Wednesday, 17 June 2009

The Moonbase

18 May 2004, 9:47 am

The Moonbase 1:

You know something? I think this might be the perfect episode one.

To put this in perspective - I'm not a particularly big fan of the Moonbase. I think, like I suspect most people do, that it's all right, but nothing special. But this first episode is as good an example of the type as you're ever likely to get.

A first episode has various functions. Exposition is the most obvious, but hooking the audience is equally important. And the Moonbase manages this perfectly. The exposition is swift but clear, using the device of the Doctor and co. being newcomers to have the entire set up explained (ok, there's not really a good explanation for the Moonbase crew not really bothering that these fellow 2070s Earthmen don't know the detail, but it's a minor point). This even goes so far as to name check every single character, even some of their nationalities. If there's anything about this that's a little weak, it's the rather self-conscious mutli-national make-up of the station, immediately reminiscent of the Tenth Planet. However, the alternative is a bunch of white englishmen, which is probably worse (though I would like it if the black cast member didn't die straight away. The series seems, to my eyes, to be it's most amenable to casting black actors here. This is, what, the fourth story out of six to cast one, which isn't bad, especially when you compare it to the records of contemporary shows like the Avengers. As I say though, only one of them, Underwater Menace, doesn't dispose of it's black cast member pretty quickly - and even then, he is blatantly subservient to the Irish slave. It should be noted that this is probably nothing more than the series not being allowed to push the boundaries any further... it's a good try). One mild disappointment is that again they're all male - in this future, it's ok to be foreign, just not female. It's interesting that, in comparison to the 10th Planet, these men aren't as immediately randy at the sight of Polly, in fact they barely register she's different at all. These scientist, eh? Cold types.

In terms of intrigue - well, the story has spades. The moment the TARDIS arrives, in a moment cruelly missing from the BBC Soundtrack, but clearly visible in the telesnaps, we see they are next to a spacecraft. But no reference is made to it. And then throughout the episode we get a combination of further moments of intrigue, some given huge weight (the mysterious listening in), and some thrown away subtly (the pressure drops). As a result, we're not overwhelmed. I always found a big flaw in the McCoy era where they seemed to think that 'intrigued' was synonymous with 'confused'. You'd spend the entire twenty five minutes (sometimes more) thinking 'what the hell is going on?' With this episode, you know what's happening, but there remain unanswered questions. The central set up, relationships are all clear, you know there's a virus, you know someone nasty is hanging around. You're hooked, rather than bemused.

There's also a tremendous sense of creepiness in this episode. The menacing shadow of the Cyberman as a hulking menace is a little bit unnerving, and the virus infection is also very effective. It's not entirely clear if we're supposed to recognize the cybermen or not from the cliffhanger though... if we are, we should get it a little earlier (from the jughandles), or the theme. The face... well, it's getable, the eyes and mouth remain similar... I'd like to think we'd know who it was (and considering that everyone recognized them when they turned up in Earthshock with an equally radical facelift, it's plausible - though obviously they had considerably more than the two episodes or so of appearance we've got at this point).

It's an ok story for the regulars, no one getting any stand out moments though. I'm beginning to get anxious for Jamie to actually do something, to affect the plot somehow. The Phantom Piper stuff is a nice try at integrating him, thematically, into the action without really giving him extra material. But you are still aware he hasn't really contributed yet (and his personality hasn't settled down yet either, he seems terribly dim at points).

As I say then, a pretty perfect part one.


Well, now I know you're mad, I just wanted to make sure.

18 May 2004, 11:34 pm

The Moonbase 2:

Well, for one reason or another, I'm gonna be pretty distracted tomorrow. I'd have been able to watch this episode, but I wouldn't necessarily have done the write up. So here it is, in advance.

Once again this episode is a virtual model of the form. The mysteries of the first episode (what is this virus? why the pressure drops? who is listening in?) are all answered, but then elaborated on (now the principal question becomes 'what is the purpose of this?'), to keep us intrigued (whilst a few more - what is being done with the missing crewmen) are brought into play. Generally, however, the episode is less successful than its predecessor.

The main reason for this is that the script has one or two minor little niggles. Most blatant is a five minute or so sequence, with none of the regulars, that is clearly just technobabble. Presumably this sequence was written to fill up the episode, as it adds nothing to our understanding of the characters, or the situation. Likewise odd is the way that the start of the episode is a virtual rerun of the close of part one - I don't mean the cliffhanger, obviously, but the bits just to the side of it. Both feature Polly entering the room, seeing someone sneaking out of the sickbay, screaming, and having the crew rush to her aid. This is principally odd because no one comments on the faintly 'boy who cried wolf' air about it. There are one or two other repetitive bits, with two shots of a cyberman looming over Jamie before deciding to go for someone else. And there's a five, ten minute sequence (up to his entrance to mention the disappearance of another crewman) when it's completely unclear where Ben is - he seems to vanish (he's not been in the sickbay with Polly and the Doctor, and he hasn't been helping out in the control room). Bit sloppy that.

Contrasting, there are one or two wonderful moments. The Cyberman suddenly appearing behind Polly is a real crap yourself moment, to be a little indelicate (though this is slightly spoilt by her seeming indifference to it after about one scene - you'd barely know anything that scary had happened judging from her reaction). The Doctor's sampling is joyously entertaining - funny and playful, but strangely Doctorish. Benoit's lapsing into french to complain is brilliant - it's funny in itself, but also is a lovely bit of thoughtful detail. Does rather beg what language all the other french people have said - and you do have to ignore the fact that Benoit starts walking backwards into the Doctor for no better reason than setting up the gag, but that's a minor point. Troughton really is the Doctor I love now. A moral crusader (as that fabulous 'some corners of the universe' speech will attest); a smart out-thinker of others (witness his getting out of trouble with Hobson by making up a solution); and a playful lovable friend - always takes things seriously, but with a twinkle. Everyone of the companions might as well not be in this episode, particularly Jamie who does get short shrift, understandably. I have a vague recollection of a documentary using the clip of Polly going to get coffee to illustrate the show's sexism. Rather an ironic choice, as despite Polly's prediliction for boiling up kettles, this is the story where the making of coffee is actually a useful plot point.

The Cybermen look a touch too squat for me. The new design is ok, but not as inherently chilling, and I'm bloody amazed anyone could tell who they were at sight. But they still do manage to cut a menacing dash, with their every appearance having some creepiness factor (ok, apart from the Paul Darrow-esque camp gun aiming at the cliffhanger). Nice cliffhanger, too. As incomprehensible as the Dalek rising from the thames, but utterly effective and scary.


22 May 2004, 12:23 am

Back to me episodes. Many apologies for the delay in this one. As I said, I had plenty of irons in several fires.

The Moonbase 3:

The Cybermen are a bit crap aren't they? Let's look at the evidence - out of the three episodes that have properly featured them to any real degree (10th Planet 2 &4, and this one) it's noticeable that they always seem to follow them same pattern. They invade. They congregate most of the humans in a central area and explain the plot to them. One or two other humans - usually the Dr's companions are left away from the action, in a place (A-Team like) that contains all that is required for a Cyberman defeating weapon to be built. They are then defeated.

It's a good job they've got loads of reinforcements, because they are just far too easy to defeat. How are we supposed to feel fear when faced by these monsters that are always subdued within twenty minutes. It took more than that to defeat the Moroks!

The logic of this is that they only invade to explain the plot - after that point they need to be removed quickly. And this emphasises the problem with this episode. The story has run out of plot.

It's a high concept sequel, with no solid idea underlying it, or good reason to be told. The result is, like Web of Fear next season, a story rushed into production to capitalise on a big success monster, but without a story to justify it. In comparison to the clinical logical scheme of the 10th Planet, their plan here is frankly daft: they want to destroy the Earth to 'get rid of any potential troublespots'? I mean, get your priorities straight. It's just a villainy for it's own stake concept - they know they're villains. You can tell that the main drive in the creation of this story was getting them back, not neccessarily giving them a story worth their presence. Following on from this, the atmospheric mysteries of the previous two episodes are brushed away. For a start, the Cyberman was forced to reveal itself at the end of part two - but this episode acts as if that was all part of their plan. And all the hiding under sheets, poisoning sugar and so on seems completely pointless as part of their overall scheme. Why not just march in (ok, they're 'supposedly' scared of gravity - but this shouldn't stop them using the controls, they're standing over the men using them - and even if they do need to nick humans, why go to all the convoluted lengths of poisoning the sugar, why not just nick people when they pop outside - they clearly do this anyway). The only real saving grace is the voice - it's cool, with a definite emotionless computer generated quality. The biggest problem is that it is frequently incomprehensible.

And even the easy defeat of the Cybermen runs out of steam, so a last five minute sequence with Benoit being chased is thrown in...

The regulars don't do as much as you think. Troughton barely says a word til halfway through, and doesn't really affect the outcome. Polly's solution is clever, if you can face the embarassment factor of death by nail polish. A real shame is that despite the fact that Polly is clearly smarter than her two male fellows, she still get's treated as a girl (one solution derived from her making coffee, one from nail polish). Given all this, and how little Ben and Jamie have done, the 'man' s work' sentiment is patronising in the extreme.

Still the cliffhangers fine. 3rd episodes are traditionally weak. Maybe part four will get better...


22 May 2004, 9:10 pm

The Moonbase 4:

Hmm. A short while ago I likened the Underwater Menace part two, to a third episode. Moonbase 4 is a part three too. Odd.

Once again, I'll explain what I feel. The plot just seems to have vanished. Usually a part four is about tying off the story, building to a climax. Here, it's seems to be about desperately filling out the script.

A lot of people suggest that the 10th Planet is the story that created the 'base under siege' archetype, but it's not really true. In that story, there's a base, yes, but it's never really under siege. Compare it with this episode and you'll see what I mean. This episode is nothing but siege - a series of largely disconnected set pieces. And whilst this would be ok as a good tense third episode, holding off until the climactic final episode, as that climactic episode it just doesn't work. This is the point where the story shuld be building, not treading water.

For example, look how good the cliffhanger to part three was. Big army of cybermen start marching across the moon surface. Ooh, that looks exciting. It's in part four we find out what they've marched out to do - stand around and wait for a bit. Yes, that was worth it wasn't it? They even call in reinforcements, as if they've lost more than about four cybermen in the previous episodes. What do they need them for? They don't raid the base or anything (surely they could get through in force of numbers alone?). Are they lonely? You get the feeling their just winging it really.

And their plans seem so disconnected - the moment they've got a man in with the gravitron, they knock him out by piercing the dome. Once again the episode is just a series of set pieces. Now, it's worth noting that they are fun set pieces, yes, kind of tense, yes... and viewed on its own this is a perfectly acceptable episode - but as a climax, it just doesn't cut it. We get twenty minutes of filler before the cyberman are defeated seemingly without any build up whatsoever. The episode itself is fine - the problem remains where it is placed in the story. It doesn't take it anywhere. It doesn't build.

One big niggle I have with this story has to be mentioned. It tries to ignore the regulars as much as possible. In fact, the entire story seems to be about Hobson. Watch how many times the Doctor is shoved into the background of the shot (the communication with the Cybermen sequence, the big cheer when they're defeated). Hobson is foregrounded, blocking the Doctor. Who's show is this? I seem to remember one writer of the NAs saying that the problem with the rejected stories was that if you took the Doctor out it was very difficult to get them to work. It's true of most good Doctor Who stories, but it isn't true of this one - even the eventual solution to the cyber-menace is easy and simple enough to be within the logical grasp of any of the Moonbase staff. (and whilst we're on that subject - why does it take the Doctor so long to bring the idea to everyone's attention - he was clearly talking about this very idea at the end of part three... why else was he asking how low the gravitron could go in that episode?)

Once again the rest of the crew do get sidelined. Polly gets to make coffee, again, and make thumbs up gestures. Jamie and Ben get stuck dealing with a subplot (and doesn't the medical room have two exits anyway?). Can't help wondering what happens to the ill crewmen afterwards as well, in any case. It's never explained.

So, all in all, a pleasant enough story, kind of fun - but lacking in depth. I can't quite see why the Cybermen were considered so highly this early, to be honest. In their first story they looked huge and menacing - the sleekness of the design actually distracts, and lots (particularly the one at the end of part two) look quite small and squat. Half their dialogue in this episode goes for a burton. And perhaps most damning of all, they've only properly been in four episodes - and in each one they develop a different weakness: their own guns, radiation, nail polish remover and gravity. The Daleks have pretty much gone six whole stories without even one. There's a lot of potential in them, but they need to get seriously better before they'll move up the chain.

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