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Doctor Who: State of Decay (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

State of Decay originally aired in 1980. It was the second instalment of the E-Space Trilogy.

You are incredible.

Yes, I suppose I am, really. I’ve never given it much thought.

– who says Romana and the Doctor weren’t meant for one another?

Just when it seemed that the John Nathan-Turner era was going to be all about hokey pseudo-science concepts and galaxy-conquering cacti, State of Decay comes along and offers a good old-fashioned gothic science-fiction adventure from long-time writer Terrance Dicks. It feels like a very conscious throw-back in the midst of an otherwise new and distinctive season, but I honestly don’t mind this story about vampires on an alien world, if only because it feels right that Baker should get to do one last gothic horror before he finishes up in the lead role.

Towering over the locals...

The reason that State of Decay feels like an affectionate attempt to recapture the gothic magic of the Hinchcliffe era is because that’s when Terrance Dicks originally wrote it. His vampire story had been intended to open Hinchcliffe’s last season, but got spiked when the BBC discovered it might clash with their (relatively) big-budget adaptation of Dracula that year. So Dicks was forced to draft Horror of Fang Rock in almost record time, while shelving his story along with any number of forgotten Doctor Who adventures. It’s hard not to smile when K-9 mentions Dracula here, only for the Doctor to dismissively respond, “No, thank you. Not Dracula.” It seems the show has had enough of that.

I’ll confess that I was never a big fan of the show’s last attempt to affectionately call back to iconic Hinchcliffe era that really helped establish Baker so firmly. In the middle of The Key to Time, to celebrate the show’s 100th adventure, Graham Williams commissioned The Stones of Blood as an homage to that period. I’m far less fond of that serial than most, if only because it seems rather half-hearted. There’s no point attempting to do gothic horror if you know that you can’t get away with it, and the horror was diluted to comedy well past the point where there was any real threat. One of the things I do quite like about this season (with the possible exception of Meglos), is the attempt to dial back on the excessively silly jokes and broad comedy, and the trend continues here – the Doctor is as flippant as ever (“there was never really anything to worry about,” he remarks at the end), but there’s very real threat and drama around him

Something wicked this way comes...

In fact, seemingly drawn out his shell by the prospect of a giant alien vampire, the Doctor is a lot more energised here than he has been all season. I’ve remarked that Baker has done an excellent job this year making his character seem old and weary, but here there’s a lot of the old spark still to be found. There are still musings on mortality (“their time was up,” he explains of the vampires), but there’s also a lot more of the old charm back, with the Doctor seeming almost gleeful as he adventures around with Romana. “That’s very good,” he joyously proclaims when Romana recalls a crew manifest, and he seems so enthusiastic that the cell can barely contain him. I am really glad that Baker did at least get a story like this before he finished up, because those early stories were just wonderful.

I’ve always like Dicks’ stories. I’ll concede that – as a writer – he seems to have a bit of difficulty with characterisation, but I do love the way that he can build up a very clever idea, even if the world itself doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The idea of these vampires dominating and controlling the social evolution of an entire planet, trapping them in a perpetual version of the Dark Ages, is a clever and sinister one, just like the gothic trappings of The Brain of Morbius. One could be forgiven for wondering why the civilians have never overthrown their three vampire lords, especially when being a guard doesn’t seem to offer too many social advantages (being used as cannon fodder, for example). Even though they have mystical powers, it’s hard to believe nobody has ever attempted a palace coup.

Vamping it up...

On the other hand, the core idea is sound enough. The vampires rule through fear and reputation, counting on humans to keep other humans in line, and controlling the local population like cattle. “We have bred dullness, conformity, obedience into those clods for twenty generations,” Aukon remarks, and this goes a long way towards establishing how the status quo exists, even if it just raises questions about how the vampires established themselves. However, the strength of Dicks’ writing is that these questions don’t really matter – the central plot points are intriguing enough that we don’t object to being swept along on an entertaining adventure.

In many ways, State of Decay seems like a world built on gothic archetypes like The Brain of Morbius, with a tall keep and a small village under it. “There is only the village and the tower,” we’re informed, “nowhere else.”We believe it. This is a futuristic variation on the Hammer Horror vampire setting, a small community with a dark secret that might as well be cut off from the rest of the world. Atmospheric direction from Peter Moffatt makes the most of forest locations, creating a gloomy and oppressive atmosphere that’s never as stylised as it all was during the Hinchcliffe era – one can imagine Dicks’ script set to study backdrop with lots of dry ice, not that it’s a bad thing. I will concede that some of the bat effects look cheesy, but most of the adventure is actually fairly sound.

Earth shattering revelations...

I admire the ambition of Dicks’ “Great Vampire” – a monster so big that you have to stake it with a space-ship. It’s an ambitious idea, but the story is staged in such a way that things are never pushed past the show’s admittedly low budget. It’s staged remarkably effectively, with the use of a real hand and an obvious model, and I kinda like that sort of thing – it does remind me of the wonderful heavily-stylised visuals that we used to get during the Hinchcliffe era. It’s a sequence that could have been terrible, but it feels quite decent for what it accomplished.

Of course, the Doctor’s status quo has changed considerably since the Hinchcliffe era, and Dick had to write out Leela, and write in Romana, K-9 and Adric. In fairness, he does a very decent job with two of these, and many writers also struggled with the third, so it doesn’t seem quite as bad. I’ve remarked before that Lalla Ward and Baker worked well together, so it’s no surprise Romana fits well enough in the context of the adventure. I do concede that I’m a bit surprised that neither her nor the Doctor seems fixated on her impeding departure – after all, they both know that if they get out of E-Space, she’s probably getting sent home.

I spy trouble...

In fact, the entire E-Space Trilogy feels remarkably understated and unobtrusive – it provides a handy plot point as the vampires conspire to escape it, but it doesn’t overwhelm the story. Truth be told, I like the use of background material as connective tissue, rather than trying to shoehorn something like “the key to time” into a bunch of unrelated stories. The fact that this story takes place in an “under-verse” feels relatively organic and unobtrusive.

K-9 gets more to do here than he has in quite some time, perhaps in recognition of his impeding departure. I never had a problem with K-9, especially when he was used well within the context of the story, rather than serving as the token logical robotic sidekick. Here the character gets to kick all sorts of ass, and is shown to be a rather brilliant asset, rather than merely a kitsch companion. When the villagers want a leader, the Doctor offers them K-9. “I can lend you a very useful tool,” he boasts. “Armoured. Immune to hypnotism. And a dead shot with a nose laser.”K-9 then gets a rather wonderful sequence where he single-handedly seems to take down the entire tower.

Bad to the bones...

Then there’s Adric. We didn’t really get a good feel for him in Full Circle, with everything else going on. The death of his brother is side-stepped and he’s given a fairly distinctive personality, one that stayed with him for his time in the TARDIS. He’s a snotty and selfish brat who seems to trade sides at the drop of a hat. “Now look,” he insists to Romana, in what he later claims was a ruse, “I’ve been offered a partnership. Power and eternal life, they said.” You could argue that it’s a good idea, just let down by the combination of the script and Matthew Waterhouse’s performance, but Adric just seems like an arrogant and unlikable little so-and-so. “Why am I being kept prisoner like this?” he demands of the guards at one point. “She’s the sacrifice, not me. I’m supposed to be a Chosen One.”

This pretty much defines the way that Adric would be characterised for the rest of his relatively brief stint in the TARDIS, as the kid who sides against the Doctor (sometimes to worm his way into an enemy’s graces, other times “just because”). It’s hard to believe that anyone on the production staff felt like this was a good idea, and I’m surprised that he stuck around as long as he did. Even though I know he’ll be here into the next season, I still feel the slightest hint of hope when the Doctor suggests, “And you, young man, you’re going straight home.”Imagine how different things would have been?

A sad state of affairs...

State of Decay isn’t a classic. It definitely feels strange nestled in the middle of a season (and a trilogy) that is trying to offer a bold new vision for the franchise, with a script literally recycled from several years earlier. Still, I really enjoy it for what it is – one last opportunity to throw Tom Baker’s Doctor into the middle of a great big gothic sci-fi horror, the wonderful mish-mash of genres that played such a key role in establishing him all those years ago. Maybe you can’t go home again, but the Doctor does own a time machine, after all.

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3 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on M2wa2 DigiTech..

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