The Wheel in Space
By Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 357
“The Wheel in Space” is one of those “curate's egg” Doctor Who stories: parts of it are derivative and fairly tiresome, while other parts work rather well, or at least contain interesting ideas. It remains to be seen, however, whether the advantages here outweigh the disadvantages.
Although some still argue that Kit Pedler's scientific credentials give his work more plausibility than those of other Doctor Who writers of the era, and while there has clearly been more thought than is usual for telefantasy series put into the idea of how life on a space station would play itself out (with power allocations, concern about water supplies, and so forth), otherwise, the science in “The Wheel in Space” makes no more sense than in any other Doctor Who story. A star goes nova at an impossible speed, which somehow affects Perseid meteorites (which are within the solar system and thus unlikely to be affected by such an event), sending them towards the Wheel. Similarly, any high-school science student could point out that spaceships do not need fuel to keep travelling in a straight line in conditions under which there is no resistance from outside forces, such as in space. The story doesn't even have the usual “Mr Science” moment found in most of the Pedler/Davies Cyberman stories, in which a gratuitous scientific factoid is inserted into the adventure in order to give it some kind of educational justification. The problem is that, outside of pulp fiction, few scientists are polymaths, and Pedler's work in electron microscopy, while presumably admirable, does not make him necessarily a good astrophysicist. Add to that the fact that David Whitaker is consistently weak on the scientific front (as witness his ghostwriting work for the TV Century 21 Dalek comics) and is at his best when writing stories in which there is no need for science (“The Crusade”) or in which the science does not really matter (“The Evil of the Daleks”), and the result is rather more science fantasy than science fact.
The vision of a future world is, however, interesting from a scientific point of view. There is a suggestion of fascism in the fact that Zoe has been effectively brainwashed in order to do her job, but that seems to be the only one: the crew are considerably more relaxed even than the highly informal Federation of Star Trek: The Original Series, and, Jarvis' mad fantasies aside, there seems to be little ingrained paranoia; as well as the lax security, the laser is explicitly a defence against natural phenomena rather than enemies. The station doctor is up on her psychology, allowing Bill to keep plants for his mental well-being, and even Jarvis spouts psychobabble to justify his actions. The general impression is of the kind of scientific Utopia envisioned by many in the 1950s (and lampooned in the musical Li'l Abner), in which kindly scientists who really do have the interests of everyone at heart are keeping a fond eye on human welfare. While the science itself may be dodgy, the setup is very pro-scientist.
More problematically, the story is generally based on a series of coincidences. Zoe just happens to overhear the Cyberman channel while on the station, for instance, and the Doctor sends her and Jamie over to the ship in the middle of a meteorite storm seemingly for no reason other than to generate a jolly exciting cliffhanger (it hardly seems worth going through all that just to boost the laser a bit). Jarvis is stopped twice from blowing up the rocket by Jamie, and any plan which relies on Jamie to keep it working is already rather suspect. The time vector generator is a huge deus ex machina, doing everything bar cooking a ham and egg dinner and whistling Dixie.
The Cybermen's plan, furthermore, seems needlessly overcomplicated. Why mess around with the space station at all, and not just go straight on to Earth? Why the convoluted, energy-intensive plan involving forcing a star to go nova and then sabotaging the laser, since, if one single aspect had gone wrong (Jarvis actually succeeding in blowing up the Silver Carrier, for instance), the whole scheme would have been undermined? The Cybermen do not particularly fare well otherwise, standing around explaining various plot elements to the Doctor rather than simply killing him as they did everyone else, and the fact that they work out that someone familiar with the Cybermen is on board the ship due to the foiling of their plot to poison the air supply is based on a false assumption, since in fact it was Gemma, who had never heard of them before, who figured it out.
The human side of things is, however, not much better on the consistency front. Why is Jarvis allowed to remain in charge of a space station at all when he is clearly off his trolley, and why, if Gemma can tell who has been affected by mind control, doesn't she just scan everyone on the station for it? Security is so appallingly lax that they give Jamie such a detailed tour of the Wheel that he is able to figure out how to sabotage it, which rather undermines all the paranoia shown elsewhere. Jamie himself has a wildly inconsistent knowledge base: he knows what plastic is and spouts chemical terminology, but doesn't understand about tape recorders (despite having shown no curiosity about the juke box in “The Evil of the Daleks”), and is surprised by the food machine (although the Doctor has one in his TARDIS), and by episode 6 he is feeding Zoe meals from it without any sign of unfamiliarity with the concept. Once again, nobody on Earth seems to have heard of the Cybermen before, which, while it does allow for the constant reinvention of the Cybermen concept (as every time they appear, it's like the first time they are introduced), does start to stretch credibility after a while.
While there is much better characterisation than is usual in 1960s base-under-siege stories, and while there are no less than three strong female characters on the station, the racial politics of the Wheel are rather dubious. With the token exception of Tanya Lernov, who is Russian, all the best-drawn characters are either British or Australian; minor characters tend to verge on the stereotypical (Flannigan being a comedy Irishman with a hair-trigger temper, and the less said about the generically-Mediterranean character who confronts the Cybermats by striking a gorilla pose, the better). Visibly ethnic actors are mostly confined to the background, with the fact that Chang is played by a white man in makeup adding insult to injury (surely, in a city the size of London, the production team could have found one East Asian actor capable of repeating a few lines), and the fact that his colleague urges him to hurry up with the words “Chop, chop,” makes the modern viewer cringe. According to the DVD commentary, the idea behind having the station being multiethnic was down to Derrick Sherwin and director Tristan de Vere Cole; while their intentions were undoubtedly good, the end result has decidedly not aged well.
Leaving aside the narrative inconsistencies, the Cybermen work quite well in this story, being more machine-like here than before; according to the Doctor, their entire bodies are mechanical and their brains have been treated neurosurgically to remove all human emotion and all sense of pain. Their appearance is effective, having something of a bondage-fetish theme, with too-tight armbands, calipers and overlarge blank masks making them look creepy in a way that the Star Trek franchise would later nick shamelessly for the Borg. The bland voice contrasts nicely with the kinky appearance. The Cybermats also work better here than in “The Tomb of the Cybermen”, being cute but deadly, and people's reactions to them (believing them to be some kind of space equivalent of mice, for instance), being convincing.
“The Wheel in Space” also borrows heavily from its predecessors. In many ways, it seems like a compilation album of Season 5's greatest hits: a base under siege, a monster, a story that’s more meant to showcase a gimmick (the space station) than anything else, the need to get rid of an embarrassing companion (as Deborah Watling's contract continued up to episode 1, but Peter Bryant was sufficiently opposed to the idea of working with her by that point that he got around the contractual obligation by only showing her in a recap clip), a multiethnic (possibly Australian-dominated) future in which the English get the best lines (while it is tempting to attribute this to Whitaker, who also wrote the Australian-centric “The Enemy of the World”, as the multiethnic casting was largely down to Cole, this may simply have been a general Antipodeophilia on the part of the Doctor Who team at the time). Complementing this, there are some repeated design elements, like the costumes which resemble the outfits seen in “The Ice Warriors” and “The Enemy of the World”. Unfortunately, while repetition isn't necessarily a problem, here the story does not use them in an ironic or novel enough way to justify the reuse. There are also one or two elements stolen from other serials, such as “The Edge of Destruction” (where the Tardis warns the crew of danger by showing them images, in this case tempting ones), and “The Daleks” (the crew being unable to use the Tardis through a lack of mercury, and the food machine; it is possible that one or more of these elements may have come from Whitaker in the first place, as he's generally quite keen on the idea of food machines). Finally, the story is severely padded (it could have lost two episodes and been the better for it); unusually for Doctor Who, where the padding usually comes towards the end of a serial, episode one is a big offender on that score.
We also see a number of elements reused from pretty much every Cyberman story all the way back to “The Tenth Planet”: a mad station commander, a base under siege, a multiethnic crew whose portrayal ranges from the stereotypical (“The Moonbase”) to the racist (“The Tomb of the Cybermen”). While the Cybermen are not a bad idea in and of themselves, the fact that up to this point they seem to be continually appearing in the same story over and over again means that their potential has seldom been properly explored.
The introduction of Zoe is, however, one of the better aspects of the story. Although she is absent for episode 1 (presumably because the production still had to pay Deborah Watling for this episode), and although the arrival of Wendy Padbury apparently caused some tension behind the scenes (with the cast initially cold-shouldering her because of the abovementioned situation regarding Watling's departure, but soon warming to her). Interestingly, the pattern regarding the taboo on sexualised relationships between companions mentioned in our “The Faceless Ones” article also holds true here: although Jamie and Zoe have a bit of sexualised banter early on (with Jamie's threatened spanking of Zoe being only the beginning of the production team's ongoing obsession with Zoe's attributes), this is scotched at the end where they cut from a scene of Leo putting his hand affectionately on Tanya’s to one of Jamie and Zoe formally shaking hands. Finally, Zoe incurs a rather nice theme regarding logic and emotion: Zoe is logical, and is disoriented by the illogical Doctor and Jamie, paralleling the way in which the logical Cybermen are very nearly defeated by the irrational Jarvis, whose madness had not been factored into their plans. This idea almost makes up for the problems of the story, and it is a shame that it is not brought out more strongly.
“The Wheel in Space” is thus a fairly average serial for the period, with a few bright sparks enlightening an otherwise fairly derivative and overlong story. However, it does introduce one of the best-loved Doctor-companion setups of the series.