The Wheel In Space
While I like Patrick's performance in season six, it's clear that from this stage of the programme he's started to get bored and lapse into "Giddy Aunt!" caricature. Those that talk about him being insane and over the top in his first few stories are clearly misremembering or just repeating myth - he's significantly more restrained in his first season than later. I actually put a lot of the blame down to Hines and Watling, a pairing that made the three of them think they were the funniest group on television, whereas they were clearly mistaken. (See also: Pertwee/Manning; Courtney/Levine). In the space of a season we've gone from an arch manipulator and into someone who feeds Jamie lines for sly innuendo and gags about his kilt.
I would like to see this particular episode found just to see how padded it looks visually. A two-hander on a spacecraft, it's Who stripped down to its bare roots, but not for any artistic endeavour. In many ways it feels like the first episode of The Mind Robber, hastily written to fill a gap, though without the wit and imagination. All that said, it's not terrible, and there's a robot to break the narrative a little, but they may as well have just flashed a warning sign at the start: Bugger All Happens This Episode.
To be fair, the last four minutes do give us the personnel of the Space Wheel so it's not all the Doctor and Jamie, but it might as well have been. I enjoyed it, but realised I was having my intelligence insulted at the same time - rather like watching a movie by Richard Curtis.
Perhaps the strangest thing about all this is that David Whitaker, usually a master of characterisation (working from a story by Kit Pedler) delivers some ropy, if not to say bizarre lines. "Did I ever tell you about my nose?" No, but tell us about your arse instead. Another twenty-five minutes, another plot that's failed to ignite. "What's the story?" "I don't know. Quite a mystery, isn't it?" You said it, love.
For some reason Wendy Padbury seems less stagier in her first story than nearly the whole of season six, possibly because most of her fellow Wheel actors aren't that hot either. Here at last we get the invading Cybermen, and while there's only two of them (one half a foot bigger than the other) and some Cybermats it's still a nice gradual building menace.
Overall this is, while not exceptional, above average, with the Doctor's memory loss not trumpeted as some lame "Where am I?" shenanigans, but as memories at "the back of my mind". Even on an off day Whitaker was above par, and the parallels between Zoe's clinical logic and that of the Cybermen themselves is handled nicely without being too overstated. Oh, one last thing - the direction by de Vere Cole is also of note, including aerial views, extreme close-ups of screaming mouths and a nice dissolve between the Doctor's face and that of a Cyberman. Quite ambitious for 60s serial television.
There's also quite a disturbing reference to Zoe's training at a "parapsychology unit", where emotions are restricted, something that wasn't referred to again. It's quite an effective scene, though underachieves by Padbury's flat "Oh, good" at the end. And, er… that's all I've got to say about this one. Good though.
The Doctor finally starts to put a plan together here, and although there's some shaky humour with a Wheel operative trying to pick a fight with a Cyberman, it sets the scene well for the Doctor's final confrontation with them in episode six. Those "meteorites" are crap though, innit?
In terms of firsts, then this was the first story to have incidental music by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (a very nice job they do too) and introduced "tear drops" to the Cybermen's eyes. True, the Cybermen do look a little bit ramshackle here, with their front casings loose and the clear difference in height, but this adds a touch of pathos. Yet those who like to dwell on such things should note they also have one on their mouths, as if they've got a piercing.
Every Troughton story has to have a couple of classic lines, and this episode gets both of them. On the forefront we get the infamous "sexual air supply" and later, his resigned "I imagine you have orders to destroy me." This last one is superb, with The Mighty Trout leading the Cybermen into an electrical force field, almost like a Camp X-Ray worker torturing an Iraqi prisoner.
One interesting aspect of the Cybermen, later discarded, is that they have the ability to mentally possess humans via special effects that really aren't that bad for the time. There is a mild look of the cheap about this one - it's a bit Flash Gordon - but the sets are actually quite decent, even if they lack the design innovation of other season peers.
The Cybermen's final invasion of the wheel is curious, involving as it does mirror effects and a fey, waving arm movement. It's supposed to imbue menace, but at best it imbues eerieness… or more likely camp. Coupled with the Doctor's final solution - adding to the "laser gun" so it's got a stronger ray - means it does veer towards drastic anti-climax, but it's okay. Six episodes of build up and then… nothing. The final coda involves a fourth-wall breaking revelation as Pat takes out a headset from a never before seen blank roundel and introduces a repeat of The Evil of the Daleks. On the bright side, Zoe joins the team, standing upright in a trunk, perky at the front, peary at the back. Nice!
Mediocre, sure, but while Wheel's core integrity seems to be stretched thin around both budget and schedule requirements, this is better than its reputation and, if nothing else, a step up from the shallow thrills of The Moonbase.
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