State of DecayBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

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…