Doctor Who (Classic): S05E07 “The Wheel in Space”

Season 5
Directed by Tristan de Vere Cole
Written by David Whitaker

If it feels like this season has lasted forever, it’s not just you. I started this season way back on March 13th with the classic serial “The Tomb of the Cybermen”. But now it is finally time to wrap up this season with another Cybermen serial, “The Wheel in Space”. It’s the fourth such serial in two seasons as the Cybermen had at the time replaced the Daleks as the most prominent recurring baddie. I say at the time because ironically this episode led to the return of the Daleks. The serial was originally planned to depict a war between the Daleks and Cybermen, but when Terry Nation refused to lend his creation to that serial, he did promise to let them return to series in the future. Granted, that wouldn’t be until Season 9’s “The Day of the Daleks” (aside from a short appearance in “The War Games”), but a return was coming. It would take until the second series finale of NuWho (“Doomsday”) almost 40 years later for the show to depict that Dalek/Cybermen conflict though the Daleks do make a cameo thanks to the wonders of archival footage.

While the Cybermen defined the Second Doctor’s era as villains, the episode opens with the final moments of “Fury from the Deep” which saw those aboard the TARDIS reduced to the essential pairing of the Doctor and Jamie thanks to the departure of Victoria Waterfield. After a power overload, the Doctor is forced to remove the Time Vector Generator which turns the TARDIS into an actual police telephone box. I do not know the logic behind a spaceship turning into the actual thing its cloaking mechanism depicts but sure, why not? They have arrived on an abandoned carrier spaceship that is drifting through space (making this the first serial this season not to take place on Earth), a ship late for its destination and millions of miles off course.

The first sign of life on the spaceship is a robot which appears to be operating the ship. The robot is destroyed by the Time Vector Generator (which seems to act as all-purpose plot spackle) and is never mentioned again. All it does is allow for the typical end of episode one reveal and allow The Doctor to unrelatedly get knocked out early with a hilariously contrived concussion (to disguise a Troughton vacation during episode 2). The crew of a space station (the titular wheel in space) sees the ship and the captain wishes to destroy it thinking it poses a threat, but is thankfully for the show’s sake stopped when Jamie sets off the Time Vortex Generator in the direction of it. It’s a rather clever moment for Jamie but my does the use of it seem beyond modern sonic screwdriver level cheap.

The space station sends a crew over to take a look and they rescue Jamie and the Doctor. Of course, this is over the warnings of the commander since for the second week in a row, we get a base leader who won’t listen to the warnings of his subordinates and once again it turns out he is under the mind control of the enemy and for an unknown period of time. But really, it’s just the first sign of many that this feels like a story cobbled together from other earlier ones. In a rare instance for the show at that point, probably due to The Doctor being knocked out, Jamie actually lies straight-out about how the two of them wound up in that scenario instead of just being suspicious and evasive. Granted his explanation that he was raving with illness and doesn’t know what happened isn’t exactly less suspicious, but it shows an awareness about the situation that The Doctor usually either lacks or is apathetic about. The show wastes no time either in picking apart their stories and that is something I will give Doctor Who credit for. They always seem to know my complaints about certain plot ideas and address them quickly (well address them verbally, not always in practice). Jamie is rather resourceful this whole episode, preventing them from destroying the rocket by destroying the laser using some spray on plastic.

The second episode introduces us to our newest companion, Zoe Heriot (played by Wendy Padbury), who works on the space station and is tasked with following Jamie about. Her introduction comes with her making fun of Jamie’s kilt as being “female garments” as well as her showing off her breadth of knowledge (she’s an astrophysicist), sharply contrasting her from Victoria. She’s still a young woman (though not nearly as young as Victoria), but the show always has, and would in the future, seemed to cast as a reaction to the last character/iteration of The Doctor. She called “all brain and no heart” and like a robot by multiple people she works with (her robotic-ness always seeming to flare up when these statements are made) and her quest to feel things as well just got a giant eye roll from me. It’s the same problem Star Trek kept running into where they try and claim that Spock’s relative lack of emotion is a bad thing, but we aren’t shown in any realistic way that it is. I’d say they are trying to make her into a Spock surrogate (the serial did premiere after the debut of Star Trek), but there’s zero evidence of that. The relationship between Zoe and Jamie is quickly established as more competitive with the latter acting insecure about her intelligence.

In defiance of what has become the typical formula for the show, the Cybermen reveal is saved for the second episode cliffhanger with a rather unique reveal. There is a recurring imagery of these white balls being released from the ship and floating about, with the episode slowly revealing the shape of a Cyberman inside during the final scene before a hand bursts out from it like it’s the end of a horror movie, the shell of it cracking like an egg.

I guess this is as good a time as any (also because I’ve been meaning to for a while) to note both the basic structure of these episodes and why despite a lower floor in serials quality (about 75% Troughton and 25% kinks being more ironed out), the Second Doctor’s run has gotten more mediocre reviews. With most serials being six episodes, the standard format goes; first episode introduces the setting and ends on a tease of the Big Bads being threatening, second episode expands the new recurring characters for the serial and introduces them to The Doctor and company, the third, fourth, and fifth are mostly piddling about setting up the conclusion, and the sixth wraps things up quickly in the first half of the episode before the second half features the goodbyes and denouement. This format leads to a situation where most of the serials start great before sagging in the middle as padding becomes more and more evident and then rushing to get the epic conclusion out in something like 15 minutes.

This is where the change to a six-episode standard (from a four-episode standard of the First Doctor’s run) really hurts because while episodes one, two, and six are basically the same as episode one, two, and four of that era, it means that the writers have to justify triple the plot of those middle episodes. While you might think that this means they have more room to breathe an tell a more complete story, in practice it means that there is a lot repeating plot beats (which is especially noticeable when all but one serial this season follows the “base under siege format”, dragging them out long past necessary (see last serial), and/or introducing out of nowhere secondary plots (see “The Enemy of the World) to pad the runtime, dragging the pace to a crawl. The more plentiful missing episodes hardly help, creating a sense of tedium to finishing out the serial.

Back to the actual serial. The Cybermen have a multi-phase plan that starts out fairly clever until it falls apart in the end. They deliberately seek out the bernalium (not a real thing) on the Wheel knowing both that it is needed to run the laser on the Wheel (their only defense) and that they will desperately try to resupply it (offering a way to smuggle themselves into the otherwise impenetrable space station). They send out their Cybermats out to scout and consume it and while they still aren’t threatening, at least the serial seems to recognize that and makes that a part of their character which allows them to operate without anyone sensing them as a threat if they are noticed. Then the Cybermen will poison the air with Ozone, take the Wheel, then take Earth.

Of course, the plan falls apart on a logical level (it falls apart on a practical level because the show isn’t called The Cybermen) because a large part of their plan rested on their apparent ability to make a star go supernova, but taking out a single space station is just too much. It’s just that one little detail that takes a plan from convoluted but logical to fucking insane. Also, while I get that there were a lot of things that lead to those final moments, defeating the initial two who have so far completely outsmarted you Cybermen by shocking one and spraying plastic on another while it just stands there and watches just feels so anticlimactic.

“The Wheel in Space” really is a standard Cybermen story from top to bottom and doesn’t offer much in the way of new plots either in terms of Cybermen stories (there are plenty of comparisons to me made to or stories this season, but I enjoyed it well enough. The six episodes really are suited to special occasions and while the Cybermen appearing doesn’t feel all that special anymore, they can carry it and make those three pesky middle episodes feel far better paced. It’s a perfectly fine conclusion to a fine if unspectacular and frequently repetitive season.

Grade: C+
Season Grade: C+ (only just as if you raise even a single grade this season, it would push the average to a B-)

Stray Observations
– Only two episodes remain (three and six) as well as some clips
– In the stead of actual live action, we do get an awful lot of silly and primitive animation or at least in the Loose Cannon reconstruction. I’m always torn between appreciating the effort and getting taken out of it by how goofy it looks (understandably so)
– This week in yellowface we have Peter Laird (no, not that one) as the presumably Chinese “Chang”
– Donald Sumpter (who has a relatively minor role here as Enrico Casali) would later pop up in “The Sea Devils”, one story of The Sarah Jane Adventures, and most prominently as Rassilon in Hell Bent (as well as playing Maester Luwin on Game of Thrones)
– This serial depicts the first use of John Smith as an alias for The Doctor, here given to him by Jamie as a cover when The Doctor isn’t accepted as a name

The Wheel in Space 2.jpgHe’s on the far right
– There’s a standard sci-fi machine that generates any food they wish except instead of producing the food (i.e. Red Dwarf) or having it come out as pills (i.e. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians) it comes in the form of what appears to be squares. Tasty squares though.
– The Cybermen are referred to as “more robot than man” which suck it Star Wars, you got beaten to the punch by over a decade.
– This Week in Cliffhangers: Zoe is caught sneaking onboard the TARDIS, wishing to join them on their adventures. In an attempt to test her willingness, The Doctor shows her a clip of the Daleks murdering someone as Zoe looks on, a sense of fear seeming to wash over her.

Next Up: Sorry for the missed schedule as I fell behind because of one illness and then was knocked out by another worse one over the holidays. I still plan to take a break from the series proper and review the two non-canon Doctor Who film adaptations. I had no intention of covering them (only seen the first and it wasn’t any good), but the fact that they are on Amazon (well one only in the Rifftrax version), the fifth season is all wrapped up, and pure stubbornness at this point means that I’m going to take the chance to take the time to give them a look. I can’t make any promises until I’m fully recovered on when things I write will release, but I will endeavor to turn them out as quick as I can.

TBD – Doctor Who and the Daleks
TBD – Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.
TBD – “The Dominators” (Where we will finally be caught up with where I left off to start this feature)
TBD – “The Mind Robber” (Where we head off into the great unknown together)

Season 1
“An Unearthly Child”
“The Daleks”
“The Edge of Destruction”
“Marco Polo”
“The Keys of Marinus”
“The Aztecs”
“The Sensorites”
”The Reign of Terror”

Season 2
“Planet of Giants”
“The Dalek Invasion of Earth”
“The Rescue”
“The Romans”
“The Web Planet”
“The Crusade”
“The Space Museum”
“The Chase”
“The Time Meddler”

Season 3
“Galaxy 4”
“Mission to the Unknown”
“The Myth Makers”
“The Daleks’ Master Plan”
“The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve”
“The Ark”
“The Celestial Toymaker”
“The Gunfighters”
“The Savages”
“The War Machines”

Season 4
“The Smugglers”
“The Tenth Planet”
“The Power of the Daleks”
“The Highlanders”
“The Underwater Menace”
“The Moonbase”
“The Macra Terror”
“The Faceless Ones”
“The Evil of the Daleks”

Season 5
“The Tomb of the Cybermen”
“The Abominable Snowmen”
“The Ice Warriors”
“The Enemy of the World”
“The Web of Fear”
“Fury from the Deep”
“The Wheel in Space”