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State of Decay

Reviewed by Alistair Hughes

“Sliding back into primitivism - a society that evolves backwards - I've never seen such a state of decay!”

State of Decay is, of course, the Doctor Who-meets-Hammer Films story. Having ‘done’ the Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster, Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, Phantom of the Opera, werewolf-esque transformations and the Mummy; the Vampire legend was long overdue for a damn good ‘Who-ing’. But is there more to this tale than a ‘stakes and vampires’ run-around? Well, yes.

State of Decay is notable for not merely utilising the popular vampire legend, but actually assimilating it into the programme's own culture - making vampires, by association, as real as Gallifrey and Rassilon (Or is that vice-versa?).

On repeated viewing of this story, however, Technology vs. Primitivism - not the vampire legend - appears the more important theme. As the above opening quote shows, the story title refers to the backward state of the civilisation the Doctor and his companions visit.

Solid themes are one thing, but State of Decay also gives us one of the cleverest stories seen for a long time. With a careful unfolding of revelations and events, we are introduced to concepts both fantastic but also logical within the context of the story.

Now if only the production values could have done all of these ideas justice...

“The King vampire, mightiest and most malevolent of all, had vanished even to his shadow from Time and Space (until now!) Hence it is the directive of Rassilon that any Time Lord who comes upon this enemy of our people and all living things shall use all his efforts to destroy him, even at the cost of his own life...”

In one of Anne Rice's many vampire books, she describes her vampire hero, Lestat, mischievously startling his human friend with a flash of his vampiric incisor teeth, and then contemplating the very powerful and fundamental effect that the sight of bared predatory fangs has on the human psyche.

Frankly it terrifies us, forcibly reminding ‘man the hunter’ what it feels like to be mere prey - something's meal, to put it crudely! Perhaps this is why the vampire is such an enduring legend - human-kind have conquered every other predator on the planet, but what could be better suited to dislodge us from the top of the food chain than the vampire?

But of course, being ‘fang fodder’ isn't the worst of it: the nightmarish concept of actually becoming one of the feared enemy, in this case physically (and spiritually), is common in fantasy genres, but perhaps has it's earliest roots in vampirism. In contemporary times, killer viruses, their infection spread by the blood of ‘carriers’, adds new resonance to an already rich myth.

So, in this story the Doctor faces an enemy of impeccable pedigree and with a long-established legacy. But in a script as clever as this one, just ‘pasting’ a vampire into a Doctor Who serial isn't good enough. Making use of the programme's infinite format, Terrance Dicks gives us a village and castle straight out of a Hammer studio, the ideal setting to use the Undead to their best effect. But not stopping there, Dicks then increases the power and threat of the vampire to galactic proportions, describing enormous creatures who can “suck the life from an entire planet”. With such an enormously powerful enemy, it then requires one of the programmes' own most powerful and fundamental icons to have originally halted the vampire threat. And so our steadfast writer turns to the planet and culture he is at least partially responsible for creating... Gallifrey.

State of Decay becomes a clever blending of mythologies, with the most easily recognised aspects of the cinematic vampire legend mixed with the mythos of Doctor Who itself - Rassilon and the ancient Time Lords. This blend has proved to be a popular one, witness the various Doctor Who novels and strips, many of them recent (Blood Harvest, the 1993 Doctor Who Yearbook, The Eight Doctors...) which have used this theme.

“You're wrong, the Doctor is not weaponless, he has the greatest weapon of all - knowledge!”

Many years ago, when first viewing this serial, I assumed the story title referred to the vampires' eventual fate - grisly on-screen disintegration of the type that Christopher Lee was always doing in the final scenes of his glorious Dracula films. Instead, it describes the oppressed and degenerative condition of the society which the Doctor and friends arrive in, which stems from the repression of free thought and scientific knowledge. In this light, the Undead ‘Three who rule’ merely personify the superstitious and regressive antithesis to an enlightened society.

In true Doctor Who fashion, neglect and ignorance of technology inevitably affects a culture in the most negative way, and only by the Doctor acting as an ‘intergalactic computer repairman’ (see also The Face of Evil), can an entire planet pull itself out of primitivism. “There, you'll soon be a technological society again,” the Doctor smugly announces, after fixing Kalmar's Amstrad.

Technology and superstition are contrasted throughout the story. A demonstration of K9's laser helps convince the Rebels that their attack may stand a chance, but an actual view of the King Vampire on the electronic scanner almost puts everyone off the idea!

Earlier, in searching the TARDIS memory banks for information on how to overcome the Great Vampire, we see the Doctor using a magnetic card system. This is so antiquated, (by our standards, never mind those of a race with mastery over time-travel), that it seems almost not technology at all - a visual metaphor for returning to more primitive means to fight a supernatural foe. Energy weapons won't work, but a stake through the heart will (that's one point to superstition). However, the stake which is finally used turns out to be a spacecraft (so that's an equalising point for technology). Common to both approaches, however, is the reality that it is knowledge which finally defeats the vampires, something which they feared so much that it was punishable by death.

“You know, it's just occurred to me that there are vampire legends on almost every inhabited planet - creatures that stalk the night and fast on the blood of the living...”

Vampires who used to be Astronauts and a medieval Castle which is really a space ship. What would Erich Von Daniken have made of this, I wonder?

What is really interesting, is that Terrance Dicks reveals this fascinating concept in the first part of Part Two, before we are even half way through the story! I feel sure that most other writers would have kept this important and intriguing revelation for maximum effect in the final episode, but in State of Decay the Doctor and Romana resolve this mystery very early in the piece. A positive, and perhaps intentional, result of this unorthodox unravelling of a plot is that it greatly enhances the image of the two Time Lords as heroes dedicated to using their considerable intelligence rather than physical force to defeat evil. This is another cornerstone of the Doctor Who legend of which Terrance Dicks has always been a strong advocate.

The reality of the ‘Three who Rule’ and their stately home is only part of the mystery, however, and almost immediately the Doctor is busy forming a further theory as he and Romana stealthily explore the ship.

“I have a suspicion,” he tells Romana with deadly seriousness, “but it's almost too horrible to think about”.

These scenes are possibly the best in the entire serial with the combination of Baker and Ward's performances, and the atmosphere of impending doom combining to make me quite happy to watch them creeping about the ‘crypt’ for hours.

The theme of procrastination (fundamental in the previous serial, Full Circle) returns. The rebels' claims that it is too soon to take action, that they need more information, are countered by the Doctor's disparaging description of them as “Technological rats living safely in their technological hole.” Even K9 gets on the bandwagon, telling Romana: “Probability of indigenous dissident group offering effective assistance - very low.”

Temptation and partial conversion to the Vampire cause by lead characters is standard vampire fare, but the Doctor's solution to stopping the awakened King Vampire is a truly ingenious and imaginative one - certainly on paper, anyway. Is it a fault of the script that the climax is so reliant on a failed effect, or does the inventiveness of the idea still stand, regardless of how it was visually represented?

The shortfall in the realisation of this culminative sequence brings us neatly to a look at the actual production.

“So the Vampires in the stories are just pale imitations of the real thing?”
“If the Doctor's right...”
“Then it looks as if this is one time when the goodies don't win, after all.”

Doctor Who after dark! Lighting wise, this story appears to get exactly what it needed - real ‘Hinchcliffian’ gloom, not the ferocious over-lighting of sets, which has always plagued the programme. The miniatures are similarly well lit and shot (bar one particular instance - more on this later), and we even get a night scene (well, day-for-night, at any rate). The shot of the crypt floor, pulsating to the heart beat of the giant creature beneath, as the Doctor and Romana discover exanguinated bodies and tanks full of blood is the stuff nightmares are made of!

But we also have moments of great humour, with exchanges between Romana and the Doctor at the calibre of: “All right?”
“No, I'm frightened!”
“Good, good - soon be there...”
“That's what I'm frightened of!”

In terms of unintentional humour, the scene where Romana and the Doctor first encounter a terrified villager, who apparently tries to hide behind his shovel before running off whimpering, is hilarious - sheer Monty Python!

The much-vaunted shot of the slow motion bat superimposed over Aukon's face as he summons ‘his servants’ deserves its accolades, particularly as it is so understated. Solid, if slightly hammy performances abound, with more great dialogue than you could shake a stake at - particularly from the two Time Lords.

Now let's get the big gripe over with - the grand finale, the spectacular slaying of the King Vampire - a colossal demon bursting out of the ground only to be transfixed through the heart by a rocket plummeting from space... sounds great, doesn't it? Oh dear, look what we got...

If only the rocket reaching its apex and then falling back to earth could have been shown another way, instead of that dreadful ‘U-turn in space sequence’. Picture a cut-away shot of a villager, or some nocturnal animal - an owl perhaps, looking up at the night sky to see a distant, receding light suddenly pause then start to grow again, (cue faint engine sound cutting out, to be replaced with the steadily rising sound of rushing wind). What would that have cost? As for the King Vampire - creatures are one of Doctor Who's strengths... couldn't at least an arm and head have been built into the costume budget? An old glove and some fake fingernails just doesn't cut it! Even the dying groan is incredibly anti-climactic - a terrible scream of agony and rage, the Doctor clamping his hands over his ears to shut out the awful sound; simple details like this could almost have saved the scene.

On to more positive things - Romana. This is really Lalla Ward's finest hour with her characterisation of the Time Lady more appealing than ever, whether it be swinging her legs in an endearingly child-like fashion while sitting on Camilla's throne, her spirited attempt to spear Aukon with a stalagmite or the way she positively glows when the Doctor tells her that she's “wonderful”. When Romana makes the key decision on how the two Time Lords should divide the labour in Part Three and the Doctor complies without hesitation, it shows how far she has transcended the traditional assistant role, and how great the Doctor's faith in her has grown. With the benefit of hindsight we could say that this fleeting scene sets up Romana's departure in the following story - she's out-grown the Doctor at last.

“What about the lords, Zargo and the others?”
“Well, they just went to pieces...”

And so the production team gets away with another blatant Who-ising of popular literary themes, so often done in the latter Seventies (when this serial was, of course, originally written), for Baker's final season.

For many, State of Decay showed that the programme could still summon an impressively eerie atmosphere, and Terrance Dicks' writing was possibly never so good.

Unfortunately we also saw effects bravely attempted but so badly executed that all of the great work done in other areas of this story was almost eclipsed. Ultimately though, the quality of performances and scripting carries this serial, making it a quietly rewarding little ‘ghost story’ for a winter's night in front of the fire.

Perhaps State of Decay can also be seen as a kind of farewell, not just to the brooding, manic Fourth Doctor whose end was near (but had been prepared for), but to a style of Doctor Who that many of us were brought up on and would miss terribly in the years to come.

Yes, you're right, I haven't mentioned Adric...

This item appeared in TSV 56 (October 1998).

Index nodes: State of Decay