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Who Review: State of Decay

In their search for a way out of E-Space, the Doctor, Romana, and K-9 land on a primitive looking planet with near-Earth atmosphere. The inhabitants of a nearby village live in fear of the three lords who rule over them in the castle. Once a year, guards come down to the village and select certain villagers to go back with them. They are never seen again. As the Doctor and Romana investigate, they discover the remnants of technology. Some of the villagers, in defiance of the lords’ edict banning the acquisition of knowledge, have been working on getting the equipment to work. With the Doctor’s help, they discover computer files that speak of a ship called the “Hydrax” which seems to have been pulled into E-Space many years ago. Its crew of three, however, are unaccounted for. Meanwhile, the stowaway Adric comes upon the same village after the Doctor and Romana have left, and inadvertently finds himself chosen to go to the castle. It’s only when the Doctor and Romana explore the castle that the horrible truth of what’s going on dawns on them. The planet has become the feeding ground for one of the Time Lords’ oldest and most fearsome foes, and now the Doctor and Romana are on the menu…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

“State of Decay” started life as a script offered to the production team by former script editor and writer, Terrance Dicks, back in 1977. However, the BBC were about to screen an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and they were afraid the Doctor Who serial would be perceived as a send-up of the classic drama. The “vampire story” was shelved, and Dicks came up with “The Horror of Fang Rock” to replace it. When John Nathan-Turner took over as producer in 1980, he came upon “State of Decay” in the production office and told new script editor Christopher Bidmead he wanted to do it.

It’s a good story, as one might expect from a veteran Who writer like Terrance Dicks, supported by some great acting from most of the main cast, and superb set design. It’s an oft-repeated fact that during this period in its history, the BBC were second-to-none when it came to costume dramas and depicting the past. The future (i.e., sci-fi), not so much. The medieval, pre-Gothic look to the castle is wonderfully conjured up, along with appropriate costumes for the three lords. When a set can make you forget the paltry budget, you know the designers have done well. The vampires are a lot more Hammer Horror than they are, say, classic Hollywood or Bram Stoker, but that was intentional, appealing to what was most familiar to the audience at the time.

The effects are a bit of a mixed bag, but on the whole good. The swarming bats could have been a disaster, but with some stock footage and careful (and sparing) use of model close-ups, I think they get away with it. However the model tower, village, and scout ship look like models. Unfortunately, I don’t know that they could have done much better given the time and money at their disposal. Probably the worst effect of the whole show is the hand of the “Great One” coming out of the ground near the end. I’m sorry, there’s no excuse for how bad it looks. But it’s followed by one of the best effects, where the three lords age and crumble. Very creepy, chilling, and well executed.

Adric. Oh, Adric. I think the biggest problem with Adric is the part is too big for the actor. Matthew Waterhouse was still a teenager himself, and not very experienced. And it shows. Yes, Adric is a precocious brat, but that’s part of his character arc. Here he “out-logics” K-9 to escape from the TARDIS, and then appears to betray Romana to the vampire lords. He later says it was a bluff, that he was trying to rescue her, but given how little we really know him, for a while we could easily believe he was really back-stabbing her. In the hands of a more seasoned actor, this might have been done less awkwardly, and with more credibility. I guess my verdict on Adric is, don’t judge the character by his actor (sorry Matthew!).

One minor story quibble: the Doctor “remembers” in episode three the stories told to him about the Vampire Wars, and the fact that all the Giant Vampires were killed except for one who “disappeared.” I would have thought this would have occurred to the Doctor much earlier, when he was talking about how every culture throughout the universe has vampire legends. It’s interesting that Dicks introduces the concept of a great rivalry between the Giant Vampires and the Time Lords, and yet this has never been explored in the T.V. series since (at least up until now). Rather, it’s been left to the original novels (both Virgin and BBC), and the Big Finish audio adventures to pick up the theme and run with it.

The story ends with the Doctor telling Adric he’s going to take him back to the Starliner (see the previous story, “Full Circle”). Will they get there? That remains to be seen in the final installment of this trilogy, “Warrior’s Gate.”

To sum up: a good story, worthy of your time. Not classic or must-see Who, but very enjoyable.