Despite being the first of several rip-offs of The Tenth Planet, The Moonbase is dynamic fun from a consistently high-quality period of the shows history. It is a glimpse of Troughton before he injected the humour into his characters, and is one of the few stories featuring Ben and Polly that have any notable amount left in the archives. That, and it sees the Cybermen at the peak of their design. While it has its critics, its essential viewing.
The handy thing about having a decent amount of material left is that it becomes quite easy to visualise the missing stuff in my head. The turbulence in the TARDIS at the beginning is particularly easy to see, since its the kind of thing thats been done several times elsewhere but then this is a Pedler / Davis story, and nobody milked successful ideas quite like them. Like many opening scenes this one is slightly stiff, although even without visuals its plainly obvious that Troughton is at his menacing best and out-acting everyone in the room. Its as if only he knows how to play the scene properly.
The film-recorded lunar surface looks brilliant (although its hardly a complex set) as does the model work of the moonbase itself; however, call me a cynic but those comedy sound-effects do not bode well for how the scene may have played out. As it is, it just sounds as if theyre being attacked by a giant Clanger moving in slow-motion. It is helped though, as is the story in general, by some excellent stock music. The audio-only episode is helped a great deal by the ambient sounds of the moonbase; the whine of the Gravitron and the peaceful breathing sound of the sick-bay (which you can first hear in The Keys Of Marinus, trivia fans!), which serve to spoon ambience onto the story.
While I mention the Gravitron: its a seriously pulpy idea I grant you, but simplicity doesnt have to be a bad thing as long as the episode doesnt try to be complex in other departments that then clash with it. This episode makes no claim to be particularly groundbreaking: it removes all unnecessary material in favour of tension and action. I wouldnt like it if the programme was like this all the time, but every so often its great.
The actors sound appropriately worn out by the problems they are facing; their complete lack of horror when one of their members is struck down by the virus is disconcerting to the viewer, who is not so familiar with what is happening at this stage. The revelation that something is monitoring the humans sets up a nice bit o mystery for me; people who read my reviews will be sick of hearing me go on about mystery, but its what I love the most about the early stages of episodes. Hobson dismisses what he sees as fantasy; he is well played by Patrick Barr who manages to make him a practical and sceptical man without being pompous or narrow-minded.
The first scene in the sickroom is charming, as Poly is a much underrated companion. The Doctor noting the importance of Jamies beliefs is a good moment of characterisation, helped by the fact that its just a quick sentence rather than a great soliloquy about All Getting Along. In general, the dialogue in this story is very naturalistic, although in the second half the Cybermens comes across as simply functional.
The scene in the food store falls a bit flat, tension-by-numbers. You can feel Mark Heath waiting a set number of seconds before jumping and crying whos there?; the effect is that you think this is tense without actually feeling it. However, the simple but dramatic special effect of the Cyberman weapon firing may have helped.
The time-cycle sequence in the sickbay is a nice idea (adding to the realism), but is let down by the Doctor explaining it exhaustively; the exposition is probably the main failing of the story. Its a natural enough inclusion in the script, but it goes into so much unnecessary detail that it just ends up patronising the audience. However, like most of the episodes problems it has a mitigating moment right alongside it, in this case the Doctor quizzing Polly about whether shes making fun of him. However, Evanss cry of the silver hand! spoils things a bit; it tries too hard to be enigmatic and come across as merely an unlikely thing to scream out (why just the hands?), which dents the episodes realistic feel for a moment.
Pollys scream as she sees something, and the subsequent tension, is made all the more effective by the ever-peaceful sound of the sickbay; this episode works extremely well on audio. The cliffhanger, assuming its the same as the reprise (sometimes they were re-recorded), would be great.
The fact that we can see the second episode properly doesnt dent its atmosphere, as happened to some when Day Of Armageddon was found. This is a very tense episode, focussing on the mystery virus; the Cybermen add to the tension by only appearing fleetingly, and not having any lines. They look so good here that its difficult to believe that there are only three serials separating this from The Tenth Planet.
The Doctors much-quoted some corners of the universe speech is brilliantly delivered by Troughton, but does express a rather simplistic moral code; this is something given to him by Pedler and Davis, as the line that best sums that attitude up (evil must be destrooooooooyed!) comes from their next story The Tomb Of The Cybermen.
The Doctor claims to have received a medical degree from Lister in 1888; the Doctors changing qualifications have been controversial, but I explain them by feeling that the Doctor, when pressed, just tells whatever story is convenient to him. After all, it is his supposed medical qualification that is keeping him on the moonbase.
The long scene of trying to get the Gravitron under control is let down by excess technobabble, although Denis McCarthy does a good job as controller Rinberg, a laconic politician with no idea of the reality of the situation. I shouldnt be churlish, but a big tickertape computer is funny in a story set in 2070 (almost as funny as Terry Nation writing in a tape recorder in a story set in the year 4000). The sight of the Doctor going round stealing specimens is priceless, as is his later scene of bluffing Hobson into giving him more time.
The Cybermen, although amazingly dramatic when theyre not speaking, do spoil the mystery a bit (Whos responsible for this virus? What, them? Oh, alright then). The killing of the spacewalkers could have been much better; the shadows falling over them have the makings of a great shot, but its cut away to some very crudely edited action. Also, isnt putting the virus in the sugar leaving things to chance a bit, plot wise? You could pass it off as the Cybermen not fully understanding human custom, but even so it seems a bit of an unlikely scheme for these perfectly logical creatures. The scene where the Doctor realises that a Cybermen is in the room with them is amazingly tense, but the sight of a huge pair of boots sticking out from under a sheet is unintentionally funny. One thing I want to know: how do the Cybermen tie their bootlaces with only three fingers?
Their voices, though, are amazing; probably the programmes best ever sound effect after the TARDIS. Peter Hawkins suffered for it, but nothing that came afterwards could compare to the inhuman drone that you here in this story. The best part of it is that it has no human element at all; later voices had a tendency to sound like someone talking into a modulator. However, its lack of emotion contrasts with some of their dialogue, particularly the baffling clever, clever, clever.
The pacing of the third episode is a bit crude with Jamie making a miraculous recovery right at the start of it. Polly explaining about the nail-varnish remover is another example of the plot being explained to the extent that it sounds childish. This contrasts with the thought that the Cybermen can manipulate their victims nervous systems and pilot them around by remote control, which is a very adult, horrific concept when you think about it.
The Doctors internal monologue is interesting for its novelty value, although I suspect it sounds better than it may have looked. The Cybermens different-weakness-each-time cliché begins here, and it would have been less obvious if their previous weakness to radiation hadnt been mentioned.
The companions get to play Macho Man and Girly Girl witch each other for a bit; gender stereotypes seem to be a prerogative of the Pedler / Davis team, as it wouldnt be until the David Whitaker-written The Wheel In Space that a woman appeared in a position of authority in a Cyberman story. I suspect that Davis is more to blame for this in Revenge Of The Cybermen, for example, Sarah is the only female character.
I can imagine that the action scenes may have looked fairly good if Morris Barrys work on The Tomb Of The Cybermen is anything to judge by; hes not bad when it comes to spectacle, and the scenes with Benoit on the moons surface (film-recorded, dont forget) could well have been fantastic. The third episode has another impressive cliffhanger, at least in concept.
The fourth episode sees a brief recap of the plot, showing a fairly crude grasp of the episodic format; this is worrying since Gerry Davis was script editor at the time. The sight of the saucers on the moons surface is not impressive, which is a shame as the visuals in this story are on the whole quite accomplished.
Is it me or is the Cyberman that operates the control box shorter than the rest? Alan Rowe is impressive in his limited role as a zombie, and the very realistic sound effect of him clubbing Sam to death is a rare moment of violence in Doctor Who that genuinely makes me wince ironic in a story with a mortality rate of just 33.3%. Marching zombies seem a bit out of place in this episode, although they are well presented. However, its unlikely that nobody would notice Evans sneak through the control room, and when he gets to the ante-chamber he puts his hat on backwards.
The deflected rocket is a horrible idea, a slow and inevitable death; it contrasts with the more lightweight aspects of the story. Youll never get inside We are inside already is a cool exchange, followed by the brilliantly shot sequence where the dome is punctured; the Cybermans bazooka is also a high-quality special effect. However, the movement of the Gravitron to deal with the Cybermen is drawn out and slow, a moment of padding right when there should be a dramatic conclusion which eventually consists of the Cybermen drifting away doing little dances, which is a shame. The time-scanner, right at the end, is a cheap excuse for a cliffhanger but its so minor I wont complain about it much.
Despite slowing down in the second half The Moonbase is a strong, exciting story that shows the Cybermen at their best in design terms if not in writing. It is a worthy Cyberman episode, bettering any colour episode featuring them, and does not let the Troughton era down.