Sunday, 6 March 2016

State of Decay

 Chapter The Nineteenth, The Nineteenth Chapter is The Nineteenth Chapter.

The Doctor, Romana and Adric face an attack of the definitive articles: The Three Who Rule serve The Great One and regularly hold The Selection to find The Chosen One for The Time of Arising. And there's something about The Wasting. The Wasting is The Wasting. Basically, nobody knows what The Fuck The Wasting is, but apparently it's bad. Vampire story with some spacey-wacey bits, essentially.

Watched the DVD episode by episode over a few days with various of the three kids drifting in and out, but only middle child (boy, 6 years old) gripped enough to sit still and pay attention. During our watching together, he told me that Tom Baker is his favourite Doctor, with Slyvester McCoy next, and David Tennant after that. He's making lists! I'm so proud. Once he's putting all 12 main actors in one ordered sequence of preference (plus fretting over whether John Hurt should be in there or not) then my work will be done. Apologies to his mother.

First-time round:
I may be misremembering, but I seem to think that towards the end of my first year at university in Durham, just before the long Summer vac, my good friend and fellow fan David (see this post for more details) had a cache of videos, and sufficient cables, and I had sufficient blank tapes, to transfer over some of his unreleased Who episodes, so I could own them myself like a happy little pirate. Presumably I'd convinced another friend, fellow first-year Mike, the only other person I knew with a VCR in college, to let me borrow it to complete the set-up.  I seem to think Mike sat there in David's room monitoring to ensure I didn't break anything.

David was at the end of his final year, close to graduating, and this would have been a farewell present (though he came back to visit us several times during my second and third years, and we're still firm friends to this day). Funny how some things stick in your mind: as I transferred various episodes - somehow with a slight tracking issue, so every one had a crackling noise of the soundtrack, but never mind - David said I was "seizing the day" in doing this. We'd just been discussing Dead Poets Society and Carpe Diem, probably with me gnashing my teeth in self pity at how I wasn't making anything of my life (I did that a lot as an undergraduate). I appreciate that he was trying to cheer me up, but I don't really think having even more Doctor Who vids was necessarily going to help much in the self fulfilment stakes.

Anyway, I copied both Full Circle and Warrior's Gate, the first and last stories of the E-Space trilogy, but didn't do State of Decay which comes in between them. This means that either David or I had made a decision that this was the one of the three that was dispensable, and that we wouldn't be carting it around. I think it was his decision, but we'd have both been pretty much correct.

So, the first time I would have seen this story was when the trilogy came out to buy on video in the late nineties. I'm sure I would have been excited about seeing it for the first time; but I may have been equally excited about seeing the few minutes of bonus footage they'd bunged on of Anthony Ainley in character as the Master from the computer game that was soon to be released, or indeed seeing Warrior's Gate without crackly audio. This is State of Decay's issue in a nutshell: it lifts right out, and you hardly even notice.

The first thing of note is the titles which still feel wrong; Tom Baker, like his predecessor, changes his familiar title sequence in his final year for a new style that subsequently is reused and becomes much more associated with his successor. In retrospect, it feels like he’s wearing some other guy’s clothes.

The next thing I notice is that the script is fine; it takes a bit of time to get going, and clearly suffers from the script editor and writer pulling in different directions. All in all, though, it’s a solid effort.  The execution, mind you, has some big problems.

Peter Moffat’s work often comes in for some stick, but he usually is given a free pass for his first directional outing. Hmm. There are bits that might be odd choices or might just be errors, e.g. Baker is at one point talking to the arse-end of K9. The use of slow, balletic movement of actors is also something I’m not sure was fully intentional. Sometimes it works, sometimes it feels very stagey, e.g. the deliberate, stilted positioning of Lalla Ward’s head into close up as she’s about to get her neck bit.

The other major let-downs are Adric and the bats. On balance, of the two, the bats give the least worst performance, but they rarely convince, whether they are portrayed by rubber toys on strings, stock footage, or radiophonic tinkling. As for Adric, I mused as to whether viewers at the time were wondering in the first few minutes where the new boy had got to, or whether they collectively sighed when he finally showed up and thought “Oh God, he’s back”. Matthew Waterhouse, in his first recorded Doctor Who performance, and only second ever gig, cannot walk across a room convincingly, and cannot say a line without my wanting to punch him.

Something else that doesn't sit well is having too much focus on the 'lord' in Timelord: the Doctor and Romana act and are treated by the downtrodden natives like royalty, and it's only with them to inspire and lead them that the beardie proles manage an uprising. The Doctor is even shown to have blue blood. It's all part of Terrance Dicks's aristo agenda, I tells ye! 

Another tale of a vampiric entity that dwells at the centre of a celestial body in a smaller universe linked to our own; and, in both stories, the entity controls the people living there. The Doctor again is trapped in that universe, turning up with one male and one female companion.

Does both e-space and House being green count as a connection?  Not really: the colour for almost everything in Doctor Who is gween.

Deeper Thoughts:
You say technacothaka, I say museum, let’s call the whole thing off. State of Decay was not the first or last time there was an equal and opposite tension between Doctor Who writer and script editor, but it's probably the most interesting; much more interesting at least than watching the episodes themselves without knowing the behind the scenes gossip. In the red corner, we have Christopher Hamilton Bidmead, whose mission statement in the script editing role, and anything he’s said about the writing of Doctor Who since, I profoundly disagree with; but, he wrote three of my favourite 1980s stories. In the blue corner, is Terrance Dicks, who could more than hold his own against his opponent, as an old hand; but, most of Dicks's actual story credits on Who are a bit rubbish compared to the stories he magnificently script edited.

It would have been perhaps better instead to see a story Bidmead wrote and Dicks edited, but that never was to be, and we have to take what we can get. State of Decay is consequently a game of two halves that don't quite meld together. All the Gothic stuff is how Terrance Dicks wanted it; all the bearded procrastinating science men, and the inclusion of spaceships and escape hatches, is pure Bidmead. Normally, I'd think one more draft would have sorted it. But, from what I've heard of their process, one more draft would have pulled things further apart.

Bidmead made himself look silly trying to remove the silliness from Doctor Who. He didn't twig that silliness is a key strand of its fibre. Time man travels in phone booth = rigorous educational primer in science? Not likely. He didn't edit two stories before a cactus man was threatening to blow up a planet.  You will never remove the silliness from Doctor Who. Even if its leading man is not the type who can't see a set with a swinging door without introducing some improvised comic business where it bonks him on the nose (as Tom Baker does in State of Decay). Big but, though: Bidmead instigated - nay, insisted on - the Grimm brothers sequence (O'Connor becoming Aukon, etc.), which I think is magical. And it's because of his idea to make the tower an abandoned spaceship that the story has its bravura ending.

Dicks also doesn't come out of things blameless: he'd taken and rewritten top-to-bottom many a script in his time, but does seem to get a bit more precious when it's done to him in return. All in all, State of Decay does benefit from Bidmead's input. And season 18 does benefit from a dash of Dicks Gothic (as indeed it benefited from the odd cactus man) to offset the many earnest bearded men talking about science.

In Summary:
A little pale and bloodless, but still with surprising bite.

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