Doctor Who Project: State of Decay

Standard

Well, I’ve never been a great one for swarming.

For all the monsters and notionally scary moments and themes in Doctor Who, the series seldom veers into out-and-out horror. When it does, however, former script editor Terrance Dicks is usually the writer. His “State of Decay” (Series Production Code 5P) draws heavily on the trappings of Hammer horror to present a tale of ancient space vampires, visually evoking Christopher Lee’s turns as Dracula, but the resulting story winds up casting the bloodsuckers as toothless caricatures instead of fang-some foes, about as frightening as the glowing green goopy Rutan in Dicks’ last offering, “Horror of Fang Rock.”

King Zargo (William Lindsay) and Queen Camilla (Rachel Davies) Resting

The four episode story begins with much promise, even if it does retread ground from “Full Circle” in presenting a society that devolved from a crashed spaceship generations earlier. Trying to find a way out of E-Space, that sparsely populated alternate universe the TARDIS accidentally entered in the prior story, our Time Lords (plus stowaway) land on an unnamed planet with evidence of both high technology and minimal energy output, all focused around a tower and a village. The rulers of the planet, King Zargo (William Lindsay) and Queen Camilla (Rachel Davies), exert complete control over the small rural populace, aided by their councillor, Aukon (Emrys James). Festooned with elaborate facial makeup, the three Lords exert a strange power over their people. Throw in a prohibition on any form of knowledge amongst the peasantry that is quickly subverted when one villager surreptitiously pulls out a radio communicator, and a real sense of mystery begins to unfold.

The Fourth Doctor explains how to use a computer

Horror, after all, relies on a slow drip of fear and uncertainty, and Doctor Who‘s tendency to gradually unveil the monster or threat fits that model nicely, but the first two episodes give themselves over to broad exposition instead, diluting any tension the setting has developed. Dicks takes pains to establish the social structure, with peasants being selected regularly to go to the Tower, where the lucky become guards—and the unlucky are never seen again. In due course, the Fourth Doctor and Romana are captured by rebels who have discovered some technology, leading the Doctor to unpack the origins of the civilization on an ancient computer monitor: an exploratory spaceship from 1990s Earth that was pulled into E-Space over a thousand years prior.

Crew Roster of the Hydrax

The leaders of that spaceship—Captain Sharkey, Navigator MacMillan, and Science Officer O’Connor—look remarkably like Zargo, Camilla, and Aukon, and rather than some grand revelation that they are one and the same, alive for a thousand years as the living dead, the Doctor and Romana instead take a few minutes to discuss folklorist Jacob Grimm’s theory of consonantal shift and theorize that the name MacMillan softened over time to become Camilla and so on. Sociolinguistics, in a vampire story. Though fascinating in a real sense, it’s only marginally less exciting than the Adric trying, and failing, to steal food again…

Adric's failed attempt to steal some bread

Conceptually, “State of Decay” reads brilliantly, with a well conceived central conceit, but it doesn’t do anything with its vampires other than have them natter on about their eternal hunger and lick their lips anxiously whenever anyone nicks a thumb. There’s no menace whatsoever in this story, no fear or, frankly, horror.

The Fourth Doctor and Romana, bemused by their predicament

To compound matters, these aren’t just any old vampires, but rather the progeny of a Grand Vampire, the last of a race of planet-killing vampires who fought a long war against the Time Lords in normal space back when Rassilon himself was young. The Time Lords triumphed, yet the King Vampire escaped somehow into E-Space. The King Vampire established a mental link with Aukon, somehow, and the Earth explorer ship Hydrax was pulled into E-Space, where—again, somehow—the officers of the ship turned into vampires and essentially bred generations of peasants from the crew to feed to the wounded and recovering Grand Vampire.

A trio of Space Vampires

The story, in essence, becomes horror in the sense that this trio set up a supply chain to fill giant fuel tanks with enough blood to rejuvenate an enormous vampire over a thousand years, a terrifying concept rather than anything shocking on the screen. First time series director Peter Moffatt, a figure soon to direct quite a few Doctor Who stories, tries to provide dark and moody settings, but mostly the copious shadows just fall awkwardly on the actors’ faces.

Mood or just poor lighting?

The fault lies mostly in tying the vampires into established Doctor Who lore, in keeping with Season Eighteen’s focus on continuity and backstory. According to “State of Decay,” vampire legends throughout the universe exist because of the war between the time Lords and the Grand Vampires. We have an extended set of scenes where the Doctor and K-9 uncover the forgotten Records of Rassilon, which Romana fortuitously recalls from her time in the ancient records division on Gallifrey. They were hidden on all Type 40 TARDISes, on computer punch cards rather than in the databases, to be kept safe in the event the Time Lords lost their war with the Grand Vampires. The monstrous foes were only defeated when Rassilon commissioned a fleet of “bow ships” that fired metal stakes into their hearts, presumably during battles in outer space.

The Fourth Doctor feeding the Record of Rassilon into the TARDIS database

The Tower of the Lords is actually their spaceship, encrusted with stonework over the years, and affixed to the top are three scout ships, each conveniently tipped with a very long metal rod. One of the ships still has power, and the Doctor realizes that he can launch it upwards at a trajectory that will bring it back down right into the King Vampire, whose time of Awakening has arrived. Punctured through the heart, the King Vampire dies, resulting in the rapid decomposition of the three Lords who are reliant on their master for continued life. It’s a clever solution but not an earned solution. Everything fits together neatly but without any sense of significance. Even the villagers whom the Doctor exhorts into leading a near-suicidal charge on the Tower remain essentially faceless and without dimension.

The Tower Spaceship of the Space Vampire Lords

Again, horror works best when the stakes are small and intimate, one of the reasons that “Horror of Fang Rock,” with its small cast, works and “State of Decay,” featuring a dozen extras in non-speaking roles, does not. Should the King Vampire arise, its intention is to return to normal space and feed once more, so stopping it becomes of paramount importance for the Doctor and Romana. Indeed, the Records of Rassilon mandate that all Time Lords should strive to kill the King Vampire if encountered, even at the cost of their own lives. But the Doctor saves the universe every few weeks, so there’s nothing new going on here, no sense that the stakes (pun mildly intended) are sharper than usual.

What little effects work there is in “State of Decay” comes across well enough, though the scene of the scout ship launching from the Tower and then falling to ground again seems not up to the usual model and color-separation standards the effects team has previously demonstrated. The King Vampire itself is seen in full only once, fleetingly, looking like someone took the gargoyle suit from “The Daemons” and puffed up the wings a bit, but the scenes where its gargantuan hand bursts through the earth, suggesting its immense size, deserve a moment of appreciation.

Death throes of the King Vampire

The guest stars perform admirably, but William Lindsay, as Zargo, and Rachel Davies, as Camilla, don’t have much to work with in the script, mostly just standing around looking imposing and baring their fangs in the grand Hammer vampire tradition. Emrys James, himself associated with Hammer Productions, finds the better lines of the three as Aukon, and he uses his expressive eyes to suggest hypnotic power beyond even that granted him by the makeup.

Aukon (Emrys Jones) stares down Adric (Matthew Waterhouse)

While Tom Baker continues to see less screen time in Season Eighteen than would ever have been considered feasible in prior seasons, here the Fourth Doctor dominates every scene he is in, whether giving rousing speeches or matching wits with a space vampire. A fair bit of humor suffuses the story, almost entirely delivered by Baker. He’s certainly making the most of the remainder of his time as the Fourth Doctor; only twelve episodes, over three stories, remain for him.

Tom Baker as a puzzled Fourth Doctor

Lalla Ward has even less time left as Romana, with her departure scheduled for the end of the next story. Dicks has written for three female companions now (after Sarah Jane Smith in “Robot” and “The Brain of Morbius” and Leela in “Horror of Fang Rock“), and his treatment of Romana strikes one as sub-par. She shows far too much panic and disgust for someone of her intellectual background when confronted with the idea of vampires, and she not only gets captured and screams, but she’s thrown onto a slab as a sacrifice, replete with white dress, needing to be rescued. It’s just not in keeping with the development of Romana across both Ward’s tenure and Mary Tamm’s as well.

Lalla Ward as Romana

Romana at least gets to express incredible dismay at Adric, who stowed away at the end of “Full Circle” and causes nothing but complications for the Time Lords here, Romana’s capture being directly tied to the need to try to rescue him after he wanders out of the TARDIS looking for food. Matthew Waterhouse plays Adric with a very self-sure demeanor; he’s convinced he knows all the answers, and one is inclined to believe him when he claims he would rather join the vampires as a “diner” than become dinner. He’s bluffing, of course, since the series isn’t at the point where a companion can be actively disloyal, but Adric makes one believe there’s always a first time. (The entire sub-plot about Adric being a “chosen one” to herald the awakening of the King Vampire is dropped entirely by the fourth episode, perhaps for the best.)

Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) and K-9 (John Leeson, voice) engage in some light badinage

K-9 (John Leeson, voice) is likewise on his final episodes, leaving with Romana when the next story concludes. The metal mutt serves as a time-saver in this story by clearing out all the guards when the Doctor and the villagers raid the Tower; far cheaper to film people falling down rather than choreographing fight scenes. The Doctor does show a moment of kindness towards K-9 when he makes a villager apologize for having been rude to him during the assault, though it’s an oddly anti-climactic scene, what with the smoking bodies of the rapidly aged vampires sputtering nearby and a thousand years of oppression just ended.

At least Terrance Dicks uses the word “companion” twice, once each in reference to Romana and Adric, the latter usage all but formally enrolling the artful dodger into the official ranks of Doctor Who companions:

Camilla: We have been talking to this Doctor and his companion. [Romana]

Aukon: Won’t you join us, like your other companion? [Adric]

The phrase has not been much in use in Tom Baker’s run, so to have it appear twice by someone responsible for writing the vast majority of Doctor Who novelizations suggests perhaps Dicks has a preference for “companion” as opposed to “assistant,” which is often used by the BBC when discussing these characters.

It’s hard to dislike “State of Decay” if only because the idea itself, of space vampires who once fought the Time Lords and left traces of their lengthy war in the collective memories of a thousand worlds, speaks to the heart of the show itself, taking everyday lore and giving it a fantastical explanation. But the mismatch between the attempt at setting up a tightly plotted vampire story with all the bats and cobwebs and fangs on one hand, and intergalactic stakes culminating in the giant vampire’s death by spaceship antenna feels jarring. Many plot points are set up, like Adric being the “chosen one,” the peasants being subjected to “the wasting,” or the association between the bats and the King Vampire, only to be jettisoned to fit into a four episode structure. And yet for the first three episodes, very little at all seems to be happening.

The Space Vampires rapidly aged

One can charitably chalk up some of the issues with “State of Decay” to the absolutely frenetic pace and budget constraints that the production team faced, but at heart, it’s a story that slightly misses the mark. Had Terrance Dicks, producer John Nathan-Turner, and script editor Christopher H. Bidmead just leaned more heavily into either an intimate and claustrophobic vampire story or an epic and star-spanning conflict between giant space vampires and the Time Lords, something truly magical could have resulted. Instead we get plastic bats on a string.

(Previous Story: Full Circle)

(Next Story: Warriors’ Gate)

Post 116 of the Doctor Who Project

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.