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One Giant Leap ...
on 14 April 2014
`The Moonbase' is a welcome addition to the `Doctor Who' DVD range, not only because it's an enjoyable story, but because it's a key point in the life of the show. This is the moment the Cybermen returned and the Second Doctor challenged them; the Patrick Troughton era is defined here - a `base under siege', monsters that would become legendary and the thoughtful and determined Doctor who would take them on: "There are some corners of the Universe which have bred the most terrible things ... they must be fought!"
From their base on the Moon in 2070, a multi-national team use artificial gravity to control Earth's weather. In this story the Cybermen are homeless after the destruction of Mondas in `The Tenth Planet'. With no major weaponry of their own they want to seize the `gravitron' to use it against Earth. Fortunately the base is commanded by the level-headed Hobson (Patrick Barr), and it's bad luck for the Cybermen that the Doctor happens to turn up at just the right time ...
The Second Doctor was almost defeated not by monsters but by the BBC policy of wiping tapes; many of the best Troughton-era stories were missing or had large gaps from missing episodes. So what's it like watching a story where half the episodes (1 and 3) are animated replacements? The animators have quite a challenge to capture the look and spirit of Patrick Troughton's expressive face, but the results tell the story well. We should not expect Hollywood textured animation on a small budget, and I enjoyed watching this reconstruction. The surviving half of the story (episodes 2 and 4) looks superb after the VidFIRE restoration process.
Patrick Troughton is brilliant as the Doctor (as expected). According to the DVD commentary he was asked to tone down the comic side of the character by director Morris Barry during filming. It's difficult to know how significant any change really was because most of his earlier episodes are missing (and one of those stories does if we're honest have its comic aspects); but here, just a few stories into the role he is certainly the familiar Second Doctor - a friendly genius, slightly wistful, still humorous, and always ready to take on evil whatever the danger.
Companions Polly (Anneke Wills), Ben (Michael Craze) and Jamie (Frazer Hines) each get their moments in the story with three very good performances. However, Ben and Jamie were almost sharing the duties of a single character, as Jamie McCrimmon was an unexpected addition for Kit Pedler to write in (as the commentary explains, after Frazer Hines' success in `The Highlanders' saw him join the regular cast).
Polly's creation of `Polly Cocktail' solvent as a weapon is a good scientific device for the character, and a believable weapon against the part-plastic Cybermen; she also shares the hazards of a direct attack on the silver giants. Ben is a classic British man of action and intelligent with it, operating the gravitron in this emergency. Jamie's unexpected late inclusion in this story sees him spends half the time semi-conscious in the sickbay. But this has a memorable twist - Jamie imagining a Cyberman to be the dreaded phantom piper of the Clan McCrimmon, coming to take the dead warrior (himself!) cleverly combines fear from the 18th and 21st centuries.
The regular TARDIS crew are joined by a large multi-national cast as the crew of the Moonbase, with some faces familiar from films and TV of the period - showing that `Doctor Who' could always attract quality actors. Kit Pedler wrote a base-under-siege story where tension builds for two episodes before the showdown with the Cybermen begins; there are some now-famous lines, good situations and characterisation and some ambitious low-gravity `moon-walking' two years before anyone had seen it for real. Broadcast at the height of the `space race' this moonbase adventure must have been a thrillingly topical vision of future possibilities - plus monsters!
Two large sets - the lunar surface and the Gravitron control centre - provide a good backdrop for the action and the model work mostly works; the cyber ships do have obvious wires attached, but that's a small point. The combination of background music, sound in the Moonbase and silence in the vacuum beyond adds `atmosphere'. Then there are the Cybermen - they have `evolved' greatly since their first appearance in `The Tenth Planet'; this is the story where the famous metal-cased Cyberman head was created and the first time we hear those menacing electronic voices replacing the earlier `sing-song' voices. I was quite surprised to hear Cybermen say "Clever, clever, clever" and "your stupid Earth brains"! The Cybermen may have removed positive emotions like love and compassion, but it appears they can still be sarcastic and have characteristics like pride, contempt and desire for revenge. That evil combination made them formidable regular enemies for the Second Doctor in several classic adventures.
`The Moonbase' is not the best `Cybermen' adventure ever*, but it's a very enjoyable story with some great moments. 5*
Special DVD Features:
The commentary for surviving episodes 2 and 4 is excellent; Anneke Wills and Frazer Hines especially bring a great sense of fun to the audio. Animated episodes 1 and 3 have commentary replaced by interesting interviews including those with writer Kit Pedler's daughters and some of the Cybermen actors. This is a good idea for these recreated episodes but it would have been even better to have the interviews as an extra alternative to commentary.
`Lunar Landing' is a quite short (20 minute) but well made `making of' feature, with entertaining anecdotes from cast and studio crew members.
(*My personal favourite of all Cyber-stories is still Patrick Troughton's 'The Tomb of the Cybermen', now beautifully restored as part of the 'Revisitations 3' box set: Doctor Who Revisitations 3 (The Tomb of the Cybermen/The Three Doctors/The Robots of Death) [DVD] Highly recommended.)