“The Wheel in Space” is a decent episode; it’s not great, but it’s not terrible either. There’s quite a few things wrong with it, but it does a few things perfectly. It was written by David Whitaker, who wrote some great episodes for both Hartnell and Troughton (and one for Pertwee, but we’re not there yet). This, however, is Whitaker’s only story featuring the Cybermen (he adapted it from a story by their creator, Kit Pedler), and it’s not one of his best efforts. Considering that Whitaker wrote two of my favorite Troughton stories, “The Power of the Daleks” and “The Enemy of the World” perhaps I was hoping for too much.
After the Doctor and Jamie say goodbye to Victoria, the TARDIS materializes on a rocket drifting through space. The TARDIS’s fluid link is malfunctioning, and vaporizing mercury forces them to leave the TARDIS; the Doctor grabs a small rod, the vector generator, on his way out. Much like in “The Daleks” the TARDIS need mercury before she can continue on her way.
Jamie and the Doctor carry the entire first episode, as it is just them and a non-speaking robot. They do not interact with the crew of the wheel until they are rescued from the rocket in the second episode. Well, the Doctor doesn’t interact with them in episode 2, since Patrick Troughton was on vacation, but Jamie does. The commander of the wheel is Jarvis, a man who seems incredibly ill-suited to running a space station. He can’t accept that there are unknown elements to life, things that might require him to go beyond his training. He is exactly the wrong kind of man to run a space station, especially one that is part of an elaborate plan by the Cybermen to take over the earth and exploit its mineral wealth. One of the most interesting parts of the story was watching how he slipped further and further into denial as the evidence for a Cyberman attack mounted. He even seized on the idea of Jamie and the Doctor being saboteurs/terrorists early in the story since that was the only possibility he could understand; I wished more had been made of the storyline of Jamie essentially becoming a saboteur to stop the wheel crew from destroying the TARDIS. Of course the story had to move on to focus on the Cybermen and their evil plot…
The story starts out well. I enjoy the chemistry between the Doctor and Jamie, so I didn’t mind the first episode containing just the two of them, and it ends with a nice cliffhanger as the wheel crew are about to blow up the rocket. The rest of the story basically held my interest, but it did drag on a bit too long for me; there was a lot of padding in the story that slowed it down.
The main reason that I felt the story was slow-moving was that I didn’t really care about the people on the wheel. It felt like each crew member was assigned a trait or two and that was it. Basically, until I learned their names this is how I thought of them: there was condescending, chauvinistic guy (Leo), alert but ignored Russian woman (Tanya), woman who clearly should be in charge of the wheel (Gemma), plant-loving guy (Bill), and feisty Irish guy (Flannigan). Their characters weren’t developed beyond that. I know this is true of other stories as well, but a good episode at least introduces some interesting dynamics or conflicts between the supporting cast. Except for Jarvis’ mental collapse, there wasn’t much going on with the crew besides simply doing their jobs. This was disappointing since Whitaker had done a great job at keeping the supporting cast interesting in stories like “The Crusades,” “The Power [and ‘The Evil’] of the Daleks,” and “The Enemy of the World.”
My biggest problem with an individual chaacter was with the character of Leo. He was so chauvinistic and condescending that I kept hoping he would get killed by the Cybermen. When the women were against blowing up the rocket FOR NO GOOD REASON, without making sure there was no one on board, he basically said they were being a stick-in-the-mud. When Tanya cautioned him, he said, “if you get scared, I’ll let you hold my hand.” How condescending is that? And did his attitude towards them change when they were proved right time and time again? No. I know “The Wheel in Space” was written in the 1960’s, but come on.
Of course Leo was not the only character having problems with women in this episode. Jamie begins the story missing Victoria and spends the rest of it sparring with Zoe. I did like the touch of having Jamie mention Victoria several times in the first episode, since they were very close. He and Zoe, however, get off on the wrong foot when Zoe basically says that he is wearing female clothing. He then threatens to spank her (really, Jamie, you should know better by now) and they spend the rest of the story trying to one-up the other.
Of course, Zoe’s introduction as a companion is what makes this episode notable and is the best thing about it. I have to admit that watching this episode gave me a great deal more insight into and appreciation of Zoe’s character. It was easy to see why she ended up trying to sneak aboard the Doctor’s TARDIS. She is a “librarian” on the wheel. She is a parapsychologist and essentially seems to be used as a walking computer; she provides information and does difficult calculations in her head. She never seems to interact with the others in a human way. Leo even calls her a robot and says she’s “all brain and no heart.” After getting into a debate with the Doctor about pure logic being the best solution for everything (the Doctor argues for common sense and says, “logic merely enables one to be wrong with authority”), she begins to question her role on the wheel. Her training has tried to eliminate emotional reactions, but Zoe realizes that she wants to experience emotions as well. All this provides her with a clear motivation for wanting new experiences with the Doctor and Jamie.
What I haven’t spent much time on is the actual plot. As usual, the plan of the Cybermen is rather convoluted. Their speech was also still a bit difficult to understand; there were a few times I had to play a scene multiple times and I’m still not sure I understood everything that the cybermen said.
As far as I could tell, their plan was to use the rocket to get near the wheel and send the cybermats aboard (I have to admit that I’m not entirely sure how they got on the ship, but I’m not going to dwell on that). The cybermats would then corrode the Bernalium needed to run the x-ray laser. The cybermen had also managed to make a star go nova, ensuring that the wheel crew would need to use the laser to protect themselves from meteors; therefore, they would have to send crew members to the rocket to look for extra Bernalium. This allowed the cybermen to control the mind of the men and sneak aboard in the box containing the Bernalium. Once they were on board, they disabled the transmitting portion of the radio and let the crew protect the wheel from the meteors using the laser. After this they were going to kill the crew and use the radio signal transmitted to the wheel from earth to enter earth’s atmosphere and invade the planet.
Overall, however, “The Wheel in Space” is not a bad episode. As I mentioned, it does a good job of introducing the viewer to Zoe, which is its main purpose. My main complaint would be that Troughton’s Doctor just felt a bit off for me in this one. Perhaps if I could actually see more of the episodes I would feel differently, but he just felt rather subdued in this one. At times, I saw shades of the first Doctor in him; he seemed to spend most of the episode sitting on the sidelines, out of the main action. I also wasn’t thrilled with how callously he seemed to send Jamie out into space to return to the rocket. For all the people complaining about Capaldi’s Doctor’s unfeeling nature, all the Doctors have always been willing to make sacrifices. The Doctor here states that it is worth risking the lives of Jamie and Zoe to save the lives of many. In this case, unfortunately, the scene plays as if the Doctor is avoiding going himself which doesn’t match with the second Doctor’s personality. The story felt a bit like it was leftover from Hartnell’s time on the show, which doesn’t make it a bad episode, just a poor fit for the Troughton era.