Thursday, 2 May 2013

The Moonbase written by Kit Pedlar and directed by Morris Barry

This story in a nutshell: The Cybermen attack a weather control station on the moon…

Oh my Giddy Aunt: Its very interesting to chart the progress of the Doctor throughout season four because to my mind it takes Troughton the longest of all the Doctors to settle into his role in the way he has been famous for. The Underwater Menace aside, I would say The Moonbase is the last story where he looks a little awkward in the role and the following story, The Macra Terror, is where he really hit his stride. Saying that he still has some great moments in The Moonbase but they are mostly serious moments and not the moments of irresistible charm that I would come to love about his character. The second Doctor is far more cautious than his predecessor, he’s happy to move on without exploring the moons surface and only explores because his companions twist his arm. I cannot imagine Hartnell missing an opportunity to go for a space walk on the moon. The Doctor’s ‘they must be fought’ speech is probably as grave as we ever saw this Doctor and Troughton is simply spellbinding. it's the thoughts of a man who stepped out into the universe to explore and confronted some very ugly foes. He took a degree in Glasgow in 1888, a story that might have been fun to see. It's lovely watching him get up to all kinds of physical comedy collecting specimens whilst the base crew are going about their daily routines. Troughton always look comfortable when he gets to be as physical as possible in the role. ‘Look busy quick!’ – he manages to look as if he is snowed under with work when actually they have almost given up on discovering what has cause the virus! The Cybermen recognise the Doctor, the first alien menace to do so since the Daleks suggesting their increased status as the next big monster. I love the scenes inside the Doctor’s head as he excitedly tries to work out what the Cybermen’s weaknesses are, it's a rare peek inside the mind of our hero (the only other time it happened is in The Underwater Menace, the story which precedes this one).

Able Seaman and Lovely Lashes: I remember a time when the Doctor's companions were absolutely terrified of leaving the TARDIS to explore an unknown landscape. Now it is the Doctor's friends that want to head out and explore the surface of the moon. What was a heart stopping trip around space and time has evolved into something much more exciting and enjoyable, resembling the 'trip of a lifetime' that Russell T Davies highlighted when he brought the show back. Polly might be relegated to the role of nursemaid (I can't imagine a certain portion of the audience objecting to that) she gets to make the observation that although an electronic nurse can administer medicine it cannot be nice to a patient which is something that she can bring to the situation. Polly had never been one to hold back from exercising her lungs and she lets rip a couple of belters in this story when confronted with the silver menace of the Cybermen. Is the Doctor being sexist when he asks Polly to go and make the coffee? I don't think so, if he asked me to the do the same thing I would have obliged. Whilst she is quite adept at whipping up a mocha or two, Polly also seems to be the brains of the operation, conjuring up her fabulous Polly cocktail to squirt at the Cybermen's chest units and give them a complete metal breakdown (sorry). She's the brains and she has Ben and Jamie around as the muscle to put her poisonous mixture to the test. It could be the only time when a companions vanity (her knowledge of nail vanish remover) helps to save the day. After The Underwater Menace and now The Moonbase it is clear that there aren't enough lines to go around and Ben is sidelined appallingly  seen on the periphery of scenes and chipping in with the odd line or two. Strangely enough it is the next story where the writers finally got as hand on dishing out a decent amount of material for each of the regulars, at the point where Polly and Ben are about to be written out. Was there a little of the behind the scenes tension between Michael Craze and Frazer Hines evident in the scene where Ben agrees to have a punch up with Jamie? The one thing that really stands out about Ben's characterisation in practically every story is that he is a very violent young man ('Quick! Ram 'im!') and is quick to get into a scrap when one is offered (his first scene in the show was a nightclub punch up). I wish we had had the time to get to know Ben a bit better because I feel that he had a lot more to give.

Who’s the Yahoos: Another example of three companions being too many, Jamie is knocked out in episode one and doesn’t regain consciousness coherently until episode three! He’s astonished to be on the moon, the writers still indulging in the characters culture shock.  He's still decked out in a wet suit at the beginning of this adventure so I really can't complain too much. Jamie is more of a monosyllabic primitive in this story than the cocky charmer he would become, which is probably more realistic but far less fun. The McCrimmon Piper is a phantom that appears before you die...although why he should take on the visage of a six foot robot is anybody's guess. Apparently it takes more than a wee knock on the head to keep a McCrimmon down but considering how much Jamie is out of action in this adventure let's chalk this up to male boasting. I can't think of another story where Jamie is given this little to do.

The Good Stuff: Say what you will about Morris Barry's direction (and I would certainly indulge come The Dominators) but when he is on form he gives the show a lick of expensive gloss that is very easy on the eye. check out the dramatic opening shots of the console room lit only by the flashing lights of the control panel and the glorious crane shot of the TARDIS landing on the moons surface. There is a feeling of space in the opening episode that most Doctor Who stories can only dream of. The Doctor's companions are a literal interpretation of the children watching at home, laughing and leaping and larking about on the surface of the moon. There is definitely something plausible about a weather control station on the Moon, even if it isn't something that will be in operation in 2020 the weather feels like something that the human race would strive to take control of. Given how at the mercy of the mood swings of the planet we are at times, it would certainly save a lot of lives. It feels like a gloriously optimistic view of the future, so typical of the sixties. The effect of the virus curling insidiously along the map of veins in the human body is well achieved. Barry lays on the atmospherics in the first episode, cutting to the eavesdropping spaceship nearby and the Cybermen realised as a menacing shadow on the wall. It is a brooding build up to the creatures eventual appearance. Kit Pedlar might not have been the finest dramaticist the show ever deployed but he always brought a level of realism and functionalism to the stories he was involved in - in particular I love the idea of the artificial use of day and night to help the crews function in a biologically conventional fashion. Few things get me as excited in 60s Who than the rising drama of the March of the Cybermen music. It's there when they stomp across the surface of the moon to attack the base, when they emerged from the snowy wastes of Antartica and when they burst free of their tombs on Telos. Earthshock aside, all my favourite Cybermen stories are filmed in black and white. There is something about how they are shot in monochrome that makes them so much more menacing and stylish. It is nice for this story to refer back to the events of The Tenth Planet - I would say that it is surprising that they went public with the new of the Cybermen but then it's quite difficult to try and cover up another planet dominating the skies. It feel as though Gerry Davis dumbed down the show when he took over as producer (interesting it brought about an increase in viewing figures, just like the other time the show is accused of dumbing down - between seasons seven eight) but he clearly had a genius brainstorm with the base under siege formula. Pouring the shows meagre budget into one impressive set yields great results too,  the Gravitron set proving to be one of the most impressive of the season. The designer even goes to the lengths of having a window that overlooks the moons surface. It has been commented that the climax of episode two is daft but when it is sold with this much urgency by Troughton who am I to complain about such things? These are my favourite Cyber-voices, far more effective than the deep seas divers they were to become and all the nonsensical warbles in between (The Wheel in Space and The Invasion are the worst). What a shame that episode three is missing because listening to the soundtrack alone it is clearly the most tense of the entire tale. No wonder the the ratings were consistently good, this is a show that deploys set pieces at the end of episodes that ensure that you cannot miss next weeks installment. The Cybermen look glorious marching across the moons surface, positively gleaming in the Earth light. I can often be found criticising the Cybermen for their idiotic moments of illogic in their dastardly schemes but here they do everything they possibly can (jamming communications, firing their laser, poisoning the crew, storming the facility, deflecting the relief rocket) to bring down the Moonbase. The Doctor’s solution to send the metal meanies spinning acrobatically into space is marvelously ambitious way to see them off and looks far better than it has any right to given the shows budget.

The Bad Stuff: Quilted spacesuits, plastic water bottles and goldfish bowl oxygen masks…future technology dates more than anything in science fiction and The Moonbase is afflicted more than others. A result of trying to make the Moonbase look and feel like a functioning workplace is that the pacing of the story is constantly broken up with ponderous scenes of the station personnel going about their business. Robson fighting against Earthbound politics should have been a razor sharp angle but instead winds up being the dullest material, attempting to inject realism into a tale that excels when it focuses on metal men firing laser guns. Bloody tape spools, you cannot get away from them in the sixties! Sexism and racism go hand in hand in The Moonbase, whilse Polly is off putting the kettle on Benoit (the Frenchman) is straightening the little scarf tied around his neck. As written Robson is entirely plausible in being suspicious of the Doctor and his friends but Patrick Barr plays him with such petulant stubbornness he remains a pretty unlikable sort of fellow throughout. Compare with what Peter Butterworth does with a similar role in The Ice Warriors and you can really see where Barr lacks presence and depth. Putting the virus in the sugar was a daft move, infecting only some of the base personnel – why not put it in the water supply? Who are the Cybermen kidding that they aren't emotional? It's hard to think of a single story where they aren't full of themselves but in this tale they are particularly complimentary of their fiendishness. Puncturing the dome in the fourth episode is very dramatic (I especially love the detail of the flopping oxygen masks mimicking the realism of the a plane decompression) but plugging it with a jacket and a tea tray stretches credulity to the absolute limit. The Cyber spaceships look remarkably like the flying saucer sweeties that I was quite partial to as a kid.

The Shallow Bit: I'm starting to sound like a stuck record. Polly, Ben and Jamie. Never has travelling in the TARDIS felt like more of an opportunity to pull!

Result: I just don’t know what to make of Troughton’s first showdown with the Cybermen. On the one hand it is a generally very well made piece with some good set pieces and I don't think the Cybermen have ever looked better. Yet every time I watch/listen to it I find myself bored in place, Pedlar's did science and realism often coming at the expense of the drama. It is clear that there is one regular too many and nobody except Troughton is particularly well served by a tale that boasts a huge (and largely forgettable outside of some racial stereotyping) guest cast. I wish we could have salvaged the third episode because that is where the most dramatic scenes are to be found as the Doctor's companions take the fight to the Cybermen. In contrast episode two, despite a few dramatic scenes, is mostly standing around the Moonbase and trying to convince the staff that they have something to contribute. It is an inconsistently paced adventure too, with moments where the show tries a bit to hard to convince that this is set in the real world and the action slams to a halt for extended periods. A shame because the better moments (the Cybermen marching across the moons surface being particularly memorable) really do linger in the memory. You can see why this is the highest rated Troughton adventure, the return of the Cybermen and a trip to moon are both big draws and there is no doubt that the entertaining slant that the show has taken (abandoning its educational roots) has re-ignited an interest in the series again. Some reviewers will write this off as a tedious exercise in telling a base under siege story but at this stage of the game there had only been one other example of the sub-genre and this manages to be more claustrophobic, more ambitious and feature better Cybermen than The Tenth Planet. It isn't the show at its best but it is trying to be as exciting as it possibly can and for that it should be applauded: 7/10


Anonymous said...

Seems that Polly, Ben and Jamie are your favorite companions. :)
Btw any new audio review in near future?

Paul said...

As you know, Joe, I am a big fan of Ben and Polly so although The Moonbase is basically The Tenth Planet Remix, I still have a lot of fun with this - although I prefer the Target novelisation!

Kory Stephens said...

Hey, Joe. Hate to do a shameful plug, but I've recently stared up my new Who chronology blog.

Anonymous said...

Did the animated version change your opinion at all?


Anonymous said...

In my opinion, this is an overrated Cyberman story. It isn't especially bad, but it failed to impress me that much and the animations felt very awkward to watch and didn't fit with the audio. Overall this story gets a 5/10 or 6/10

Anonymous said...

The story for this one was more average than plain bad, however, the animation for episodes 1 and 3 was so terrible that I really couldn't get into the episodes. Unlike the audio soundtrack, this has no narration and it comes across as very dull and makes it seem like there's nothing actually going on. Furthermore, this feels like it's trying to go full futuristic technobabble mode which makes the first 2 episodes very uninteresting. Instead of seeing a virus pick crew members off one by one and seeing the Cybermen skulk in the shadows and take victims, we instead are forced to sit through about 50 minutes of needless information on the Gravitron device and the Doctor testing everything in the base for the virus. As well as this, Jamie's first outing in the TARDIS sees him barely involved! Overall, I can only give this overrated abomination a 3/10 or 4/10.