Under Pressure: ‘Moonbase 3’ revisited

­­❉ Looking back on the cult BBC sci-fi series, which debuted on this day in 1973. 

“This was a tense and claustrophobic world of the near future, depicting scientists, engineers and academics trying to justify the enormous financial and mental cost of living on the Moon thirty years into the future (and now fourteen years into our past). The Space Race was not yet in its last gasps. We had to be living in moonbases by the year 1999, hadn’t we?”

For those who remembered it, Moonbase 3 was either a disappointing sci-fi show or one of the most fascinating and under-rated of its type. Wiped from the archives, bootlegged audios existed until the episodes were discovered in America in the 1990s. Its subsequent release on VHS and DVD gave us a chance to see what it was like, and whether it deserved cancellation after just six episodes.

7.25pm, on 9 September 1973 and five and a half million viewers tuned in to BBC1 not to watch your average Sunday fare of pre-world war two vets, Yorkshire policemen, boardroom family dynamics, but the first episode of Moonbase 3. Not all of them came back the following week, deserting to ITV or Life on Earth on BBC2. This was a tense and claustrophobic world of the near future, depicting scientists, engineers and academics trying to justify the enormous financial and mental cost of living on the Moon thirty years into the future (and now fourteen years into our past). The Space Race was not yet in its last gasps. We had to be living in moonbases by the year 1999, hadn’t we?

Moonbase 3 did what BBC drama was supposed to do, be as authentic and unsensational as possible. If you wanted high concept sci-fi, fantasy, fights or aliens, forget it. You can get that with Doctor Who, which is where Moonbase 3 came from. The most recent series of Doctor Who had been regarded by its executive producers, Ronnie Marsh (Head of Serial) and his boss Shaun Sutton, as the most successful series since 1965. The production team headed by producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks had saved the series from its third cancellation threat, and turned it into an essential component in building and retaining audiences for a Saturday night. Since the pair wished to leave Doctor Who they were allowed the chance to make a different series during the summer, something which their predecessors did in 1969 with an RAF drama called S.P. Air.

Moonbase 3 used established series- and character-driven authors Arden Winch, John Lucarotti and John Brason, who could explore the clashes research work produces under pressure. By 1973, the scientist and engineer was no longer seen as a miracle worker striving to bring forth utopia, as Doomwatch had recently shown. Moonbase 3 continued showing the scientist and engineer as human beings, and not held up in awe and uncriticised wonder. Episode 4, Outsiders, shows the pressure on researchers trying to make scientific breakthroughs which were only possible to achieve in a low-gravity environment. Some were prepared to cheat in order to buy precious time. The series featured paranoid astronauts, secretive experiments, depressive and suicidal metallurgists. The best episode is View of a Dead Planet by Arden Winch saw a massive experiment on earth to produce desperately needed energy sources, seemingly wipe out all life, and the moonbases realised they were as good as dead.

 

Because of its nature, the series was going to recorded within the BBC TV studios, with the moon surface represented as filmed insets shot at Ealing Studios, so the viewer felt as trapped as the characters, either bouncing away in their spacesuits across a less than sturdy set, or within tiny cramped cabins. A lot of care and attention was put into the lighting levels for Outsiders, to show the difference between a Moonbase 3 day and a Moonbase 3 night. Despite the expertise and experience of directors Christopher Barry and Ken Hannam, the recordings did not go smoothly. There were the usual needs for blue screen effects (or what the BBC was pleased to called Colour Separation Overlay) to depict views of the moon and the base out of windows, video-disc slow motion to suggest rare glimpses of zero gravity. The studio sessions frequently over-ran their 10pm finish, which caused consternation amongst the BBC executives at their Wednesday morning Television Weekly Programme Review meeting. The first three recorded episodes over-ran by a staggering 140 minutes.

Moonbase 3 was good drama if you weren’t expecting fireworks or over-the-top characterisations. It seemed that any preview the series received that autumn did not entice the viewers. Five and a half million was a figure the BBC regarded as disappointing for a new series on a Sunday night, especially when the following programme, Film of the Week: A Countess From Hong Kong, attracted 11 and a half million, and this considered “good”.

A post-mortem was held on the first episode the following Wednesday by the Programme Review board. Head of Features Group Aubrey Singer, soon to be Controller of BBC2, and an avid Doctor Who viewer summed it up in one word: “disappointed”. It was up to Sutton and Marsh to defend the series, which they didn’t. Marsh felt that the episode’s authors, Dicks and Letts, had over-looked the essentials of story-telling. They had failed to underline several points when they should have, and the direction by John Hannan had not moved the pace along in a way that would have been helpful. He had long talks with the team at the time and felt that some future episodes would certainly show improvement. Sutton thought it had lacked sparkle.

Having got that out of their system, it was left to Sutton to comment on future episodes, regretting the lack of energy shown in Achilles Heel, which featured a barn-storming performance by Edward Brayshaw, a character who liked to stir trouble and set people against one another. Outsiders Sutton considered “an improvement”, and Director of Programmes Television, Alasdair Milne, welcomed the space accident story Castor and Pollux. A View of a Dead Planet was summed up by Marsh as having been the best of an unimpressive series. He thought that one of the problems had been that too much drama had been expected to derive merely from setting action in a strange environment. This may explain why Dudley Simpson’s music is out of character for the series. Even a simple link between scenes, one starting with coffee being poured, is given a startling over-dramatic impact.

The biggest criticism made by the board was the casting. Moonbase director David Caulder was set up to be a charismatic “Welsh wizard”, a maverick trouble-shooter. He was played by Donald Houston, who seemed at times to be forcing the performance in a direction he wasn’t comfortable with. His second-in-command, Michel Lebrun, was a French Technocrat, a stickler for the rulebook. Although resentful he was not promoted as Base Director, he is supportive enough when it is needed. Barry Lowe played Tom Hill, the base engineer, as close to an ordinary bloke the series would present. He was magnificent in portraying the stresses he faced day in, day out, and keeping his temper at bay.

 

Fiona Gaunt played the base psychologist, usually behind a heavily made up poker face. She was very effective in her performance, seemingly relaxed and laid back, but a flawed professional and seemed attracted to suicidal personality disorders. She was miscast, according to Milne and Osborn but there is nothing on the record what they felt was actually wrong. The only other females seen in the series were traffic controllers or an over-dressed house-wife on a monitor, clearly enjoying having her husband far away on the moon.

The series was never going to be re-commissioned. Letts and Dicks chalked it up as one for experience. In later interviews, they were aware of the short-comings in Houston’s casting and their strict editorial decisions. Dicks remembered how one viewer was disappointed that the monster in Behemoth simply turned out to be shifting ice, which suggests this sort of realistic approach to science fiction does not interest a broad audience. But there are those of us who love it to pieces.

Dicks and Letts were allowed to leave Doctor Who after one more very successful series and would eventually work together on another institution, the Sunday night classic serial until that was wound up in the 1980s. They probably decided attempting First Men on the Moon might not be a terribly good idea.


❉ Michael Seely’s biography of Kit Pedler, ‘The Quest For Pedler’ (Miwk Publishing, 2014) can be purchased directly here. You can hear Michael Seely discussing his book with Miwk here.

 Michael Seely’s biography of director Douglas Camfield was published by Miwk Publishing in May 2017.  Click here to order.

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