|We are programmed just to do|
Anything you want us to
It’s February 11, 1967. The Monkees top the charts, with the rest of the top ten including The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens, and The Move. In weeks to come, Petula Clark and Englebert Humperdinck will top the charts, while the rest of the top ten will see The Beatles, The Hollies, and Donovan chart as well. Non-musical news is slow this month, with a general heating of the Cold War providing the main backdrop.
And Doctor Who offers us The Moonbase. Which… well, let’s just say we have a lot to talk about. Eventually we’ll get into how this story marks the completion of the Troughton transition and conclusively establishes a new paradigm for what Doctor Who is. But to see why this story changed everything forever, we’re going to have to understand why this story was inevitably going to be made.
The inevitability of a lunar story in the late 60s has been remarked upon before, and is fairly obvious. But one thing that the frequent discussion of Doctor Who’s transition away from the exoticism of Hartnell stories and towards things like this overlooks is the fact that the very things that made a lunar story inevitable are the same things that are why the larger transition of Doctor Who towards the “base under siege” model took place.
Since I am apparently possessed with a strange and obsessive need to reference The Web Planet in every entry (mostly because it embodies the explorer spirit of the Hartnell era better than anything else), it is worth contrasting this story with that one, especially given that The Web Planet’s most obvious visual inspiration was Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon. The Web Planet is a story where a world with a thin atmosphere is nevertheless lush and full of strange life. And it aired in February of 1965.
The thing is, there’s a huge line in science fiction that can be drawn in July of 1965. Before that, you get things like, on the paranoid side, Quatermass, which assumes that space is teeming with awful threats, and on the more optimistic side, The Web Planet, which, even though it’s set in a different galaxy (but see Miles and Wood for several discussions of the extremely sloppy way in which the word “galaxy” is used throughout Doctor Who), tells us that space is teeming with fascinating and theatrical worlds. The default assumption was that planets were full of interesting stuff, and when you went to them, you’d encounter it.
Then came July of 1965, and, more importantly, the Mariner 4 probe. This, perhaps more than anything, explains the stark change over the third season of Doctor Who – more or less concurrently with the end of The Time Meddler, Mariner 4 flew by Mars and determined that there was almost certainly not life on Mars, nor had there probably ever been ancient civilizations there. Space, in point of fact, was more or less empty.
As you can imagine, this sparked a major change in how science fiction was done. It wasn’t an overnight shift, but it was fundamentally a change in what was considered the normal expectation of the future. When we explore space, we now knew, it will not primarily be about encountering the strange and alien civilizations about The Web Planet. It will be about building the means to survive. That’s why the base under siege arose – because of the realization that space was mostly going to be a matter of building bases and colonies on hostile worlds, not about tripping over the Zarbi.
This is not a problem for most science fiction. A cold and empty universe hostile to life still lends itself quite well to Quatermass-style paranoid yarns, even if the meteorites need to originate from further away than Mars. (Indeed, looking at The Quatermass Experiment itself, one of the striking things is that it’s just assumed horrible fungus monsters might be chillaxing in the solar system. They are not fungus monsters from Mars or Jupiter, but rather simply a threat of space itself.) But there is one way in which it does profoundly change science fiction: stories like The Web Planet become much less interesting compared to stories like, well, The Moonbase. If our exploration of space is going to be more about our survival than about the amazing things we see, a story like The Web Planet with a rich and textured alien world is much less relevant than the material grit of The Moonbase.
So a lunar story was necessary not just because it was a current event, but because the nature of science fiction has been changing out from under Doctor Who and a story about humans exploring space was a better reflection of where the relationship between science and humanity was going than The Web Planet was.
But none of this explains the strangely iconic power of this story. Though to be fair, this is a case, unlike the several stories in a row I’ve referred to as little-known due to being missing and novelized late, this story has the opposite fate. Novelized extremely early, with the title Doctor Who and the Cybermen, this story was positioned as the iconic Cybermen story. On top of that, when we talk about the “base under siege” subgenre, we should probably acknowledge that the story that is explicitly called The Moonbase in which the base commander actively refers to them as being under siege is pretty massively influential in defining this subgenre.
On top of that, the story actually has two whole episodes intact, making it second only to The Tenth Planet in terms of actually existing in season four. So we have a story with a particularly good novelization, released early, that we can see two parts of. Of course it’s going to be influential. If anything, this is setup for an entry in which we take a look at a supposed classic and discover that it’s not nearly as good as we’d been led to believe.
Except the old maxim that there is such a thing as an undeservedly forgotten story, but no such thing as an undeservedly remembered one applies well here. The Moonbase has some gaping flaws, but watching it in sequence it’s easy to see how this would have established itself as a memorable story from the day it aired. The biggest problem watching it today is, as usual, that we treat it as a movie instead of as four parts of an almost-always-running serial.
Taken as a serial, it’s been just fourteen weeks since Hartnell left – three months, basically. We’re only just now shaking off the jitters and starting to settle in to an idea of what the heck this show is actually like now. And this story – which Innes Lloyd, a savvier producer than anyone likes to give him credit for being, decided to hype as the big relaunch story – is very much the story in which the transition we’ve been in the midst of settles out. In many ways, it’s been up in the air since at least The Massacre, if not since Mission to the Unknown. And after this story, it stops being up in the air. When the TARDIS crew steps out at the start of The Macra Terror in Monday’s blog post, the question of what Doctor Who is will be settled, at least for the time being.
But it’s not quite there yet. In fact, this story begins with a Hartnell-esque exploration sequence, taking a good six minutes to get to where there’s any sense of danger or adventure. Before that, it’s vamping about on the moon doing moonbounces and stuff. Yes, at this point we’re far enough from Hartnell that this sort of vamping and the Doctor’s propensity for reciting fun space facts feels fairly unlike what we would have gotten from Hartnell, especially in the last year or so of his tenure. But it’s still a program that is in the Hartnell exploration mode, where the central question of a new story is “where are we this time and what is it like?”
But that quickly changes. We’re quickly thrust back into a setting that is much like The Tenth Planet – a military installation. But where Hartnell felt out of place and on the margins of that story, Troughton ingratiates himself with the base at a staggering speed, and even when, in episode two, suspicion starts to fall on him, he never comes anywhere close to the marginalization that Hartnell saw in this setting. This is a marked change, and one that is well within the viewer’s memory – all the moreso when the Cybermen show up and we actually hear The Tenth Planet mentioned, and are told that “every child” knows about it. So the viewer is invited to see how much more of a fit Troughton is for this sort of situation.
Similarly, the fast confidence with which Troughton strides into the plot reinforces the sense that this is normal. Episode 1 has, other than it’s six minutes of moonvamping, a breathtakingly fast start. This is gutsy and confident, just like throwing the new Doctor in with some Daleks is, and it pays off. The viewer, despite the fact that this type of story is still quite new, and despite the fact that last time we did one its entire point was to disorient the audience, is quickly acclimated to the surroundings.
But the flip side of this is that the Cybermen are back. This is a big deal – the first time monsters have returned since the Daleks did. And more to the point, these are the monsters that killed the Doctor. Their return has to go down as a terrifying prospect – terrifying in a way that we haven’t seen since, well, a Dalek rose out of the Thames. And even then, the Daleks needed to show up in London in order to have their return be truly terrifying. The Cybermen can just strut on camera and be epic in one shot.
Though, of course, the Cybermen have seen a massive revamp – enough of one that I’m not actually 100% sure the cliffhanger to the first episode would have worked to a non-Radio Times reading viewer, because the monster that’s revealed looks nothing like its previous incarnation. The fact of the matter is, the previous concept of the Cybermen – dark mirrors of humanity who went on a spiritual journey and achieved a terrible and inhuman enlightenment in the Kenneth Grant sense of it – is ignored here. Mondas gets a few token mentions, but nothing that resembles an explanation. The connections to the past are so muddied here that when Gerry Davis novelized it, he switched the Cybermen to being from Telos, a planet we won’t even encounter until Tomb of the Cybermen, and had Mondas be their spaceship planet used to attack the Earth. (Which actually is a hell of a lot more sensible than the Cybermen origin is ever going to look again)
No. These Cybermen are far simpler – they’re robots. Yes, they still prattle on about how they’ve upgraded themselves and have no emotions, but at the end of the day, these Cybermen are just robots who like mocking people. (And they do so like mocking people, referring to “stupid earth brains” and, after Hobson figures out where they were hiding on the base, taunting him by sarcastically saying “clever, clever, clever” like a giant robot Jose Mourinho) Polly even refers to them as metal, despite the fact that their previous appearance made it obvious that they were plastic.
The flipside, from a modern perspective, is that this story is the first appearance of the Cybermen in the form we actually recognize. It is perhaps a stretch to imagine that this was part of a deliberate transition and that Lloyd, knowing he was going to lose the rights to the Daleks shortly, oversaw a transitional story that would nod to the Cybermen that were the one-off villain of The Tenth Planet while simultaneously changing them into the banal world-conquerers he needed as new Daleks. On the other hand, coming up with a better explanation is a stretch as well.
Because, see, the thing is that the story does rely on the Tenth Planet Cybermen. And on the building of the Doctor’s character that we’ve seen to date. Remember how in The Underwater Menace the key moment for the Doctor’s character is his quiet, fearful asking why Zaroff wants to blow up the Earth? Here we have an even more key one – the single, definitive moment where the Doctor settles down out of his post-regeneration chaos and becomes the Doctor in his fully mythologized, heroic role.
The line is one of the better known moments of Troughton’s tenure, actually – certainly one of the ones most often included in clip shows and documentaries. In it, Ben suggests that, given that they’re being treated with extreme suspicion by the base, they just go back to the TARDIS. And the Doctor refuses. We’ve seen this before – the Doctor has refused Ben’s suggestion to go back to the TARDIS in both The Smugglers and The Power of the Daleks on the grounds of moral obligation. But here he goes further, and delivers the key line: “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 key thing about this is Troughton’s delivery, which is often misrepresented. The line is not a triumphant, rousing call to arms. Rather, he delivers the first part of the line in a quiet, almost scared tone, before concluding, after a pause, that they must be fought. The declaration that these terrible things must be fought is not triumphant, but rather the weary acceptance of a duty – a point that is reinforced when the Cybermen inform the Doctor that he is known to them, to which he calmly answers “And you to me.”
Remember that the Doctor’s regeneration was seemingly caused by exposure to the Cybermen and their energy drain, and that his regeneration is paralleled consciously with the Cybermen’s own terrible spiritual journey. This, then, is the moment when the Doctor accepts the knowledge he gained in his metaphysical change. The knowledge that there are terrible things in the universe that must be fought against.
Yes, this episode is the point where the show transitions to a show about monsters. But what’s crucial is that this transition is not just a lazy shift of tone. Rather, we see a Doctor who is finally accepting the consequences of his regeneration, and all of the clowning around we’ve seen is revealed for what it is – cover for the fact that a man who had previously been defined primarily by his desire to escape now knows that he has a duty in the universe.
We should also talk about the companions, who, Ben’s lapse aside, are unusually committed to trying to save the world this week. Again, this is a transition – remember back in Planet of Giants it was remarkable that Barbara risked her life because of a sense of duty to stop what was wrong. Here the companions, when separated from the Doctor, are the ones who figure out how to drive the Cybermen out of the base, at least temporarily.
Perhaps more importantly, it is Polly who figures out how to do it. Much is made of the other big clip from this episode, the Doctor asking Polly to make some coffee. But usually this is done to illustrate the sexism of the episode. Never mind that the Doctor’s asking Polly to make some coffee is a strategic decision in the context of the story, that Polly spends the rest of that episode being the Doctor’s main interlocutor in figuring out what’s going on, and that her coffee is the key to figuring out what the Cybermen are doing. Never mind also that, as I said, it is Polly who figures out the plan to stop the Cybermen. (Admittedly, her plan – mix large quantities of random solvents together – is a terrible plan that will get everyone killed, because it’s still the plan that works) And though Ben and Jamie hog the credit, we as viewers are meant to find that uncomfortable and awkward.
But by and large, this story is about finishing the transition to Troughton and establishing what the show is about – something we haven’t really known for over a year. Yes, this story will be copied at least four times in the next two years. Yes, this story marks the point where the show fully turns away from the goals of the Hartnell era and becomes a show about monsters. But this is not a lazy transition at all. Rather, it is a conscious transition that is part and parcel of the shift to Troughton’s era of Doctor Who.
The surviving episodes of The Moonbase are available on the Lost in Time DVD set. Buying from that link gives me a small kickback from Amazon, and it is always greatly appreciated when you do. Or, you know, just click that link then go find something you actually want on Amazon. That works too.