Eloquently written and elegantly presented, `Outsiders` really taps into the possibilities that surely inspired the creation of the series. So far we’ve had characters defined by either their strengths or weaknesses yet lacking a certain human touch. There’s been little levity or sense of what these people really think. John Brason- who also wrote the strong episode `Behomoth` - puts this to rights with an effective and sometimes affecting narrative centred around a couple of researchers who prove to be the outsiders of the title. John Hallam plays Peter Conway, already seen in earlier episodes whose ground breaking creation of a `foam metal` reaches a successful conclusion. We’ve already seen how he enjoyed spreading rumours of a moon beast a couple of episodes back and here he is a distant, thoughtful soul whose scientific achievements seem increasingly less important to him. In fact the very idea of scientific progress seems to disappoint him. He yearns for a simpler life and in one telling scene simply looks through the base’s much in demand telescope just to look. He wants a truth that is deeper and wider than just scientific truth. John Hallam shows this with a perfectly pitched performance looking so naturalistic it shows up some of his cast mates who are still in the irritated mode we’ve seen thus far.
Another familiar supporting character, Dr Stephen Parkness is also brought to the fore as he, too, is working on something that to be honest I didn’t even understand but he seems to annoy everyone. It’s odd this as all he appears to do is be enthusiastic about his work, a precondition you’d imagine for a place like this but Caulder doesn’t like him either. Until, that is, he claim to have a breakthrough which comes just ahead of an inspection over the expense of the base. The dichotomy between the two researchers is telling- Conway underselling – even being unimpressed by- his success, Parkness actually (as we subsequently discover) faking his success altogether.
The denouement sees Conway- and not Parkness as everyone at first assumes- walking out onto the lunar surface with just fifteen minutes of fuel to gaze at the stars one final time. It’s a scene loaded with thought provoking questions. Conway’s final note reads
It is the coming of a new age in which I have no place. The new truths are not my truths. I think I am the perennial dodo. I belong to a thing like Athens, a mother of a mode of life which shall renew the youth of the world. A thing like Nazareth. Change is a delusion. It is of new things that Men tire, of fashions and proposals and improvements. ‘Tis the old things that are forever young. I have no place here. It is time to leave.
Change a few references and it could be a panicked letter from 2019.
With director Ken Hannam adding something of a classical flourish to the production, this is a consummately realised episode with incredible attention to technical detail. When the astronauts are on the surface they are shown in slightly slowed down mode allowing tiny clumps of dust to fly upwards from their boots. For once the cramped sets actually add to the sense that Conway is confined physically as well as mentally so that his final walk can be seen as one that takes him into infinity. If the first three episodes sometimes struggled to balance the human with the scientific, then `Outsiders` does so with enough panache and skill to be relatable even today. Brilliant stuff!
Floating in a tin can far above the world, Tom Hill is in serious trouble. When a repair mission goes wrong Moonbase 3’s resident go-to guy for a solution to problems becomes the problem the rest have to solve in `Castor and Pollux`. Having got into a more creative stride with `Outsiders`, the series now seems more confident in its skin and for once the battery of technical jargon adds to rather than detracts from this absorbing episode. Having shown how resourceful Tom normally is and then showing us how he simply cannot escape from his dilemma alone there is a real tension to proceedings. Many potential fixes are put forward then discounted; presumably writer John Lucarotti had James Burke working overtime on this.
Visually the effective space sequences also show us how helpless things look with Tom’s craft jammed into the satellite sending both vehicles on a roll outwards. The emptiness of space- a space of mostly blackness rather than the starscape many productions would opt for- contrasst with the busy base and emphasises the isolation. Being the practical type Tom does not resort to the reveries we had from the previous episodes’ characters and its tricky for Barry Lowe who is limited to mostly using his voice to essay the ebb and flow of good and bad news but he does it with skill.
The outside pressures also weigh just as heavily with senior figures cautioning against the risky rescue mission that eventually ensues – and naturally being full of congratulations when it works. In fact there is never much doubt in the viewer’s mind who will undertake the rescue as during a meeting with the Russians- themselves after some co funding for a signature project- we are introduced to Dimitri Gararov, a younger fan of Tom Hill’s legendary space escapades who ends up defying his boss (played by George Pravda, naturally) and attempting a rescue that involves a deliberate crash. The reams of theoretical scenarios and the rhythm of protocol counteract the more emotional arguments about the mission’s merit and behind them the financial considerations. As only an accomplished writer can, John Lucarotti bundles these elements together into a satisfying whole. If `Outsiders` is the soul of the series, `Castor and Pollux is its heart.
The final episode `View of a Dead Planet` offers the bleak scenario that a new attempt to melt polar ice causes the Earth’s hydrogen to combust ending all life on the planet. By coincidence the leading scientist who suggested this would happen is on the Moon for a visit. This is a bold storyline that deserves more than fifty minutes to work through because what we have here is something of a mixed bag of an episode. The presence of the doomsayer Professor Dyce- played with theatrical gusto by Michael Gough- at exactly the time his predicted scenario plays out is just too unbelievable to begin with. Even the ill- tempered manner his visit is portrayed as seems out of kilter. Then when it appears the worst has happened- all Earth linked tech is down while the distant planet itself now resembles a poached egg- the reaction of the scientists is either too extreme or too cool. Nobody talks wistfully of relatives back home, they get drunk and think of themselves. The tone is further lowered by a scene of attempted rape after which the two involved are seen laughing and joking at the same table the following morning. Then when the scenario is resolved in the last minute of the episode, everyone seems to go “oh of course that’s what happened” when nobody’s had a clue till then. You could argue that faced with the enormity of what seems to have occurred their behaviour is all over the place but I would say this is a rushed script that doesn’t stop to think as carefully about the human side of matters as it does about the scientific side.
That all being said there are fitful moments that hint at how the potential could have been realised. Caulder and Hill’s quiet but decisive talk about how they can minimise the suffering is one such example; another is Dyce’s lecture on the unimportance of political boundaries. Amongst the wider cast there are vignettes that bring home the impact. Overall though this is an idea that needed two episodes to fill – a season 2 closer if they’d got a season 2 I suppose. Here there are too many shortcuts, easy assumptions and even easier answers. Performances are dialled up resulting in an episode that might easily be seen as just a lot of people shouting.
All told Moonbase 3 is certainly an experiment worth pursuing and there is potential if not for a long running series definitely a second set of six episodes. It’s portrayal of what was then the future may seem naïve now but in keeping with the established technological know- how of 1973 neither did it veer into flights of fancy. Refusing to succumb to expected monsters or other made up space phenomena works better than you’d think and if the performances are sometimes a little loud there’s real thought in the scripts. Moonbase 3 deserves to be better thought of in the pantheon of Seventies tv sci-fi.
Thanks to Graeme Wood for press clippings.