Our Doctor Who expert, Tony Cross, is journeying through all of time and space to bring us his thoughts on every available Doctor story. Today is the Second Doctor adventure The Wheel in Space...
With The Wheel in Space, the second season of Patrick Troughton's Doctor comes to an end. And, of course, it ends as it began: with a base under siege and Cybermen.
I'll be honest and say the similarity of basic plots in this second season has become a wee bit... tiresome. If it wasn't for Troughton's ability to turn even the most average dross into gold then I think my patience would have run out a long time ago. Well, that and Frazer Hines.
A truth is The Wheel in Space isn't just a bog standard base under siege story (and I'll talk about the boxes it ticks off shortly) but it's The Moonbase tribute story. We joke about Terry Nation writing the same story over and over again but the various 'from a story by Kit Pedler' credits might as well read 'from the same story by Kit Pedler'.
So, we have an isolated base. It's run by a man - in this case, Jarvis Bennett (Michael Turner) - whose on the edge. Like Robson was in Fury From The Deep or Hobson in The Moonbase.* Admittedly Bennett has actually leaped over the edge and gone swimming in the sea of lunacy before the stories end. He can't deal with the situation he's found himself in. He's in denial. All the little mysteries the crew are reporting - drops in temperature and pressure etc - are just freaking him out. It takes a death to shake him out of his lethargy but it is a doomed recovery.
The Cybermen are basically having another go at their Moonbase plan but with added Cybermats. It's so grindingly similar to what's gone before that you start to wonder at what point the Doctor and Jamie are going to stop being under suspicion. Because they're always under suspicion is these stories as a result of their arrival coinciding with the Cybermen's plans kicking up a gear, which is something I'd be suspicious about if I were the Cybermen by now. Somehow, at key moments, the Doctor always turns up in time to put a spanner in the works. And yet they never expect him.
I'm probably being harsh. It's not a terrible story by any means. It's not even that dull, despite being utterly predictable but that's down to the actors. Troughton and Hines are key, obviously and there's strong support from Anne Ridler as Dr. Gemma Corwyn. Again you get the impression that the Second Doctor gets mildly flirty with Dr. Corwyn who is clearly the smartest and most sensible person on the Wheel. It's interesting that for the second story in succession we get a powerful woman in a position of authority. A woman who gets to be courageous too. Corwyn reminded me of Todd (Nerys Hughes) in Kinda but perhaps I'm finding patterns where there aren't any again.
The Wheel in Space also sees the first appearance of Zoe Heriot, played with elfin enthusiasm**by Wendy Padbury. Zoe is an astrophysicist. She's also the butt of some nasty comments about her lack of heart by various crew members as she dishes out unpalatable facts with minimal emotion. This, we discover, is the result of her education. And Zoe herself is afraid that she'll turn into some emotionless wreck, which makes for an interesting echo of the Cybermen themselves (and perhaps is also an echo of The Brotherhood of Logicians from Tomb of the Cybermen.)*** At the end of the story, Zoe sneaks - badly - aboard the TARDIS.
The rest of the performances are a mixed bag but that's because some of the characters are so thinly drawn as to be almost invisible and I can't help but find Leo Ryan (Eric Flynn) and Tanya Lernov's (Clare Jenkins) thuddingly dull flirtation a little tedious. Sorry. It's just a bit unnecessary. But there's a young Donald Sumpter as Enrico Casali (who is, I'm afraid to say, slightly 'darkened' by make-up) and I think I'm quite glad that no footage exists of Peter Laird as Chang. But it is good to see Kevork Malikyan, even if he gets one of the less impressive deaths in Doctor Who history.
The Cybermen look good again but once more their pretty rubbish. There are moments of tension and perhaps if this story existed in the archive it would be easier to love. The final episode certainly has a nice scene where The Doctor is confronted by the Cybermen and he tries to find out what they're up to whilst they keep coming back to the fact that he 'knows their ways' and will have to kill him. It's a wonderful bit of Troughton work.
So, The Wheel in Space ends season two of the Troughton years not with a bang but with a whimper. I think it is - the occasional moment aside - the only genuine dud of the Troughton years so far. Even The Underwater Menace is more fun. Alas, David Whitaker was unable to do for the Cybermen what he had done for the Daleks in the Troughton years. They're still not quite the monster they should be.
*Looking at the naming conventions we should count ourselves lucky he's not called Dobson.
**If such a thing exists.
***There I am seeing patterns in things again where they probably don't exist.
Tony Cross is the creator of the wonderful Centurion Blog's found HERE and HERE.
Image – BBC.