As if masterminding the successful 1970-74 period of Doctor Who was not enough, in 1973 Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts also devised a more serious sci- fi show Moonbase 3. Instead of adventures and monsters, this series was intended to take a different tack heading into the future. It certainly depicts a more believable scenario than ITV’s Space 1999 eschewing fantasy for a more straight laced depiction of life in an isolated environment. It’s a premise you could run with now, probably more successfully, however back then this series’ initial six episodes were its only ones. Somehow it never took off with viewers in 1973 who given the pedigree involved were probably expecting aliens and space plagues. Even Terrance Dicks later acknowledged they “overdid the grimness and forgot about the sense of wonder that science fiction is all about.” Yet when you watch it, while the pace is certainly slow there is lots going on and out of the six episodes at least three are good enough to be considered alongside the best of UK 1970s telefantasy shows.
Its 2003 and the Moon is home to a number of bases, each manned by different nationalities of which Moonbase 3 is the British one. You might then ponder why its deputy director is French but best to just enjoy Ralph Bates French accent, oui? In the opening episode `Departure and Arrival` we join the director as he is about to fly home only the base’s psychologist Helen Smith (a somewhat low key Fiona Gaunt) has doubts over the suitability of his chosen pilot. Turns out she’s right as during a space walk the aforementioned bloke goes a bit crazy and both of them end up dead.
What impresses from the off is the convincing way matters are depicted. With slow motion space sequences, properly regulated procedures and an air of professionalism displayed by all (except obviously the pilot) it is surprising what this production achieved presumably on a budget not much more than that assigned to the creator’s regular show. The episode certainly displays motifs with which Doctor Who fans would be familiar including Dudley Simpson’s distinctive clanging themes, well realised for the time model effects and some slightly confined looking sets plus inevitably a bit of CSO! In fact the production standards are higher than you might expect but in terms of tone matters veer right away from Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks’ version of the popular Time Lord.
Moonbase 3 is meant to be a serious look at what a lunar life might entail and verisimilitude is ensured by the presence of James Burke as a scientific advisor. A ubiquitous figure on 1970s tv screens, Burke’s knowledge of space travel procedure informs every aspect of this episode. The only thing about that is that it can, at times, slow the pace to a crawl but then again viewers in the day would have been familiar with this rhythm. When it comes to the Moon nothing happens quickly.
That being said the accuracy is never allowed to totally cloud the drama and matters take a livelier turn with the arrival of Donald Houston’s new commander David Caulder. It’s fair to say this performance is considerably more enthusiastic than was perhaps necessary reminding one of the way Gordon Ramsey barrels into restaurants in trouble in his Kitchen Nightmares series. In some ways Houston spoils the measured professionalism we’ve hitherto seem, in other ways he livens proceedings up considerably. His behaviour in terms of the investigation into the death of his predecessor raises eyebrows though. There’s no real reason for Ralph Bates’ second in command to be French but he seems to be settled in as the base’s agitator no doubt destined for an argument every week! Barry Lowe’s less frenetic Tom Hill is a good addition to the cast as well looking to be the practical one. There’s a more racially diverse cast than you’d expect for the era though female characters seem to be kept in secondary roles at least in this episode and penned without any real character.
Second episode `Behemoth` suggests some production notes may have been circulated after the opener as Donald Houston’s performance is notably less excitable. It’s a strong episode penned by John Brason whose script manages to encompass both scientific fact and some fantasising by the base’s personnel. It plays on viewer expectations of the time by building up a series of incidents, some fairly gruesome, suggesting there could be some sort of monster stalking the moondust. Now Doctor Who fans and beyond might expect such material considering who created the series but the episode instead stakes a claim for Moonbase 3 being one of the most scientifically sound tv sci-fi shows of all. When the explanation for what has happened emerges it is to Brason’s credit that it doesn’t make you yawn but instead offers a tantalising glimpse of the sort of problems a real moonbase might have.
There are anomalies, in particular Peter Miles’ eccentric scientist who even in such a close working community covers up his work when someone else enters a room! Also while scientific detachment is probably essential for lunar postings, the script doesn’t venture near the sort of shock people might feel at the deaths of three people during the episode. It is here that Fiona Gaunt’s ‘Helen Smith should have played a more significant role had it been written for her. Oddly the episode also contains two extremes of direction and editing. Inside the base the sets looks even more cramped and there is some awkward direction ill suited to the tension that the script is trying to build. Yet outside the effects are superbly realised with the surface rippling under the weight of charges exploding and some more well staged moonwalks. The result overall though is a credible attempt at a space thriller with John Hallam’s Conway having enormous fun ramping up the `moon beast` rumour.
Dry though John Lucarotti’s script for the third episode `Achilles Heel` can sometimes be, this attempt to show some of the pressures the crew might be under in this situation is well intentioned and different. There are a lot of technical scenes which are no doubt intended to contrast with the more personal ones but which do seem rather dull to the modern viewer. Much of the narrative centres around Adam Blaney who is one of those people- and every workplace has at least one- who seems to want to be involved in everything. He seems very confident and charming yet as Caulder ultimately notices he also seems to be at the epicentre of everything going wrong using people’s `Achilles heel` to control them. There’s also the added pressure of budget cuts that the Moonbase has to adhere to. With little action save for a moon buggy prang, the emphasis is on the characters and here Helen Smith gets a lot more to do while Blaney’s self -confidence shines through. There’s a satisfactory weaving of storylines though Bill Knight’s paranoia that his wife may be seeing someone else is given more attention than Kate Wyman’s issues.
Amusingly Caulder’s reaction to all of this leads to some of Donald Houston’s most erratic outbursts so far. If Helen is really looking for unstable characters I think her boss is number one! In truth this script could probably be adapted to any drama such are its’ undeniable if obvious conclusions. However the isolation of the situation and its dangers make it slightly more interesting than if it were set in an office block.
Episodes 4 -6 coming up....
Episodes 4 -6 coming up....