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The Wheel in Space

story 43 | season 5 | serial ss
Finn Clark

"Oh dear, a six-parter," I thought. I watched the two surviving episodes and my suspicions appeared to be confirmed. Part three barely feels like a part two, while part six feels like a part three. I was taken aback by the destruction of the Cybership and the spinning away of the Cybermen into space, which would be an unsatisfying ending for just one episode, let alone the climax of a six-week epic! I was ready to bash this thing to matchsticks...

...but then I read the scripts. It makes such a difference to see the whole story. If you put the surviving episodes in context, you can see the structure. It's still creakingly slow, but tension does build over the six weeks. (...Finn says provisionally, not having heard the audios or seen the reconstruction.) As in The Seeds of Doom, the traditional "four and two" six-parter pattern is turned on its head with a claustrophobic prologue on the Silver Carrier leading into the main story on the Wheel. A doom-laden atmosphere builds up and I'm prepared to bet that episode five was downright scary. The New Zealand censor clips look intense and Gemma Corwyn's murder is sinister even on the page, going so far as to get its own cliffhanger.

I decided that I like the script and even admire the production. It's a solid piece of work from everyone: designers, actors and direction. Check out the Cyber-murder in part six. They're repeating the "lift someone over their head" trick from Tomb, but this time they get it right. You can't see the Kirby wire! In fact the whole sequence looks brutal. That's a better directed and scarier Cyber-murder than anything from the colour era.

The model work is great, but the spacesuits are fantastic! Those may be the best-looking spacesuits in all of Doctor Who. I also love the new Cybermen. Leaving aside the fact that they're so bloody big, this is where they got their teardrops! I adore the teardrop. I'm absurdly pleased that the new Russell T. Davies Cybermen have teardrops. I don't think anyone will ever invent a more perfect visual metaphor for the tragedy of the Cybermen, or incidentally execute it better than the DWM comic strip did with That Shot of Junior Cyberleader Kroton. It's a beautiful accident of design.

On the downside, again a director thinks that Cybermen need to move when talking. Earthshock somehow got away with it, but here it looks almost as stupid as it did in Attack of the Cybermen. (Hell, if you must indicate which one's speaking, add a visual effect like the glass jaw or the Tomb/Moonbase mouth flaps.) The difference is that 1980s Cybermen did little boogies, but their Wheel predecessors incline their upper bodies as if bowing Japanese-style.

The Cybermen are famously absent for much of this story, but the Cybermats and possessed humans take up the slack nicely. I liked the Cybermats, which look far more effective than they deserved to. As in Tomb, it's one of television's miracles that the Cybermats didn't make the entire nation fall about laughing. Doctor Who has made a pig's ear of far less unpromising ideas. Unfortunately their victim in part three takes up the comedy slack by being terrified even before the cuddly toys have blasted a crowbar from his hand. His actual death is effective, though.

The accents are interesting, though. We had 'em in Moonbase and we have 'em again here. The Troughton-era 21st century was self-consciously international. I want to blame Star Trek and its cosmopolitan crew, but unfortunately it only reached the UK three years after its US debut in 1966.

As an aside, that's an amazing combination of writers! Dr Kit Pedler rewritten by David Whitaker, the man who reinvented Clarke's Law: "Any sufficiently badly written science is indistinguishable from magic." Thus we have the fluid links coming back in a story with hard sci-fi and painstakingly crafted spacesuits. Forget the sexual air supply. That's just a goof, albeit a rightly famous one. More startling is a throwaway line: "Reinforce the anti-matter field around the Wheel." Reinforce the WHAT??? We're only in the 21st century! It wasn't not my imagination either, since the scene continues with: "Switch on the anti-matter field projectors." However David Whitaker obviously meant this to mean just a matter-repelling field, while it's not as if anti-matter got a rigorous scientific treatment in stories like The Three Doctors and Planet of Evil.

Yet again in Doctor Who, a commander goes insane. I guess it's saying something about the show's attitude towards authority, but couldn't they introduce extra screening for these people at the interview stage or something?

Personally I think this story suffers more than most from being incomplete, though I'm prepared to be contradicted by someone who's heard the audios and/or seen the reconstructions. Cyber-fans are lucky that all their stories are well-represented, though. Of their five 1960s stories, one is complete, two are nearly complete and the other two both have two surviving episodes. These ones don't stand up very well as individual instalments but at least they look pretty, with Troughton on good form ("Hello, I think I've got company" before a lovely Cyber-confrontation). I hadn't known what to expect from this, but in the end after some thought I decided that was impressed.

Ed Martin

The Wheel In Space is called on to achieve a lot, as the climatic story of one of the programme's best ever seasons. The Conventional Opinion of Whovians (COW) states that it fails in this respect, that it is padded out and dull. I, on the other hand, quite like it, but then I did have the benefit of seeing the existing episodes young. I bought Cybermen: The Early Years, which along with its Dalek equivalent was an excuse to release fragments from largely missing stories. I should say that I have no problem with this at all, and the Cybermen from this story, as well as the ones from The Moonbase (also provided on that tape) are indelibly burned into my head as one of the definitive versions of the monster. It took a while for me to catch up with the other episodes, which I did through a Joint Venture reconstruction; it is quite strange reviewing it then, as I am unfamiliar with 66% of it but can recite the other 33% by heart.

Most of the criticism of this story is focussed on the first two episodes, and I have to say that it is largely justified as they are horrendously padded out. I feel that this story might be better regarded if the first two episodes had been edited together; of course this would leave the season running an episode short but I feel The Web Of Fear could have stood up as a seven-parter. And if you think I'm talking idly, look at Planet Of Giants. The first thing that strikes me about episode one is that the TARDIS warning mechanism makes no sense at all, trying to tell the Doctor that the outside world is dangerous by showing pictures of a tropical paradise. Talk about reverse psychology. So what happens, the TARDIS materialises in the Emperor Dalek's throne room and the Doctor and Jamie rush out in their swimming trunks? Both sides would be as surprised as each other, probably. "Doctor, do you have your sonic screwdriver?" "Er..."

The first episode is quite atmospheric though as it trades on a sense of the unknown, something common in pre-Star Wars science fiction. Just look the titles of early sci-fi, full of the unexplained: It Came From Outer Space, The Thing From Another World, Out Of The Unknown, Them!, It: The Terror From Beyond Space and, of course, Doctor Who. The mystery here though is straight from stock as Jamie opens doors by falling on switches and suchlike. Still, it's better than its reputation.

One thing notable about this story is the way that sound effects are used very effectively as music: that chiming sound of outer space (nonsense but pleasant), the evocative buzz of the Cybermen and the bleeping of the Servo Robot. From what can be heard, the largely silent scenes featuring the robot may well have been very effective and I'd like to see them. Meanwhile, the exhaustive list of foodstuffs fed into the dispensing machine is a huge frivolity and demonstrates the padding of the episode, not to mention being a single cream bun away from Monty Python's Flying Circus. Also, the space age food-in-blocks idea was done earlier in The Tomb Of The Cybermen, and it wasn't new then. Ah, those innocent days before Rice Krispie Squares.

The rocket lurching forward is the first piece of action for a while, and it caught me quite off guard. The floating eggs scene was probably horrible (I can just imagine them wobbling about like Thunderbirds puppets), but as Bill King is a generally reliable effects technician and the meteorites in part six look superb then I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. The Time Vector Generator is interchangeable with the Sonic Screwdriver for most practical purposes, but I'll let it go.

After twenty minutes of the Doctor and Jamie eating and napping, the sudden cut to the Wheel is a not unpleasant shock. The dialogue is good, as is usually the case with David Whitaker, but as the story progresses the characterisation can come across as a little inconsistent. An immediate standout, even in a missing episode, is Dr. Gemma Corwyn, a very well written character excellently played by Anne Ridler. The sense of mystery is continued here as the Cybermat eggs morph through the hull of the station, although this is very implausible.

The second episode largely focusses on the characters. This is a euphemism for horribly padded of course, but it does make for interesting viewing (ok then, listening) in places. What is clear though is that Whitaker feels very uncomfortable writing romance between Leo Ryan and Tanya Lernov; a lot of the time he just sticks to having Eric Flynn (son of Errol and father of Jerome, so my sources tell me) put his hand on her shoulder and we're left to draw our own conclusions. The episode is very slow to begin with, but the scene where Jamie lies his way through a medical test (including making up the pseudonym 'John Smith' for the Doctor) is fascinating to hear. Zoe is a better character than Victoria, being less inclined to squeal and run behind Jamie at the first sign of rain, although Perky Padbury is a little annoying in her first outing especially when trying to portray mirth. There is a slightly obvious scene as well where Bill shows Jamie the weapons system (presumably all strangers get this) including the power array, targeting system and the best place to sabotage it.

Tanya's nose speech is an unusually bizarre piece of writing, especially since the second half of her conversation takes place in the next episode. When I first saw episode three then, I thought it was the weirdest thing I'd ever heard. There's a great cliffhanger though as the robotic hand burst through the shell of the egg, although it does raise the question of how the Cybermen tie their bootlaces with only three fingers.

Episode three is where the story really gets going, not least because Patrick Troughton's bad from his holidays and on top form. The Cybermen look fantastic, although how they got a teardrop in their mouths is beyond me. Their voices are great, a smooth droning, and we also get the joy of the truly brilliant Mark II voices courtesy of the Cyberplanner. One problem with the new costumes though is that the mouths don't move; it would seem that the production team saw the mouths that just hung open as the words streamed out as a disposable gimmick. In fact, apart from being totally amazing it also served as a visual indicator of which Cyberman was speaking and without this the Cybermen are forced to rock backwards and forwards as they speak to give the actors something to react to, which looks rather strange. The scene with the Cyberplanner is slightly crude in the exposition as the monsters explain their plan to each other, but as the dialogue is delivered through such amazing sound effects I'm happy (a shallow vindication I know, but there you are). There is some amazingly cool direction though, mixing to the face of a Cyberman just as the Doctor is talking about an unknown menace...

The Cybermats look better than on their previous outing and actually have a clearly defined purpose and means of executing it, but fundamentally they are still a very strange concept: small infiltrating robots I can accept, but the Cybermats are just odd. Kemel's terror at them seems excessive, even though it turns out to be justified; Kevork Malikyan here wins the award for the Episode's Best Screamer (and who said this show was sexist?). Although the episode does tend to tread the same ground insofar as the script goes, the Doctor's realisation of the presence of the Cybermen is still a good scene even though we already know this. Maybe it's just because Troughton is blatantly the most talented actor the play the role.

Leo's attack on Zoe seems a little unprovoked and is an example of the slightly dodgy characterisation I mentioned earlier. Flannigan rocks hard, but only in a slightly patronising drunk-Irishman kind of way.

The Cybermen's plan is complex but generally it holds water; they can't attack directly because the station would send a distress call and they can't set up their own transmitter because it would be detected. So therefore we have an example of a complicated scheme that can't really be picked at. But the cliffhanger - what's happened to their voices? "Youwa willa trya my pizza, izza ze best ona Telosa". The voices improve a bit in part four, but they only really go back to normal in part five. Part four hold up very well through being very tense, and it starts with the Doctor desperately trying to convince Jarvis of the problem. The stages of Jarvis's breakdown match the episodes: three is aggression, four is contentment, five is withdrawal and six is acceptance.

It strikes me as odd that the crew doesn't react to the fact that Laleham and Vallance are suddenly talking like they've been lobotamised, as if their personalities switch on and off regularly anyway. Zoe records data on the incoming meteorite storm on magnetic tape, which I find amusing (but hey, according to The Daleks' Master Plan it was still cutting edge in the year 4000). Jamie, in yet another example of weird characterisation, reverts back to being the ignorant 18th century traveller not knowing about sound recording.

I don't know if Peter Laird is really of oriental origin, but his accent is straight out of a cartoon. He gets a good death though, and the Cyberman putting his body in an incinerator creates a gruesome mental image. The scene where the Doctor checks for hypnotised crew is nail biting, and the surviving footage of Duggan's death shows a return to the trusty "negative" effect; which is good, as it's one of the programme's most successful effects ever.

Part five carries on as normal as the sight of the Cybermen only confirms what we already know. Zoe's growing dissatisfaction with her life is an obvious pointer towards her joining the TARDIS crew, but it's nothing clunky and it's a good effort at providing some kind of explanation for what normally is simply a simple "take me with you Doctor!" set up in the last five minutes.

Surviving footage of the fight scene in this episode shows possibly the show's wobbliest ever set, but I could listen to Flannigan yelling "you need a couple of lessons in the noble and manly arts, me bucko!" all day. The lava lamps in the oxygen room date the show badly, but no more so than the plasma ball masquerading as a time drive in Remembrance Of The Daleks.

It's back to moving pictures for the final episode and some terrific model work is on display. Even the cartoon X-Ray laser bolts look good in a retro kind of way. We do get one of the most out of character moments ever though as the Doctor advocates sacrificing Jamie and Zoe, albeit reluctantly; surely he'd look for a solution that didn't involve sacrificing anyone? Still, it's not as bad as Jon Pertwee gunning down an Ogron in cold blood in Day Of The Daleks. This is made up for by the very stylish scene immediately afterwards where the Cybermen systematically work out who is aware of their presence. The confrontation scene between the Doctor and the Cybermen is one of my favourite ever largely due to Troughton's performance: his resigned line of "I imagine you have orders to destroy me" is possibly the most iconic of his era although I must admit we have Earthshock to thank for that. Even in the face of (apparently) certain death the second Doctor was always a step ahead while appearing to be a step behind...come on, he was the best of them all!

If the Cybermen don't need air, then how does the plastic spray kill them? That's my only real beef with the climax, although the issue of whether or not Cybermen need air is one I'll return to when I review other stories featuring them. Zoe's joining scene is the usual fair - but what better end to a season can you get than the entirety of The Evil Of The Daleks?

I took the mick a bit but this really is a good story, very tense and generally well written and acted. It has the unfortunate distinction of being the penultimate Cyberman story where they actually had any credibility, and while it is slightly drawn out I always enjoy it and I'm proud to have it (or what's left of it) in my collection.

Paul Clarke

Coming at the end of Season Five, �The Wheel in Space� ends the season not with a bang, but with a whimper. It is hard to believe that the man responsible for writing �The Power of the Daleks�, �The Evil of the Daleks� and �The Enemy of the World� is responsible for this, and it is tempting to lay the blame at the door of Kit Pedler, who provided the basic story. Unfortunately, some of the story�s deficiencies are script related, which rather undermines this theory.

�The Wheel in Space� does some things right. For the most part, the characterisation is up to David Whitaker�s usual standard, with Gemma Corwyn and Leo Ryan standing out. Bill Duggan and Flanagan also come across well. Unfortunately, the major weak link is Jarvis Bennett, who is the archetypal unstable base commander. I could excuse Robson in �Fury From the Deep�, because it seemed as though he had reasonable leadership qualities under normal circumstances, but quite how Bennett got his job is beyond me. Firstly, there is his reaction to the Silver Carrier. Surely, blowing up seemingly abandoned spacecraft out of hand is not a good idea? For starters, if it really had wandered millions of miles off course, there might be something to be learned from trying to find out why exactly this has happened. Not to mention trying to recover any bodies from it, if only to find out what happened to the crew, about whom somebody somewhere must care. His justification for this pyromania is that the ship might at any time crash into the wheel, but if he�s worried about this, why doesn�t he have the crewmembers that he sends to rescue Jamie and the Doctor break into the locked control cabin and make sure that this isn�t going to happen? Because they�d discover the Cybermen and the rest of the plot would have to be rewritten, that�s why. Consequently, Jarvis is portrayed as an idiot who likes blowing things up, and thus not the sort of man that should be in charge of a remote space station. His later breakdown on learning of the Cybermen is also astronomically fast; the fact that the crew all have capsules implanted to detect mind control suggests that the crew�s training at least allows for the possibility of hostile action from some party or other, so his complete inability to even deal with the possibility is absurd. Frankly, Jarvis is an unnecessary plot contrivance.

Would that Jarvis were the only problem with �The Wheel in Space� however: the actions of the Cybermen are beyond belief. Their plot to gain control of the wheel is ridiculously over-complicated and raises the question of why they don�t just take it by force. After all, they can get Cybermats on board. And even if they couldn�t, they can destroy entire stars, so I find it hard to believe that the Wheel�s defenses pose a problem. The excuse given in the script is that they need to destroy the crew�s ability to send messages, but it�s a fairly flimsy excuse. Since their ship approaches whilst the laser is functioning, its defenses are presumably enough to protect it, had the Doctor not wired the time vector generator into the works, so they may as well have just attacked out right; I find it hard to believe that if they can blow up stars they can�t block transmissions from the Wheel. Why all the rubbish with the Bernalium rods when they need the Wheel�s laser to function? Why not just hijack the Silver Carrier, pilot it to the Wheel, send an automated distress signal, and take over the minds of the rescue party? Ironically, their preferred method would have caused them to be blown up if Jamie hadn�t unexpectedly been on board and able to send a signal to the Wheel. And then there is the aforementioned business with the star. Now I can suspend disbelief when watching Doctor Who, but even with only a basic grasp of astrophysics I can spot twaddle. As The Discontinuity Guide points out, blowing up a star in a different galaxy not only wouldn�t affect the Wheel that quickly, it wouldn�t affect it at all. Perhaps the Cybermen�s control device (which I�m going to refer to hereafter as the Cyber Co-ordinator) isn�t well schooled in the field either. Perhaps it�s taking the piss. That might explain why it gets the name of the Silver Carrier wrong�

There are other problems with �The Wheel in Space�. Bill Duggan sees a Cybermat and decides to dismiss it as a space bug. Now even assuming that he�s so stupid that he can�t see that it has obviously been built by someone, I find it astonishing that he just ignores it. It could be the space equivalent of a rat, or a locust. Surely it�s worth reporting? Just in case? The actual use of the Cybermen seems pointless, as for the first time they are truly reduced to the role of generic robots form outer space. This can work if the story is decent enough, but here it isn�t. Even the Doctor, who has met them at least three times, tells the crew that the Cybermen need the mineral treasures of Earth. Surely they need the human population of Earth? They�re Cybermen, it�s the whole point of them. A bad script and plot can sometimes be partly rescued by decent production values, but the production here is lacklustre to say the least. There are some nice aspects; the corridors in the Wheel are quite nicely designed to avoid looking generically functional, and the redesigned Cybermats look much more sleek and deadly than in �The Tomb of the Cybermen�. They also get to kill someone, which makes them seem dangerous for the first time, and their ability to fire some kind of invisible beam from their eyes works quite well. I also have a soft-spot for the bulbous Servo-robot too, although this is another plot contrivance; there is no actual reason why the Cybermen couldn�t just stay awake and pilot the rocket themselves (I know, their trying to conserve power but the robot clearly needs to be powered instead, so�), but if they had (a) Jamie and the Doctor would be real trouble in episode one, and (b) the cliff-hanger to episode two would be blown. The actual Cybermen however don�t really benefit from being redesigned. The teardrop shape cut into the eye sockets looks quite good, but the one in their mouths somehow makes them look like slack-jawed imbeciles. Which would actually fit in with their silly plan, I suppose. Their new voices are a bit weak and lack the impact of their predecessors, which seems unnecessary since the Co-ordinator actually retains the voice used for the Cybermen in �The Moonbase� and �The Tomb of the Cybermen�. The space walk sequence doesn�t do them any favours either, as the actors involved appeared to have decided to make them look like ballet enthusiasts.

The costumes of the Wheel personnel don�t look too bad. The model work varies; the Wheel is passable, the Silver Carrier is rubbish, and the Cyber ship is really rather good and avoids the cheap saucer designs of �The Tenth Planet� and �The Moonbase�. Most of the sets on board the Silver Carrier and the Wheel are poor, and contrast strangely with the less-functional looking corridors I mentioned above. So amidst all this dross, is there anything good about �The Wheel in Space�?

Actually, yes. The plot device used to separate the Doctor and Jamie from the TARDIS (the time vector generator) is quite novel, although I find it hard to believe that after the trouble he had during �The Mutants�, the Doctor doesn�t keep spare stocks of mercury (as a lab worker, with knowledge of current safety regulations, it�s also quite funny to see a jar of mercury just sitting about on a bench in the Wheel � we aren�t even allowed to buy mercury thermometers anymore!). As usual in a Cyberman story initiated by Kit Pedler, there is a well-intentioned attempt to show international cooperation on board the Wheel, but this inevitably results in some dubious accents, most notably Chang�s. Troughton gets some lovely character moments, including his obvious guilt and distress when Leo Ryan tells him off for engendering Jamie and Zoe in episode six, and when he quietly talks the Cybermen in the same episode and then calmly electrocutes one of them. He�s also visibly affected by the death of Gemma Corwyn, for whom he quickly develops respect during the earlier part of the story. Jamie also gets to do more than just fight too, as he is forced to look after the concussed Doctor early on. He works out how to use the Time Vector Generator to signal for help, and also comes up with a cover story to explain why they were on board the rocket in the first place. Gemma sees straight through it of course, but he tries his best. And the fact that she realises that he is reluctantly lying says a great deal about his basically honest character. His rapidly developing friendship with Zoe is also convincingly scripted and acted and establishes the new companion team nicely. Zoe is initially rather irritating, but as she is forced to face up to the problems of her training and comes to realize that she needs to develop emotionally, she becomes a good choice for a companion. In stark contrast to Victoria, whom the Doctor took under his wing because she had nowhere else to go, Zoe is keen to join the Doctor on his travels, even after having encountered the Cybermen. This bodes well for the new TARDIS dynamic.

Finally, despite the plot holes and the fact that it feels horribly padded, �The Wheel in Space� does at least achieve an air of suspense from the moment that the TARDIS materialises on board the Silver Carrier. This is partly due to the unobtrusive but effective incidental score, but is largely due to the director making the most of a bad job. There are also one or two nice moments, my favourite being the vaguely pointless but visually effective sequence of the Cybermen �hatching� at the end of episode two (or rather, at the start of episode three, which is of course how I was able to see it!). Overall however, the good points of �The Wheel in Space� don�t manage to outweigh the bad, and it proves to be a disappointing end to what is otherwise one of my favourite seasons in Doctor Who�s history.