Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Serial 33: The Moonbase

Doctor: Patrick Troughton (2nd Doctor)
Companions: Jamie, Ben, and Polly

Written by: Kit Pedler
Directed by: Morris Barry

Background & Significance: Ever since "The Daleks", Doctor Who was always looking for a returning monster to rival The Doctor's original alien foes. That's clearly what the Mechanoids were and it's clearly where the Quarks came from. But nothing ever warranted that "special return" treatment. Yes, you had The Monk returning in "The Daleks' Master Plan", but that hardly counts as "returning monster" especially because he doesn't turn up again.

With this story, The Cybermen enter the pantheon and become the first one-off monster after the Daleks to be "recurring villains".

The story, of course, is also a tentpole for another reason. After their first outting with the format, the production team decided to come up with "formulaic" Doctor Who, or Doctor Who with a simpler, more predictable structure to aid in the relentless schedule they were dealing with at the time. This new format ("the base under siege") was something that would be used across almost half of the stories of the Troughton era, so it's really a key turning point for the show. It's at this point that, truly, the show focuses more on the action and adventure elements inherent in its sci-fi premise than the odd explorations and outtings prevalent across the first three seasons of the series. And if the first scene doesn't tell you that, then I don't know what to tell you.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

So it’s weird that the last time we talk about a base under siege story we’re talking about the first one. It’s unintentional, but it’s interesting to see where the hell this structure came from compared to subsequent stories.

What’s interesting to start is that it shows how fresh and new this type of story can be when the characters haven’t been through it a number of times and when everything that goes down. Everything about this is exotic and exciting and new. And that’s probably down to locale. Being under siege requires isolation with little hope of reinforcements. With the exception of “Tomb of the Cybermen” this is really the only one that really takes place outside of Earth as a locale. And yeah, the other ones have exotic locales like an Antarctic research base and a Tibetan Monastery, but this has way more mileage in it, I think. It’s the “In space, no one can hear you scream” thing. Everything about this moonbase is terrifyingly isolated.

Pedler makes sure to hammer this point home almost immediately. In any other story, the TARDIS would land in the Moonbase, but not here. No. In this episode we go for a spacewalk.

Now, spacewalk in theory is super fun. And it is. There’s something iconic and wonderful about the spacesuits The Doctor has for everyone. They have giant bubble heads and silly sunglasses that look… It’s just a great look. And watching everyone bounce around in the opening sequence is delightful even though I can’t even see it. But space, as we learn quickly, is a dangerous place and before too long Jamie overshoots, hits his head, and is dragged into the moonbase with a slight concussion. So already Pedler is setting space up as a place that is tremendous fun but also vaguely dangerous and a little beyond our control.

Sure, there’s a darker point to say about how we shouldn’t go there if we know it’s dangerous, but I don’t think that’s Pedler’s argument, so I’ll just acknowledge the thought and move on.

And once we’re inside the Moonbase it’s dangerous-seeming. There’s the constant fear of something just around the corner, out of sight. There’s a mysterious plague infecting everyone in the crew which is bad news because it took the Moonbase’s doctor first and there’s now no one who can try to procure and antidote. And there’s another worry that the rocket transport is still a month away from returning, so all of the people here are essentially trapped in this small, confined space with nary a hope of escape any time soon. The Moonbase is placed under quarantine and there’s the fear that they’re starting to lose control of the gravitron and earth’s weather is starting to go haywire without its influence.

It’s a bleak proposition, isn’t it? And claustrophobic. And so early.

Honestly, it’s a strong start. I love seeing The Doctor start to investigate everything going forward and I love the way he interacts with the base and everyone in it. Hell, everyone on the base is good too, aren’t they? And Pedler does a good job of painting a full picture of what this Moonbase looks like. And strangely enough, the more texture there is, the more the details seem to bother us. I think that makes it feel like more of a real place and the more real it feels, the more real the situation moving forward. Compare that to “The Ice Warriors” which was impossibly generic. Here, though, it feels fresh and much more intimidating. Everything has a purpose, everyone has a job to do.

And then there’s the horror of something in the Moonbase picking everyone off one by one. God knows it’s scary enough as is without having to worry about some terrifying giant thing coming in and stealing you away kicking and screaming.

But stepping away from that (and the cliffhanger) in which Pedler paints a really excellent world here. I love the science fiction elements of the story, what with the gravitron that can alter the Earth’s weather with just the push of a button. Hell, I love the colony on the moon and how specifically outposty it is. Textures like the “special trip” rocket transport ships really make it believable and sellable. Maybe in the future, when the Moon is colonized we can talk about daily ships, but for now it is expensive and impractical isn’t it? Pedler has never been my favorite, but his thinking these through is worth noting, isn’t it?

It’s a really strong first episode and goes far to lay in tension and drama right from the go. What’s not to love?

Part 2:

So the Troughton era is famous for having ridiculously long stories, and it’s not until Holmes takes over and deems that the six part story a bloated, unwieldy thing that the four-part story becomes the norm.

This wasn’t always the case. Sure there were longer stories under Verity Lambert, but John Wiles (after “The Daleks’ Master Plan” no less, so what does that tell you) commissioned a bunch of four part stories, which remained the norm until Innes Lloyd felt the strain of producing so many stories and blossomed out the story lengths in season four starting with "TheFaceless Ones”. But that means that with this early stretch of season we find ourselves in a couple of four-part stories and that the first really base under siege story is a four-parter. And maybe I’m reading too much into that, but there’s something about the fact that the subsequent season (when just about every story is a base under siege) is almost exclusively six episode stories that really makes me wonder if the base under siege stories suffer from dragging their premise too long.

I say that also because halfway through episode two this episode is really tugging along, and while I’ll be happy when it’s over (because it’s getting late? We’ll just say that’s why) I can’t really complain about anything in this at the moment.

Again, I have to applaud Pedler for doing really good world building in this episode. Maybe I hadn’t noticed it in the last episode, but I love seeing all the different countries working together on the Moonbase. Yes, it’s completely frakking insane that they would wear plaques on their shirts and yes it’s completely bullshit that they are in a harmonious, post-territorial world and yet there’s nobody but white people all over the place. Is it too much to ask for a black guy? Or someone brown? Or maybe Asian? I know it never would have happened, but it makes this story look hilariously out of touch with its post-culturalism.

But it’s great. Compare the work in the base here to what happens in other base under siege stories. Pedler sets a real standard here that this base cannot and will not fail. It cannot afford to. No other base is like that. The monastery in “The Abominable Snowmen” kinda shuts down while the Yeti are attacking and the refinery plant in "Fury from the Deep” is down while the weed is taking over the place. But the Moonbase can’t afford that. People are dropping like flies. There’s power drainages. There’s a virus running rampant through the small, quarantined space. And yet they need to keep up and running or the earth will descend into weather chaos. Does it make sense? Not completely, but it makes the base feel like a real, living, breathing place in ways the other bases don’t necessarily always. Of course, I also think the other stories do better characters and character work. Everyone here (aside from the main chap) are all fairly interchangeable and disposable.

So it’s not perfect. But it does what it does very well.

Really, though, the thing that makes this episode sing is everything regarding The Doctor.

It’s still early days for Troughton, but this is the episode where he says the famous line “There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything we believe in. They must be fought.” As a line, it is as baseline, mission statement Troughton as anything we’ve ever seen. And it’s really the moment (more than any other in the early Troughton episodes) that solidifies where he stands on the whole point of traveling the universe. The 1st Doctor was an explorer and surveyor. The 2nd is a fighter and a champion in a way the 1st Doctor never could have been.

Yet, while he is a fighter and basically just declared war against (or at least, noted his distaste for) “evil” much that he does in this episode doesn’t outrightly describe his actions in this.

No, Troughton here spends the majority of this episode conducting an investigation into the virus that’s running rampant throughout the Moonbase. And I love how impossibly mischievous and… funny he is. One of the prevalent preconceptions of Troughton based on his appearances in stories that take place outside of his era (especially multi-Doctor crossovers) is that he is something of a comic figure. And why not? He is. It was certainly the preconception I developed about him after watching “The ThreeDoctors”. Here, though, he’s somewhat different. He’s… the bloody Doctor.

Sure, that’s a “duh” statement. But I can’t overstate how much his actions here are so Doctor to me. The Doctor is an inquisitive mind and he comes at problems differently. To its extreme, the “coming-at-the-problem-differently-because-he’s-an-alien” motif is basically any successful Tom Baker story. But often times I find that Baker comes at the problem from a place that’s just a bit too skewed or what have you. Troughton, on the other hand, goes for a tone that can only be described as “incredibly peculiar” and it’s almost a game or dialogue he engages in with the audience. It’s always a test to see how well you can keep up with what The Doctor is doing (and it’s why I think McCoy is really the best spiritual successor to Troughton as far as I’m concerned). I love the way The Doctor takes DNA samples from all the people in the Moonbase (it’s just so odd!) and the way that he talks his way out of getting chucked out of the station by saying he’s hit a breakthrough. And nothing’s better than the way he knocks the sugar out of the guy’s hands, which is brilliantly comic.

Regardless, it hammers home the point that The Doctor is an alien who’s very mercurial. He’s hard to pin down, fluid and indefineable. And it makes his performance an enigma. There’s always something to look at, something to notice and it makes his stories completely rewatchable in a way they wouldn’t be otherwise.

Then we have the Cybermen, who remain something of a glimpsed presence all through this episode. The story preys on childhood fears of monsters stealing you from your bed. And there’s something funny about watching the Cyberman wrestle the guy into submission before dragging him out the back way, or the manner in which the Cyberman puts back the sacks of sugar he had previously knocked over. And there’s also the spooky bit where the Cybermen beat the space-walkers unconscious and then strip them from their space suits. We still don’t know their plan, but they’ve made their presence known and the final beat of this episode, in which there’s the revelation that maybe there’s a Cyberman in the very room with them is tautly written excellence. Everyone plays it straight, and the Cyberman getting out of bed and preparing to do something is exactly what you want to have you screaming for the next episode.

Wait hang on. People dislike this? Really?

Part 3:

The last time Kit Pedler wrote a script, he came up with “The Tenth Planet”. Now I like “The Tenth Planet” but “The Tent Planet” also had some weird gender politics, what with Polly, when asked if she could be helpful, came up with “I dunno. I could make coffee or something.”

This script almost pushes it further. I meant to mention it in the last episode, but I lose nothing by putting it here. In the last episode, The Doctor relegated Polly to making coffee for all the men and then when the Cybermen invasion is imminent the leader of the Moonbase asks Polly to make them all coffee. You also have Ben putting Polly in her place when he and Jamie run off to go fight the Cybermen with spray bottles, saying “This is man’s work”. Politics, man. This is not good. And yet, I love that Polly doesn’t give a shit and goes with them anyways. And yet it doesn’t change the fact that it’s an unslightly blemish on an otherwise good story.

And it is quite good. It’s very exciting and very tense and makes me sad it doesn’t exist. Again, Troughton’s work here is all based on really exciting, enticing manipulation while the final moments musta been a sight to behold.

There’s a lot to like. If you like tense and exciting Doctor Who, it’s hard to come up with anything better. As we’ll talk about later, The Cybermen were made for marching, but there’s something so perverse about seeing Cybermen victorious. Maybe it goes back to my initial watching of “Army of Ghosts” and the line “this isn’t an invasion, it’s a victory” that really captures my imagination, but the image of a captured Doctor in the heart of a defended area being held by Cybermen is one of my favorite things. So too, the bit here where The Doctor and the Moonbase are under Cyber-control is really tense and not what you expect. Isn’t that more of an episode four play? And yet here we have the Cybermen in control of the base in episode three.

It leads to interesting stuff. The body horror of the Cybermen controlling the infected Moonbase technicians is a great design and a really fantastic, scary thing.

And then there’s the bit where the humans take the fight back and take out the three Cybermen with some spritzer bottles. I’m sad this doesn’t exist, especially because there’s nothing like using soap suds as stand-ins for actual gushing blood. But even beyond that there’s the really tense sequence in which Ben sprints outside into the vacuum of space in a space suit and throws the bottle at the Cyberman chasing Benoit. The crosscutting in my head is excellent and watching a Cyberman chase Benoit across a zero-g moonscape is really thrilling and delightful in ways that I can only describe with feelings.

AND THEN you have the last bit and the deeply iconic way in which the Cybermen march across the moon as they prepare to assault the Moonbase.

Now I know this totally isn’t the first Cybermen marching moment. They did it in “The Tenth Planet” (however briefly). But this looks epic. Really epic. Cybermen marching across the moon to assault a Moonbase is why I watch Doctor Who and it feels as tense as anything. The Cybermen are scary because of their numbers and seeing them trapsing across the moon? Come on. Just come on. That’s what this is all about. And the fact that Morris Barry takes his time wrapping up the episode as we end on the “oh shit” of it all? God. The Cybermen takeover happened with just three Cybermen and now there’s a massive legion approaching.

It’s just good escalation and turns this story into an instant classic. Sure, there’s better Cybermen stories, but you just don’t beat Cybermen trapsing across the moon. You just don’t.

Part 4:

When I first started doing this blog, I made a conscious decision to not do reconstructions of specific episodes. A big part of this was because there was a vast majority of Doctor Who stories out on DVD and with more on the way. Was this an opportunity for me to put links on here and decide “maybe I can get a little Amazon kickback money if I encourage the selling of DVDs”? Probably. But that never went much further than the “that’d be nice” phase. The point of this blog has never been to make money. It’s to discuss one of my favorite television programmes of all time. But being a snob, I decided to shy away from stories that were missing and/or reconstructed because that didn’t sound like as much fun and it wouldn’t be until well into the blog when I decided that I needed to cover reconstructions because otherwise I’m covering next to no Troughton and missing out on a bunch of Hartnell and not doing good enough work covering the breadth and width of the show.

Also, reconstructions are hard. They require a lot of brain power to piece together, especially if you’re watching along with screencaps as the soundtrack plays.

And there’s a real downside. It’s easy to lament “Oh I wish I could see what this looked like” and is crutch even the best reviewers fall into. Television (like film) is a visual medium. And we want to see these actors do these silly things on these silly sets and we want to watch it the way it was intended to be. It leads to a cognitive dissonance about how you think it is and how it really is. Often times, you can tell it’s even better than you’d imagine. “The Web of Fear” and “Evil of the Daleks” are great examples of that. With those stories it feels so good it hurts because you’re getting the experience, but it’s only half an experience.

What’s strange is watching an episode like “The Moonbase” and knowing that the perception in your head is way better than what they were coming up with at the time.

In the last episode I extolled the virtues of the story. I talked about how much it’s a delightful romp, full of thrilling action and runaround and mounting stakes and such. Here, it’s obvious how much Kit Pedler is more interested in scientific ideas than he is in real character or story. It’s the crutch of the nonwriter: anyone can do plot. Anyone. And this episode is all just straight plot, not really helped along by Barry’s direction in any way. It’s clear in the events that go down that Pedler’s essentially running down the clock until the episode is over by throwing more and more plot complications onto the pile.

None of these, by the way, feel like they come from any place other than “I guess we’ll try this now”.  There’s some depressurization. There’s a Cyber-takeover of the gravitron. There’s the Cybermen shooting a laser cannon at the Moonbase. Hell, we even have The Doctor trying to move the gravitron by hand.

And that’s where this story completely fails and it makes me wonder if episode three was a fluke or not? My guess is that it’s not, it’s just that Pedler has no idea how to end a damn story satisfyingly. He can put toys on the board, but he doesn’t know how to do anything with them or pile them on or build a character solution into anything. So it’s just mindless automatons blustering their way through whatever the hell some unseen force throws at them. And that’s really dull. But it’s… it’s not the episode’s fault. It’s Pedler’s. He ends the third episode on the phenomenal bit of The Cybermen marching across the barren moonscape and then… does nothing with them. All the threat here is of the plague victims attacking from the inside.

Now, all that said, it’s fine. It’s really fine. It’s got some exciting stuff, and again, it really gets into the base under siege of everything. And then it ends. The gravitron being the solution is clever and a good use of a plant from the first episode. But I have to question, like… how the hell is it that one virus guy can get all the way into the gravitron control room and NO ONE notices and for MINUTES? Clearly this is the most important thing going on in this fucking Moonbase right now. Sure, the Cybermen are attacking, but they don’t even turn around? They were looking at him not a minute ago and everything starts going horribly and it’s not for a while until they… I dunno. It’s just one of those hilarious old school storytelling things that they can get away with back then that they clearly couldn’t now. It’s madness. And the best is when he does the evil turnaround so we know he’s the evil guy and then turns back around so he can do his business again. Moments like that are priceless and could never be captured on audio.

It’s just too bad I can’t say the best about the rest of this.

Oh and Polly made coffee. Again.

Final Thoughts?: The prevailing thought on this story is that it's mediocre and while in episode three I was ready to buck the grain on that, episode four really turned me around.

Watching this, it's clear why this format of Doctor Who has such a particular draw. Hell, when I first heard about the "base under siege" format I was positively giddy to see them, and if there's a fault of the format it's that the over-reliance on it weakened the overall brand of said format.

And yet, this has all the proof everyone needed to see why such a thought would work. "The Moonbase" is quite the exciting story when you get right down to it and really milks the premise for just about all it's worth. There's an inherent drama here that's easier to mine than coming up with something on your own. I mean, once you turn Doctor Who into a series in which The Doctor is squaring off against different monsters every week it's not surprising you'd turn to something that's easy about that. Monsters attacking a place? That's inherently exciting. The place being stakesy and important? That's also dramatic.

But what's fascinating is the "you've seen one, you've seen 'em all" of that. At a certain point "The Ice Warriors" is just dull because you've seen it before and it's not doing anything interesting with that premise. "The Web of Fear" and "The Invasion" have a lot going on with various subplots and drives ("Web" has a big whodunnit wrapped in the center while "The Invasion" keeps throwing obstacles to delay the story out as much as possible). Other stories quite lack the content to fill out the full six episodes and it shows and it hurts the format. You can be tired of watching "The Ice Warriors" despite not really being familiar with other base under siege stories. And it's because there's a plug and chug in that that churns out something that's vaguely entertaining but hardly interesting outside of the few new ideas it manages to insert.

And that's what happens with "The Moonbase". There's an energy to it that transcends its complacency. It's playing with new ideas. It's the return of the Cybermen. It's the creation of a new drive in Troughton. It's playing with a bunch of different things that are shiny and new. And that's why it can feel fresh despite not being very good at all. And there's something to be said about the way that CSI starts with a bang and with an exciting premise and a bunch of cool new visual techniques to keep you soaked in the whole show from beginning to end. Yet now, those don't quite do it because it's all been done. CSI needs to constantly be reinventing itself and the way it looks at its format and its structures and its conventions. Complacency makes for lousy storytelling and it's sad knowing that this story, which is so full of promise and excitement only spells doom for the rest of the Troughton era.

Ah well. At least the middle two episodes were good.

Next Time!: 3rd Doctor! Liz going over a bridge! A man hunt! A crazy bastard! Scary astronauts! Radiation! And possibly the best UNIT action sequence ever? "The Ambassadors of Death!" Coming Next Tuesday!

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