Moonbase 3

Moonbase 3

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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.

Set 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 lieutenants (including 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.

Another 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 Apollo flight computer.

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.

Then 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 Union.

Where 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 Michael Gough chewing the scenery mightily in his portrayal of a futuristic Bertrand Russell on acid.

That alone is worth the price of admission.

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