Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Stones of Blood written by David Fisher and directed by Darrol Blake


This story in a nutshell: Stone circles, Druids, sausage sandwiches and bureaucratic motes of dust...


Teeth and Curls: Season sixteen is something rather wonderful nestled in the middle of Tom Baker’s reign as the Doctor. It’s after his first three seasons where he was still engaged and really trying to impress and before his last two where his fatigue starts to become apparent. It is the point where he is having the most fun with the role and it comes off him in waves and infects the audience. I love his huge grin when he realises they are going to Earth and whispers the name excitedly in her ear; it is really cute how he wants to show off his favourite planet to Romana. The Doctor and Romana are starting to enjoy each others company (‘How do I look?’ ‘Ravishing!’). I roared with laughter at the pained expression on Baker’s face when Beatrix Leahman discusses her academic credentials, wondering if she will manage to get the entire line out (it mirrors the worried glances Jackie Hill and William Russell used to share when Billy Hartnell had a long speech and is just as agonizing to endure). Watch how the Doctor practically trips after DeFries when he offers him a sherry (perhaps Baker hadn't indulged on that days filming). I love the insane, unpredictable nature of his lunacy and his sudden exclaim of ‘BRILLIANT!’ is something I have tried on several occasions and left a number of minor heart conditions in my wake. The fourth Doctor is at his height when combining action with his own inimitable insanity and the scene where he tempts the Ogri over the cliff with his jacket like a bull to red cloth is absolute genius. Baker shares great chemistry with John Leeson and the Doctor and K.9’s hissy fits leave me giggling like a loon (‘You’ve always wanted to be a bloodhound’ ‘Negative, Master’ ‘YES YOU HAVE!’ ‘negative…’ and even funnier is ‘I still don’t understand about hyperspace’ ‘Well who does?’ ‘I do!’ ‘Oh shut up K.9!’). Only the madly verbose fourth Doctor could make those crazy courtroom scenes work and he proves what a clever sod he is by playing on his innocence to uncover the truth about Cessair of Diplos and involves her in his execution to expose her identity. Surrounded by gorgeous and accomplished actresses, Baker is clearly having a whale of time with this witty script and it is a joy to be in his company. Even my mother, the staunchest critic of classic Doctor Who, found this story a delight because of Baker's energetic and quick-witted performance.

Snooty Fox: She’s an odd one, Mary Tamm’s Romana. My preference is to Lalla Ward’s bossy matriarch and yet I find the first incarnation has a far more rewarding season. In certain stories however the writers gave Tamm some terrific material to work with (for the record I think the stories that serve her best are Ribos, Stones and Tara), concentrating on Romana's comic clashes with the Doctor and pushing Tamm into the role of the straight man to the Doctor's idiot abroad. She is also treated like a useless old screamer far more than I would like too. The Stones of Blood is the quintessential Romana I experience, because she gets toshow off her intelligence and enjoy some warm and wonderful scenes with the other ladies in the tale but in the next breath she is tripping over cliffs and hanging over a vertiginous drop screaming for help.  Is she honestly so stupid that she thinks the Doctor finds her so irritating that he pushed her off a cliff? Because she has been put in a situation of mortal peril her reaction is believable but because of who she is blaming it isn't remotely plausible. She’s rather good at puzzles and even better at bossing the Doctor about. Romana is so much more convincing when she is doing research at Vivien’s house. When Mary Tamm is strapped to the wall next to the robot skeleton her expression screams ‘has my career come to this?’ I really like how she gives Amelia a peck on the cheek at the end; it’s a sign of affection of the sort that we’ve not seen from this character before and a gesture that she might be thawing out.

Sparkling Dialogue: Season sixteen is where Doctor Who discovered how wit could be used as a weapon to provide gorgeous entertainment...
'I'm no fashion expert' 'No...'
'I hope that knife's been properly sterilised!'
'Does your Cailleach ride a bicycle?'
'Nothing like sausage sandwiches when you're working something out' - never a truer word spoken!
'Jumping Joshua!'
'It's closing on us fast!' 'But its impossible!' 'No it isn't we're standing still.'
'In the cause of science I think it's our duty to capture that creature!' 'How? Have you any plans?' 'We could track it to its lair...' 'COME ON!'
'If they should break through run as if something very nasty were coming after you because something very nasty will be coming after you' 'But what about you?' 'Don't worry about me I'll be doing plenty of that in any case.'
'What does it matter? You know what they say about hyperspace' 'No?' 'They say its a theoretical absurdity and that's something I've always wanted to be lost in.'
'Aren't you supposed to offer me a last toffee apple or hearty breakfast or something? A free pardon!'
'Time, rust, dust, pieces of fluff! How would you like it if you condemned an inncent humanoid to death just because you got a a bit of fluff stuck in your sprocket wheel or whatever you have in there!'
'Too late I've just been executed.'

The Good Stuff: The mist sliding over the moon, blood pouring onto stone, pulsating evil…the opening scenes have a nostalgic taste of Hinchcliffe horror. The dialogue is quick, witty and wonderful, Fisher and Read marry to create a piece of writing that is simply a delight to listen to consummate actors bring to life. The model shots where Romana first points out the nine travelers is very atmospherically shot and scored, a solid move on the part of Darrol Blake. Amelia Rumpford is a legend; the companion that the fourth Doctor never had. Their chemistry is loaded with warmth, gentle humour and mutual respect which reminds me greatly of the sixth Doctor and Evelyn over in the Big Finish universe. The Doctor really should have had an elderly companion because it is on record that Baker was on his best behaviour when paired up with older actresses that he admired and simply because it's such a fun idea. Why he should always have to hang around with young, pretty slips of girls baffles me. Failing a permanent booking the BBC should have green lit a new gentle Sunday evening detective show titled Amelia Rumpford Investigates. There's plenty of stone circles in England for her to poke around and sniff out all the Druids lurking at each site. Amelia is hilarious, insulting, intelligent and utterly magnificent exquisitely played by Beatrix Leahman in the twilight of her career. Perhaps this isn't the most luxurious piece of drama that she has appeared in (as Baker points out in his autobiography, her tales from the past were much more interesting than the script they were acting out) but it is lovely that she should remembered by such a wider audience for a short appearance in one four-part Doctor Who tale. David Fisher steeps the story in mythology and history and rather than using the premise as an excuse simply to scare he gives it a real backbone (we learn much about stone circles and Druids, establishing for one story only some of that educationthat originally motivated the series). I have something of a problem with crows anyway so the lingering shots of the beasts, beedy eyes like droplets of black blood glinting in fire are enough to give me the willies. The beautifully scored first appearance of the Cailleach is unexpected and creepy. And you can't say that too often about the Williams era. I love the cosiness of the settings; the vast English countryside, Vivien’s cottage, DeFries’ manor. It is a splash of ordinariness in the otherwise space age William’s era. Those set designers go to town smashing up the manor, suggesting a greater level of destruction from the Ogri than their cumbersome design allows for. Actually that isn't very fair, the Ogri are actually pretty well designed and look pretty nasty when they are pulsing with hunger, it's only when they move that there are problems (the castors are barely disguised). The crows on the TARDIS are very well done - was that just a lucky shot? Sometimes Doctor Who's limitations are its salvation and it is amazing how something as a swinging light in the cellar can produce a scene that is so effortlessly atmospheric. One of my favourite scenes in Doctor Who’s history comes when the Ogri pursues the Doctor and Amelia to the cliff top. Dudley Simpson’s music is priceless in those scenes, mocking the Doctor's attempt at baiting a bull (sorry stone) and the interplay between the two characters is addictive (it has stuffed my 'Sparkling Dialogue' to bursting). I could sit around and watch the Doctor and Amelia chatting in the cottage for the entire four episodes, those scenes are gorgeously played. The mix of domesticity (the setting) and imagination (the conversation they are having about outer space/inner time) is Doctor Who in a nutshell. The ‘SWITCH OFF!’ scene had me in stitches, all that build only for the machine to go phut. The nighttime camping scene is justly praised; it’s a sudden moment of underplayed horror which allows Blake to suggest far more horror than we ever see (I love the how the scream dissolves into red…). I understand this is the point where some fans want to turn off but I adore the sparkly, squeaky voiced Megara…they remind me of brutally anal and earnest Doctor Who fans (perhaps they are the ones that want to turn off). People mock the farcical courtroom scenes (often saying that the horror bleeds out of the story because of them) but I would rather watch a pleasing blend of comedy and drama that has some wit to it than a dozen screamingly sincere Hinchcliffe atmosphere pieces. The show is trying something new and committing to it totally (besides you've already had your love letter to Hinchcliffe in the first two episodes). Rather wonderfully, the Megara conferring amongst themselves has all the pitch and speed of a drunken gay bitch fight. Trust me, I've been involved with a few of those. The last episode is plotted very satisfactorily; the Doctor exposing Vivian Fey as Cessair of Diplos and Romana and Amelia proving her alien blood type coming together like a beautiful thing. Turning the Cessair into one of the stones has a delicious ring of justice to it.

 The Bad Stuff: The Doctor handily recaps the Key to Time premise for those of us who haven't watched the first two stories. It's one of the frequent dangers of serialised arc storytelling over an extended period and I have seen it time and again in shows like Buffy, DS9 and Battlestar Galactica where plot points are awkwardly repeated so people can catch up. Doctor Who's unique formula means that it usually avoids this pitfall but with an umbrella themed season it is practically inevitable. The first cliffhanger is genuinely awful, the direction is so uncharacteristically bad that it is difficult to see what is actually going on (and it puts Romana in a very poor light). Poor K.9, has a companion ever been so mistreated? In his time he is abused, decapitated, blown up, Wolfweeded, turned evil, suffers a loss of power over and over and here he is the victim of the titular silicon based beasties. Vivien Fey is so obviously the villain since she is the only character who has been standing in the background with sly grins. Her useless wand can't even draw a circle in fizzing electric. The Doctor does the hyperspace jig when he lands on the ship, probably the only moment in this story when Tom Baker looks trips over into absurdity. Some real effort has gone into making the hyperspace ship look convincing, especially the swirling maelstrom visible in the windows so it is such a shame that the model work is so unconvincing (especially considering the Williams era has some of the most accomplished model work that the series has to offer). Dippy Diplos is such a duff villain; she stares at the screen hypnotically and growls 'Oooogriii!' Her look of pantomime horror as her sentence is read out belongs to a children’s studio bound entertainment show. They should have just called in Grotbags!

The Shallow Bit: Mary Tamm is elegance personified in that gorgeous red wine dress.

Result: The Stones of Blood pretty much sums up Doctor Who perfectly; two parts creepy horror, one part glowing domestic drama and one part science fiction madness, lots of quality performances and even the odd duff bit. David Fisher bursts onto the scene with potentially the wittiest script in Doctor Who, crammed full of sparkling, imminently quotable dialogue that the actors savour. I can still remember one evening my mum came home after having a really bad day and she watched this story with me and laughed herself silly and went to bed singing its praises - and I can't imagine a harsher critic of Doctor Who! It’s ridiculously entertaining throughout with some notable direction and effortless changes of tone. Matching the quality of the first two stories of the Key to Time season, this fun thriller isn't even my favourite story of the year: 9/10

1 comment:

HellBlazerRaiser said...

This is one of my top five DW stories of all time.

I listen to it (converted from video to audio and slightly edited down along with a few others) all the time on my iPad.

Professor Rumpford is THE best one-story character. So brilliant and funny and witty.

The Doctor and K9 bickering is hysterical and sublime.

(I actually prefer Ms. Tamm in her first outfit.)