You've never heard of Moonbase 3?
That's not surprising, as it's better known, to those who know of it
at all, as the sci-fi series That Escaped Death.
A BBC production, the six episodes of Moonbase 3
first aired in 1973 and for twenty years was thought lost for all time
when the corporation wiped the tapes as part of an ill-conceived
recycling policy. Until 1993, when an export copy of the series
was discovered in Canada, Moonbase 3 was known to even the most rabid
of space fiction aficionados through a few publicity stills and a
couple of yellowing Radio Times clippings.
That the programme was saved from oblivion is good
news to more than fans of early '70s television, because Moonbase 3
is a real find for students of Future Past. This was no Star
Trek rip off with green-skinned dancing girls and science that
consisted of pulling doubletalk out of a hat. This was a serious
attempt to make an adult science fiction series that hewed firmly to
the laws of physics and tried to realistically depict what a lunar
outpost of the 21st century would really be like.
For 1973, this was truly remarkable and, coming the
year after the end of the Apollo Moon missions, it was not only
clocking in at the very end of the heyday of Future Past, but served
as the swan song of the Space Age as well.
in the far-off future of 2003,
Moonbase 3 tells the story of Europe's under-funded outpost on
the Earth’s satellite and the adventures of its overworked,
overstressed staff— especially its new
director, Dr. David Caulder (Donald
Houston) who, in the first episode, tells his multi-national
Alan Bates as a thoroughly detestable Frenchman) that in the harsh
lunar environment "we must love one another or we will die."
To the untutored eye of the modern audience,
Moonbase 3 is very easy to
dismiss as cheap rubbish, which only goes to prove that one shouldn’t
judge a book by its cardboard sets. True, the show was done on a
shoestring budget, the miniatures were obviously miniatures, the
production was completely studio bound, and the camera work was all
done on primitive videotape that made everything look over-lit and
flat, but the same could be said of
I Claudius or any of the other masterpieces of what has been
called British television’s Golden Age.
Some might, and do, cite Moonbase
3's talky scripts and long scenes that were obviously shot in
one take as a fault, but that’s only if one overlooks that the real
strength of Moonbase 3 and
other British production of the time was their remarkable ability to
overcome low production values with strong, character-driven scripts
written by people who obviously had a command and love of the English
language and performed by actors of stellar calibre.
Moonbase 3 may have had tiny
sets and the lunar surface might have been obviously built of
cardboard on an under-surface of plywood, but the stories were aimed
at an adult (and I don’t mean in the modern definition of “adult” as
teenage) audience with such themes as sexual frustration, primal fear,
academic fraud, and even the inevitability of death and despite the
bizarre setting, everyone in front of the
camera took his or her role dead serious. I for one find this trade
off much better than the modern idea that pretty faces without talent,
cheap camera tricks, and loads of silly edits are a substitute for
proper story telling.
thing that gave the show a boost was that even though it had one
episode that dealt with an alleged Moon
monster, the makers were determined to stay strictly within the
boundaries of known science and strove for such technical accuracy by
bringing science writer James Burke onboard as
technical adviser that this was one of the last science fiction
programmes to try for a realistic prediction of the future. This shows
not only in the realism of the plots, but also in little things like
the spacesuits being streamlined versions of the ones used by NASA,
the use of actual space mission radio chatter as the basis for
dialogue, and even the way the shipboard computer on the Moon shuttle
used “verb” and “noun” commands, which was unique to the
That being said, Moonbase 3
was about as accurate in describing the 21st century as
most other predictions of Future Past— which
is to say not very. Aside from the assumption that in 2003 men would
be running around in ill-fitting lapel-less jackets in loud primary
colours, women would wear strange bib and braces things and too much
make up, or that space colony canteens would be decorated in patterns
that were certain to induce seizures in the susceptible, the writers
had a faith in management psychology as practiced by Dr. Helen Smith (Fiona
Gaunt) that is almost touching.
there was the remarkable optimism about the progress of manned
spaceflight. Moon rockets looked decades beyond anything we have today
and despite being perpetually strapped for cash and always being put
down by its staff as being a very cheap-jack affair, Moonbase 3 had
over forty people manning it and was one of five colonies; the
others being run by the Americans, Soviets, Chinese, and Brazilians.
Brazilians? Remember, this was made during the 1970s. Back then, the
Soviets were regarded as the probable dominant power on Earth and
Brazil was seen in some circles as an emerging world power; just as it
made sense to think of a European Moon colony in the days before the
promise of the Common Market became the dead hand of the European
Moonbase 3 fell down,
however, was in its setting. The later
Space: 1999 was able to spin
stories by introducing aliens, space warps, mutants, killer computers,
and homicidal bath foam, but
Moonbase 3's adherence to hard science meant that the writers
were left with—the Moon. This is a very exotic landscape, I’ll grant
you, but it’s also literally dead. It may be a cool thing to be the
first man on, but at the end of the day all you’ve got to work with is
dust, rocks, hard vacuum, and nasty temperature extremes. Unless you
bring in Selenites or Mysterons, you’re going to run out of plots
pretty fast. Terrence Dicks, one of the creators and script editor,
admitted this, saying,
The trouble was we built a too
restrictive format for ourselves. I think we got some very good
scripts, but somebody said they were stories that could have taken
place in a lighthouse or in a submarine or in a deserted fort in the
desert, anywhere where people are isolated in a harsh environment.
Perhaps it's just as well that Moonbase 3 ended after six episodes.
At least we got six of the best that way—and the sight of
chewing the scenery mightily in his portrayal of a futuristic Bertrand
Russell on acid.
That alone is worth the price of admission.