This was a very satisfying little hour written by Dennis Spooner that sees our heroes globetrotting from Burma to Belgium to a Central African Nosuchlandia on the trail of several crates of rifles that are being sold to finance a civil war. Along for the ride, a mob of regular ITC guest stars that you see in all these shows: Anthony Chinn, William Franklyn, David Lodge, Paul Stassino. There are even giraffes in the jungle, thanks to the magic of rear-screen projection. It’s a really satisfying action hour where all our heroes get a spotlight superpower moment and a few little smiles of comedy.
We’re not watching Moonbase 3 for the blog, because it is a boring, boring program. Even I couldn’t sit through it without finding something else to do, so a six year-old certainly couldn’t be expected to tackle it. But because it’s an interesting footnote in this period of Doctor Who, and because we’ll be taking a short blog break while we have family in town, I thought I’d write a small post about it.
After four years on Doctor Who, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks were keen to continue working together but knew that they needed to find some new projects. Working a little fiscal magic, they were able to get the first story of Who‘s next season into production at the tail end of the 1973 block. Moonbase 3 was commissioned for a six-part introductory series and was taping almost at the same time as that story. Managing a massive, resource-demanding program like Who alone was a huge undertaking; I can’t imagine doing two series at once. Unfortunately for Letts and Dicks, this series was a ratings flop. They taped it in the summer of 1973, and it was shown in September and October to general disinterest, and the BBC didn’t ask for anymore.
As an ongoing series, Moonbase 3 is full of problems, but the casting is the major one. The leads, left to right in the photo above, are played by Ralph Bates, Fiona Gaunt, Donald Houston and Barry Lowe, and Bates, whom genre fans may recall as the lead in some Hammer horror films from the early seventies, is the only one with any real charisma. They’re outshined in every episode by the guest stars. If you enjoy BBC or ITC dramas from the early seventies, you’ll see all kinds of familiar faces in Moonbase 3, including Anthony Chinn, Michael Gough, Peter Miles, and Michael Wisher. And you’ll wonder why the guest stars aren’t the leads. It’s that lopsided.
But I’m a huge fan of Peter Miles and not even he could save this program by leading it. This is a show about budgets and breakdowns. In going for realism, Letts and Dicks encouraged a format where imagination was sacrificed for the banal. There’s neither any worry nor any curiosity about the future, it’s just a bland place with bland people having arguments about money and weather satellites. Twice, science experiments are conducted by jealous physicists. At no point are any of the five moonbases threatened by Cybermen, or staffed by Gabrielle Drake in a purple wig, or invaded by the Bringers of Wonder, but the one we’re watching is going to have its budget cut in the next fiscal year to put more Eurodollars into a Venus probe. Staffing cuts! Now that’s what I want from science fiction!
So anyway, the show was a flop, losing two-thirds of its audience in a month, and then, in that 1970s BBC way, it didn’t exist anymore. As the corporation so often did, they wiped the tapes and forgot about it. The episodes were lost forever… except for a weird quirk of fate. The BBC got some co-production money from 20th Century Fox, who suggested that they might be able to sell it in America. I’ve read that they were hoping to get it on ABC, but it’s also possible that Fox was looking at PBS stations or even the same first-run syndication market where Fox was selling the Canadian videotape sci-fi show The Starlost that same September. Whatever, there’s been no indication that any station in North America purchased Moonbase 3 in the 1970s, and so it was completely forgotten.
Fast forward to 1993 and something very weird happened. When the Sci-Fi Channel launched, their most interesting program was an anthology called Sci-Fi Series Collection, which ran all sorts of quickly-cancelled flops without enough episodes for a proper Monday through Friday airing, things like Gemini Man, Otherworld, or Planet of the Apes. In many cases, they couldn’t even get all the episodes: four of the 20 installments of Kolchak: The Night Stalker weren’t available to Sci-Fi because Universal offered those as a pair of sausage-link TV movies instead. And the episodes were all edited by a couple of minutes to accommodate segments of interviews with these shows’ creators or stars.
A few months into the run, Moonbase 3 joined the rotation, and it was kind of funny to see how they had the background animation for the interview segments but no actual interviews. Bates and Houston had already passed away by the time this aired, and I suppose the channel didn’t have the budget to go to the UK to interview Gaunt or Lowe… or Letts or Dicks. At the time, some people in British sci-fi teevee fandom were very interested in the Sci-Fi Channel – there were frenzied updates each month in the fanzine DWB about what it was showing – and people in the UK were incredibly surprised to see that the channel had “found” this lost show. Fox had simply never wiped its tapes. It remained available for any station to buy for twenty years – much like those unidentified thirteen episodes of Ace of Wands from DL Taffner – and the show just sat on a shelf in some vault for two decades waiting for a buyer.
Happily, new copies made their way to the BBC promptly, and the show was released on VHS in 1994, and on DVD some years later. It’s a program for completists only, but I am glad that it survives, because everything should!
Photo credit: Archive TV Musings