Doctor Who and The Wheel in Space
By David Whitaker, from a story by Kit Pedler
27 April to 1 June 1968
After seeing Victoria off, Jamie and the Doctor are reluctant to resume their adventures in time and space. When the TARDIS goes haywire, it demands that the craft land inside a mysterious rocket in mid-travel. Headed directly for a satellite (the Wheel), the Doctor and Jamie fail to discover who and what are driving the rocket toward its destination and become prey to the dreaded Cybermen as they launch another attack on the human race.
I have mentioned before that I enjoy the chemistry between Frazier Hines and Patrick Troughton in their three year stint. The stories of this period are admittedly limited and rely heavily on monsters (Daleks, Cybermen, Yeti and Ice Warriors are featured several times), but the performance from the main cast contributes to the prolonged success of this much loved era. I also quite enjoy the ‘food acting’ that Hines and Troughton deliver as it makes the characters and situations all that more real. In the opening episode of the Wheel In Space, we see the Doctor produce frozen treats from his capacious pockets and arrange for a ‘square meal’ via a food machine. It’s a little thing, but it adds to the atmosphere and makes the unreal situation easy to relate to.
After consuming a large synthesized meal, Jamie falls asleep and the Doctor attempts to investigate the rest of the rocket only to encounter a very strangely designed service robot and gets knocked unconscious to boot. Rescued from the rocket by the crew of the nearby satellite, Jamie is put in an awkward situation without the Doctor to help him answer the many questions posed to him. The Wheel, as it is known, acts as a stopping off point for interstellar travelers. Jamie is given a full tour of the station and introduced to Zoe Harriot, a child protege with a knack for calculations and a spot of bother in personal relations.
The head of the Wheel, Jarvis Bennett is over-wrought with anxiety and decides that the wayward rocket upon which the Doctor and Jamie were discovered is a nuisance and must be destroyed… but that would also eliminate the TARDIS by Jamie’s reckoning! Knocked unconscious by an unseen foe, the Doctor cannot advise Jamie on how to prevent the destruction of the rocket, leading to Jamie’s unfortunate decision in ruining the satellite’s only defense system, leaving them ripe for attack.
The third outing of the silver giants called Cybermen was hardly their best, but it still had a number of string moments. The ‘invading force’ of Cybermen this time around consists of just three monsters, hardly an impressive assault force. Redesigned slightly since their last appearance, these Cybermen look a bit sturdier and more menacing than before. The special effects are very impressive, with the revival sequence a real stand out moment that remains impressive today. A slight design modification on their already amazing design seen in the Moonbase, these Cybermen are much more intelligent and scheming in their tactics, risking few of their numbers and instead employing the Cybermats to infiltrate the Wheel for them. Nevertheless, they are still in fine form.
Newcomer Wendy Padbury makes an instant impression, being cute as a button if a little hampered by a lack of personality. In the hands of a lesser actress, this combination would have been a disaster, but Padbury pulls it off so well, charming the Doctor and challenging Jamie to the point of annoyance, even though deep down he fancies her. I mean, who wouldn’t? Following in the footsteps of the maiden in distress-type Victoria, Zoe is rather self-reliant and determined in her own way, if a bit over sure of herself. There’s a great moment where she posits a logical argument to the Doctor and he brushes it off, stating that logic only allows you to be wrong with authority. It’s a remarkable statement that in the Doctor’s world, brains don’t account for everything.
When a talking cactus can try to take over the universe, all bets are off.
Part of the problem that the Wheel in Space faces lies in the fact that it is too long. It also barely features the Doctor and instead focuses on the staff of the Wheel to solve their own problems. The staff are an unruly lot, consisting of an overworked manager in the verge of a nervous breakdown, flirty shipmates and an engineer with delusions of space life being cute and cuddly!
When engineer Bill Dugan finds a Cybermat he is hardly surprised at all and least of all horrified (they are very cute to be fair) and instead decides to keep their presence a secret. Why? Who knows but much of the plot relies on this terrible idea that puts the Wheel in jeopardy. While the Doctor spends much of this six parter out of the spotlight, it allows the supporting cast ample opportunity to fill in the allowed time which they do quite well. They are all interesting characters and well performed by the cast, but it all feels suspiciously like a retread of Moonbase with slight alterations.
Fortunately, Moonbase is a spectacular adventure, so there’s not much trouble there.
One can see the influence that Troughton’s portrayal has on Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor in this story as the Doctor sticks to the sidelines throughout much of the adventure, only coming to the rescue in the eleventh hour. By this encounter with the Cybermen, the Doctor had established himself as having special knowledge of the monsters and while this hardly translates into recognizing an Achilles’ heel, it certainly grants him the ability to out-think his enemy. It’s all very clever and satisfying, but all along the way it appears that the Doctor could so easily be murdered by these silver giants.
The vulnerability of the Doctor is a quality that is strangely absent from the modern program that presents him as a magical being capable of destroying whole fleets with nothing short of a pocket torch. The Second Doctor, by comparison was a contradiction as he many times played the fool to put off his enemies but in many instances really was out of his depth. This made the menaces all the more dangerous and the successes of our heroes all the more remarkable. It also allowed for a healthy mixture of drama and comedy as the Doctor could be seen running like a loon down a hallway in one episode only to concoct an electr0magnetic weapon in the next. Thrilling stuff.
A veteran author many fine adventures, David Whitaker had already penned two Dalek stories that still stand out as classics. His collaboration with Cybermen co-creator Kit Pedler is a far cry from Power of the Daleks and Evil of the Daleks, but that doesn’t make it a flop by any stretch of the imagination. Combining the scientific knowledge of Pedler and the superior plotting and characterizations of Whitaker, Wheel in Space may be too long by far, but it keeps the pace going nonetheless with scary moments of Cybernization and violent zombie-like attacks. This may be yet another base under siege story, but it keeps things interesting. In fact it is certainly an influence on 1982′s Earthshock and even the Eight Doctor audio adventure Sword of Orion.
In fact, the Cybermen, along with their faithful Cybermats, are due to return again next series if this image is anything to go by. Hopefully they’ll actually get to do something aside from get blown up this time.
The Wheel in Space is hardly the finest outing for the Cybermen, I’d give that honor to The Invasion or Tomb of the Cybermen, but it still has its charm. The atmosphere is quite chilling with the mind-controlled crew and indestructible monsters threatening the vulnerable space station.
Like many stories from the 60′s, the Wheel in Space is missing from the archives with only episodes 3 and 6 still available for viewing. Therefore, an out of print novelization, a similarly rare audio CD or fan-reconstructed video are the only real options to experience this classic. With the recent reprint series of Doctor Who novelizations taking flight, perhaps fans can hope to see the book back in print again. After the announcement of the Reign of Terror’s missing episodes receiving the animation treatment, perhaps this story will also get a special release.
Until the reissues or DVD special editions arrive, here are some recommendations: