In the surviving episode wasteland that is Patrick Troughton's first season, even a half-complete story is something to get extra excited about. At times I can almost put the missing episodes aside - we have the conclusion and the middle of the other three episodes, which is a good spread of visual material and better I think than the other two episodes existing in The Crusade. While we did get the best episodes of that serial, it definitely felt less complete.
It's odd that I mention The Crusade - it followed the worst story yet, representative of Doctor Who's occasional tendency to go from one extreme of quality to the other in the space of a week. I wasn't very complimentary towards The Underwater Menace but it doesn't dampen my spirits. Plus, the Cybermen are back! And they're much more how people remember them; creepy robots skulking around in the dark, with strange mechanical voices. For all my praise of the original Cybermen, the design was never going to last - it communicated well the concept of body horror, but they were a tad too silly which would limit their potential to really scare the kids. It makes sense story-wise too, if the Cybermen don't possess time travel, then for them this is nearly a century after The Tenth Planet, and if I was them the first thing I would have got rid of after their first defeat would be the bulky chest units and vulnerable human features. The logical Cybermen would surely agree, and their new refined, more metallic look in The Moonbase does well to make them seem like a threat to Earth and the Doctor.
The plot is nothing new, and when I say nothing new I mean we've had this before... just a few stories ago. In fact, it's most similar to the last story the Cybermen appeared in. An isolated setting, the Moon, holds a base which is key to the welfare of the Earth residents in some way, in this case through control of the Gravitron, and thus the Earth's weather. I suppose the base personnel don't expect any interference or problems because the base seems quite small and is run by a skeleton staff, run by the forceful Hobson, who brings back memories of Cutler from The Tenth Planet in that when the Cybermen aren't around he acts as the main obstacle that prevents the Doctor from achieving his objectives. Fortunately Hobson is nowhere near as irritatingly irrational and in the moments where he stands in the way of the Doctor I can understand his reasons for doing so. He comes across as a guy who has a stressful job and is under a lot of pressure.
The TARDIS has appeared on the lunar surface, and Ben and Polly want to take what will probably be their once in a lifetime opportunity to walk on the moon before they leave. We're still two years before Apollo 11 and at the height of the space race, so a Moon story comes as no surprise. I listened to this episode exclusively on Lost in Time, so I only got the raw audio for Episodes 1 and 3, and Episode 1 seemed to suffer the most because I didn't get to see the spacewalk of the Doctor and the companions, which sounded like a lot of fun. Jamie was particularly entertaining with his fish-out-of-the-water reactions to the Moon, like him wondering if they would meet the man on the Moon. The spacewalk is extra interesting from a marathon standpoint because it's about the only thing this story has but The Tenth Planet doesn't.
As we enter the Moonbase, an injured Jamie is taken to the hospital. An mystery illness has stricken some of the crew and they're comatose, including the base's doctor, so our Doctor agrees to investigate. Patrick Troughton is on form here (though when is he not?), and his persona has settled into the more familiar cosmic hobo/moral crusader combo that will continue for the rest of his tenure. At first I thought Troughton's chemistry with Frazer Hines was the main aspect of his performance missing from his first three stories, but I hadn't considered that the change of actor might have left writers unsure how to write for the new Doctor. The Moonbase is our first taste of typical Troughton, both in story and character's persona, and it's good to see his character stabilise as the episodes wear on.
The concern over the sick crew is a large part of the first episode, and it concludes with a Cyberman looming over a bed-ridden Jamie, who thinks it's the phantom piper (no, I don't know what that is either, so it's not a Scottish thing). Good cliffhanger and good reveal of the Cybermen. In the next episode, Polly interrupts the Cyberman and as she screams in terror it flees before everyone else overhears and comes in, which prompts a search of the base and the crew becoming less tolerant of the Doctor as he tries and fails to find a cure to the sickness and the comatose crew are disappearing. Considering Jamie is out of action, I was expecting Ben to have a lot to do but he's a total spare part. Polly is back to making coffee but here it's a plot point, as it turns out the sugar in the coffee has been poisoned. The Cybermen have been used sparingly, leaving us to contend with the mystery of the illness and lots of the base personnel trying to control the Gravitron, which isn't that interesting. The set design and base personnel are an improvement over their counterparts in The Tenth Planet, but perhaps the biggest problem with this story is that while it may slightly improve on the aforementioned story, everything here has a counterpart there, and I feel like I've seen it all before. Fortunately masses of Cybermen are on their way...
An implausible cliffhanger sees the base personnel discover the Cybermen have been hiding in the hospital room where the Doctor has been working. Implausible, but I really liked it, despite the Cyberman almost accidentally knocking the bed over.
Episode 3 didn't leave much of an impression because it did not surprise me or do much to distinguish itself from The Tenth Planet. Cybermen take over the base, and set in motion their plot against Earth. Polly proves herself useful in coming up with a weapon against the Cybermen using nail varnish remover (of course, she's a girl so has to come up with a girly plan ) and soon enough it's problem solved, at least regarding the initial batch of Cybermen - but more are coming. The improved look of the Cybermen might allow for a scarier story, but when all we're getting is a retread of The Tenth Planet I'm wondering why they bothered redesigning the Cybermen.
Another surviving episode rounds off the story. The Cybermen attack the base from outside using some nifty weapons, and send a rescue ship from Earth spiralling into the Sun. Jamie has recovered and everybody is focused on defeating the Cybermen. It's the most atmospheric episode, largely because of the groovy Cybermen march music, although the Cybermen are defeated quite easily when the Gravitron is turned on the Moon, causing them and their ship to lift off into space in a rather poor model sequence. It's an example of very watchable Who, which most stories are in this era because of Troughton alone, but it's not what I'd consider gripping.
Also similar to The Tenth Planet, the Doctor and his companions hurry away as soon as the Cybermen are defeated, allowing us a glimpse of the Macra via the time scanner, used for the first and only time for one of the most contrived cliffhangers yet.
The Moonbase is a perfectly good Doctor Who story. The redesign of the Cybermen is a good one but for all the isolation of the Moonbase and its crew it's only slightly more atmospheric than The Tenth Planet, with pretty much every plot point from that story carried over to this one. For a series as experimental as Doctor Who in William Hartnell's era, this is disappointing. I can't help feeling the talents of the writers and actors are being wasted by not giving us a story that feeds the imagination and instead relying entirely on a past success (why were the Cybermen brought back so soon anyway? The new costumes must have been expensive), set apart only by the intriguing lunar setting. In the context of the marathon it's even worse; to enjoy it as much as possible I had to forget The Tenth Planet and enjoy it in its own right, but the whole point of a marathon is to put the episodes in context through viewing them in order.
Horror quotient - I have to contragulate Kit Pedler in his plotting; the first two cliffhangers are identical, with both being the reveal of the Cybermen, and they're among the best things about the story. The Cybermen still haven't shaken off that 'silly' vibe, but they're scarier than they used to be.
Comedy quotient - It's the Moon! Some laughs to be had earlier in the story, and whenever the Doctor gets a chance to interact with his companions. They're a funny bunch when they're together, and I can imagine the case being the same off-screen.
Drama quotient - A slightly more interesting base crew than The Tenth Planet, but this story doesn't have the regeneration or the exploration of the Cybermen concept to make it more interesting. It could have been better in this regard.
It's the kind of Doctor Who story that even if you haven't seen it, you've seen it.