Tuesday 25 October 2016

Moonbase 3 (1973)

In 1973, at the time they were enjoying great success with Doctor Who, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dick decided they wanted to do a totally different kind of science fiction television series. They persuaded the BBC to give them the go-ahead. The result was Moonbase 3.

Moonbase 3 was conceived as a kind of anti-Doctor Who series. Doctor Who was aimed mostly at kids, scientific accuracy was never a consideration and there were lots of monsters. Moonbase 3 would be aimed at an adult audience, it would aim for scientific plausibility and it would steer clear of the guy-in-a-rubber-suit kind of monster. In fact it would aim at a degree of gritty realism and would focus on psychological drama.

It ran for only six episodes and failed to ignite any real audience interest. Terrance Dicks later felt they’d overdone the gritty realism aspect.

The opening episode sets the tone. Moonbase 3 is the European lunar base. There are also US, Russian and Chinese bases. The atmosphere at Moonbase 3 is a little tense and it’s about to get considerably more tense. Space exploration is inherently dangerous and accidents will occur but when they do they have to be thoroughly investigated. In this case an accident investigation puts the personnel at Moonbase 3 under a great deal of stress. There is a suspicion that a number of key personnel may have made errors of judgment that may have contributed to the accident. The errors of judgment, if they occurred, were rather minor in themselves but a succession of minor mistakes can have catastrophic consequences. In this instance the difficulty for a board of enquiry is that nothing about the accident is clear-cut. Perhaps there weren’t any actual mistakes made at all. Perhaps it was simply that decisions were made that were perfectly sound in the light of the information available at the time but that, with the benefit of hindsight, proved to be the wrong decisions.

The arrival of a new director for the base creates even more tension, especially given that Dr David Caulder (Donald Houston) has a very different style of leadership compared to his predecessor.

The second episode, Behemoth, brings more trouble for Moonbase 3. There’s a series of serious accidents but the worrying thing this time is that they are quite inexplicable. In fact the circumstances are positively mysterious. Astronauts being killed in accidents is one thing but when they disappear without trace that’s another matter. A sudden catastrophic depressurisation of a laboratory might have a rational explanation but when the wall of laboratory has been smashed and a scientist ripped apart that’s a mystery that is worrying indeed. And there are tracks leading to the laboratory where there could not be any tracks. It’s absolutely impossible. After all there’s nothing living on the Moon. Or is there?

In episode three, Achilles Heel, Moonbase 3 personnel seem to be making costly and very uncharacteristic mistakes. Nobody has been hurt but these mistakes have cost the European space program a lot of money and the lunar base is already facing severe budgetary squeezes. Deputy director Dr Michel Lebrun (Ralph Bates) believes the answer is to tighten up discipline, but then Lebrun always believes discipline should be tightened up. 

The fourth episode, Outsiders, was a remarkably bold story for a science fiction TV series. Written by John Brason, it’s quite cerebral and deals with metaphysical and even religious themes. Two scientists at Moonbase 3 are on the verge of major scientific breakthroughs but is scientific progress enough to make life worthwhile and how great is the price to be paid? It’s a clever and original story but it’s hardly the sort of thing that would be likely to have mass audience appeal.

If the whole series had been as good as the fifth episode, Castor and Pollux, then Moonbase 3 might well have been a major success. This episode provides some real excitement and some real suspense. A routine repair job on a satellite goes wrong and one of Moonbase 3’s shuttle spacecraft is not only in dire peril but seems to be doomed, with the astronaut facing certain death. A rescue in space in this instance seems quite impossible. There’s just one very slim chance but even that appears to be hopeless since there’s no way permission would be granted for such an attempt. 

This story is not just exciting but is also a study in the pressures of command. Both David Caulder and Michel Lebrun will be tested to the limit as risks have to be balanced and terrifyingly difficult decisions taken. This is the first episode that really gives Ralph Bates as Lebrun a chance to demonstrate his acting chops and he does so quite impressively. There’s some actual character development here. Lebrun has always had very strong views on the subject of command but he’s always had the luxury of being second-in-command and therefore of not having to take ultimate responsibility. Now he has to make a crucial decision which will not only mean life or death for the astronauts but could end his career if his decision turns out badly, and the responsibility is his and his alone.

Sadly it all falls apart badly in the sixth and final episode. Up to this point they’d avoided the preachiness that afflicted so much 1970s BBC TV sci-fi (including at times Doctor Who). In this episode the preachiness is all too apparent but it’s not the only problem. I don’t want to reveal spoilers but this story incorporates plot devices that always exasperate me.

This series has an interesting cast. Donald Houston had had quite a successful career in film. Ralph Bates, who plays deputy director Dr Michel Lebrun, is best remembered for starring roles in a number of Hammer horror movies. The third major character is psychologist Dr Helen Smith (Fiona Gaunt). Fiona Gaunt had a fairly busy career in British television in the 70s before disappearing without trace. All three leads are fairly effective and the characters are reasonably well developed and, more importantly, they’re all fallible. That’s true of the minor characters as well. Astronauts might be carefully selected but they still have human weaknesses. In fact this group of space explorers has lots of human weaknesses!

The chief difficulty this series faced is a tough one. If you’re going to do a science fiction series without aliens and monsters how do you provide the action and the suspense that science fiction fans are going to be looking for? The writers manage to meet this challenge with reasonable success although one can’t help wondering how long they could have continued to do so had the series enjoyed a longer run.

If there’s one major criticism that can be levelled at Moonbase 3 it’s that for a serious science fiction program it doesn’t have much in the way of really meaty science fiction content. The focus is almost entirely on the psychological dramas that arise among the crew. It’s no coincidence that one of the three main characters is the base’s resident psychologist, Dr Helen Smith. The psychological dramas are quite interesting though and the emphasis on the peculiar kinds of stresses that arise among a group of people isolated in a hostile environment is quite effective and it does take full advantage of the setting. Of course they could have achieved the same results by setting the series in a remote part of the Earth (such as the Antarctic) but at least by setting it on the Moon they can throw in a few spaceships. On the other hand what science there is is much more realistic than one expects in TV sci-fi.

The production values are what you expect from the notoriously penny-pinching BBC in 1973. In other words they’re pretty awful. The sets and the special effects look very very cheap indeed when compared to something like Gerry Anderson’s Space: 1999.

Moonbase 3 was for quite a few years believed to have been another victim of the BBC’s insane policy of destroying practically every archived series they could get their hands on. Fortunately a copy was not only eventually found, it was in pretty good condition and even more fortunately it was a colour copy. The complete series of six episodes has been released on DVD by Second Sight (and I believe it’s an all-region DVD set). There are no extras but image quality is quite good.

Moonbase 3 had potential and even if that potential was not fully realised it has some good moments. It’s intriguingly and daringly different in tone from most television science fiction. It doesn’t always quite succeed but it’s a brave attempt. I think it’s definitely worth a look. Recommended.


  1. The whole “board of inquiry” angle reminds me of a brilliant Barry Malzberg SF story that couldn't be done twice: The entire narrative is in the form of depositions taken after the fact, and the reader, like the investigators, is at sea; only amidst the ass-covering and ego-preening and bitching and back-biting of the witnesses can the story of -what actually happened- slowly be pieced together…

  2. I can see why it didn't catch on. IMO, there's not enough action for it to be entertaining, and despite many good ideas, it's just not well-written enough at the dialogue level to appeal to a more high-brow audience. And a couple of episodes have that traditional SF problem of the characters being all the people you wouldn't send to the corner shop, never mind the moon.

    But it's great to see Donald Houston playing the lead, and Ralph Bates has a lot of fun mit ze aksent. So many of the supporting roles were played by actors who normally play villain-of-the-week, which I always like to see.

    I liked the low-budget look - the small sets made it look like a confined place really would.

    I did like Castor and Pollux, but it didn't end the way I thought it would. And that last episode is a real jaw-dropper (and also features a gratuitous cleavage shot to open a key scene!).

    Not sure I could recommend it to anyone - except for the cast. But I'm glad I watched it. I hadn't known it was available - I'd read a sypnosis of the first episode years ago in a magazine issue about lost cult series.

    1. it's just not well-written enough at the dialogue level to appeal to a more high-brow audience.

      The idea of aiming at a high-brow audience always had a certain appeal to sci-fi TV makers but it was very risky. The prejudice against sci-fi was incredibly strong. So as you say, if you are going to try that approach you really had to be able to pull it off convincingly.