Sunday, June 09, 2024

Doctor Who Season 16: The Stones of Blood (1)

 I: Introduction

"And so", concluded Andrew, "the Key to Time is a metafictional debate about what Doctor Who is going to be like going forward.  A search for balance between what the Troughton and Pertwee years were, and what the remaining Baker years are going to be."

"I have a question"  said someone in the back row. "Well, it's not really a question, so much as a comment. This is all jolly clever, but there is no way you can spin it out over another four essays. Sure, every Key To Time story is either a traditional Doctor Who story, or not a traditional Doctor Who story. But whichever side of the line a story falls out on, you can say that it proves your point. It's time to move on and talk about something else. Like, Stones of Blood as a metaphor for Marxist economic theory; or how Androids of Tara illuminates the UNIT dating problem."

"Well, I'm glad you asked me that question" said Andrew. "Made that comment, I mean. It's a valid point, and one with which I am not entirely unsympathetic. But let's use Stones of Blood to test the hypothesis one last time, shall we?"

He started to write on the blackboard.

Chalk board.

White board.

One of those projector thingies where you scribble on slides with transparent pens. 

"Consider the following. 

"1:  Stones of Blood is the weakest story in the sixteenth season; and, if you are asking for my opinion -- which, considering I am writing both sides of the argument, you presumably are -- the worst story in the entire Tom Baker era thus far. 

"2: Stones of Blood doesn't even pretend to fit into the Key to Time story arc. Yes, the villain does have a necklace, and yes, she did steal it from the Boney King of Nowhere. It may even give her shape shifting powers. The Doctor takes it off her in Episode Four, and it turns out to be Segment Three. But it makes no difference the to story. The Doctor would have got just as involved, and involved in just the same way, if it had just been a shape shifting emperor's magic pendant and not the Key to Time at all.

"3: There is a very odd prologue in which the Doctor restates the Quest for Romana's benefit, and in which the a magic voice warns them about the Black Guardian. Which would make complete sense if the Black Guardian were in the story: but he isn't. It's as if the scriptwriter puts in a prologue saying 'This is part of the Key to Time Saga' because otherwise it wouldn't be.

"4: The actual story is pretty much a collection of Doctor Who tropes and cliches and nothing else. There's a set of chanting robed mystics (we had one of those last week); there's a cargo cult (we had one of those last season); there's a gothic mansion (we have one of those every season); there's a feisty lady scientist; there's an unconvincing model spaceship and there is, you guessed it, an execution. There is an actual cliff which seems only to exist so people can hang off it. And some of the tropes are treated so ineptly that it is impossible not to think that they are being deliberately subverted -- or at any rate handled by someone who actively hates the show."

"And" concluded Andrew, with the air of someone pulling a rabbit out of hat, or possibly a wig out of a pocket "Members of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society votes Stones of Blood their favourite story of the entire Key to Time saga. They chose a David Fisher script above a Robert Holmes script and a Douglas Adams script. And, come to that, above a much better David Fisher script.

"And the reason is not hard to see. Stones of Blood is a terrible Doctor Who story. But it is, at least, clearly a Doctor Who story.  The DWAS members could see that Pirate Planet and Ribos Operation were taking the programme off into new territory; and they cast their vote clearly in favour of old territory.

"Which is ironic. Because either Stones of Blood is a genuinely terrible Doctor Who story by someone who doesn't much like Doctor Who. Or else it is a deliberate parody of Doctor Who. And that's what Doctor Who is, in fact, going to become: a self-parody. Stones of Blood is the story where the metatextual weirdness fully takes hold.

"I'm not going to attempt to summarise the plot, because basically there isn't one. But I am going to have a look at half a dozen defining moments in the serial."

"I have another questions. And it really is a question, as opposed to a comment. Are you going to keep this device going for the whole essay?"

"Probably not. Could I have the first slide please?"

II: Cake

In the opening scene of Stones of Blood, Romana throws a surprise party for the Doctor. 

It is his 759th birthday. She provides the cake. It isn't clear if she baked it herself; or if the TARDIS food machine can produce candles and sponge and pink sugar icing to order. She also gives him a present. And only then do they resume their mission -- which happens to be on the Doctor's favourite planet. And to revisit many of his favourite cliches. So the Stones of Blood is a kind of birthday treat. 

Looked at diegetically (from a Watsonian perspective) the scene is a bit of a problem. For one thing, it ties the Doctor's age down a bit too specifically. For another, it asks us to swallow the idea that Time Lords have the same traditions as humans -- they give presents and blow out candles on the anniversary of their birth. We could, of course, execute the Moffat Manoeuvre, and say that birthday cakes and candles are a Time Lord tradition that English humans copied. But there's a simpler explanation. Romana knows that the Earth is the Doctor's favourite planet. She must also know that he has adopted some of its customs -- tea, jelly babies, ginger beer, cricket. So she has very thoughtfully given him a traditional human birthday party: in the way you or I might throw a Japanese style party for someone who we know loves manga. It's a kind thought and the Doctor accepts it as a kind thought.

In Ribos Operation, the Doctor and Romana were markedly hostile to each other. In Pirate Planet they achieved a kind of balance or equilibrium. And now here is Romana giving the Doctor thoughtful gifts. Before too long, it will be impossible not to think of them as a married couple. 

All the Doctors have had their own preferred wardrobe style; but the scarf, the Burgundy coat and the floppy hat have become the fourth Doctor's uniform -- defining him in the way that the bowler hats defined Laurel and Hardy and the deerstalker defined Sherlock Holmes. At this point in the cycle, Tom Baker is no longer The Serious One. He is no longer The Alien One. By the end of this story, he will certainly have become The Silly One. But more than anything, he is and will always be The One With The Scarf. And the series itself recognises this. 

What do you give a Time Lord for his birthday if he already owns a scarf? 

Romana gives him a new scarf. Exactly the same as the old scarf.

The Stones of Blood is the one hundredth Doctor Who story. Not the one hundredth episode (that was Dalek Master Plan Episode Ten): the one hundredth story. And by coincidence, the final part of the story was scheduled to go out five days shy of November 23, 1978: the show's Fifteenth Anniversary. Some sort of celebration was clearly in order. The cake scene stops short of saying directly that the Doctor and Romana are celebrating the longevity of their TV show, but the audience knows perfectly well that that is what is happening. 

And why not? The Doctor is clearly aware that he is a character in TV show -- it's only a dozen years since he looked out of the screen and wished the viewers at home a merry Christmas. He opens school fetes, sends fans birthday cards and introduces the first issue of Doctor Who Weekly (as it was then). He has more in common with John Noaks or Johnny Morris than he does with Captain Kirk or Robin Hood. The best analogy is still Father Christmas. A birthday party for a TV character on the birthday of their show makes perfect sense. The Doctor and Doctor Who are basically metaphors for each other. Post-reboot, Moffat and Davies would expand this idea at wearisome length.

Does the Doctor even know his own date of birth? He certainly recalls a childhood -- we have heard him talking about the daisyness of daisies with Time Lord gurus; looking into the Untempered Void with his friend the Master; and experiencing night terrors and being comforted by a future companion. We now know that the Doctor was adopted and doesn't remember his birth-family. But there's no reason why an orphan would not celebrate their birthday, even if they didn't know the exact date. The Division would presumably have dated the Doctor's birth from the day when Tecteun found him: but that was certainly a lot more than seven hundred and fifty nine years ago. The child-Doctors we have heard about must be younger versions of the person we have always thought of as the First Doctor. Indeed, the appearance of the child in Listen was based on childhood photographs of William Hartnell. It must be the seven hundred and fifty ninth anniversary of the current cycle of regenerations that Romana is celebrating.  

But even this would have sat poorly alongside the Cartmell Masterplan -- which, you will recall, states that Time Lords are not born, but knitted. I suppose a race of clones might celebrate the day they came out of the cloning machines. Then again, the Doctor believes himself to have had a human mother; details of whom have never been made public; so his birthday might be a poignant occasion for him. 

So, all told, it is probably just as well that there is no such scene in Stones of Blood. The birthday cake scene was, indeed, written -- by script editor Anthony Read. Tom and Mary reportedly really liked it. But Graham Williams thought it was too silly. That's the Doylist reason for the pointless Black Guardian warning in the prologue: it was a late replacement for the vetoed sequence.

The Key to Time saga is about law versus chaos; and also about nostalgia vs progress and plot vs anti-plot. But it is also, surely, about science fiction versus comedy; earnestness versus foolishness. One can almost imagine Graham Williams walking into the middle of the Doctor's birthday party like Graham Chapman's Colonel at the end of the Parrot Sketch and announcing "I am sorry: this is all getting far too silly." If Douglas Adams had been in charge, that might even have happened. He's the one who pitched an idea about the TARDIS slipping Time Lines and materialising in TV Centre during the filming of an episode of Doctor Who. Douglas won't assume his role as script editor until the beginning of next season, but Anthony Read is doing his very best to channel some post-Hitch-Hiker silliness.

"I knew a Galactic Federation once" says the Doctor in Episode Four "Lots of different lifeforms so they appointed a justice machine to administer the law." 

"What happened?" asks Romana. 

"They found the Federation in contempt of court and blew up the entire galaxy." 

That's a Douglas Adams joke if ever I heard one. 

But for now, the forces of sensibleness remain in control. 

Graham Williams vetoed the birthday party. 

The crew ate the cake.

This is the second part of a series of articles on the Doctor Who story Stones of Blood. 

All ten part have already appeared on my Patreon. 

Patreon followers have also read my definitive guide to the UK election, and are about to read my essay on the Doctor Who story Androids of Tara.

It would be great if the majority of people reading this could join them. 

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