Moonbase 3: The Complete Series Review

Moonbase 3 was, for twenty years, a forgotten show. It ran for only six episodes in 1973 and has sometimes been written off in history books as a minor side-venture by the producer and script editor of Doctor Who, usually by people who hadn't seen it. Its real qualities were forgotten because nobody had any way to find them out. All six episodes were lost when the BBC recklessly junked most of its archive in the mid-1970s (along with the final series of Doomwatch, probably gone forever, it was nearly the most modern material destroyed). It was not until a rediscovery at an American television station that the series could be seen again.

This is what they came for: a scientific discovery

Produced by Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts, directed by Christopher Barry, with music by Dudley Simpson and radiophonic effects by Dick Mills, Moonbase 3 ought to have come out like Doctor Who or Blake’s Seven, children's stories played with panache and occasional sophistication by adult actors. But the base crew are scientists, not romantic explorers, and the enemy of Moonbase 3 is not a Dalek invasion or a glamour-queen empress: it is that most grown-up of vices, accidie. The script quotes W. H. Auden: up on the lunar surface, "we must love one another or die." The base crew struggle against depression, jealousy, loneliness and repressed desires. There is an attempted rape, which probably accounts for the PG classification. Robert Holmes's script for the exactly contemporary Doctor Who story Carnival of Monsters, also out on DVD this week, slyly calls itself "nothing serious, nothing political", with toothy monster worms which are "great favourites of the children". Moonbase 3, made by the same people at the same time, couldn't be more different. It strives for realism and has ambition to be taken seriously. Nothing ever occurs which would contradict the laws of physics, except that a little box on the moonbase wall insouciantly flashes ARTIFICIAL GRAVITY ON (for obvious TV budget reasons). Explosions in space are silent and do not leave clouds. Nobody shows up from the planet Arrrghh.

In most people's memory, Moonbase 3 has been eclipsed by Moonbase Alpha, the setting of Gerry Anderson's Space: 1999. Made only eighteen months later, Space: 1999 certainly stole the initial idea (and plot of first episode), but then both shows were really spin-offs of live factual coverage of the Apollo lunar landings. Martin Landau, who played Moonbase Alpha's Commander John Koenig, was then travelling the long via dolorosa of his 1970s career, his work with Hitchcock only a memory and his work with Woody Allen not begun. Even so, he was much the best thing in it. Space: 1999 had far more money, far better model shots and far fewer scruples than Moonbase 3, but mostly it triumphed by virtue of having a mental age of about fifteen (series 1) or eight (series 2). Shortly after Landau arrives, an explosion kicks the Moon out of its orbit at hundreds of times the speed of light (which gives you some idea of the scientific sophistication of the show) and soon he is grappling with a shape-changing alien princess who is also a tigress, a lady owl, etc., only to stand trial under the talking justice shrubs of the planet Luton. (Fred Freiberger, American co-producer, saw the word Luton on a road sign one day and decided it would be the perfect name for an alien world. True story.)

Hostile environment: investigating an accident. The spacesuits are very authentic to Apollo

What Moonbase 3 demonstrates is that you don't need to propel the moon to alien star systems to make it a very distant outpost of Earth. The nearest breathable air is a quarter of a million miles away. The base is a fort which is also, in its way, a prison. John Brason and Arden Winch, two writers of Gerald Glaister's great second world war dramas for the BBC -- Colditz, Secret Army and The Fourth Arm -- here earn their only sci-fi writing credits. (They also get what is, I think, their only DVD outing to date. Glaister's war series, astonishingly popular in their day, have still never had a general commercial release even on VHS, perhaps because they feature neither dancing in underwired frocks nor spacesuits. A great pity. Ironically, their parody Allo Allo has now totally eclipsed them, and had a big DVD release last month.) As in many of his scripts for Secret Army, one of which goes as far as to be a subtle retelling of the Passion story, Brason's episodes have a very discreet underpinning of theology.

Moonbase 3 opens with a solid if rather expository script by Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts, setting up the show's format. The year is 2003. For eight years, Moonbase 3 has been the European space agency's foothold on the lunar surface, but it is poorly led and under strain. A new Director is to be sent in: David Caulder (Donald Houston), the ginger-bearded "Welsh Wizard", a soubriquet borrowed from David Lloyd George. We are told that as a lecturer in nuclear physics at an Oxford University on the point of student rebellion, he "took over as Chancellor when nobody else wanted the job" and had the whole place calm in no time. Now he is a scientist turned civil servant (modelled perhaps on C. P. Snow, then at the height of his fame). Since Caulder doesn't appear at all for 25 minutes, we see him first as the Moonbase inhabitants do: an outsider.

Caulder (Donald Houston) is challenged by Lebrun (Ralph Bates)

Caulder's disgruntled deputy is Michel Lebrun, played, inevitably, by Ralph Bates, whose French accent and panoply of Gallic shrugs are much as can be seen in the terrific final season of Secret Army, where he played the Communist leader Paul Vercors. In Secret Army, Bates was simply overpowered by the formidable presence of the other character actors: Bernard Hepton, Clifford Rose, Valentine Dyall, Terence Hardiman, Paul Shelley. The cast of Moonbase 3 is nothing like so strong, and Bates is able to make more of an impact, as he also was in the BBC's tricorn-hats-and-hazarded-hearts drama, Poldark. In Moonbase 3 the regulars all put in watchable performances, rising to the occasion when duty calls. The supporting cast is more variable. John Moreno (Juan, the solar physicist) has an execrable Spanish accent, veering wildly from Speedy Gonzalez to Manuel without ever passing through Madrid. Peter Miles (Heinz, the geologist) is distractingly recognisable as Davros's sidekick Nyder from the classic Doctor Who story Genesis of the Daleks, in spite of his wearing a cardigan rather than a faux-SS uniform. Peter Bathurst, as the European space boss back on Earth, is simply too English-old-buffer to be true, a stock part he made something of a career of. Michael Gough guest-stars in the final show as Sir Benjamin Dyce, octogenarian rebel scientist loosely modelled on Bertrand Russell. The faces of old television, half familiar, half strange.

The two stories by John Lucarotti are as thoroughly researched as sci-fi fans would expect (Lucarotti, despite a long and varied writing career, is now chiefly remembered as the author of early Doctor Who "historicals", also meticulously based on fact). In one story, Edward Brayshaw guest stars as a bitter ex-pilot kicked off the Venus mission for a trivial heart condition: a plot-line clearly based on the true story of one of NASA's Mercury astronauts, Deke Slayton. Lucarotti's other episode is a mixture of the cooperative US and Russian Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, which in 1973 was just being tentatively agreed to, and the near-disaster of Gemini 8, Neil Armstrong's other command, in which docking with an unmanned Agena rocket stage sent the capsule into a violent spin. Here George Pravda and Milos Kirek, stalwart Russian-part actors of the 1970s, appear on behalf of their nation. But the episode is memorable mainly for a terrific spacewalk sequence, in which director Christopher Barry makes a pretty good fist of imitating Stanley Kubrick's cinematography from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Spacewalking: rotating frames of reference, sharp shadows, deep darkness

The best of the supporting cast is easily John Hallam, who plays pensive geologist Peter Conway in the two episodes by John Brason. Brooding, and with a hooded eye, he does a fine turn as the base's answer to Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately his own psychological struggle is against apathy, so he doesn't get as much action as we would like. An error of casting means that his best friend Stephen Partness is played by an actor (Tom Kempinski) with a rather similar face: a pity, since it is essential not to muddle them up. Everybody likes Peter; everybody loathes Stephen, and the odd symmetry between them is the theme of episode 4 ("Outsiders"). But odd symmetry or not, it's a nuisance that they look so alike.

Peter Conway (John Hallam) explaining something to Bjorn from Abba

With the enemies all in the mind, the two lynchpin characters are not the half-heartedly sparring Director and Deputy, but the lean chief astronaut, Tom Hill (Barry Lowe, of Z-Cars fame), and the flouncing base psychologist, Helen Smith (Fiona Gaunt), whose wardrobe must consist solely of corduroy trousersuits showing off her bottom to best effect. For daywear, a red trousersuit. Off duty, green. When in mourning, black. Like all television actresses of her day, she is caked in make-up and haloed by hair-spray, making zooms onto her face rather jarring for viewers accustomed to today's natural-light film cameras. A female interloper into a male drama, she has an uphill struggle against the scripts, too. Her work is mostly portrayed as scientific, but all too often we hear about empathy and women's intuition. The boys keep calling her "love" and telling her she is "beautiful" rather than answering her, so that after a while you long for Dr Smith to slap their faces. Instead she keeps falling in love with her patients because, hell, what's a girl to do? The future as seen from 1973 doesn't seem to include genuine female liberation: it's really only a higher-tech 1973, in fact. The Cold War is easing into détente. Russia would rather ally with Europe than America. China is on the rise. The emerging European state has its own Parliament (the "Assembly") and single currency (the "Eurodollar").

Dr Smith (red trousersuit today) leading a Bastille Day celebration in the perfectly hideous base canteen. Beside her, white-haired old Sir Benjamin Dyce (played by Michael Gough, in a performance of real honey-roast ham) is deeply unimpressed by nation states

Today the idea of five fully-manned bases on the Moon looks fanciful. By 1975 even the infrastructure required to send scouting parties had gone. It is far beyond present technology, and likely to remain so until 2025 at the earliest. But our ability to pretend to go to the moon, via special effects, has been transformed beyond all recognition since 1973, and Moonbase 3's model shots and polystyrene boulders sometimes look dated. Actually the base model is excellent, but the moon buggies scale down badly, and are all too obviously Dinky Toys. Inside, the canteen décor is especially frightful but all the interiors are corrugated and ugly: to be fair, this was probably intentional. Set design makes heavy use of gaudy plastics and fake buttons, often overlit, so that the shuttle vehicle's cockpit looks like an Apollo Command and Service Module as rebuilt by Blue Peter. (Genuine Apollo CSMs have mechanical-dialled panels of gunmetal grey inside, and leather straps like the seat-belts in old cars: they look shockingly unmodern.) Yet the BBC have put every last component in its correct place, from the antenna to the couches.

Lunar soil excellent: but the model moon-buggy sometimes gives away the scale

Indeed, Moonbase 3 could almost be called a drama documentary. In guessing the spacefaring nations of the future (America, Russia, Europe, China, Brazil, in that order), it missed only Canada. The research being done is in astronomy, seismology and metallurgy, which is plausible. The use of slowed film and choreographed movement to signal zero or lunar gravity is only sometimes convincing, but lunar dust is kicked up very realistically, and the use of amplified breathing and silence in space sequences anticipates Alien in its eerieness. Procedure is also authentic. The astronaut chatter is drawn from Apollo flight transcripts, and piloting a spacecraft is presented as a difficult and exacting skill. It's the exact opposite of the American movie convention by which country crop-duster pilots from Hicksville County, Georgia, can yawn, say "There ain't nothin' ah can't fly", and promptly make a take-off in an alien flying saucer. In Moonbase 3 you don't steer: you nudge with small burns, and key in a series of Verb and Noun commands, a system unique to the Apollo guidance computer. The show's writers were advised by James Burke, BBC science front-man of the 70s and host of its Apollo coverage. They correctly guessed that an unmanned craft would make a gravity-assisted flyby of the outer planets in the late 1970s: with the benefit of hindsight, we know this as Pioneer 11, but in Moonbase 3 it is referred to as "Grand Tour", a code-name NASA was using at the planning stages. There's no question that, for research, you have to give the show ten out of ten.

In one sense these scripts are shrewder than NASA, which has always had great institutional pressure against psychological considerations, believing instead that the right stuff needs no therapy and that a six-month flight is the same as twelve two-week flights in a row. Long-term spaceflight is, like life on board submarines, far more stressful than those back at base ever know. NASA's hardest-pressed expedition crew, Skylab 4 (1974), mutinied. Aboard Mir in its last days, American astronauts became listless and uncooperative, felt themselves stranded and in one case exhibited the early symptoms of paranoia. NASA shows no sign of wanting to learn from experience, but the flight controllers of today's International Space Station could do worse than watch this DVD.

After six episodes, winding up with the show's finest script, Arden Winch's View of a Dead Planet, the series had run its natural course and more would have been more of the same. There are only so many angles to pursue, given the absence of aliens or opposing factions. You could say the same about the Apollo landings themselves, of which there were also only six. The final nightmare, of sitting out a global disaster from the vantage point of the Moon and waiting for the oxygen to expire, seems an appropriate place to leave the crew of Moonbase 3. It was an intriguing attempt to make a thoughtful, adult series within the trappings and styles of the sci-fi adventure yarn: sometimes it worked. As with most tightly-confined dramas, viewing it leaves you either unmoved or deeply immersed, but even if you aren't sure which will happen to you, it's worth a try. This DVD release is complete, well mastered and excellent value for money.

It's hard to believe this show was made back when television was half its present age, but it's very much television drama of the old school just the same. The 50-minute episodes are small Play-for-Today scripts, aspiring to be about something: they aren't anything like today's soapier Casualty-style scripts. Scenes are longer, more theatrical: video cutting is less frantic, and more use is made of studio sets. Seventies television had absurdities in plenty, but when people call it a golden age, they aren't so far off the mark.

The DVD Release

Moonbase 3 was first released by BBC Video, which rushed out a VHS release in 1994. This swiftly disappeared from shelves again, but at least meant that rights clearances had been sorted out. The BBC has a curious DVD release policy, based on making only a few high-profile releases itself, and licensing outside firms to release sitcoms from the archive: it seems very reluctant to let others release archival drama, unfortunately, but it does grant rights to remaster old BBC Video VHS releases. This two-disc set by Second Sight is greatly superior in picture quality to the old video copy. Early television shot on video which has been out to NTSC and back is never going to have the clarity of film; the aspect ratio is faintly stretched; and episode 2 suffered very minor damage on the way, with a handful of jumps and burn-marks. But given the history, it's surprising how clean and sharp the picture is.

One of the unsung virtues of the DVD age is that it is turning out not to be dominated by Hollywood movies after all. Archive television is in business as never before, often at excellent value for money. Where once we could buy only a single tape with a muddy print of two randomly selected episodes from a show, we can now acquire a complete season in one purchase at something approaching broadcast quality. This release is just that, with a running time of 310 minutes. There are no extras, but attractive menu screens offer chapter stops within episodes. And it's on sale at half the 1994 price of the VHS release. Moonbase 3 has been given a reliable transfer, rather better than similar titles normally get: notably Digital Entertainment's Danger UXB, which has unfortunate soundtrack distortions, and Revelation's Tomorrow People discs, with regrettable video artifacts and awful graphic design. But all these releases are welcome, and far superior to anything we had in commercial VHS days; and certainly better than the scratched old prints used for repeat broadcasts on channels like UK Gold.

Second Sight, publishers of this Moonbase 3 set, were also responsible for the very welcome release of the complete series 1 of The Tripods, and have two further sci-fis from the archive lined up for the months ahead: Chocky and Children of the Stones. As with Tripods, the Moonbase discs are, admirably, region 0 and so are also playable in America. Of course, Americans will be using NTSC televisions to look at a PAL conversion of the NTSC conversion of the original PAL format video... television standards, eh? So good that we have two of them.

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