MOONBASE 3 (1973) – This BBC attempt at realistic, “no aliens or monsters” science fiction is a mixed bag, but I think it deserves a much bigger audience. Among the elements in the show’s favor is the fact that only 6 fifty-minute episodes were made, so it makes viewers a little more willing to forgive the program’s faults.
Moonbase 3 is a sci-fi drama about the multinational European crew of the title lunar outpost. Other Moonbases are run by the United States, the Soviet Union, China and, oddly for the time, Brazil. The scientists, astronauts and administrative staff of the European Moonbase are fly-budgeted Davids up against superpower Goliaths.
Created by Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks of Doctor Who fame, Moonbase 3 is sort of like Doomwatch crossed with The Sandbaggers. However, Moonbase 3 keeps its science even closer to reality than Doomwatch did, so it can be a bit dry. Well, okay, VERY dry, but that’s a nice antidote to non-stop explosions, ray-guns blasting and other Space Opera cliches.
As for the show’s similarities to The Sandbaggers, there is bureaucratic in-fighting aplenty, unexpected deaths and an emphasis on dialogue over action. And, like both of those other programs, Moonbase 3‘s characters have to deal with perpetually tight budgets limiting the success of their missions.
Before I move on to the positives of this enjoyable show, I’ll point out that its setting in the year 2003 works terribly against the production. Given the hilariously huge computers, the continued existence of the Soviet Union and the dated fashion and hairdo sense they might as well have set Moonbase 3 in the 1970s. Or just have it set vaguely in “The near future.” I can’t speak for everyone but I personally would be much more forgiving of the outdated technology – including the doors – if the program was taking place in the 70s instead of the 21st Century.
DONALD HOUSTON starred as David Caulder, the newly appointed Director of Moonbase 3. His predecessor and an astronaut pilot perished in an accident on their recent space shuttle flight from the Moon back to the Earth. Amid political pressure to just shut down Moonbase 3 because it can’t really compete with the Americans and the Soviets anyway, Caulder is informed he is the last hope to keep it alive.
Caulder used to be Chancellor at Oxford and gained much acclaim for his tactful and diplomatic way of dealing with student protests a few years earlier. (ANOTHER reason they should have just set this series in the 70s!) David got nicknamed “the Welsh Wizard” for his successful navigation through those earlier political waters and the European Aeronautics and Space Administration is relying upon him to pull off the same unlikely victory in his new position.
RALPH BATES co-starred as the brilliant Frenchman Michel Lebrun PhD. He’s the Deputy Director of Moonbase 3 and saw the directorship in his future until the accident which killed his superior and the astronaut. He is initially very skeptical and resentful of David Caulder, especially since Caulder’s first priority is to investigate the fatal accident which killed his predecessor. (Shades of the You Killed Toby Wren episode of Doomwatch!)
Eventually, the uptight, by-the-book Lebrun grows more amiable toward Caulder after he sees how the new director plans to run just the political and administrative side of the operation and stay out of the way of the scientists as much as possible.
FIONA GAUNT co-starred as Helen Smith PsyD, the Moonbase’s psychologist. As you would expect, she serves as a proto-Counselor Troi for the dozens of crew members and must regularly file reports regarding each person’s mental and emotional state.
While it’s good that the show’s emphasis on dialogue lets this female character function in scenes where she and her fellow crew members treat each other in a professional manner, the writers couldn’t stay away from some tropes. For instance, Smith becomes romantically involved with patients in a few episodes. Hey, if ya can’t do aliens or monsters, I guess ya gotta do SOMETHING with your storylines.
BARRY LOWE rounds out the regular cast members as Tom Hill, a veteran astronaut. Hill is the Director of Operations for Moonbase 3 and oversees all astronaut activity plus space traffic control and station upkeep. Tom Hill saved a cat from dying during a spacelab mission years ago and gained some renown from that escapade.
Even though Hill plays things with a casual yet no-nonsense Alan Shepard air, he starts out even more resentful of newcomer David Caulder than Dr Lebrun was. That’s because he disapproves of Caulder’s handling of the investigation into the fatal accident of his predecessor.
Tom feels the inquiry was rougher than necessary on his subordinate astronaut Harry Sanders, played by Davros himself, Michael Wisher! You could say he decided to EX-TERM-IN-ATE Moonbase 3’s previous director.
Dudley Simpson composed the show’s music, for another Doctor Who connection. Other actors who come and go are Michael Gough, Peter Bathurst, Christine Bradwell and Madhav Sharma.
In addition to the situations I already laid out, episodes of Moonbase 3 dealt with the mysterious disappearance of two seismologists in the Mare Frigoris (Behemoth), the sabotaging of a radio astronomy project (Achilles Heel), scientific geniuses cracking under pressure (Outsiders), international cooperation to save space shuttle staff after an accident (Castor and Pollux) and a world-threatening nuclear incident at the North Pole (View of a Dead Planet).
Moonbase 3 was one of those BBC programs which nearly dropped into the memory hole forever because of that company’s usual erasure of tapes to reuse them for television programs. Luckily, in 1993 NTSC copies of every episode were found overseas and preserved.
Far from ground-breaking but refreshingly mature, Moonbase 3 makes for fun viewing, either once in a while or in binge format on a rainy Sunday.
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