and the Doctor finds himself on trial. Baker handles this material well, and the Doctor's increasingly desperate attempts to outwit the Megara are rather entertaining, but they completely lack suspense, with the previously ominous Ogri suddenly seeming very vulnerable (the Megara reduce one to a pile of sand with consummate ease) and the Cailleach, now identified as Cessair of Diplos, standing on the sidelines and becoming increasingly shrill as she tries to convince the Megara to execute the Doctor before he can prove to them who she really is. It doesn't help that Cessair appears to lack any sort of motivation whatsoever, since having stolen the Great Seal of Diplos and escaped from the Megara's ship, she has spent five millennia hanging around the area doing very little except enjoying the scenery. Given the implied power of the Great Seal (secretly the third segment of the Key to Time), it seems rather strange that she doesn't seem to exploit its power to any great extent. There are very subtle hints that she is an agent of the Black Guardian, but even so he must have promised great rewards indeed if she is prepared to hang around in one place for so long. In fact, Cessair of Diplos is a rather disappointing villain overall; her lack of motivation is doubly disappointing given the rarity of female Doctor Who villains, and the decision to paint Susan Engel silver is unfortunate, since it just makes her look like an actress painted silver rather than an alien criminal (see also 'The Power of Kroll'). Engel's performance also gets increasingly over the top as the story progresses, with the worst example being her melodramatic cackling at the end of Episode Three.
The draining away of suspense in Episode Three (slightly halted by the deaths of the campers) is compensated for to an extent by the witty script, although unfortunately for David Fisher his story follows both 'The Ribos Operation' and 'The Pirate Planet' and so the humour inherent in 'The Stones of Blood' seems rather diluted in comparison. Nevertheless, there are some great lines, most notably from the Doctor who gets to utter the sentence "They say hyperspace is a theoretical absurdity and I've always wanted to be trapped in one of those" and generally takes the piss out of both druids and physicists in the same script. Probably the silliest the story gets is when the Doctor produces a barristers wig from his pocket during his trial, which seems to enrage some critics, but as far as I'm concerned is entirely in keeping with the increasingly humorous nature of the era. Most of the humour in 'The Stones of Blood' is less blatant, and revolves around Amelia Rumford, a marvellous character played magnificently by Beatrix Lehmann. As an eccentric academic scientist Professor Rumford is not exactly an original character, but she is so well scripted that she comes alive and makes an excellent foil for the Doctor, since she is possibly even more eccentric than he is. I particularly like her snide asides about fellow academics, especially when she alternately praises and dismisses various papers as she tries to remember who wrote them. Refreshingly for Doctor Who, she is also a scientist who is open minded from the start and is constantly fascinated by what she learns from her encounter with the Doctor, an attitude best summarized by her suggestion to an incredulous Doctor that they attempt to capture an Ogri in the name of science.
The only other supporting characters of note are the Megara, since both Nicholas McArdle's De Vries and Elaine Ives-Cameron's Martha are adequate but forgettable. The Megara are silly but entertaining, and the special effect used to create them works rather well, looking a lot more convincing than actual models would have done. Their stuffy, prim voices are well suited to their characterisation as the personification of legal proceedings and I like the fact that the Doctor neither convinces them of his innocence nor is forgiven, forcing him to use the third segment to get rid of them at the end.
The regulars are on their usual form, with K9 in particular getting plenty to do, as he battles Ogri, instructs Professor Rumford on how to rebuild the Doctor's machine, and also gets trashed for the first time (something that K9 Mark II is increasingly prone to from this point on). This unfortunately results in a cringe worthy scene as the Doctor and Romana fret over him, and spout pseudo-scientific twaddle about circuit regeneration; it is obviously intended to demonstrate how fond of him they are, but it comes across as being far sillier than the Doctor's wig could ever be. Romana also does well out of the story, Fisher's script reminding the viewer of her relative lack of experience, as she ventures out into the English countryside in high heeled shoes, sparking off a chain of events that result in her being pushed off a cliff. Her conviction that the Doctor was responsibly given Cessair's use of illusion nicely demonstrates that she hasn't been travelling with him long enough to develop the faith in him displayed by Sarah or Leela (both of whom would have assumed that if the Doctor had tried to kill them, he would either have been under someone else's control or an imposter). This is balanced out by the fact that in general, their initially antagonistic relationship has clearly settled down by now, and that the Doctor trusts her enough to tell her about the Guardians.
The production of 'The Stones of Blood' looks great, with the detailed sets of De Vries' house and Vivian Fay's cottage meshing perfectly with the superb location footage. Even more impressive is the fact that the stone circle, which looks highly authentic, is actually made largely out of fake boulders, since the real stones where deemed too small. The model work of the Megara's ship also looks good and nicely matches up with the sets used for the interior. These production values are valuable in a story which I feel doesn't quite work in story terms; 'The Stones of Blood' ultimately feels rather disjointed and is saddled with a mediocre villain, but nevertheless boasts many features that on the whole make it worth watching. As a debut for David Fisher it shows promise, and fortunately he gets to deliver on this promise very, very quickly
Filters: Television Fourth Doctor Series 16