The Doctor and Jamie are forced to evacuate the TARDIS after an explosion of the mercury fluid link. Sound familiar?
They land in a deserted spaceship whose single occupant is the Servo-Robot, which menaces the intruders and manages to launch a group of mysterious white pods into space before Jamie destroys it.
Finally rescued by the crew of the titular Wheel, the Doctor and Jamie uncover a Cyberman plot to take over the Earth…
The Wheel in Space is hard to love. Reconstructions can be difficult to watch at the best of times, but this serial is sluggishly paced and a hugely derivative space-station under siege concept.
We’ve just come through five other serials riffing on this same plot in a run broken only by the newly rediscovered The Enemy of the World (woo!).
It is tempting to try and view it as the main ‘Cybermen in space’ story, which set a trend they have always been closely associated with ever since. Indeed, alongside The Moonbase, it reinforced the idea of this being a ‘traditional’ form for the Cyberman story that would be heavily repeated in fan productions such as The Sword of Orion.
But the key there is The Moonbase. Not only is the story a heavy repetition in the context of Season 5, large chunks of it are widely regarded as being a mere re-run of that serial.
The presence of the Cybermen is relatively minimal here. They don’t really appear until halfway through, and then they are sidelined as a kind of background menace for the bulk of the remaining episodes.
Question: So what does Wheel have going for it?
Answer: David Whitaker.
Philip Sandifer has already blogged at length about how odd the juxtaposition of Whitaker working from a Kit Pedler story is here – and he’s absolutely right.
Kit Pedler’s previous stories – and even the very concept of the Cybermen – are hard SF, where Whitaker’s approach has always been alchemical. The contradiction at the heart of this story is signalled straight away with the fluid link reference before the landing on an unpopulated space ship.
The exploratory structure of this first episode has a precedent in The Web Planet, but the strange atmosphere and general sense of menace wouldn’t be matched until the much more surreal The Mind Robber a year later.
Whitaker’s main contribution is the total weirdness of the Cybermen, which is at odds with any other version of them, but makes them much creepier than they ever have been before or since.
Think of the Cybermen pods, the individual warriors hatching out of eggs, the strange and completely inhuman (but not completely mechanical) Cyberplanner – and most of all, the completely magical scenes of Cybermen flouncing (and I mean flouncing, there really is no other word for it) through space to attack the Wheel in episode 6.
This weirdness works in combination with the holding back of them as a monstrous presence, not despite it.
It’s tempting to say that the right episode (6) is in the archives and the rest don’t really matter. Certainly, both surviving episodes feature most of the Cybermen scenes. And it doesn’t seem like episode 3 is essential – 6 is the one with the truly eerie monster moments.
But this belies the fact that the sinister atmosphere older fans seem to remember this serial for came not from their direct presence, but the sustained menace. The rest of the serial really needs to be seen to be at its most effective – and we can’t see it (boo!).
The cliché that the monstrous is at its most effective when it is hidden is a well-worn one – but it applies effectively here.
However, the other part of that cliché is that the monstrous is supposed to reveal something of ourselves. And this is the crowning achievement of The Wheel in Space – more so than any other Season 5 monster yarn.
New companion Zoe is the most interesting character in this story – and again, she will never be put to better use than here. She is described as being brainwashed and programmed into her function as a human computer. Sound familiar?
The threat the Cybermen represent in this story is the acceleration of this kind of imagined future into something that will return to literally wipe out the planet if our humanity is not remembered. Thankfully, Zoe recognises the vitality of her humanity and the characters the Cybermen programme to act against the other humans also break out of their conditioning. This is an optimistic message at the heart of a relatively conservative and pessimistic imagined future of where computers will take the species.
Set design is also wonderful – certainly a step up from The Moonbase. I’ve never particularly seen the appeal of the heavy repetition of base-under-siege monster stories from Season 5, but I think that might not be the point. The production team seem to be getting better and better at creating strange environments – and the cold space station ambience hasn’t been done to better effect in any of the ’60s stories. The same could be said of the newly discovered The Web of Fear (woo!), which also has a wonderfully creepy atmosphere, even if the plots have too much in common.
In a way, all of these serials hark back to the very first Dalek story – although they are obviously not as groundbreaking. The storylines can be seen as a genre coat hanger for the creation of a completely alien audio-visual space.
The stock sound (Brian Hodgson for the Radiophonic Workshop) is excellently chosen, especially when the Cybermen are walking through space. It creates an atmosphere of fairy tale-like impossibility in space that the Peter Davison serial Enlightenment has such a deservedly strong reputation for achieving.
The Wheel in Space is not without its many flaws – but its move toward a subversion of the concept of the Cybermen (just two years after their first screen appearance), its close integration of character, environment and concept and its refusal to associate race with evil (a la the much more problematic Tomb) mean that for me, it stands head and shoulders above the previous Troughton Cybermen serials and certainly merits a revised reputation.
Embrace the eerie and magical, accept the pseudo-science used to contextualise the off-key images of the Cybermen, and you’ll find a lot to love.