Some four months after making their debut, the Cyberman – having undergone a radical makeover – are back …
In some ways, The Moonbase is a retread of The Tenth Planet. The action once again takes place in an isolated base under siege (last time it was in Antarctica, now it’s on the Moon – and you can’t get much more isolated than that) run by a male-only group who hail from a variety of counties (although once again there’s no room for those pesky Russians).
But there are differences too. Hobson (Patrick Barr), the base commander, is an amiable old soul – even when he’s acting all stern you get the feeling that his bark’s far worse than his bite. The fact his men call him “Hobby” to his face is evidence of this.
By this time a very familiar face both in British films and on television, Barr is one of The Moonbase’s major strengths. Sadly most of his team of scientists remain pretty anonymous (the way they regularly keep getting picked off by the Cybermen doesn’t help of course). One exception is André Maranne as Benoit, Hobson’s second in command. He’s not really that well drawn a character, but given Maranne’s extensive career you can’t help but have a residual well of affection for him.
It’s worth remembering that when the Doctor, Ben, Polly and Jamie set foot on the Moon (in 1967) they were two years ahead of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. But although that part of the story would change from science fiction to science fact, Moonbases – despite what Moonbase 3 (1973) and Star Cops (1987) would later tell us – are still just a sci-fi concept. Still, maybe one day that’ll change ….
As I’ve said, Hobson is a surprisingly placid character. Showing little surprise or interest when the Doctor and his friends suddenly appear, he’s content to give them the run of the base (even though Moonbase has suddenly been struck by a mystery illness). There’s some inconsistency with the timing here – in episode one we’re told that the first case only happened a few hours before the Doctor arrived, but by episode two it’s become two weeks.
We know the Cybermen are behind it, but the story – despite only being a four-parter – is content to eke out the suspense. In episode one the Cybermen mostly only appear in silhouette (judging by the telesnaps, quite effectively so) whilst by episode two they’ve grown a little bolder although they’ve still yet to utter a word.
Compared to their terribly verbose brothers in The Tenth Planet this is an obvious difference.
The Moonbase has often been seen as the story where Troughton’s Doctor settles down and loses many of his earlier eccentricities. His short speech in episode two (“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”) is often quoted in support of this, although it’s worth remembering that he was equally adamant that the Daleks had to be fought in Power of the Daleks.
But it’s true that he’s proactive and keen to find a reason for the base’s mystery illness (even though he fails to do so). Eventually the reason – the Cybermen have been doing something nasty to the sugar – comes to light. Hmm, this is an odd sort of plot point (the latest victim keels over very, very dramatically seconds after drinking his coffee – if this sort of thing happened to everyone else, why wasn’t it commented upon?)
Mind you, that plot niggle pales into insignificance after you’re invited to accept that the Cybermen come and go with ease from the Moonbase via a large hole they’ve made in the outer wall. I’m no expert, but wouldn’t that cause a little bit of decompression? Apparently not, as all the Cybermen have to do is stack some bags against the wall and voila! it’s as good as new.
Given that Kit Pedler (along with an uncredited Gerry Davis) was on scripting duty, it’s an odd moment. Especially since at other times Pedler’s rigorous scientific voice is heard loud and clear (for example, Hobson and the others check the misfunctioning Gravitron during episode two in a scene which feels accurate, if deadly dull).
The Gravitron, a device for controlling Earth’s weather, seems to be the main reason why the Moonbase exists. The way the Earth-based controller reacts so negatively when it’s suggested that it’s turned off for a while makes me suppose that Earth’s weather has deteriorated so badly by 2070 that there would be numerous catastrophes without it.
When the Cybermen turn up in force at the start of episode three they finally spill the beans about their masterplan. It’s to use the Gravitron to destroy all life on Earth. Not in revenge for the destruction of Mondas (oh no) but simply because they fear that Earth might one day be a rival. Since everyone on Earth seems to have forgotten about them that’s a little odd, but no odder than the rest of the story I suppose.
Episode three is where we hear the new Cyber voices for the first time. Less comic than in The Tenth Planet, the Cybermen now prefer to talk in staccato sentences with few wasted words (although at one point they mention “stupid Earth brains” and patronisingly follow this up with “clever, clever, clever” which sits rather uncomfortably alongside their more direct dialogue elsewhere).
The second half of the story meanders somewhat. Highlights include Ben and Jamie almost coming to blows over Polly (this moment of sexual tension passes quickly though) and the trio going Cyberman hunting with a lethal cocktail that doesn’t do the Cybermen’s chest units any good at all.
The Moonbase climaxes with the Gravitron being used to send the Cybermen flying off into space. This sort of ending, which happened from time to time (see also The Dominators) always rather irritated me. Just because this group of Cybermen have been defeated, why shouldn’t a back-up force be dispatched immediately? The Doctor clearly doesn’t think so, as he’s very keen to get back to the TARDIS and begin his next adventure, so we’ll just have to hope that Hobson has no trouble from now on.
If so inclined, you really can pick the plot of The Moonbase apart but I can’t shake off my love for it. Partly because it looks pretty impressive but mostly it’s due to the fact that Doctor Who and the Cybermen was one of the earliest Doctor Who novelisations I read, which means that the story (even the very silly bits) will always have a place in my heart. 4 TARDISes out of 5 then.