The Cybermen Return: The Moonbase

The Patrick Troughton era is also very much the era of the Cybermen; Troughton’s Doctor faced them more than any other Doctor.  Although their first appearance was in William Hartnell’s final story, “The Tenth Planet,” Troughton’s Doctor faced them four times (5 if you count “The Five Doctors”).  After making a memorable debut on the show, “The Moonbase” is the first of the Cybermen’s many returns to the show.  In Kit Peder’s sequel, it has been about 90 years since the destruction of the Cybermen’s home planet, Mondas, and it features a significant change in the goals of the Cybermen.  In “The Tenth Planet,” their ultimate goal was to convert humans to “be like us.” Their return sees them out to destroy humanity, now that they perceive humans as a threat.

The new Cybermen

The new Cybermen

The adventure begins because the Doctor attempts to prove to his companions that he does, in fact, have control of where the TARDIS lands.  He decides to go to Mars, but instead has a very bumpy landing on the moon.  At this point the second Doctor does not appear to have the curiosity of his predecessor, since he wants to leave immediately, but Ben and Polly want to take the opportunity to explore the surface of the moon.  While they are exploring, Jamie injures himself and is taken by unidentified men into a nearby base.  The Doctor, Polly, and Ben follow him into the base.

They soon learn that they are in the year 2070 and this base is run by an international group in charge of the gravitron (no, not the carnival ride), which controls the weather on the earth.  A mysterious illness has struck the base; men are collapsing and dark lines develop, almost like veins, across their body.  Hobson, the leader of the base, suspects the travelers of somehow being responsible for the disease, but he is soon forced to acknowledge that the Cybermen, who were all believed to have been killed when Mondas exploded, have infiltrated the base.

The mysterious disease with which the men have come down is, in fact, due to something the Cybermen have put in the sugar; it results in the affected men being under cyber control.  The Cybermen have decided that earth is a threat to them, so they wish to use the gravitron to destroy the earth.  It is up to the Doctor and his companions to stop the cybermen before it’s too late.

The story is an entertaining one.  The story moves along at a good pace, and the early Cybermen make an interesting villain.   However, it is not without its faults.  Although it does not reach the levels of absurdity that were found in the previous story, “The Underwater Menace,” there are some moments that require you to abandon logic or accept characters making incredibly idiotic decisions.  One such example of the former is when the Cybermen have shot a hole in the glass dome around the gravitron.  Hobson first plugs up the hole with his jacket and then with the coffee tray.  Somehow I doubt that either of these objects would actually prevent the oxygen from escaping!  An example of the latter comes after the people have disabled the men that the Cybermen took over.  They remove the headgear that the Cybermen are using to control them, but they place it right next to them in their sick bay.  It was very helpful of them to leave it within arms reach for when they get reactivated.  It’s also amusing that each member of the international (basically European with at least one Australian) group wears a shirt with their rank in the order of importance and the flag of their home country.  The Frenchman, Benoit, even wears a scarf tied jauntily around his neck, because that is clearly what all French people do.

Benoit (in his jaunty French scarf) looks to Hobson for advice about his fallen colleague.

Benoit (in his jaunty French scarf) looks to Hobson for advice about his fallen colleague.

There are also interesting developments with the Cybermen.  As I stated before, their mission has changed.  They are now out to simply destroy everyone on earth, rather than convert them.  Additionally, almost every time they appeared on the show their appearance changed (at least it makes sense that they would continue to “upgrade” themselves), and this is no exception.  Gone are their cloth faces, replaced by a far more metallic looking head.  These Cybermen look more robotic than their predecessors, and they have the ability to shoot energy from their hands.  It is also interesting that the Cybermen recognize the Doctor; the last time they saw him he was William Hartnell.  However, the timeline for the Cybermen has always been a bit confusing (something I’m hoping to work out as I watch these episodes), so this could be explained by “The Invasion” which was not yet made but takes place in an earlier time. In one final random note,  John Levene, who went on to play the popular Sargent Benton in the UNIT stories, makes his first appearance on the show playing one of the Cybermen.

As for the Doctor himself, this is, perhaps, the most clever we’ve seen the second Doctor.  He seems a bit more in control and more certain of what he is doing in this story.  Of course, Hobson doesn’t listen to him and even suspects him of sabotage, but ultimately he shows that he was correct.   Thankfully, he is also without the ridiculous hat he has sported in all of the other stories and he doesn’t play the recorder once.  After watching all of these early Troughton stories, you can really see his Doctor taking shape.  By this point, the playfulness, the impulsiveness, and the quick thinking that are the hallmarks of his Doctor have all been added to his characterization and gone is some of the early bizarre behavior.  He’s still eccentric, but it’s been toned down quite a bit.

The companions, as in “The Underwater Menace,” do not fare as well.  Polly, as usual, has moments in which she gets to show how clever she is, but she also screams a lot.  She also makes coffee twice, which is, apparently, her job when the Cybermen attack, since that was her job in “The Tenth Planet” as well.  She spends most of the first half of the story tending to the sick Jamie (since nursing is clearly women’s work), but she is the first to see the Cybermen.   Her best moment is when she is the one to figure out how to defeat the Cybermen inside the base.  She realizes that the plastic apparatuses on the Cybermen’s chests are their most vulnerable point because plastic can be dissolved.  Of course she is able to figure this out by thinking of nail polish remover (I guess Pedler wanted her scientific knowledge to be anchored in a traditionally feminine activity?), but the fact is that she is the only one to think of this.   I was a bit annoyed that when it came time to actually attack the Cybermen, Ben tells her to stay behind because, “this is men’s work.” Happily, though, Polly ignores him and joins the attack.

The moment before a Cyberman quite nimbly leaps out of the bed at which they're staring.  Who knew Cybermen could be so agile?

The moment before a Cyberman quite nimbly leaps out of the bed at which they’re staring. Who knew Cybermen could be so agile?

Ben and Jamie are still not really developed.  Ben demonstrates a great deal of scientific knowledge in this story, which is his main contribution to the story (those were the lines that they couldn’t give to Jamie, since he’s from the past) and is, again, a man of action, quick to fight back against the Cybermen.  Jamie is unconscious for most of the first half, muttering about the phantom piper, but joins in for the second half.  You still don’t get to know Jamie all that well, however, since he is basically just getting lines that would have been given to Ben.  There does seem to be a bit of a rivalry developing between Ben and Jamie, though, as Ben seems to worry about Jamie trying to impress Polly.  Something tells me that Ben’s feeling for Polly are a bit more than friendly at this point.

Overall, I quite enjoy “The Moonbase.”  It’s not the best Cyberman adventure, but it’s a story that holds your interest until the end.  Perhaps the most random element of the story is introduced in the final moments, when the Doctor suggests they turn on the time scanner.  The time scanner allows the Doctor a glimpse of what will happen in the future, which in this case shows an image of a claw, leading into the next story, “The Macra Terror.”  If he has the ability to peek into his own near future, why doesn’t he use it more often?  This seems like a useful tool that he has never used before and doesn’t use later.  Although I have to admit that knowing what’s coming next is never of particular importance to Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, so maybe I can see why he wouldn’t want to use it too often.  Where’s the fun in having a plan?


Of Sequins and Fish: The Underwater Menace

I am about to admit to an opinion that may shock some people: I enjoy “The Underwater Menace.” There, I’ve said it.  When the two lost Doctor Who episodes were discovered in 2011, I was firmly of the opinion that the two recovered episodes came from two of the worst stories from Hartnell and Troughton.  While I still stand by my opinion that “Galaxy 4” is one of Hartnell’s worst stories, I’ve revised my opinion of “The Underwater Menace.”  My first experience with the story was with the only surviving episode (the third of four) and I’ll admit that I came away with a rather negative opinion.  It was difficult to follow what exactly was going on and it was just…strange.  Watching the reconstruction, however, has given me a new perspective on this much maligned story.

The Doctor continues his habit of trying new headgear.

The Doctor continues his habit of trying new headgear.

The story is, admittedly, a strange one.  The Doctor, Polly, Ben, and new companion Jamie have just left the Scottish highlands and Jamie is, understandably, a bit confused by his new surroundings.  He seems to adapt quite quickly however, once the TARDIS materializes on an old volcanic island in the sea sometime after 1968.  One by one, unseen beings apprehend the travelers, and they soon find themselves in an elevator that leads to far below sea level.

A feast of plankton is waiting to greet the travelers, which causes the Doctor to realize that Professor Zaroff, a Russian scientist who was believed to have been kidnapped 20 years previously, must be nearby.  The travelers soon learn why they have been brought down to this undersea civilization: they are sacrifices for the goddess Amdo.  Luckily, the Doctor manages to send a note to Zaroff before being lead off to the sacrifice.  As the travelers are about to be dropped into a shark tank (how James Bond-ish!), Zaroff comes in and stops the sacrifice demanding to speak to the Doctor.  With the sacrifice stopped, Ben and Jamie go to work in the mines, the Doctor goes with Zaroff to his laboratory, and Polly will be converted into a fish person (she will surgically receive plastic gills).  The fish people are the slave labor force who collect the constant supply of plankton that the civilization needs to survive.

The Doctor soon learns that they are in the lost civilization of Atlantis.  Thanks to air pockets in the caves and the shaft of a dormant volcano (seriously, that’s all the explanation you’re going to get in this story) life has continued on the bottom of the sea for the survivors of Atlantis.  Professor Zaroff has promised to raise Atlantis from the bottom of the ocean, but his plan involves draining the ocean into the core of the earth which will result in the entire earth blowing up.  While this is technically keeping his word to raise Atlantis (he never promised that Atlantis would be raised in one piece!), the Doctor can see that he has clearly gone mad.  The remainder of the story consists of the Doctor and his companions, along with a few helpful Atlantians, fighting to stop the mad scientist from blowing up the earth.

Everything in this story is over the top, which is what makes it enjoyable.   The story is always entertaining, since you never really know what to expect from this unusual story.  Does it make sense that the people of Atlantis have been living under the ocean? Not really.  Is Professor Zaroff’s plan a logical one? Not at all.  However, this is hardly new for the series; bizarre plans have been seen before.  Is the plan of the Daleks in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” any better?  People can accept that the Daleks want to drill to the core of the earth and then pilot it like a spaceship, but they can’t accept that a madman might want to destroy the earth, just because he has the power?  I actually have a bigger problem with the Daleks’ plan because that is in a story that is meant to be taken seriously.

"Nothing in the world can stop me now!"

I’ve heard criticisms of Joseph Furst’s performance as Professor Zaroff (and I can’t help but wonder if the name is an allusion to General Zaroff from “The Most Dangerous Game”); some people complain that he is too over the top.  However, he is playing a man who is clearly insane and power crazed.  The part isn’t exactly screaming for subtlety.   He manages to keep his performance interesting, which is important when you are playing a madman.   Additionally, this is hardly the first time a villain has been over the top.  An example that jumps to mind is Tobias Vaughn in “The Invasion.” He however, is a bit out of tune with the rest of the story, since the rest of the story is much more dramatic and serious, while Zaroff is perfectly in tune with the rest of this crazy serial.

Places, everyone! The water ballet is about to start!

Places, everyone! The water ballet is about to start!

Of course the most memorable feature of this story are the fish people themselves.  I would love to know how their costumes were designed because they are quite something to look at.  Patrick Troughton was unhappy with the way they turned out, as he had every right to be if he was hoping for even a slightly believable looking creature.  As I stated before, the fish people are people who have been surgically altered to have plastic gills.  Some of the fish people look pretty much like regular people wearing a snorkeling  mask.  This would make sense (well, maybe not the snorkeling mask), since they started out as human.  However, the most memorable of the fish people, and the most prominent ones, are far more ornate.  Maybe Damon, the surgeon, enjoyed arts and crafts in his spare time, because these fish people are covered in large sequins which I can only assume represent scales.  Instead of having the snorkeling mask, they have large, unusual eyes.  There is also a scene that lasts for a few minutes that shows the fish people communicating underwater.  The combination of the strange moves “underwater” (really in a studio attached to wires) and the sparkly, gaudy costumes give the impression that they are a members of a troop performing a water ballet.  It’s completely bizarre, but I find it a bit mesmerizing.

On a less bizarre note, this story finally shows Troughton settling into the role of the Doctor.  He only wears one disguise, and that only for a short time, so he is himself for most of the episode and his personality is really starting to come through.  He is clearly friendlier than Hartnell’s Doctor and is very quick thinking.  Several times in this serial we see the Doctor come up with a plan without having any idea what the result will be (or is that just what he says?).  The impulsive, fly by the seat of his pants quality that is one of the hallmarks of Troughton’s Doctor is clearly being developed in this story.  Another point of interest is the note that the Doctor sends to Zaroff.  He signs it Dr. W, the only time the Doctor seems to imply that Who is, in fact, his surname.

The Doctor's companions: Jamie, Polly, and Ben.

The Doctor’s companions: Jamie, Polly, and Ben.

This story is not a great one for the companions.  Since it was written before Jamie joined the TARDIS crew, Jamie and Ben don’t have a lot to do.  Jamie receives some of Ben’s lines, so his personality isn’t really developed. Due to losing lines to Jamie, Ben’s part is reduced, so he doesn’t get to do too much either.  The companion with the most to do is Polly, who, unfortunately, regresses after really taking charge in “The Highlanders.”  She is clever enough to figure out how to become the voice of Amdo and save the Doctor at one point, but then she is taken in by Zaroff’s faked illness.  Worst of all, she just stands by and screams as Zaroff kills the priest that has been helping them.  It seems like she could have done something, but she doesn’t even try until it is too late and, of course, she becomes Zaroff’s prisoner.   Is “The Highlanders” the only story in which Polly does not need rescuing?

Polly is apparently wearing the native Atlantian shell costume and the Doctor...well, he's dressed as... something.

Polly is apparently wearing the native Atlantian shell costume and the Doctor…well, he’s dressed as… something.

While this is not a great serial, I think it’s an entertaining one.  It has its flaws, but it was a rather hastily put together script.  Rejected at first for being too costly, it was put back into the schedule when another serial fell through.  So basically it’s a story that required a large budget that they tried to do for less.  For being thrown together on a shoestring, they do manage to create a very distinctive world.  It’s story that definitely benefits a great deal from being seen.  As I stated earlier, everything is over the top in this story, and that includes the costumes.  Besides the fish people, you have the very large and unusual headdresses of the priests, the Doctor’s ridiculous disguise, the interesting garb of the women…It’s not one of Doctor Who‘s best, but I think it’s worth a listen/watch.  I may be alone in this, but I’m looking forward to the release of the recently recovered second episode of this story.