‘State of Decay’ is a story I’ve loved since my childhood. It has three menacing villains, all of whom happen to be vampires. It has a cautious message about the dangers of allowing myth and superstition to usurp the use of technology. It also has a genuinely exciting ending, at least on paper. Of all the Doctor Who stories in the Classic run, this is quite possibly the one I remember the most vividly, with the likes of “SEE! THE GREAT ONE RISES!” becoming part of my vocabulary long before I reached puberty, which is when that line took on a whole new meaning. Yes, ‘State of Decay’ has been a favourite for years.
But I only saw it for the first time two weeks ago.
Let me explain. When I was ten I received a set of cassette tapes that contained an audiobook recording of a Doctor Who story I’d never encountered before. The cover featured the head and neck of a weary-looking Fourth Doctor, standing just outside the TARDIS, apparently frowning at something off camera. (It would take me years to discover that this was his default expression.) Tom Baker himself was reading, although I would eventually find out that it was something of an abridged version, and one which took certain liberties – the Doctor’s explanation of consonant shift, for example, is changed from the Brothers Grimm to the concept of Chinese Whispers, for reasons known only to its author. But I listened to it, and then listened to it again, and again, until I knew the thing – text, score and even Baker’s cadencing – more or less by heart.
Last year, to my great delight, I found the thing on YouTube, and here it is:
Sadly, the original version – with its godawful but strangely catchy ‘alternate’ theme, which sounds like something from a 1980s schools programme – seems to have been removed, but this is fine. (Besides, I have the original on MP3, so Thomas can listen to it, even if you can’t.)
If the E-Space trilogy is (as I mentioned last time) a series of contrasting stories with only the loosest of connections, that’s partly down to its production history. ‘State of Decay’ is easily the most conventional narrative of the three, coming across as curiously old-school – something that would have been better suited to the Hinchcliffe era. Which, of course, is exactly where it was supposed to go, with Terrance Dicks originally writing the thing with a view to including it in the Gothic period that now encompasses the likes of ‘Pyramids of Mars’ and ‘The Brain of Morbius’, among others. It’s now common knowledge that the BBC were, at the time, commissioning a new adaptation of Dracula, and wanted Doctor Who to steer clear of vampires on the grounds that they didn’t want them to take the piss.
Whether ‘State of Decay’ would have worked better as a Sarah Jane or Leela story is not for me to decide. Certainly it works fairly well as a Romana story, with Lalla Ward at her most clinical and detached – the sort of performance one might have expected more from Mary Tamm, perhaps. She is clearly still getting to know Adric; ‘Decay’ was filmed before ‘Full Circle’, and it shows. Adric is even more obnoxious here than he was in his previous outing, feigning brainwashing in order to subsequently botch a rescue attempt, when he’s not stealing food (again) or using elementary logic to outsmart K-9. The question of Adric siding with the villains is one that would be addressed again in ‘Four To Doomsday’, but here he’s as brattish as ever, snidely gloating “This is one time the goodies don’t get to win, after all”, and failing to come off either as a decent villain, or a decent hero pretending to be villainous. He’s no more than a pest. In fact I have refused to include him in any of the photos I’ve uploaded, so there.
If Adric isn’t much cop (again) the supporting characters fare better. Arthur Hewlett (Quatermass and the Pit) excels as Kalmar, the ageing leader of a band of rebels who is using the need to accumulate knowledge as an excuse for not actually doing anything: in the Honey & Mumford questionnaire he would emerge on the far side of Theorist. Kalmar’s occasionally insubordinate deputies are desperate to free the village from the tyranny of the Three Who Rule, but Kalmar would rather watch television. This is, to all intents and purposes, an episode of South Park, with Hewlett playing the role of Eric Cartman. Small wonder that he wants to stay put, given that the computer in his den that contains ship’s manifests is none other than a BBC Micro, staple of school classrooms all over the country (when ‘computer time’ occurred once a term and was usually half an hour on the drawing software or a fruitless session with that wretched LOGO turtle). It all comes right in the closing minutes, naturally, when the Doctor persuades the rebels to mount an attack on the castle with a rousing speech.
Unfortunately, the attack is led by K-9. The incredulous looks from the rebels when the ” very useful tool…armoured…immune to hypnotism…dead shot with a nose laser” casually trundles out of the TARDIS is one of the story’s high points. The rebels’ world-weary scepticism is justified, to a point, because the adrenaline-soaked final attack on the tower consists largely of five or six bearded farmers shuffling along the corridor so they don’t fall over the tin dog. It’s like being stuck behind a pensioner on a staircase. Specifically, it’s like this man being stuck behind this pensioner on this staircase.
Most memorable in ‘State of Decay’ are the three villains. They rarely extend beyond camp and sinister – we are given only the briefest of glimpses into their former lives as officers on the Hydrax, and somehow this is not to the story’s detriment. It’s clear that Aukon is the leader of the trio, while the ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ are essentially no more than figureheads, jealous that Aukon won’t share some of his toys. Both Rachel Davies and William Lindsay turn in fine, if functional performances, but Emrys James is a fantastically hammy Aukon, stealing one particular scene by bellowing “YOU HAVE BEEN CHOSEN! YOU HAVE BOTH BEEN CHOSEN!” with the sort of rapturous joy you saw all over the internet when ‘Night of the Doctor’ was released.
It all looks very polished. Sets are ornate and well-realised (the designer admitting that she ‘nicked bits from other sets’, which was common practice), while location work is sparing but effective. And of course, Peter Moffatt’s direction really is rather good, even if some of his camera angles make me feel like I’m watching a mid-70s Abba video.
The ending of ‘State of Decay’ rather lets it down a bit, alas. In the first instance, it takes the Doctor an interminably long time to work out that the best candidate for a supersized bolt of steel is sitting right under his nose – or, rather, above it, in the scout ship at the top of the tower. It’s safe to say, in fact, that there is an awful lot of filler in those closing episodes, predominantly in the form of lengthy conversations between Baker and Leeson as they search through the TARDIS archives, presumably having a look at the crossword when the cameras aren’t rolling.
Then there’s the ship itself, which looks like an early production design for Thunderbirds but which moves like something from Button Moon, only somehow less convincing. It plunges back down in a straight vertical trajectory directly into the heart of something we can’t even see, except for the huge hand waving from the hole in the floor. “It’s just a bit silly,” as Gareth explains. “That it could be aimed that well, despite being a giant rocket that goes up and down, and despite the Doctor not knowing whereabouts the heart of the Great Vampire is going to be since it’s underground. That it could pierce the heart, which would require a particular orientation of the Vampire – if it were more upright, then it would need to go in via the top of the head. That it’s pointy enough, even though it is very pointy. And that it’s a ‘stake through the heart’.”
“He’s been down there,” I suggested, “and he felt the heartbeat, so perhaps he could triangulate.”
One of the Past Doctor Adventures, the confusing, unnecessarily convoluted and not entirely satisfying Eye of Heaven, is particularly silly in that regard. Here’s an extract, from the point of view of the Fourth Doctor.
“The fish were a day old, the birds were tern, recently arrived on their yearly migration, the oil needed changing, the smoke was derived from cannabis, the rotting vegetable matter was carrot, the animal matter was dead rat (being eaten by several more live rats), the pitch was cooling upon the hull of a nearby ship, the dog was old, a canny purebreed turned to the wild (rather like myself, I fancied), and the burning wood was laced with human sweat and with teak oil, normally used to seal the decking of a ship.
“All of which told me that somewhere nearby, a sailor had just thrown part of his lunch to a stray dog before grinding a strong toke out beneath his bare heel upon the deck of a ship recently arrived from the Indies, whose hull he was currently engaged in repairing. The Manganese I had detected came, no doubt, from tiny nodules lodged within the damaged section of hull. The nodules definitely originated on the sea bed and could only have been disturbed by a major storm. The fish go without saying, obviously. And the rats? Well… there are rats at the docks in any century.
“Not all of them are animals.
“I compressed my sensory input to human normal. This is something I do from time to time, a little game which keeps me entertained and alert, and I stepped away from the TARDIS.”
I mean honestly. I know he’s good, but he’s not bloody Superman.
Where were we? Oh yes. The ludicrous death of the giant vampire is followed by a slightly more impressive ageing effect, where the vampire lords decompose in a matter of seconds, leaving the Doctor to quip, Bond style, that “they just went to pieces”. It’s not quite Indiana Jones – nor, for that matter, is it ‘Dragonfire’ – but it’s fairly good. Although, as Gareth points out, “it is rather funny how the three of them all wobble together”.
Despite the structural unevenness and ridiculous ending, this is a cheerful and enjoyable romp. Baker is back to his usual animated self – he hasn’t been this upbeat since ‘The Horns of Nimon’ – and the narrative is full of amusing silliness amidst the bats and the blood and the screaming. Adric is lamentable, but thankfully has comparatively little to do (Dicks was apparently unsure how to write him in, and it shows). Even the filler material is fun, with Dicks both playing loyal tribute to Hammer motifs (Gothic tower / terrified villagers / foolhardy stranger walking into certain death despite being warned off) and seemingly getting his own back on the BBC executives who threw out his script some years previously. When the Doctor asks K-9 for information on vampires, the tin dog remarks “My folklore section contains vampire lore from seventeen inhabited planets. I will begin with Earth, the legend of Count Dracula.”
“No thank you,” interrupts the Doctor, hurriedly. “Not Dracula…”