Sunday, 20 September 2009

Doctor Who: State of Decay

Part One
“I take it you don’t get any strangers here?”

It’s so good to see Terrance Dicks’ name again. This is the first story to be written by a member of the old guard since, er, Terry Nation last season. And instantly we know this story is going to be splendidly retro- a mood which is gothic and Hinchcliffe-ish in every sense, dialogue which is rather more engaging that recent stories have shown, and an alien planet that looks uncannily like the South of England. We’re in safe hands.

There’s a village, a tower… and nothing else apparently. The mysterious lords exploit the peasants not only by means of their labour but by actually drinking their blood. Er, slight left-wing subtext, anyone?
Actually, that’s not true at all- the lords aren’t exploiting the peasants at all; they’re protecting them from “The Wasting”, so everything’s fine. It’s often said of this story that it’s never explained what the Wasting actually is, but that’s an outrageous slur. It’s clearly stated that “The Wasting is… The Wasting”.
This whole episode is a delight, from the sparkling dialogue between the Doctor and Romana, whose chemistry with each other never seems to suffer from whatever was going on behind the scenes, to that splendid fade from Autloc to some bats.

Adric’s scenes with the peasants consist mainly of him being an utter git, but at least these scenes perform a function in terms of exposition. It seems that all knowledge is forbidden, a theme returned to as the Doctor and Romana encounter the “Three Who Rule”. This is perfect not only as a nostalgic nod towards the gothic tone of a few years previously but also entirely in keeping with Bidmead’s Entropy Agenda. (Incidentally, the whole Entropy Agenda thing was first pointed out by Philip MacDonald in a splendid article he wrote for DWM many moons ago, which I heartily recommend).

Part Two
“If you need anything, there are guards outside the doors. Many guards.”

More greatness in the same vein here, even more atmospheric than the last episode, if that’s possible, but nicely leavened with humour. In short, just what Doctor Who used to be like, not that I have any problem with the last few series!

One of the best things about this story is Emrys James as Autloc, one of those splendid Welsh actors, like Philip Madoc, who make such great villains. He delivers his lines full-on, just the right side of that dividing line between hamminess and utter genius. He’s the best villain since Julian Glover.
There’s a nice pace of revelations too- the tower is the Hydrax, there’s blood in the fuel tanks…

Part Three
“I’ve never been a great one for swarming.”

No surprise that it’s Autloc’s intervention that resolves the cliffhanger, but I like the way his subsequent unsuccessful attempts to tempt the Doctor and Romana contrasts with his apparently successful attempt with Adric earlier. It’s also interesting to see the power dynamics of the three who rule- Camilla and Zargo may dress as the king and queen but it’s clearly Autloc who’s in charge. In fact, Zargo, the “king”, is shown to be the weakest of the three, asking at one point “Why am I still afraid?”
Watching these in context, it’s an absolutely massive bolt of nostalgia to hear the Doctor speaking once again of the hermit from South Gallifrey (ie K’Anpo), just as he used to do when he was Jon Pertwee. A very effective reminder that both Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks were involved in this story. This scene is great for other reasons, though; it’s very funny, and the relationship between the Doctor and Romana is much more like it used to be.

We get lots of nice continuity porn what with the references to Rassilon and stuff, too. I had to smile at the Doctor’s “No, thank you, not Dracula”- I suspect a reference to this story’s somewhat tortuous production history as a result of a certain BBC classic adaptation! Even the fact the TARDIS seems to have a punch card computer thingy is only the second funniest thing in the episode after this…

Part Four
“It looks as though this is one time the goodies don’t win, after all.”

Once more we see an example of a disturbing trend which others have pointed out in this season’s threads (can’t remember who offhand, sorry!) where Romana effectively becomes the lead, doing all the heroic stuff, while the Doctor is sidelined finding stuff out. I like Romana a lot, and I thing that, being an equal to the Doctor, she works far better as a companion than the stereotypical ankle-twisting, question-asking rescue magnet. But the Doctor is supposed to be the hero of this show!
Interesting and, er, convenient that short hops are much easier in E-Space. Still, this is a satisfying ending, with the use of the tower as a bowship given just the right amount of foreshadowing. The villains get suitable exits- Autloc is allowed a great line (“Then die- that is the purpose of guards”) before the Three Who Rule proceed to go the way of Julian Glover in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s not badly done, at all.

Insufferable git though Adric is, at least his apparent betrayal seems to have been a bluff. But I can’t say I’m disappointed to hear the Doctor insist he’s taking Adric straight home! That, the last we’ll be seeing of him, right…?

Fantastic, a very high 5/5, just outside my top ten. This one makes me feel all nostalgic for the fairly recent past. And that’s two 5/5s in a row for the E-Space trilogy- surely we can’t expect a third?

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