The Stones of Blood, by Katrin Thier (and David Fisher, and Terrance Dicks)

I remember watching and hugely enjoying The Stones of Blood when it was first broadcast in 1978. I’ve come back to it several times and it retains its charm. When I came back to it in 2008, I wrote:

The Stones of Blood was one that I remembered fondly from first time round, and I liked it again on re-watching three decades later. Perhaps, now that puberty is behind me rather than yet to come, I appreciate Mary Tamm’s costumes as Romana all the more. But of course I also have a fascination with megaliths, and this is the only broadcast story that really uses them (though see also the SJA story The Thirteenth Stone). And of the three stories featuring an ancient cult in England within a few years of 1980, this is the only one that really pulls it off well (the other two being Image of the Fendahl and K9 and Company).

When I came back a couple of years later for my Great Rewatch, I wrote:

We are back on firmer ground [after The Pirate Planet] with The Stones of Blood. This just shows the difference that a decent plot (as opposed to a decent script, which Adams was capable of doing) and good casting and direction can make, though unfortunately we are now slipping into Romana as screamy girl rather than smart aleck, which is a shame, especially as the story has two excellent female leads in Beatrix Lehmann and Susan Engel. (I must also add that the viewing experience on DVD is greatly enhanced by the extras, which include a documentary with Mary Tamm exploring the Rollright Stones where it was filmed.) 

It’s a story of two halves, Satanic cults (as previously seen in Image of the Fendahl and The Masque of Mandragora) and then the abandoned prison spaceship with the ruthlessly homicidal justice machines. The story wobbles a bit at times – Beatrix Lehmann, who died a few months after filming, is notably shaky on some of her lines – but stays just the right side of the quality divide. The location filming around the stones is particularly memorable, (including particularly K9 on one of his few field outings) and well blended in with the studio scenes. I am really looking forward to the new novelisation by David Fisher, the author of the original script; the original Terrance Dicks novelisation is workmanlike but not terribly memorable, but Fisher’s two previous novelisations of his own stories – The Creature from the Pit and The Leisure Hive – are particularly good, among the best Fourth Doctor books and certainly better than the TV originals.

Rewatching it again, I liked it a bit more if anything; it clearly too Beatrix Lehmann a couple of scenes to get comfortable with the situation but once she gets in the swing, she is great. And the monstrous Ogri are depicted as pretty horrifying even though we see very little of what they actually do to people (apart from the unfortunate lady camper). I also liked the clues that the segment is around somewhere nearby, which I picked up on more than on previous watches.

Unusually, though not uniquely, there are two different Target novelisations of the story, the first being a rather workmanlike effort by Terrance Dicks. The second paragraph of its third chapter is:

Romana straightened up, releasing her end of the tape. A sudden loud cawing sound made her jump. A big black bird was perched on the stone above her head. Romana jumped back. ‘What’s that?’

A longer novelisation by the story’s original author, David Fisher, was released on audio a few years back and is now available in book form. The second paragraph of its third chapter is:

The figures pushed back their hoods, revealing themselves to be Mr de Vries, a plump man sporting a wisp of a beard on his chin, and Martha Vickers, a middle-aged lady with the face of a discontented bulldog. She was a resident of the nearby village of Bodcombe Parva, and a member of the local Women’s Institute. Her fellow members would have been astonished to see her there, because she was known to be non-religious and only sang ‘Jerusalem’ under protest. In fact, ever since meeting Mr de Vries a couple of years ago, she had been a pillar of his Druid circle, gradually initiated into the inner mysteries of the BIDS. She used to hunt in her younger days, and unlike some of the other group members was not disturbed by the sight of blood. Hence her presence at all the sacrifices.

I wrote up both novelisations when the audio of Fisher’s version came out in 2011:

Earlier this year the BBC released a new novelisation of an Old Who story – David Fisher, who wrote the original TV story The Stones of Blood, has now converted it not to a print novel but to audiobook format, read with great gusto by Susan Engel (who played the villain of the piece on screen) with John Leeson doing K9’s lines. I had been looking forward to this with hopeful enthusiasm, as Fisher’s novelisations of his other two stories are among the best of the Target range.

I am very glad to say that I was not disappointed. The audio is about twice as long as the original series (four hour-long CDs), and Fisher has bulked out the material with lots more character background and atmosphere than was possible on screen – the full story of the campers gruesomely slain by the Ogri, for example, and various brazen but humorous infodumps. There are lots of decent sound effects as well. Very highly recommended.

I also went back and reread Terrance Dicks’ original novelisation of the story for comparison. It must be a lot shorter than Fisher’s new text. I noted of it three years ago that it is “a standard Dicks write-what’s-on-the-screen treatment, somewhat flattening a rather good story” and I found no reason to change my views. I did think Dicks handled the climax of the story with some finesse, but the rest it pretty thin.

The print version is topped and tailed by some lovely personal reminiscences about Fisher by his son Nick Fisher and by the BBC Audio commissioning editor Michael Stevens. It remains a good read.

As my regular reader knows, I myself am pretty interested in megalithic sites and in their mythology. Katrin Thier, the author of this monograph, apparently shares my interest and has given us a good chunky read with no less than seven chapters, not counting introduction and afterword. There’s plenty to say about this story and where it fits in British popular culture.

An introduction sets out Thier’s stall, reviewing the previous careers of writer, director and guest cast and describing the ‘folk horror’ and Gothic modes, and making a link to Irish independence,

Chapter 1, “The Stones”, starts with the bold proposition that “the main guest stars in The Stones of Blood are the King’s Men at Little Rollright in Oxfordshire, playing the Nine Travellers.” Thier reviews the cult of medievalism, especially around the Rollright Stones themselves, and looks at the origin of the Ogri.

Chapter 2, “The Druids”, reviews what is really known about the Druids and the Gorsedds.

Chapter 3, “Megalithic Afterlives”, looks at the scientific investigation of megalithic monuments and how it has been reflected in popular culture (including The Goodies episode “Wacky Wales”, which features Jon Pertwee as a homicidal cultist). Its second paragraph is:

When the Doctor explains to Romana that the circle is a ‘megalithic temple-cum-observatory’, he expresses an interpretation widespread in the 1970s, suggesting that the prehistoric builders of these monuments were not simple undeveloped countryfolk, but were in fact highly sophisticated, maintaining a class of scientists to rival those of the ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. The evidence for this was seen in the way many of these monuments seemed to be laid out to allow astronomical calculations. The study of this idea now called archaeo-astronomy (although ‘astro-archaeology’ is also sometimes found, reflecting the different emphasis assumed by different scholars). The idea arose partly out of the well-established observations that some of the major monuments interact with points on the sun’s annual circuit, especially the solstices, and a simple explanation for this is that the monument points to the event it is used to celebrate.

Chapter 4, “The Women”, explores the fact that the two main guest stars are women and that Romana rather than the Doctor carries a lot of the plot. This ties into Graves and Mallory, of course. A nice note – although on screen, Beatrix Lehmann is older than Susan Engel who in turn is older than Mary Tamm, Professor Rumford is the youngest of the three characters, a mere 70ish, whereas Romana is in the first half of her second century and Cessair of Diplos is thousands of years old. (Cessair is a genuine if obscure Celtic figure, but should of course be pronounced with a hard ‘c’.)

Chapter 5, “‘To Wit, a Celtic Goddess'”, looks more deeply at the goddesses – the Morrigan, Nemetona, the Cailleach, Ceridwen and the origin of the Great Seal.

Chapter 6, “Mere Mortals”, looks at the origins of Vivien Fay / Cessair’s other identities. I love this coincidence: the site of the Nine Travellers was supposedly owned at one time by the Little Sisters of St Gudula. St Gudula of course is the patron saint of Brussels, but is also the name of a key character in Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, who in the BBC’s 1966 TV adaptation was played by… Beatrix Lehmann!

Chapter 7, “Leaving Earth”, looks at hyperspace, slightly jarring with the themes of the previous six chapters (as indeed the hyperspace parts of the story jar with the rest).

An afterword, “Reithian Gothic?”, points out that the story is really quite informative about megalithic sites and lore, and would have sent the curious viewer off to find out more. It certainly fed my own interest, both on first watching at eleven and since.

This is a good analysis of a good story, even if it’s light on the production details which I usually enjoy hearing about. You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44)| The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | The Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37)

One thought on “The Stones of Blood, by Katrin Thier (and David Fisher, and Terrance Dicks)

  1. I am pretty sure that the first episode of Doctor Who I ever saw was one of this story. I remember being terrified and fascinated. Which sounds about right for me, age 6!

Comments are closed.