Sometimes the most valuable thing one can do to understand something is to take a step back from it. It should be no secret to anyone reading the blog that I am less fond of the Pertwee era than I am of many of the other eras of Doctor Who. (And it is firmly “less fond,” as opposed to “not fond”) I’ve expressed at least part of that frustration, but honestly, it wasn’t until I tried watching Moonbase 3 that I realized exactly what it is that seems to me so fundamentally flawed about much of the Pertwee era.
Nor is it quite fair to say that the show failed because it was bad. It had serious flaws, certainly, but no more so than the first season of any number of successful shows. Occasionally the show manages to feel like Babylon 5 done twenty years early, which, given that Babylon 5 is, for all its flaws, one of the absolute landmark pieces of science fiction television, is a hell of impressive feat. No, the best case for why it failed, to my mind, is that doing a show about realistic space exploration in late 1973 is about two years later than the last day you could really do that. Interest in moon bases after the Apollo missions were over is a bit… well… low.
But ultimately, why it failed commercially isn’t even the most interesting question. One can just as easily ask why Doctor Who succeeded, and in real terms the answer is going to be a diffuse set of arbitrary and often seemingly small decisions that happened to successfully navigate a given crisis where others seem unlikely to have. The question of industry success is not an uninteresting one, but the answer turns out to be arbitrary and beyond the reach of what can be controlled.
No. Far more interesting is the question of why the show failed aesthetically. And that it did. Again, plenty of cancelled-after-one-season shows have had real impact. Six low-rated episodes can be quite important. But these weren’t, really.
And that is a bit odd. On the surface, they’re a lovely homage to the spirit of classic science fiction – the sort of Asimov/Heinlein/Clarke stuff. Even with their slight misfit with the spirit of 1973, there’s still a core to this that is interesting. As I said, its sense of human greatness on the frontier is at times marvelous and stirring in the same way that Babylon 5 is, and the basic concept and tone of the final episode, “View of a Dead Planet,” is an extraordinary piece of bleakness.
But there’s something downright nasty lurking under the surface here, and it’s something that captures a fundamental failing of the Dicks/Letts/Pertwee era – one that I’ve talked about in passing before, but that becomes systemic here, and in one key moment becomes completely inexcusable. And to get at it, I’m going to have to talk about a truly appalling moment of television.
See, in the final episode of Moonbase 3, as the entire crew of the Moonbase comes to believe that the Earth has been destroyed due to an ill-advised scientific project. And in the course of that, one crew member breaks into the quarters of the only female regular (having already groped the only other significant female character in the series) and attempts to rape her. She manages to call for help, and the base commander shows up, sends the rapist to his quarters, and the next morning declares that “nothing very serious happened,” and says that the man has apologized so it’s all OK. The victim is given no opportunity on screen to give any sort of comment on what has happened to her, and the commander’s declaration that a rape attempt is not serious and can be cleared up via an apology is allowed to stand unchallenged.
But this isn’t just one bum note in an otherwise great series. It’s systemic. In the first episode, there’s a passing discussion between two characters about whether they want to visit Earth, in which both imply that the conditions on Earth are such that it’s preferable to live on the moon. Given that this episode also establishes that the moon is a harsh and brutal place, this is really interesting. And, predictably, not at all developed.
Similarly, in “View of a Dead Planet,” at one point the weekly guest star (Michael Gough in this case) expresses a view that nationalism is the root cause of human disasters. This is all well and good. But then as soon as the global catastrophe happens, save for one scene in which the European base checks with the American and Russian bases (there are also Chinese and Brazilian ones) to make sure they’re getting the same readings, no effort is made to look at how the moonbases deal with this, or to mirror the moral point about nationalism on the moon divided among the last survivors of humanity according to the lines of nations that don’t exist anymore. To call this an oversight misses the point – this isn’t sight at all. This is self-evidently what the story is about. It’s pitched as a parable against nationalism, and then it proceeds to ignore the actual part where it could illustrate the effects of nationalism in a direct way.
Instead the episode just ends with Michael Gough intoning that a man can make a mistake, but mankind must never make one. Which is fairly typical – instead of looking at the material conditions of an ethical or political problem, Letts and Dicks would prefer to craft a slogan, give it to a good actor to say in a serious voice, and leave it at that. See, you can make a mistake like raping someone, just so long as you oppose pollution. Dominic Strauss-Kahn will be so happy to hear.
For a show like Moonbase 3, this is a catastrophic failure. The value of realist (and this is probably the time to link to the Pop Between Realities entries that dealt with realism in general and specifically with social realism) hard SF is that it explores real human issues. When all of those issues are systematically trimmed out in favor of broad platitudes, you lose the fundamental point of the genre. The whole reason Moonbase 3 is interesting as a premise is because it can explore thoroughly the implications of its world. But Letts and Dicks have no visible interest in doing so.
This isn’t as bad in Doctor Who. For one thing, it’s a children’s show, so Letts and Dicks manage to avoid rape apologism by virtue of avoiding rape. But more broadly, it’s a show where the main character is defined in part by his ability (and inclination) to move on to other things. Even in the context of the Doctor’s exile and the turning of this into a criticism of him as a character, an anthology show with a mandate to show the audience something radically different every few weeks is always going to avoid the long term implications of a given setting. No matter how much the show responds to the challenge laid down by The War Games, this is always going to be part of its basic structure.
But the disinterest in actual human lives still accounts for many of the places where I’ve been frustrated with the Pertwee era – namely places where the show seems to raise an interesting situation or point only to ignore it in favor of giving Pertwee a chase scene. Or where it decides to crusade against a social ill and in doing so perpetuates it – whether by suddenly having overt sexism against female characters so that the female characters can complain about it, when the show was ahead of the curve on that before, or by creating a bunch of superficial and stereotypical Welsh miners in the story you’re doing in part to stop marginalizing Wales.
Because while Doctor Who can often get away without dealing with humanity in a meaningful fashion, it can’t always, as we’ve seen. And perhaps more to the point, it can shine when it takes a few tricks from social realism. And even in the Letts/Dicks era, both Malcolm Hulke and Robert Holmes were doing better jobs of this. Hulke did it by making sure to include gestures at the question of how to build a society instead of just how to blow up monsters. We discussed his final act of cynicism in this regard last time, but even more important is Colony in Space, where he packs in just as many anti-corporate bromides as a Letts/Dicks effort would demand, but also manages to put in numerous compelling accounts of what alternatives might be – whether it be positioning the Doctor in the role I described as “science vicar” or just in having Bernard Kay’s character visibly and pointedly reject one way of life in favor of another.
But the thing that Moonbase 3 really just cries out for is Robert Holmes, who is the obvious pick to write about a run down and underfunded moonbase. Because, as I’ve said in past entries, what Holmes really excels at is the personal. He is capable of effectively sketching a vivid character, and having characters who are driven by individual foibles and emotions. Where Dicks and Letts write, basically, good guys, bad guys, and immature guys who are learning to be good guys, Holmes writes cowards, gluttons, reluctant heroes, and a whole spectrum of humanity. And it’s not that Holmes’s characters are realist – they’re usually caricatures in the extreme. But Holmes draws on a broad spectrum of humanity to make his caricatures, and ends up with deeper characters than the more serious “realism” of characters that spring from a world as banal as Dicks and Letts’s.
Either approach would salvage Moonbase 3. (Well, either approach coupled with not having a sickening rape apologist scene.) Just like either approach, throughout the Pertwee era, made for better Doctor Who than anyone else could manage on a regular basis. Holmes and Hulke were flat out the writing stars of the Pertwee era, to the same extent that Whitaker was the writing star of the Troughton era. The rest of the time, like Moonbase 3, the Pertwee era was variable – sometimes extraordinary, sometimes terrible, often quite good. But in the end, missing something very important: humanity.