The Moonbase

Airdates: February/March 1967 (4 episodes)
Written by: Kit Pedler with Gerry Davis
Screen Credit to: Kit Pedler
Directed by: Morris Barry
The Story So Far: The Cybermen menace a weather control station on the moon in the year 2070, seeking belated revenge on humanity for what previously happened in The Tenth Planet.  Second verse, same as the first.
Novelization by: Gerry Davis (February 1975) (as Doctor Who and the Cybermen)

One recent Facebook meme asks you to list ten books with a profound influence on your life.  Not the best, but ones that impacted you in some way.  Doctor Who and the Cybermen, the first book I read out of my first batch of novelizations in January 1985, would almost certainly be on my list.

I didn’t know much about Doctor Who when I got the book.  I’d started watching the show on PBS in November 1984 with the tail-end of Season 19 (Time-Flight), and we were still in Season 21, with episodes airing weeknightly, in January 1985, so Peter Davison was still “my” Doctor, with WLIW not looping back to Robot until February 1, 1985 (it would take too long to explain how I remember this).  I had seen The Five Doctors, which gave a glimpse of the Second Doctor, but only as “the little fellow” and “the scarecrow”, and not much insight into the way Patrick Troughton played the role in the ’60s (and, incidentally, I saw Five Doctors only in the chopped-up four-part format, with ludicrously arbitrary cliffhangers; it was years before I learned that it was actually a single 90-minute movie).

In other words, I had not yet seen Patrick Troughton do INTENSE.

In other words, I had not yet seen Patrick Troughton do INTENSE.

I read all of Doctor Who and the Cybermen in a single day, but, looking back, I can still recall what part of the house I was in when reading a given chapter, or my reaction to certain revelations or turns of phrase.  I read the book several more times after that, but this week for the first time in over 25 year; honestly, nothing about the book has left me even following a quarter-century’s neglect.

The three things that have stayed with me about the novelization: the prologue chapter (The Creation of the Cybermen); the introductions to Ben, Polly and Jamie; and the characterization of the Second Doctor.  That Gerry Davis-penned chapter about the origins of the Cybermen (beginning with the iconic phrase “Centuries ago by our time”) was recycled into all of his subsequent Cybermen novelizations, and, in fact, he retained c0-copyright over Terrance Dicks’ adaptation of Revenge of the Cybermen, which included the chapter.  This was the first printed novelization of a Cyberman story (even though it wasn’t the first one on TV), so the chapter served as a mission statement.

If you believe, they put Cybermen on the moon (men on the moon)

If you believe, they put Cybermen on the moon (men on the moon)

In January 1985, I had no idea who Ben, Polly, or Jamie were, although I had seen their blurry photographs race by in the final episode of Resurrection of the Daleks. Chapter 2 of the novelization contains note-perfect characterizations of each of them.  Most novelizations didn’t spend a lot of time introducing their companions, but here, Davis must have known he was writing the first Troughton-era novelization, and went all out to sell the three characters that he helped create.

While Jamie had the courage of a lion, and all a Highland crofter’s resourcefulness and cunning, he was a little thick, even by 1745 standards. Otherwise, this sudden leap-frogging of two and a third centuries might have unhinged his reason.  He accepted each new wonder philosophically, relating it to his primitive world when he could, accepting it without question when he couldn’t.

Later on, when Frazer Hines started playing the role as himself, this description would no longer be accurate, but it works and has a certain poetry for Jamie’s first four stories, when he hadn’t quite yet become a fully-formed character in his own right.

Och, who're ye callin' sick, ye Sassenach dragoon?

Och, who’re ye callin’ thick, ye Sassenach dragoon?

Davis also captures the essence of Ben and Polly in a few economically-chosen words:

“Please, Doctor,” Polly did another of her instant switches.  This time it was from, as Ben put it, the “toffy-nosed Duchess” giving orders, to the coy “little girl lost” act.  All big eyes and wheedling, she took [The Doctor’s] arm. “Just a little look around [the moon]… no more.”

Ben, his service instincts aroused at this rudeness of the captain of the ship (he was a naval rating, Able Seaman, with five years’ service, man and boy behind him), […] stepped forward, just resisting the temptation to salute.

And, best of all, is our introduction to the Second Doctor.  Throughout the book, Davis captures what it means to be “Troughton-esque”.  We have almost a direct transfer of Troughton’s careful, measured TV performance (which we’ll get to in a little bit) into print. There’s the clowning in the Moonbase as he tries to remove a boot from a scientist who’s still wearing it (“The small boy inside the Doctor broke through for a moment”); there’s the Sherlock Holmesian moment where Polly sees the lights on a Cyber spaceship and mistakes them for a trick of the light, to which the Doctor murmurs, “possibly”.  He has “surprising agility” and can be “irritatingly mysterious,” when he’s not the “bumbling, absent-minded professor.”  And as he delivers his famous line about some corners of the Universe breeding the most terrible things; here, Davis has Polly note his facial expression as a “far-horizons look”.  Even more interestingly, most of our insights into the Doctor are told through Polly’s eyes.  When the Doctor stands up to the Cybermen, we see it from Polly’s POV, and she’s proud of his not showing any fear.

Turned  into an illustration for the book, with the caption "It's the moon's surface, all right!"

This photo was turned into an illustration for the book, with the caption “Yeah! It’s the moon’s surface, all right!”

Something I appreciate more now than in 1985: the science.  I knew nothing as an elementary-school student about weather control, physics, or even the word “toroidal” (which is odd, considering how many donuts I’d eaten by then).  Reading today, it’s evident that Pedler and Davis designed the Moonbase carefully, to the extent that they devised out a specific function for each crewmember, and described the purpose of every console and telescope, and explained the “biological clock” and how it relates to living on the moon.

Nils nodded, and turned to another screen on his extensive communications console.  This screen was next to the radar screen and marked “Solar Telescope”.  Situated at the side of the moon base dome was a small circular bubble housing a fifteen-inch telescope used mainly for solar observations. It could be operated by remote control, and the image picked up through a television camera and transmitted to a small screen on Nils’ communications console.

I’m still in no position to know if the science behind the Gravitron is remotely plausible, but for a TV show that routinely replaced hard science with wishful thinking, the Moonbase actually has the ring of authenticity (plus, the quaint notion of scientists living together for the betterment of mankind).

Charmingly, Davis was proud of the very narrow diversity of the Moonbase crew.  He writes, from the early 1970s, without a hint of irony: “A great variety of nationalities was represented: British, French, Italian, German and Dutch.”  Ralph on TV was Afro-Caribbean (evidently from Guadeloupe, based on his accent and name-plate flag), but in print the only token effort at diversity is an American character (“Chuck”, who speaks in a “drawl”).  There had been no Americans in the TV serial… because, you know, what would Americans know from the Moon?

Tall Cybermen menacing shorter actors on the Moonbase set.

Tall Cybermen menacing short actors on the Moonbase set.

Hobson, the Moonbase commander, is an impressive study in leadership.  Almost every other “base-under-siege” story from Seasons 4 and 5 featured mentally ill bosses gradually (if not illogically) breaking down under the strain, but Hobson stands out by being utterly and ordinarily sane (and the book turns him into a Yorkshireman, to highlight this even further):

He directed operations with a word here and a word there; more gentle hints than shouted commands.  The real leadership qualities of the man were now evident, thought the Doctor, watching him from the end of the room.  The base was in good hands.  Despite his occasional bluster and irascibility, Hobson was a man in a thousand.  It was doubtful if he would crack now.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *         *          *

As ingrained as the book was in my consciousness, the two surviving TV episodes, when given their commercial VHS release in the early 1990s, could not be anything other than faintly disappointing.  There’s that wobbly sick-bay bed dominating the Episode 2 cliffhanger.  There’s the flat and lifeless Moonbase crew, with the character of “Sam Becket” (the tape coming out at the height of Quantum Leap fever) about as un-Scott Bakula as you can get (Oh, boy…).  While the moonwalk sequences may have been ahead of their time, the spacesuits are utterly laughable.  And there’s the silly acoustic showercaps that the Gravitron operators have to wear, and the ludicrous slide-whistle sound-effects in Episode 4 accompanying the Cybermen flying off the moon’s surface. The Moonbase set in the book had catwalks and observation ports; on TV, it didn’t.

Hobson (Patrick Barr) and the rest of the Moonbase crew share a hearty laugh at Morris Barry's direction.

Hobson (Patrick Barr) and the rest of the Moonbase crew share a hearty laugh at Morris Barry’s direction.

But that’s my being a bit unfair.  The TV version is a bit pale next to the book, but only without context.  It’s a wonder this story ever got made.  Taped just a week before air, Britain watched the cliffhanger at Saturday teatime, before the resolution had even been recorded.  Demoted after Episode 3 from Riverside to Lime Grove (“It’s smaller on the inside!”, Waris Hussein told us in An Adventure in Space and Time), the cramped based got even smaller.  Producer Innes Lloyd was on vacation for a week, with the assistant script editor (Peter Bryant) taking his place.  Jamie again had to be shoehorned into a script drafted before Frazer Hines was even a blip on the radar.  And, Episode 4 was nearly being scuttled because of talkback from the gallery working its way, via the floor manager’s headphones, onto the studio floor and thus the actual soundtrack.  Under these conditions, Francis Ford Coppola wouldn’t have gotten 9 minutes of usable footage, let alone 90…

What I ultimately love about The Moonbase as aired is how (most of) the actors, working against wobbly sets and impossible production conditions, work every little beat of energy from the script.  The revelation here is Troughton who, after 14 weeks of anarchy, antics and accents, shockingly re-invents his performance without so much as a moment’s notice, and becomes the iconic Second Doctor, the one who directly influenced the best elements of Sylvester McCoy’s and Matt Smith’s subsequent performances.

Now, if only someone  could have re-invented these oddly-shaped space helmets.

Now, if only someone could have re-invented these oddly-shaped space helmets.

Gone are the attempts at catch-phrases.  Gone is the recorder, which had been played in literally each of the last 14 episodes.  Gone are the accents, gone is referring to himself as some variant on “Doctor Who”.  All that is left is solemnity with the occasional clownish facade and, especially after the (still very welcome) excesses of  The Highlanders and The Underwater Menace, this is essentially a whole new character, and a better indication of what’s going to come over the remainder of Season 4 and all of Season 5. Episode 1’s Troughton is more given to cryptic utterances than antics.  There’s his “Possibly” moment, described above; quietly suspecting that an alien presence is lurking on the moon almost as soon as the TARDIS door closes behind him.

In Episode 2, however, he fully grows up, with the rightly famous “Some corners of the Universe” bit — almost a soliloquy, looking towards but not directly at the camera. Here’s a moment of gravitas unlike anything we’ve seen in his first three serials, and the first time he matches William Hartnell for sheer authority.  But, in the same episode, during a lengthy sequence where the Moonbase crew are giving the Gravitron a diagnostic check, testing every single lever on the set, there’s Troughton silently sneaking by and taking samples from under their noses.  When Benoit tells him off in an annoyed French tirade, Troughton simply smiles back, and murmurs, “Enchante’, monsieur!”  In short, this new Doctor is wry, reassuring, calm, mysterious, and occasionally frantic.  Like Hartnell at his peak, Patrick Troughton plays the role a half-dozen ways at once and is never less than mesmerizing.  Even if the rest of the story isn’t working out for you, just tune it out, and follow what Troughton’s doing; it’s almost impossible to be disappointed.

Speaking of things to tune out...

Speaking of things to tune out…

The best thing you can say about the Cybermen in this story, really, is that they establish a long-standing pattern of hiding on the fringes of the first half of a given serial and then being utterly dull after assuming center stage in the second half.  I like the Cybermen costumes and voices debuted here, which will stick around for most of Troughton’s tenure, although Peter Hawkins is far more constrained than he was during his voice-acting master-class in The Power of the Daleks.  The Cybermen are seen mostly in shadow during the first two episodes.  They’re shown in full at the first cliffhanger, though only to a semi-conscious Jamie, and then again at the second cliffhanger.  Mid-Episode 2 features an odd moment where one sneaks up behind Polly without a hint of incidental music or soundtrack sting.

But when they finally reveal themselves to the entire base and start setting forth their plans, things get a bit dull.  Their big explanation to the assembled crew, which takes up the first half of Episode 3, is a direct lift from The Tenth Planet just a few months before.  They show off a ton of emotions (their basic brief already being ignored in their second appearance), primarily revenge and sarcasm (with the “Clever clever clever” taunt mercifully dropped for the book).  This episode is salvaged mostly by Troughton invisibly lurking in the background, fiddling with dials and having an extensive monologue with himself about the Cybermen’s weaknesses, and by the bonkers audio sountrack when Ben, Polly and Jamie destroy them with home-brewed solvent sprays.

Welcome to the new race of Cybermen.

Welcome to the new race of Cybermen.

Episode 4, the one confined to the impossibly small Lime Grove Studio D, is a succession of bizarre set pieces.  I would criticize the Cybermen puncturing the dome and the humans fixing it by placing a coffee tray over the hole… but Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD just borrowed that exact same scientifically-impossible trick right here in 2013, so I have better things to do than sneer at 1967.  When Hobson solves a technical hitch by shouting: “The angular cut-out!  It’s obvious, isn’t it?!”, you simply can’t tell if he’s mocking scientific double-speak, or being dead serious.  The Cybermen are finally defeated by gravity — the Doctor points the Gravitron at the moon’s surface until the Cybermen and their flimsy pie-plate spaceships go hurtling off into the distance, accompanied by a wacky slide-whistle soundtrack.  Hey, why doesn’t the TARDIS go flying off too?

But even then, there are great moments amidst the silliness.  The rescue rocket from Earth is deflected by the Cybermen into the sun; on-screen this is portrayed only by a blip on a TV screen, and a three-shot of Hobson, Benoit and Nils looking horrified; as with the death of Schultz and Williams in Tenth Planet, this is a very cost-effective way of conveying an affecting tragedy.  Alan Rowe, in his first of many Who roles, as the Base doctor turned Cyber-servant — his only Who role in which he is not an impotent public official — looks nicely bizarre under make-up and costume effects.

Edward of Wessex, Colonel Skinsale, and Garif, had nothing on the creepy Cybernized Dr. Evans.

Edward of Wessex, Colonel Skinsale, and Garif, had nothing on the creepy Cybernized Dr. Evans.

But the real unsung hero for me is Anneke Wills.  This was all produced at the exact moment that Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis decided that Ben and Polly weren’t working out. It’s hard to figure out why they thought that.  Wills is great here, tending to an ill Jamie and defeating a squad of Cybermen at the same time.  When Ben and Jamie try to sideline her from their mad-scientist attack on the Cybermen, she refuses to be left out. Even the much-derided clip of the Doctor telling her to go make coffee for the men is, as with the corresponding bit from Tenth Planet, a bit of intentional subterfuge… and the bit that outs the base’s sugar supply as the source of the Cybermen’s deadly virus (Neurotrope X, they call it!).   As with many other ’60s companions whose characters are greeted with smug condescension today, there’s a lot more going on with Polly than meets the eye…

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About drwhonovels

An incredibly languid sojourn through the "Doctor Who" canon, with illustrations from the Topps 1979 baseball card set.
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8 Responses to The Moonbase

  1. Pingback: The Macra Terror | "Doctor Who" Novels

  2. WLIW was the same PBS channel where I first watched Doctor Who in the early to mid 1980s, first Peter Davison and then Tom Baker when the episodes, as you say, looped back. And I also discovered the earlier adventures of the Doctor’s first three incarnations via the novelizations. Sounds like we had similar experiences becoming Who fans. Anyway, great write-up on this one.

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