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16x3. The Stones of Blood
Writer: David Fisher
Director: Darrol Blake
Script Editor: Anthony Read
Producer: Graham Williams

Synopsis: The Doctor and Romana travel to Earth in search of the third segment of the Key to Time and quickly become embroiled in a mystery surrounding a local cult of the Cailleach, a Celtic goddess who is in fact the alien criminal Cessair of Diplos currently posing as a woman named Vivian Fay, and her servants, the alien Ogri who otherwise appear to be large inanimate rocks. The Doctor's attempts to outmaneuver Cessair eventually lead him to a prison ship trapped in hyperspace, where he has a dangerous encounter with the Megara - bureaucratic "justice machines" who were originally assigned to sentence Cessair but are now intent on executing the Doctor for a breach of protocol.

Review: I have a confession to make - for whatever reason, back when my age was in the single digits and I was watching Doctor Who on the local PBS station, "The Stones of Blood" was one of my very favorite serials, to the point that I probably nearly wore out the VHS tape that it was recorded on. Looking back, I'm not exactly sure why it was such a favorite, and while I'm not as enamored of it as I once was, I still have a bit of a sentimental spot for it, and it holds up nicely on its own.

Much has been said about how the first two episodes resemble one of the "gothic horror" setups typical of the Holmes/Hinchcliffe era, but the tone is a bit lighter even at the beginning. When the Doctor awakes mid-ritual to find himself about to become a sacrifice victim, he responds by warning the cultists about the dangers of using an unsterilized knife and (noticing Professor Rumford approaching by bike) asking them if the Cailleach rides a bicycle. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if "The Stones of Blood" has the highest quips-per-minute ratio for the Doctor of any serial to date - among my favorites have to be "hyperspace is a theoretical absurdity, and I've always wanted to be lost in one of those" and (to Romana) "you're too late, I've just been executed." At the same time, the jokes don't undercut the situation or downplay the Doctor's intelligence. While his confrontation with the Megara is amusing for his famous employment of a barrister's wig and his general filibustering, he's also skillfully using the process to try to find out who Vivian Fay really is, and his journey into hyperspace reflects his typical willingness to put himself at risk to help others.

It helps that he's surrounded by a strong cast. He and Romana seem to have settled into a sort of friendly minor rivalry - he still has trouble dealing with a potential equal, and she's still less impressed by him than his past companions have been - but they also respect each other and have turned out to be an effective team. K-9 has one of his best stories since joining the TARDIS crew, both proving to be indispensable in holding the Ogri at bay and also forming a bit of a friendly rivalry of his own with the Doctor, memorably troubleshooting the Doctor's hyperspace teleportation device and matter-of-factly asserting that, contrary to the Doctor's claims, he has not in fact always wanted to be a bloodhound. "Stones" also boasts one of the best guest characters in recent memory in the form of Professor Emelia Rumford, a feisty elderly academic who never lacks for a pithy comment about her scholarly rivals and proves to have quite an adventurous spirit of her own, even suggesting to the Doctor that they try to capture one of the Ogri "in the name of science!"

The villains of the piece are unfortunately not quite up to the same standard. The Ogri are at least a change of pace from humanoid aliens in rubber suits and makeup, but they necessarily lack anything approaching a personality, and the cult priest Leonard DeVries and his followers are a fairly unremarkable bunch. As for Cessair herself, I don't necessarily object to her lack of any overarching plan. She's a criminal on the run, and she's found a place where she can live in anonymity with plenty of Cailleach cultists to serve her wishes. On the other hand, it's never explained how exactly the birds are related to her or her powers, why the Ogri to kill two of her most dedicated followers for allowing one of them to be lost, or whether we're meant to make anything of the idea that the Doctor's arrival was somehow prophesied ahead of time. It's been suggested that she's an agent of the Black Guardian, given her knowledge of how the segment works and the "beware the Black Guardian" message transmitted into the TARDIS at the beginning. But this is less than evident, and my take on the message at the beginning was that it was meant to bring casual viewers up to speed and give the Doctor a pretext to tell Romana the truth about who had assigned her to this mission.

"The Stones of Blood" no longer occupies the place in my Doctor Who collection that it once did, and it suffers from some loose ends regarding Cessair's situation and a scene towards the end (specifically the Doctor's failed execution) that is so poorly staged that I'm still not sure what exactly happened. But if nothing else, it's a supremely entertaining romp that effectively pairs humor with sci-fi adventure.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of four)

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