Doctor Who Project: The Wheel in Space

Doctor Who Project: The Wheel in Space
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There seems to be rather a lot of metal around us.

Season Five of Doctor Who ends more or less as it began, with the Second Doctor facing off against the Cybermen. Regular series writer David Whitaker takes his first crack at the metal monstrosities in “The Wheel in Space” (Story Production Code SS), based on a story by Cybermen originator Kit Pedler. They’ve become much more Dalek-like in their intentions, looking to conquer the Earth with a convoluted plan that hinges on capturing Station Three, the titular wheel in space. It’s certainly not the first time the Cybermen have tried to take over Earth, but one wouldn’t know it from this story, as no one on the station seems to have ever encountered a Cyberman previously. Even though, um, the planet Mondas appeared in Earth’s sky back in the 1980s and the Cybermen invaded the Moon in the year 2070, both events prior to the setting of this story.

New and Improved Cybermen

This narrative amnesia neatly encapsulates the current state of Doctor Who in 1968 (and, one might say, through to the current day). The needs of the story outweigh the needs of the established canon. Yet at the same time, there’s an almost reverent attention to small continuity details pitched solely at dedicated viewers (who would be the ones most likely to recognize, and resent, this amnesia). In the case of “The Wheel in Space,” the Doctor and Jamie are trapped in their predicament by a faulty fluid link; the escaping mercury vapor requires them to abandon the TARDIS and search (eventually) for more mercury. The fluid link connects back to “The Daleks” some four seasons prior when the First Doctor disabled the fluid links to force an ill-advised exploration of the Dalek city to look for mercury—and for adventure.

As has become somewhat standard, the Cybermen are attempting to infiltrate a base that they need to keep intact, so as to use the equipment therein for various nefarious purposes. This time, they have upgraded substantially, with the little Cybermats having energy beams (and the ability to detect brain waves and corrode metals) and the Cybermen themselves equipped with the ability to control human minds. What they haven’t upgraded is their tactical planning apparatus, as the entire scheme to take over Station Three hinges on ionizing a distant star to create a meteorite storm which threatens the station—so far, so good—and then, ah, hiding in a box.

It quickly becomes evident that this story serves mostly as an excuse to trot out the silver soldiers to close out the season on a high (?) note. Just what the Cybermen are attempting remains obtuse throughout the story, not helped by the extreme vocal reverb used for the Cyber Planner. Only by following along with a script can the Cyber Plotter’s elaborate orders be understood. The grand Cyber plot is only explained in a quick aside when the Doctor finally confronts the Cybermen at the end of the sixth and final episode: they need the station’s radio beacon in order to home in on Earth with their invasion fleet.

So, they can ionize a star, but they can’t find Earth, despite having been there a number of times? Perhaps it’s just as well that the Doctor manages, in the last five minutes of the story, to amplify the station’s laser (helpfully repaired by the Cybermen themselves) to blow up the Cyberman command ship carrying the smaller invasion craft.

Pride of the Cyberfleet!

Beyond wonky plotting, “The Wheel in Space” suffers from being a near carbon-copy of the story immediately prior, “Fury from the Deep.” An isolated base is invaded by a malevolent force; the Cybermen can control minds; there’s an authority figure who goes mad when his routine is disturbed; and the Doctor and Jamie are accused of sabotage, though in this case Jamie does actually sabotage the station to prevent the TARDIS from being blown up. Admittedly, David Whitaker provides the better “base under siege” story than Victor Pemberton did, but when you’re given the marquee monster of the moment to play with and you’re competing against evil seaweed, well, that’s not setting the bar too high.

We’re still deep in the “missing episodes” desert with “The Wheel in Space,” alas. Nevertheless, the two existing episodes indicate that a fair bit of effort was put into the visual effects for this story, with models of various space ships and a servo-robot vaguely reminiscent of the Chumblies of “Galaxy 4.” Several spacewalks, with wire work and rather effectively realized space suits, dot the story as well. From a production standpoint, then, an attempt was made to close the season strongly.

A very elaborate laser console

Of note, this story continues the Season Five habit of having very few scenes in the TARDIS control room. This season, the TARDIS has essentially featured at the very beginning of the first episode and then at the very end of the last episode, with several stories not having any scenes at all in that iconic setting. Given that all but one of the stories this season stretched to six episodes, it’s not as though the stories were so tightly plotted as to prevent in-story visits; rather, the stories were all outwardly-focused. Doctor Who is no longer, at this point, about the fact that a time and space machine exists and all the philosophical implications thereof (cf. “The Edge of Destruction,” “The Space Museum,” and any of the historicals); now, it’s monsters and danger and adventure, for better and for worse.

Cyberbuddies!

The Doctor gains his nom de guerre in this story, when someone finally proclaims that she simply can’t just put “The Doctor” down in her report. Jamie, pressed for a name, glances at a stethoscope box and sees “John Smith and Co., Ltd., London” marked as the maker. He cribs that name, though none too convincingly, and thus is born one of those tiny details that will be repeated to appease long-time viewers when the plot-of-the-week ignores decades of continuity.

While the crew of Station Three might not know of the Cybermen, the Cybermen definitely know of the Doctor. Puzzled by the ease with which their schemes are repeatedly foiled, the Cybermen probe the brain of one of their mind-controlled humans until they hit upon an image of the Doctor. Upon seeing it, the Cyber Planner declares, “The Doctor is known and recorded. An enemy.” Later, the Cybermen continually echo, “You know our ways. You must be destroyed.” And, indeed, he does, as he is able to whip up an electrical field to keep them at bay using little more than a few wires and random gizmos he happened upon.

Kit Pedler’s scientific background shows through, with a high proportion of (not entirely accurate) technobabble inserted throughout the script, and the figure of Zoe forms an ideal conduit for much of it. Wendy Cadbury makes her debut here as the new companion, a walking computer of sorts who has been trained since childhood as a repository of facts and a computist of figures. She works in the Parapsychology Lab of Station Three as a sort of librarian, and she lacks both emotional affect and the ability to react to emergencies, or at least emergencies that she hasn’t been trained for. We have in Zoe a figure not dissimilar to Vicki, in that she’s from the nominal future, but unlike Vicki, Zoe is, in the words of one of the station-mates, “all brain and no heart.” The events of the story, wherein she risks death to help Jamie recover the device that will destroy the Cybermen invasion fleet, encourage her to try to stow away on the TARDIS, in order to experience more of life.

Zoe and Jamie

The dynamic between Jamie and Zoe works well, perhaps better than that between Jamie and Victoria. With Victoria, Jamie seemed very much on the defensive, though he cared for her deeply; Zoe, due to her lack of life experience, promises to be someone Jamie can more properly “protect,” as it were. She is able to shine through her knowledge and logical abilities in a way that doesn’t overshadow Jamie’s more physical contributions. Curiously, though, the Doctor doesn’t seem rather impressed with Zoe’s formidable calculating skills, asserting, “Logic, my dear Zoe, merely enables one to be wrong with authority!” It’s the same attitude he evinced in “The Ice Warriors,” where the Doctor shows disdain for cold calculations that lack nuance and contemplation.

Still stinging from Victoria’s departure, the Doctor projects on a TARDIS screen the kind of experience she’s in for, so that she can’t claim to have been mislead prior to joining the merry band of time travellers. And what does the Doctor show her? The Daleks, killing someone. Even when the producers have gone to immense (and perhaps foolhardy) lengths to showcase the new “main” villains in the Cybermen, ones they control outright as opposed to jointly with Terry Nation, they still can’t kick that Dalek habit just yet. We won’t see the murderous pepper pots again for almost another year, in the Second Doctor’s Season Six swan song, and then only in another very brief cameo. Can the next season thrive without the most popular monsters around besieging yet another base?

(Previous Story: Fury from the Deep)

(Next Story: The Dominators)

Post 44 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project

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