Doctor Who And The Moonbase: a litmus test for what kind of Who fan you are

Andrew argues that one of the most influential episodes of Classic Who can act as a litmus test for the show's fandom...

Doctor Who contradicts itself. It contains multitudes. Thus, not everyone likes it for the same reasons, and one of the best examples of this is The Moonbase. Broadcast in February – March 1967, this is the fourth story to feature Patrick Troughton in the lead role and the second ever Cyberman story (broadcast only four months after their debut). Two episodes of it exist in the BBC archives with the missing episodes animated for DVD release.

There are plenty of reasons to enjoy The Moonbase. There are a few reasons to roll your eyes at it too. This article will look at the different aspects of the story and how fans respond to them.

The Monster Formula

For the first few years of its existence, Doctor Who explored. It varied story types: serious historicals, comedy/musical historicals, epic journeys of land, sea and space; the weird, camp, pulpy and dark.

Producer Innes Lloyd and script editor Gerry Davis decided to move move towards a formula for stories in season five: the base under siege. The reasons for this were financial – with one main set for the entire story – and straightforwardly populist (the template stories for this format had seen increased and healthy ratings). The production team also wanted to avoid the stresses of season four, recording an episode just a week before broadcast, so a formula saved time.

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The Moonbase is very similar to The Tenth Planet, and confirmed the approach for the following season. For some fans this is a high point in the series, whereas others want Doctor Who to go anywhere and do anything rather than stick rigidly to a template.

Every story in season five – apart from The Enemy Of The World – features a base under siege. Other tropes include an isolated location, a base commander truculent enough to stretch the story to six episodes, and monsters. Ever since Verity Lambert (and the viewing figures) convinced Sidney Newman that monsters had a place in Doctor Who, they’ve been a key part of the show’s appeal.

And it’s in The Moonbase, in relation to these monsters, that the Doctor says: “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.”

The Doctor

Patrick Troughton had been having a whale of a time playing the Doctor. He’d been slippery and enigmatic, dressed up in various disguises, tried on hats, tootled his recorder and smashed people’s heads on tables while asking if they suffered from headaches.

In The Moonbase veteran director Morris Barry restrained Troughton’s performance, and it’s here he settles into a more recognisable version of the Second Doctor: playful and funny, yes, but also serious and driven, hence the dialogue above being delivered with conviction and a slight hint of resignation (as if he’d rather not be the one doing the fighting but needs must).

This is a significant shift. Firstly it shapes how Troughton plays the Doctor going forward, and also shapes the series. It’s not a long speech, but it’s one of the earliest examples of the Doctor directly positioning himself as someone who fights evil (and in Gerry Davis’ Target novelisation, fights evil “To the death”). Coming here, not long after the first regeneration and with the Second Doctor calming down, it feels like a mission statement.

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We’ve seen the Doctor make these sort of speeches frequently on TV since 2005, and also identify themselves as someone who will fight evil, stand up for justice/right/good etc. Here we see this in nascent form with little mythological baggage (and there are a small number of fans who feel like Doctor Who ended after The War Games, everything after being a different show).

There’s a whole dissertation to be had on this moment as it’s open to so many interpretations. Here are three that don’t necessarily contradict each other: the Doctor as social justice warrior, the Doctor as lordly explorer fighting against the Other, the Doctor having a hero moment in a hastily written TV series.

How you respond to this scene (and Troughton’s Doctor) is a clue to what sort of fan you are.

Scientific Rigour

In The Moonbase expository dialogue is delivered with a straight face with no knowing winks to the audience. It doesn’t feel like technobabble, very little terminology is made up for the story.

By way of contrast, Rose’s anti-plastic, named with no pretences of scientific language and described without in-depth explanation, is a different approach with similar narrative results to The Moonbase’s “Polly Cocktail”.

Polly has reasoned that the Cybermen’s chest units seem to be made of plastic, so nail varnish remover might dissolve them. Hedging her bets, Polly decides to mix all acetone, benzene, ether and alcohol. It works.

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According to Den of Geek’s chemist contacts the mixture probably would make plastics swell and go gloopy, not unlike they do in the episodes. Unlike in the episodes this process would take several hours. This suggests that taking huge liberties – for the sake of moving the plot along – is fine if the explanation is sufficiently detailed, rather than brief and vague.

At the time The Moonbase was praised in BBC Audience Reports “because it was real science-fiction, at least in reference to the electronic technicalities with which Hobson, Doctor Who and the rest of the team were concerned.” In the context of the space race, the idea of a base on the moon was expected. A gravity-device controlling the world’s weather less so.

According to Den of Geek’s physicist friend (we have two friends, no biggie), theoretically such a device is possible, but you’d need to somehow affect the Moon’s gravity to influence rainfall on Earth. The version seen in The Moonbase is an implausible by comparison. Also it has no backup system in place, which seems optimistic.

The bit where they seal the laser fire hole with a tea tray though? Apparently that’d work.

Faring less well in the plausibility stakes are the pressure drops that occur when Cybermen enter the base (through a hole cut in the side which is filled with bags). The Cybermen push the bags aside to enter then presumably stack them neatly up again afterwards (in the book they smugly announce they’ve used a hinged flap). Considering how much the pressure drops when a small hole is blasted in the base, it’s surprising that a man-sized hole only produces small drops in pressure, flap or no flap.

The Cybermen

This is one of the classic Cybermen designs, the story that cemented them as a returning monster. There’s a lot of affection for this story and the Cybermen in it.

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Alternatively, this is the story that destroys the Cybermen as a credible force forever.

It depends on what your idea of this Cybermen is: a tragic race of cyborgs, driven by emotionless logic, converting people into themselves in order to survive? Or a mighty force of silver figures waging war against the galaxy?

Doctor Who And The Cybermen by Gerry Davis diverges from The Tenth Planet backstory, saying:

“And, like human monsters down through all the ages of Earth, they became aware of the lack of love and feeling in their lives and substituted another goal – power!”

In making The Moonbase, David and co-creator Kit Pedler wanted the costumes to be more robotic, and the voices were changed from unnerving sing-song to implacable buzzing drones. They lost any visible trace of humanity until 1982’s Earthshock.

The Moonbase Cybermen, like Troughton’s Doctor, had more impact going forward than their predecessors. Their legacy was assured through their regular appearances against the Second Doctor, but was their potential squandered? Did they become generic evil robots at this point?

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Your response here may depend on whether you grew up in the sixties, or what age at which you first saw the story. Limited access and viewing Doctor Who out of order gives a different context to the Cybermen. Watching as an adult, The Moonbase doesn’t do much for the idea of Cybermen being logical beings. Here is their plan and motivation:

– The Cybermen, who survive by converting other races, want to destroy all life on Earth because they consider humanity a danger to them (even though the base staff don’t believe the Cybermen are still alive).

– To do this, they will use the Gravitron to make the weather incredibly bad (Hah, we’re way ahead of them already) so everyone dies.

– To do this, they will sneak into the base through a hole in the wall.

– Then they will put a virus in the base’s sugar, which not everyone eats.

– When infected, people will be susceptible to Cyberman control, but the Cybermen will have to sneak them out of the base onto the surface of the Moon and back to their spaceships to carry out processing on them.

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– Cybermen will hide in the medical bay with sheets over them – apart from their feet – so it looks like everyone’s still in the sick bay.

– They will then sneak back in, take over the base by force, and use the infected mind-controlled men to control the Gravitron.

– If this fails they will fire a laser at the Moonbase once, but then give everyone time to regroup before firing again.

At one point in The Moonbase we hear the Doctor’s thoughts, which is great, but also includes the line “The Cybermen are afraid of gravity!” which is close to being a Family Guy punchline. Interestingly the Cybermen can stun people in this story, but mostly choose not to.

There are, broadly, five ways you can take all this. You can take it seriously and find it wanting, or take it seriously and find it justified. Alternatively, you can find it silly and fun, or silly and aggravating. Or you can just not think about it very much.

For most people, The Moonbase is a fun watch no matter how seriously you take it. Troughton is, unsurprisingly, fantastic. He knew how to make you believe that something potentially ridiculous was incredibly dramatic.

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It’s also interesting to see the clear connections between this 1967 story and those broadcast since 2005: the companions take an active role in saving the day, the science is far from plausible, we gain access to the Doctor’s inner monologue and hear him do a wee speech, and someone mixes loads of chemicals up and it does exactly what the plot needs it to do.

So, yes, go and watch The Moonbase. Reflect on what you like about Doctor Who, and marvel that – for all the changes and much that makes no sense – you can see the same show reflected back at you more than forty years later.