State of Decay

Written by:
Terrance Dicks
Directed by: Peter Moffatt
Starring: Tom Baker
Year: 1981
Video Availability: Try

In an appraisal of The Brain of Morbius I revealed how I thought - initially, at any rate - that the story was too camp to be scary, and too silly to be funny. While I now admit I was completely wrong over Morbius, I still think the arch amaterurism of State of Decay makes it one of the weaker Tom Baker adventures.

After some panto dames call each other by their first names several times over (including a bit where a guard gives a youth a slap so feeble even Audley Harrison would scoff) we're into an opening Tardis scene with one of the worst boom mike shadows I've seen outside of the Hartnell era.

Actually, though, this is really rather good so far, and one thing I do love about the season is the location shooting. Sadly, it does clash with the hopelessly fake-looking sets. In many ways this is the first real Doctor story of the season, with Tom's witticisms and presence central to the action. Maybe it's something to do with the fact that he and Lalla were said to be talking again for the first time in weeks and announced their engagement. Tom's also ill and has his curls artificially enhanced, but it doesn't show in his performance.

So far, I must admit, I'm having to eat my words, as, despite some moans, this is a pretty good episode, and the direction by Peter Moffatt (!) is great. (So far only Meglos has disappointed on a directorial scale this season). It's weird how you can become so familiar with Who's peculiar world that you don't double-take when a primitive society has a walkie-talkies. But it is surprising, and it is worth seeing, even if most of the plot seems to revolve around the Doctor trying to jump-start a BBC Micro…
* * * ½

Another ABC join-on, so I presume the bat attack was the cliffhanger. This one opens up with a woman saying "resistance would be useless", which is possibly satirical. Waterhouse is still the most amateurish actor to play a companion to that date, but must be reassessed retrospectively. He ushered in a tide of tripe, but Fielding, Sutton, Langford and Aldred all gave worse performances on TV. Poor old Adric wasn't being compared against them, but being compared against Leela, Sarah Jane, Ian, Barbara…

It's strange watching the show like this, as it's nearly all dialogue-driven. It's a completely different series to the guts and violence action programme that Eric Saward put together. There he would have the three vampires getting their brains blown out. That said, it is maybe a little too slow, with the pace seemingly there just to drag things out, rather than generate any genuine atmosphere.

I must say again though that I'm disheartened to find myself enjoying it. I'm hoping my previous indifference to The Keeper of Traken will hold, as reviewing an entire season without slagging one story is killing me. But this is another decent, solidly made piece of television. The "three who rule" are theatrical in performance, though not so much that it distracts - the guest cast could have grown their own beards though, couldn't they? It's a testament to the talents of Baker and Ward that huge chunks of this episode are just expositionary two-handers between them, yet they manage to keep the impetus going.

Oh, and Camilla declares that the Doctor "has the greatest weapon of all." Well I never!
* * * ½

Thankfully things are starting to get a little naff this episode, with a two-dimensional cartoonish set that looks more Dr.Caligari than Doctor Who. Tom's obviously standing on his spot, the boom shadow is everywhere, and Lalla's chucking a piece of polystyrene in one of the series' more stagy-looking action sequences. Add to this Emrys Jones going into ham overdrive and you've got a pretty crappy beginning. I'm not saying Emrys is over the top but apparently Colin Baker was walking past and told him to tone it down a bit.

There's a scene in a cell where Tom references The Time Monster, though this isn't anywhere near as charming. Tom's inappropriate send-up (at odds with the fan verdict of him playing it straight) and Lalla's inexperienced attempted-irony (I like Lalla, but she ain't that great) make it quite a tedious scene, and you do get the feeling that the pairing - if not Tom's Doctor - have overstayed their welcome in the show.

This is a Terrance Dick story with a black tower at the centre and a revision of Time Lord mythology... coincidence? Anyway, I always used to think the idea of an army of vampires being the natural enemies of the Time Lords was fascinating. But think about it and it's pretty stupid, innit? As for Adric, well I get stick for calling Colin The Blimp... but will anyone take offence if I call him King Bifta?
* * *

Tom's OTT again in this one, almost as if he was bored stiff with the story and was desperately trying to put some pep into proceedings. Still, at least he's got some energy again for the first time this season. How strange it must have been for anyone who joined the show with season 18 - what would they have thought when they saw the earlier Tom seasons?

Anyway, despite the preponderance of the crap vampire and the fake beards, this still isn't really so bad. It's mediocre, certainly, but a lot more watchable than I remembered. Last time I had it pegged down as a ** story - why? Was it watching it all in one go? Certainly, it's not the most compelling story ever made. Maybe I was just in a bad mood. Whatever it was, this is certainly a very variable story, in my opinion at least.

A Terrance Dicks story, for once it does seem to have a sniff of subtext, even if Matthew Waterhouse does slump towards the lower end of tolerable this time around. Also of note is that this is the only time this season where K-9 is shown to be useful. After blowing up in the sea, being kicked, having his batteries run down, having his head smashed off and being smashed by time winds, this is his sole chance to bow out with dignity.
* * *

A great deal better than I remembered, this is still one of the weakest season 18 stories, and never fully convinces in performance or production. However, it's certainly watchable and there are a lot worse instances of the programme in existence.
* * *