Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Serial 112: State of Decay - The E-Space Trilogy Part II

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companion: Romana II, K-9, Adric

Written by: Terrance Dicks
Directed by: Peter Moffat

Editor's note: Hey kids! Matt here to interject a few words before Cassandra takes over. Hope you've been enjoying this week-long look at E-Space (I know I have...). We'll be back to our regular Tuesday schedule on Tuesday but not before I round out the week with a look at "Warriors' Gate" on Friday. So check that out. Until then, feast your eyes on Cassandra stepping in to talk about some vampires.

Background & Significance: "State of Decay" is something of an anomaly in Season 18.

With the arrival of producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Christopher Bidmead, Tom Baker's final season saw a definite shift in the show, as is normal when a new producer/script editor regime takes over.  Shying away from the Williams aesthetic of wonder and fantasy, Bidmead and Nathan-Turner strove to ground the show with a more "realistic" sense of hard sci-fi.  But we've gone over all that before.

So what is a Terrance Dicks penned vampire story doing here, right in the middle of E-Space?

"State of Decay" was actually intended to kick off Season 15. Developed by Dicks and Robert Holmes, the story fell in line with the deliciously Gothic horror tendencies of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, inspired by Bram Stoker's novel Dracula.  However, the BBC stopped all production on the story, then called "The Vampire Mutation", because they were about to do a very expensive adaptation of Dracula, and it wouldn't do to have Doctor Who stepping on its toes with a vampire story of its own. Therefore, Dicks had to abandon his scripts, and wrote "Horror of Fang Rock" instead.

Enter JNT, three years later. Out of all the unproduced scripts that he had at his disposal as producer, he liked the vampire one the best. And so, he hired Terrance Dicks to rework it, replacing Leela with Romana, adding in Adric and K-9, and so forth.  Christopher Bidmead made changes as well, cutting back on the Gothic horror elements and playing up the sci-fi, so the story was more in line with his sensibilities.

So what we're left with is an interesting adaptation of an adaptation of sorts, a Gothic horror story trussed up with sci-fi elements to make it fit the new vision of Doctor Who. But does it work? Or is the tension between the new and the old such that they are entirely incompatible?

Well, let's take a closer look, shall we?


Part 1

For me, this is easily my favorite story out of the E-Space trilogy, and I’m excited to talk about it.  I think this is my favorite because it’s definitely not in the wheelhouse of this season, as I was talking about before.  I’m not the biggest fan of Christopher Bidmead, so this is a welcome change.

And I really love this first episode.  It’s incredibly solid work from Terrance Dicks, and I totally feel the influence of Robert Holmes on this story.  It’s also well-directed by Peter Moffatt, who really brings out the Gothic horror overtones of the script in the production design and the way he frames his shots, especially whenever the Doctor and Romana are in the woods.  There’s something beautiful and sinister about those shots, and I love them to pieces, especially as it starts to get dark towards the end of the episode.  I don’t think the cliffhanger itself is very strong, but I enjoy the lead up to it.

It’s interesting, because the opening of this episode reminds me very much of the opening of the other vampire story in Doctor Who, series five’s “The Vampires of Venice”, what with the enthroned rulers and taking only the best peasants.  In this case, they take more than just the pretty girls, but they are rather similar.  There’s even a bitter father wanting some way to get his child (in this case, a son) back, away from the lords.  Then again, we’re not supposed to know the Three Who Rule are vampires yet, whereas with “Vampires of Venice,” the twist hinges on the audience “knowing” the bad guys are vampires right up front.

With this difference, I can see how “State of Decay” is definitely inspired by Stoker’s Dracula.  Part of the mystery of the novel, and this episode, is we don’t know anything about the true identity of the ruler(s) in the castle.  The peasants are terrified and spread all sorts of rumors, but can we be so certain they’re true?

I also really like the Doctor and Romana investigating, even this early on. Terrance Dicks does such a good job setting up all kinds of mysteries to get to the bottom of, like what is “The Wasting”, and what exactly happens to the peasants who get taken up to the castle, who are these lords that seem to rule forever, and how did a spaceship from Earth get stuck out here in E-Space?

But the Doctor and Romana make me sad, because it’s so obvious how strained their relationship is. Supposedly during the production of this story Tom Baker and Lalla Ward weren’t even on speaking terms, and while they do a good job of trying to mask that and are incredibly professional, it still shows.  Tom Baker looks so so tired (also the side effects of being ill while this story was being filmed), and the way Lalla Ward looks at him sometimes, so sad and restrained… It breaks my heart a little.

But the two still have good chemistry, I think, and I can’t get enough of them walking through the woods, encountering random shovel peasants, and Jedi, and ALL OF THE BATS.

Know who I can get enough of, though, and quickly?  Adric.

Adric is one of those companions who is great in concept but terrible in execution.  Seriously, why would you plan for a sneaky, conniving Artful Dodger type character, and then make him so vanilla he’s just lame?  Sure, he’s good at maths, but obviously not at stealing things aside from melons, because he gets caught so quickly in this it’s ridiculous.  I guess I applaud the attempts at making him seem slippery and criminal, what with stowing away in the TARDIS, tricking K-9 into letting him go, and trying to steal some bread, but really, it’s not great.  But I’ll be talking more about this in a little bit.

Also, Adric is always eating, oh my god.

Part 2

So, I dunno about you guys, but this is just reminds me how much I love a well-executed vampire story.

It also really saddens me that Bidmead felt the need to cramp Terrance Dicks’ style and cut back a lot of the horror aspects, because my god.  I want to see that first draft.

Can I just say that I love almost everything about this so far?  The production design, the costumes, the direction, the tone.  Le swoon.

It also interests me how, with many vampire stories across the board, certain tropes always manage to creep into the narrative, no matter how original your concept is.  I suppose that comes from taking your inspiration from Dracula, but watching this, I find many points of the serial familiar in other vampire-centric things.  Such as the existence of the hitherto-hinted-at Great One, being fed blood through the pipelines of the ship; it reminds me of the first season of Buffy, and the local vampires’ attempts to raise The Master (no, not that Master) by feeding him human victims.  There’s even a Twilight moment (I’m ashamed I know this) when Romana smashes a glass and cuts her finger.  But even though Romana pulls a Bella Swan, she’s so much cooler than that empty excuse for a character, so it’s all good.

And again, the ties to “Vampires of Venice” show up as the Doctor and Romana go exploring in the bowels of the ship, and stumble upon some horrible dead bodies, all drained dry.  There’s also the connection of the respective thrones in each story, and how these symbolic seats of power are actually more than they seem, disguising the sci-fi elements in the Gothic horror backdrop.

Honestly, so far, I think this story works quite well.  I’m still really sad we didn’t get the fully-fledged Hinchcliffe/Holmes version of this, because how badass would that have been?  But at the same time, I like the incorporation of a series of sci-fi elements into this, including the fact that the castle is actually a spaceship.  And I like that we get some of these reveals so soon.  It lends a sense of forward motion to the story and leaves me wondering what’s next.

Which is seriously lacking as far as these past two cliffhangers go.  Yeesh.  Not the greatest.  Luckily the questions that have been interspersed throughout the episode are what keep me interested in this, and not just the cliffhanger.  Because then we would be shit out of luck.

If there’s one complaint I can level at this so far, is that I find my interest disproportionately focusing on one storyline and not the others.  I find the Doctor and Romana’s adventures through the castle much more intriguing than Adric hanging out with some peasants and eating, or even the rebels in Jedi robes.  Of course, I trust that all of these plot points will come together by the end of this, but at the moment, I can’t say I really care what happens in either.  I think that comes from not being properly invested in the plight of the peasants and the rebels and Adric; while the situation of the peasants and their relationship to the castle is interesting and mysterious at first, I think it’s almost a little too mysterious.  I can’t get in there and connect very well.  The only thing sustaining me is curiosity.  And the same goes for the rebels; the Doctor and Romana did meet up with them, yes, so there is that connection, but the reason I care about what happens to the Doctor and Romana and not really these guys, is because they’re the characters we follow.  I think I’d be a little more invested if the guest cast were a little more lively, or given a little more to work with.

As for Adric, he’s a little stowaway, so whatever.  It’s his own fault for leaving the TARDIS.  But I’ll have much more to talk about him in the following parts, I’m sure.

Part 3

It’s funny, because in the short break I took between writing the last part and watching part 3, I was talking with Matt about how much I really enjoyed this serial, and how good I thought it was.  He said he thought it was boring the first time we watched it, and I said nooooo.

But clearly, he was remembering this part.  This part in which nothing really happens and we get a bunch of exposition.  In other words, a typical part three.

To be fair, part threes of Doctor Who serials are probably the hardest to write.  You have to sustain the audience’s interest enough so that they keep watching, but you can’t have anything of substance happen, because the climax and conclusion has to happen in the fourth part.  You’re stuck spinning your wheels in more exposition and set-up necessary for the end game to play out, but you’ve got to make it interesting, disguising it in such a way that it passes for legitimate drama and storytelling.

Unfortunately, this part falls incredibly flat, which is a disappointment.  All the buildup and suspense that we’ve been getting in the first two episodes come to a screeching halt as we get a boatload of exposition to spur us into the final act.  Granted, it’s extremely interesting, sweepingly epic exposition, but it’s exposition nonetheless.

That said: Time Lords vs. Giant Vampires. Bad. Fucking. Ass.  I want that so badly.  I know there’s been talk about a Doctor Who movie and all that, but man.  Turn this into a movie instead.  Good lord.  It sets my brains afire.

Aside from that, though….  There’s really not a lot that happens in this at all.  The Doctor and Romana are captured (surprise surprise).  The peasants are mounting up for an attack on the castle.  Adric is captured by the vampires.

I do rather like the scene with the Doctor and Romana talking in the cell, though.  It's a sweet and genuine moment for them, one that isn't terribly strained or awkward, and I enjoy watching it very much. Some of the sparkle between them is back in that moment, and though it's a relatively quiet moment, it's rather enjoyable.

I’m honestly not sure what else to talk about in this part, since it’s incredibly wheel-spinny and sloooooow.

So I guess it’d be a good time to mention that one vampire dude has the most wonderful octo-beard I have ever seen.  (I’ve been waiting 2 parts to finally write that.)

But oh!  The cliffhanger is actually pretty cool this time.  I know it’s trite to do Companions in danger and all that, but I love me some vampires.  And Octo-Beard pulls a knife out of his chest.  Badass.

Part 4

Now, Adric.  Oh, Adric.  Nobody seems to know what to do with Adric, because it seems like the precedent is set in this story, and everybody for the next while copies it in all subsequent episodes.  And I speak, of course, of the Adric-having-sided-with-the-bad-guys plot point.

It makes sense that it would happen here.  We don’t really know Adric very well, and he is supposed to be something of a little scoundrel.  So him willingly siding with the bad guys is a viable option.  The offers of wealth and power can’t not be enticing to an orphan who’s recently lost everything he cared about, so much so that he stows away in a time machine with people he barely knows. 

So he’s a total asshole and is going to become a vampire, but then he tries to save Romana, and oh! Everything makes sense.  Adric siding with the enemy was a ruse!  Oh, happy day.

But then it becomes a thing in future stories.  And it’s like, “haven’t we seen this plot point before?  Haven’t we resolved this?”

So I suppose this serial gets a pass, since it’s the first to do this particular thing with Adric.  But seriously.  We get it.

I want to like this part, but it seems like it’s too little, too late.  The first two parts are great and constantly working towards building the mystery and mythology of what’s going on with this planet, but then it comes to a grinding halt with the third part.  And here, it picks up again, but the magic’s gone for me.  It’s all very methodical forward motion, building towards the climax and inevitable slaying of the Great One.  Using the rocket/castle to do it is pretty cool on the Doctor’s part, but this episode lacks the imagination and intrigue of the first two, and it disappoints me greatly.

The ceremony and impending rising adds needed stakes, but it’s a teensy bit too late for me, and I would have liked the countdown and immediacy to be there all throughout the third part.

Though I do like the sequence where Romana is laid out all in white and offered as a sacrifice.  That’s a great bit of horror imagery that I dig very much.  Also the huge hand rising out of the earth.  That’s boss.

And who can forget K-9 on that throne telling all the peasants to GTFO?

Speaking of…  The peasants?  Didn’t really have much of a purpose in this story at all except at the end to storm the castle, which is kind of lame.  I wish there had been more done with them, and maybe I would have been that much more interested in their plight and what happens to them and everything, but they were basically just some plot point saved to use at the very end, which is lame.  I expect better from Terrance Dicks, but alas, I guess we can’t have everything.

Final Thoughts?: So, in the end, I have to regretfully change my position on this story from "really great" to "yeah, it's good".  This is a good story with an excellent concept, with superb set-up and a bit of a fumble on the follow-through.

I haven't really talked about him at all yet, but I also really like Tom Baker in this.  It's not his strongest work, but you can tell he's at least trying instead of phoning it in, even though he and his costar are in a rough patch and he's sick and everything. He and Lalla Ward still work well together onscreen, I think, even though their relationship is so strained you can see it playing out in their interactions. Though I think their relationship and the tension and emotion between them adds to the drama of this story in a very quiet sort of way.  It's intriguing to watch them, trying to guess what they're thinking, if they're on good terms in a scene, or are barely speaking.  It adds a unique layer to the Doctor/Companion relationship at this point in the show that I find truly fascinating.

I also want to talk about the title really quickly.  Terrance Dicks wasn't happy with the title "State of Decay", and I noticed that it's mentioned in the first half of the story, referring to the regressive state of the progress of the medieval society on this planet.  But then at the end, we witness some vampires enduring an extremely sped-up decaying process when the giant vampire is slain, and they finally give up immortality and endure their own state of decay, as a payback for keeping the peasants repressed.  I see what you did there, Terrance Dicks.  I see what you did there.

All in all, a decent story, ultimately watchable, and I like the mixture of Bidmead sci-fi (mostly because it's watered down) and Holmesian horror.

Next Time!: 4th Doctor! Lion people! A crumbling building! Some crazy vindictive asshole! Companion departure! Lots of white emptiness! And I honestly have no idea what is happening! Matt returns on Friday to see us out of E-Space with the final story in the trilogy, "Warrior's Gate"!

1 comment:

  1. Lik eyou, Cassandra, I really enjoyed this story (and especially that little scene in the cell), and I too found Adric to be one of the weaker parts of it (but he usually is tho, amirite?? ;D ). I found the Doctor's solution with the spaceship a little cheesy, but satisfying. I also really liked the octobeard, in fact, I thought the vamps all looked great - they had a cool Byzantine Empire sorta look to them. And yes... ALL THE BATS!!

    Great review, and I was interested to read the behind-the-scenes stuff too... cheers!