Sunday, 19 November 2017

25 Years of Moonbase Propaganda

25 Years of Moonbase Propaganda

Michael S. Collins

Some of you, reading this, when asked about their favourite Doctor Who story, will say The Caves of Androzani or The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

You are really boring. 

Just kidding. You’re awesome. Keep up the good work.

On the flipside, there are stories like Underworld. Let me let you in on a little secret here: 

Underworld is awful. Really, really bad. So bad, the production team apologised for putting everyone through the torture of watching it. That bad!

Even so, it has fans. Huge fans. I know, I’ve met some of them online! 

This always fills me with joy, to think that even the worst Doctor Who story of all time (subjective opinion preceded) has fans that will defend it to the bitter end. 

Then there’s all those stories in the middle of the DWM fan polls. Every single one of them must have diehard fans, who can’t understand why the general public prefer the ones with the Daleks instead. 

I should know, for my favourite story is The Moonbase!

It was on my first ever VHS, you see. Cybermen, the Early Years. Dad bought it for me, one day when I was at school. 1992. Homework. Dinner. Sit down to Colin Baker’s opening narration, and then Episode 2 of The Moonbase. Episodes 1 and 3 being “lost” sometime in the 1980s, and that’s just typical. I swear, when that omni-rumour was going around about all the Doctor Who episodes returning a few years back, I was having dreams of the announcement: “Every episode recovered except Moonbase 1 and Moonbase 3!”

Of course, Moonbase 3 was an entirely different TV show, but I digress…

The creeping Cybermen, lurking in the shadows of black and white, had a considerable effect on me. I tried to turn the story off and run to bed. Dad told me about how he had done the same when he had been my age, running away from the last five minutes of the Roger Corman Pit and the Pendulum, and having nightmares for months afterwards. “You need to see it through to the happy ending” he said, so I did, and the Doctor won, if you were worried.

(Years later I saw the Pit and the Pendulum. It was rubbish. Told Dad. He said, “Yeah, I know that NOW, but I was four or five at the time…”)

Strangely Wheel in Space never had the same “behind the sofa” effect. In fact, I once nearly did for Mum by calling it the “light-hearted Cyberman story.” 

The tape was replayed several times, and as it was a story my mum remembered, from broadcast (apparently the best bits are missing), I had no inclinations that this wasn’t a fondly remembered classic of Dr Who.

Then in 1995, I was nine, and my uncle let me borrow a copy of the Discontinuity Guide. Which is a fantastic Dr Who book by Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith “Telly” Topping, incidentally. 

However, while it praised The Gunfighters (and about time too), it was to crush my hitherto held views with its summary of The Moonbase:

“The Moonbase is illogical and boring, reducing the Cybermen to the role of intergalactic gangsters. A waste of the talent involved.”

Sadly, I was to find out, with time, that this wasn’t an unique view. 

When I belatedly joined the Doctor Who fan community online, I subsequently looked up online reviews of The Moonbase. Overwhelmingly negative. Worst episode threads on forums mentioned it, and how it spoiled The Tenth Planet. Other review books (not the David Howe, though) slated it.
What the Dickens was going on?

On Outpost Gallifrey, aged 15, I saw a thread called (iirc) “Why The Moonbase fails”, and responded to it in lengthy teenage fashion. Thankfully lost now, but it was the first defensive step. Soon after, anytime the option presented itself, I began to promote the virtues of this Patrick Troughton story everywhere. 

And I mean everywhere.

At school, during class debate: “And this point of order reminds me of a moment in the excellent Doctor Who story The Moonbase…”

Online: “My favourite story is The Moonbase” (repeat x 1000)

Even, once on the radio, live: “Well, this strike reminds me of something that happened in an old episode of Doctor Who. The Moonbase, it’s very good, actually…

I took each honest opinion that the story wasn’t that great as a grievous body blow, and sought to try and change fandom’s opinion, one person at a time. When you are a teenager, you think like this. Stuff like this is very important, instead of actual important stuff. 

What I was discovering at the time, however, was that an awful lot of people had never seen The Moonbase, not even the two surviving episodes. I presumed Cybermen: The Early Years had sold rather well, but rather well was a dip in the ocean of fan lore. Few seemed to understand why the whole thing meant so much to me.

I’m not sure if even I knew why it meant so much to me!

Then, an ally showed up. 

The orphaned episodes were put on a DVD boxset together. Lost in Time, one of the all time great Doctor Who DVD releases. Not only were all the surviving solo episodes there, but so were odd and sods of footage taken by fans from entirely missing stories. Small snippets of The Macra Terror! The “I am your servant” cliffhanger from Power of the Daleks! Tantalising slices of the Battle of Covent Garden, from episode four of The Web of Fear! (Younger Doctor Who fans, this came out in the days when most of Web of Fear and Enemy of the World didn’t exist. And yes, I know that someone too young to remember when Tomb of the Cybermen was considered missing making that joke is a bit of a hypocrite, but so it goes…)

Also on the DVD: Episodes 2 and 4 of The Moonbase. Now people could enjoy the Doctor’s moment of horror, the Hobson/Benoit double act, and that damned tea tray!

I had the first inklings that it might change opinions, when I got a Private Message on Outpost Gallifrey. “You always go on about The Moonbase”, it said. (Do I?) “I finally got the chance to see the surviving episodes on that DVD. You’re right, it’s good.”

Hooray! Someone’s opinion had changed! Just the entire rest of fandom left…

The DVD did improve its standing in fandom, however. As it did for many of the missing stories. Eventually the story reached the holy grail of online Doctor Who fandom: yes, it reached the second round of the famous annual Top Three Tournament! (Now hosted on Gallifrey Base, but very long running…)

At some point, I allegedly became an adult, and worrying about what people thought about my favourite TV shows felt irrelevant next to the vagaries of real life. M’colleague Mr Arnold is not a fan of The Moonbase, at all, and whilst he is wrong (heh), he thinks I am equally wrong about much of the RTD era. 

However, a reputation can follow you. Somewhere along the line, I have wound up writing dozens of articles praising The Moonbase, for multiple sources, over the years. Many of which were commissioned, as if the editors knew I would rabbit on at length about its genius. 

There was a time, a few years back, when I was at a party. I got introduced to someone else as a writer, an accusation and a half, but anyhow, this stranger asked for my name. I gave it.
They looked puzzled for a moment, as if trying to recall something.

“Doctor Who! You’re a Doctor Who fan, aren’t you?”

I nodded.

Another pause.

“Are… you the guy who always talks up The Moonbase?”

I…I…oh, my giddy aunt!

But you see, that’s the thing. That’s why The Gunfighters had a lousy, undeserved reputation for decades. Fans listen to other fans! There was no dissenting opinion from the Haining! So, in that regard, I have sought to provide that dissenting opinion. And even if it’s no longer dissenting (Moonbases reputation is currently middle of the road perfectly serviceable Who, I believe), then, every story needs it’s champions. Even Underworld. 

When I was a child, it scared the hell out of me. Even now, with each repeat viewing, I spot little things I’ve missed before. When I was younger, the Gaia theory backdrop went right over my head. The explanations for Hobson’s mood swings (he’s been up three days straight because he’s so worried about his sick men) passed me by, and, as a teenager, I cringed anytime anyone mentioned the tea tray, and often tried to explain why it was good science!

Sometimes a tea tray is just a tea tray, but you know what: sometimes a bad dragon prop is a bad dragon prop – am I right, Caves of Androzani fans?  (Jovial smiley emoticon here)

It comes as a shock that 25 years have passed since I first saw The Moonbase. That I’ve spent a quarter of a century trying to spread the good word about cybermen, on the moon. That I’ve grown from scared child, to pretentious teenager, to hopefully chilled adult. 

Hell, I can even make jokes about it now, like: hey, if the crew of the moonbase were diabetic, that Cybermen plot would have been doomed! Boom Boom!

Apart from that, I just want to say: Roll on the next 25 years!

And also, I hope that every Doctor Who story has a fan who loves it as dearly as I love this daft little tale about silver cyborgs trying to control global warming by invading a moonbase via infected sugar.

… even Underworld.