Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Stones of Blood

24/06/11 “The Stones of Blood”
Romana: Is Earth always like that?
The Doctor: Yes, sometimes it’s even exciting.

I love “Stones of Blood,” and I’ve been trying to figure out why. Certainly it’s a good example of Gothic horror (despite the largely female cast, you cannot call it a female Gothic because the threats are real and do kill people, they do not just exist in the mind)—I am not really familiar with Hammer Horror so I can’t comment on that. It also has a surprisingly small principal cast and the last episode would arguably work better on radio than on TV—so it must appeal to that part of my brain that likes radio plays so much. While I do not deny that at least twenty minutes could have been shaved off to combine episodes three and four into one, episode one is practically flawless. I stand by that opinion.

At the beginning, the Doctor and Romana are tracking down the third segment of the Key to Time. The Doctor starts out being quite patronizing, but much of that melts away throughout the story. He is genuinely excited when they find out the segment is on Earth. “Have I got a treat in store for you!” Romana says it’s his favorite planet. “How do you know that?” “Everyone knows that.” Meanwhile, on Earth, in England, the 1970s obsession with black magic and rites continues on apace; yawn. Yet, I would say that this and “The Daemons” are the best examples of this and the rest rather hide in their shadows (aside from Spectre of Lanyon Moor which borrows liberally and effectively from both). The rite, I should say, involves neo-Druids of some sort making a blood sacrifice to a Celtic goddess named the Cailleach (though it does sound like the chanters are chanting, “Carry on!”). The blood is slaked on some rather freaky standing stones. Plus some wonderfully moody cello music from Dudley Simpson; this and “Ribos Operation” are his best work so far, in my opinion.

Romana is quite hopelessly naïve, but at least her dress sense has recovered from that detour it took in “Pirate Planet”: she’s got a flashy but bold orange ensemble with a plaid hat and “those shoes”—1970s high heels that even the Doctor disapproves of. “I’m not a fashion expert . . .” “No.” (Companions tend to have similar quips throughout his life. It’s amusing.) There’s quite a strange scene (inserted, it is true, because the first episode under-ran) where the Doctor explains to Romana quite what is going on. “What would I do if something happened to you?” The Doctor quite sensibly takes an umbrella out onto the moor, which in fact he doesn’t need. Romana attempts to decipher his remark about tennis, but K9’s response is too literal, and when she tells him to forget it, he “erases memory banks concerning tennis.”

They have landed in what looks like Avebury (stone circle). It’s a wonderful setting, and despite the inability to coordinate studio lighting for the night scenes with the outdoor (video!) recording, it’s still rather impressive. It was perhaps wise that “The Pandorica Opens” dispensed with what ground was covered here. Romana looks like a freak holding out the tracer like a divining rod as she searches for the segment. They are interrupted in their search by Professor Amelia Rumford, an absolutely fabulous character who should have been a companion (and in a way was, for Dr Evelyn Smythe is at least partially inspired by her; surely the bit about the foogoos is a giveaway?). Amelia mistakes the Doctor for an expert in the field. “You read that paper on them [the foogoos].” The Doctor plays along and recognizes her as eminent in stone circle archaeology—“you’re too kind,” she says, “but perfectly right.” The Doctor recognizes blood on the stones just as Amelia’s assistant Miss Vivian Fay arrives, looking dashingly late ‘70s in her pink pant suit. “Just another sacrifice.” “I think you dismiss them too easily,” says Amelia. They refer to Mr De Vries’ cult. “He doesn’t like scientists.”

The Doctor wants to go talk to De Vries who lives in a nearby mansion, but Romana can’t keep up because of her shoes. David Fisher’s handling of Amelia’s feminism is a bit heavy-handed—“typical male”—but her actions speak louder than her words. Romana, meanwhile, stays behind with the women at the circle and ruminates on the “evil-looking” crows/ravens (an odd thing for Romana to say, but she is quite inexperienced—strange she didn’t think the Schrivenzale looked evil when she first saw it!). Romana is offered a “mug of tea.” A wonderful location is De Vries’ house; what a fantastic (and convincing) Tudor mansion. De Vries himself looks like a bank teller; I really want to know why he’s been drawn into this Druidic fascination. Since the cult of the Cailleach is so overwhelmingly female, what’s his interest? What does he do? How can he afford the upkeep of such a house? He tells the Doctor that the last visiting archaeologist died when a stone fell on him. The Doctor notices the missing paintings on the walls (very Gothic) and De Vries says it was the previous owners of the estate, Lady Morgana Montcalm, Mrs Trefussis, Señora Camara (very Gothic and Arthurian names). The Doctor has a wonderful monologue about Druids, which is quite erudite and yet moves at a breathtaking pace: “there’s so little of it that’s historically accurate.” He says John Aubrey the antiquarian made it up as a joke. De Vries is not in a joking mood. “The stones are sacred.” “To whom?” The Doctor is startled by the “appearance” of the Cailleach, and De Vries knocks him out. Romana’s been lured away in the dark toward the cliff edge; it’s almost as if it’s that moment in Jane Eyre when Rochester and Jane can hear each other even though physically they’re apart. Anyway, although it is very much a literal cliffhanger, with Romana falling down the side of the mountain, it’s not that satisfying.

Romana has to hang there for quite a long time as De Vries and his wife?/lover? Martha is trying to persuade him not to kill the Doctor for a blood sacrifice at the stones. They are interrupted by the return of Amelia who unties the Doctor. Amelia wishes they had a dog so they could find where Romana has disappeared to. That’s when the Doctor summons K9; “I am not programmed to bark.” They do find Romana on the cliff edge and eventually help her back up; however, she believes the Doctor is evil and they determine that someone has been using transformative powers to trick Romana. The Doctor goes back to confront De Vries in a further attempt to figure out what’s going on; Romana goes to Vivien Fay’s cottage to look over Amelia’s notes. The Doctor finds the corpses of De Vries and Martha buried under rubble, which we saw was caused by moving, animate stones. Now, the moving stones are a wonderful idea and a great Gothic Horror device; I had to think of the story “Man-Sized Marble” where two stone villains come out of their tombs to kill people. When the stones return, K9 is able to fend them off but is ripped to shreds in the process. Romana and the Doctor have to take five to repair him and for Romana to get some decent shoes (she’s been climbing up the cliff face barefoot!).

She in fact changes her entire outfit, into a nice red broom skirt in the second wardrobe triumph of the story. When Amelia meets K9 for the first time, the Doctor says, “He’s mechanical. They’re all the rage in Trenton, NJ.” WTF? Much has been made of Professor Rumford and Vivien sharing the cottage, and fans for some reason have worked themselves into a lather on whether they’re a lesbian couple. If so, it’s not exactly liberating, when you consider the fate of Vivien and the (unseen) emotional impact it must have on Amelia! The feminine/feminist angle continues when Romana notices that all the landholders of the moor and the stones have been women for 4,000 years. Vivien oh-so-charmingly tries to put her off the scent. With Evelyn Smythe’s determination, Amelia decides to go after the Doctor as he has not returned from De Vries’. She is quite proudly carrying a truncheon with her, which Vivien wittily notes got Amelia arrested in New York. When there, the Doctor notes that there must be a hidden passage and correctly links the raven symbol of the Cailleach. “A priest hole!” “Well, it is old enough.”

Thus follows a wonderfully Gothic scene (Dorian Gray but doubles are a hugely Gothic theme) where the Doctor and Amelia find all the missing paintings of the previous owners, who of course are all Vivien Fay. The Doctor puts it all together, and it’s wonderfully dripping with atmosphere. However, here and many other times down the line, I think about Amelia’s position and how strange and hurtful the story must be from this point on. Her friend (and probably lover) is older than 4,000 years? She’s impersonating a Celtic goddess? She presumably has a hidden agenda and bad intentions? What did Amelia and Vivien discuss if they were lovers? How strong was the bond between them? I doubt they considered themselves soulmates—maybe it was just a fling?

In any case, Romana takes it upon herself to go visit the stone circle. She doesn’t twig that Vivien is dressed rather strangely and allows herself to be thrown into the circle and spirited away to unknown climes. I should mention at this point that the Cailleach costume is amazing. It’s so eerie and weird but also wonderfully simple.

In the next episode, the Doctor and Amelia are interrupted by the arrival of the traveling stone. The Doctor tells her to “Run!” Amelia tries to get her head around this situation. “I think it our duty to capture that creature!” she says fearlessly. They are able to get rid of one of the stones by making it fall off the cliff (how stupid is a stone?). They then reach the stone circle where Vivien tells them that Romana will be safe (and far away) as long as the Doctor desists in his meddling. The Doctor can’t, however, for the obvious reasons, and also because “You’ve got something I need.” She, however, disappears. The Doctor realizes the stones are Ogri from the planet Ogros. He also says that as silicon-based lifeforms that survive on amino acids, they have to get them from blood. An understandably distraught Amelia cries, “What about Vivien? What about Romana?” As ever, I am interested in the particularly psychologically damaging situations that Who glosses over. Steven Taylor being on Mechanus all by himself (with just the panda)? Vicki under the control of Bennett? And Amelia—she can’t really process during the story what this betrayal from Vivien means, but think of after the Doctor and Romana leave.

The Doctor, perhaps mercifully, directs Amelia’s mind toward hyperspace, a theoretical impossibility but one where he expects Romana and Vivien are hidden. There’s a wonderfully erudite and fast-moving scene between the Doctor and Amelia in the cottage with K9 being smug; some of my favorite lines from Doctor Who come from this scene. The Doctor, rather Pertwee-esque, constructs a machine that he hopes will beam him onto the hyperspace ship. However, it has a very small range. He and Amelia set it up in the stone circle but at first it doesn’t seem to work. Amelia is again overworked and apologizes. “There is an error in the circuitry—you are not to blame.” “We’re not all programmed for perfection, you know!” says the Doctor. However, he fixes the machine, and Amelia and K9 beam him up. They have decided to keep operating the machine at regular intervals so the Doctor can return. However, they are hampered in their attempts by attacking Ogri, who K9 manages to fend off. Next follows an infamous, rather “Image of Fendahl” scene where two campers are killed by one of the Ogri (how efficient at feeding can they possibly be if they have to cause their prey to touch them?). It’s a vivid, suspenseful scene. Rather new Who-esque. There is some great music.

Aboard the hyperspace ship, the Doctor finds a chained up Romana without much difficulty, sets her free, and they discuss the implications. Interesting model design of the ship, though the actual set is a bit duller. “How do you decelerate infinite mass?” It’s the Bidmead era that wanted to be so hard science-driven, but I’m finding a lot more (purported/theoretical) science in this season. The Doctor and Romana go around opening vaults, finding skeletons, and the Doctor speculates they’re on a convict ship. When they open an apparently empty room, releasing the “invisible” occupants, it makes me think of the nanogenes in “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances.” With the Megara , the justice machines, I think visual and vocal performance match up really well, and the actors do pretty well acting to thin air. This whole bit is interesting but quite a radical shift from the rest of the action and could be, as I said before, twenty minutes shorter. But, as I said, this is the part that could have worked really well on radio. As you can probably guess, they defend “the letter but not the spirit” of the law and want to execute the Doctor for having broken the seals on their container.

Vivien has found the opportunity to change into a stunning, silvery, scanty, somewhat Boudiccca-esque dress and is a bit Eldrad-glam with silvery skin. She beams down to Earth to destroy the machine; Amelia can neither stop her nor does Vivien take the opportunity to kill Amelia. However, the episode ends as the Doctor and Romana are apparently trapped in hyperspace forever, with the Doctor’s execution imminent.

The Doctor’s trial takes place on the hyperspace ship, and he is allowed to defend himself (randomly he seems to carry a judge’s wig in his pocket). He does a masterful job, as you can expect, calling Romana to be a witness as well as trying to involve “Vivien” in an attempt to discover her true identity. A drained K9 awakens Amelia’s sympathies—“are you better, dear?” K9 is determined to build a new machine. “You will work under my direction,” he tells Amelia. And in fact Amelia rises to the challenge. I have always liked K9 in the abstract but found his contribution to stories to be mixed at best, annoying at worst. However, in the past two stories at least he has proven himself to be quite useful, amusing, and vital.

With the machine now working, Romana is able to beam back where she and Amelia try hard to discover Vivien’s identity. An interesting thread that doesn’t go far is that she has an allergy to citric acid. Independently the Doctor is discovering aboard the ship that she is Cessair of Diplos, a wanted criminal who, among other crimes, took the Seal of Diplos which has many snazzy powers. His attempts to get her to confess this are foiled, but (in a somewhat weak plot point after his rather dashing defense) he grabs Vivien and drags her into the beam that was supposed to kill him. The Megara are forced to read her mind to see if she is injured, and thus realize that she is actually the criminal. She is sentenced to perpetual imprisonment. The Doctor grabs the necklace off her neck before she is changed into a stone (Paul Cornell surely took inspiration here!) in the circle and left there. The Doctor has also cleverly gotten away from the insatiable Megara (ungrateful swine). As he, Romana, and K9 go on their way with the third segment to the Key to Time in their possession, Amelia says, “Poor Vivien—I can’t help feeling sorry for her.”

This was great fun.

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