Back to the bloodthirsty stones

Continuing my theme of trying to keep January away from my brain – or alternatively trying to get my brain through January, i bought a Doctor Who box set a week or so back and have been happily working my way through it. It’s called The Key To Time. Naturally it stars Tom Baker aka the Fourth Doctor. He was my Doctor and apart from Eric Morecambe the great hero of my childhood; but what prompted me to buy this particular box set was discovering, via YouTube, a clip of the story which gave me nightmares – the most wonderful, beautiful nightmares! – after i watched it as a kid.

It was so long ago that i didn’t even recall the title, just that it involved a circle of standing stones which came to life in the night and smashed down people’s doors so they could drink the inhabitants’ blood. In my imagination the stones were huge and absolutely realistic. I would dream that the circle was on a hill just beyond our house and watch as one came to life. Paralysed with terror – indeed i would be literally unable to move, let alone cry out – i would lie in bed as the stone made its way down the hill. It would smash its way through the front door, glide up the stairs – it was always me it was coming for – and then, as it came crashing through my bedroom door i’d wake up, sweating with fear. Fantastic.

Other than the stones i could recall nothing about the story itself apart from a scene in which dear old K-9 is nearly killed trying to hold them off (How i cried!). Well, that’s not entirely true: i did remember the Doctor (of course). Romana though – this first incarnation of her played by Mary Tamm – i had no recollection of at all. Re-watching The Key To Time stories now i find this incredible, not least because she’s gorgeous. But then i was only about 8 or 9 i suppose. Sex appeal was lost on me.

The Stones of Blood is the third story in the Key To Time (16th series of Doctor Who). Perhaps i had always known that i could find it if i wanted to. In the age of the internet it’s almost too easy to find things. But at some level i’d always feared that the glory of that childhood memory would be diminished if i saw it all again through adult eyes – saw the dodgy props and the sets which were so clearly the interior of a studio. YouTube though gives you a way to peer back into a show without fully committing yourself to the experience. You watch a clip on a miniature screen, as though looking through a telescope at something in the distance.

Did it seem diminished? Well, obviously not or else i wouldn’t have bought the box set. Inevitably, the stones are quite laughably unreal, yet so strong is my recollection of my childhood terror that they still gave me a thrill when i saw them. More than that, i realised how much the show for me was always about enjoying the mixture of wit and loneliness that is Tom Baker. Him and plucky, clunky K-9 – my generation’s Lassie. This is still my impression now that i’m more than halfway through the six stories. Never mind the terrible editing or plots that don’t make sense (why does Romana walk backwards off a cliff?), it’s still magic.

What i’m loving most of all though are the commentaries with Tom Baker and Mary Tamm. My God are they hilarious together: Tom who can’t remember anything about the episode he’s watching and who greets each absurdity with a mixture of childlike glee and acerbic wit – in one scene where the druids are gathered in the stone circle to perform a sacrifice he suggests that they’re going to sacrifice Adric, one his less-loved Companions. And Mary who is a delicious flirt (why did she not flirt like that with him in the show?) and who has a wry humour all her own. I love the story she tells of flashing in the wings one night when she was appearing in panto with Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker. Someone should bring Tom and Mary back together in a Doctor Who audio play. Free of the ravages of time, the limitations of the BBC’s special effects department and the general awfulness of 70s television they would have the Universe saved in no time at all.

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Reality Minus

Had an interesting conversation with my brother recently about Sci-Fi. I’d been complaining about the new Stuart MacBride book, which is set in a futuristic Glasgow. MacBride is known to me as the author of a series of gruesome but funny (and oddly rather wholesome) serial killer novels set in Aberdeen and i’d snapped this book up assuming it was more of the same. Fool! Did i not see the initial “B” inserted into his name? “Stuart B. MacBride”, evidently his Sci-Fi alter ego.

Well no, i didn’t and i can’t help thinking that it wasn’t much of a difference to notice. In other words, i feel resentful. Sci-Fi is one genre that leaves me cold.  But why is this? Well, this is what i ended up discussing with my brother. We were both big fans of it as kids so why aren’t we now? My brother said it’s because although Sci-Fi suggests that it’s “reality plus”, an advance on the reality we know today, it’s really “reality minus”.

As soon as he said this i realised he’d hit the nail on the head. On the face of it Sci-Fi presents us with things above and beyond what we already know: futuristic technology (spaceships!), other worlds, other species. It allows writers to depict people in roles not yet open to them. It allows them to describe societies where norms differ wildly from ours. Sci-Fi can be used to explore ideas of social progress and equally it can be used to explore fears of social disintegration.

Yet, yet… something is always missing. In part this stems from the fact that the stories take place in worlds that the reader has never experienced*. Things need to be explained and described in a way that is unnecessary in a book set in the world where we actually live. And even after all that extra information, which is often laborious to read, we still never quite have the same vivid sense of reality**. MacBride’s Sci-Fi book, “Halfhead”, features lobotomised criminals and a killer missing half her face, yet it’s curiously unfrightening and uninvolving. Of course it’s not just the reader who lacks experience of the future; the author’s in the same boat. So the characters are never quite convincing, never quite complete people. Think about it: how many Sci-Fi characters can you imagine on the toilet?

We’re less bothered by these things when we’re kids because our experience of the world is shallower and our ability to imagine on the basis of minimal material much greater. We understand so little about other people – their motivations and inner worlds – that we don’t notice the lack of depth. And spaceships are cool. Really cool.

(Actually, Stuart “B” MacBride’s book is affected by another problem, one which is specific to it being futuristic crime fiction, and that’s that the less we identify/connect with the victims of crime, the less power the story of the crime has for us. )

* Even by proxy: television, the internet, etc.
** Historical fiction has a similar problem, but to a lesser extent because our current world has its roots in earlier ones.  And at least there are records, evidence, artefacts, memories.