Season Five of Doctor Who is obviously known as being a series of base-under-siege stories, with people trapped somewhere while the monsters try to get in. This doesn’t apply to every story, and in fact the series starts with a story that doesn’t really fit the mould. The one writer who really was a poor fit for this kind of approach was David Whitaker, who contributed The Enemy of the World, which is not a base-under-siege, and The Wheel in Space, which is a base-under-siege, but a decidedly odd approach to the genre.
Whitaker had been writing for Doctor Who since the very start, and here he does something quite bizarre: takes a Troughton base-under-siege and combines it with the world-building of a Hartnell story. It’s a reasonable way to stretch a story out to six episodes, but it can be frustrating, particularly with the Cybermen held back for so much of the story. Instead we get the Servo Robot, which is cute but isn’t going to send chills down the spine, and the Doctor and Jamie kept off the Wheel for the first episode.
Before all that, Whitaker has some fun with the TARDIS, which tries to tell the Doctor to go somewhere nicer by showing him a slide show of holiday destinations, and then the Doctor does something wrong by disengaging the Time Vector Generator, causing the console room to shrink. It’s very much a Hartnell era approach, trapping the Doctor within the adventure so he can’t just run away, but since The Moonbase in particular the Doctor is on a crusade to fight the monsters, so this is a bizarre throwback. The TARDIS is back to being the dangerous ship it was during the first season, and a place where travel takes ages. Jamie has time to go to sleep in a chair, but then the series always does make a big thing about how skilled he is at eating and sleeping. Once the Doctor has removed the Time Vector Generator, it serves as a sort of magic wand, before the sonic screwdriver evolved to perform that function, so Whitaker is both ahead of the game and behind the times for this story.
When the two separate plot strands finally come together and the Doctor and Jamie get to the Wheel, they encounter yet another Hobson/Robson, Jarvis Bobson. OK, that should be his name, but it’s Bennett. He is a textbook Hobson/Robson though, jumping to all the wrong conclusions straight away. Despite the fact that the Doctor is unconscious, Jamie has not been left alone, and the problems all started before they arrived, Jarvis Bobson thinks they are the source of all his problems. Perhaps having to look at all those lava lamps every day is messing with his mind.
Then we get the introduction of Zoe, destined to be the new companion, and within minutes she’s instantly the best of the best. How long is it since we had a female companion who was as capable and brilliant as Zoe? Well, we haven’t had one of those since… ever. I have mentioned before how the best kind of companion tends to be a human with no particular skills who is made brilliant by travelling with the Doctor. Zoe is already brilliant, but the genius of her character is that she worries about being “all brain and no heart”, so she knows little beyond her narrow, logical life and still has a lot to learn. The Doctor doesn’t need to teach her to think, but she needs to learn to feel. And luckily for Zoe, Jamie is on the scene to help teach her about that, and also engage in a bit of innuendo for probably the first time in Zoe’s life:
JAMIE: Just you watch your lip or I’ll put you across my knee and larrup you.
ZOE: Oh, this is going to be fun. I shall learn a lot from you.
The Doctor, meanwhile, presumably has his mind on his new young potential companion, when he tells Leo Ryan to “switch over to sexual air supply”. But there is an important point to Zoe’s introduction in The Wheel in Space. We are still following a very coherent story arc with the Cybermen that goes right back to their introduction, for the viewers who have been paying attention. I’m not going to rule out that this all happens by accident, in fact it probably does, but here’s the story so far:
The First Doctor met the Cybermen for the first time, and he died. The Second Doctor met the Cybermen and the significance of that event prompted him to change his life, and make his travelling about fighting the monsters. The next time he met the Cybermen he was clearly at a stage where he didn’t know how to do that, engineering an encounter that didn’t need to happen, resulting in several deaths. In Tomb, the logic of the Cybermen was contrasted with the logic of Klieg, used as something to preach when what he was really after was power. In Wheel, the Doctor has learnt how to fight the monsters when he encounters the Cybermen for the fourth time, but the threat still feels terribly dangerous. We are reminded about their origins, that their “entire bodies are mechanical and their brains are being treated neuro-surgically to remove all human emotions”, and that is contrasted with Zoe. Unlike the Cybermen, she is able to recognise the flaw in a life lived logically, and her willingness to change marks her out as a suitable companion.
The Cybermen are at their very best when there are just one or two of them creeping around, maybe just around that next corner… As per The Moonbase, we have to have the obligatory invading army scene, but these are the bits that Doctor Who generally struggles with. Here we have three Cybermen mirrored to look like six, which is obviously not going to work because their movements are therefore identical, and they are also mismatched Cybermen, with full jumpsuits rather than the new jacket-with-pants-over-trousers model, and their chest units upside down.
So when they are skulking around, coming up with crazy plans that somehow come to fruition (logic, but it only gets them so far) the Cybermen are creepy as ever, but nobody has quite worked out how to make the Cybermen effective as an invading army. Somebody should really do something about that… RP
The view from across the pond:
I get it: Cybermen see Earth as a planet ripe for the picking. We now have some 7 billion people on this planet now, which would make for a heck of a Cyber-species! Story-wise, it makes sense when you think about it. Mondas was Earth’s twin planet which went spiraling out into the cosmos. When it came back, Mondasians were cybernetic and their planet was dying. They see their former sister planet doing well and try to sap the energy but, pop goes the planet. So, those surviving, now-upgraded Cybermen head to the moon, intent on draining power and maybe increasing their ranks before heading to Earth to do a full scale conversion. Failing that, they go to sleep on Telos. They are woken up by some Mr. Spock devotees, the Brotherhood of Logicians, but get locked in their bedrooms when they Doctor leaves. Now, probably perturbed and feeling a bit jilted (as Cybernetic beings probably shouldn’t) they head for a smaller target, the Wheel in Space, to use as a relay point to bring a full scale invasion to earth. Well thought out!
Roger pointed out to me that I may have been unfair in my assessment of the early Cybermen as being emotional in my review of The Moonbase. I was tempted to agree but for their distinctly stylish showmanship. By The Wheel in Space I feel even more justified. For one, they have this new design featuring their melancholy teardrop. Who says crying is an emotionless act? You wouldn’t think they’d be big on better looking design if they didn’t have emotion. Then, their creativity is put to the test when they hide on the Silver Carrier. “Captain, there’s a ship in front of us; it’s got the name stenciled on the side: Great Big Hulking Behemoths Intent on Destruction. Wow, that’s some title. I wonder if they’ll be nice?”
That said, The Wheel in Space is actually a good story; I just have way too much fun poking holes in silly ideas. In fairness, titles are not a strong suit of Doctor Who writers, be it episodic or spaceship… But Wheel starts us with a mystery from the outset and keeps it going through a 6 part adventure. We have our first use of the Doctor’s alias, John Smith (albeit supplied by Jamie) and we are introduced to Zoe. Here’s a future incumbent to the Brotherhood of Logicians! I’m certain in her wardrobe was an “I grok Spock” pin! Thing is, Zoe is a great character and Wendy Padbury was utterly adorable. Her logic is not like Kleig’s; hers actually made sense. I wish she and Kleig could have a conversation, it would be like Spock and McCoy. She’d be providing actual logic to why the Cybermen wouldn’t help and Kleig would be all “damn it, Zoe, I’m a villain, not a logician!” Zoe is more or less a human cyberman… er, woman. She’s not been converted but is as emotionless as Spock wishes he were. So it’s an interesting thing that she decided to travel with the Doctor where she can actually learn about emotions. (I can’t help but think of her on the TARDIS console, screaming her head off a few stories later, but at least here, she was more than just a screaming damsel in distress!)
Perhaps I can quote Rick, of the cartoon Rick and Morty who once said rather brilliantly, “Sometimes science is more art than science, Morty. Lot of people don’t get that,” which seems like the logic of Doctor Who sometimes. For instance, that spacewalk we witness is done a bit… artistically. I mean I love watching Cybermen move through space with that casual approach that says “what are you looking at? We do this every morning” but I don’t think it should actually look like… walking. What they do have going for them is the voice of the Cyberplanner, and I mean that literally. The fact that they have the same voice for the Planner as they did for the Cybercontroller in The Tomb of the Cybermen is a nice touch. It implies a unity of species and a singular power behind it. At least that was a bit more Borg than they probably intended. Plus, they again proved that they can be creepy in shadows, utilizing black and white to full effect.
Yes, Doctor Who is definitely more art than science, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. It’s the art we’re going in for. It’s the thrill of a good story being told and keeping us on edge of our seats right until the end. This is another of Troughton’s six part stories which, unlike many of the Pertwee era, manages to keep us intrigued right until the finale. It might not be logical, but I’d say art trumps science this time around! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Dominators