In 1973, at the time they were enjoying great success with Doctor Who, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dick decided they wanted to do a totally different kind of science fiction television series. They persuaded the BBC to give them the go-ahead. The result was Moonbase 3.
Moonbase 3 was conceived as a kind of anti-Doctor Who series. Doctor Who was aimed mostly at kids, scientific accuracy was never a consideration and there were lots of monsters. Moonbase 3 would be aimed at an adult audience, it would aim for scientific plausibility and it would steer clear of the guy-in-a-rubber-suit kind of monster. In fact it would aim at a degree of gritty realism and would focus on psychological drama.
It ran for only six episodes and failed to ignite any real audience interest. Terrance Dicks later felt they’d overdone the gritty realism aspect.
The opening episode sets the tone. Moonbase 3 is the European lunar base. There are also US, Russian and Chinese bases. The atmosphere at Moonbase 3 is a little tense and it’s about to get considerably more tense. Space exploration is inherently dangerous and accidents will occur but when they do they have to be thoroughly investigated. In this case an accident investigation puts the personnel at Moonbase 3 under a great deal of stress. There is a suspicion that a number of key personnel may have made errors of judgment that may have contributed to the accident. The errors of judgment, if they occurred, were rather minor in themselves but a succession of minor mistakes can have catastrophic consequences. In this instance the difficulty for a board of enquiry is that nothing about the accident is clear-cut. Perhaps there weren’t any actual mistakes made at all. Perhaps it was simply that decisions were made that were perfectly sound in the light of the information available at the time but that, with the benefit of hindsight, proved to be the wrong decisions.
The arrival of a new director for the base creates even more tension, especially given that Dr David Caulder (Donald Houston) has a very different style of leadership compared to his predecessor.
In episode three, Achilles Heel, Moonbase 3 personnel seem to be making costly and very uncharacteristic mistakes. Nobody has been hurt but these mistakes have cost the European space program a lot of money and the lunar base is already facing severe budgetary squeezes. Deputy director Dr Michel Lebrun (Ralph Bates) believes the answer is to tighten up discipline, but then Lebrun always believes discipline should be tightened up.
The fourth episode, Outsiders, was a remarkably bold story for a science fiction TV series. Written by John Brason, it’s quite cerebral and deals with metaphysical and even religious themes. Two scientists at Moonbase 3 are on the verge of major scientific breakthroughs but is scientific progress enough to make life worthwhile and how great is the price to be paid? It’s a clever and original story but it’s hardly the sort of thing that would be likely to have mass audience appeal.
Sadly it all falls apart badly in the sixth and final episode. Up to this point they’d avoided the preachiness that afflicted so much 1970s BBC TV sci-fi (including at times Doctor Who). In this episode the preachiness is all too apparent but it’s not the only problem. I don’t want to reveal spoilers but this story incorporates plot devices that always exasperate me.
If there’s one major criticism that can be levelled at Moonbase 3 it’s that for a serious science fiction program it doesn’t have much in the way of really meaty science fiction content. The focus is almost entirely on the psychological dramas that arise among the crew. It’s no coincidence that one of the three main characters is the base’s resident psychologist, Dr Helen Smith. The psychological dramas are quite interesting though and the emphasis on the peculiar kinds of stresses that arise among a group of people isolated in a hostile environment is quite effective and it does take full advantage of the setting. Of course they could have achieved the same results by setting the series in a remote part of the Earth (such as the Antarctic) but at least by setting it on the Moon they can throw in a few spaceships. On the other hand what science there is is much more realistic than one expects in TV sci-fi.
The production values are what you expect from the notoriously penny-pinching BBC in 1973. In other words they’re pretty awful. The sets and the special effects look very very cheap indeed when compared to something like Gerry Anderson’s Space: 1999.
Moonbase 3 was for quite a few years believed to have been another victim of the BBC’s insane policy of destroying practically every archived series they could get their hands on. Fortunately a copy was not only eventually found, it was in pretty good condition and even more fortunately it was a colour copy. The complete series of six episodes has been released on DVD by Second Sight (and I believe it’s an all-region DVD set). There are no extras but image quality is quite good.
Moonbase 3 had potential and even if that potential was not fully realised it has some good moments. It’s intriguingly and daringly different in tone from most television science fiction. It doesn’t always quite succeed but it’s a brave attempt. I think it’s definitely worth a look. Recommended.