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The Mind Beyond Episode “Stones” – Activating Preternatural Ancient Defence Mechanisms: Wanderings 21/26

“Stones” is an episode of the BBC 2 supernatural anthology television drama series The Mind Beyond that was broadcast in 1976, which in itself was part of the BBC2 Playhouse series of one-hour dramas that ran from 1974 until 1983.

The episode was written by Malcolm Christopher, which is a joint pseudonym for Malcolm Bradbury and Christopher Bigsby, and was adapted as a short story by the series’ producer Irene Shubik that was included in a tie-in anthology book of the stories from the series that she edited, which was also called The Mind Beyond (1976).

The Mind Beyond series consisted of six episodes and was only broadcast once on British television and has not received an official home physical media or online streaming etc release, although copies are held by the BFI’s National Archive and are available for private viewing at their onsite facilities. Some of the episodes have been unofficially distributed as versions with degraded quality video online, the original source for a number of which, including “Stones”, is likely to have been internal studio copies, as they feature time codes throughout their running time.

In “Stones” an academic at Oxford University called Nicholas Reeve, who studies ancient stone based languages and cultures, clashes with a government minister, who plans to move the ancient stone circle Stonehenge from its rural location of Salisbury Plain to the urban setting of Hyde Park in central London in order to boost tourism, with Reeve being strongly against its moving. Reeve’s wife Anne was romantically involved with the minister when the three of them were at university together and she despairs at her husband’s narrow academic focus and lack of drive, particularly when compared with the minister.

Reeve becomes obsessed with symbols hidden under the binding of the first in a set of three rare 17th century books on Stonehenge, that he discovers after the cover comes off the book when it has fallen from a shelf in his study in a possibly preternatural manner that may have been instigated by his teenage daughter while she is in a trance-like state. He thinks the symbols could be part of an ancient language and sets out to investigate their meaning. Running parallel with this his daughter Vanessa’s sleep has become unsettled and she cries out the names Pierre and Sian in her sleep, and at points she seems to be having some form of waking visions or even possession that revolve around ancient stones and her father’s rare book on Stonehenge. This all sets the stage for an exploration in the drama’s story of ancient stone circles and sites of standing stones having some kind of preternatural power and influence on the world.

The themes of “Stones” places it alongside other films and television that have become hauntological, folk horror, wyrd and otherly pastoral reference points and in which ancient stone circles and standing stones appear, and are sometimes central to their stories. These include, amongst others, the final series of Quatermass (1979), in which ancient stone circles act as gathering points for an extraterrestrial presence to harvest the world’s youth; Psychomania (1973), where undead bikers respawn from the “Seven Witches” stone circle; and Children of the Stones (1977), in which a village situated around a stone circle is caught in a time rift and the stones are used to harness the power of a black hole in order to keep the villagers docile and controlled.

In such productions the ancient stone structures and sites are used as markers of hidden and preternatural stories in the landscape and it has been suggested their recurrence in related work is due in part to them:

“[Possessing] an atmospheric sense of the eerie, drawing on ties to the ancient and the otherworldly… [they] represent the ultimate figure in the landscape, hinting at ancient human presence while also suggesting more macabre, unearthly forces at work.” (Quoted from “Stone circles: 10 staggering standing-stones on screen”, Adam Scovell, bfi.com, 2018.)

Accompanying which they contain an inherent and ongoing sense of mystery as, despite them being built in thousands of locations around the world and there having been centuries of research and debate around them, their purpose is often not known. It has often been suggested that they were connected with astronomy, as many of them can be matched with the positions of stars and the rise and fall of the sun and moon and/or that they were places of religious worship. However, as referred to in both the television and short story adaptation of “Stones”, the latter of which the below is a quote from, there have been a multitude of explanations as to their purpose, a number of which may be considered somewhat outlandish or at least at a remove from conventional science, history, beliefs etc:

“After all no one had ever explained the meaning of [Stonehenge]. One minute it was a Roman Temple, then a Danish burial ground, a Druid place of sacrifice, an English pyramid, a launchpad for spaceships, a radio telescope, an intergalactic signal… the latest theory was that it was a simple old communal centre.”

While elsewhere in “Stones” it is suggested that ancient standing stones and stone circles were:

“A secret tree alphabet, the consonants were months, the vowels solstices. A secret worship alphabet, an organic alphabet, not like our rational ABC, QED.”

“Stones” is at heart an exploration of the further flung, less conventional or more “outlandish” beliefs around stone circles and standing stones, in particular their ability to influence the world and people. This is expressed quite overtly in a heated debate between Reeve and the minister at a formal dinner party about Stonehenge, its planned moving, importance etc, when Reeve says:

“Now it is entirely possible the whole thing has a magnetic field that in some mysterious way influenced the development of our culture and has shaped worship and knowledge. Even influenced the acts of individuals. And for all we know still does.”

At this point the drama wanders into very Nigel Kneale-esque territory, as it connects with, and possibly even draws quite directly from, one of the themes of the influential science fiction television drama series Quatermass and the Pit (1958-1959) that Kneale wrote, in which a buried ancient alien spacecraft and the race that created it are discovered to have been influencing human behaviour for many millennia.

In Quatermass and the Pit it is implied that some of mankind’s religious and mythical imagery, such as that of devils, may in fact have originated with images of these aliens and their god-like powers. In a similar manner in “Stones” it is, albeit less implicitly, implied that there is a connection between standing stones, alien forces and god-like beings. This inference is made both in the previously mentioned suggestion that they might be launchpads for spaceships, a radio telescope or an intergalactic signal, and also when the bookseller who sold Reeve his copy of the rare book on Stonehenge quotes the books, in which he says it is written that “Learned men came from elsewhere and a built a stone language to speak to the gods”, which could be interpreted as a reference to visitors from far afield on the Earth or possibly elsewhere in the universe.

As the story of “Stones” progresses ancient stones and the symbols on the rare book’s spine seem to gain ever more sway over Reeve’s life and his rationality. Obsessively and to the exclusion of almost all else he is driven to discover the meaning of the symbols, alongside which in her earlier mentioned trance-like states his daughter becomes repeatedly drawn to the book and also paints silhouettes, which may be similar to the symbols in the book and/or sections of a stone circle, that she sticks to the walls of their home.

(As an aside, in relation to these paintings, Reeve’s obsession with the symbols and the potential extraterrestrial aspects, the drama forebears the renowned and commercially successful science fiction film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was released in 1977 the year after “Stones” was broadcast. In that film two of the main characters become obsessed with making models and sketches of a particular location, which has been implanted in their minds through their contact with UFOS, and that they are impelled by this implanting to visit.)

A side effect of Reeve’s obsessive quest and his narrow focus, and also the resultant neglecting of his family that his wife accuses him of, is that he overlooks what is literally under his nose at home, i.e. the paintings his daughter does which may connect with the symbol’s meaning.

He also begins to act increasingly irrationally and reflecting this in the British Library he rips the cover off one of the books in the only other known set of the rare Stonehenge books, and is banned and threatened with prosecution. He also resorts to petty thievery, as when he is visiting the bookseller who sold him his volume of the book set, he steals a photograph of the bookseller’s which has similar symbols to those on Reeve’s rare book on its reverse. Then when he returns home he discovers that his copy of the book has mysteriously disappeared from a locked drawer.

Largely the play features interior scenes but this changes when Reeve goes to visit Caradoc Hobbes, who bought one of the other volumes in the rare set of books. Hobbes lives in rural Wales, near the Pentre Ifan ancient standing stone monument (that as with Stonehenge exists in the real world), which Hobbes’s daughter Sian, who appears to be a similar age as Reeve’s daughter, is shown standing amongst. As Reeve and Hobbes walk across the open landscape and towards the stones Hobbes reveals that his copy of the book has also gone missing, possibly overnight, although he does not know how.

As with a number of other unofficially distributed copies of television programmes from a similar period, such as some episodes of Leap in the Dark which are discussed elsewhere in the book, the degraded quality of the video adds, for a brief moment, an extra eerie and preternatural quality to the story. Hobbes’s daughter is wearing a shawl and this, coupled with the video’s low quality reproduction, makes her at first appear to be some kind of hooded almost grim reaper-esque or wraith-like figure.

When Reeve returns home his wife Anne is distraught as their daughter has gone missing from school and he realises that the name Sian his daughter was crying out during her disturbed sleep is the same as Hobbes’s daughter’s. Sian is then pictured physically touching the Pentre Ifan stones, after which it is discovered she is missing also. Hobbes then arrives at the Reeve’s home and in a discussion between him, them and a police inspector he says that their daughters may have been in touch via psychokinesis and that he knows Sian is psychic and encouraged these abilities in her. When the inspector tries to refute this, describing such abilities as being merely stage performance, he is promptly refuted by Hobbes:

“No inspector the old rational code is dying. We are less ordinary than we think. And a lot of people are finding that out and expanding their consciousness.”

Nobody at the Reeve’s seems to resolutely take issue with this and they all even appear largely to readily accept such explanations as rational. This is notable in part because those present – Hobbes, the Reeves, the police inspector – are middle aged or older, are not dressed eccentrically and, although Hobbes is slightly more eccentric in character, the Reeves appear quite “normal” and live an apparently respectable middle class life. They are far removed from stereotypical ideas that people who are interested in or accept such ideas are more likely to dress or act in a mystical, hippie, alternative or new age manner and/or be part of the more youthful sections of society.

The ready acceptance of the paranormal by them in the drama could be considered a reflection of a growth of interest in such topics throughout society and in the media during the 1960s and 1970s, which has been described as a “psychic boom”. Accompanying this more topical growth of interest Irene Shubik suggests in her introduction to The Mind Beyond tie-in anthology book that such interests have longstanding roots:

“The common theme of these stories is one as old as mankind. The need to explore what lies beyond the world of our normal and rational experience; to explain sensations we have all felt, not through sight or hearing or any usual sense, but through a facet of the mind or soul beyond these… The idea of a collective soul and of the extra sensitivity of some members of the collective to perceive and communicate with others, even sometimes after death, runs through the stories.”

Further connecting “Stones” to the “psychic boom” of the 1960s and 1970s, in the drama Hobbes gives credence to another mystic orientated concept, that of triangles acting as an energy portal. During the discussions about their missing daughters he and Reeve come to realise that the third in the rare Stonehenge book set was bought by somebody who lived in France, near another set of ancient standing stones known as Carnac stones (which is a “stone corridor” that exists in the real world). As Hobbes forms a triangle with his hand through which he views a painting of Stonehenge in the Reeve’s home he says:

“The forming of the triangle. Carnac, Pentre Ifan and Stonehenge.”

Their daughters and a third child, a young boy who is later revealed to be French and also the Pierre whose name the Reeve’s daughter cried out in her sleep, are all subsequently shown to have arrived at Stonehenge, with it seeming as though in some unknown way the triangle of ancient stone sites have transported them there.

Also it is unspokenly implied that Reeves and Hobbes have deduced this is where they have gone.

The trio each have one volume of the rare Stonehenge book set and seem to be in a trance-like state, and once all the book’s covers have been removed by them all three of the book’s spines are revealed to have similar symbols on them. As suggested by Hobbes each of the trio have effectively become one point of a “mystic triangle” in terms of the ancient stone sites that are near to where they have come from, locations that are also where the symbol containing books somehow, through an unknown process that now seems to be more than coincidence, came to be located. After silently embracing the stones the trio act as one to perform some kind of ritual, with the codes on the books seeming to act as a form of mysterious and unexplained set of magic runes or spells (or in more modern-day language, a three part activation code).

Their ritual utilises the way the stones interact with the sun and cosmos, and as the trio move the books in the air with their spines facing skywards the sun shines dazzlingly through the stones. This is somehow transferred to blind the minister who wished to move Stonehenge to London as he drives his car, which he then loses control of and is killed. Once their ritual and its outcome are complete all three of the trio collapse, although when Reeve and Hobbes arrive to find them they appear unharmed.

Reeve’s wife Anne is, of course, greatly relieved when he phones to tell her their daughter is okay, but when she prepares her daughter’s bedroom for her return she discovers a photograph of Reeves, his wife and the minister from their time together at university under the pillow. The minister’s face is crossed out, which puzzles and worries her, more so when she then hears on the radio of the minister’s death.

The play concludes in an open-ended manner, with much being left unexplained. Anne sits down in her husband’s study and listens to some of his notes for his next book, where he says:

“Stone monuments and curses go together. One man who tried to sell [Stonehenge] ended his days in a madhouse. The air force officer who wanted to move it flew into a hillside. And these stories go back… there are the barrows where Stonehenge bluestones are found inside the corpses. A magic power? A curse?”

The final image is of a minimalist framed painting of Stonehenge pictured when it was complete, casting dark shadows across the land around it.

Although not explicitly stated in the play, it is possible that similar rituals as the young trio were impelled by some mysterious force to perform in order to protect Stonehenge had been carried out before. The photograph which Reeve stole from the booksellers who sold him the rare book on Stonehenge, and which as said previously had similar symbols on the back to those on his rare book’s spine, was of a young woman in front of Stonehenge. It is described in the drama as dating from around the First World War, which is also when the abovementioned air force officer who wished to move Stonehenge was killed. Was the photograph also part of a “mystic triangle”, an ancient activation code which was used to harness the power of the stones and the sun in order to blind the air force officer and prevent his plans?

In the drama it does not seem so much that ancients stone circles etc are cursed but rather that through some unexplained process they are able to communicate across long distances, transport humans and influence them to carry out an activation ritual which removes threats to the stones.

Why do the stones have the need to do this? Are they sentient in some way? Part of some vast mechanism that operates outside the bounds of conventional scientific knowledge? Are they part of some god-like or extraterrestrial beings’ plans?

Reeve is drawn to the symbols but for some reason he does not seem to be able to fully connect with them or the stones’ power and influence. Is this due to his age and does this therefore imply that those of a younger age are chosen to enact the ritual at Stonehenge because they are more receptive to these mysterious processes and powers? The drama leaves all this for the viewer to wonder about.

Due to its themes and its broadcast in 1976, “Stones” could be seen as an accidental prequel for the earlier mentioned final series of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass that was broadcast in 1979. In this, as said previously, ancient stone circles become gathering places at which some unknown extraterrestrial force harvests the world’s young people, who are being influenced in some way by this force to cast aside conventional society and become hippie-like wandering “Planet People” that are drawn to such sites, believing that this harvesting is a form of redemption during which they leave the Earth. The ancient stone monuments appear to be markers for this “reaping”, and they were possibly put in place due to the extraterrestrial force influencing humans to do so in ancient times.

That it only seems to be the younger sections of society who are drawn to these sites in Quatermass connects with how in “Stones” the mysterious forces at play choose and/or affect the younger characters more than Reeve, and it also connects with Reeve’s suggestion that ancient stones may act to influence human behaviour in some unknown manner. Taking the accidental prequel concept further, perhaps the curses attached to stone circles which are discussed in “Stones” are actually part of this process and represent the activation of some ancient defence mechanism which will leave these cosmic markers in place.

Such ideas connect with a part of popular culture in the 1960s and 1970s that interconnects with that period’s earlier mentioned “psychic boom”, in particular Erich Von Daniken’s bestselling non-fiction book Chariot of the Gods?, first published in 1968, which went on to sell millions of copies and to have a wide-ranging influence on culture. The book proposes that the technologies of many ancient civilisations were given to them by ancient astronauts (also known as ancient aliens), who were welcomed as gods, and suggests that the origins of religions are reactions to contact with technologically advanced alien races.

Although Von Daniken is often credited with popularising such notions, they were not novel ideas. As mentioned previously in this post, Nigel Kneale had explored similar ideas in the 1950s in the television series Quatermass and the Pit. Alongside which the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in the same year as Chariot of the Gods?, also explored the notion of visiting extraterrestrials having guided mankind’s evolution and development. In that film the connection to ancient standing stones is made fairly implicit as this “guiding” is done via featureless mysterious monoliths which the aliens left behind that are somehow able to trigger shifts in evolution, and which in appearance are not dissimilar to single standing stones from ancient monuments.

Viewed in the context of such work, “Stones” could be potentially considered part of, or at least loosely connected to, a lineage of science fiction and fantasy work that draws from this “ancient astronaut” idea, which continues to act as an influence today and in recent decades has been a prominent part of the plots of the mainstream films Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) and Prometheus (2012), both of which were commercially highly successful and took hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office.

Elsewhere:

 

Elsewhere at A Year In The Country:

 

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