Doctor Who – The Stones of Blood

Doctor Who Story 100 – The Stones of Blood

Who Write It?

David Fisher

What’s It About?

In their continuing search for the Key to Time, the Doctor and Romana arrive on Earth and investigate a Bronze Age stone circle that holds the fascination of a local archaeologist and a neo-Druidic cult that worships an ancient Celtic goddess.

Erase memory banks concerning tennis.
The Cailleach
Source: BBC Website

With The Stones of Blood we have a return to the gothic horror that has been a defining feature of the Tom Baker era. Graham Williams has touched upon this genre a couple times before with Horror of Fang Rock and Image of The Fendahl. Horror isn’t a defining feature of Williams’s era, but it is interesting to see how he approaches it when it does come up. In fact, I would say that the gothic horror of Graham Williams is more in line with the supernatural horror genre defined by writers like Poe, Lovecraft, Stoker, Crowley, and so on than Hinchcliffe and Holmes. Sure, H&H did the gothic horror, but they geared more toward gothic-horror-adventure. The horror of the Graham Williams era deals more with tension, fear, suspense, and cosmic dread. The Stones of Blood is occult gothic horror with a twist, namely that it successfully switches genres halfway through. Parts one and two are excellent suspense pieces, while parts three and four are fascinating, and hilarious, sci-fi pieces.

The Doctor and Romana arrive at Boscombe Moor in Cornwall. They trace the third segment of the Key to Time to a stone circle called the Nine Travelers. They meet Professor Amelia Rumford, an archaeologist, and her assistant Vivien Fay. In conversation with the two women, The Doctor and Romana learn about a local cult that imitates Druidic rituals. Naturally the Doctor must investigate. Of course, it seems the Doctor’s coming had been foretold by the Cailleach, the Druidic goddess of war and magic. Plans are made to sacrifice the Doctor at the Nine Travelers. And as the story progresses, we learn that blood awakens the stones, which are really stone creatures called Ogri, Vivien Fay is an alien criminal, and just out-of-phase in hyperspace is a prison ship that has been shipwrecked for a few thousand years. The way in which David Fisher handles these elements is magnificent. He plays fairly with the gothic horror tropes and completely subverts them as we move to the prison ship. This story keeps the viewer guessing and that is a wonderful thing. The ominous tone soon gives way to humor as the Doctor is put on trial by the Megara, justice machines which operate a judge, jury, and executioner, for a rather trivial offense.

The Key to Time season has been a wonderful journey so far. We have had three very different stories, each blending a variety of genres (Ribos—historical fiction/sci-fi/caper; Pirate Planet—sci-fi/pirate adventure; Stones of Blood—supernatural, occult horror/sci-fi legal drama/comedy). This season has been a genre blender which has deftly handled everything it has set out to do. The overarching plot is somewhat inconsequential (the Doctor doesn’t really need a reason to travel), but neither does it get in the way of the storytelling. The only complaint I have about this particular installment is the resolution, which is much too quick. The resolution isn’t allowed to breathe, which is too bad. But the journey was excellent and the script is excellent, so I can live with a rushed ending.

My Rating

5/5

Doctor Who – The Pirate Planet

Doctor Who Story 099 – The Pirate Planet

Who Wrote It?

Douglas Adams

What’s It About?

The second segment of the Key to Time is on the planet Calufrax. Unfortunately, Calufrax is missing. Instead, the TARDIS arrives on Zanak, a planet whose inhabitants are so wealthy that precious jewels litter the streets. They celebrate their beloved Captain, who has seen them to a life of prosperity. But a group of exiled psychics know something deadly lies beneath the wealth of Zanak.

Excuse me, are you sure this planet’s meant to be here?

The Doctor and The CaptainI was filled with dismay when, after two episodes, I had failed to get in to this story. I have seen The Pirate Planet quite a few times. I know what to expect. The jokes aren’t funny to me anymore. But starting with episode three, I was enthralled. And when I look back on it, episode three is when the plot starts to pay off what the first two episodes had set up. The tone shifted from frivolity to complicated concepts punctuated by humor. The Captain has shifted from a bombastic blowhard to a tortured slave; a story of genocidal greed turned into a story about resurrection. This story was positively bursting with wonderful ideas, and the four episodes are struggling to contain them. In the end, everything becomes a bit rushed and confusing.

As for criticisms, as noted earlier, I think the beginning is slow. Given how rushed the ending was, I wonder if the material could have been spread out a bit more so that the early episodes pulled more weight. Also, Zanak did not seem like a populated world. The crowd scene in episode one had just enough people to fill an elevator. This hardly constitutes a crowd. A few more extras would have helped this story out. The budget, however, was well spent on the pirate bridge. The set looked amazing. I also enjoyed the nods to pirate tropes: the Captain’s electronic eye patch, the mechanical parrot, the plank the Doctor walks in episode three, and the mechanical arm (rather than a peg leg). And who couldn’t smile when K-9 chases the Polyphase Avatron? A mechanical dog is still a dog.

::Edit 3.16.2012::

When I woke up this morning, I couldn’t get Star Wars out of my head. I was thinking about Obi-Wan, and I had a vague impression that I had a dream about Qui-Gon. But after a few minutes of trying to figure out why Star Wars was stuck in my head like a bad song, I realized that The Pirate Planet contains quite a few ideas that were also present in George Lucas’s original trilogy:

  • a celestial body that destroys planets (the Death Star/Zanak)
  • a group of exiled mystics (the Jedi—particularly Obi-Wan and Yoda/the Mentiads)
  • a strong psychic pain when a planet is destroyed (Obi-Wan feeling the death of Alderaan/Pralix)
  • a villain who is part machine, part man (Darth Vader/the Captain)
  • this villain is good at heart, a pawn of an evil tyrant (Vader’s relationship to the Emperor/the Captain’s relationship to Xanxia

Now, to be clear, I don’t believe Douglas Adams (or Anthony Read, who reportedly did major revisions on the script) cribbed a bunch of ideas from Star Wars. Some of these ideas that are a part of Star Wars came about years later. I believe that Adams, Read, and Lucas tapped into similar ideas. There is nothing in The Pirate Planet that suggests it was added just to reference Star Wars; all the above elements are actually central to the overall plot. Additionally, The Pirate Planet is closer to plausible science than Star Wars ever attempts. (The release of psychic energy from a destroyed planet applies Einsteinian principles to fictional energy, thus giving it the ring of truth—something midichlorians never had.)

What does this mean? I’m not entirely sure. I have always been fascinated when ideas, conceived in relative isolation (as much isolation as one can get, at any rate), turn out to be similar: Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine, Millennium and Profiler. We are media savvy these days; we expect that any successful story will spawn imitators. When two, unrelated but similar stories appear at the same time, we are tempted to cry copycat. All we see is the end product, however; we are never privy to the cross-pollination of the behind-the-scenes creative process. And when similar elements start to reappear, I start to wonder if these elements betray something deeper: An observation about society? A fear held by the creator? A necessary solution to a problem that arose during production?

One final note: On the TARDIS Eruditorum blog, Philip Sandifer writes, “First Holmes knocks down the idea of binary oppositions . . . then Douglas Adams knocks down the idea of “balance” as a fundamental moral good by reminding us of the existence of atrocity.” While I don’t take issue with this, per se, I do find it interesting that, when looking at The Pirate Planet and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we have a binary opposition. In The Pirate Planet we see a hollow planet that materializes around other planets and destroys them. In H2G2 we see a hollow planet that creates new planets. Between the two stories, we have equilibrium: a planet that destroys and a planet that creates.

My Rating

3.5/5

Doctor Who – The Ribos Operation

Doctor Who Story 098 – The Ribos Operation

Who Wrote It?

Robert Holmes

What’s It About?

At the behest of the White Guardian, The Doctor and his new companion, Romana, begin their search for the segments of the Key to Time. Their first stop is Ribos, a feudal planet in the midst of a decades-long Icetime, where two con artists are pulling a one final con.

All right, call me Fred.
The Captain of the Guard, The Graff Vynda-K, and Sholakh
Source: Doctor Who Reviews

I can’t think of any season opening for Doctor Who as fun and well-written as “The Ribos Operation.” Robert Holmes has turned in what must be his most-perfect script; Tom is on fine form; Romana adds a great counter-point to the Doctor; the production looks great. We haven’t had a story as tight as this one since “Horror of Fang Rock.”

Season sixteen is the Key to Time season. Each story advances the overall arc, but each story is still somewhat episodic. The search for the Key to Time provides a reason for the adventures, and it bookends each story. It therefore imposes a structure on the adventures during this season. While I don’t have a problem with story arcs in general (I am a fan of Lost, Fringe, and Babylon 5, after all), I prefer to see a more controlling hand at work. Ideally, I want to see arcs that arise from character decisions and actions (seen in some of the plot points that linked story to story in the first season of Doctor Who), but if a show is going to have a grand mystery, then I want the episodes to seem somewhat relevant to that mystery. “The Ribos Operation” is good in spite of the arc, and if Holmes had written a different McGuffin the story would have worked just as well.

Being a part of the arc, however, does present some interesting thematic material. As Philip Sandifer points out in TARDIS Eruditorum, the Key to Time arc sets up a theme of dualism. This theme is indicated early in the story when the White Guardian coerces the Doctor into the quest. The White Guardian is an unambiguous stand-in for God. He is a force for order, and his opposing element, the Black Guardian, is a force for chaos. This leads to a strong problem, however, for if you developed stats for the Doctor in a role-playing game, his alignment would be chaotic good. Doctor Who has clearly indicated that the Doctor rejected the lawful good of his people in order to pursue his own path. In this regard, the Doctor is a very poor candidate to champion this quest—this Doctor, at least. Although, if the Time Lords are the only beings with the resources to enable them to find the segments, then the Doctor is not such a bad choice: he is more resourceful than his people and he far less likely to be corrupted by power. The Doctor is probably not the best choice to ally with order, but he is probably the safest. Romana, on the other hand, is completely inexperienced in adventuring. She is far more sensible and she understands order and commands. This makes her an ideal pawn for the White Guardian, should he determine the Doctor isn’t following the quest in the proper way.

Ribos is a fascinating planet for me. Its cycle of Icetime and Suntime reminded me of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. The costume, prop, and set designs seemed inspired by pre-Romanov Russia. The Graff Vynda-K is almost Shakespearean in his growing insanity. And at the core of the story are Robert Holmes’s con men. Holmes plays with Graham Williams’s epic and cosmic ideas, but his real heart lies with the Garron and Unstoffe as they attempt to steal from the Graff.

Watching season sixteen is an exciting prospect. The Key to Time is the story that Graham Williams wanted to tell in the previous season but couldn’t due to budgetary problems. Similarly, season seventeen will also suffer from factors beyond Williams’s control (namely, a strike). Thus, the Key to Time season is the only season that fully represents Graham Williams’s vision for Doctor Who. And as it goes, it is off to a great start.

My Rating

5/5

Doctor Who – The Invasion of Time

Doctor Who Story 097 – The Invasion of Time

Who Wrote It?

David Agnew (Anthony Read and Graham Williams)

What’s It About?

The Doctor, allied with the mysterious Vardons, establishes himself as the President of Gallifrey and opens the door to invasion.

One grows tired of Jelly Babies, Castellan.

The Doctor speaks with K9
Source: The Doctor Who Site

Season fifteen saw Doctor Who opening in familiar territory: dark, atmospheric, and scary. Along the way, however, the season has had some significant growing pains as new producer Graham Williams and new script editor Anthony Read attempted to find their footing. The show was under intense political pressure to tone down the horror and violence and to stay on budget. Thus, this is a season of redefinition and rebirth. It is a season that attempted to redefine a show that was an undeniable success, and it had to move away from many of the elements that made the show successful. But rather than impress the audience with this new direction, season fifteen stumbled and fumbled its way to a resolution. There wasn’t the time and money to go with Williams’s Plan A (which we will get in season sixteen). Instead, this season was hindered by a desire to put something, anything, on the air. As a result, the season is weak, uncertain, and—at times—appalling. Viewers were left to wonder exactly what was happening to this show, and many viewers gave up on it.

The Invasion of Time closed out the season. Ironically, this story captures the uncertainty and fear a viewer has for Doctor Who as a show. We have a story in which the Doctor, like the show, is vaguely familiar but seems very different, and, in the case of the Doctor, possibly evil. We want to trust him, being the loyal viewers as Leela is the loyal companion, but it is hard to make sense of the decisions the he is making. In fact, the overall theme, using this analogy, is to wait and trust. Trust that the Doctor has not sold out Gallifrey; trust that Doctor Who is still a show worth watching.

As this season ends, Leela stays on Gallifrey, written out in an unsatisfying way. With her departure, the final remnant of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era is gone. Symbolically, the show is now free to find its new voice and move into this new era. But at the same time, Leela had become such an endearing character. Louise Jameson was a great actress that truly rose above the material she was given. She fashioned Leela into a compelling character, not because of the demeaning outfits, but because of her performance. Being written out at the last minute was a horrible end to the character (although, she DID get an exit, unlike Dodo). The character, throughout her portrayal, has never shown romantic inclination; this is no less true in this story. Leela leaving the Doctor to stay with Andred was not set up at all. I remember hearing on a podcast (I think it may have been Fantragic/MMM) that when Leela held out her hand in part six, anyone could have grabbed it and it would have made about as much sense. In fact, Leela and Rodan had more screen time together and suffered more together, but I doubt that implying a lesbian relationship would have been any more acceptable to Mary Whitehouse and others criticizing the show than the violence.

And yet, I enjoyed this story. I felt it suffered a bit in parts five and six, but I found the first four episodes to be engaging, witty, and clever. The scenes between the Doctor and Borusa are magnificent. Tom Baker successfully keeps the viewer uncertain. And I appreciate that the writers had the audacity to make us question the Doctor. Sure, we knew there was some point to the deception, but it was withheld long enough to make us uncomfortable. This was a daring move but extremely effective.

How does this story relate to The Deadly Assassin in its portrayal of the Time Lords? I was critical of the previous Time Lord story because I prefer the mysterious, mythic, godlike Time Lords to the academic, bureaucratic Time Lords. And while The Deadly Assassin rooted the Time Lords in a structured and defined civilization, they maintained a sense of power and scope that is lacking in The Invasion of Time. With this story, they are just an advanced society with all the same strengths and weaknesses of any other. The Time Lords are at their most human. Any vestiges of mystery have been removed from the Time Lords themselves and shifted to Rassilon. From this point on, the mysterious and mythic and godlike portrayal will exist in Time Lord history, the era of Rassilon and Omega, not in the relative present. Thus, Doctor Who is tipping an unconscious, symbolic hat to the idea that the magic is gone; it is in the past. Doctor Who has become nostalgic. It longs for an ethos that existed long, long ago.

My Rating

3/5

Doctor Who – Underworld

Doctor Who Story 096 – Underworld

Who Wrote It?

Bob Baker and Dave Martin

What’s It About?

In order to avoid a spiral nebula on the edge of known space, the Doctor materializes the TARDIS onto a ship that has been traveling ten thousand years in search of its sister ship, the P7E.

The quest is the quest

Orfe is captured by The SeersIn so many ways, this story should have been amazing. Conceptually, it is quite clever. Underworld is a retelling of the story of Jason and the Argonauts but as a sci-fi story. The script is quite clever with how it plays with these themes. And the idea of mining Greek myths for science fiction plots is a very good one (sadly, Doctor Who has not made this work, but the idea is sound). Underworld makes good use of this initially, as part one is actually quite intriguing. The myth elements are established. There is even a fascinating revelation that the Minyan society, from which the heroes are descended, was destroyed after Time Lord interference. The Time Lords had shared their technology with the Minyans, who eventually destroyed themselves. This led to the Time Lord non-intervention policies. Part one leaves the viewer with the idea that something epic is about to unfold.

Unfortunately, the story falls apart soon after. Apart from the sets for the R1 and the P7E, the entire story is shot with CSO. In theory, this should have allowed the production to save money on sets by using models. However, the models were cheaply produced. The models used were merely reproducing caves, which seems a bit odd since Doctor Who has filmed in caves from time to time. Was the budget so tapped out that they couldn’t go on location? (The answer seems to be yes.) In the end, the CSO looks rather poor. Tom Baker seemed to lose interest in the story. Much of the guest cast doesn’t put forth the effort. Plot holes abounded. The Time Lord angle is dropped completely. In other words, a wonderful concept died a horrible, horrible death. Maybe the novelization, whenever I get around to reading it, will redeem this story in some way. I still think mining stories from antiquity could work, but maybe not on a television budget. I certainly applaud the show for trying, but clever ideas are not, in themselves, good stories for the same reason that many people have an idea for a novel, but few people have written novels. Underworld was a great concept, but after the development of the ships’ set, it seems everyone stopped trying. And when the show gives up, what are the viewers supposed to do?

My Rating

1.5/5

The X-Files – Pilot

Who Wrote It?

Chris Carter

What’s It About?

FBI agent Dana Scully is assigned to work with Fox Mulder, a brilliant FBI criminal profiler who has become obsessed with the X-files, cases deemed unsolvable. In their first case together, they investigate a young woman’s death which Mulder believes is connected to extraterrestrials.

FBI’s most unwanted

A figure bathed in light holds an unconscious woman
Image copyright 20th Century Fox.

One sub-genre that I have always enjoyed is supernatural investigation. I believe the seeds for this genre were planted by Doctor Who. Since my earliest television-watching memories are of the Tom Baker era, stories about the Doctor investigating horror tropes were an early influence. Specifically, I enjoyed what I term plausible supernatural investigation, by which I mean the setting is recognizably our world, but the fantastic has begun to encroach. So, my early childhood was influenced by the Hinchcliffe/Holmes gothic horror in Doctor Who. My adolescent life, however, was shaped by The X-Files.

The X-Files debuted in 1992 on the Fox Network. It quickly became the cornerstone of Fox’s drama lineup. The show blended horror anthology with police procedural, in this case, FBI procedural. Chris Carter, the show’s creator, occasionally likened it to Kolchak the Night Stalker meets Silence of the Lambs. Criminal profiling was the rage in the mid-90s. This led to the creation of Fox Mulder, a brilliant FBI profiler who was obsessed with the supernatural due to his sister’s mysterious abduction when she was a child. She was never seen again. The pilot quickly establishes Mulder’s partner, Dana Scully, who was trained as a doctor before joining the FBI. Scully was assigned to the X-files (cases that are deemed unsolvable) to analyze and report on Mulder’s methods. Section Chief Blevins hopes Scully can report on the validity of Mulder’s work. Mulder, initially, believes she was sent to spy on him and debunk his work. He takes this in stride, however, as he quickly plunges his new partner into a case about a young woman who was found dead in the woods. No apparent cause of death was found, but she had two unusual marks on her lower back. She was the second body discovered with such marks. Mulder suspects extraterrestrial abduction. Scully is skeptical.

I have seen this episode quite a few times. It was one of the episodes released on VHS. Fox never released the entire show on video, only the popular episodes. When I was in high school I collected all the videos and watched them over and over and over. I have seen “Pilot” more times than I can count and can probably quote the episode as I watch it (well, the Mulder parts anyway). Rewatching this episode is a fascinating experience. Television has changed so much since the early 90s. When I watch old episodes of Doctor Who, I expect the show to look different. Episodes aired 50, 40, 30 years ago. Doctor Who produced episodes before I was born. Not so with The X-Files. This was a show that I watched when it was originally airing. I went on this journey with Mulder and Scully. But while I have changed, these early episodes are still rooted in the early 90s. While Fringe (a thematically similar show) is of high production values and navigates the supernatural investigation genre with panache, The X-Files forges new ground by adding supernatural elements to a show about FBI agents. Thus, this first season, the pilot especially, feels like a 90s cop show. There is still a human antagonist, but he is being controlled by aliens. “Pilot” is unsophisticated; Mulder and Scully are innocents not yet marred by everything they are about to endure. It is charming, in a way. And Mulder wins you over with his good-natured insanity, while Scully reaches you with her pragmatism. It is a wonderful dynamic in which both characters need each other, literally or symbolically: literally, because Mulder would probably go insane and become an FBI washout without Scully’s insistence to investigate by-the-book; symbolically, because Scully is searching for meaning in her life. This search for meaning is only hinted at in “Pilot” (Scully’s career change is the clue), but later episodes will explore this idea in more detail.
Perhaps the most unfortunate example of how The X-Files has dated is the government conspiracy theme. The X-Files is rooted in Watergate Era paranoia. Its seeds were planted in McCarthyism. But in 2013 the United States government doesn’t seem capable of running a conspiracy with the scope of The X-Files conspiracy. The US government seems inefficient. How could they hide agreements with aliens? The earnestness with which The X-Files approaches this subject no longer feels valid. It will be interesting to see, as I re-watch the show, if I find it more plausible. This early, however, the conspiracy is still run by the government. We haven’t yet encountered the Syndicate.