A sociopathetic abscess? Doctor Who – State of Decay

throne

In retrospect, State of Decay by Terrance Dicks looks totally out of place in S18. As already touched upon in my article on Full Circle, new script editor Christopher H. Bidmead was a man who wanted the Doctor Who stories he commissioned to have a strong scientific basis. If there’s one thing he disliked it was scripts which paid homage to/ripped off other films, books or television programmes.

Therefore it’s no surprise to learn that Bidmead didn’t commission the story, instead it was new producer John Nathan-Turner, who whilst leafing through a pile of unmade stories found a submission entitled The Vampire Mutations from a few years earlier.

So Bidmead and Dicks couldn’t have been further apart in their understanding of what made good Doctor Who. Dicks always shared the opinion of his friend Malcolm Hulke who once said that in order to write good science fiction you need: “a good original idea. It doesn’t have to be your original idea.”

Doctor Who had been borrowing from other sources for a long time, for example other Tom Baker scripts by Terrance Dicks include Robot (King Kong) and The Brain of Morbius (Frankenstein). Indeed, the only surprising thing about State of Decay is that Doctor Who hadn’t tackled a vampire story before.

Despite Bidmead’s misgivings (and he did attempt to crowbar some of his ideas into the story, much to Dicks’ chagrin) the story went into production. And if it wasn’t clear from the script that this was Doctor Who meets Dracula then the design and costume should have made it explicit.

To be honest, there’s no logical reason why the inhabitants of the Hydrax should have chosen to dress like they’ve just walked off the set of a Hammer film, just as there’s no logical reason why Morbius, one of the greatest scientists in the galaxy, should choose to live in a castle that looked just like Baron Frankenstein’s castle instead of working and living in a modern laboratory.

But it does work in a visual sense, so sometimes you have to accept that style has to win out over content.

If Terrance Dicks was unabashed about borrowing from other sources to create his story, then it’s fair to say that his other writing traits are also present and correct here.

For Dicks, the Doctor should always be central to the action. Other stories in S18, particularly the forthcoming Warrior’s Gate, depicted the Doctor as a passive figure, not much more than an observer who does little to resolve matters. This certainly isn’t the case in State of Decay where the Doctor has the lions share of the plot.

A sacrificial victim
A sacrificial victim

Terrance Dicks was also well-known for his opinion that the companion existed to get into trouble and be rescued by the Doctor. He has two here – Romana and Adric – to fulfill that function. Romana does seem a little underwritten by Dicks, for example when she’s held captive in the final episode there’s not much spark. It’s tempting to suppose that he wasn’t really writing for Romana – possibly more for a generic companion along the lines of Jo or Sarah.

The peasants aren’t particularly well drawn and they tend to conform to fairly common stereotypes – the weary head man of the village, the hotheaded rebel, etc.

The Three Who Rule are more fun though – particularly Aukon (Emrys James).  James was an actor of some distinction, a former RSC player, and although he can’t resist laying on the ham it was probably difficult not to.

The Three Who Rule
The Three Who Rule

Zargo (William Lindsay) and Camilla (Rachel Davies) underplay a little more and are very effective.  Particularly when Zargo confesses to Camilla that he is afraid.  A small character beat, but quite a revealing one.

Although the Three Who Rule hold the majority of the villagers in a grip of fear, there are still a few who rebel.  When the Doctor meets them in their base he is shocked to discover how far their society has regressed –

KALMAR: Some of us could still read. It’s forbidden, but the knowledge was passed on in secret.
DOCTOR: What? Reading forbidden?
KALMAR: All science, all knowledge is forbidden by the Lords. The penalty for knowledge is death.
ROMANA: No schools of any kind?
KALMAR: Children start in the fields as soon as they can walk, stay there till they grow up, grow old and die.

In 1979, John Pilger, David Munro and Eric Piper traveled to Cambodia in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of Pol Pot.  What they found there was shared with the world, first in a special issue of the Daily Mirror and later in an ITV documentary, Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia.  Their discoveries were pretty much the same as the events described by Kalmar and this would have been clearly understood by the audience at the time.  Doctor Who rarely commented on real-world events, so this is an interesting reference.

As previously mentioned, Tom Baker is in his element here.  He has some wonderful material to play with, such as this –

DOCTOR: Do you know, it just occurs to me. There are vampire legends on almost every inhabited planet.
ROMANA: Really?
DOCTOR: Yes. Creatures that stalk in the night and feast on the blood of the living. Creatures that fear sunlight and running water and certain herbs. Creatures that are so strong they can only be killed by beheading, or a stake through the heart.
ROMANA: Or? Please, say something.
DOCTOR: Whatever it is, we want to find it, don’t we?
ROMANA: No.
DOCTOR: Good. Come on then.

doctor romana

The only downside to the story is the reveal of the Great Vampire, which is  something of a disappointment.  It would have been better to leave him to the viewer’s imagination as the brief glimpse seen in the last episode fails to convince in every possible way.

This is only a minor niggle though and the Doctor’s solution to find a stake big enough to kill the Great Vampire is pretty ingenious.

With Tom Baker’s time on Doctor Who drawing to a close it was a nice touch to have a story that harked back to the Hammer Horror style of his early years.  This probably wasn’t intentional though, as it seems that the script was pressed into service because stories were urgently needed.

But whatever the reason it was made, State of Decay is an effective tale from the pen of one of its longest-serving contributors.  It’s not brimming over with originality, but sometimes you just need to borrow – and if you do so then borrow from the best.

 

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