The majority of what Doctor Who was doing right in 1978, was on display in The Stones of Blood, the third adventure in the six story series that focused on the Doctor's quest to assemble to the segments of the Key to Time. It is also the perfect example of a story from the Graham Williams era, the script is quip-laden which plays to Tom Baker need to display his comedic charm. For the most part, The Stones of Blood, is an entertaining story, even though it doesn't give us anything particularly brilliant or anything which we hadn't seen before. But the weaknesses of this era are also on display here. This is what is keeping this story from rising to classic status and unfortunately, the whole production ends up being somewhat forgettable.
But it isn't bad, it is a fun romp from the author, David Fisher, which relies on Baker's comic timing to deliver the quips which feature heavily in the script. It is a lot funnier than the previous story, The Pirate Planet, which is odd, given that Douglas Adams wrote that one! During the Williams era, humour was the main focus, humour counted for a lot more than horror did during this time. The Stones of Blood does have killer cults, a Celtic bird goddess and her ravens and 12 foot vampiric stones. It has all the horror motifs on display but it doesn't scare in the same way something like The Brain of Morbius would. This story is one which goes for the tone of Ghostbusters, rather than The Exorcist. It could be far too easy for the whole story to be campy, something which the show at this time ended up being far too often. But when it works, it works wonderfully. What The Stones of Blood really suffers from is the really dull antagonist and a lazy, rather formulaic approach to the Doctor Who horror/comedy stories. But it is formulaic until the middle when we are given a twist that manages to yank the plot in a completely new direction which makes the most of what came before, before that becomes irrelevant.
Despite being a part of The Key to Time series, the main story doesn't really have much to do with the search for a particular segment. The only mention of the overarching plot is a vague warning about being wary of the Black Guardian. We don't get much exploration of what the Key actually is, what its powers are and why its assembly is important beyond what we have already learnt in the opening episode. Although we get one in the final adventure of this series, the producers really missed a trick in not giving the Doctor someone to deal with who was also after the segments, working for the Black Guardian. Seeing the Master doing this would have been brilliant. Three Time Lords trying to outwit each other would have been fantastic. It would have also added some much needed depth to the story if the Doctor had someone to contend with in each story who was on the same quest as him, as well as some much needed urgency, to add a element of doubt in if the Doctor would be able to complete his task. Unfortunately, the whole overarching story links the elements together rather weakly and manages to miss the point of collecting the Key in the first place.
But this doesn't really effect each adventure when you look at them as individual stories. The Stones of Blood starts as a tribute to the horror infected stories at the beginning of Tom Baker's era, with the flavour of old Hammer House of Horror adventures thrown in for good measure. On the trail of the third segment, the tracer brings the TARDIS and The Doctor, Romana and K-9 to the English countryside and a mysterious circle of stones called The Nine Travellers. Pagan cults conduct secret animal sacrifices to appease their goddess, the Cailleach. Romana's readings say the segment is in the stone circle but nothing appears to be there.
During his investigations, the Doctor quickly runs afoul of the cult and their leader, Mr. De Vries, who turns out to be as competent as a potato. He is given orders by his goddess to sacrifice the Doctor and when the cult screw that up, when De Vries and his cult run away from an old woman on a bicycle. Then he is killed off by the angry Cailleach and it is really easy to see why. Surely evil henchmen aren't supposed to be scared away by elderly grandmothers? Especially when her weapons include a flask of tea and long stories about some scientific mumbo jumbo!
It isn't hard to love Beatrix Lehmann's performance as the elderly scientist, Professor Amelia Rumford and her role in this story is almost a fully fledged companion, given that she spends most her time with the Doctor. She is almost like an elderly woman version of the Doctor, even down to her unintentional impersonation of William Hartnell when she is fumbling for her lines!
Of course, De Vries is only small-fry, a pawn necessary for the story as he is bumped off to make way for the bigger baddies. The Cailleach's really minions are her stones of blood, a trio of monstrous members of an alien race, The Ogri. In Doctor Who tradition, they are both terrifying and simplistic in concept, they are essentially the rocks from Stonehenge with a vampire's need for blood. They slide over the ground with about the speed of a ten-tone snail, and their physical limitations make them almost laughable. They have no personalities, no moving parts and nothing that makes them relatable to the audience. They are just big pieces of rock.
But those limitations are what makes them nightmarish in a way that not many monsters in this show are. Big rocks that want to drink your blood, they are the demons who live in the darkest parts of your imaginations. They may be slow but they never tire and will track you for miles before you have to stop and rest and then smash down your house to get at you. But because they can't communicate, they are just used as the evil henchmen and are best used sparingly. When I first saw this story I thought they were great, they were rocks with the blood thirsty desires of Michael Myers from Halloween!
The Ogri also work as a good parody of K-9, sidekicks who pose serious mobility issues that threatens to derail the action. As a character, K-9 makes a great addition to the series, especially given the brilliant voice acting from John Leeson. Humble and sensible, Leeson is the perfect foil to Baker's clownish performance. It was only ever the Brigadier who had the power to stand up to Baker's Doctor. But the K-9 prop itself was a different story. It was a slow, cumbersome, remote controlled machine which forced the actors to create clumsy movements to cover up the fact that the prop was often going wrong. They would have to walk briskly rather than run because the prop couldn't keep up, or move it by hand because it would get caught on something. Sometimes they even had to move it thanks to visible fish wire because the motor would often stop working.
The story is helped drastically by the shift in the second act which sees the Cailleach reveal her true identity, Vivien Fay, a woman who had been teamed up with the Doctor and Co from the beginning of the story. She escaped to earth after she hijacked the very prison ship she was being transported on. While snooping around the ship which is trapped in hyper-space, the Doctor accidently releases her jailors, The Megara. They are a pair of justice machines, slaves to the rulebook, who sentence the Doctor to death for breaking the seal of their cell. The resulting trial takes up the majority of the final episode, which puts the Fourth Doctor in his element, outwitting the stuffy machines with his humour. I do not like the way that the trial storyline pushes the cult storyline to side-lines. They are shoved aside and the story seems to wipe away the spooky atmosphere it had spent so much time building up in the first three episodes. It is towards the end of the fourth episode that Vivien Fay or the Cessair, as she is know, becomes interesting. I think the problem was that the actress, Susan Engel, was stuck playing three different characters and this didn't open up for much in the way of great acting. Once her true identity is revealed, she becomes infinitely more interesting but by then, it's too late to care. But she is also reduced to just making snide remarks, from the side-lines of her trial, just as her potential to push the story forward is put into play.
What is left unresolved is what Cessair thought she was going to accomplish. What was her big plan? Could it have been possible she didn't have one? She had apparently done nothing for the past 8,000 years she was trapped on Earth. Alright she formed a cult and impersonated their goddess, but was her ultimate goal just to conquer the land near her spaceship so she could make sure she lived in peace and provide a steady supply of blood for her Ogri? Compare this to a typical scheme of the Master's, it is just as criminal as jaywalking. She isn't out to conquer the galaxy, destroy the Earth or mind-control the Human Race. She simply wants to be left alone, in her little part of the English countryside. And then kill people every-so-often to keep the Ogri alive. So compared to the Master, is she really so bad?
But lets remember that not every Doctor Who adventure has to be about stopping someone who wants to conquer the galaxy. Big scale adventures loose their impact if they aren't sided with smaller scale stories. I just can't help but shake the feeling that the reason why Cessair doesn't have a plan is because the writer couldn't be bothered to give her a reason. The formula of Doctor Who means that the big baddie needs to be properly revealed by the final episode, and there is the Cessair. She is needed to fulfil a certain function. But the introduction of the Megara steals her limelight and this results in Cessair just being a bore.
And having the Megara included in the final episode raises a good point about the Doctor's quest for the Key to Time. Let's look at who he is working for. The White Guardian is the representative for universal order, but the Doctor is ultimately a force for chaos. And already, two stories from series sixteen, The Ribos Operation and The Stones of Blood features the characters in the opposition representing forces of stifling control. This does nothing but undercut the notion that The White Guardian is on the side of the angels and that he has any particular claim to moral superiority over The Black Guardian. It is a good job that this does play into how the series is wrapped up. And it certainly is an interesting journey to that point...