Season Eighteen is, quite possibly, the most talked-about season in fandomn. When it first came out, reactions were extremely mixed about it. With time, opinion regarding it appears to have changed quite a bit. Most seem to see it, now, as a very sophisticated yet techno-babble-riddled collection of "hard sci-fi" stories. And that, for better or worse, John Nathan Turner had re-invented the series and was taking it in bold new directions it had never really been before.
And yet, we have a story in Season Eighteen like "State of Decay" (we also have a story like "Meglos" that is very much in the same vein as "Decay" but that's a whole other story). As much as we want to say that Season Eighteen was a harsh departure from the type of stories the show had been doing up until then, "State of Decay" laughs in the face of this idea. It is a traditional Doctor Who story - focussing on characterisation and adventure and telling a very straightforward plot. And, as much as I enjoyed all the high concept stuff of "Warrior's Gate", "Leisure Hive" and suchlike, "State of Decay" succeeds as well as it does cause it has a nice touch of "Old Who" feel to it. It was JNT's way of re-assuring us that he hadn't totally forgotten what the show was supposed to be about and would make sure to still give us some of that now and again!
Even the illustrious Tom Baker - who is very grim throughout most of the season - seems to lighten up a bit here. He certainly seems to be giving us a bit more slapstick with jokes like "You're standing on my foot" and getting hit in the face with a door. But, by no means is he allowed to go as silly as he did in the previous season. He recognises the "flavour" of this adventure and adjusts his performance accordingly for it. He can have a bit more fun in this story because the story, itself, is a bit more fun. But, because this is still Season Eighteen, he makes sure not to go too far with that humour.
He also makes sure to give us some nice serious moments in his portrayal too. The scenes in the TARDIS where he learns about the legend of the Great Vampires are played very straight. Even as he gives a kick to the card files on the floor, he is conveying real anger rather than going for a sight gag. And because of the drama of those scenes, they're some of my favourite in the whole story.
But, as great as Tom is in this episode (as is Lalla too, of course - the two of them are one of the best Doctor/companion combos), our wonderful Three Who Rule really steal the show. Like Tom, they have some fun with their parts but make sure they never take that fun too far. And because of that restraint, there are some really chilling moments between the Time Lords and their ancient enemies. Some real creepiness going on - even with the silly eye make-up!
Playing a vampire is not easy. I can say that confidently because I actually am a proffessional actor who was cast as one in a play! And, like "State of Decay", the play was trying to take the concepts of vampirism quite seriously. When portraying such a creature, you need to "ooze sensuality". But if you're not careful, those attempts to "ooze" can very quickly turn campy. And all three actors do magnificient jobs maintaining the balance such a role requires. Reigning things in when they need to, but also "eating up the scenery" when the moment is right. But then, one of them had already dazzled me with his portrayal of Sutehk just a few seasons earlier, so I'm not entirely shocked.
Although many negative things have been validly expressed about what Terrance Dicks lacks as an author, he really does "get things right" here. This is a tight plot that is still loose enough in places to have some nice "character moments". And not just with the Doctor and Romana imprisonned together. There are a number of moments the two of them have where the chemistry shines. And that isn't just due to the talents of the two actors - Dicks gave them some nice dialogue to convey it.
This is a damned good script. And, as much as we all sometimes consider the man to be as much a curse to the show as a blessing, we have to give Terrance the credit he deserves in the crafting of this tale.
Of course, some of those effects in the final few minutes really do mar one's enjoyment of this story. Normally, bad visuals don't bother me much in Who - but when so much of it looks so good and then you suddenly have to put up with a silly rubber bat and a rocket ship that looks like it's moving through a "pop-up" book, it really does take away a lot from the story. But it's my only real complaint about the whole thing. Everything else here is done really well. Even Adric isn't all that bad yet. Especially if you compare this to how bad Matthew would act in future tales. I also think far more criticism gets levelled at our little Alzarian brat than he deserves. But that's a whole other rant that I won't bother to get into here! I'll save it for the day when I finally review "Full Circle"!
So, hats off to "State of Decay". Not just for the welcome repose it offers us from the "headiness" of Season Eighteen. But because it really is a great little four-parter that serves its purpose well and even expands a bit on the mythos of the Doctor's people. A posthumous thanks to JNT for hanging on to this script when it didn't end up being used a season or two previously. It was worth making sure it got to see the light of day.
Even if daylight isn't good for vampires!
I am quite surprised I enjoy this story as much as I do because re-watching recently I have noticed just how much the production is sort cobbled together. Certainly it has the very poor production values for the glossy season eighteen and has the most traditional plot ever seen in the shows history.
However the story manages to overcome these drawbacks and escape any great criticism on the strength of the acting and the enthusiasm of the writer Terrance Dicks.
If you locked Philip Hinchcliffe, Graeme Williams and John Nathan-Turner in a conference room together and asked them to produce a story I should imagine it would turn out very much like State of Decay. The story has several unique flavours that three of the most influential producers of the show adopted during their time. Certainly it is an expression of the gothic horror Hinchcliffe brought to the show being for all intents and purposes a Hammer pastiche (popular of Robert Holmes, top script editor during those wonderful three years) but then it also has a strong comedy flavour favoured by Williams during his fabulous three years of frothy entertainment. State enjoys its sarcastic edge, poking fun at the genre it is mimicking and happy to provide a good backbone to the story where the traditional plot fails. And nestled quite comfortably in JNT’s stylish first year as producer it also contains some strong scientific ideas, Chris Bidmead refusing to let the story wallow in melodramatic happenings.
It has possibly the strangest feel of any Doctor Who story, the three influences each taking centre stage sporadically throughout the four episodes but mashing together into something original as a result.
It has pointed out by many people that the show has an almost erotic subtext thanks to the touchy-feely bad guys, the Three Who Rule. Watching it in 2003 there is little that is questionable at all but it certainly highlights the story as one that was willing to be a bit different. Enjoyably, much of the sensual subtext seems to be gay related (up yours Thatcher!)…Camilla has an unusual taste for Romana’s blood, rushing to tend her hand when she is cut and staring at her with lust in her eyes during their initial scene together. Her “there are compensations” whilst gazing at the aristocratic Time Lady still sends shivers down my spine. Plus Aukon’s interest in Adric (oh yuck) is a fine indication of his feelings, I have never heard anybody a man whisper “come” in another’s ear quite so erotically before. The ultimate demonstration of just how sensual they are comes in episode four where Aukon holds the Doctor and Romana’s hands together whilst Camilla and Zargo touch their shoulders. An extremely revealing moment.
The Three are the stars of the show but not because of their perverted villainy. The performances are near perfect with Rachel Davies taking the honours as the most effective vampire. She has the ability of sending shivers down your spine just with the power of her voice (“Countless inhabited worlds all waiting to feed our hunger!” she seethes) and plays the part with grand, operatic gestures that give her character a dangerous, quietly menacing feel. Emery James chews the scenery fabulously; Aukon is a superb lead baddie using his dialogue to enhance the theatrical nature of his character. I love his scene stealing exclamation “You will drink the blood off TIME LORDS!”…very funny and quite scary too. Impressive. He flits between the jokes and the horror with ease, no wonder Lalla Ward enjoyed working with him so much. William Lindsay doesn’t get as many chances to light up the screen being the most subdued of the Three but his quiet “Why am I still afraid?” says everything about his thoughtful character.
We are mere seconds away from Tom and Lalla grabbing each other on set and getting it on! Another delight of this story is the terrific amount of flirting going on by the two leads. It is the last story that they spend any substantial time together and they make the most of it, every scene they share punctuated by a playful attitude that would be sorely missed in the next three years. Episode three comes as close as they dared, sharing a cell, swapping stories and complimenting each other with coy gazes. Have the Doctor and his companion ever been this close? Not even his moments with Susan can touch the warmth expressed between these two and it is wonderful to watch. You get very involved in their relationship and as a result the next story is a real heart breaker (especially when you think who the Doctor will be stuck with).
Ahhh yes Adric, Matthew Waterhouse’s debut acting case (although not his first story I might point out before obsessed fans jump down my neck!) on the show. Well he is as spectacularly awful as ever, so bad it is a joy to watch him try. Too complicated a character? Sure thing Matthew, that is a VERY convincing excuse to why you’re so crap in the part. Why then can’t you even manage a short walk between the console room and the door in your first scene in this story convincingly? The robot dog upstages you in every way! At least he is funny/charismatic/functional…you’re just annoying. The production seems aware of the fact and hides him away most of the time and just watch the punch the air scene where Romana suggests they have to rescue the irritating twerp. “Adric!” the Doctor spits out with utter disgust as though the very idea is repulsive. Hehehehe. “I’m sorry Time Lady but one of my family’s died for your lot already…I’d say one’s enough…” Kill the brat! Kill the brat!
When the story remembers its horror roots it manages to pull of some highly atmospheric moments. The chase by the bats through the dark woods is well done (even if the cliff-hanger is a bit useless) and the sequence at the end of episode three where Romana creep into the cob webby bed chamber of Zargo and Camilla to rescue the bowler haircut kid is shot for shot perfect. The aggressive rock music, Tarak being thrown across the room, Camilla advancing on Adric, Zargo pulling the knife from his chest and waving it into Romana’s face…a big thumbs up from the horror fan in Joe. The last episode rips off every hammer film spectacularly, the SF credentials out the window in favour of entertaining melodrama. Romana about to be sacrificed, Vampires baring their fangs excited at the feast, a terrifying creature about to rise from a long sleep, the massacre of innocent guards…isn’t it all gloriously clichéd? And done with such childish panache you can’t help but get drawn in…the story doesn’t really want to scare you but give you a good time and by its climax I was satisfied, greedily so.
My qualms about the production extend only to the special effects, which are extremely disappointing. Doctor Who is infamous for its quaint FX but State of Decay has no real excuse, The Leisure Hive and Full Circle before it both had sumptuous production values. It would appear the money has run out and we’re forced to laugh at the pathetic shots of the tower, so obviously a model and how Terrance must have been disappointed when they sabotaged his grand finish involving a scout ship and a Great Vampires heart! Sky ray lolly anyone? Even more subtle effects such as the rock Romana throws at Aukon are sadly inefficient.
The look of the story however is quite appealing. Each set has a jumbled, falling to pieces feel to it that suits the season theme of entropy. The Hydrax is a mixture of grand colourful rooms and cold, mettalic access panels…clearly in need of a paint job. The rebel’s base with its scientific instruments strewn about is exceedingly dated but suits the story perfectly. Even the TARDIS is looking a bit shabby these days, the queasy console groaning as the column rises and falls. The feeling of lost hope the story suggests is complimented by the design. Good work.
Isn’t the music a joy? Why hasn’t this score been released on CD like the others in season 18? Paddy Kingsland is making a statement; he refuses to let the show drag you into its horrific material and instead opts for a shocking rock score, filling later episodes with some real pulse racing stuff. The 80’s have arrived folks and lets be LOUD and PROUD about it! The music at the climax is extremely exciting. Compare this to Dudley Simpson’s cod horror score for The Brain of Morbius (good though it was!) and see how things have changed in the new decade.
I really like State of Decay even if it does stick out like a sore thumb surrounded by all the hard SF tales around it. It doesn’t want to impress you with scientific mumbo jumbo but simply tell an effective story. It succeeds, a final stab at experiencing the fun of the universe before all the serious stuff starts.
There are, in my opinion, two basic types of vampire story. The first is the traditional type, based almost exclusively on the Bram Stoker’s Dracula, eventually reduced to the status of cliché by a long tradition of films in which aristocratic middle-aged men with widow’s peaks and red lined cloaks pray on visitors to their castles, especially buxom ones. The other type concern attempts to update the vampire mythos by bringing them into a modern setting, and examples include the Blade films, From Dusk till Dawn, and obscure British science fiction series Ultra-violet. Personally, I’m not hugely enthusiastic about either approach; I find it hard to take the former seriously due to over-exposure, and the latter inevitably brings to mind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a series adored by many Doctor Who fans but despised by me for its “hip” wisecracking approach. For this reason I’ve never found ‘State of Decay’ that appealing, since it takes the traditional style of vampire stories but adds a new, more radical twist to it by cementing vampires firmly in the Doctor Who mythology. On this viewing however, I was forced to reassess my unenthusiastic attitude towards it, as it proved to be far better than I remembered.
‘State of Decay’ is, like most of the stories in Season Eighteen, very atmospheric, and it is this that makes it work. A sense of doom and gloom pervades the story throughout, as soon as the oppressive and depressing plight of the villagers is made clear early on. The background to the story is horrible; entire generations of Earth colonists trapped in a literal state of societal decay, forbidden to read or learn, and treated as little more than cattle by the Three Who Rule. The fact that there is nowhere else on the planet save for the village or the tower creates a claustrophobic feel to the story, and from the moment Ivo’s son Karl is chosen during the Selection, a relentlessly grim atmosphere prevails. It is to the credit of director Peter Moffatt that this is the case, since throughout Episode One, the poor characterisation I unfortunately tend to associate with Terrance Dicks’ writing is in evidence. The villagers are utterly forgettable, as are the rebels and the guards, and they are lumbered with dialogue that, whilst not exactly dreadful, fails to be particularly realistic (at one point, Ivo notes that “resistance would be useless”). It doesn’t help the production that there is also some bad acting on display; Clinton Greyn is unenthusiastic as Ivo and Iain Rattray is positively wooden as Habris. Fortunately, the unusual plot structure and the trio of villains compensate for both poor characterisation and ropey dialogue.
The Three Who Rule work extremely well as the villains of ‘State of Decay’. Ranting megalomaniacs are commonplace in Doctor Who, and as literal monsters vampires can be excused for falling into this category, but Dicks manages to make them genuinely interesting by creating minor tensions within the group as Zargo and Camilla exhibit resentment for Aukon’s greater power and Zargo confesses to Camilla at one point that he is plagued by fears. These are minor touches, but they add depth to the characters. Aukon is particularly well realized as a religious fanatic with absolute faith in the Great One and dripping with zeal throughout. The three actors play their roles very well, making Zargo, Aukon and Camilla seem menacing without going over the top, which must have been tempting especially for William Lindsay who has to cope with one of the stupidest beards ever to appear in the series. In addition, all three vampires benefit from the great back-story; having decided to cast his vampires in the traditional mould as aristocrats living in what is essentially a castle, Dicks comes up with one of his more interesting plots by revealing that the tower is in fact a stranded spacecraft from Earth brought into E-Space by the power of the Great Vampire. He then plugs the entire concept of vampires seamlessly into the Doctor Who format by revealing that the Great Vampire is an ancient and awesomely powerful alien menace that has inspired myths and legends on a dozen planets throughout the universe, thus following in the largely successful tradition of stories such as ‘The Dæmons’ (disliked by me but popular with many fans), ‘Pyramids of Mars’, and ‘Image of the Fendahl’. Thanks to this rich fictional backdrop, ‘State of Decay’ manages to become more than it at first seems, which is basically a story in which a group of rebels from an oppressed population strive to overthrow the tyrants who are oppressing them.
In addition to this, the story structure is rather interesting; the Doctor and Romana spend almost the entire story being captured or detained by various groups and then immediately provided with bucket loads of plot exposition. Examples include their detention by the rebels, who explain the poor state of their way of life, and their audience with first Zargo and Camilla and later Aukon, all of whom reveal interesting bits of plot detail. Even when the Doctor and Romana are alone in their cell, they sit and reveal more of the plot to the audience, as do the Doctor and K9 in the TARDIS in Episode Three. This smacks somewhat of lazy writing, but is dealt with so well by the actors involved and carried along so well by the general air of foreboding that instead it just seems novel and interesting. Indeed, the production is largely impressive; the sets and the location filming gel very well, and both look great. Even more impressively, the model shots of the village and tower fit very well with both. Stock footage of bats is used surprisingly well, although the briefly glimpsed model bats are horribly rubbery and unconvincing. Unfortunately, this is not the only dodgy aspect as the model work used to show the scout ship taking off, flipping over, and crashing down into the Great Vampire is diabolical, as is the mercifully brief glimpse of the Great Vampire itself on Calmar’s screen in Episode Four. On the other hand, the special effects sequence of the deaths of the Three Who Rule is very impressive. So two are Paddy Kingsland’s eerie and ominous incidental score, and Amy Roberts’ costumes, although Calmar’s headgear is almost as silly as Zargo’s beard. In addition, the three vampires get some extremely daft looking eye makeup, but overall the production’s good points out way the bad. And the superimposed shot of a bat appearing in front of Aukon in Episode One is great.
Of the regulars, Tom Baker maintains his high form of the season thus far. He continues to bring out the Doctor’s grimmer, more serious side, adding weight to the dark feel of the story overall, but he also restores rather more of his Doctor’s characteristic humour than in the last three stories, which he uses to bring some much needed light relief to this gloomy story but controls sufficiently so that he doesn’t undermine the atmosphere. Lalla Ward is also on fine form here; of especial note is her convincingly acted terror in Episode Two as the Doctor drops hints to Romana about a monster beneath the tower, but the scene that really shines out is when Romana and the Doctor are talking in their cell. As she casually explains that all Type Forty TARDISes contain the Record of Rassilon and the Doctor tells her that she’s wonderful, the unusual closeness of this Doctor/companion team is emphasized; this is partly the reason why the combination of the Doctor, Romana and K9 is one of my favourite TARDIS crews and the scene carries extra poignancy with foreknowledge of the following story. K9 also gets his best story of the season; whilst he spends most of his time in the TARDIS, he remains useful throughout and also avoids the increasingly common indignities heaped upon him since ‘The Leisure Hive’. Even better, he gets to lead the assault on the tower, culminating in an amusing scene in which Ivo apologizes for underestimating him. On the other hand, it is with ‘State of Decay’ that Adric really starts to great on me. For one thing, he’s thoroughly annoying; his cheeky attitude towards both villagers and Aukon in Episode Two is possibly how a cocky teenager would actually behave, but this just serves to remind me why I don’t like teenagers. I’m reasonably confident that I was an obstreperous little bastard at Adric’s age, and would have been largely despised had I been inflected on the viewing millions. An even better example of how irritating he can be is in Episode Four, during his crap attempt to trick Aukon and this rescue Romana. That Aukon falls for it must mean that he’s stupider than he looks, and with that makeup he often looks pretty stupid. More vexingly, Matthew Waterhouse’s lack of acting experience and/or ability starts to become obvious here as he fails even to walk across the TARDIS console room without looking stilted when Adric emerges from hiding. This fusion of vile character and bad acting does not a winning combination make.
Overall, ‘State of Decay’ manages to maintain the quality of Season Eighteen and is much, much better than I remembered. It doesn’t help it though that it is sandwiched between the impressive ‘Full Circle’ and what is by far my favourite story of the entire season…