Doctor Who: The Wheel in Space
(6 episodes, s05e34-e41, 1968)
The Wheel in Space is still the basic “base under siege” story that was typical of the fifth series, but this one feels more unique. First, the crew of the titular space station doesn’t believe in the Cyberman threat until it actually shows itself. Second, the antagonists partially control the escape route (the TARDIS is stranded on the rocket with the Cybermen) and are a bit more menacing in this story, finally bringing the boys in aluminum foil suits back to nearly the same threat level that they displayed in The Tenth Planet. There’s also the added twist of the impending meteor shower which adds dramatic pressure to the plot and prevents the protagonists from taking too much time or waiting for the enemy to make a move.
We also see a considerable amount of hand waving combined with smoke and mirrors in this serial. Classic Who fans complain about how the recent era (the “New Who” era) of the show treats the iconic sonic screwdriver like a magic wand – and the show runners even make fun of it themselves, as seen in the 50th anniversary special Day of the Doctor – but the “time vector generator” is a much more egregious example of a magic MacGuffin and overall problem solver. It acts as an improvised gun to destroy the robot on the rocket (wait, doesn’t the Doctor abhor using guns?), produces radio interference to signal the space station and save Jamie and the Doctor, supercharges the station’s X-ray laser to destroy the Cyberman spaceship, and controls the entire “bigger on the inside” element of the TARDIS itself. It’s less iconic than the sonic, and stretches the entire joke of the Second Doctor’s skill at pulling the right tool for the job from his pockets to a non-humorous extreme. That little metal bar feels overly convenient and considerably lazy scriptwise, and I kind of hope that we never see it again.
Okay, enough with that.
The motivations of the station crew are believable, and that helped sell me on this serial. They want to destroy the rocket because its erratic flight poses a collision danger to the station. They’re also skeptical of the Doctor and Jamie because the travelers are conspicuously unable to fit in with the current time, and act suspiciously at every move. even right down to the genesis of the Doctor’s long-term alias, John Smith. It’s also fascinating to see how the crew relates to Zoe, an astrophysicist relegated to librarian, which (ironically) is a role that the station couldn’t operate without. She feels underappreciated and completely enthralled with the mystery of the Doctor, so she joins the team as the new companion. She’s definitely quite smart and innocent, but somewhat shy and introverted, and I’m eager to see how she manages with the Doctor and Jamie.
Other positives on this serial include the TARDIS defense mechanism driven by Powerpoint slides of serene temptations, the decorations in the Cyberman control center that are giant lava lamps, and a callback to the infamous fluid link that keeps the TARDIS grounded after a power overload vaporizes the link’s mercury supply.
One minor downside was the Cybermen marching through space. That was rather silly.
This was a really good serial, but the convenience of the time vector generator really soured it for me. I settled on a 3.5 out of 5, but, as always, I’m looking forward and working with whole numbers.
Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”
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The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.
9 thoughts on “Timestamp #43: The Wheel in Space”
This one gets the dubious distinction as the only Doctor Who story to ever put me to sleep. To be fair, it was a recon and I was watching it at 4AM (this was back when I very briefly tried to work a third shift job). This is another David Whitaker script and as a result I think that the characterization gets a huge boost. That’s always been his forte. I like that the station crew members feel like real people and it’s a very good introduction for Zoe.
Thankfully you don’t have to deal with Cybermen marching through space or the time vector generator again. One thing that was kind of neat was that they made the very first rerun ever of Doctor Who an in-continuity event with the Doctor showing Zoe ‘Evil of the Daleks’ on the TARDIS monitor. From what I understand, they also dubbed over the beginning of episode one of ‘Evil of the Daleks’ with the Doctor giving Zoe a little background when they showed it the second time.
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