Aired 22 November – 13 December 1980
Terrance Dicks initially wrote ‘State of Decay’ to feature in producer Philip Hinchcliffe’s final year, seeing the BBC pass on it due to its own Dracula adaptation airing near that time. Fittingly, its airing during Tom Baker’s final season gives one final glorious throwback to the gothic horror traditions that proved to be so popular in his early years, dialing back the overall humour that had started to pervade Doctor Who during Graham Williams’s tenure and offering a remarkably satisfying peek into the Time Lords’ violent past.
Baker himself seems to be much more vigorous and enthusiastic here than during much of his final season so far, the threat of the Time Lords’ ages-old vampiric foes demanding his full intensity after showcasing a wearier Fourth Doctor nearing the end of his time to this point. His character is still as flippant as ever, but he’s incredibly serious and dramatic when needed and shows an immense pride in Romana that highlights just how superb this pairing is. Indeed, the idea of these three vampires ruling through fear and intimidation to control the evolution of the society and keep it in a perpetual medieval state is a fascinating one. Bolstered by strong direction that creates an incredible atmosphere, the oppressive status quo of this civilization is brought to life exceedingly well as the truth behind the tower and its denizens slowly comes to light.
There’s no lack of ambition on display either, ‘State of Decay’ using every bit of the limited budget to bring the concept of a giant vampire and its downfall to life fairly convincingly. There are several moments in this serial that could have fallen flat because of budgetary constraints, but it’s a testament to everyone involved that the end product works so well with only a few scenes like the bat attack failing to fully capture the imagination. Considering that the script was originally written with Leela as the companion, the current expanded companion list of Romana, K9, and Adric is also incorporated quite well. In fact, the Time Lady Romana being involved adds another layer to the menace the vampires present as she is able to support the Doctor’s extreme stories. K9 also gets a much-expanded role compared to normal, the Doctor showing the utmost confidence in his abilities as he offers the village K9 as a leader and is rewarded by his companion’s determination to succeed. Adric perhaps doesn’t fare as well, being characterized as a snobbish and patronizing adolescent with no true sense of honour or ethics. This is undeniably an intriguing twist on the typical companion, but the execution is let down a bit by Matthew Waterhouse’s performance which that fails to leave a sense of positive hope for the character by story’s end.
Taken by itself, ‘State of Decay’ is a wonderful story that expands upon Time Lord mythology while offering a rich and oppressive atmosphere and incredible moments for the Doctor, Romana, and K9. Yet while the story also takes the wise approach of keeping the E-space component in the background and offers one final throwback to arguably Tom Baker’s most successful era, it does seem like a bit of an outlier in a season that is otherwise focusing on trying to reinvent the franchise under new producer, John Nathan-Turner. Still, for one final step into gothic horror, ‘State of Decay’ is unquestionably a rousing success.