“Why do you ask what everyone must know?” – Ivo
I loved the novelization of this story as a child and read it over and over again. I was very pleased to later find it was a good reflection of the actual production as well, mirroring the wonderful dialogue word for word. The sets and scenery stand up well enough to my imagination. It is a particularly wonderful usage of the vampire motif in a sci-fi story and is full of great ideas and surprises. It’s by far Terrance Dicks’s best effort and an absolute favorite for me.
Though the storyline itself is quite entertaining, I think the random banter and witty lines throughout this episode give every scene some interest even outside the plot. There’s great interplay between all the characters and nice foreshadowing in the queen’s sudden interest in Romana’s cut finger. There are also some unexpectedly tender moments (like when the mother gives Adric her kidnapped son’s coat in an obvious longing substitution) and some surprising twists (like the medieval peasant suddenly pulling out a communicator.)
True to character, the Doctor susses out immediately that he needs to understand the relationship between lords and peasants on the planet to get a sense of what’s going on. He very quickly starts to put the pieces together and drops hints of his knowledge all along the way. The way he undercuts Aukon’s dramatic cliffhanger entrance with feigned disinterest is great, and Romana gets some good feisty scenes too. Above all, however, it’s the surprising concept elements of this story that make it so great: the castle is actually an old rocket; its tanks are full of blood; the Three Who Rule are the original crew given eternal life. I think this story presents one of the best uses of retroactive “Time Lord lore” to introduce a new enemy in the history of the program.
The episode does falter a bit in some of its direction—scenes that should be dramatic and scary end up kind of stilted. (The attack of the bats upon the Doctor and Romana should be way more tight and frightening; her and Tarak’s struggle in the sleeping chamber seems a bit awkward.) It also gets a little bit muddled in terms of what the villagers do and do not understand. Sadly, the key visual of the dramatic reveal of the Great Vampire King under the castle just doesn’t come off very well either. However, the ending scene of the vampires withering (nicely hinted at previously by Romana’s cryptic question) is quite well done visually.
Best (or worst) unsettling moments:
Take your pick–blood in the tanks, sons drained of blood, rotting vampires. But I think I find it most chilling when Camilla and Zargo go full on vampire with lustful hunger over the body of poor Tarak and she’s stops in disappointment because he is already dead and notes: “The blood of the dead is stale and flat. I must feed on the living!”
I wish the slight problems noted above had been better because I think this story should be a classic. The whole thing does resolve a little too quickly, though. The scene of the ‘tower rocket’ rising and crashing down to kill the vampire should have been much more drawn out and filled with tension.