Moonbase 3 – View of a Dead Planet

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The Arctic Sun Project is a highly controversial scheme that has divided opinion .  The plan is to detonate a hydrogen bomb above the Arctic Circle and the resulting explosion will melt the polar ice-caps and create vast areas of new land (dubbed the new Garden of Eden).

The creator of the project, Sir Benjamin Dyce (Michael Gough), has just arrived on Moonbase 3 for a visit and Caulder is naturally keen to hear directly from him about this tremendous feat of scientific endeavour.  But he, and the rest of the team, are surprised and perturbed to be told by Dyce that the Arctic Sun Project will destroy all life on Earth.

Dyce is a brilliant scientist (amongst his many distinctions is a Nobel prize) but after his diatribe some of the others decide that he’s lost his grip on reality.  However, when all contact with Earth is lost and the whole planet is engulfed in a peculiar mist, it appears that his doom-laden predictions have come true …..

View of a Dead Planet was Arden Winch’s only script for Moonbase 3.  It’s notable for presenting us with a much more affable and pleasant Lebrun than we’ve previously seen.  He spends the early part of the episode making ironic remarks and he’s later pleased when the others decide to surprise him by celebrating Bastille Day.  It’s hard to imagine them making the effort for the distant and surly Lebrun we saw in previous episodes!

The opening few minutes also give us a rare glimpse of the Moonbase 3 personnel at rest and play.  We see Tom Hill playing a game of long distance chess with his opposite number in the Russian Moonbase.  I wonder if this was a homage to a similar scene in the Hancock classic The Radio Ham?

But there’s not much time for fun – within a matter of hours the Earth looks to be dead.  It’s a staggering coincidence that the architect of the Arctic Sun Project happened to be on the Moon at precisely the right time and was therefore able to let the staff (and the viewers at home) know exactly what he believes would happen – via a large info-dump.

Michael Gough’s not terribly good in this, which is strange because he was usually such a reliable actor.  Maybe part of the problem is that Dyce is supposed to be a much older man and Gough (who was fifty seven when this was made) appears far too young to be playing an octogenarian.  The wig doesn’t help either.

Once all hope looks like it’s lost, it’s instructive to see how everybody copes.  Lebrun gets drunk and demands to know when Caulder plans to kill them all, whilst Bruno Ponti (Garrick Hagon) gets drunk and mauls Dr Helen Smith.  It’s rather eye-opening that his attempted rape of Helen is later dismissed quite casually (he was under pressure, like the rest of them, but it still seems remarkable that no further action was taken).

Caulder and Tom Hill meet to discuss what they should do.  With limited food and oxygen, they can only last for a few weeks at most.  Caulder isn’t keen for everybody to carry on until the final scrap of food is eaten, so the ever-practical Tom suggests introducing carbon-monoxide into the atmosphere.  It’ll just make everybody drowsy and they’ll gradually drift away into a sleep they’ll never awake from.

View of a Dead Planet has more of a hard-SF edge than some of the earlier episodes, although human interaction is still very much to the fore.  Since the acting is rather variable (always a slight problem with Moonbase 3) it’s not the strongest episode, especially thanks to the rather cop-out ending.

If Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks had been aware that the show wouldn’t be recommissioned, it would have been suitably bleak (rather like most of the series) to have ended with the complete destruction of the human race.  As it is, just before Caulder orders everybody to be gassed, communication is restored with Earth.  The detonation of the bomb caused considerable atmospheric disturbances, but they seem only to be temporary, and in time everything should return to normal.

After being so certain the the end was nigh, Dyce has to back-peddle somewhat – but he’s still able to provide the moral of the story (which sounds like it might have come direct from Barry Letts himself) by stating that mankind has been lucky this time, but they can’t afford any more mistakes.  With such potent and powerful methods of destruction, all humanity is placed on a knife’s edge – and another miscalculation could result, next time, in complete annihilation.

It’s not perfect, but Moonbase 3 is a programme that’s well worth your time.  And it wouldn’t be the last time that the BBC would create a SF series based on the Moon.  Fourteen years later, Star Cops would have an equally brief run (clearly Moon-based shows just aren’t popular!) and that’s going to be the next series that I’ll dig out to rewatch.

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Moonbase 3 – Castor and Pollux

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Moonbase 3 hosts a reception for a group of Russian dignitaries.  Their party includes the top cosmonaut Colonel Dimitri Gararov (Milos Kirek) who’s delighted to finally get the chance to meet Tom Hill.  In his day Tom was a notable astronaut and Gararov makes no attempt to hide the admiration he feels for him.  As he said, during training whenever a tough question was posed, he’d ask himself what Tom Hill would have done in such a situation.

The leader of the Russian Moonbase, General Alexis Trenkin (George Pravda), has an interesting meeting later with Caulder.  Caulder is very keen to try and interest the Russians in a joint project.  Since Europe are very much the poor relation in space, teaming up with the Russians on a prestigious venture would be a certain way to increase their funding.  Trenkin casually tells him that for 350 million they could be a partner in a proposed manned flight to Venus.

But any thoughts of co-operation seem to be unlikely after Tom runs into difficulties whilst on a routine mission to service a malfunctioning satellite.  A faulty computer command has sent his capsule spinning out into deep space.  He can be rescued, but it would take a top astronaut to do so – somebody like Gararov.

Trenkin flatly refuses to send him as Gararov is soon to depart for a new orbital station, so he’s not prepared to risk his life.  But Gararov decides to go anyway, which naturally pleases Caulder – but Trenkin’s displeasure becomes apparent when he requests that Caulder is removed from command during the remainder of the rescue mission.  Lebrun therefore takes charge, but since he’s already questioned the wisdom of the mission, will he be prepared to make the right call at the critical moment?

After a run of episodes with similar themes, John Lucarotti’s Castor and Pollux makes a refreshing change.  For once, there’s no unstable personalities – instead the drama comes from the rescue mission.

The debate over how to rescue Tom highlights the differences between Caulder and Lebrun.  Caulder will not accept for even a moment the possibility that a rescue is impossible and he’ll do anything in order to make it happen.  If it means that his cherished dream of collaboration with the Russians is scuppered, then so be it.

Lebrun, on the other hand, maintains an icy detachment for most of the story.  He professes to be sorry about Tom, but he considers that he’s as good as dead – and if so, why risk more lives in a futile rescue attempt?  The irony is that he’s the one who finally orders Gararov to make the very risky manoeuvre that ultimately saves Tom’s life.  He later says that it was the logical choice, but it was still a gamble – and had it not worked it would have been his career on the line.

Castor and Pollux is a good story for Barry Lowe.  Tom Hill’s by far the most naturalistic of the male leads (Donald Houston’s Caulder frequently lurches over the top whilst Ralph Bates’ Lebrun tends to be rather wooden) and this episode helps to fill in some of his back-story.  A respected and highly experienced astronaut, his current work on Moonbase 3 might be seen as something of a comedown, but Caulder is well aware just how important he is.  As he says, it’s Tom that keeps them all alive – and in the unforgiving vacuum of space that’s a vital skill.

Moonbase 3 was never the fastest paced of series and it’s fair to say that this episode is slower than most.  Since the bulk of it revolves around Tom’s problems, there’s an awful lot of scenes showing people gazing anxiously into monitors whilst Tom flicks buttons in his capsule.  Modelwork is also fairly limited, which probably reflects the series’ fairly low budget.

It’s always a pleasure to see the dependable George Pravda.  Born in Hungary, he carved out a very decent career playing a variety of East European nationalities, including Russians of course.  And whilst he stumbles over a few early lines, Milos Kirek is solid as Gararov.

Although the current political climate is rarely touched upon during the series, we can assume that by 2003 (the year in which Moonbase 3 was set) the Cold War has ended.  There seems to be no mistrust of the Russians, for example, and Caulder’s desire to work with them (plus Trenkin’s comment that if the Europeans aren’t interested in a joint venture to Jupiter, they’ll approach the Americans instead) confirms that.

With the fairly down-beat endings we’ve seen so far, you could be forgiven for expecting this one to finish badly as well.  But for once, there’s a positive outcome – Tom is rescued and both he and Gararov make it back safely.  Trenkin is pleased and this demonstration of European/Russian co-operation only seems to have strengthened any possible future alliance.

Moonbase 3 – Outsiders

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Moonbase 3 is under pressure.  Part of the reason for the base’s existence is to carry out scientific research projects – several look promising, but Caulder needs one of them to show definite results.  And the sooner the better since Franz Hauser (Victor Beaumont) is on the way from Earth for an inspection.

Hauser is one of the people responsible for Moonbase 3’s appropriations budget.  If Caulder can’t prove that any progress is being made, it’s possible their funding will be drastically cut.  Mineralogist Peter Conway (John Hallam) may be close to a breakthrough, but he tells Caulder that nothing’s certain yet.  When Caulder complains that they’ve spent too much money for negligible results, Conway counters that that’s the price you pay for research.

Stephen Partness (Tom Kempinski) is also working hard and seems close to success in his field.  Partness has ruffled more than a few feathers, including Caulder’s, but if he can come up with something then presumably all would be forgiven.

Outsiders was the second script penned by John Brason.  Whilst the three previous episodes have all had their dark sides, Outsiders is the bleakest yet as there’s precious little comfort that can be taken from the conclusion of the story.

Peter Conway seems, at times, to be a deeply unhappy man – although his lapses into melancholy are only temporary.  But Dr Smith has noticed his changing moods and is concerned.  It doesn’t appear that his problems are connected to the stresses of living on the Moon – it’s probable that he would feel the same back on Earth.  Conway is just grasping for the reason why – there must be some other truth, he says, than just scientific truth.  During the course of an intimate counseling session with Helen in his cabin he remarks that “I can see that a tap for water is a great convenience, but something went out of the world when we stopped going to the communal well.”

Hallam’s excellent in this scene, as he is throughout the story.  Helen decides he’s a man out of time – a romantic – who seems to be cast adrift in a hostile environment.  She ends their discussion by kissing him on the lips.  It’s notable that this is the second episode in a row where she’s become attracted to one of her subjects.

The uneasy compromise between pure scientific research and the necessity to generate a profit is an interesting theme which is well developed here.  Given the expense of space research, it’s reasonable that the European government would seek to try and recoup as much money as possible – but research isn’t something that can be hurried (or if it is, then mistakes can occur).

But everything seems to be going Caulder’s way when both Conway and Partness announce that they’ll be able to demonstrate their successful processes to Hauser. However, Partness has faked his work in order to try and keep his career afloat.  He was on the verge of something, but the pressure of having to produce instant results meant that he resorted to subterfuge in order to buy himself a little more time.

It doesn’t take long before the truth comes out, although Caulder is able to keep it away from Hauser.  And whilst Caulder is a moral and honest man, he has no scruples in covering up Partness’ falsifications for the good of the base.

Conway’s breakthrough is highly significant, but he’s become increasingly detached and decides that he no longer wishes to continue living.  He dons a spacesuit and walks out onto the Moon’s surface, leaving the following note behind.

It is the coming of a new age in which I have no place. The new truths are not my truths. I think I am the perennial dodo. I belong to a thing like Athens, a mother of a mode of life which shall renew the youth of the world. A thing like Nazareth. Change is a delusion. It is of new things that Men tire, of fashions and proposals and improvements. ‘Tis the old things that are forever young. I have no place here. It is time to leave.

The death of Conway does give Partness a second chance.  Caulder was initially planning to send him back to Earth as soon as possible, but partly because Conway respected him, Caulder allows him to stay and finish his research.  It’s about the only crumb of comfort that can be taken from the events of the episode.

Outsiders might just be my favourite episode of Moonbase 3, thanks to the fine performance of John Hallam.

Moonbase 3 – Achilles Heel

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Whilst attending to routine maintenance work on the Moon’s surface, Bill Knight (Malcolm Reynolds) nearly dies when he runs out of oxygen.  It seems incredible that he wouldn’t have checked he had a sufficient supply to last for the duration of his work-period, but it appears that he’s not alone in making basic errors.

Professor Kate Weyman (Anne Ridler) has to admit to Caulder that she must have left the cut-out disabled on a vital piece of equipment.  The resulting damage will cost both time and money to put right.

Caulder is well aware that the Moonbase is like a functioning organism – everybody depends on everybody else.  And when efficiency starts to slip it could spell disaster for the whole base.  But what’s to be done?  Lebrun knows what he would do – enforce strict penalties for anybody who breaks the rules.  Caulder, on the other hand, doesn’t believe that such an inflexible policy would work – these are scientists, he says, not children.

But eventually Dr Smith begins to wonder the accidents weren’t quite as accidental as they appear ……

Achilles Heel was the first of two scripts written by John Lucarotti.  It may not come as a complete surprise to learn that it’s probable the crisises were triggered by an unstable personality, but unlike the first two episodes it looks like it’s deliberate sabotage.

Adam Blaney (Edward Brayshaw) always seems to be about when problems occur – he was the one that rescued Bill Knight, for example – and all the evidence suggests he’s engineered these problems for his own ends.

He’s also able to wage a psychological war of nerves with some of the other Moonbase personnel, playing on their own fears and prejudices. So when talking to Lebrun, he casually mentions how lax he feels Caulder’s administration is – knowing full well that Lebrun will agree. It takes a while for Helen and Caulder to put all the pieces together and by the time they do, both Helen and Bill are placed in danger.

Why didn’t Dr Helen Smith, who was the most qualified, identify that something was wrong with him?  Sadly, she’s taken in just like everybody else. Indeed even more so – she starts to become romantically attached to him.  This does seems rather inappropriate (like a doctor/patient relationship would be).

Edward Brayshaw enjoyed a lengthy career, but he’ll always be best known as the constantly perplexed Harold Meaker in Rentaghost.  He’s smoothly convincing as Adam, although it’s a difficult role – especially at the end, when Helen rejects his advances and his irrational side has to come to the fore.

The reason for his behaviour stems from his rejection as a pilot on a prestigious mission to Venus.  As he was denied the chance to end his career on a high, it appears he’s decided to ruin everybody else’s.  His actions suggest that he’s seriously unbalanced and the question must be how he was able to clear the physiological profiling which passed him fit for duty on the Moon.  But if the profiling had managed to weed out all the unstable characters there would have been very little drama in this series!

The opening minutes, with Bill Knight struggling on the Moon’s surface, is effectively shot – especially from his POV.  It’s just a pity that, impressive as the Moon surface is, once again we see the ground obviously move when anybody steps on it (a consequence of the way the set was built – presumably it would have been far too expensive to create a totally solid landscape).  But since all these scenes were prefilmed it’s surprising that they didn’t choose just to cut away from any especially unconvincing moments.

Although Helen is convinced that Adam was responsible for the sabotage, even if she doesn’t believe he was aware what he was doing, there’s no actual evidence to prove that both incidents weren’t genuine accidents. But his erratic behaviour provides Caulder with more than adequate grounds to ensure he’s returned to Earth.

Whilst Adam’s last-minute lurch into madness does feel a tad melodramatic, Achilles Heel is still a good story thanks to the guest performance of Brayshaw.

Moonbase 3 – Behemoth

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Series creators Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks were keen to ensure that Moonbase 3 was science fact first and science fiction second.  Most obviously this meant that Cauder and his team couldn’t expect to be visited by bug-eyed monsters – every danger they faced had to be scientifically credible.

Although having said that, it’s intriguing that Behemoth does tease the audience that there could be something strange out on the lunar surface.  Several unexplained disappearances are rumoured to be the work of mysterious space monsters.  These bizarre stories cause a certain amount of panic amongst even the most rational of people, which forces Caulder to venture onto the lunar surface to investigate.

One of Moonbase 3’s most fruitful areas of dramatic tension revolved around how a disparate group of people managed to live and work in the stressful, zero-gravity environment on the Moon.  But this might also be the reason why the series was so short-lived – after all, there’s only so many stories you can craft about people who are slowly cracking under the strain.

When watching the next two episodes (Achilles Heel and Outsiders) this should be borne in mind and I’m sure we’ll come back to the thorny issue of exactly how Dr Helen Smith manages to keep her position as the base psychologist.  Surely after yet another seemingly normal person has gone loopy, endangering the rest of the base, you’d think that somebody would be questioning her ability.  Although to be fair, she does have concerns about Professor Heinz Laubenthal (Peter Miles) – which Caulder choses to ignore.

But then it isn’t always clear who’ll be the next to buckle.  Some, like Laubenthal seem obvious candidates right from the off, whilst others, like Dr Peter Conway (John Hallam) do appear to be normal and rational.

It could be that Peter Miles has sometimes played characters who aren’t sinister or deranged, but if he has then I must have missed them.  To be honest, if you cast Miles then you’re as good admitting from the off that the character he’s playing is a wrong ‘un.  Maybe it’s the slightly odd, staccato way he delivers his lines (or possibly his space cardigan) but the Professor doesn’t seem to be completely normal.

After Caulder bans any work being carried out in the Mare Frigoris region, following the disappearance of two seismologists, Laubenthal reacts angrily.  He’s carrying out research work in the area, but exactly what he’s doing is a closely guarded secret.  And after an explosion in his lab kills him, it’s precisely the secretive nature of his work which allows the wild rumours to flourish, helped along by Peter Conway.

After a brief appearance in the first episode, Conway has a slightly larger role here – although his main episode will be the fourth one  Hallam makes Conway a charming man – but he also seems to be troubled by something.  Dr Smith is perplexed as to why he delights in spreading scare stories about monsters on the Moon.  The question she ponders is if it’s simply his way of letting off steam or whether his actions are masking deeper problems.

Elsewhere, Lebrun clashes with the prickly weather expert Juan Benavente (John Moreno).  Benavente has an astonishing accent, which Lebrun  comments unfavourably upon.  Given Ralph Bates’ fake French accent, this is a bit rich!

Behemoth and the later episode Outsiders were both written by John Brason.  Like Arden Winch, who scripted the series finale View from a Dead Planet, he didn’t have a background in science fiction.  Winch had written for The Wednesday Play, for example, whilst Brason had contributed to Colditz.  This seems to be part of the drive by Letts and Dicks to recruit writers who would be able to craft good drama.

The presence of James Burke, as technical advisor, was another sign they were keen to be as accurate as possible.  Barry Letts had decided that by 2003 there would be Moonbases and whilst the benefit of hindsight has enabled us to see that this was hopelessly optimistic, some of Burke’s reasoning at the time still remains sound.  By 1973, the love-affair with the Moon was already over.  The last manned mission had taken place in 1972 and Burke reasoned that nobody would be interested in returning there until at least the 1990’s – as it would take at a decade or so to study all of the materials brought back from the various lunar missions.

With scientific accuracy therefore very much to the fore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise there’s a rational, logical solution to the mystery.  Both of Brason’s episodes are highlights of the series and it’s the mysterious nature of this story which helps to keep the interest level up.

Moonbase 3 – Departure and Arrival

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Last year I blogged a quick overview of Moonbase 3 where I mentioned that it’s a series that I like to revisit most years.  Quite why this is, I don’t know, as I own many other series that are, by any quantifiable reckoning, “better” programmes than Moonbase 3, but they don’t get viewed nearly as often.  There’s just something about this series that I find both compelling and comforting.

As I work my through the six episodes again, perhaps I’ll work out why I enjoy it so much.  Partly, I think it’s the 1970’s sci-fi vibe.  If you love Doctor Who of this era, then there’s plenty to enjoy in Moonbase 3.  They’re totally different series – Moonbase 3 tended to deal with fact, not fantasy – but there’s many familiar faces who had made notable appearances in Doctor Who.  And Dudley Simpson’s music is, of course, another very Who-ey connection.

The year is 2003 and there are five Moonbases – the Americans, Russians, Brazilians, Chinese and Europeans all have one apiece.  From the opening scene though, it’s clear that the European Moonbase is struggling to keep afloat.  Money, or the lack of it, is the problem.  The European Moonbase director Dr Tony Ransome (Michael Lees), can only look on enviously at the American and Russian bases, which have all the facilities they could possibly need.

When the director is killed in a shuttle crash, the political storm is another threat to the survival of Moonbase 3.  The shuttle pilot, Harry Sanders (Michael Wisher), had been rated as their top pilot, but psychologist Dr Helen Smith (Fiona Gaunt) had vague concerns about him.  These weren’t enough to persuade Dr Michel Lebrun (Ralph Bates) to request his removal though.

As the episode then revolves around the new director, Dr David Caulder (Donald Houston), arriving to initiate an enquiry into the accident, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the actions of both Helen and Lebrun.  Helen seemed convinced that Sanders would be removed from duty, but Lebrun was unwilling to do so – as she’d offered no clear reasons why.  Helen agreed that there was no evidence, just her instinct, but as the base psychologist you would have assumed that even a vague doubt would have been enough to initiate Sanders’ replacement as pilot.

The characters of both Helen and Lebrun are therefore quite sharply defined very early on.  Dr Smith operates on instinct (although we’ll see several later examples of her poor judgement, which makes you wonder how she manages to keep her job) whilst Dr Lebrun is very much a by-the-book character.  If Helen had given him a clear report (rather than just suspicions) then he would have acted – otherwise he wasn’t prepared to do anything.

Michael Wisher, who’d already made several notable Doctor Who appearances (with his memorable turn as Davros a few years in the future) is good value in the small, but key, role of the increasingly twitchy Harry Saunders.  At first, he seems fine – just a little tetchy at being delayed.  But once the shuttle lifts off and Lebrun, Smith and Tom Hill (Barry Lowe) on Moonbase become concerned, we see Saunders become more and more paranoid.

The theme of Departure and Arrival is how fragile life on the Moon can be.  Just one weak link, like Sanders, can spell disaster for everybody – which is something the new director, Dr Caulder, tries to impress on the senior staff.  The fact that he does so in such a bizarre and risky way does rather undermine his point though!

Before that, Caulder’s arrival is a useful dramatic device since it allows the viewers to follow him around as he’s introduced to the various different sections of Moonbase 3.  Donald Houston is very bluff and very Welsh here – Caulder doesn’t actually call anybody “boyo”, but you get the feeling that he could do so at any moment.

One nice touch is that on his tour he’s is introduced to various scientists such as Dr Peter Conway (John Hallam) and Professor Heinz Laubenthal (Peter Miles).  Both of them will appear in upcoming episodes, so seeing them briefly here helps to sell the illusion that all these people are really working closely together.  With most episodic series, the guest-cast changes from episode to episode – which means that each week we tend to meet new people and never see them again afterwards.

Caulder tells Lebrun, Smith and Hill that he holds all three of them responsible for the deaths of Ransome and Saunders – and they’ll all travel back to Earth by the next available shuttle.  But there’s a problem and the shuttle has to make an emergency landing back on the Moon’s surface.  Incredibly, Caulder has staged this in order to make the others understand just how dangerous the Moon can be.  The fact he nearly gets them all killed whilst proving this seems to pass everyone by!  Indeed, it’s remarkable that nobody suggests they should hold an enquiry to examine his reckless actions which so nearly resulted in another tragedy.

Although the Moon’s surface is a little springy, that doesn’t detract too much from the tense closing moments, which are nicely directed by Ken Hannam.  Once they’re rescued in the nick of time by the American Moonbase commander (played by Robert La Bassiere, whose most prominent credit on his limited CV was as a Kroton in a Patrick Troughton Doctor Who story) Caulder tells them that they’ll be no further action taken.  In his opinion, nobody but Saunders was responsible for the accident.

It’s a bit of a slow-burn, but Departure and Arrival is a decent set-up episode, since it brings the four main characters into clear focus.

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