The Wheel In Space

Written by:
David Whitaker
Directed by: Tristan de Vere Cole
Starring: Patrick Troughton
Year: 1968
Video Availability (Episodes Three and Six Only): Try Amazon

I dunno why, but I always think of The Wheel In Space as being shorter than the rest of its six-episode peers. Is it because, while lower in quality, it has a pace that they do not? Maybe it's because, past Tomb and The Ice Warriors this is the season five story with the most existing material? Or possibly because this first episode is really just a stand-alone filler that fails to further the story one jot and could easily have been dropped?

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.
* * *

Okay, are we allowed to start the story now? What, Pat's on holiday and his body double is under a sheet for the week? Oh well, let's tread water for a second week running then. Yeah, we get the introduction of the perky Zoe (I would say fit, but she's too petite for that… almost disturbingly girlish to Victoria's womanly charms. I would Zoe more though) but generally it's all about air pressure and system malfunctions.
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.
* * *

At last, we're allowed to get moving. Let's be honest, even though episode two has a cracking cliffhanger (Cybermen inexplicably growing out of eggs for some nice Freudian connotations) the first two could easily have been junked together. That isn't slow build up, it's water treading, but let's forgive and forget and put it all behind us. (Do I always write in clichés?)

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.
* * * ½

Another fine episode, progressing the plot and suggesting that the Commander is suffering from a nervous breakdown. It's quite a subtle touch, made less effective by following another fifty billion stories where a base commander was unhinged, but with less logical reason.

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.
* * * ½

I always forget when watching The Wheel In Space that it has been regarded in the past as a "turkey". I think its reputation has climbed a little more than that in recent years, but it's still not very well thought of. It's a shame, because while it is arguably the weakest season five story, it still - when it gets going - contains that Who (pardon my corniness) "magic" and is more than adequate.

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?
* * * ½

The opening with Jamie and Zoe floating around on wires while "meteorites" rush towards them seems to defy both science and the series' budget, but you've got to admire the ambition for them daring to try. Of note in the two surviving episodes is a black operative… though naturally in 60s Who, he doesn't get any lines.

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!
* * * ½

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.
* * *