Welcome back Terrance Dicks. Watching this in the original broadcast order it seems like an eternity since Doctor Who has done something like this, and it only happened because new script editor Christopher H Bidmead was in a pretty dire situation. This was exactly what he didn’t want to be doing, but his intended script for this slot in the series fell through and he had to look for an alternative. The original script for State of Decay had been kicking around for a few years and was originally intended to be the first story of Season Fifteen, which was replaced with Horror of Fang Rock. Importantly, there was nothing whatsoever wrong with the original script (of course there wasn’t, this is a Terrance Dicks script); the only reason it didn’t get made in the first place was due to a clash with another BBC vampire drama at the time. So this was a safe bet for a replacement late in the day, and Terrance Dicks is the very definition of a safe pair of hands to turn in a workable script at short notice.
This is the point at which Bidmead’s attempts to scientifically boringize scripts that belonged to a previous era of Doctor Who completely ran out of steam. The following story is the beginning of his own version of Doctor Who, tailored to how he wanted it to be from scratch, but at this point he is outnumbered by a writer and director who are both actively working against his vision and both want to make a Hammer Horror. And don’t they do a magnificent job of it.
This is unashamedly a vampire story, and all the technobbabble in the world isn’t going to make a jot of difference to that when the story is about creatures who survive on blood and crumble to dust when killed. In fact, they crumble to dust when their ruler is killed: attempts to rationalise that kind of thing with science are never going to be successful. I expect Mike will see a parallel with a Lovecraftian Eldritch Abomination, which is typified by not obeying anything approaching the laws of science: the giant vampire is a huge winged creature who feeds off planets: you can’t squeeze something like that into a dull scientific framework, however hard you try. The last time we saw something approaching this in Doctor Who was Image of the Fendahl, which gave us a creature from millions of years ago that people simply died of fright when they saw. The classic horror approach is reinforced by typical themes of the genre, such as an attacking mob with torches and pitchforks, and a forest as a dangerous place to be. All the talk of the “wasting” sounds suitably mythical and vampyric, but is unfortunately a forgotten fragment of an earlier draft that never gets mentioned after the first episode.
Like Sutekh, Aukon asserts his power over the Doctor by forcing him to kneel, a clever way of showing how serious a threat this is by taking away some of the Doctor’s dignity. The vampires are a call back to exactly the type of villain Sutekh was. The early Tom Baker era specialised in super-powerful beings who had lost their power and were trying to regain it: the Cybermen, Morbius, Eldrad, Magnus Greel. We are right back in that era.
At this point the E-space trilogy theme is completely irrelevant. In fact, it is actively being ignored, with plot threads that would place the story much more sensibly within our own universe, complete with one of our own crashed spaceships, and a Big Bad which is an old enemy of the Time Lords. This places the Time Lords (and Doctor Who by association) firmly in the realms of fantasy. With a concept of people who can be reborn (regeneration) this fits perfectly, and in some ways the vampires work very well as a dark mirror to the Time Lords. Both races extend their lives beyond what is natural, but the method is different. We don’t actually know exactly how Time Lords achieve their regenerative abilities, so this raises interesting questions about just how closely the vampires mirror the Time Lords. Could there be some nasty hidden secret to their ability to regenerate? Is there an unexplored reason why Time Lords often have real life doppelgängers? Perhaps the new life force is taken from elsewhere when they regenerate. It’s an unpalatable thought, but one that might just fit. RP
The view from across the pond:
Season 18 opened up in what appeared to be a state of decay. If you saw that coming, it wasn’t a leap… I’d almost say the first story sucked, but that would do our vampiric friends a disservice.
If a selection were to be made, the “chosen one” of Tom Baker’s era might just be State of Decay. It doesn’t hurt that the story has vampires. And by “vampires”, I don’t mean sea creatures masquerading as vampires, not haemovores, not any of a dozen other combinations. These are the real deal; complete with bats, a castle, and a Vampire King. And most frightening of all, they are known on Gallifrey. Even the Doctor’s old friend, the hermit on the hill, knew about the war with the Vampires. They are the enemy of all living things. Rassilon sent out bow ships to destroy their ancient enemy. The last of them, the most dangerous, vanished without a trace and it seems the Doctor and Romana have stumbled upon him. And to drink the blood of a Time Lord would be a meal fit for the King.
A good, creepy story and Gallifreyan lore… this is the lifeblood of Doctor Who. It’s no wonder people drink this story up!
Rightfully so! There is a lot to love about it. Beyond the obvious with the vampires, the idea of consonantal shift changing names over time is fascinating. The identity of The Three Who Rule (a title with its own interesting significance) being revealed through this concept is utter genius. And if you plan on borrowing material from another source, you can’t go wrong with the Brothers Grimm. Or, for that matter, Dracula. When Romana cuts her finger, her hosts do exactly what that famous Transylvanian Count would do… they fawn over her finger intent on a little taste. (Nothing like taunting your hosts!)
No vampire story would be complete without certain imagery. Gothic castles are a must and only Doctor Who can successfully pull it off with a science fiction twist. Bats are important too and it’s marvelous to know they migrated out of normal space and into E-Space. The image of one flying while superimposed over Aukon’s face is a magical effect, brilliantly executed. The undulating ground and the hand bursting forth is an image that lasts even with seemingly outdated special effects. Even the music is just right. Unlike some stories that crumble to dust like a vampire in sunlight, this is a strong story and stands the test of time. The resolution is brilliantly clever and surprisingly disturbing. (And it does give a bit more meaning to The Doctor’s Wife when Idris says she always brings the Doctor where he’s needed because he is absolutely needed here.)
If there’s anything to shake a crucifix at, it’s how badly humanity has degraded that Adric ends up being the “chosen one”. Adric! This either tells us that the vampire agents are fools or that the inhabitants of the town are of such questionable stock, that Aukon chooses Adric as “the chosen one”. Let’s be clear here: this is the same fellow who, two stories in a row, has attempted to steal food, both times with catastrophic results. Alright, if I’m being kind, we did just learn that Adric comes from the same genes as the marsh spiders so I should throw him a bone. But maybe his spider heritage is why he is eventually crushed…. (too soon? Sorry!) The only serious “gripe” I take with the episode is the Doctor’s confidence in his aim with a makeshift bow ship. It’s one heck of a lucky shot and he seems pretty convinced of its success! Still, a very minor quibble and one I can easily live with!
This season has a few great stories but this might be the bloodstone in the crown. What did I say about long in the tooth? This took that phrase and turned it upside down (like a bat resting) and showed us just how long teeth could get. And even though vampire stories have been around since time immemorial, this kept the idea fresh (like meat). It’s a worthy one to sink ones teeth into and enjoy it heartily.
No matter how many puns I make, it doesn’t mask the fact that this is a top notch story that doesn’t get old… as if sustained by a king vampire over time. I’ll stake my reputation as a Who fan on it. This is my (blood) type of story! ML
(Some of these puns even make me cringe… at least I’m not making jokes about them. Like “how do you know when a vampire has a cold? By his coffin…”)
Read next in the Junkyard… Warriors’ Gate