01 Jul 2003The Moonbase, by Paul Clarke
15 Dec 2006The Moonbase, by Eddy Wolverson
15 Dec 2006The Moonbase, by Ed Martin

‘The Moonbase’ is notable for being the first of several Troughton “base under siege” stories, but is the second such story to feature in the series as a whole. The reason for it being the second such story is that it is largely a retread of ‘The Tenth Planet’. Despite this however, it is a rather different beast from Hartnell’s swan song. In my opinion, it simply isn’t as good as its predecessor, since despite being only four episodes long, it somehow manages to feel padded. This is due largely to episode two. The first episode of ‘The Moonbase’ establishes the story’s setting well and has a suitably chilling feel to it due to the unexplained disappearances of the moonbase personnel, helped by the eerie incidental score. The problem is, at the end of episode one, we see a Cyberman, and although it looks somewhat different from the Cybermen in ‘The Tenth Planet’, Polly is on hand to tell the viewer what it is in case they didn’t recognise it. After this however, we get approximately twenty minutes of pure padding, as the Doctor tries to find the source of the mystery illness that is striking down the moonbase staff, during which time he mostly clowns around irritating everybody by stealing their boots. The occasional cameo by the Cyberman reminds us of the creatures’ presence, but since we already know that they are lurking, any potential tension is diffused and the viewer (or at least, this viewer) merely wants the plot to advance. This eventually happens just before the end of episode two, as the Doctor identifies the sugar as the source of Cybermen’s virus, and then a Cyberman emerges from its hiding place under a sheet. This cliffhanger is actually fairly daft, especially as the Cyberman gets out of bed in a way that suggests that it badly needs its first cup of tea of the day. The first half of the story would have been far more effective in my opinion had the presence of the Cybermen been maintained a secret up until this point. From the start of episode three onwards however, things improve somewhat. A sense of claustrophobia is created by the fact that the human occupants of the base are well and truly trapped, with rampaging Cybermen outside and their mind-controlled servants within. The importance of the gravitron to Earth is well conveyed, and tension is maintained throughout the latter half of the story as the Cybermen relentlessly attack in one way or another. Even after the first three Cybermen in the base are destroyed, more appear outside in even larger numbers, and continuously terrorize the humans in the base, whether by cutting off their communications or taking remote control of the gravitron via Evans and using it to plunge the rescue ship into the sun, or by drilling a hole in the dome and thus letting the air out. The direction and incidental score are both crucial to maintaining this tense atmosphere, and do so most effectively, especially the dramatic Cyberman theme reused from ‘The Tenth Planet’. In particular, the bizarre appearance of those base personnel who have succumbed to the Cybermen’s neurotrope X is highly effective and rather disturbing. The moon surface sets and model work (except for the rather feeble Cybermen space ships) are also impressive and recreate the surface of the moon more than adequately. The utilitarian sets used for the actual moonbase are rather drab, but intentionally so. 

The Cybermen have been extensively redesigned since ‘The Tenth Planet’ and both lose and gain from this. 

They are far less human, and no longer have fleshy hands or cloth-covered faces, resulting in a more robotic appearance. This removes some of the grotesque body horror impact of the creatures and unfortunately makes them seem more like actual robots and less like surgically altered humans. On the other hand, their faces are more blank and impassive than previously, which makes them seem more intimidating, and the script and direction combined with this succeed in making them scarier than before. The scene in which a Cyberman chases Benoit across the moon’s surface is particularly gripping, but other scenes of note are the remorseless march of numerous Cybermen towards the moonbase and their casual tearing apart of the radio antennae which is made more sinister than might be expected by the sudden and chilling musical sting that accompanies it. Their new voices are more monotonous and less macabre than their singsong lilt from ‘The Tenth Planet’, and are far more menacing. The less human appearance of these Cybermen is partly compensated for by the fact that we actually see them altering humans for the first time, by using the neurotrope X to make them susceptible to mind control. The zombie-like state to which Evans and the others are reduced is the first time we actually see a hint of the process of cyber-conversion and the resulting dehumanization that inspired Kit Peddlar when he created them. Unfortunately, their lack of emotions, a supposedly distinctive feature of the Cybermen, is rather undermined by some atrocious scripting in episode three as one of the Cybermen takes the piss out of the humans (“only stupid earth brains like yours would have been fooled”) and also employs sarcasm (“clever, clever, clever”). This lapse is confined to one scene, but is incredibly irritating. 

The regulars do not benefit especially well from ‘The Moonbase’. The Doctor spends most of the time prevaricating, although he does identify the source of the neurotrope X, and also comes up with the means to defeat the Cybermen at the end. Nevertheless, the story is plotted in such a way that he really doesn’t seem to do much. On the other hand, Troughton gets the oft-quoted lines “There are some corners of the universe that have bred the most terrible things. Things that act against everything we believe in. They must be fought”. As in ‘The Power of the Daleks’, the Doctor could probably leave in the TARDIS if he wanted to, but refuses, preferring to stay and root out evil. Compare this to his attitude in ‘100,000 BC’ and ‘The Mutants’, and it reminds us how much he’s changed since the series began. As for the companions, ‘The Moonbase’ suffers from the same problem as ‘The Underwater Menace’ in that Jamie is surplus to the requirements of the script. The solution to this problem here is slightly better than in the previous story in that he spends two episodes in bed rather than just acting as a silent shadow to Ben. His need to recover from his head injury at least provides initial justification for the TARDIS crew to remain on the Moon, and his (slightly embarrassing) “phantom piper” scenes at least play a role in revealing the story’s protagonists to the viewer. Polly at least gets to shine briefly by coming up with the means to defeat the first wave of Cybermen, although the fact that none of the solvents mentioned would attack any type of plastic likely to be included in the construction of the Cybermen never ceases to annoy the lab-worker in me (in the unlikely event that the Cybermen’s chest units are made primarily of polystyrene, some of the solvents might have an effect, but certainly not that quickly). 

The supporting characters are fairly forgettable. The attempt to show a multi-national moonbase crew is admirable if rather inadequate, but none of them get much characterisation; only Hobson is even remotely memorable. On the whole, ‘The Moonbase’ more-or-less succeeds as a claustrophobic thriller, but is ultimately flawed. Nevertheless, it establishes the Cybermen as recurring monsters and for that at least is notable.

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“The Moonbase” is an absolutely cracking little serial, and of all these missing stories, this story has such a wealth of photographic and audio material still existing that one can enjoy the story almost as it was originally intended. As with “The Crusade,” the Lost in Time DVD contains both existing episodes and the soundtracks to both the missing episodes, making the BBC Radio Collection CD virtually redundant. I say virtually, because I managed to get an extra bit of mileage out of mine, using the soundtrack with Frazer Hines’ narration in synch with the telesnaps on the BBC website to create a decent little reconstruction of Episodes 1 and 3!

I actually rate this story above both “The Tomb of the Cybermen” and “The Wheel In Space,” and although I prefer “The Invasion” as a story, this is definitely the best ‘proper’ Cybermen story of the Troughton era (the Cybermen we later see in “The Invasion” are overshadowed by Tobias Vaughn and UNIT. They barely even speak.) Surprisingly for a television show that aired in 1967, “The Moonbase” has a very realistic feel. The weather control device on the moon is populated by a very cosmopolitan crew, and the design of the place isn’t as cringe worthy as other contemporary takes on ‘the future.’ The story is also very good; fast-paced and exciting. The first episode sets things up wonderfully; Morris Barry’s direction is particularly good as he uses shadows of the Cybermen to build up the suspense – Joe Ahearne used a similar trick with the Daleks recently in “Bad Wolf” to similar effect, so Barry must have been doing something right! Sadly, lovely little touches like this don’t work on audio, but when combined with telesnaps you just about get the picture.

For the most part a tense and claustrophobic story, much of the plot revolves around the Doctor and his companions investigating the strange plague that is slowly killing the crew of the base. Like certain eagle-eyed viewers at home, the Doctor knows it is the Cybermen behind the plague, but he just can’t convince the crew of that until it is too late… However, Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis’ script certainly isn’t without humour; and quite clever humour at that. “The Moonbase” is notorious for the sexist treatment Polly has to put up with, not only from the “make a cup of coffee, Polly” Doctor, but also from just about everyone else she comes across in the story!

“Not you, Polly. This is men’s work!”

And so Doctor Who is hammered by critics for being sexist, which at times is a fair criticism – but not here! These critics forget that it is Polly alone who creates the ‘pollycocktail’ that destroys some of the Cybermen! If anything, in having Polly help save the day, the writers of “The Moonbase” were actually taking the piss out of sexist people, not endorsing sexism!

“The Moonbase” isn’t perfect though. As with the previous story, Frazer Hines’ Jamie is given little to do as the result of being written in at the last minute. He’s unconscious for the first episode, and then spends half the serial in sickbay with a fever. Moreover, after four years of television the Doctor finally visits the moon which is great, but he’s accepted far too easily by the crew for my liking. And finally, after all the hype surrounding the Cybermats, they don’t really impress at all. The story about how they carry the plague is clever and works well, but sadly the visual effects of the time weren’t quite up to the job.

Images of the Cybermen coming out of the sewers near St. Paul’s Cathedral, or emerging from the Ice Tombs of Telos are burned into the memories of so many Doctor Who fans, but I would argue that the Cybermen marching across the surface of the moon with that evocative stock music (the same piece used in “The Tomb of the Cybermen”) playing is just as enduring an image... It’s a shame it’s missing.

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Despite being the first of several rip-offs of The Tenth Planet, The Moonbase is dynamic fun from a consistently high-quality period of the show’s history. It is a glimpse of Troughton before he injected the humour into his characters, and is one of the few stories featuring Ben and Polly that have any notable amount left in the archives. That, and it sees the Cybermen at the peak of their design. While it has its critics, it’s essential viewing.

The handy thing about having a decent amount of material left is that it becomes quite easy to visualise the missing stuff in my head. The turbulence in the TARDIS at the beginning is particularly easy to see, since it’s the kind of thing that’s been done several times elsewhere – but then this is a Pedler / Davis story, and nobody milked successful ideas quite like them. Like many opening scenes this one is slightly stiff, although even without visuals it’s plainly obvious that Troughton is at his menacing best and out-acting everyone in the room. It’s as if only he knows how to play the scene properly.

The film-recorded lunar surface looks brilliant (although it’s hardly a complex set) as does the model work of the moonbase itself; however, call me a cynic but those comedy sound-effects do not bode well for how the scene may have played out. As it is, it just sounds as if they’re being attacked by a giant Clanger moving in slow-motion. It is helped though, as is the story in general, by some excellent stock music. The audio-only episode is helped a great deal by the ambient sounds of the moonbase; the whine of the Gravitron and the peaceful breathing sound of the sick-bay (which you can first hear in The Keys Of Marinus, trivia fans!), which serve to spoon ambience onto the story.

While I mention the Gravitron: it’s a seriously pulpy idea I grant you, but simplicity doesn’t have to be a bad thing as long as the episode doesn’t try to be complex in other departments that then clash with it. This episode makes no claim to be particularly groundbreaking: it removes all unnecessary material in favour of tension and action. I wouldn’t like it if the programme was like this all the time, but every so often it’s great.

The actors sound appropriately worn out by the problems they are facing; their complete lack of horror when one of their members is struck down by the virus is disconcerting to the viewer, who is not so familiar with what is happening at this stage. The revelation that something is monitoring the humans sets up a nice bit o’ mystery for me; people who read my reviews will be sick of hearing me go on about mystery, but it’s what I love the most about the early stages of episodes. Hobson dismisses what he sees as fantasy; he is well played by Patrick Barr who manages to make him a practical and sceptical man without being pompous or narrow-minded. 

The first scene in the sickroom is charming, as Poly is a much underrated companion. The Doctor noting the importance of Jamie’s beliefs is a good moment of characterisation, helped by the fact that it’s just a quick sentence rather than a great soliloquy about All Getting Along. In general, the dialogue in this story is very naturalistic, although in the second half the Cybermen’s comes across as simply functional.

The scene in the food store falls a bit flat, tension-by-numbers. You can feel Mark Heath waiting a set number of seconds before jumping and crying “who’s there?”; the effect is that you think “this is tense” without actually feeling it. However, the simple but dramatic special effect of the Cyberman weapon firing may have helped.

The time-cycle sequence in the sickbay is a nice idea (adding to the realism), but is let down by the Doctor explaining it exhaustively; the exposition is probably the main failing of the story. It’s a natural enough inclusion in the script, but it goes into so much unnecessary detail that it just ends up patronising the audience. However, like most of the episode’s problems it has a mitigating moment right alongside it, in this case the Doctor quizzing Polly about whether she’s making fun of him. However, Evans’s cry of “the silver hand!” spoils things a bit; it tries too hard to be enigmatic and come across as merely an unlikely thing to scream out (why just the hands?), which dents the episode’s realistic feel for a moment.

Polly’s scream as she sees something, and the subsequent tension, is made all the more effective by the ever-peaceful sound of the sickbay; this episode works extremely well on audio. The cliffhanger, assuming it’s the same as the reprise (sometimes they were re-recorded), would be great.

The fact that we can see the second episode properly doesn’t dent its atmosphere, as happened to some when Day Of Armageddon was found. This is a very tense episode, focussing on the mystery virus; the Cybermen add to the tension by only appearing fleetingly, and not having any lines. They look so good here that it’s difficult to believe that there are only three serials separating this from The Tenth Planet.

The Doctor’s much-quoted “some corners of the universe” speech is brilliantly delivered by Troughton, but does express a rather simplistic moral code; this is something given to him by Pedler and Davis, as the line that best sums that attitude up (“evil must be destrooooooooyed!”) comes from their next story The Tomb Of The Cybermen.

The Doctor claims to have received a medical degree from Lister in 1888; the Doctor’s changing qualifications have been controversial, but I explain them by feeling that the Doctor, when pressed, just tells whatever story is convenient to him. After all, it is his supposed medical qualification that is keeping him on the moonbase.

The long scene of trying to get the Gravitron under control is let down by excess technobabble, although Denis McCarthy does a good job as controller Rinberg, a laconic politician with no idea of the reality of the situation. I shouldn’t be churlish, but a big tickertape computer is funny in a story set in 2070 (almost as funny as Terry Nation writing in a tape recorder in a story set in the year 4000). The sight of the Doctor going round stealing specimens is priceless, as is his later scene of bluffing Hobson into giving him more time.

The Cybermen, although amazingly dramatic when they’re not speaking, do spoil the mystery a bit (“Who’s responsible for this virus? What, them? Oh, alright then”). The killing of the spacewalkers could have been much better; the shadows falling over them have the makings of a great shot, but it’s cut away to some very crudely edited “action”. Also, isn’t putting the virus in the sugar leaving things to chance a bit, plot wise? You could pass it off as the Cybermen not fully understanding human custom, but even so it seems a bit of an unlikely scheme for these perfectly logical creatures. The scene where the Doctor realises that a Cybermen is in the room with them is amazingly tense, but the sight of a huge pair of boots sticking out from under a sheet is unintentionally funny. One thing I want to know: how do the Cybermen tie their bootlaces with only three fingers?

Their voices, though, are amazing; probably the programme’s best ever sound effect after the TARDIS. Peter Hawkins suffered for it, but nothing that came afterwards could compare to the inhuman drone that you here in this story. The best part of it is that it has no human element at all; later voices had a tendency to sound like someone talking into a modulator. However, its lack of emotion contrasts with some of their dialogue, particularly the baffling “clever, clever, clever”.

The pacing of the third episode is a bit crude with Jamie making a miraculous recovery right at the start of it. Polly explaining about the nail-varnish remover is another example of the plot being explained to the extent that it sounds childish. This contrasts with the thought that the Cybermen can manipulate their victims’ nervous systems and pilot them around by remote control, which is a very adult, horrific concept when you think about it.

The Doctor’s internal monologue is interesting for its novelty value, although I suspect it sounds better than it may have looked. The Cybermen’s different-weakness-each-time cliché begins here, and it would have been less obvious if their previous weakness to radiation hadn’t been mentioned.

The companions get to play Macho Man and Girly Girl witch each other for a bit; gender stereotypes seem to be a prerogative of the Pedler / Davis team, as it wouldn’t be until the David Whitaker-written The Wheel In Space that a woman appeared in a position of authority in a Cyberman story. I suspect that Davis is more to blame for this – in Revenge Of The Cybermen, for example, Sarah is the only female character.

I can imagine that the action scenes may have looked fairly good if Morris Barry’s work on The Tomb Of The Cybermen is anything to judge by; he’s not bad when it comes to spectacle, and the scenes with Benoit on the moon’s surface (film-recorded, don’t forget) could well have been fantastic. The third episode has another impressive cliffhanger, at least in concept.

The fourth episode sees a brief recap of the plot, showing a fairly crude grasp of the episodic format; this is worrying since Gerry Davis was script editor at the time. The sight of the saucers on the moon’s surface is not impressive, which is a shame as the visuals in this story are on the whole quite accomplished.

Is it me or is the Cyberman that operates the control box shorter than the rest? Alan Rowe is impressive in his limited role as a zombie, and the very realistic sound effect of him clubbing Sam to death is a rare moment of violence in Doctor Who that genuinely makes me wince – ironic in a story with a mortality rate of just 33.3%. Marching zombies seem a bit out of place in this episode, although they are well presented. However, it’s unlikely that nobody would notice Evans sneak through the control room, and when he gets to the ante-chamber he puts his hat on backwards.

The deflected rocket is a horrible idea, a slow and inevitable death; it contrasts with the more lightweight aspects of the story. “You’ll never get inside” – “We are inside already” is a cool exchange, followed by the brilliantly shot sequence where the dome is punctured; the Cyberman’s bazooka is also a high-quality special effect. However, the movement of the Gravitron to deal with the Cybermen is drawn out and slow, a moment of padding right when there should be a dramatic conclusion – which eventually consists of the Cybermen drifting away doing little dances, which is a shame. The time-scanner, right at the end, is a cheap excuse for a cliffhanger but it’s so minor I won’t complain about it much.

Despite slowing down in the second half The Moonbase is a strong, exciting story that shows the Cybermen at their best in design terms if not in writing. It is a worthy Cyberman episode, bettering any colour episode featuring them, and does not let the Troughton era down.

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