Doctor Who – The Moonbase

In the year 2070, great technological advances have been made, with a permanent settlement established on the Moon from where a skilled team of technicians operate the Gravitron, controlling the Earth’s weather and ensuring the population of the world are safe from raging storms. Normal operations are disrupted, however, as a mysterious virus has struck down three of the crew within a matter of hours, and something evil is stirring on the surface of the Moon, a presence which has threatened Earth before…

Though by the end of the century the T-Mat technology will have made a quick jaunt to the Moon commonplace, at this time it is still conventional transport which makes the journey to the lunar surface, so when the TARDIS deposits the Doctor, Ben, Polly and Jamie near the Moonbase, the crew are not especially surprised by the unexpected arrivals, treating them like space tourists who took a wrong turn and walked into a not particularly security conscious research facility.

2014_moonbase 1Recently released on DVD with animated reconstructions of episodes one and three, the originals lost to time along with so much else of this period, The Moonbase was originally broadcast in February 1967, the sixth story of the fourth season, and the third to feature Frazer Hines as companion Jamie McCrimmon. Originally conceived as a guest character for one story, The Highlanders, the addition of Jamie to the regular cast necessitated rewrites for the subsequent stories which had already been scripted but were unfilmed.

Written by Kit Pedler, creator of the Cybermen, Anneke Wills comments that he “was not keen on having an 18th century character holding back the action of his story set in 2070,” and for that reason Jamie’s presence in The Moonbase is largely peripheral. Upon arrival on the Moon, the Doctor allows Ben, Polly and Jamie “half an hour ashore” in the spacesuits he conveniently keeps in a trunk, but while the others handle the reduced gravity without mishap, Jamie stumbles and is knocked unconscious, confined to the Moonbase medical bay for almost half the story.

2014_moonbase 2Babbling and delirious and thinking he has seen “the McCrimmon piper,” a herald of death, the Doctor tries to question Jamie about what he thinks he has seen, leading Polly to ask whether the Doctor believes in such things. “No, but he does. It’s important to him,” the Doctor responds, a very different and more gentle response than would have been given by the man he was just a few weeks before, and this story offers one of the best mission statements of the show: “There are corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything we believe in. They must be fought.”

In only his fourth adventure, Patrick Troughton had settled comfortably into the role and was enjoying himself so much that director Morris Barry had to restrain his performance, echoing later concerns from senior BBC executives over Tom Baker’s performances. Speaking of Barry, one of the BBC’s “talented gentlemen in tweed,” Wills says he could be “very tough” but that he was extremely good to work with.

2014_moonbase 6As Polly and Ben, Wills and the late Michael Craze form an excellent team, though as the production team rediscovered in the early eighties as they tried to balance Nyssa, Tegan and Adric, with the addition of Jamie, three companions in the TARDIS leads to a crowded show, especially with a full guest complement of scientists drawn from a progressively multinational pool, led by the proficient Hobson, played by film actor Patrick Barr, a friend of both Troughton and Will and who had once played Hines’ father onstage.

Wills recalls the story with enthusiasm, and not only because filming of the final episode took place at Lime Grove where she had begun her career. “One of the reasons that I loved The Moonbase was that Kit Pedler was a feminist. He was excited that women could have jobs in the scientific field.” Despite twice being required to scream when unexpectedly catching a glimpse of a Cyberman, it is Polly who determines the weakness of the Cybermen and creates a weapon drawn from the chemicals in the sickbay, like Jackie and Mickey throwing vinegar on the Slitheen in World War Three thirty eight years later (and sixty five years before), kitchen sink science saves the day.

2014_moonbase 5Less convincing is the attitude to quarantine, with a fast acting virus on the loose, unidentified and spreading, yet none of the crew wear gloves or masks and no isolation procedures in place other than keeping all the infected in the sickbay where others come and go with little observation of protocol or concern over spreading the infection.

The effect of the Gravitron is similar to that of Cavorite in H G WellsFirst Men In The Moon, but how gravity alone could affect any part of the weather save for tides is not addressed, though there is a specifically expressed threat of the Atlantic rising three feet if control is not restored. Global warming has apparently taken its toll, and rather than mitigating through changes in behaviour, humanity is trying to control the changed ecosystem through technology, exactly the false promise which modern climatologists don’t want, feeling that as soon as there is a belief in the possibility of a quick fix, however unproven, those who pollute the atmosphere will use it as an excuse to refuse to modify their actions.

2014_moonbase 9The replacement animation is stunning, modest but atmospheric, capturing the feel of the episodes with a minimum of fuss, almost an idealised interpretation of the impressive sets with none of the age and decay of decade old videotapes, the recreations faithful to the point of including the precariously rocking table from the cliffhanger of the previous episode as the Cyberman attempts to dismount at the opening of episode three.

One of the early “base under siege” situations which became a template of the Troughton era, the second appearance of the Cybermen occurred within the same season as their first, broadcast only weeks after their debut in William Hartnell’s final adventure The Tenth Planet. Described in the accompanying documentary as “the story which established the Cybermen as a genuine continuing threat to rival the Daleks,” when Gerry Davis novelised the story for Target Books in the mid-seventies it was appropriately entitled Doctor Who and the Cybermen.

2014_moonbase 10That first encounter is acknowledged in that the crew have heard of the Cybermen but regard them as thing of the past, defeated eighty years before at the South Pole, nothing more than a story to frighten children. Redesigned from their first appearance, Cyberman performer Reg Whitehead describes the original costumes as “painful and fragile,” the revisions offering only modest improvement. “We felt for them, those poor guys,” Hines empathises, but equipped with their own spacesuits, the humans had their own problems. “The helmets were the worst,” Hines states, with Wills confirming that “they steamed up immediately.”

Much like the control room with magnetic tapes running the computer, nothing dates as quickly as the future, and reminding of the Robomen of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, the Cyber conversion process resembles a very primitive Borg assimilation. While the spacesuits may appear ridiculous to a modern eye, it is worth noting that the operators go through safety checks before they venture out onto the surface. With fully transparent helmets it is only with the allowance dramatic licence that the Cybermen can sneak up behind them, but no attempt is made to address the greatest mystery of The Moonbase: how does Jamie McCrimmon get his kilt in a spacesuit?

Doctor Who – The Moonbase is now available on DVD

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