Posts Tagged ‘The Moonbase’

As far as early-period Patrick Troughton stories go (a vintage I would classify as covering everything from Power of the Daleks to The Faceless Ones), The Moonbase seems to have a slightly higher profile than most, and the reasons for this are not too difficult to discern: it contains a famous monster in one of its more iconic manifestations, it’s one of the first manifestations of a story template which would, in some ways, come to define the era, and – and I think we shouldn’t overlook this – half the story actually exists, as opposed to the scraps and isolated episodes which are all we possess of so many others from this period. Perhaps the story is most famous these days as the source of the Doctor’s justly famous ‘…some corners of the universe have bred the most terrible things…’ speech, an iconic moment if ever there was one.

None of these necessarily guarantee a good story, of course, and I suspect that even the greatest cheerleaders for Troughton, or indeed the Cybermen, could seriously argue that this is one of the all-time greats. The story itself has a sort of charming simplicity. The TARDIS materialises on the Moon in the year 2070, which the Doctor is quite pleased about even though he was actually aiming for Mars. His companions, Ben, Polly, and Jamie, insist on staying and having a look around.


The travellers discover that the Moon is now inhabited, primarily by the inhabitants of the titular outpost. The purpose of the Moonbase is to control the weather on Earth using a whizzy gadget called the Gravitron, but it is experiencing a bit of a crisis: a mysterious space plague is affecting the crew. Needless to say, the Doctor finds himself drawn into discovering the source of the infection, which turns out to be, of course, the Cybermen.

You might with some justification wonder why the Cybermen are spending all their time sneaking about the Moonbase’s pantry and hiding under sheets in the infirmary rather than simply taking the Moonbase by force of arms (something which they seem quite capable of). There is, I suppose, some sort of justification for this typically byzantine plan, in that the Cybermen need humans alive to operate the Gravitron for them (gravity waves are apparently one of the many things to which this most vulnerable of monsters are martyrs) and a frontal assault on the dome would risk simply killing everyone inside.

But even so. It’s hard to shake the impression that this is Doctor Who at its most melodramatic – the shapes of many Doctor Who stories are to some extent determined by the requirements of the form, in that there are a certain number of episodes to fill, and so on, but with The Moonbase this is perhaps more obvious than with most. Hence the fact that the Cybermen wait until the second half of the story to actually do anything other than sneak about, the fact that the Moonbase commander goes from blaming the Doctor for the base’s problems to putting him in charge of solving the mystery in a breathtakingly short period of time, and so on.

However, I don’t want to kick the story too severely on these grounds; there are many other equally bad offenders and it is at least less repetitive in its plotting than its closest forebear, The Tenth Planet – quite apart from the base-under-siege scenario and the presence of the Cybermen, The Moonbase does recall Hartnell’s swan-song in the curiously muted and low-key role played by the Doctor himself – Hobson, the commander, is much more obviously dominant , and while it’s the Doctor who comes up with a way of disposing of the Cybermen (in an abrupt and quite possibly inadvertantly funny climax), it’s other characters who handle most of the other challenges of the adventure (the companions come up with the idea of killing the Cybermen by spraying them with nail-varnish remover quite independently, for example).

If the story isn’t as Doctor-centric as a modern audience might expect, it’s not really about the Cybermen, either. Quite apart from being largely absent from the first half of the story, when they appear they are at their least impressive and most generic. What are they? Where do they come from? Why are they attacking the Earth? The story doesn’t bother to answer any of these questions, not least because none of them are central to the story. Any generic adversary could fill in for them, and the sometimes-bitchy Cyberman dialogue (talk of ‘stupid Earth brains’, and so on) might even sound better coming from someone else.

So what is this story actually about? It’s this which makes The Moonbase interesting, if only as a cultural document. Let’s consider that title, for a start – you would never call a story The Moonbase nowadays (Moffat would doubtless dismiss it as ‘not slutty enough’), any more than you would call a story The Space Station or whatever. And yet, in 1967, the idea of a moonbase was considered in-and-of-itself an exciting enough idea to make it into the title of a story. Audience sensibilities have changed over the years, of course, but one thing perhaps worth considering is that viewers in 1967 would have considered themselves to be citizens of the Space Age, with manned lunar missions planned for the very near future, and an actual moonbase almost an inevitability. The Moonbase crew, perhaps significantly, does not contain anyone identified as Russian, but in all other ways this story is a product of the same vision of a unified technological utopia one sees not only in other Doctor Who stories from this period (especially those by Kit Pedler), but also the Gerry Anderson canon and the original Star Trek.

The positivity of this kind of science fiction just comes across as rather charming and a little naive now. I am aware that, as I write, there is a permanently-manned space station floating around somewhere above my head (well, broadly speaking), and every now and then a US President in need of a poll bump will announce a manned Martian mission, but I don’t think of myself as living in the Space Age, nor any kind of techno-utopia. We live in a darker, more beleagered world, I think, and our SF reflects this – to the extent that our SF is even about world building any more. Perhaps the dominance of internalised, character-oriented fantasy is itself the result of a reluctance to raise our eyes and look around us at the world we are making for ourselves.

That’s as maybe. Whatever The Moonbase‘s flaws as a narrative (and they are numerous) it is at least refreshing to recall such loftily-spirited, optimistic times. The Moonbase may be set in 2070 – but it’s a 2070 which now only exists in the past.

Read Full Post »