Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Doctor Who: “The Moonbase” (BBC Wales TV, 1967)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I had a chance to watch a movie together last night and I picked out the DVD of a Doctor Who sequence from 1967, “The Moonbase,” featuring Patrick Troughton, the second Doctor. One of the conceits of the show is that the Doctor, a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, can periodically rearrange his atoms at will and change his appearance — thereby giving the producers of the show the chance to replace the actor playing the Doctor and “explain” his different looks by saying he’s just rearranged his atoms. (Charles was a bit put out when the BBC recently announced their latest casting change so there’s now a 13th actor playing the Doctor, when the original series posited that he could only have 12 alternate appearances, like the proverbial nine-lived cat.) We’d seen one previous run in this series of reissue DVD’s, a French Revolution story with the original Doctor, William Hartnell; this time it was a science-fiction tale instead of a history lesson (apparently the original intent of the series was that it would teach kids about real-life historical events by creating versions that wrote the Doctor and his sidekicks into them) and ran only four half-hour episodes instead of six. Once again we were at the mercy of the BBC’s policy in the 1960’s of “wiping” — that is, erasing and reusing the videotapes — their lighter fare (as I’ve noted in these pages before, six of the original 45 Monty Python shows were lost to this policy and the only reason the other 39 survive is some anonymous bureaucrat at the BBC put a note on them saying, “Save these. We may be able to do something with them in the States”); the original second and fourth episodes of the run survived but the first and third existed only as soundtracks (I guess they were broadcasting these as radio shows as well as on TV) and had to be reconstructed via animation synched to the original soundtracks.

I was also amused that the villains, the Cybermen (a returning Doctor Who menace who’d already been introduced earlier and apparently killed off when the Earthlings destroyed their home planet — which meant that the cast were startled when they turned up again this soon after the apocalypse that supposedly wiped them out), were supposed to be robots made of metal, but the folds of their cloth costumes were clearly visible as they walked, especially when they were shown with their backs to the camera. It got even more amusing when the show switched from live-action episode 2 to animated episode 3 and the animators had faithfully reproduced the revealing mistake of the cloth folds being visible! “The Moonbase” was actually quite a good science-fiction tale that, according to the surviving actors being interviewed for the making-of feature on the DVD, got added weight and heft from the fact that it was being shot during the early stages of the Apollo program and everyone involved with the program ­— including producer Innes Lloyd, director Morris Barry and writer Kit Pedler — were well aware that in just a few years humans would be on the moon for real. The show is set in the year 2070, by which time humans have not only colonized the moon but have set up a base there containing a “gravitron,” a sort of giant device that looks like a cross between a telescope and a cannon and which can alter the earth’s gravitational field so it affects the tides and thereby changes earth’s weather. The idea is to keep things as temperate as possible and make sure that any hurricanes or other big storms exhaust themselves harmlessly over oceans instead of striking dry land and causing loss of life and property.

Only just as the Doctor and his sidekicks Jamie (Frazer Hines), Polly (Anneke Wills) and Ben (Michael Craze, who must have endured a formidable amount of teasing over his last name when he was a kid!) arrive at the moonbase — true to form, the Doctor was aiming for Mars but missed — the weather machine starts going haywire due to the graviton going out of control. Hurricanes start hitting places like Florida after decades during which the Floridians haven’t had to worry about them, and the moonbase commander, Jack Hobson (Patrick Barr, who’d previously played Patrick Troughton’s father on stage in a play called Honor Bright), is trying to figure out what’s going wrong. At first this exasperated in-over-his-head bureaucrat blames the Doctor and his crew for sabotaging the gravitron, but eventually he learns that the real cause is an invading force of Cybermen from flying saucers who have broken into the moonbase through its storage room and sickened a lot of the staff with a “neurotropic virus” that first makes their nervous system visible through their skin and then immobilizes and finally kills them. (There’s a howler of a scientific mistake in Pedler’s script: the Doctor discovers the virus by looking at it on a slide under an ordinary visible-light microscope; viruses, unlike bacteria, are too small to be seen through a visible-light microscope, which is one reason it took so long to discover them.) Only the Cybermen usually don’t wait for the virus to kill the human victims; instead they want to take them over and put them under control of the Cybermen’s hive-mind so they’ll become accomplices in the Cybermen’s plan to turn the gravitron against Earth and destroy it.

For this series the producers made some impressive changes in the Cybermen’s costuming — instead of wearing stocking masks over their faces to denote “cybericity” they got full metal masks which I suspect costume designers Daphne Dare, Alexandra Tyson and Mary Woods copied from the Iron Man comic books, and when we didn’t see those giveaway cloth folds the lamé suits they wore looked suitably metallic for robot-people. Also, though 11 actors played the Cybermen visually on screen, they were all voiced by the same person, which left the actors playing humans sometimes confused about which Cyberman was speaking to them and therefore whom they should turn to when they gave their response line. “The Moonbase” has some good suspense moments and nice bits of dry wit in Pedler’s script — my favorite line was when the Commander back Earth (Alan Rowe) gives Hobson some utterly impractical bit of instruction and Hobson mutters under his breath, “He’ll probably get knighted for this” — as well as a surprisingly butch performance by Patrick Troughton as the Doctor. During the show I had assumed Troughton was deliberately modeling his acting on Richard Burton’s and had decided to make the Doctor more butch, without the screaming-queen nelliness that had afflicted the otherwise charming acting of his predecessor, William Hartnell — but in the making-of featurette Anneke Wills recalled that Troughton loved the camp aspects of the show and, among other things, was begging its writers for scripts in which he could do drag. Apparently it was director Barry who pushed Troughton’s performance in these episodes away from camp and towards a more serious, action-oriented reading of the character.

“The Moonbase” drags in spots, and the junctures between the surviving live action and the animation jar (and given all the time, money and trouble that went into the production — including building an elaborate set of the moon’s surface that apparently took up virtually all of Ealing Studios, one of three facilities used to make this show — it seems bizarre to say the least that the BBC should have had such a cavalier attitude towards it that they erased two of the four episodes just to recycle the videotape!), but overall it’s a quite good science-fiction tale and the special effects are considerably more credible than they were in the first Cybermen story (which Charles and I watched together on videotape ages ago and in which I invidiously compared the effects to those in the original Star Trek, which was made about the same time but had the benefit of larger production budgets and color) even though some of the costumes and props are endearingly tacky — including the white plastic household bottles we’re supposed to believe supply the astronauts with oxygen when they’re in spacesuits on the surface of the moon. According to the surviving actors interviewed on the making-of featurette, the real problem with the spacesuits is that their helmets were clear plastic bubbles (not the metal helmets with plastic visors that real astronauts wore) and that they fogged up quite quickly so you couldn’t see. Frazer Hines recalled that no sooner were you encased in the spacesuit that you’d develop a virtually uncontrollable urge to do some normal bodily function you couldn’t do in that costume, like scratch your nose or use the restroom — the latter just had to wait until they finished shooting and could give the go-ahead for the laborious process of dismantling the costume and getting you out of it again. Ah, the practical problems of making a science-fiction movie!