Essays: Moonbase blast-off |
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Moonbase blast-off

ON Star Trek (BBC1) our galaxy got itself invaded from a parallel universe by an alien Doppelgänger toting mysterioso weaponry. These bad vibes in the time-warp inspired the line of the week. ‘Whatever that phenomenon was,’ piped Kirk’s dishy new black lieutenant, it drained our crystals almost completely. Could mean trouble.’

In our house for the past few years its been a straight swap between two series: if my wife is allowed to watch ‘Ironside,’ I’m allowed to watch ‘Star Trek,’ and so, by a bloodless compromise possible only between adults, we get to watch one unspeakable show per week each. (My regular and solitary viewing, of ‘It’s a Knockout’ and ‘Mission Impossible’ counts as professional dedication.)

How, you might ask, can anyone harbour a passion for such a crystal-draining pile Of barbiturates as ‘Star Trek’? The answer, I think, lies in the classical inevitability of its repetitions. As surely as Brünnhilde’s big moments are accompanied by a few bars of the Valkyries’ ride, Spock will say that the conclusion would appear to be logical, captain. Uhura will turn leggily from her console to transmit information conveying either (a) that all contact with Star Fleet has been lost, (b) that is has been regained. Chekhov will act badly. Bones (‘Jim, it may seem unbelievable, but my readings indicate, that this man has... two hearts’) will act extremely badly. Kirk, employing a thespian technique picked up from someone who once worked with somebody who knew Lee Strasberg’s sister, will lead a team consisting of Spock and Bones into the Enterprise’s transporter room and so on down to the alien planet on which the Federation’s will is about to be imposed in the name of freedom.

The planet always turns out to be the same square mile of rocky Californian scrubland long ago overexposed in the Sam Katzman serials: Brick Bradford was there, and Captain Video — not to mention Batman, Superman, Jungle Jim and the Black Commando. I mean like this place has been worn smooth, friends. But the futuristic trio flip open their communicators, whip out their fazers, and peer alertly into the hinterland, just as if the whole lay-out were as threateningly pristine as the Seven Cities of Cibola. ‘Star Trek’ has the innocence of belief, the irrefrangible credulousness of a self-perpetuating ceremony.

It also has competition. On the home patch, an all-British rival has just started up. Called Moonbase 3 (BBC1), it’s a near-future space opera plainly fated to run as a serial, like ‘Dr Who,’ rather than as a series. In this way it will avoid the anomalies — which I find endearing — that crop up when one self-contained ‘Star Trek’ episode succeeds another. In a given episode of the Enterprise’s voyages (Its Mission: To Explore Unknown Worlds) the concept of parallel universes will be taken for granted. In the next episode, the possibility will be gravely discussed. Such inconsistencies are not for ‘Moonbase 3,’ which after one instalment has already turned out to possess the standard plot of the bluff new commander setting out to restore the morale of a shattered unit: i.e., ‘Angels One Five’ or ‘Yangtze Incident’ plus liquid oxygen.

Moonbases 1 and 2 belong to the United States and the USSR. Moonbase 3 belongs to Europe, so it looks like ELDO got into orbit after all. Being European, the base’s budget is low, but its crew can supply zest and colour when aroused. The ambitious second-in-command, Lebrun, says things like ‘Zoot’ to prove that he is French. The in-house quack, Dr Smith, is a lushly upholstered young lady with a grape-pulp mouth who is surely destined to drain the new Commander’s crystals at an early date. Leading the embattled squad is Donald Houston as the redoubtable David Caulder, concealing his level-headed competence behind a facade of yodelling bonhomie. A long way from ‘The Blue Lagoon,’ Houston is content to ham his role up solid. But it won’t matter. The story is a gripper, with good care for detail. The exteriors are done with miniatures and nearly always look phoney, but the interiors are well equipped with self-lighting switches, consoles, modular partitions and all the other relevant hardware.

In the revived Softly, Softly (BBC1), Harry the Hawk leapt back to form by cocking up within the first 10 minutes, thereby opening the way for a sequence of pithy sermons from Frank Windsor. The Hawk externalised his frustrations in the usual manner, opening and closing every door in sight; Evans has lost two stone and Snow has now reached the final stage of Angst-ridden taciturnity, staring at his superiors like Diogenes when Alexander blocked the sun. The dirigible-sized question hanging over the series is whether Barlow will return. Stay tuned, citizens.

Spy Trap (BBC1) is back, but Commander Anderson has moved on, being replaced by a narrow-eyed wonder-boy called Sullivan, who in the first episode successively penetrated HQ’s security, uncovered Commander Ryan’s secret, tortured a heavy and ripped off the cap of a ball-point with his teeth. A play called The Death of Glory (Thames), written by Robert Holles, dealt penetratingly with an Army-obsessed military reject (well played by Warren Clarke) who poured his uptight energy into collecting cap-badges, playing war-games in sandtrays, twirling a mace in front of a raggle-taggle band, and cultivating every right-wing prejudice in the book. It turned out that the Army would have accepted, him all along, but when he at last tried to get in, it was too late; his fantasy life had become more rewarding than the reality.

Controversy (BBC2) had the futurologist Herman Kahn, with his usual blend of high-speed loquacity and respiratory mannerisms: ‘reasonlsaythat (snarf) isthattherearemanyaspectsofthefuture (snaffle fulff fulff) thatIdon’tlike (snarfle fulff PHLLT).’ One of those BBC2 link-men, specially chosen for their inability to get through a typewritten line of the English language without fluffing, announced ‘another in this series of nothing ventured, nothing win adventures starring noo, nah, George Plimpton.’

The male voice-over on the new Make-a-Meal commercial said: ‘If you’re a woman you’re a meal-maker for someone.’ Keep a hand over your crystals, brother: if a women’s libber catches you they’ll be drained for sure. One of the art directors on the old Vincent Price movie The Fly (ITV) bore the name Theobold Holsopple. Beat that.

The Observer, 16th September 1973

[ An edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]