Monday, 9 November 2015

Review: Doctor Who Classic: The Moonbase (Revisited)

See here for my previous look at this story. Although, tbh, I'm not sure I'd actually watched the serial when I wrote that. I literally don't understand where I was coming from.

The Moonbase's DVD replaces the missing episodes with
animation, like last week.
Doctor Who - Season Four, Story Six - The Moonbase
Written between 21st and 23rd September 2015

It is not surprising that a show spanning 26 years of continuous programming through three distinct decades managed to end up following certain archetypes when it came to writing stories. What is surprising about the Second and Third Doctor's era is how often the same one comes up. Yes, I am indeed talking about "Base-Under-Siege", a plot template with the same circumstances and character archetypes which defines many of the stories across Doctor Who - but especially in the Second Doctor's era. Troughton didn't, of course, originate this - The Tenth Planet from last week was one of these stories. But it's more important here because last week, the whole world was being invaded, while this week we're focusing on a small tiny base. On the Moon.
     While attempting to land on Mars, something drags the TARDIS off-course and they end up on Earth's moon in the year 2070. There they enter the Moonbase, staffed by a small scientific team in charge of the Gravitron, a device used in the future to control the Earth's weather. The Doctor and his three companions (Ben and Polly from last week, and Two's favourite companion, Jamie McCrimmon) discover that the base has been inundated with an epidemic, causing staff members to become comatose with black veins. The director, Hobson, is immediately suspicious of The Doctor and his friends - especially when people start going missing. As we see, this is down to the Cybermen, something which The Doctor immediately suspects. Soon the base is being sieged by an Army of Cybermen, intent on using the Gravitron to kill everyone on Earth. Using the help of the remaining crew, The Doctor manages to direct the Gravitron towards the Cybermen and their ships, expelling them from the moon, as Polly and Ben despatch the remaining few with a solvent cocktail.
     This is the fourth story of Troughton's era, but, thanks to the missing episodes, it contains only his third and fourth surviving episodes. Half of The Moonbase is missing and has been for years - this is another DVD release (brought out in 2014) where the remaining episodes have been animated. I really like this selection of stories because it shows both sides of the problem - next week's Tomb of the Cybermen was recovered in its entirety and didn't live up to expectations, but The Wheel In Space the week after contains only two of its six episodes. When I first watched The Moonbase and reviewed it (as can be read in the link at the top of this article) those animations hadn't been done, and I distinctly didn't remember the first episode being gone. I must have started on the second episode, not had a clue what was going on, and judged it from there.
These Cybermen are much more into subterfuge.
     So, what is "Base-Under-Siege"? The Doctor and companions enter a remote, claustrophobic base. It's being run by a small (emphasis on small) team of people who usually follow a set of archetypes. Among others, there's the suspicious and hardline leader, the medic who speaks as the voice of reason, and the plucky one with lots of technical knowledge. People start being picked off when the alien enemies slowly start to pick people off, making their way closer and closer to our heroes and their defences. What story am I describing? It's definitely a description of The Moonbase. It's also a description of dozens of other Doctor Who stories. Dalek is Base Under Siege. Flatline is Base Under Siege. It is ubiquitous. The problem with Troughton's Base Under Siege stories being a lack of variety caused by repetition of the plot and not a lot of budget to separate them from one another.
     The turnaround between the broadcast of The Tenth Planet and filming for The Moonbase was apparently only two weeks. Despite this hasty schedule, the new Cyberman design is both simpler and slightly more effective, and the fact that a hefty accordion has been replaced by a boiler suit with handles means that they were able to create a fairly convincing "army". As I put rather nicely in my previous review, the new design is a trade-off which would go on to define the design of the Cybermen in all later incarnations. The robotic boiler suit men have much less of the humanoid design of their predecessor - their hands are three-fingered pincers, their voices now a harsh electronic buzz that requires subtitles to understand. Although The Doctor does mention their history, it's not immediately obvious that these things are human beings - but when that history is brought up, their inhumanity becomes all the more terrifying.
     Of course, like last week, and like some time to come, there is an air of pronounced sexism which often gets brought up around The Moonbase. Polly is given quite a nice scene where she works out a way of discovering a way to defeat these Cybermen - using a combination of solvents to erode the plastic coating on the Cybermen's chest apparatus. But apart from that, she doesn't get much else to do but scream at the Cybermen, be disbelieved about having seen the Cybermen, and be told by three different people to make coffee. Often there's a counter-argument that The Doctor asking her to make coffee is an attempt to diffuse the tense situation that had arisen amongst the staff of the base. But one thing that is never brought up is the fact that at one point Ben literally says, "Not you Polly, this is Men's work." I suppose it's historical accuracy, however unpleasant it may be.
Two's characterisation takes it's most well-known form here.
     The Moonbase ends up being lot more interesting than I gave it credit for. It doesn't have to spend as much time explaining itself as its predecessor did, and so it gets to add a bit more tension and suspense. The story was meant to capitalise on the new Cybermen, and it did that, while at the same time finally calming Troughton's more clownish tendencies and allowing the more serious side of his character to come out. Despite how we may be able to categorise and scrutinise it, and despite some of the more distasteful idiosyncrasies of its era, The Moonbase is a very enjoyable story for fans of this era.


NEXT WEEK: The Boy Wonder of the Troughton era, which just happens to be a Cyberman story. Join with us as we defrost The Tomb of the Cybermen.

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