Today’s tale is not out to frighten, but instead use the characters’ reality to unsettle the audience.
Those of you who know me won’t be surprised that today’s feature, “State of Decay”, is a Doctor Who story. Now, originally, this was going to be the 20th installment of this series, but after failing to find a suitable copy of “Akira”, I brought it forward due to the ease of access.
“State of Decay” occurs smack-dab in the middle of Doctor Who’s 18th Season. The iconic Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) was on his way out, and the whole season had a melancholy tone.
Baker himself looked significantly older and more tired than ever, as though he’d aged ten years in the few months since Season 17.
Despite this, “State of Decay” is a loud, comforting echo of Baker’s glory days. This is the Fourth Doctor’s last salute to the Gothic horror ethos that helped catapult him to stardom.
Spoilers occur past this point.
“State of Decay” sits in the middle of a trio of stories dubbed “The E-Space Trilogy” by fans. At the beginning of the previous adventure, “Full Circle”, the Doctor’s time machine, the TARDIS, was sucked through a spatial phenomenon called a CVE.
As such, it was now marooned in a pocket universe: E-Space. A reality where stars hang in an emerald night sky and planets are few and far between.
In their bid to escape, the Doctor and his companions Romana (Lalla Ward) and K-9 (voice of John Leeson) happen upon a primitive planet. Here, peasants toil in the fields around an immense tower inhabited by their lords, the Three Who Rule.
Well, that certainly isn’t a name to run away from really fast.
The lords take able-bodied youths during an occasional selection. Some become the Three’s guards. Others are simply never seen again…
The Doctor and Romana ask if they have any scientists around. Both Ivo (Clinton Greyn) and Habris (Iain Rattray) assure them such things are forbidden. Habris concocts an excuse to leave, then flees to the tower. Unable to get anything out of Ivo, the two time travelers exit as well.
As soon as they’re gone, Ivo grabs a walkie-talkie hidden in a nearby basket and informs someone of the travelers’ arrival.
Following this, during a walk in the woods, the Doctor and Romana are kidnapped by hooded figures and brought to the local rebels’ cave.
In the tower, Habris reports to the Three Who Rule, who chide him for not bringing the Doctor and Romana to them. Habris replies he had no orders to do so.
Royal Councilor Aukon (Emrys James) assures the others, Lady Camilla and Lord Zargo (Rachel Davies and William Lindsay), that he shall have his own servants bring the travelers. As he says this, the image of a flying bat is superimposed over his face.
After an enlightening discussion with the rebels, apparently identifying the Three as descendants of the lost Earth vessel Hydrax, the Doctor and Romana leave. On the way back to the TARDIS, they are descended upon by thousands of vampire bats.
The bloodsuckers flee as Habris arrives to escort the pair to the tower. Once there, they are granted an audience with Camilla and Zargo. The Doctor begins to question them about their ancestors and the Hydrax, and the two grow agitated.
Notably, when Romana’s wine glass breaks and slices her finger, Camilla looks ready to tackle her to the floor and suck it dry. Before this comes to pass, Habris arrives to tell them it is now the Time of Arising.
The Lord and Lady depart, with Camilla informing the travelers if they need anything, there are many, many guards right outside the door.
I suppose the “so don’t need anything!” is implicit.
Once they’re gone, the Doctor pulls back a curtain to reveal a large metal hatch. The tower itself is the Hydrax’s scout ship.
Back in the cave, the rebels debate what to do, with former guard Tarak (Thane Bettany) deciding to take up the garb once more to sneak into the tower.
Having found an emergency exit in the throne, the Doctor and Romana find the top of the tower still kitted out. No technology has been gutted, and the energy cells have retained some power. And then they hear a deep, throbbing heartbeat…
Descending, they find those taken during the selection in the cargo bay – now a larder. All of them are drained of blood, which is displayed in all its crimson glory, filling the Hydrax’s immense fuel tanks to the brim.
The Doctor grimly notes to Romana that vampire legends exist on almost every inhabited planet, and it seems that rule holds for E-Space as well.
As they descend out of one of the engine nacelles into a cave, they see the ground pulsing like a heart. Tubes pump the harvested blood into what can only be a truly gargantuan creature buried underneath.
They turn to leave, only for Aukon to appear. He informs them this is the Resting Place, and that they are now in his domain.
The councilor attempts to sway the Doctor to his side. The Great One (the buried monster) will escape E-Space during the Arising and return to normal space, tearing it asunder.
When the Doctor refuses, Aukon attempts to overwhelm the Time Lord’s mind with his own. Romana breaks off a stalagmite and throws it at Aukon. He shatters it with the merest flick of his palm.
This is enough for the Doctor to reveal Aukon’s powers useless as he and Romana are Time Lords. Aukon decries them as the ancient enemies as they make to leave. However, they’re stopped by Zargo and Camilla, who wish to drain their blood.
The Great One psychically informs Aukon to preserve them as sacrifices, and the two are promptly locked up.
Tarak, meanwhile, has snuck into the tower and liberates them following a story from the Doctor’s childhood of a terrible war between the Time Lords and the Great Vampires.
When the bodies were counted at the end of the war, only the King Vampire was unaccounted for. The Time Lords hunted him for countless ages, but found nothing. They gave up, so sickened of bloodshed that they renounced all violence forever more.
So, three guesses as to who the Great One is! Answers on a postcard, please.
It is now apparent that the Three Who Rule are vampires and, moreover, aren’t just the descendants of the Hydrax’s crew. They are the Hydrax’s crew, turned into vampires to serve the Great One.
During all this, a stowaway has emerged from the Doctor’s TARDIS. Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) has, over the last couple episodes, been captured and primed to become a vampire by Aukon.
However, this was comparatively unimportant and Adric is an annoying little so-and-so. Hence, I glossed over it.
Anyway, Romana stays behind to retrieve the little brat from the Inner Sanctum while the Doctor returns to the rebels.
As the sun sets, Romana and Tarak enter the Sanctum and rouse Adric from his trance. However, as they do this, Camilla and Zargo wake up and attack. They accidentally kill Tarak, dismissing him as they will not drink the blood of the deceased.
However, Romana and Adric are fair game…
This puts the bodies the Doctor and Romana found in the larder in a new light. Since the vampires apparently cannot use blood from dead bodies, those people presumably were being exsanguinated alive. They likely died of a combination of shock and total blood loss…
Anyway, on that cheery note, Aukon enters and stops Camilla and Zargo before they can harm Romana or Adric. The two are to be kept alive as sacrifices, he reminds the lord and lady.
The Doctor learns the story he heard in boyhood is almost gospel truth. In fact, the records decree that any Time Lord who finds the taint of the Vampires must extinguish it… even at the cost of their own life.
So no pressure!
Now the question is where the Doctor will find an enormous bolt of steel to plunge through the King Vampire’s heart.
Still pondering this, the Doctor rallies the rebels and they storm the tower alongside K-9. As K-9 is a supercomputer shaped like a metal dog and armed with a laser in his snout, he’s an ideal counter to the unsuspecting guards.
The Doctor informs the group that K-9 will give the signal to evacuate once the Doctor has done what he needs to. He’s realized where he’ll get the steel bolt: the Hydrax’s scout ship.
After all, what goes up must come down.
In the Resting Place, the Time of Arising is at hand. Romana has been hypnotized and laid out on an altar much like a corpse. A bat sucks blood from her neck as Adric tries and fails to save her.
Aboveground in the tower, Ivo kills Habris for taking his son to the tower earlier in the story.
Meanwhile, the Doctor launches the scout ship. At this, K-9 evacuates the rebels, and the Three Who Rule are distracted. Adric takes his chance and does manage to save Romana this time.
The Doctor arrives just to see the King Vampire’s hand burst from the ground. It roars in triumph as its Arising nears completion… but the scout ship plummets back down from space, piercing its heart. It’s killed instantly.
The Three advance on the Doctor, intent on killing him. However, as their link with the Great One peters out, they age to dust before the Time Lord, who smiles and remarks, “They’ve gone to pieces.”
After some hurried goodbyes, the Doctor and company head off. The Doctor tells Adric he’s going right back home. The TARDIS departs, leaving the rebels to fashion a new society.
Aside from Tom Baker and Lalla Ward’s usual stellar performances, the real standout here is Emrys James as Aukon.
Never once does he treat the material as anything less than excellent. It’s obvious he’s having an absolute whale of a time with this, lending his lines a deep, Bela Lugosi-esque charm. I hate to say it, but one could argue they’re practically dripping with menace the way a vampire’s mouth drips with blood.
The rest of the cast acquit themselves nicely – save for Matthew Waterhouse, who couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag. (Then again, this was only his second real job.)
Paddy Kingsland’s music is solid, being the standard 1980s Doctor Who fare of synthesized tunes. Despite this story perhaps lending itself more to a traditional, orchestral score, Kingsland’s music is never obtrusive and always feels apt for the scene.
As I said earlier, however, the story is what really shines here.
It’s not an out-and-out horrorshow. Things unfold at a steady pace, never being forced, and the nature of the vampires is well-handled. Signposted, yes, but that’s part-and-parcel of building up the antagonists.
The horror here, as I said at the beginning, is in the reality that the characters are facing.
The script itself was written by Terrance Dicks, who’d previously been script editor on Doctor Who from 1969 to 1974. Under the original title “The Witch Lords”, it was intended to be the opening story of Season 15 under previous producers Philip Hinchcliffe and his successor Graham Williams.
Unfortunately, the BBC demanded that the story be dropped. The corporation thought that any vampire stories would undermine their lavish upcoming production of “Dracula”. It was replaced by another classic story: “Horror of Fang Rock”.
In 1979, new producer John Nathan-Turner found himself hard up for material. Although he disliked “The Witch Lords”, he duly contacted Terrance Dicks about reviving it. Dicks agreed, and the story was commissioned under the title “The Vampire Mutations”.
Despite scripting problems and numerous disagreements, the story still manages to pull off a Gothic horror story replete with a sci-fi twist, with panache.
There’s no decay here. This story is as fresh as the day it was made.
I’m going to give this…
Four skulls out of five.