Hasslein Blog: Doctor Who Retro Review: Serial 034—The Moonbase


Hasslein Blog

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Doctor Who Retro Review: Serial 034—The Moonbase

By T. Scott Edwards

Ah, The Moonbase. A serial which sets out the template for the next few seasons, sees the return of the Cybermen, and firmly plants Troughton's portrayal of the Doctor, providing a concrete template for the way in which our impish hero will behave forever. This serial has always been my favourite of all of the Cybermen stories, and that is no mean feat, considering it is missing 2 of the 4 episodes. Written by Kit Pedler, the co-creator of the Cybermen who worked on The Tenth Planet, it sees our time travellers arrive not on an alien planet, but on the moon. The moon! That big satellite up in the sky, the one which we see every night before we go to bed; and it's brilliant. Considering Pedler was a scientist – of sorts, at least – the science here is surprisingly ridiculous. Anyhow, let's get on with this...

Continuing on from closing scenes of The Underwater Menace, the TARDIS is out of control, and is forced to crash land; having been aimed at Mars, the Doctor misses his target by some "200,000,000 miles" and the crew don spacesuits to leave the craft and have a jolly old time of it out on the lunar surface. It takes some persuading, mind, as the Doctor was eager to leave straight away, but he is eventually coerced into giving the crew "shore leave". The TARDIS 'family' unit is still firmly in place, and the group sound like they're having marvellous fun as the bounce around in reduced gravity – although the incidental music to accompany these jumps are rather strange and out of place. Whilst this episode no longer exists, the telesnaps, as well as the footage existent in episodes 2 and 4, show how magnificent the model work and set design is.

On the eponymous Moonbase, meanwhile, a plague has broken out, striking down their doctor and several other men. When the Doctor and his companions arrive, with Jamie having suffered a concussion whilst enjoying the moon-based frivolity, the group are welcomed with surprisingly open arms. Considering the importance of the work that the scientists do on the moon, controlling the weather across all of the Earth, the security is surprisingly lax, and the way in which Hobson and his men welcome the travellers with open arms, and no questions, is bizarre. Still, after the last 'base under siege' serial, which softly felt-out the correct way in which these dramas should work (The Tenth Planet) it is comforting to see the group settle so quickly into their environments, and be accepted so easily – Hobson has a genial, tired expression of acceptance, a very stark contrast to that of Cutler in The Tenth Planet.

Troughton's performance in this first episode is wonderful – both deadly serious and hilariously comical, and again assures us, the viewers, that this is how he will stay from now on – after the fluctuation in his performances up to now, we see that the Doctor of The Underwater Menace is Troughton's definitive Doctor. His constant interruptions of the exhausted Hobson are brilliant, as he craves their attention and a formal introduction.

As I mentioned, the lack of security upheld on the base is shocking; in fact, at one point, whilst trying to report their difficulties back to Earth, the scientists realise that they are being monitored by playing back their transmission. What is most baffling about these scientists is the very nonchalant way in which they report that it is coming from "someone not too far from this base", and yet still do not question the Doctor's arrival – not yet, anyway.

With Jamie pretty much unconscious for the entire episode, we are able still to gain a little knowledge of his character regardless; his semi-coherent ramblings about the "piper" of his clan's history is a lovely little nod to his background – whilst he has settled into the TARDIS crew quickly, he still upholds his time of origin, and is still a strong character despite his illness. Confined as he is to the sick bay, he is waited on by a concerned Polly; And this is really Anneke Wills' serial. Whilst the last serial allowed Troughton to confirm his identity, The Moonbase does the same for Wills' Polly. Whilst during the first and second episode, she does little more than scream and act as a caring nurse, we get to see her truly compassionate side. As for her character development – well, more on that later...

The first episode provides the eagle-eyed viewers, or listener in this case, plenty of information to assimilate and to come up with clear predictions; the references to drops in air pressure seems offhand and irrelevant, yet it is too conspicuously placed in the streams of dialogue to be irrelevant. Likewise, the references to the "rats" in the food stores moving supplies around, and Ralph's subsequent disappearance, are too important not to note, and indeed, to draw connections. Similarly, the references to the "silver hand" in Dr. Evans' delirious state moments before his disappearance allow us to predict exactly who it is responsible; admittedly, most people's chance to experience this serial is through Gerry Davis' superb novelisation, entitled "Doctor Who and the Cybermen", whereby removing any suspense.

The cliffhanger, though, hangs on Polly's recognition of the Cyberman's build, and the removal of Evans' body. What this does, though, is to create a sense of mythos and scope to the character. This story is set on the moon in 2070, and yet it openly references itself and the actions of the characters back in The Tenth Planet. When Polly tells Hobson et al that it was a Cyberman that she saw, he pooh-poohs her, telling her that "There were Cybermen – every child knows that – but they were destroyed ages ago." Whilst the Doctor and his group are not name-checked, their actions have gone down in history. They did that, they stopped the Cyberman invasion! It also leads into the speech which is quintessentially Doctorish, with Troughton delivering one of the most infamous speeches of Doctor Who history – "There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything that we believe in; they must be fought." It is a magnificent tour-de-force speech, and one which epitomises everything that the Doctor stands for, and his entire motivation.

Finally, though, despite the Doctor's speech, Hobson begins to question the presence of the travellers, and the coincidence of them being on the moon – he gives the Doctor 24 hours to deal with the plague before he forces the travellers back onto the surface of the moon, "quarantine or no quarantine". What this does allow, though, is a rather humorous tête-à-tête between Polly and the Doctor, giving us a little more background into the character, something which we see more of as the show progresses – his response that he "took a degree once – in Glasgow – in 1888" is delivered with a wonderful deadpan. Also, much of Troughton's comedy arises in this second episode, such as his collecting of samples, crawling around on his hands and knees and collecting the shoes of some of the men as they go about their business. The tragedy of Troughton's serials being missing is that a great deal of what makes him so good is that he is very much a visual performer; his impish movements simply cannot be done justice in audio-only format.

Again, having this serial exist helps us to realise just how wonderful this story is; the visual elements, such as the black virus throbbing and undulating up the fallen man's arm simply couldn't be appreciated without the visual. Likewise, the karate-chop of the Cybermen, as seen last in The Tenth Planet, are wonderfully realised in the atmosphere of reduced gravity on the moon. The cliffhanger, with the Doctor realising that not only is the virus being spread via the sugar but that, also, the Cybermen are inside the base, within the Medical Bay, is fantastic, and the Doctor's dragging Hobson aside before the group move around the sick bay, tiptoeing and inspecting the sleeping patients, is very funny.

The third episode finally sees the Cybermen step to the fore after taking a very secretive, back-seat role in the first two – and along with their redesign, they also have new voices. Whilst they are not as distorted and unnerving as the Cybermen the last time we met them, they are equally terrifying, utterly emotionless and horrifyingly abstract. The announcement that "you are known to us" to the Doctor once more provides a certainty that this is the Doctor – as with the recognition in The Power of the Daleks, despite the change in outward appearance, the Cybermen recognise him for all that he stands for, and the threat that he represents.

Episode 3 is also where Polly really comes into her own – with Jamie still bedridden and not worthy of conversion due to his head injury, she and Ben are forced to stay within the confines of the sick bay whilst the action goes on in the central control room. It is here, though, that she utilises all that she knows to create a concoction able to destroy the central nervous system of the Cybermen. Using her basic knowledge of acids and alkalis, she creates her own 'nail polisher remover' capable of breaking down the plastic components of the Cybermen's chest-units.

What is interesting is that, whilst Polly is proactive in saving the base, the two boys have their own private cock-fight to become alpha-male. Whilst they tell her that "this is men's work", Ben and Jamie desperately vie for Polly's attention, showing the strain that living within the TARDIS is having on the group. What is interesting is that this is the first time that there has been any form of sexual tension within the ship – whilst there was almost certainly some form of relationship between Ian and Barbara, here we have a very definite love triangle.

The final scenes of episode 3, with the additional troops of Cybermen coming to replace the defeated invaders within the Moonbase, is incredible – the incidental music is superb, as they march across the lunar surface with deep, malevolent intent (whilst we can't see it in the missing episode, we are fortunately able to have this recaptured in the opening of the existing episode 4.

Episode 4, existing as it does, allows us to see Troughton, once more, in his full majesty; he slips in and out of focus as he watches, contemplates and processes information. Whilst we have no doubt that he is the lead character, he is content to float in the background simply observing. The arrival of the ship from Earth is wonderfully realised, with all involved watching the descent of the ship with great joy – until, of course, the 'reactivated' Dr. Evans uses the Gravitron machine to deflect the ship away from the moon and hurtling directly into the sun. The realisation of what is happening is grimly realised, with the scientists looking distraught and the others needing the truth of the matter fully explaining to them. The reactivation of the scientists is horrifying too, as they proceed around in a zombie-like trance, black veins pulsating up and down their faces, throats and arms.

The attack of the Cybermen is another example of rather dodgy science – when they puncture the dome of the Moonbase, the scientists in charge of controlling all of the Earth's weather decide to try and block the hole with some shirts. When that, surprisingly, doesn't work, they decide to use the tray Polly brought the coffee in on. The effects of the Cyberman attack is rather good, though, with the ray from their weapon bouncing off of the dome thanks to the Gravitron beam, which also provides the Doctor with a plan.

Yes, the Doctor has a plan again – once more, the situation arising allows the Doctor to create the perfect solution, although he isn't certain that it will work. Using sheer brute force, though, the Doctor and Hobson are able to lower the Gravitron to fire the beam directly at the lunar surface, propelling the Cybermen off into space. What's wonderful about this is the way in which this juxtaposes the opening sequence – even the incidental music is identical, and yet rather than the pleasure enjoyed by the Doctor, Jamie, Ben and Polly, here the image is startling; incapable of human emotions, whether fear or joy, the Cybermen float away, a grotesque parody of our opening scenes.

Once the Doctor has saved the day, though, the TARDIS crew quickly slip out without receiving any thanks; instead, they bounce their way back to the ship and decide to head off to their next destination, before looking at the "time scanner", providing a brief glimpse of the horror to come next week – a gigantic claw menaces the travellers, as the end credits roll.

Scott Edwards is a teacher of English and Theatre Studies at Barnard Castle School in the North East of England, with a BAHons in English Literature and Film Studies. He is also a self-professed ‘ming-mong,' and in addition to timelordapprentice.blogspot.co.uk he also runs facebook.com/Classic.Doctor.Who. You can also follow him on Twitter: @TimelordTSE.

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