18: Change and Decay
Part 4: State of Decay
By Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 317
"State of Decay" is a Gothic story which was allegedly inspired by the Hammer Horror films.This is unfortunate as, like many Hammer Horror films, it has a nice medieval design, but also has naff effects, poor characterisation and a nonsensical plot, which conspire to make it one of the poorer offerings of the season.
The story originally started life as a proposal commissioned fromTerrance Dicks by Robert Holmes for Season 15, entitled "The Witch Lords" or "The Vampire Mutations", which was allegedly dropped because it would clash with a big-budget adaptation of Dracula due to be screened that Christmas, even though, the obvious presence of vampires aside, the serial does not particularly resemble Dracula. While territorial rivalries of this sort are not unknown at the BBC, it it may also have provided a convenient excuse to get rid of a story that Holmes did not much care for. The proposal then languished for two seasons, suggesting that subsequent production teams were equally unenthusiastic. When Nathan-Turner recommissoned it for Season 18, Bidmead (who had nothing to do with its commissioning) also did not like it; ostensibly feeling that there was not enough hard science in it, but also hinting that he found it cliched. However, as there were virtually no viable scripts left, he reluctantly agreed to work on it. By this time, Dicks himself also seemed to lose confidence in the story, convincing Bidmead to change its title from "The Wasting" (which he feared would provoke insults), but professing himself equally unsatisfied with "State of Decay". Neither title, however, suggests that Bidmead had much confidence in the story's quality. The situation was further exacerbated in that John Nathan-Turner had sold the story to director Peter Moffatt on the grounds of it being a Gothic fantasy, and, when Moffatt refused to direct the futuristic script delivered to him, Nathan-Turner promptly had Bidmead put the Gothic elements back in.
The resulting serial, not surprisingly, makes virtually no sense. To begin with, there are problems with the technology: the vampires throw a lot of equipment out of their ship for no discernable reason (the Great Vampire can't be that concerned about its presence, as he doesn't seem to object to the use of electronic swipe-cards in the tower; the idea that he has banned technology due to the fact that bowships were used to kill some of his kind is too preposterous to be believable), thereby losing something which could give them a social and physical advantage. Furthermore, not only does the equipment still work after a thousand years of lying around in the woods (which is incredible when one considers the damage that a single spilled cup of coffee does to the average computer keyboard), but the peasant Kalmar somehow knows how to use it (and also somehow knows words like "infrared"and "scanner," as well as what they mean). In addition we see Kalmar operating the scanner by scrolling through what appear to be a series of surveillance-camera perspectives, making one wonder how the peasants were able to set these up at all without any trained electricians. It's also worth noting that, Kalmar's remarks to the contrary notwithstanding, there is no need for the vampires to bother banning writing, as most peasant societies are illiterate due to them having very little need for such skills.
On the part of the vampires, we also have the question of how they have been able to acquire the vast amounts of blood contained in their storage tanks, given the low population levels in the village: either they have been gathering it over a very long time, in which case one wonders how it has been preserved (blood, like all organic matter, being subject to decay; if Camilla finds the blood of a recently-deceased guard "flat," then one wonders how she could contemplate the use of blood which could be up to a thousand years old), or else the village was very large until about three days ago, in which case one wonders why the peasants don't comment on this. Similarly, we never learn how it is that the fuel in the rocket-ship (an oddly dated mode of transport for a 1980s story) hasn't evaporated after being left for a thousand years, nor how it is that it manages to go up and then straight back down to land in exactly the right place.
The technical problems aside, the peasant society as portrayed is completely unbelievable. The villagers are surprisingly undisturbed about the presence of strangers: if there are no other villages on the planet, the arrival of the Doctor and Romana should have the peasants gossiping for weeks, but the headman's wife has forgotten the incident a couple of hours later. Although the guards are apparently recruited from the villagers, the two parties show no sign of this when attacking each other: one would expect either reluctance to attack one's relatives and former neighbours, or a sense of retribution on the part of the peasants against a privileged group. Although we see a bit more humanity when the guard in the Doctor's cell seemingly begins to come over to his side, he is wastefully knocked out before the idea is developed further. For that matter, the vampires seem to have little sense of personnel management: when the leader of the guards complains that his men are dying, Aukon tells him "then die, that is the purpose of guards!" (equally unrealistically, the guard leader does not then return to his men and say, "right, lads, they've stabbed us in the back, there's no point in us fighting for them anymore!"). It is easy to see ways in which the scenario could be used as a clever satire on class and social mobility, if the vampires had offered more benefits to their underlings (be a good peasant, work hard and sacrifice your children, and you too can join the privileged elite); as it is, unfortunately, it simply begs the question of how the vampire lords have managed to remain in charge for a thousand years.
The headman, Ivo, deserves to be singled out for particularly poor characterisation. His behaviour is inconsistent throughout the serial, one minute complaining to the guards about the lack of food for his people and the next selling the same villagers down the river. Furthermore, he tries first to protect his son from the selection, then, when he cannot avoid this, to have him made a guard, suggesting that not only does he know that those selected by the vampires are killed, but that he is willing to have his son become one of the enforcers of the system: in WWII, leaders in occupied territories who behaved like this were generally strung up after the liberation, but in this case, the villagers follow Ivo's lead seemingly without resentment. He also appears to have unknown sources of information, as he knows for certain that his son is dead, drained by the vampires, and that there is some kind of ceremony going on in the tower; why he absolutely has to talk to Kalmar face to face about these developments rather than over the communicator, risking everybody's lives in the process, is also unexplained. There are a few problems with Kalmar's setup as well: the rebels are out in the woods, avoiding the selection and doing no work, and yet the peasants apparently help them (and feed them out of their scarce food supplies) without any sign of resentment.
There are other flaws with the plot in general. The vampires have no idea that the Doctor is a Time Lord until he tells them, which makes him seem more than a little stupid. The director keeps intercutting the Doctor's info-dump in episode 3 (which name-checks the hermit mentioned in "The Time Monster") with the fight scene, suggesting that he finds it desperately lacking in drama; he also does the same later during the ceremony, suggesting that he finds that scene equally boring. We get the world's most ridiculous copout in the cliffhanger for Episode 1 (like its predecessors, this story is also afflicted with very long recaps), in which a flock of bats seem to be flying towards the Doctor and are then revealed at the outset of Episode 2 to be actually flying the other way. In Episode 4, the bats' urgent duties, such that Aukon will not release them to help the guards, seem to consist of having one of them bite Romana on the neck (how this is supposed to help the Great Vampire is unexplained, and indeed is probably inexplicable). The idea that all Type 40 Tardises have some kind of explanatory document about vampires is another copout (and stands in sharp contrast to the Doctor's desperate playing-it-by-ear in "Image of the Fendahl"). The scenes with K9 are twee at best, with his heroic portrayal here being at odds with his designation as useless and clapped-out in the rest of the season, and the villagers follow his orders for no discernable reason (the fact that the Doctor orders them to is practically begging for them to disobey him the moment he leaves the room). Although the much-praised use of Grimm's theory of linguistic shift is good, it seems more as if Dicks has come up with some names with a Gothic sound or a connection with vampires, and has worked backwards to find Earth names which could provide an origin for them. The fact that Tom Baker and Lalla Ward have much better lines than anyone else also suggests that they have been rewriting the script as they go along, which is an unfortunate comment on the quality of the dialogue.
The production fares better, but still has problems. The modelwork on the tower is attractive, but set designer Christine Ruscoe's decision to make the interiors look like a medival castle rather than a spaceship caused a heated argument between her and Christopher Bidmead. The giant vampire bat at the end of the story is risible. While the vampire death sequence is good, and the ritualistic way they wash their hands is striking, this eventually degenerates into Zargo and Camilla striking poses as Aukon pontificates, in a kind of slow voguing. The Renaissance-inspired costumes are attractive on the vampires, but the peasants make some dubious fashion decisions (with Kalmar apparently wearing a binder-twine skullcap; that, or it's the world's worst combover). There is also no reason for the villagers and vampires to adopt Renaissance fashions in any case; just because it's an agricultural society, there is no need to dress up like a Bruegel painting. The fighting is poorly choreographed and uninteresting, and the fact that the guards are clean-shaven while the villagers are bearded means that, when one former guard who has joined the rebels (and who is endowed with a distinctly fake-looking set of facial hair) infiltrates the guards, it seems unbelievable that he is able to wander about in complete freedom (he also seems to do little apart from cause some tension by dying at the end of episode 3, making one wonder what was the point in having him infiltrate the guards at all).
Adric, furthermore, is quite clearly a last-minute addition to the story, doing nothing for most of it. His characterisation is also disturbingly at odds with his portrayal in "Full Circle" as an immature but generally good-hearted teenager: acquiescing in the vampires' plans to kill Romana and then trying to justify wanting to become a vampire is of quite a different order to stealing a piece of fruit in an attempt to impress your brother. This portrayal suggests a kind of proto-Turlough, although the lines are delivered in such a stilted way that it doesn't really work (to be fair, this was Waterhouse's first recorded story, so one must be lenient). Subsequently, in order to demonstrate that he is really a good egg after all, he whispers "I have a plan" to a hypnotised Romana and then tries to stab the vampire lords, despite having seen before that this doesn't work. All in all, it's a bit of an unfortunate portrayal.
The themes of change and decay also continue to be developed, albeit in a less direct way: the visible parallels between the vampire lords and the Time Lords probably result less from the present circumstances than from the fact that the story was originally written for Season Fifteen,which contained a lot of Time-Lord-like figures. Tom Baker doesn't look as ill here as he does in the later-filmed story "Meglos", although this is allegedly the story in which illness, coupled with the stresses of working with the new produciton team, took such a toll that Baker had to have his hair permed to keep its curl. The introduction of Adric as a permanent companion also not only develops the theme of change, but reveals behind-the-scenes conflicts in the programme: Tom Baker, who famously argued that he didn't need a companion, is now saddled with three of them. Lalla Ward also reportedly did not get on very well with Matthew Waterhouse, viewing him not only as her replacement, but as an indication of the direction that Nathan-Turner was taking the programme, aiming it less at a family audience and more, as she put it in a DWM interview (Issue 340), at teenage computer nerds. Furthermore, Nathan-Turner deliberately asked that Adric be given a more or less permanent costume, saying that this was for merchandising considerations (leading one to speculate on the potential commissioning of Adric action figures), but this also continues the trend of keeping control over the leading characters' appearances (the fact that Waterhouse looks much better in his vampire garb than in the green-and-yellow pyjamas also suggests that this was done more for control than for aesthetic reasons). We thus see a growing shift in power away from Tom Baker and towards John Nathan-Turner.
"State of Decay" is therefore arguably the least polished story of Season 18, and one which, in a world where the team had been given more of a choice, would probably never have been commissioned. Despite this, it was clearly commissioned because, due to the circumstances under which it was originally conceived, it does enter into the themes of Season 18, if only in a fairly perfunctory and non-deliberate way.
Effects courtesy of Fiona Moore and Maureen Marrs