Season 16 - THE KEY TO TIME
The Stones Of Blood
October – November 1978
We’re half way through the Key To Time arc at this stage and so far it’s been a pleasant surprise. It’s not as dull as I remember and certainly as a season it feels much more confident than some of the stories seen in the previous year. And The Stones Of Blood is an irreverent, often creepy little tale that just about manages to sustain itself until the final episode where, quite frankly, it does run out of steam altogether.
I can’t even remember why she hides out on Earth and has several blood sucking polystyrene blocks on wheels as pets. Perhaps someone who actually finds the plot in the middle of it all can drop me a line.However, along the way, a number of delights are in store for us. The TARDIS brings the Doctor and Romana to Earth in search of the third segment of the Key. At this stage you could forgive new viewers for packing it all in because they haven’t a clue about the back story but there is a truly cringeworthy and rather blatant bit of exposition from the Doctor early on just to bring the newbies up to speed. And the rest of us are sitting there yelling at the screen – ‘Just get on with it! I know all this!’ Now plot wise, it's a bit confusing. Alien goddess escapes from prison ship thousands of years in the past and hides out on Earth. She possesses the third bit of the Key but I can’t even remember why she hides out on Earth and has several blood sucking polystyrene blocks on wheels as pets. Perhaps someone who actually finds the plot in the middle of it all can drop me a line. She appears to be on the run from justice machines who turn up at the conclusion in the amusing ‘Crown Court In Space’ scene.
Despite the deficiencies of the plot, it’s still atmospheric, creepy and witty and smoulders under the surface with barely repressed Sapphic desires between the three main female characters – Vivien Fay, Professor Rumford and good ol’ Romana. It’s a heady brew redolent of Virginia Woolf meets M.R James and the tension between the three women adds a dimension to the scenario that seems to hold everything in place with a supernatural force. Very J Sheridan Le Fanu, missus.
...the production team manage to tap into a great deal of the mythology and symbolism surrounding pagan female sexuality and fertilitySusan Engel glows with strangely restrained camp as she makes her trouser-suited way across the fields and offers Romana a ride on her..bike. Ahem. She then sets all the ‘lesbian tendencies’ alarms off again by claiming that it will be ‘ a whole new experience ‘ for Romana. I bet it will, ducky. And the innocence of sausage sandwiches is also given a very odd twist by both Rumford and Fay when they offer one to Romana in the cottage. That and the priceless joke about Fay being a Brown Owl make this a story full of deliberate and accidental double entendre. Quite delicious. Later, as the silver painted Cessair Of Diplos, she sits there and tries to convince the justice machines that she’s ‘Vivien Fay, of Rose Cottage in Boscowan. Ask anyone, they’ll identify me’ in such an archly camp way that most of us would willingly believe her just to bask in her full on silverness. It’s such a shame that the Doctor bluffs his way through the trial and manages to defeat her. Beatrix Leahman is good value too as the no nonsense, gung-ho Rumford and I often wish they’d taken a risk and swapped her over with Romana as a companion. Could you imagine what kind of series we’d have had if it was Baker and Leahman in the TARDIS instead!
On a serious note, though, the focus on strong female characters reaches its height here and with the Druidic goddess background, the production team manage to tap into a great deal of the mythology and symbolism surrounding pagan female sexuality and fertility. It makes a welcome change and adds a further layer of meaning and echoes other, similar stories such as The Daemons and Image Of The Fendahl. It doesn’t quite aspire to the strength of themes in the latter but I’m glad it’s there.
It’s all going well, tongue firmly in cheek, with marauding Ogri attacking innocent campers and wreaking havoc with the Druid worshipping De Vries and his missus, until Romana gets transported to the prison ship. From that point on, the energy and atmosphere dissipate and we’re left for an episode and a half on a boring, white corridored spaceship in hyperspace with the Doctor trying to outwit the Megara justice machines in order to get hold of Fay/Cessair. It does get a tad boring watching a couple of floating lights having a slanging match between themselves and the Doctor. It’s a dull place to put the denoument of the story. Only Baker’s irreverent performance and the aforementioned camp silver one can keep this of interest.
The Ogri are a good concept but in execution are rather laughable and I doubt whether any fancy camera work and lighting would have helped.Production wise, the location work is wonderfully atmospheric but terribly static. The camera barely moves at all when it should really be taking advantage of the freedom of the outdoors. But what there is is sufficiently moody, complete with crows sitting on the TARDIS roof and corner of the eye creepiness that reminded me of those classic BBC Christmas ghost stories. The design and visual effects are often uninspiring. The Ogri are a good concept but in execution are rather laughable and I doubt whether any fancy camera work and lighting would have helped. But you tend to overlook them as ineffectual monsters in favour of the ripeness of the rest of the story. And of course, the monsters have by now become mere guest artists in The Tom Baker Show. Some of the miniature effects are OK but I was never convinced by the hair-dryer spaceship hanging in hyperspace. However, some of the inlay work showing the Doctor and Romana in the windows of the ship ain't bad at all for its time.
The worst culprit on the effects front is the ‘clifhanger’ ending to episode one. Obviously, they failed to get this in the can on location and so we’re given Mary Tamm against a cliff and unconvincing CSO in the studio. Cue very odd stock fooage of waves crashing. Yes, there’s a knowingness to this being a literal cliffhanger and you could argue that this may also be an in-joke on the frailties of the show as a BBC production but it has the unfortunate effect of ruining the atmospheric build up that's achieved all shot on location.
Yet, the elements all seem to work despite some odd plotting and risible production values. Certainly, Baker and Tamm are on good form and their guest stars are more than enough compensation but even the K9 scenes with the Ogri manage to be infused with a bit of energy this time and banish some of the duller moments in the last two episodes. It’s certainly not one of the best stories in the season but it’s highly entertaining and keeps the momentum going. Writer David Fisher was a real find and managed to reflect what Williams and the then script editor Anthony Read were attempting to do with the show.
But how long can this up turn go on for, I wonder?
The Androids Of Tara
November to December 1978
"Next time I shall not be so lenient"
The second David Fisher script of the season and it's a summery, light hearted romp that continues the good standard thus far encountered. It wears its influences on its sleeve and make no bones about being a pastiche of Anthony Hope's The Prisoner Of Zenda and the production team seize the material with relish.
One thing that strikes you about the story is the fantastic location filming.The Doctor and Romana arrive on Tara, where Ruritania never went out of fashion, seeking the fourth segment of the key. They find the segment but run into the clutches of the wicked Count Grendel. He's plotting to install himself on the throne with an android double of Princess Strella ( a dead ringer for Romana ) whilst the good, and rightful king, Prince Reynart languishes in a dungeon and the Doctor helps his mates keep control of the throne with...an android double! One thing that strikes you about the story is the fantastic location filming. Right from the off we are in lush parklands and ancient castles and it's handled very well with good composition, tracking shots and some excellent night filming in the Leeds castle dungeons and on the ramparts. It all adds immensely to the production values. It's certainly one of director Michael Hayes' strengths.
The studio bound sequences are not as consistent. Some scenes, such as the lodge where the Doctor repairs the android and the lab set in Grendel's castle are over lit but all the scenes in the throne room when the Archimandrite is about to crown Reynart are full of subtle colour and shadow and are lush enough to match the location filming. A number of the action sequences are a bit clunky but I do think the sword fight between the Doctor and Grendel makes up for this. What it lacks in arrangement it makes up for with Tom Baker and Peter Jeffrey going full tilt to give it a bit of passion. Yes, it's a lightweight story but it does seem to have been handled with just the right touches and as well as lighting and Valerie Warrender's production design, the silks and brocade of the costumes by Doreen James also add that little something. Lamia's make up, for example, is a clever little touch that emphasises the embellishments in costume and set design. Visually, it all veers into camp but manages, at least, not to descend into pantomime.
Peter Jeffrey totally steals the show, even though he's the tokenistic, moustache twirling bad guy
It's difficult to identify a theme beneath the frills but there are some interesting notions about a technologically advanced society and its culturally backward aesthetics and the idea of using doubles to gain advantage politically must be saying something about the control of images and the way to power through mechanical and media manipulation. How can you trust anyone who uses their advanced technology to bluff their way to the throne? The regulars are good, Baker is flippant as ever but not boring, and Mary Tamm does get a chance to extend her abilities by playing the dual roles of Strella and Romana ( triple, if you count the android ). Peter Jeffrey totally steals the show, even though he's the tokenistic, moustache twirling bad guy, and manages to invest some interest in what was probably a thankless role. Paul Lavers lets the side down with a performance resembling a thick slice of ham.
Overall, you'll either love this or hate it. It could be pointed out as a poor example of Williams' output as producer perhaps with claims that the programme was descending into a pantomime like parody of its former self. That may be true to an extent but I do think there is much to enjoy here. You will not find a profound exploration of the human condition here. It's a bit of fluff, it looks good and it can put you in a good mood if you're happy to let its style over substance wash over you.
And the villain escapes with a pithy remark to camera. Marvellous.
THE KEY TO TIME Boxset: The Stones Of Blood & The Androids Of Tara (BBCDVD2335 Region 2 DVD Cert PG)
The final two stories will be reviewed shortly along with an overview of the DVD set's extra features.
Cathode Ray Tube Doctor Who The Stones Of Blood The Androids Of Tara The Key To Time