Doctor Who Reviews: The Wheel In Space

Say you’ve just had a hard day at work. You got in late because the bus was running late for the umpteenth time. Your boss collared you about time-keeping. Your flask of juice leaked in your bag. Your computer went into meltdown. And then to cap it all, the bus was late again in the evening. All in a day’s work.

Still, at least you have a home to go to in order to get away from all the stress. So spare a thought for poor old Zoe Heriot, a girl that’s paying her dues by working on a Space Wheel. It’s not as if she can escape anywhere after a hard day’s slog - unless she has a handy space taxi at her disposal, and even then it’s probably a hell of a commute. Good thing that help is at hand when two time travelling oddballs get embroiled in a deadly scheme to take over the Wheel.

So it’s the last story of the successful Season Five, and you’ll never guess - it’s another Base-Under-Siege/Monster-Of-The-Week extravaganza. As a bookend to the opening story, the Cybermen are back with a vengeance in a bid to take over the Wheel - which they plan to use as a beacon for an invasion of Earth.

The Wheel In Space tends to get overlooked because there are so many other classics jostling for attention in what’s turned out to be one of the best seasons in Doctor Who. It’s a pity, since the claustrophobic environment of the Wheel allows for a great use of the Base Under Siege formula. The forbidding corridors. The sterile atmosphere. Cybermen lurking in the shadows. All of these combine to form a really forbidding tale which is again designed to scare the bejesus out of kids.

For the most part, it works really well. Most of the base crew come to memorably sticky ends. The Cybermen now have the ability to turn their luckless victims into photographic negatives - presumably, they’ve gone to the same weaponry shop as the Daleks. Many of the crew bite the bullet in sweaty palm agony. Jarvis Bennett. Gemma Corwyn. Chang. Even poor old Bill Duggan, one of the few sympathetic characters, is taken over by the Cybermen and then shot into fiery oblivion after he tries to hijack the Wheel. His piercing screams were enough to warrant his death scene getting cut by the Australian censors, and indeed, many of the crew die far more convincingly than in earlier stories.

The first episode neatly sets the scene in eerie fashion, and is technically a two-hander between The Doctor and Jamie, who are still lamenting the loss of Victoria. Landing on the Silver Carrier ship, they find that they are apparently all alone - the first episode makes the most of this eerie desolation, and stands as a good template for Part One of The Ark In Space. Having found a handy food machine, The Doctor and Jamie are interrupted by a lurking Servo Robot (presumably a future incarnation of Jamie Oliver warning about the dangers of processed food parcels). The tension is further heightened by the Silver Carrier threatened by the Wheel’s deadly laser beam. All told, it’s a great little episode, carried well by both Troughton and Hines, who have their characters down to a fine art.

Tristan De Vere Cole makes the most of the palpably tense script, and his arty, unusual direction gives a real jolt to proceedings. He uses interesting cross fades, distorted camera angles (such as the slow zoom-in into Rudkin’s screaming mouth) and cool video effects such as when the Cybermen hatch out of their shells. The story also marks the first use of a Radiophonic Workshop score, and this too adds greatly to the tension. The ominous Cyberman theme is the most evocative of these and pre-empts the Jaws theme in telling the viewer at home that something wicked this way comes… Altogether, The Wheel In Space sums up the whole season’s ethos of claustrophobic monster invasions with considerable panache.

I guess that part of the problem with The Wheel In Space is the over-complicated plan that the Cybermen devise to invade the Wheel. Rather than just plump for a full-on attack, they send over Cybermats to the Wheel to eat vital Bernalium supplies which leaves the Wheel laser defenceless against a collision course of meteorites - again, the work of... the Cybermen! This is taking the Cybermen’s plan to ridiculous Wile E Coyote limits. Surprisingly, the Cybermen don’t transport a flying anvil to fall on any of the character’s heads.

While the plot’s well worked out, it seems overly fussy and what’s more, it’s sometimes confusing to follow. Maybe a straight-ahead Cyberman invasion would have been boring by comparison, but in the end, their brilliant scheme comes across as laughable.

The other big problem with The Wheel In Space is its characters. This is a surprise, since David Whitaker is normally an expert on writing solid, believable characters. What we get though are a group of annoying stock clichés, and what’s worse, some of them are derived from iffy racial stereotypes. Flannigan the Irishman is responsible for some of the most hackneyed dialogue in the series. Enrico Casali’s accent is decidedly iffy. Actually, there are barely any likeable characters on board the Wheel. So you can understand why Zoe is desperate to stow away in the TARDIS - consider the many rotten work colleagues that she has to put up with - so in order of annoyance, let‘s take a look…

5. The Do-Nothing Time Waster - Chang

What exactly is Chang’s function in The Wheel In Space? He gets to say a couple of lines and then dies in typically OTT fashion. Chang is probably the sort of slacker that spends about half an hour a day doing work and the rest of the time down the Wheel pub. Furthermore, his stereotypical “Ah, so!” voice is cringe-inducing.

4. The Crybaby - Kemel Rudkin

Who are you going to turn to when there’s a crisis on board the Wheel? Well not Kemel Rudkin. Now let’s face it, the Cybermats aren’t exactly the most terrifying beasts in the world. They look like the sort of prototype radio controlled toy that a toddler gets for his second birthday. They also move with the same speed as a squirrel pulling a juggernaut with its teeth. And yet when confronted with these wee contraptions, Rudkin reacts as though he’s just received an astronomically high tax bill while being dangled upside down 15,000 feet in the air over a pit of hungry crocodiles. All Rudkin has to do is jump over the Cybermats and he’s laughing. Instead, the joke’s on him, as millions chortle with his laughter at his OTT facial expressions, hammy acting and girly shriek.

3. The Doe-Eyed Lovebird - Tanya Lernov

Sounding like a cut-price Nadia Popov from Rentaghost, Tanya Lernov again doesn’t seem to do any work. Instead, she spends her time making doe eyes at smarmy imbecile Leo Ryan, and indulging in the most incompetent flirting this side of Take Me Out. “I vood hate it if you didn't have a sense of ooomaaa,” she purrs to Ryan, when she should really be getting on with solving the Cyberman crisis. I don’t know - maybe there’s too much of the “Sexual Air Supply” that The Doctor mentions fizzing about.

Tanya is also prone to asking some truly bizarre questions for no good reason. “Deed I ever tell you about my nozzz?” she pipes up at one point. Why exactly? Perhaps it’s a magic nose that can detect any scent from a million miles away. Or maybe it’s a fake nose that once belonged to Barry Manilow, now worth millions on Cyber E-Bay.

2. The Stressed-Out Boss - Jarvis Bennett

Huh, just what you need in a stressful situation. A boss with all the problem-solving skills of David Brent. Jarvis Cock-Up, with a facial cross between Ming The Merciless and a pyramid, clomps about huffing and puffing about how there are no aliens on board. For sheer Bury-Your-Head-In-The-Sand tactics, Jarvis must surely win the award. In terms of strong, confident leadership, he gets the Wooden Spoon. After his stressed blundering leads to his confidante Gemma’s death, Jarvis goes totally over the edge and plans to attack a Cyberman with his bare hands. Not only is Jarvis strangled and thrown across a room, he’s also fried by the Cyberman’s brand spanking new laser beam. A stark warning to all bosses who don’t have the chops to get a grip.

1. Mr Smug - Leo Ryan

Oh, come on. There’s always one in the office. The one that the ladies swoon over. The one who inexplicably drives around in flash cars. The one who slags off everyone off in the building, while standing around admiring his reflection in the mirror. Well, there’s one on board the Wheel and he’s a complete tool.

Say hi to Leo Ryan, he of the super-gelled quiff and plastic head. Ryan divides his time between eyeing up Tanya and criticising everyone else in earshot. He starts on at Zoe for apparently having no feelings. He starts on at Enrico who’s grinning inanely at his weary flirting. He starts on at The Doctor for apparently sending Jamie and Zoe to their deaths. And yet, he seems incapable of making any sound decision himself. Still, he becomes acting controller by the end of the story, which proves that even in the future, smarmy posturing will get you everywhere.

So no wonder Zoe wants to see the universe with The Doctor and Jamie. Actually, Zoe is already one of the all-time great companions, and is always played with infectious gusto by Wendy Padbury. It’s a different dynamic with Jamie. With Victoria, Jamie was the protective big brother. With Zoe, the two initially spark off each other like squabbling siblings, but they gradually settle into a friendship that’s one of equals. The line-up of The Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe is actually one of my all-time favourites, and it’s fantastic that so many of their adventures survive.

It may have its flaws but The Wheel In Space still makes for an exciting conclusion to Season Five. Try and ignore the ropey characters and the odd ropey effect (the flying Cyberman cardboard cut-outs at the end), and enjoy a well-crafted, taut story of claustrophobia, Cyberman-style.

* Have a Wheel-y good time reading my ebook guides on the 3rd & 4th Doctors!