One of the big problems I – and I think many other viewers – have with the JNT era of Doctor Who is his insistence on hiring ‘new blood’ to write the stories for the show wherever possible rather than relying upon the more experienced ‘old guard’.
Now sure, this meant that we were spared further guff from Bob Baker & Dave Martin, but it also meant that quality writers like Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes were often left out in the cold when they otherwise could have been relied upon to write a good story.
An example of the quality of story we could have got on a more regular basis comes in the form of State of Decay – Dicks’ second last contribution to the show.
Doctor Who – State of Decay Review: What’s This One About?
Originally intended as the opening story of Season 15, but held back because the BBC were promoting a Dracula based show at the time, this is a story about Vampires!
Thoughts – A Good Old Fashioned Story
To a large degree, State of Decay sticks out like a sore thumb in Season 18 of Doctor Who, but for a good reason rather than a bad one.
For you see, this is one story that’s not weighed down by script-editor Christopher H. Bidmead’s scientific gobbledygook.
There are no Tachyonics, CVEs, Dodecahedrons, or Mathematical computations that hold the universe together, no gateways, no evolutionary genetics and no entropy.
Even the Keeper of Traken – though nowhere near as bad as the other stories in terms of its scientific content – has a certain amount of it.
No, State of Decay is just a good old-fashioned Doctor Who story about Vampires living in a castle and oppressing the nearby village.
And it’s a well written story too. It manages to tie in to the E-Space trilogy theme (by making the point that that’s how the Great Vampire escaped the Time Lord war) without bogging itself down in what that actually entails, but on a more general level, it flows well, has interesting characters and good acting.
What it also does, which is something that has been missing from this season so far, is position the Doctor as the hero, rather than just the good guy. I hadn’t actually noticed that this had been a problem until I watched State of Decay, but when you think about it, it is.
Neither Full Circle nor the Leisure Hive had a proper threat so speak of, while the character of Meglos wasn’t exactly the more dangerous of villains. Here, the Doctor has to face off against the Big Boss Vampire, and it’s his idea and his heroics that result in its destruction. Doctor Who needs that from time to time, in my opinion.
So well done Terrance Dicks, and its a pity we won’t hear from you again until the Five Doctors.
Another positive point of State of Decay is the look, not just of the sets or the costumes which are suitably gothic in their design, but also in terms of the casting.
The Three Who Rule (which is a great name for a group is it not?) have all been cast well, and in particular the King manages to look really ‘Vampiric’. I think it’s to do with his rather pronounced cheek bones as well as his slight and gangly nature. You can believe someone who looks like him is both a vampire and ancient.
Both he and the Queen also do a great job of acting like vampires. A good example of that would be the cliffhanger to episode 3 where they have an almost ballet style to their movements. The Queen especially almost seems to glide over to Romana.
And one other thing that I like about the look is that they mostly avoid showing the Great Vampire and instead just focus on his heartbeat. Had he shown up at the end, rather than being killed just before he did, it could have cheapened the whole
story. The one visual representation that they had of him – the shot on the scanner – should have actually been left out.
Now this is the first recorded footage of Adric, as it was filmed before Full Circle. Whether the scenes with the story itself were filmed in sequence I do not know, but the first shot of him here – where he walks across the TARDIS console room – is incredible.
Once again he fails to even manage to walk convincingly. Seriously, Matthew Waterhouse is perhaps the only actor I’ve ever seen who makes you think “He’s acting there” when he walks. Dreadful.
I can only imagine the horror on the face of the director and the rest of the regular cast when they saw it.
What I find interesting about Adric’s role in the State of Decay though is that he has almost no interaction with the Doctor at all. On screen, Tom Baker only acknowledges his existence once, and even then there’s a certain element of “I don’t know who you are, but I don’t want to look at you or touch you”. It’s at the end of Episode 4 where he says “Well done, well done” to him; he genuinely looks confused as to who he is.
As to the character, he once again manages to exude all those wonderfully likeable qualities that children can aspire to, like stealing food and throwing his friends to the wolves.
And as for his great plan to save Romana – to wait until she’s about to be sacrificed and than make a clumsy attempt to stab Autlok? Genius. Gene Snitsky would be proud.
Incidental Music Watch
In this story the music manages to be far better than in Full Circle. It’s not so much at the forefront of your attention, and what’s more, it manages to seem relevant to what we’re seeing on-screen.
It’s gothic (with that 1980s twist) and when the story is about vampires, you can’t really complain.
The Burial of K9
The use of K9 in this story is quite interesting.
At no point in any of his appearances previous to this story has the fact that the prop looks a bit shit come into consideration. And yet here it does.
The Doctor talks up K9 to the rebels as being this awesome force to be reckoned with and then out he trundles from the TARDIS to comical incidental music and negative reactions from them. Now even though K9 manages to follow through on the Doctor’s promises to them, and Ivo actually apologises to him, the overriding sense you get from this is that K9 really is a bit shit.
And that’s the power of writing. The makers at this stage are open in their disdain for the Doctor’s talking robot dog and – without having K9 lose any of its intelligence or danger as a weapon – have turned it into something people will perceive as being crap, and in doing so, it opens the door for them to get rid of him without anyone really minding.
- One aspect of the State of Decay which makes absolutely no sense, and could ruin your enjoyment if you were so inclined, is the fact that a society or species cannot survive if there’s only one village. You have to assume that there are only a few hundred people at the very most living on this planet, and many of them are regularly selected for sacrifice. There’s just no way they could reproduce quick enough to sustain themselves for one generation, let alone hundreds.
- Another small thing is that if they don’t have science, how is it that they are aware of the things that they don’t yet have? How do they know that they must ‘rediscover’ basic scientific principles if they’ve never had them?
- Of course, these are flaws, and so is the way they bring up ‘The Wasting’ numerous times in the first episode and then drop it entirely, but by no means do they ruin the story; you just have to disengage your brain a bit.
- Since this was filmed before Meglos, Tom Baker is on the cusp of looking gravely ill again. Mostly you notice it in his hair, which just looks awful.
- For some reason I’ve always loved the line “I am Ivo, Head Man of this village”. I think it’s the idea of someone being called ‘Head Man’. Wouldn’t the worst be a better place if we called the Prime Minister the ‘Head Man of the Country’?
- It would have been a bit of a pisser for the Doctor if the rocket had accidentally gone through the Great Vampire’s stomach rather than heart would it not?
- How exactly did K9 get onto that throne?
- You can tell that Lalla Ward doesn’t like Matthew Waterhouse. Her contempt is very thinly veiled.
- I say there’s no science, but that’s wrong. State of Decay introduced me to the concept of Grimm’s Law and the way language develops and softens over time. Very interesting.
- DWM Mighty 200 Ranking: #87. Probably fair.
Doctor Who – State of Decay Review: Final Thoughts
The State of Decay is a story I like. No, it’s not one of the all time best; yes, it has Matthew Waterhouse in it and yes there are some things that don’t make sense, but still, it’s enjoyable.
Vampires are something that everyone is aware of, so it’s actually quite surprising that it’s taken Doctor Who so long to do a story with them as the main villain.
But they made good villains, and the story presented the Doctor as the hero again.
So it gets a thumbs up from me.