“There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things that act against everything we believe in. They must be fought.”
No, we’re not talking about Internet Fan Forums here.
The above is an iconic quote from a not universally-loved serial, broadcast in 1967. The Moonbase (out now on DVD) is almost like a sequel to The Tenth Planet, which appeared a few months earlier and was the last show of the William Hartnell/First Doctor era of the show. Here, we get the return of The Cyberman (in redesigned and much more recognisable costumes) and we get the a-typical ‘base under siege’ story. Of course, the problem with watching a serial from so long ago is that it doesn’t seem fresh, innovative or fast-paced. Everything that The Moonbase does well has, by now, been done to death, improved upon and upgraded. If you could actually time travel and take yourself back to 1967, this would have been a very scary, very engaging and very new type of Doctor Who.
Here’s a rule to stick to when you’re watching older serials from our beloved show: Don’t Watch Them All Together. It’s that simple. These episodes weren’t designed or written to be watched as a coherent whole. Therein lies the problem of perceived boredom or slowness. If you watch an episode an evening (or an episode a week, as they were broadcast), you’ll enjoy the story a lot more and actually look forward to the next one. This isn’t suited to the modern-day obsession of watching entire seasons of shows in one go via DVD boxsets (and, knowing that, programmes are designed to endure that kind of concentrated viewing). There’s no overall season arcs, like the new series, and these are all self-contained stories and all the better for it.
What makes this release unique is that Episode One and Episode Three have been animated. Again, like The Reign Of Terror and The Tenth Planet before it, this is the same company (Planet 55 Studios) and they have improved on each release. There’s always a sort of Marmite reaction to animation but, personally, I like it a lot and I’d rather be watching it than listening to the audio with limited photos of the production flashing up to help you imagine what it’s like.
So, what’s The Moonbase about? Well, a Moon Base. Obviously. The entire story is set on the moon, where a sickness has swept the base personnel and the Doctor and his companions arrive to find out what’s going on. The Cybermen appear, skulking in the shadows, and have been poisoning the sugar rations to create a disease that attacks the nervous system. Obviously, the Doctor and his companions are treated with suspicion but end up saving the day. This all centres round the amazingly-named ‘Graviton’, which is a huge Flash Gordon-like laser that controls the weather on Earth in 2070. So, only another 56 years to go before we get our weather controlled by men on the moon! I’m looking forward to that.
There’s a sombre and spooky atmosphere that pervades the whole story, with the directorial hand of Morris Barry also keeping a tight rein on the cast’s characterisations. The Doctor is less whimsical and more serious, with everyone around him being more ‘realistic’ than other stories. Even the sickness – which creates black lines across the skin that follow the patterns of nerves underneath – is akin to the recent resurgence of Zombies and the Undead. Especially when the infected parties are controlled by the minds of the Cybermen, shuffling around and doing their bidding. It’s all very earnest at times, especially as the central character Hobson (played with gruff intensity by Patrick Barr) is an angrily realistic character under pressure to get the Gravitron under control with increasingly fewer men and with the added threat of the looming, lumbering metal Cybermen.
Each of the other characters wears a flag on their chest, denoting what country they come from. It’s supposed to be a multicultural workforce but, in doing so, it seems almost like segregation. “You’re French! You’re English! You’re Swedish!” etc. Hobson’s French second-in-command, Benoit (Andre Maranne) is more used to being the second-in-command to Chief Inspector Dreyfuss in the Pink Panther series of movies. I kept expecting Hobson to start developing a nervous twitch and descend into madness, firing the Graviton at the Earth and holding it to ransom, as the pressure mounted on him. There’s a Clouseau-esque quality to Troughton’s Second Doctor sometimes as well, stumbling on answers and fooling about.
So, what of the TARDIS crew? Well, Patrick Troughton gives us his ‘dark’ Doctor. Having a proper conversation with his thoughts in one scene and giving a more subdued performance that fitted with Morris Barry’s directorial style. Polly veers from screaming Dolly Bird to have-a-go Avenger, with a sideline of sexism (she’s ordered to go and make the coffee at one point and happily cow-tows) and flashes of intelligence (it’s her idea to use nail remover on the Cybermen, which defeats their initial attack). She always talks to everyone as if they’re a small child but there’s something endearing about Anneke Wills in the role. Ben, on the other hand, comes across as an angry young man with a chip on his shoulder. He’s supposed to be a working class sailor but he’s just short-tempered with everyone and shouts virtually every line. I’m not sure whether that’s Michael Craze’s decision in the role or how he’s been directed. It doesn’t help that he gets lines clearly meant for an excised scientist character, spouting dialogue that doesn’t fit his character or intellect, when half of his are given to Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines).
[pullquote align=”right”]Jamie is basically knocked unconscious when he arrives on the moon and spends the majority of the story in sickbay, waking every now and again to spy a Cyberman and shouting “The Phantom Piper!”[/pullquote]Jamie’s a new addition to the crew and, being as he was a last-minute addition (after having filmed a ‘goodbye’ scene in his original story The Highlanders and then re-filmed it when the producer, Innes Lloyd, asked him to sign up for longer), the script clearly struggles to accommodate him with the merest of edits. He’s basically knocked unconscious when he arrives on the moon and spends the majority of the story in sickbay, waking every now and again to spy a Cyberman taking away his fellow inmates, and shouting “The Phantom Piper!” a lot. Rather handy that the Cyberman happens to look exactly like an ancient Scottish ghost. Jamie’s character doesn’t really develop until the departure of Ben and Polly in The Faceless Ones. Whereas Hartnell’s grandfatherly figure felt right around Ben and Polly, Troughton’s Second Doctor seems uncomfortable with them due to Ben’s challenging nature and Polly’s incessant questioning. They seemed caring towards the First Doctor, in their few stories together before the regeneration, and they just don’t seem to gel with the Second Doctor until their leaving story.
Even though the story plays like a cross between a Zombie movie, a Science Fiction matinee serial, an arty French thriller and an earnest BBC drama of the ‘60s, there are a few horribly glaring holes in the plot. Considering it was written by two scientists – Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – you would think that suggesting the Cybermen entered the Moonbase through a hole in the outer wall (that they then covered with sacks of sugar) might stretch credibility somewhat. Suggesting a tea-tray could cover another hole in the glass dome of the base just about makes you want to give up on any logic. But, it’s Science Fiction, so we can sort of overlook these things.
As I said at the start, this isn’t a universally-loved serial and that comes from the tropes and instances being over-familiar to a saturated fan-base. But, I rather enjoyed it, got immersed in it, and – because I was watching late at night, with the lights off – it genuinely freaked me out on several occasions. If you’re a long-term Doctor Who fan, of the usually cynical and critical nature, then I’m sure the additional animated episodes won’t change your mind about it. But, if you just love Doctor Who, then there’s lots of things to love in this DVD release as well (and not just Polly’s massively false eyelashes).
Because we’ve been spoilt for extras on most Doctor Who releases, it’s almost a shock when all there is on this one is a documentary (‘Lunar Landing’), a Photo Gallery, a PDF of Radio Times listings, the usual Info Text (but only on the non-animated episodes) and a Coming Soon trailer (“Nuzzing in ze vorld vill ztop me nooooow!” or, in other words, The Underwater Menace). But the making of documentary more than makes up for it all, to be honest. It’s a solid programme that holds interest throughout and gives some really good background and stories about it all, featuring Anneke Wills and Frazer Hines amongst others.