Posts Tagged ‘Letts’

Moonbase 3 (1973)

10 April 2009

A curious realist sf series from Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks – produced as far as I can tell in the gap between the Doctor Who serials “The Green Death” and “The Time Warrior”. It’s partly curious in that it comes at the end of a season in which Jon Pertwee’s Doctor is released from exile on Earth and can travel the universe again – and this is set in one place: the European moonbase and its immediate surroundings, with the occasional near orbit travel. The initial idea had been to set it on a ship or sub; the isolation is striking.

The six episodes were produced by five writers:

  1. “Departures and Arrivals” (dir. Ken Hannam; w. Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts; tx 9 September 1973)
  2. “Behemoth” (dir. Ken Hannam; w. John Brason; tx 16 September 1973)
  3. “Achilles Heal” [Heel?] (dir. Christopher Barry; w. John Lucarotti; tx 23 September 1973)
  4. “Outsiders” (dir. Ken Hannam; w. John Brason; tx 30 September 1973)
  5. “Castor and Pollux” (dir. Christopher Barry; John Lucarotti, 7 October 1973)
  6. Views of a Dead Planet (dir: Christopher Barry; w. Arden Winch; tx 14 October 1973)

Note the lack of regular Doctor Who writers aside from the creators who acted as producer and script editor as usual; Lucarotti had written for the series in the 1960s, but only historical stories such as “Marco Polo” and “The Massacre”. Barry directed episodes from “The Dead Planet” to “The Creature from the Pit”, but at that point only “The Dæmons” and “The Mutants” for Letts and Dicks (he went on to direct their swansong, “Robot”).

The set up is a base, one of several run by the US, the USSR, Europe and China. Typically the European one is run on a shoestring and knee deep in bureaucracy, so when the base director is killed in a shuttle accident, the troubleshooting David Caulder (Donald Houston) is brought in to turn the venture around. In the context of the daily dangers of staying alive, Caulder has to start showing a profit. He is rivalled by Michel Lebrun (Ralph Bates), a French by-the-book jobsworth and his second in command, and helped by former astronaut turned sort-of chief engineer and dogsbody Tom Hill (Barry Lowe) and psychiatrist Helen Smith (Fiona Gaunt) whose job is to monitor the rather flowing staff morale.

Most of the stories derive out of the every day stresses of their mission – when thing get done on autopilot, when people’s weaknesses are played upon, when outsiders have to show solidarity. In the second episode there’s the suspicion of life of the Moon – but the explanation turns out to be selenological. The rationalism presumably derives from the input of science journalist James Burke (pre-Connections) as scientific advisor. The end result was this BBC-Twentieth Century Fox-ABC co-production stopped after six episodes; it was insufficiently fantastical, and I suspect they’d run out of story ideas.

The one foot wrong I felt was the final episode, in which a nuclear detonation above the pole was meant to melt ice caps to free up more farming land, and it is assumed that a chain reaction predicted by a maverick scientist (Michael Gough, playing 90-something) has destroyed life on Earth. As it is the north pole, I’m not sure how much arctic land would be freed – and the sea level rise is hand waved away.

The special effects have dated badly, and the acting, especially from the non-regulars, is a little wooden. It is stuffed full with casual racism – Helen is frequently disbelieved and sidelined, and her role is to be empathetic, without a story line of her one. Her superiors and equals are rather too tactile – although when she stands up to the scientist she is respected.

A fascinating experiment – but space opera comes back to dominate British sf on tv.