Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Doctor Who Story 043: The Wheel In Space


Space Wheel Keep On Turning...

The Wheel in Space is yet another incomplete Second Doctor story, and I'm beginning to wonder if there is a pattern.  The Second Doctor has had a long spate of six-part stories (The Faceless Ones, The Abominable Snowmen, The Ice Warriors, The Enemy of the World, The Web of Fear, Fury From the Deep, and now The Wheel in Space), and all have missing episodes save for Fury From the Deep which has none.   Only The Evil of the Daleks was longer (at seven episodes), but with the possible exceptions of The Ice Warriors and The Enemy of the World it always seems the stories were needlessly stretched out.  The Wheel in Space appears to similarly be excessively long for the story its telling (even if it brings back the Cybermen), but it has some major positives: some extraordinary special effects and the introduction to a new Companion.

The Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and his Companion Jamie (Frazer Hines) are marooned on a mysterious spaceship, where they are attacked (which causes the Doctor to get a concussion) but they manage to get rescued by Space Station W3 (the titular Wheel In Space).  Also coming, unbeknownst to anyone, are the Cybermats.  This is all part of an invasion plan by the Cybermen.  Their goal: to take the wheel in space and use its direct radio link to the Earth as a beacon for their invasion fleet.  The Doctor, temporarily incapacitated, gets a little help from one of the wheel's crew, a young super-genius named Zoe Hariot (Wendy Padbury). 

The Cybermen soon start entering the wheel, helped by crew that they've hypnotized into submission.  Eventually the Doctor manages to not only defeat the Cybermen but destroy the invading fleet.  Zoe, ever curious, decides to stow away on the now-repaired TARDIS, where she is introduced to the dangers that may await her...starting with the Daleks.

In a curious turn of events, starting from the next story (The Dominators) right up to Troughton's farewell story The War Games, Zoe never DID meet the Daleks, but more on that later.

The Wheel In Space (or Episodes Three and Six which are currently the only ones known to exist) have the plus of some of the best visual effects Doctor Who had attempted so far.  Even now, a good forty-four years later, they still hold up (especially when one considers when they were made).   The arrival and growth of the Cybermen in the opening of Episode Three is quite remarkable in its technical prowess.  Yes, it can look like it's an expanding balloon but it still works and is photographed beautifully.

The visuals within The Wheel in Space are both impressive and highly ambitious.  Take Episode Six as a prime example of just what the Who team was attempting.  In the opening, Zoe and Jamie are 'out in space' when they are besieged by a storm of meteors.  Both the actual meteors as well as the lasers firing on the whole hold up and I think would have looked almost innovative in 1968.  Further, the image of a group of Cybermen walking in space towards the wheel is rendered beautifully (even if the Cybermen themselves are walking a bit funny).

Major credit to the success of The Wheel In Space goes to effects designer Bill King and his company Trading Post's excellent visual effects work.  Another part of the story's success is due to director Tristan De Vere Cole (you couldn't come up with such a name), who kept things rolling quite well (at least judging from the two surviving episodes).  Whether the overall pace of The Wheel in Space could have been maintained over a six-episode story is hard to say.

Here is where I would say that maybe this should have been a four or five-part story.  The business about potential saboteurs (courtesy of a "back to Earth" movement) appears thrown in just to give an obvious red herring.  The actual invasion by the Cybermen and their quick defeat appears almost anti-climatic, as if more time had to be spent with Space Wheel Controller Jarvis' (Michael Turner) wild ravings or the romance between Tanya Lernov (Clare Jenkins) and Leo Ryan (Eric Flynn) than in the menace the Cybermen were posing.

Side note: the character of Leo Ryan has the unfortunate luck of having the same name as the late Congressman Leo Ryan, who was murdered by orders of Jim Jones before he ordered the Jonestown massacre (which curiously occurred ten years after The Wheel in Space). 

If there was one bad effect, it was in Episode Six, when Jamie and Zoe are 'looking' at the body of Gemma Corwyn (Anne Ridler), the Wheel's resident physician (curiously, Doctor Who and the BBC weren't as hung up on the idea of a female doctor as Star Trek and NBC, when the latter was forced to change Majel Barrett's character from Dr. Chapel to Nurse Chapel between pilots for that iconic series).  It's obvious they are not looking at anything; instead, a photograph of Ridler is flashed before us, and it's so clearly a photograph that it almost becomes laughable.

Also laughable is when in the same episode the Doctor is suppose to be able to 'see' via a two-way monitor the crew.  The Doctor says he sees Jamie, but then asks whether Zoe is all right.  Judging by what's on screen, it's a thoroughly ridiculous question because Zoe is standing right next to Jamie and thus would clearly be visible...if the Doctor were actually able to see.  This effect is also obvious Troughton talking to a camera and not being able to see anything.

In terms of performance, I would say Turner's turn as Jarvis is a little hysterical and over-the-top.  Granted, this could have been how the character was suppose to be but one still thinks it's a bit funny.  He, however, is about the only weak point in The Wheel in Space, given how all the other actors handled themselves well.

Special note should be taken over Padbury, who makes Zoe both maddening in her superior mind but also charming in her innocence.  She truly doesn't understand why telling someone that they were all probably going to be killed by meteors is bad...she is right, after all.  Zoe is not arrogant but honest and direct without any tact or understanding that even if she speaks the truth, it has to be measured by sense.

Her superior intelligence with a mix of a lack of social grace does also give The Doctor a chance for one of his best lines.  When Zoe tells him that a certain outcome has to be the right one because it's pure logic, he retorts,

Logic, my dear Zoe, merely allows one to be wrong with authority.

Few lines are as good as that, and with Troughton to deliver it, it comes up as one of the Doctor's great retorts.  David Whitaker's screenplay (from an idea by Kit Pedler as the credits indicate, the latter creating the outline for The Wheel in Space and co-creator with Gerry Davis of the Cybermen) was great in tailoring little bits like this into the story.  However, I still think the story was a bit too long, and one imagines a certain drag could set in. 

Cybermen stories are a bit hit-and-miss.  Some, such as The Moonbase, don't quite hold up.  Others, like The Tomb of the Cybermen, are among not just the best Second Doctor or Cybermen stories but among the greatest Doctor Who stories period.  The Wheel In Space won't achieve the status of Tomb of the Cybermen, but thanks to some still-great special effects, it will avoid the fate of The Moonbase as a low-ranking story.

In short, this Wheel is a good deal. 


Next Story: The Dominators

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