The Wheel in Space
By Ann Worrall and Fiona Moore
An earlier version of this article appeared in Celestial Toyroom Issue 357
“The Wheel in Space” is memorable for several reasons. It introduces one of the best-loved Doctor-companion set ups. It espouses scientific ideas which range from the reasonable to the just plain barmy. And, in an attempt to delineate fears concerning the liberation of women, it creates what we can now recognise as castrating or emotionally compromised female characters, while venturing into the quagmire of sexual repression.
Although some still argue that Dr. Kit Pedler's scientific credentials give his work greater plausibility than those of other Doctor Who writers of the era, and despite his notations for the story indicating that he wanted life on the space station to be authentic as possible-- showing concerns about power allocations, water supplies and so forth-- the science generally makes no more sense than in any other Doctor Who story.
We are told, for instance, that a star goes nova in the Hercules Cluster, and this affects "meteorites" (sic) in the Perseus Cluster, sending them towards the Wheel. However, the first episode of this adventure was broadcast on 27 April 1968, whereas the Perseus Cluster wasn't detected until 1 March 1971, which suggests a confusion between a cluster (a mass of stars or galaxies that are gravitationally associated) and a constellation (an arbitrary configuration of stars as perceived from the vantage point of Earth). Equally a meteorite is the name given to debris that actually makes landfall, prior to which they are meteors when travelling through the atmosphere, and meteoroids when in space.
Likewise, far from each meteoroid, as Zoe Heriot (the Wheel's Astrophysicist!) claims, having "a mass of two hundred tons", most are the size of a grain of sand, with the largest being that of a marble. In reality what she is describing are asteroids, but this aside, the idea that a supernova event in the Hercules Cluster could impact on the trajectory of meteoroids/asteroids some five hundred million light-years away, demonstrates a total failure to grasp the enormous distances involved.
Try as you might, you'll also be pushed to work out exactly where in space the Wheel is positioned, and the issue is again one of scale.
Zoe states that the main function of the Wheel (W3) is as "a radio-visual relay for Earth, a half-way house for deep space ships". One scene earlier, Dr. Gemma Corwyn had told us that the station was situated "in deep space". The International Telecommunication Union defines "deep space" as starting at a distance of one million, three hundred thousand miles above the Earth's surface. NASA's Deep Space Network has variously used criteria that cover a range between five thousand miles and ten thousand miles from Earth.
In addition, Bill Duggan suggests that W3 is located near the Earth in that he considers the expanse travelled by his "floating seeds" from Venus to be enormous ("Can you imagine that? All those millions of miles away."). Zoe then gives the planet's minimum and maximum span from Earth ("twenty-four million, five hundred and sixty four thousand miles at perihelion and one hundred and sixty-one million, three hundred and fifty thousand miles at aphelion.").
We are also told that the Silver Carrier (a "supply ship" for Station Five) is "eighty-seven million miles off course" and that, according to the last recorded contact, it had "seven million miles to touch-down" which, considering its arrival at W3, leads to the assumption that ninety-four million miles represents the distance between these two installations. Consequently, if W3 is a "half-way house" to Earth, then there must only be five stations in all, with an equilateral distance of forty-seven million miles between each one. This would put the third station, at its closest reach, one hundred and forty-one million miles from Earth: therefore, somewhere beyond Mars.
All of which, if accurate, begs the question why Zoe gives the distances between Venus and Earth rather than those between Venus and the Wheel.
It is true that, if W3 is located within our own solar system, then the "Perseid meteorites" spoken of by the Cyber "Planner" could plausibly refer to the meteoroid debris field left by the Swift-Tuttle Comet, which the Earth has cause to pass through as it orbits the sun-- or indeed the second, as yet undiscovered, comet that's responsible for the Epsilon Perseids meteor showers. It is more likely this is down to a mistaken belief that these meteors actually originate in the "Perseus Cluster" (a mere two hundred and forty light-years away from Earth), whereas, in reality, they are only called "Perseids" because of their appearance in the same region of sky as the Perseus Constellation.
Another science gaffe occurs when Zoe asserts that the rocket ship couldn't have been piloted eighty-seven million miles as it only had "enough fuel for twenty million", which, as any high-school science student could point out, ignores the fact spaceships do not need thrust to maintain speed when moving through a vacuum.
The problem is that, outside of pulp fiction, few scientists are polymaths, and Pedler's work in electron microscopy, however admirable, does not necessarily make him a good astrophysicist. The fact that David Whitaker's Doctor Who scripts were also consistently poor when it came to scientific accuracy means its impossible to determine quite who was responsible for which daft idea, although story editor Derrick Sherwin should also take some of the blame.
While the physics are unworkable, the story's vision of a future world seems very pro-scientist. The alarming reveal that Zoe has been brainwashed aside, we are given the impression that the community is made up of good-hearted people who are keeping a fond eye on human welfare. Dr. Corwyn, the Medical Officer for the crew, is clued up on her understanding of human morale, allowing Duggan to keep plants for reasons of "good psychology", and station security and discipline appears lax. The impression we gain is of a scientific Utopia as envisioned by many in the 1950s (and frequently lampooned in the popular culture of the era, for instance the musical Li'l Abner). That said, as the serial unfolds, it soon becomes clear that this Utopian set-up has been created purely to demonstrate imagined fatal flaws in one that involves prominent roles for strong women.
It is interesting to speculate about Zoe's origins. We are given no information about her background other than Corwyn's statement that she was brainwashed by "the parapsychology unit at the city", which Zoe says "pumped [her head] full of facts and figures". It would seem that this process occurred when she was very young, or was the only socialisation to which such youngsters were exposed, because Corwyn also adds that some "never fully develop their human emotions." This cannot be true if they spent any length of time in a loving family prior to their training. In fact it isn't implau-sible that Zoe was cloned, as this would explain the contradictory information we are given in "The Mind Robber" and "The War Games" about her origins.
Zoe states in "The War Games" that she was "born in the twenty-first Century" and further, in "The Mind Robber", that she followed the adventures of the Karkus "in the strip section of the hourly telepress", a strip cartoon of the year 2000. If both statements are to be believed, this would make her at most twelve months old, even though, during "The Invasion" she is described as being "about nineteen or so".
The timeline (assuming it's not an inadvertent continuity error) would therefore, only be possible if she had been cloned and force grown in a tank, perhaps based on "Podsnap's Technique" for speeding up the maturation of unfertilised eggs, as coined by Aldous Huxley in his 1932 novel, Brave New World.
Jarvis Bennett, the Controller of the Wheel, and his deputy Dr. Corwyn, must, in some sense, be in loco parentis for this teenager. At first it appears that they represent an interesting gender reversal, subverting the stereotypes associated with male and female, but as the story develops it becomes clear that this is being used, consciously or unconsciously, to make explicit the fears that the emerging feminist movement had engendered at the time. It is as if each has been characterised so that they em-body all the negative consequences that many people thought would occur if people abandoned tradi-tional gender roles.
Bennett is a man with highly developed intuition, and little logic, while Corwyn is all logic with little emotional understanding. Although Bennett is in charge, his authority is regularly challenged by Corwyn, who distrusts his decisions because he is unable to provide any solidly logical arguments for them. An example of this is when he, quite correctly, intuits that "the Silver Carrier is a menace to the Wheel", and orders it to be blown up. Corwyn opposes this, calling Bennett aside. He repeats that he knows the ship is a danger and then protests, "Don't subject me to psychoanalysis. You think I'm having a whale of a time, don't you? All kids again. Bang, bang, blow up the balloon. You're wrong, you know." Her reply,"Am I?" makes it very clear that she does in fact, think he's being unreasonably 'gung-ho'.
Obviously feeling somewhat castrated by her remarks, Bennett begins to dismiss any facts that sup-port his earlier notion as "emotionally-based fantasy". Later he withdraws into an increasingly rigid mindset, externalising his own doubts about himself while refusing to address the problems they are facing, until eventually he breaks down completely.
Corwyn, by contrast, has chosen to sacrifice heart for brains. We can see this in her staggeringly in-sensitive reply to Zoe's assertion "I don't want to be thought of as a freak" as she worries about her inability to react emotionally to situations. Corwyn responds, "You seemed to have survived their brain-washing techniques remarkably well", which is fair enough, but she immediately follows this with an abrupt, "Now, about these calculations of yours", demonstrating a complete inability to empathise with the poor girl's confusion.
If we contrast this pairing with that of Leo Ryan, the Wheel's Communications Officer, and Tanya Lernov, Astrogater, Second Class, it's obvious that the latter is more gender-typical.
Ryan is an Australian and a bit blokey, flirting openly with Tanya as we can see from this exchange:
RYAN: If you get scared, I'll let you hold my hand. Okay?
TANYA: I'm serious.
RYAN: So am I.
At the same time, there is no sense that Tanya feels disrespected by him. She is the more instinctive of the two, but she doesn't lack reason. Like Bennett, her "nose" tells her there's something wrong with the rocket, but unlike him, she can admit this without fear of censure ("Can you pinpoint it?" Ryan asks her), and so is able to link her intuition to the series of unexplained events it triggers. Ryan, like Corwyn, seems to be a logical thinker, but he combines this with emotional warmth, valuing Tanya's different perspective on events. He challenges Zoe's robot-like persona, and criticises the Doctor for risking Zoe and Jamie's lives when he sends them to the rocket ship to collect a piece of specialised equipment during the "meteorite storm". His partnership with Tanya is a traditional one-- the man calling the shots and the woman supporting him-- and it is surely no accident that this is presented as the more healthy of the two relationships.
It is also possible to detect a covert attack on feminism in the characterisation of Duggan, who is con-sidered "a nut" because he "just likes flowers." It is difficult to believe that, had the character been fe-male, anything would have been considered odd. But to compound the 'rightness' of the crew's assessment, Duggan, despite holding the role of Defence Security Officer, secretly harbours a deadly Cybermat during a period of a high security alert (naming it "Billy"), believing it to be a space bug. Paradoxically, it's the crews' suspicions about Duggan that makes him keep this secret in the first place, and puts them all in danger.
Finally, of course, we have Zoe's reaction to the kilt-wearing Jamie, laughing at him because he is wearing "female garments". His response is typically 'macho': "Watch your lip or I'll put you across my knee and larrup you." We can only imagine the collective nods of salacious approval from some members of the viewing audience, thankful to see an opinionated young women put in her place. Even the Doctor seems to enjoy undermining Zoe's apparent genius, telling her that, "simple common sense works wonders" when she fails to realise that X-rays could reveal what lies within the lump of quick-set plastic they've discovered.
If Zoe is a clone, then it is not fanciful to assume that she represents a foreshadowing of the human race's potential future, where a rigidly stratified society, that follows the adventures of the masked, musclebound, Germanic Karkus, gradually turns itself into Cybermen. This comes through in the way Zoe talks about herself: "I was trained to believe logic and calculation would provide me with all the answers... I've been created for some false kind of existence where only known kinds of emergencies are catered for..." Like the Cybermen, her emotions have been curtailed, along with the concept that caring for others is crucial to wellbeing.
Correspondingly, Bennett and Corwyn are potentially future Cybermen too. In a society which believes that everything is known and the application of logic can tackle all problems, creating a kind of rational Utopia, then instincts come to be regarded as unreliable and dangerous. For Bennett, whose gut feelings are sound and will have been honed through experiences acquired over years of service, the situation must be intolerable. Corwyn, on the other hand, is only comfortable with facts, dismissing any instinctual responses she may feel.
But this 'Brave New World' has set a trap for itself. Suppression of emotion exacts an unforeseen price, forcing it to express itself in other ways. Bennett, although he knows that his hunches are right, is unable to explain why logically and so they are not validated (as the Doctor says, "Logic... merely enables one to be wrong with authority.") This leaves him with no option when faced with a crisis but to retreat, first into paranoia, then madness and finally suicide. Corwyn's distrust of her instincts leads to mistakes when she deals with unexpected events such as Jamie's sudden appearance, and indecision when the Doctor tells her she must take over: "Take over what? We're invaded. We have no contact with Earth, we're in the path of meteorites. Take over what? How do we fight without the laser?" Zoe meanwhile seems almost sociopathic in her lack of emotional understanding, or concern for others, as we can see in this exchange:
CORWYN: You'd better check your theory, Zoe.
ZOE: Oh, I'm right. Hercules 208 in Messier 13 is definitely on the blink. I can tell you what the radiation effect will be on Earth, if you like.
CORWYN: Not now.
ZOE: I suppose you're going to see the fun, whatever it is.
CORWYN: Somehow, I don't think this is fun.
And the response Zoe gives to Jamie's 'skirt', while she and Corwyn are, literally, wearing the trousers, shows that the training has encouraged a personal denial of her femininity: the result being that she immediately contemplates the sexual pleasure of being spanked by Jamie: "Oh, this is going to be fun. I shall learn a lot from you", rather than recognising it as a totally inappropriate way of addressing a young girl.
So how does this relate to the Cybermen? The Doctor states that "their entire bodies are mechanical and their brains have been treated neurosurgically to remove all human emotions, all sense of pain." This does not entirely fit with their depiction in the story, as there is nothing dispassionate about the violently sadistic way the Cyberman kills Bennett, which proposes, more likely, that their emotions have been restricted, but are leaking out in overtly destructive ways.
Moreover, they wear calipers (that resemble garters!) and arm braces, a steel helmet and a tight-fitting silver wetsuit. The ensemble, in design, is not a million miles from fetish bondage gear and highlights the fact that they have been neutered, reminding us that their reproduction is now a cold mechanical process.
In a website post for Psychology Today, Christopher Ryan, PhD, writes "if expression of sexuality is thwarted, the human psyche tends to grow twisted into grotesque, enraged perversions of desire. Unfortunately, the distorted rage resulting from sexual repression rarely takes the form of rebellion against the people and institutions behind the repression. Instead, the rage is generally directed at helpless victims".
The Doctor concludes that the Cybermen's actions are all part of some greater plan "to invade the Earth [and] plunder its mineral wealth", as they "wouldn't go to all this trouble just to knock out one small space Wheel." However he also describes the Cybermen as "ruthless, inhuman killers", which fits more with Ryan's belief that 'they're simply attacking us."
Otherwise, we are given no clue as to how the Cybermen would conquer the Earth, or why, if W3 is the midway point in a line of stations, they would attack there rather than Station One, which would be much nearer to Earth, especially if, as the Doctor surmises, the Cybermen's mother ship "holds your invasion fleet, and the smaller ships can only enter the Earth's atmosphere by homing in on a radio beam." Though why this would necessitate a raid on any of the stations is a mystery, as, to "home in on a [transmission] beam" implies that each Cybership contains its own receiver!
If, however, the Cybermen, in an echo of Zoe's society, have set a trap for themselves through their pursuit of a logical scientific Utopia, then their motivation could well be to slake their inner rage on "helpless victims". In which case, their plan makes perfect sense.
In this alternative scenario, the Cybermen hijack the Silver Carrier in order to infiltrate Station Five-- after all, there would be less suspicion over a supply ship arriving late, than one that goes missing for nine weeks only to turn up eighty-seven million miles off course. Then, having massacred the crew of Station Five, they move on with the same intent, to Station Four. With Station Three, their tactics change, as the Cyber-hypnotised humans pilots of the Silver Carrier are now, for some reason, all dead, making direct communication with the Wheel impossible.
The Doctor believes the Cybermen to be logical and rational, and sketches out a reason for their ac-tions based on this conceit. And indeed, they appear to confirm his interpretation, telling him, "You know our ways" as he puts to them a series of leading questions.
Nevertheless, the Cybermen may not be fully conscious of their own motivations, and only accept the Doctor's theory because acknowledging the reality would force them to confront the true horror of their existence.
"The Wheel in Space" is very much a product of its time in its belief that men and women have distinct and predominant mental traits, which, if denied, create cold, castrating, unnatural females who push overly intuitive men into psychological breakdown. Similar themes permeated other Doctor Who stories during this period. In "The Seeds of Death", the T-Mat transport system, presided over by the cold, precise and efficient technical coordinator, Miss Kelly, has consigned rockets to a museum, stifled all space exploration, and laid open the Earth to invasion by Martian seed pods; while the, thankfully unmade, script "Prison in Space", sees the Tardis land on a planet where men are ruled over by women, extended lifespans curtail procreation, and Jamie breaks through Zoe's "conditioning" by finally making good on his threat and spanking her bottom.
The subtext in "The Wheel in Space" may be a trifle more subtle, but its argument is the same, although on this occasion it has been fatally undermined by Kit Pedler and David Whitaker's reliance on poor science and the resulting spurious logic. It is, therefore, ironic that in doing so the writers have also undermined their assumption that such concepts are solely a male preserve.