Doctor Who complete reviews: The Stones Of Blood
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
A first class performance falls at the last hurdle in this nearly-brilliant Who adventure...
It’s easily done. You tape The Godfather off the telly, think everything will record OK, but when you come to play it back, you find that the last 30 minutes have recorded Spice World: The Movie by mistake.
From quality to gibberish in the blink of an eye. But this isn’t just the prerogative of a wonky VCR; Doctor Who sometimes falls foul of this curse. Great stories are let down by a sub-par final part. The Hand Of Fear is a notable offender. Some say Pyramids Of Mars part four isn’t quite in the same league as the other three parts. But when it comes to howling disappointment, The Stones Of Blood nabs the prize.
It’s a crying shame that the final instalment of The Stones Of Blood dips drastically, since the first three are some of the best ever in Doctor Who. It’s a welcome return to the dark gothic scares that were present in the Hinchcliffe years. Stone circles. Moving obelisks that feed on blood. Creepy bird-faced witches. This is the sort of stuff that Doctor Who can do in its sleep, and sure enough, The Stones Of Blood contains more than its fair share of thrills and spills.
It’s also a return to the traditional modern-day Earth setting – well, out of the six Key locations, one of them had to be Earth, didn’t it? This is very much a cosy, genteel sort of Earth though – the sort where eccentric old biddies invite strangers round for sausage sandwiches and tea, and loved-up couples go for honeymoons in the country. But that’s what makes The Stones Of Blood so atmospheric. Plonked in the middle of all this cosiness is an unearthly threat of doom and oppression. The contrast between the two extremes of cosy English life and gothic terror is handled really well.
"Pat and Mark haven’t been in the story before and are merely there to act as Ogri fodder. But as an act of scaring kids into submission, it works brilliantly."
The most celebrated example of this, is of course, when the Ogri decide to go for a midnight feast of two camper ready meals. It starts off fairly innocently, as the two campers Pat and Mark are disturbed from (presumably) you-know-what by the arrival of two mysterious objects. However, you know what’s coming next, as Pat’s curiosity gets the better of her, and in a typical Jaws Duuuh-Duh! moment, she puts her hand on the stone – only for the Ogri to suck the life out of it and turn it into bone. And before you know it, Mark’s been killed too as the image of the screaming pair fades to blood red.
It’s a great little scene, and all the more effective because it’s so random. Pat and Mark haven’t been in the story before and are merely there to act as Ogri fodder. But as an act of scaring kids into submission, it works brilliantly.
And there are several other disquieting scenes, uncharacteristic of the Williams years. The scene in which baldy acolyte De Vries and his hysterical girlfriend Martha start to panic ups the tension, as does the scene in which The Doctor finds that their heads have been crushed to pulp (I like the way in which The Doctor puts his hand over K9’s eye). The Cailleach’s appearance is also strikingly unearthly – there’s always something about masks that add to the atmosphere of a good horror story, and the bird skull of the Cailleach is no exception. Incidentally, the Cailleach is not pronounced as Kayleigh (as in Marillion) + Each as I always used to think, but as Cally (as in Blake’s 7) + Aaaaagggghhh (as in Tom Baker’s screams).
Anyway, the initial scene in which The Doctor discovers the witch hag is expertly directed. Again, it’s very casually done. We get a slow zoom-in into The Doctor’s surprised face, and then BAM! A sudden close-up of the Cailleach’s leering head poking out of a secret passage. Yes, it’s token Scooby Doo, but it’s directed with precision and thought by Darrol Blake.
Blake is very much suited to Doctor Who, and his lone directorial assignment is done in fine style. He manages to coax out every scrap of atmosphere from the script, and produces some notable set pieces such as the strange cliffhanger to part one (made more mysterious by the fact that we never see The Doctor), the ravens looking at Romana from the roof of the TARDIS and the aforementioned camper deaths.
His casting is generally fine too, although he has a limited set of characters to work with. The most notable of these is, of course, Professor Amelia Rumford, the dotty old battleaxe who befriends The Doctor on his quest to defeat the Ogri and find the third segment of the key. Beatrix Lehmann is perfectly chosen as Amelia, and she makes for a great substitute companion, sparring with The Doctor, and asking him bluntly direct questions as “Are you from outer space?”. Amelia is very much of that old school of Stiff Upper Lip Britain. Nothing seems to faze her – she manages to get herself arrested for carrying a truncheon around and even accepts K9 as the latest fad from New Jersey. She also has a nice line in quaint old English, doffing “Tally-ho!”s and “Dunkirk Spirit”s around like a bohemian Miss Marple. Regrettably, Amelia wouldn’t join the TARDIS crew, instead presumably choosing to strongly consider writing her autobiography – maybe her academic reputation might take a bit of a battering, but it would sure bring in the money.
"Mary Tamm does start to show signs of improvement in the latter half of the story, and at least has quite a good repartee going with Tom Baker (especially in the otherwise dull court scenes)"
And at least Amelia makes for a more interesting companion than whiny old Romana, who’s too busy auditioning for Trinny and Tranny’s protégé (she has the posh accent at least) stomping around in great big clod-hopping bare feet or sounding bored out of her wits half way down a whopping great cliff. Seriously, could she sound any less worried when she whinges: “Help. Help. Is. Anyone. There?”..? She sounds as if she’s encountered more disturbing scenarios such as breaking a nail, judging by her dull monotone voice. Having said that, Mary Tamm does start to show signs of improvement in the latter half of the story, and at least has quite a good repartee going with Tom Baker (especially in the otherwise dull court scenes).
The (mostly female) cast also includes the traditional baddie – in this case, it’s Vivien Fay. Or The Cailleach. Or Senora Camara. Or Cessair Of Diplos. Put it this way, Vivien’s probably changed her name by deed poll so many times, she can’t actually remember what her original name is. It’s a nice idea to have a ruthless criminal mastermind pose as an Earthbound witch ghost, but unfortunately, Susan Engel’s performance is a bit uneven. Initially, she’s fine, giving off a rather creepy, sinister air as the apparently amiable Vivien. But when she slaps on the silver war paint, she becomes a Bwa-ha-ha-ing pantomime villain. Even the third cliffhanger is one big echoing belly laugh from Vivien. What’s so funny anyway? She’s forever cackling and grinning like your average over-enthusiastic audience at a Michael McIntyre gig. Maybe it’s the thought of having to talk to two silly Tinkerbells. Or maybe she’s on the receiving end of a visit from an invisible Mr Tickle. Whatever, the non-stop laughing grates on the nerves and ruins the credibility of a once-decent villainess.
Still, Vivien’s descent into Mrs Abanazar-style ham sums up the fall from grace in the fourth part of The Stones Of Blood. Having enjoyed three great parts of small-screen Hammer Horror, I’m now stuck with an inexplicable detour into – oh no! – courtroom drama, one of my least favourite genres ever. Put it this way, the only way in which it could get any worse would be if Vivien, the Megara and The Doctor were to suddenly break into song.
What’s worse is that your judge and jury this time are two rubbish floating lights, who dart and buzz around like annoying hi-tech wasps. The Megara also have stupid voices. One sounds like a bored automated telephone answering service, the other sounds like a robotic Danny La Rue. They also make frequent electronic babbling noises whenever they get angry – think of the burbling computer in 80s kids programme Chock-A-Block. It doesn’t help either that because they are superimposed onto the action, the actors don’t always look directly at them.
And the courtroom drama really is strung out in the dullest fashion possible. Tom Baker commendably tries to make the best out of a bad situation with his own brand of humour, to the point where he dons a barrister’s wig. He just about succeeds, but overall, the court scenes are basically long, clunky pieces of info-dump. After such a great build-up, it’s a considerable let-down.
"Sadly, in the case of The Stones Of Blood, the detour from horror story into silly courtroom farce just drives the story into a narrative cul-de-sac"
Actually, this proves to be a common undoing of David Fisher’s scripts. After three strong episodes, he can’t seem to get the hang of part four at all. Three out of his four stories all have an ending which seems to be totally at odds with what’s gone before, and sadly, in the case of The Stones Of Blood, the detour from horror story into silly courtroom farce just drives the story into a narrative cul-de-sac. Admittedly, on this occasion, the plot’s well worked out, as Fisher gives Vivien the right amount of background and motivation. It’s just a shame that it’s so dull – even Big Tom, Mary Tamm and Susan Engel have had enough on the DVD commentary, ripping the last part to shreds. You almost feel sorry for poor old Fisher, who presumably went to have a good old blub into his headphones after the recording.
Still, three out of four ain’t bad, and because the first three parts of The Stones Of Blood are so good, I’ll just about overlook the forgettable conclusion. The Cailleach and the Ogri are suitably eerie – the Ogri make for great, omnipotent monsters like the Mummies in Pyramids Of Mars (although how do they kill De Vries and Martha? Jump on them?). The story’s brilliantly directed and realised (great sets from John Stout). But overall, it’s like going to an art gallery to find that some kid has fingerpainted all over a masterpiece painting in gaudy bright colours. Shame.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.
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