Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "The Moonbase"

It is fair to say that "The Moonbase" is 'not all there'. In fact, there are a number of Doctor Who stories which are not all there.

Back in the late 1960's and continuing through much of the 1970's the tapes and film containing many programs were seen as having limited usefulness. Once shows had been sold to other countries for overseas broadcast they were largely considered "done". As a result the tapes and films were either wiped or destroyed to make way for more programs.

In the late 1970's this practice changed at the BBC and not long after the home video market and syndication changed the face of recordings forever. Unfortunately many Doctor Who stories had been partially or completely lost... after a fashion.

Doctor Who fans were a passionate bunch and many would place tape recorders near the TV set and record the audio off the episodes. A few fans went the extra mile and kept those audio tapes for decades.

In more recent years the BBC reached out to those fans and collected those audio resources; remastering them to create audio adventures and even using them to reconstruct old episodes.

"The Moonbase" was missing the first and third installments. For the Patrick Troughton volume of the Lost in Time DVD the audio for the missing episodes is included along with the film for the remaining two episodes. This audio, combined with a slide show using still pictures on the BBC's Doctor Who Classic website, allows one to sort-of recreate the missing installments.

"The Moonbase" is notable for being the second story to feature the Cybermen. The baddies were introduced in William Hartnell's final story, "The Tenth Planet", and were well received by fans. As it was thought the Daleks were becoming old hat it was decided to push the Cybermen as replacements. Their look and voices were redesigned, going from this:

To this:

Their look would continue to be changed and tweaked over the next several years.

The Second Doctor would also face the Cybermen four times -- more than any other Doctor (and as a bit of trivia, the Third Doctor NEVER faced the Cybermen, making him the only Doctor to do so).

The Plot: The Doctor tries to take his companions Ben, Polly, and Jamie to Mars but instead winds up on the Moon in 2070. When Jamie is injured on a Moonwalk the time travelers find themselves guests at a base which uses a machine to control the weather on Earth.

Tensions are running high, though, as members of the base crew are falling victim to a mysterious illness. The Doctor battles suspicion to try to find the real cause. When the enemy finally stands revealed things go from bad to worse because the base is being targeted by the cold, emotionless, implacable Cybermen!

My Take: The fact that I love Patrick Troughton's Doctor does not blind me to the fact that "The Moonbase" is sadly a flawed story. It isn't a bad story - not by a long shot - but it's something almost worse than that... it's a bit boring.

I suppose, to be fair, the biggest issue is that it hasn't aged well. Although supposedly set in 2070 the base's computers use tape drives and the characters mention radio telephones (RT). There are also problems with the characters. The crew is 'international' in that old-fashioned way that was meant to be 'inclusive' but does so by making everyone a stereotype. The Frenchman, Benoit, lapses into French when not speaking with a ridiculous accent that would make Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau blush and the character of Nils is referred to as the base's "Mad Dane". The pseudo-science is laughable and the medical information is equally worthy of ridicule (since when does getting a mild concussion lead to a fever all in the space of less than half and hour?!).

The story also, through no fault of its own, suffers from what would come after it. You see Doctor Who had a habit of using and reusing certain plot devices. One of those devices was to gather a group of characters together, isolate them, and then have them come under attack from their enemies. These types of plots commonly became known as "Base Under Siege" stories since most of them tended to feature military bases or encampments of some type. Troughton's tenure as the Doctor tended to overuse this plot convention leading to a LOT of Base Under Siege stories. "The Moonbase" kind of gets lost in the crowd. Plus, you know what they say about familiarity breeding contempt?

On top of all of that there are issues with the script -- for example, the audience learns the Cybermen are behind everything by the end of the first episode but it takes the characters until into the second episode before THEY learn the Cybermen are behind it all. This leaves the audience knowing more than the other characters -- rarely a good idea for maintaining dramatic tension. There is a lot of padding as well as things take entirely too long to get going and there are constant false starts and reverses which are overused.

The regular cast also got squeezed here. Actor Frazer Hines, who played companion Jamie, had been a spur-of-the-moment addition to the cast. As a result scripts which had already been written and approved had to be re-written to include Jamie. One of the reasons why his character spends so much of the story "sick" is because they simply didn't have lines for him. They also had to shuffle and reparcel lines to fit the character of Jamie in.

All is not lost for the story though. Troughton turns in his usual brilliant performance as the Doctor -- his innocuous, occasional con-man turn hiding the Doctor's intelligence and determination to see evil repulsed. In point of fact, one of the show's most famous lines is uttered here: "There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which go against everything we believe in. They must be fought." There is also a really interesting internal monologue the Doctor has with himself -- the only instance of it's kind as viewers get a little sneak peek into how the Doctor's brain works. We wouldn't get quite as intimate a view again until this year's "The Eleventh Hour".

There are also some hints of conflict between companions Ben and Jamie which are quite intriguing here but sadly disappear by the next story. It would have been interesting to see the show deal with companions who maybe didn't always get along so well at this early stage in its development.

"The Moonbase" is entertaining enough but it definitely isn't one of the show's 'edge-of-your-seat' adventures. It can be amusing at times... but not enough to keep you awake so definitely don't put this one in your DVD player if you're sleepy.

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