The Moonbase

moonbaseNow listen, everybody. I don’t know how many more of these Cybermen there are, but from our point of view we’re under siege.

It is remarkable the extent to which the Troughton era arrives fully formed here, with a format that will define the era.  Watching the stories in order this feels like a massive departure from everything before it.  How on earth can this be the next thing to watch after The Underwater Menace?  Gone are the Doctor’s disguises and silly hats (although some other characters get to wear silly hats instead).  Instead we have a Doctor who is committed to fighting the monsters, stuck in a base on the moon that is under siege from what will come to be this Doctor’s most iconic enemies.  This is not quite the first base under siege, but it is the one that sets down the pattern for the rest of the Troughton era.

The Doctor’s big speech is endlessly played in documentaries about Doctor Who, but it is worth looking at the build-up to it, which reveals something important about the way the series is progressing:

DOCTOR: No, Ben. We can’t go yet.
BEN: Well, why not? They don’t want us here.
DOCTOR: Because there is something evil here and we must stay.
HOBSON: Evil? Don’t be daft.
DOCTOR: Evil is what I meant. There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything that we believe in. They must be fought.

It’s a great moment, but the crucial piece of information here is the way the Doctor is drawing a line in the sand and deciding that from now on his adventures are not going to be just about landing in dangerous places, trying to get away, and maybe solving some problems while he’s stuck somewhere.  This happens long before the Cybermen attack en masse, and the Doctor can just go back to the TARDIS if he wants to.  But he recognises that he is not that person any more, and here that gets spelt out.  This is the Doctor starting on the path to being the mythical being the monsters are scared of, and every subsequent Cybermen story during the Troughton era will play on how the Doctor is known to the Cybermen in some way.

It makes perfect sense that this happens now, because the Doctor’s transition to being a new kind of hero started with his regeneration, and that was caused by the Cybermen.  Their return is a big deal for the Doctor in a way that even the return of the Daleks couldn’t manage.  The Daleks returned as the monster that had already conquered the Earth, before the Doctor arrived.  They had to come back big.  The Cybermen come back small, and hold even more power, as the monster that has already killed the Doctor.  It feels terribly dangerous.  Set at a similar point in the future of the Earth to The Dalek Invasion of Earth, this feels like much more of a threat to the Doctor rather than a threat to humanity.  The danger is personal.

It is also a danger that is fresh in the minds of the viewers.  The Cybermen are the first enemy to ever return in their debut season.  And these monsters who killed the Doctor return with a major upgrade, looking even more dangerous.  Gone are the creepy masks and human hands, and instead they have blank metal faces.  They are fully armoured and ready for battle now, and they have brought disease with them, as if they weren’t scary enough.

The Cybermen are the monsters that the designers just can’t leave alone.  The original design was a twisted distortion of humanity.  This version is more robotic in appearance, but finds another way to play with the uncanny valley with the blank faces and the wrongness of the voices.  They will remain relatively unchanged until The Invasion and then every subsequent redesign will diminish them for a very long time.  This version is first introduced to us through the eyes of Jamie, who associates them with a supernatural, mythical creature, really selling the fear in that first cliffhanger ending:

It’s you, the Phantom Piper!

Note to Big Finish: get somebody to write a Second Doctor and Jamie audio where they really do meet the Phantom Piper.  Explore the origins of that myth!  It sounds chilling.

I wouldn’t like to choose which version of the Cybermen is more effective up to this point: the Tenth Planet ones or the Moonbase ones.  Both are frightening and effective in their own ways.  The Cybermen were also rarely as impressive again.  It sounds silly, but there is a shot of them marching on the base where there are eleven of them on screen at the same time.  You might think: eleven?  So what?  But most Doctor Who armies of monsters tend to be comprised of somewhere between one and three monsters, so eleven is actually about as close to a convincing army that Doctor Who ever gets during the Classic series.  They couldn’t even manage to make that many Cybermen costumes for The Age of Steel.

Despite mustering up a pretty decent force, the Cybermen are remarkably ineffective at laying siege to the base.  They fire one shot at the moonbase and then give up on that idea.  A few in quick succession would have at least caused the humans to run short of trays.  If only all armies worked on that basis.  Fire one shot, and if their enemies do not surrender immediately pack up all the weapons and give up on that idea.

The thing is, the Cybermen are incompetent as a fighting force, and that’s exactly how they should be.  They are at their very best skulking around in the shadows, picking people off one by one.  An army of phantom pipers is just another Doctor Who army of invaders.  A phantom piper hiding in a bed is terrifying.

A quick note about the companions, the only aspect of the story that generally gets criticised.  Yes, the lines are spread thinly amongst the three of them, but we are far from seeing the kind of problems here that would be experienced during the Fifth Doctor era.  Having three companions is not an inherent fault.  The Troughton era virtually starts off in the same way as the Hartnell era in that respect, and that was sustained for two seasons.  It is fine for one companion to come to the fore in a story, and this is Polly’s big moment.  Ben and Jamie still get some good stuff, almost coming to blows at one point, but Polly gets to save the day with her Polly Cocktail, and is the one who works with the Doctor for the key part of the story.  I mentioned above that the clip of the Doctor giving his big “corners of the universe” speech gets shown a lot in documentaries, but there is another clip in The Moonbase that turns up just as often: the Doctor telling Polly to make some tea.  It is generally twisted to illustrate sexism in Doctor Who, but that is completely out of context, ignoring that (a) it has a plot function because Polly making tea leads to a major discovery, and (b) the Doctor wants her to do that to keep Hobson and his team happy and out of the Doctor’s way while he investigates.  Polly saves the world by making tea; if that’s the best example of sexism anyone can throw at Sixties Doctor Who it can’t have been doing too badly.

This week I will be praising things a lot, and I can’t pretend to be unbiased.  The Troughton Cybermen episodes are the pinnacle of Doctor Who for me.  The Moonbase is an astonishingly effective Cybermen story, but the amazing thing is that it was not quite the best of the best.  The next time those terrifying phantom pipers would show up, they would be climbing down from their icy tombs.   RP

The view from across the pond:

There’s a lot to be said for Doctor Who as a show and I usually credit it as superior to Star Trek in most ways.  In fairness, it was intended as educational but went big on action adventure pretty early on.  Trek aimed at discussing big issues masked as science fiction.  Beyond being science fiction, they were pretty different in their approach.  Still, I usually say Who “got there first” with most of its ideas.  Barring one. Cybermen.

Oh, in strictly basic terms, Doctor Who did get there first, by a very long shot.  The Tenth Planet premiered in 1966, the same year Star Trek was born. Doctor Who was already well established and highly successful.  Trek wouldn’t introduce us to Cybermen Done Right, aka the Borg, until May of 1989, right around the time Doctor Who was ending, in fact.  And yet, Trek got there first.  See, the Cybermen were supposed to be devoid of emotion (love, pride, hate, fear…) but Trek actually understood those words.  The Borg are animated corpses, moving around by the power of cybernetics.  Their skin is grey and mottled from lack of blood flow.  They are unified and have no emotion.  They are not individual.  Cybermen are very emotional.  When they are excited, they clench their fists and exclaim “excellent” in a way that is just short of a leap for joy.  They operate as individual units and they are big on theatrics.

In The Moonbase they like to remove the dead from operating tables and replace them with Cybermen who then cover themselves up and wait.  They are probably giggling under those cyber-blankets thinking “you think the humans will notice that the body on this table was 5’2” and is now 6’4” and wearing boots?”  They aren’t marketed as such, but they are probably a lot of fun at parties.  (Think about the one waiting in the cupboard for David Tennant in The Next Doctor.   Did he yell “surprise” or “gotcha”?)

All teasing aside (and that was quite a bit of fun), The Moonbase is one of Patrick Troughton’s stories with the traditional “base under siege” and it’s done incredibly well.  It’s important in this modern era of CGI and full color HD imagery that we recognize one thing: black and white was astoundingly good for creating terror.  This is largely because a good filmmaker understands how to use shadow to great effect and in black and white, this approach can enhance shadows exponentially.  And Cybermen lurking in shadow is a scary thing.  (Remember Bill in The World Enough and Time?  That was even changed online to a black-and-white clip, complete with classic score to illustrate just how eerie that idea is!)  Added to that visual fear factor, these Cybermen recognize the Doctor even though this marks their first meeting with this incarnation.  That’s also a perfect element, because it leaves open the idea that they might meet again, at a point in the Cybermen’s past.  Mature storytelling perhaps, if that were truly the plan.  More likely, fortune favored the Time Lord!   For one added element of terror: a virus is striking down the crew of the titular moon base and no one knows how to stop it or even what causes it.  Coupled with some eerie music, this episode has all the hallmarks of the era and creates a tense environment for the Doctor, Ben, Polly and Jamie to fight the Cybermen.  An absolute classic!

If The Moonbase has any negatives, they don’t take away from the overall story.  My biggest complaint is that the writer clearly had no idea what to do with Jamie, so he spends most of the story out cold and mumbling about the “piper” who is coming for him.  Polly is tasked with the ignominious task of the female companion to “go make tea” (although her tea making results in discovering the source of the virus).  And Ben gets to tell Polly that fighting bad guys is “men’s work”.  We may be able to ignore the latter two as products of the time but Jamie’s absence is, to my mind, inexcusable.

So while Trek may have gotten there first with getting cybernetic beings “right”, it was Doctor Who that knew how to create an atmosphere that was so thick, you could cut it with a sonic lance.  And let’s face it, Trek never gave us bouncing on the moon the way Doctor Who could!  Low gravity never looked like such good fun!   ML

Read next in the Junkyard… The Macra Terror

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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1 Response to The Moonbase

  1. Mike Basil says:

    The Moonbase is worth reminiscing with for how the classic Dr. Who was so adaptable with such familiar SF plots for their times. We enjoyed such SF plots for the modern series with Under The Lake/Before The Flood and Sleep No More that clearly had their own Whoniversal signatures. It may make modern Whovians appreciate classic stories like The Moonbase even more for how it achieved what it did from the other end of the production-values spectrum, just as CGI can make SF fans further appreciate the pre-CGI achievements of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Metropolis and Forbidden Planet. In the sense of how Troughton achieved such a specific breakthrough with an obviously pivotal speech about cosmic evils that must be defeated, particularly because this was where the Cybermen were proving to be as cosmically threatening as the Daleks, given how that may or may not in certain ways differ from Hartnell’s era, The Moonbase can be even more of an adventurous gem for modern-series Whovians.

    Thanks for your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

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