Will somebody please tell us what it all means?
Just when you thought it was safe for the Doctor and his companions to visit an isolated human outpost that coincidentally contains a device capable of destroying the Earth, the Cybermen show up yet again to spoil the day. In almost every regard, Kit Pedler’s “The Moonbase” (Story Production Code HH) reads as a remake of his “The Tenth Planet,” aired a scant four months earlier, only with a different Cyberman weakness and a different Doctor at the helm, plus a groggy Scotsman who thinks a Cyberman is an avenging angel. We have: a remote international base (on the Moon instead of the South Pole); a commanding officer who effectively shrugs his shoulders at strangers knocking on his door; a doomed Earth spaceship; a group of Cybermen knocked out by quick companion thinking; a whole bunch of technobabble that sets up the doomsday device on the base; and a Cyberman weakness that requires humans to act in their stead and lets the Doctor turn the tables on the silver suited cyborgs.
And yet, derivative as it is, “The Moonbase” winds up being very different from “The Tenth Planet” almost entirely because it’s the Second Doctor rather than the First doing the table-turning.
If nothing else, “The Moonbase” represents the moment where Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor finally comes into his own as a fully developed character, out from William Hartnell’s shadow. To be sure, Pedler makes the connection between the two Doctors, with the Cybermen recognizing the Doctor (and vice versa):
Cyberman: You are known to us.
Doctor: And you to me.
The Daleks in “The Power of the Daleks” similarly recognized the Second Doctor, suggesting, again, that the Cybermen know of him from encounters between the original 1986 meeting, where the First Doctor regenerated, and their current 2070 engagement. But there, we didn’t recognize the Doctor even if the Daleks did; here, we feel like we know this Doctor: he’s crafty, cautious, and cunning, aware of his limitations and confident despite that knowledge. By the this story ends, we know how the Second Doctor thinks and acts. Pedler simply nails it. We almost feel badly for the Cybermen, because we know this is going to end poorly for them. You might say the Doctor blows them off their feet.
The Moonbase controls the Gravitron, a powerful gravitational force generator that alters tides to effect changes in Earth’s weather patterns. It’s stressful, demanding work, so when these four people show up outside (one of whom jumped into the Moonbase dome head first owing to the low gravity), the crew takes scarce notice, their attention focused on a tricky hurricane bearing down on Hawaii instead. They’re short-staffed, you see, as crewmen have been falling sick, with black lines overwriting their neural pathways. That’s because the Cybermen have broken in and poisoned the, um, sugar for their coffee with, ah, Neurotrope X. This substance allows the Cybermen to convert and control humans using a sonic device, not entirely unlike the Dalek Robomen of “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.”
Because the Doctor is, nominally, a doctor (he took his medical degree with Lister in Glasgow in 1888, after all!), the commanding officer, Hobson, allows him to try to discover what has happened. Nicely, the script sets up the familiar trope of the Doctor being mistaken for an expected doctor or other authority figure (see “The Power of the Daleks”) only to have the Doctor declaim that no, he’s just a random stranger on the Moon. Hobson slowly begins to suspect our time travellers as the culprits, but the Doctor manages to feign ignorance and also produces quite a bit of bluster and absent-mindedness to keep the focus off of them. And when Hobson attempts to throw them out of the Moonbase, the Doctor simply refuses. He states his principles quite clearly:
Doctor: 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 First Doctor certainly stands against evil, but his stories (or at lest the best ones) center primarily on the sanctity of the timeline. This speech echoes that made by the Doctor in “The Aztecs” about not changing history. The Second Doctor, well, he fights monsters. And the Cybermen certainly count as monsters.
Polly and Jamie are the first to see Cybermen, though Jamie, in a concussed haze, thinks it to be a Phantom Piper of McCrimmon legend. Polly knows it to be a Cyberman, to which Hobson responds not with querulousness but dismissiveness. Everyone knows the Cybermen were all destroyed in 1986, a nice bit of continuity. Pedler dates this story as taking place in 2070, so almost a hundred years after the original Cyberman appearance, making them monsters of legend. And yet, here they are.
Irritatingly, Pedler spends a good six to seven minutes of full-on technobabble talking about the dangers to Earth if the Gravitron wavers even a bit in its positioning and the accompanying stress they’re all under (perhaps necessitating all that sugared coffee), but the Cybermen gloss over their reasoning for wanting to destroy the Earth using the Gravitron’s weather-changing abilities. They want to eliminate all dangers. That’s it. The shooting script has these Cybermen as space explorers from Mondas who were not present at the Tenth Planet’s destruction, but that doesn’t explain where their reinforcements come from at the end of the story. It is as though the audience is expected to accept that, like those pesky Daleks, who also survived a home planet exploding, the Cybermen just show up from time to time.
These Cybermen have certainly changed since the prior bunch. Their voices are more heavily and regularly modulated, where those from “The Tenth Planet” spoke in a sing-song manner with heavy accents on final syllables. For emotionless creatures, Cybermen are rather taken by their own cleverness, exulting in telling Hobson how they fooled “stupid Earth brains” with a plan that was “Clever, clever, clever.” They also seem to have a vulnerability to heavy sonic forces, as they require humans to enter the Gravitron control room, which is buffeted by massive sound waves. That they choose to control Neurotrope X-infected humans in said room with a sonic device doesn’t bode well, as the Doctor figures it out right away and interferes with their plans, distracting the Cybermen long enough for Polly to spray them with nail polish remover.
Polly sees that the Cybermen’s chest apparatus are constructed of plastic, and while picking at her fraying nail polish she realizes that plastic can be weakened by thinners like acetone. Together with Ben and Jamie (who spar in hyper-masculine fashion around her, possibly to try to win her favor), they fill up fire extinguishers with a cocktail of solvents and spray it on the Cybermen, dissolving their life support systems and killing them. But that still leaves all the Cybermen reinforcements, who march across the lunar plain to besiege the Moonbase.
The Doctor doesn’t use any form of sonic device or solvent against the Cybermen, though. He points the giant gravity device at them and simply blows them off the moon, Cybersaucers and all. An anti-climactic ending, for sure, punctuated, as has become standard now, by the Doctor and his companions sneaking out the moment the danger has passed, leaving the clean-up to someone else. But the Second Doctor acts, throwing the Cybermen into the Sun’s inexorable grasp; in “The Tenth Planet,” the First Doctor defeats the Cybermen by waiting them out. The same story, indeed, told two different ways.
Polly plays a significant role in this story, coming up with the means of eliminating the immediate Cyberman threat, but she’s also told to make coffee by the Doctor and to wait and let the men go do the dangerous stuff by Ben and Jamie. She also screams at least three times. To Pedler’s credit, Polly doesn’t wait around to be rescued and joins the fight against the Cybermen, much to Ben and Jamie’s consternation. The two lads don’t offer much, though Ben contains a rather significant fount of knowledge about the Moon, recognizing the landscape on sight (referencing, no doubt, the American and Soviet lunar probes of 1966) and telling Polly the distance between the Moon and Mars. Other than that, he and Jamie just stack chairs against a door.
Pedler brings some interesting background detail to the series, introducing the ability to affect the flight of the TARDIS via strong gravitational force. The TARDIS also carries space suits in a wide variety of sizes, complete with microphones so people can talk to one another while wearing them and transparent helmets with an annoying tendency to gather condensation under hot stage lights.
And we cannot ignore the “Next Week On . . .” device, also known as the Time Scanner, which allows a limited glimpse into the future, showing, this time, an awful crab-like claw. Or a lunch buffet at a seafood restaurant. Probably the former, though.
(Previous Story: The Underwater Menace)
(Next Story: The Macra Terror)
Post 34 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project