State of Decay ★★★★

Ancient vampires surface in a supremely atmospheric production of Terrance Dicks's inventive scripts...


Season 18 – Story 112


“We shall leave this miserable space trap for the real universe. Rich, fat worlds teeming with life. We shall suck their life blood until they are empty husks” – Aukon

The Tardis lands on a planet in E-space where villagers are in thrall to three Lords who rule from a Tower. The Lords, who perform regular “Selections” from among the people, are members of an ancient Earth mission and the Tower is their Arrow-class scout ship. They were turned into vampires long ago to serve the last of the Great Vampires, a race once fought by the Time Lords. The Doctor and K•9 must rescue the kidnapped Romana and Tardis-stowaway Adric, and prevent the resurrection of the Vampire, who stirs beneath the Tower…

First transmissions
Part 1 – Saturday 22 November 1980
Part 2 – Saturday 29 November 1980
Part 3 – Saturday 6 December 1980
Part 4 – Saturday 13 December 1980

Location filming: April/May 1980 at Burnham Beeches, Bucks
Filming: May 1980 at Ealing Studios water tank
Studio recording: May 1980 at TC3 and TC6

Doctor Who – Tom Baker
Romana – Lalla Ward
Voice of K•9 – John Leeson
Adric – Matthew Waterhouse
Aukon – Emrys James
Camilla – Rachel Davies
Zargo – William Lindsay
Ivo – Clinton Greyn
Marta – Rhoda Lewis
Tarak – Thane Bettany
Habris – Iain Rattray
Kalmar – Arthur Hewlett
Veros – Stacy Davies
Karl – Dean Allen
Roga – Stuart Fell
Zoldaz – Stuart Blake

Writer – Terrance Dicks
Designer – Christine Ruscoe
Incidental music – Paddy Kingsland
Script editor – Christopher H Bidmead
Executive producer – Barry Letts
Producer – John Nathan-Turner
Director – Peter Moffatt

RT Review by Mark Braxton
I never much cared for vampires as a youngster. I thought they were rather silly, to be honest. I remember going crazy for a series of glow-in-the-dark monster model kits by Aurora: Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll, The Hunchback of Notre Dame… they all took pride of place on my bookshelf. But the Dracula figure didn’t.

Coupled with the nascent cynicism of my late teens – I was “at the age of not believing”, as Angela Lansbury once put it – State of Decay wasn’t exactly bursting with elements designed to appeal to me.

And yet Terrance Dicks’s penultimate script for Doctor Who positively gushes with invention and wit. In fact, it’s among his cleverest, and gives an already striking season 18 a tremendous shot in the arm. It’s a throwback to the Hinchcliffe/Holmes golden age, played with a totally straight bat and all the better for it. And it boasts slightly smug references that actually work: the Brothers Grim and their consonant shift, a variation on the St Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V etc.

The story’s origins lie in 1977, when the Dicks story The Witch Lords was set to kick off season 15 – but the timing couldn’t have been worse. The BBC’s Count Dracula serial was in the offing, and The Witch Lords was shelved in favour of Horror of Fang Rock.

State of Decay is a rejigged version of that earlier tale, and although Dicks and script editor Christopher H Bidmead tussled over the story’s tone, Dicks emerged with his story largely unchanged. Bidmead, however, gets the credit for turning the spaceship into a stake to kill the Great Vampire. What a eureka moment that must have been.

It’s a world of ritual and ceremony, gorgeously designed (Christine Ruscoe’s blood-red state room is a triumph) and earnestly played. The vampiric triumvirate are all wonderfully cast. Emrys James brings unwavering gravitas to Aukon – the kind of role you can imagine Aubrey Morris having a field day with – and as the rather forward Camilla, Rachel Davies puts me in mind of Fenella Fielding in Carry On Screaming! I kept wanting her to say, “Do you mind if I smoke?”

By comparison, the villagers are all a little undernourished. You might say they are Wasting away… if anyone knew what the Wasting was. So the subplot involving Ivo’s revenge against Habris needs fleshing out, and Marta’s adoption of Adric in place of her own son doesn’t engage as it should. I like the peasant scientists, though: Arthur Hewlett is an absolute sweetheart as Kalmar.

It’s a strong story for the Doctor, with lovely Tardis archive scenes, Rassilon remembrance and Time Lord back story. His memories of the hermit from south Gallifrey reach back to Jon Pertwee’s “daisiest daisy” and other classic quiet moments from the show’s rich history.

It’s one of Tom Baker’s finest outings, too: there’s fire in his eyes as he delivers the lines, as if one old hand who knows what’s good for Doctor Who is acknowledging the hard work of another (Dicks). And the reported on-set friction between Baker and Lalla Ward belies their on-screen rapport, which is charming and relaxed.

Tensions also abounded between Ward and Matthew Waterhouse, and this appears to feed into the suspicion that crackles between Romana and Adric. I like the scene in which Adric makes light of his self-serving motivations, and his insistence that he was trying to rescue Romana. “But you didn’t, did you?” she replies, with a frosty edge to her voice.

It’s clear that K•9’s days are numbered: his ability to blast all-comers in the climactic raid on the Tower gives further ammo to critics of the “convenient-plot-device”.

The story doesn’t change my opinion on vampires. Some effectively chilly location filming at Burnham Beeches notwithstanding, the bats are a bit lame, rendered by stock footage, cut-outs dangled from a string or a tinkling electronic noise. Despite their simmering menace, Aukon, Camilla and Zargo are all threat and no bite, swishing about with some bizarrely stagey movements. And the Great One is a gloved hand.

But State of Decay is supremely atmospheric, solid of script and with potent production values. The demise of the blood-sucking trio is a horrific tour-de-force, almost the equal of those rapid-ageing deaths of the Indiana Jones films. The story encapsulates the serious, old-style thrills that would all but fade out as the 80s wore on. Energised, full-blooded and sharp as a pointy canine.

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Radio Times archive

The four billings and a quick update on impending cast changes.

State of Decay billings
Davison 20.11.1980

[Available on BBC DVD]