Sunday, June 27, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "State Of Decay"

What do you get when you mix Bram Stoker with Doctor Who?

"State of Decay"

As per usual, a little background to this story before we delve into the more review-like aspect of these posts...

Back in 1974 with new Doctor Tom Baker came a new script editor in Robert Holmes and a new producer in Philip Hinchcliffe. Holmes and Hinchcliffe shared a vision of proving just how far the format of Doctor Who could be stretched and so they began mixing the stories with elements of Gothic horror and mystery. In the process they pulled from some of the great stories of Victorian fiction... Mary Shelly's Frankenstein became "The Brain of Morbius", Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde became "Planet of Evil", and Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories were given tribute with "The Talons of Weng Chiang". Yet throughout all the stories one of the iconic monsters Hinchcliffe and Holmes never got to was Count Dracula. There had actually been a vampire story planned, written by veteran Doctor Who writer and former script editor Terrance Dicks but the script was quashed when the BBC planned an expensive adaptation of Bram Stoker's original novel and feared Doctor Who doing a vampire story would lower the perception of the other production.

Fast forward to 1979. Producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner (hereafter J N-T because I'm not typing all that out over and over again) found himself in a not-at-all-unusual place for a Doctor Who producer -- short on scripts and short on time. Feeling pressure, J N-T delved into the unproduced script files for the show and found himself reasonably attracted to Dicks' vampire story. Because of the passage of time, Dicks was asked to re-write the script to suit a different set of companions. There was also a clash as script editor Christopher Bidmead had wanted the show to move out of the realm of science-fantasy and back into more traditional science-fiction and asked that Dicks include more science and pseudo-science in the story -- something that irritated Dicks. Eventually, however, differences were ironed out.

Besides the script problems there was trouble on the set. Baker and co-star Lalla Ward (Romana) had been in an often-turbulent relationship. Part of the filming for this episode coincided with a period in which the two had broken up. Baker had also been ill for quite some time unable to get the rest he needed to get better. On top of all of this new cast member Matthew Waterhouse was not working out well. He was an extremely novice actor and some on the set felt he was disrespectful of cast and crew.

"State of Decay" would be part of a three-serial story arc which became known as "The E-Space Trilogy". Bidmead and J N-T had envisioned these stories as setting the stage for Tom Baker leaving the show. The trilogy featured the Doctor and Romana being trapped in a kind of alternate universe known as "E-Space". Over the course of the series long-time companions Romana and K-9 would depart, a new character, Adric, would be introduced and the whole would emphasize a theme of entropy, decay, and death as the Fourth Doctor's own "death" approached.

And now... on with the show!

The Plot: The Doctor and Romana continue to search for a way out of E-Space and back to their own universe of N-Space. Finding signs of technology on a nearby planet they land only to discover the population is at a medieval level, gathered around a castle and reliant on the "Lords" for protection. These Lords, however, exact a heavy price -- they keep the populace ignorant, have forbidden the use of technology, and regularly send guards into the village to take away the youngest and strongest of them... people who are rarely seen again.

The Doctor and Romana investigate and soon discover that the people on the planet came from an Earth exploration ship which also ended up in E-Space. Disturbingly, the Doctor and Romana learn that all is not what it might be with the Lords. The Doctor is reminded of an old Time Lord legend... that once there was a race of Great Vampires which threatened all the universe and the Time Lords went to war to stop them...

When stowaway Adric goes looking for the Doctor and Romana he soon falls into the hands of the Lords and Romana ends up in their clutches while trying to rescue him. Now it's up to the Doctor to finish a war that was started milennia ago and he has to finish it before his friends and traveling companions suffer a fate worse than death!

My Take: Despite all of the tensions on-set, off-set, on-screen and behind the scenes this story stands tall. It is rather obviously a throwback to the Gothic horror themed stories of Hinchcliffe's era and, as such, it does sit uneasily amongst not only the rest of the E-Space Trilogy but among the rest of the season as a whole as well. Still, there is no denying the powerful horror imagery and the tips of the hat to the Hammer Horror tradition. Of course, the show took some lumps from critics for the amount of blood and the bloody overtones.

The backstage tensions aside, most of the actors turn in excellent performances. After years in the role, the Doctor comes to Tom Baker as naturally as breathing. Much of his trademark madcap humor is toned down this episode, though, which helps to bring home the horror. A particular short-cut trick the writers sometimes relied upon is employed -- making the audience fear the bad guy because the Doctor is afraid of them. In this case it comes in rather handy since the primary villains the audience sees are the Lords and the Great Vampire himself does not appear until near the end. Having the Doctor seem intimidated and at a loss on how to stop the Great Vampire increases the threat level without needing to see the villain.

Lalla Ward's Romana is a bit weaker here than she has been in previous stories. She is less snarky with the Doctor, less witty, and takes the lead less often as well. While this is a bit disappointing for fans of the character it can be chalked up to Terrance Dicks having to write for a character he was not very familiar with. Of course, in those scenes where Romana is given a chance to shine Ward gives it her all.

Matthew Waterhouse though... Adric. Bane of most Doctor Who fans' existence. He rather quickly became and remains the character most fans love to hate. It's sadly easy to see why. Adric is smug, naive to the point of stupidity at times, and annoying and Waterhouse's lack of experience as an actor did not help him make anything more of the role or endear him to the audience.

The special effects have, sadly, not all held up well. Scenes of outer space have a distinctly greenish hue and in at least one scene of the TARDIS flying the "stars" are overlayed on top of the TARDIS. Likewise, the first images of the Great Vampire are not so great -- looking like a rubber hand puppet... which, eventually becomes a rubber hand itself. On the flip side, the costuming here is gorgeous, the face-paint used for the Lords conjure up the idea of abstract "wings" but lend an air of 'alienness' to the proceedings, the interior of the "castle" is well-done and the sequence where the Lords age to death actually still looks pretty darn freaky even today.

Overall, a nice, creepy story that pays tribute to the vampire horror stories of the past and yet gives everything a fun sci-fi twist. If you're looking for something different to watch at Halloween grab "State of Decay" and turn out the lights... if you dare.

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