Published on April 26th, 2013 | by Alasdair McKenzie2
033 The Moonbase
The Cybermen returned for a second appearance just four serials after their first in 1966, kicking off what would become known as the Monster Era and cementing their place in Doctor Who history as a memorable foe.
Little by little, their brains tired – computers worked just as well!
With metal limbs, they had the strength of ten men. They could live in the airless vacuum of space. They had no heart, no feelings, no emotions, and only one goal – power!
… Can the Doctor defeat an enemy whose threat is almost as great as that of the mighty Daleks?
Kowtowing to the Daleks aside, imagine how exciting this blurb from the back cover of Gerry Davis’s Doctor Who and the Cybermen novelisation was to a young fan in the 70s. It conveys the image of an indestructible race of giant monsters rampaging across the universe, pitilessly wiping out countless civilisations and people. I was too young to have seen the televised version, The Moonbase, back in 1967, so the paperback adaptations were my lifeblood in those DVD-less, virtually repeat-less days. As was so often the case with early Doctor Who stories that were rarely seen on TV but enshrined in book form, the reality, when I eventually saw what is left of the serial on DVD years later, had production values that couldn’t possibly live up to the epic I’d had in my head for decades. Yet The Moonbase has more to offer than the Cybermen’s silver-painted trainers, or the pimply shower caps worn by the lunar facility’s operators …
In writing a sequel to their first Cyber-story The Tenth Planet, Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler replicated the elements that had resonated with viewers just a few months earlier: a base-under-siege setting populated by a multinational crew of humans under the command of an ebullient leader, and the Doctor, Ben and Polly (here with the recently added Jamie) helping the mistrustful military and scientific crew to overcome a threat to the home planet. Swap the Snowcap base in 1986 with the Moonbase in 2070 and you’re there. Of course, the most significant repeated aspect is the Cybermen themselves, returning to the series for the first time in a move that establishes them as a staple monster.
Like the Doctor, they’ve regenerated since Mondas was destroyed: they have new, gurgling electronic voices courtesy of vocal cord vibration machines, and a more plastic, less organic head and body suit, giving them a more robotic and less otherworldly appearance, setting the norm for future upgrades. And just as they’d later use Cybershades, Cybermats, androids or people wearing large headphones to do their bidding, here they place dead Moonbase crew members under their control so that they can use the gravitron to destroy humanity.
There’s something disappointingly mundane about those trainers sported by the men from Mondas, and the same goes for the sight of a Cyberman entering the Moonbase storeroom via a Cyberman-shaped hole to interfere with bags of sugar. It’s as prosaic as hearing a Dalek in Dalek Invasion of Earth use the word ‘bucket’. Meanwhile, Jamie’s feverish vision of a Cyberman as ‘the silver piper’ conjures up the wonderfully surreal and funny image of a bagpipe-tooting Cyberman.
Perhaps more unforgivably, it’s hard to understand why such a coldly logical, syncopated race feels the need to count before firing a weapon in unison. But at the same time, it’s easy to see why younger viewers found them frightening at the time: their eye sockets and face masks are disconcertingly blank, and the terror they bring is underscored by the timpani-heavy stock music that would be repeated in some subsequent stories as their theme (so effective that you can hear a similar score being used by Murray Gold in Silence in the Library 41 years later).
The series’ first trip to the Earth’s moon predates the actual moon landing by two years, and although we get to see the lunar surface, nothing is as visually impressive or atmospheric as the snowbound scenes directed by Derek Martinus in The Tenth Planet. The Moonbase itself has a fetching flat pack feel to it thanks to designer Colin Shaw’s efforts, with lovely stretched-honeycomb doors, and the gravitron as its centrepiece, beyond which can be seen the moon’s cratered landscape. The gravitron is used to control Earth’s weather, the importance of which is stressed via its operators’ by-the-numbers dialogue several times. The scenes involving the gravitron controllers aren’t the most riveting, but they’re enlivened by the comical sight of Troughton’s Doctor interfering with their shoes and clothing, taking samples for analysis as they obliviously discuss the seriousness of the situation.
The second Doctor is at an interesting stage in his character development, just four stories into his tenure. He stands at the periphery of events at times, watching and listening while Ben, Polly, Controller Hobson and other guest characters do the talking, only saying his piece or becoming involved when necessary. In fact, on the soundtrack of the sadly wiped first episode, he doesn’t talk an awful lot, but throughout the story, you can sense his brain working overtime to fathom out the mystery illness afflicting the Moonbase staff and to find the best way of defeating the Cybermen. ‘There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things… They must be fought.’
We see the Doctor as a doctor, too: he refers to studying for a medical degree with Lister in Glasgow in 1888, and has a lab in the base’s medical facility, around which he scuttles to evade the authoritarian Hobson (Patrick Barr) in a pre-echo of the relationship he would have with the Brigadier later on. It’s just a pity that the series’ infamous sexism rears its hoary old head when he tells Polly, ‘Why not make them all some coffee while I think of something?’
The three most effective moments in the story are the end-of-episode cliffhangers, all featuring the enemy, which establish that there are two main types of Cybermen: those that lurk in the shadows, waiting to kill you or take you away, and those that march inexorably towards the place where you thought you were safe. The first of these features a Cyberman entering the medical room where Jamie lies ill and vulnerable; the third has them advancing en masse towards camera, an enduring image that has been repeated in Doctor Who many times since, with director Morris Barry electing to focus the camera on their marching feet (Those trainers again! But even they can’t spoil it).
But the climax to part two is the best of all: the Doctor and friends realise that a Cyberman is under a sheet on one of the hospital beds, before it sits up, removes the sheet, and strides towards them. Just when you think the monster is outside, you realise it’s been lying in wait in the room with you all along – Steven Moffat has made a career out of this. And while producer Innes Lloyd would later worry about the inclusion of needles in The Faceless Ones, in case it made younger viewers afraid to have an injection, how did the spooky appearances by the Cyberman in the medical wing affect imaginations in children’s wards up and down the country?
The Moonbase ends in a relatively satisfactory fashion, as the Doctor, with the help of Polly, Benoit and Hobson, aims the gravitron at the lunar surface, and the Cybermen fail to see the gravity of the situation as they and their fleet are sent packing into space, the device they had planned to use against Earth being used to defeat them instead. When the time travellers return to the TARDIS, the ship’s time scanner shows a hideous, giant claw waving around in the gloom as the closing credits promise ‘The Macra Terror’ …