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  • Moonbase 3 and the limitations of reality in Apollo-era television sf

From the politically charged Battlestar Galactica (US/UK 2003–9) to the glossy, character-driven Defying Gravity (US/Canada/UK/Germany 2009), recent television sf has increasingly marketed itself as 'drama first' and sf second, differentiating itself from traditional genre series by stressing 'reality', 'humans faced with dramatic and emotional situations' and the 'relationships and dynamics' of 'ambiguous characters' (Selznick 194). In considering the tensions underlying such distinctions, an instructive precursor can be found in Moonbase 3 (UK 1973). This primetime BBC1 drama series about a European moonbase in 2003 made similar claims to accuracy, presenting its lunar setting as a working environment and rejecting genre staples in favour of character study.

Broadcast in September and October 1973, Moonbase 3 followed not only Apollo 11 (July 1969) and the first manned moon landing – 'symbolically, the moment when science fact overtook science fiction' and 'dream' became 'reality' (Chapman 74) – but also growing public familiarity, declining support and the last manned moon landing to date, Apollo 17 (December 1972). All sf had to engage with these issues, but television sf faced particular challenges as the medium had relayed the Apollo missions, showing audiences 'exactly what life on the real moon is like' (Towler 17), thereby informing complaints about production values and demands for logistical plausibility. In Moonbase 3, this Apollo-related shift from 'fantasy' to 'reality' manifested itself in characterisation, narrative and tone. Moonbase 3 houses a multinational scientific crew working under Dr David Caulder (Donald Houston). Other key characters include his deputy, Michel Lebrun (Ralph Bates), psychiatrist Helen Smith (Fiona Gaunt) and astronaut/problem-solver Tom Hill (Barry Lowe). Drama emerges from personal relationships, workplace tensions, the psychological impact of lunar life, and accidents involving stressed or disruptive workers. The atmosphere is charged by bureaucratic intervention, international co-operation and the need for profitable research. The series' plausible and occasionally downbeat milieu could be attributed to the British tendency to locate sf features 'in relation to a reasonably accurate approximation of the real, even humdrum, world' (Hutchings 38) and a pessimistic turn which made for a 'more sceptical, perhaps even [End Page 79] more realistic, view of the science fiction future' (Cook and Wright 5) than American sf. However, part of Moonbase 3's effect lies in its resistance to melodramatic genre norms, and its refusal to reduce character to plot function or the lunar setting to a backdrop for conventional genre narratives.

The first part of this article considers Moonbase 3's reflections upon the 'reality' of lunar life; the second contrasts it with other series which maintained fantastical narratives whilst also invoking post-Apollo plausibility by incorporating greater verisimilitude. Overall, it offers a window on the difficulties that television sf faces when responding to real-life developments, which is timely given recent space initiatives and the fact that Moonbase 3's failure to get a second season (after six poorly rated and poorly reviewed fifty-minute episodes) has been echoed by the cancellation of Defying Gravity.

'Let's do it properly, or not at all': characterisation and accuracy

The BBC requested an adult sf series from producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks during their successful work on the Jon Pertwee era (1970–4) of Doctor Who (UK 1963–89). Instead of the Saturday teatime adventure dynamic of Doctor Who or the 'fantastically and creatively' imagined Star Trek (US 1966–9), Dicks and Letts aimed to make Moonbase 3 'realistically', asking 'what would it really be like?' (Darbyshire 14). With a BBC1 Sunday night slot associated with mainstream character drama, Dicks and Letts approached 'good serious television writers' (14) rather than sf regulars. Letts and Dicks wrote episode one, 'Departure and Arrival' (9 September), and although John Lucarotti – author of episodes three, 'Achilles Heel' (23 September), and five, 'Castor and Pollux' (7 October) – had previously written for Doctor Who, his three transmitted stories were 'historicals', lacking sf elements.1 The strongest episodes came from John Brason (episodes two, 'Behemoth' (16 September), and four, 'Outsiders' (30 September)) and Arden Winch (episode six, 'View of a Dead Planet' (14 October)), both of whom are...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1754-3789
Print ISSN
1754-3770
Pages
pp. 79-92
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-15
Open Access
No
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