Sanity, sleeptime and The Wheel in Space (1968)

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Hello from the future! Oh look at you back in 2015. Did you enjoy Peter Capaldi’s first season? Wait until he’s rejoined by Amy and Jamie and the TARDIS implodes from the utter Scottishness of it all. And when he gets to the planet Delphon where they communicate with their eyebrows. He does himself a serious injury and is forced to regenerate… Oops, sorry. Spoilers.

But, inhabitants of the past, I have brilliant news. The omnirumour turned out to be true! Every missing episode returned! And you lot thought you were well off when The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear came home from their extended Nigerian holiday. Well here in the future, we have ’em all. Except Time-Flight. We lost that one deliberately.

So what do you want to hear about first? The delights of Marco Polo? The thrills of The Power of the Daleks? Of course not, you’re desperate to hear all about The Wheel in Space aren’t you?

Well, I’m not sure you’re going to be overjoyed with Episode 1, let’s get that out of the way first. For the most part it’s a two hander between Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines. And while that sounds brilliant on paper, this is also a kind of one episode filler before the main action starts.

So the Doctor and Jamie land on an abandoned rocket. They’re forced out of the TARDIS. So they have a look round. There’s a silent plodding robot. Then Jamie settles down for a nap. Honestly, when one of your two characters decides to sleep in the middle of an episode, you’re on shaky ground.

And this is filler written by former script editor David Whitaker, so this gives him scope for taking up time with some of his pet subjects. The TARDIS trying to communicate with its crew via pictures on the scanner. Lots of faffing around with a food machine. Mercury. All his greatest hits. Hmm, maybe Jamie’s onto something with that snooze.

Late in the episode (just enough to get paid) the crew of the Space Station W3 turn up and prepare to blast the mysterious rocket out of the sky. The Space Wheel is familiar territory to anyone who’s paid at least passing attention to Season 5. There’s a mixed group of personnel in spacy costumes led by an autocratic male commander. But specifically, this is a multinational crew, so what this really feels like is The Moonbase, which in turn really felt like The Tenth Planet. So innovative, this series.

In Episode 1, the Doctor hit his head and so he spends Episode 2 unconscious, while Troughton takes a holiday. Focus shifts to the Wheel and Jamie has to carry the episode, which also introduces us to new brainiac companion Zoe Herriot (perky Wendy Padbury). Now, this will be familiar to you folk back in 2015, because The Web of Fear had its Doctorless episode 2 returned as well. The good news is that Wheel in Space covers his absence better, with all the introductory stuff about the Wheel – stuff you’d ordinarily expect to find in Episode 1 – being played out. Still it’s always a like a bit less of a party when the Doctor doesn’t show up. So this is another episode which might disappoint when you finally get to se it.

Episode 3, of course, you know and love. But watched in isolation, you may not realise that this is the episode when the Cybermen finally turn up. That’s one third of a monster story without its monster. That’s some delayed gratification. It’s also unusual because the Doctor spends the whole episode in bed. Luckily people keep bringing him plot points to discuss, so he doesn’t have to move much.

He doesn’t actually get out of bed until half way through Episode 4, so he’s well and truly rested. He tries to convince this week’s grizzled base commander that the Cybermen are on the Wheel and are a menace. But Jarvis Bennett (Michael Turner) is having nothing of it.  ‘He’s a strange man to be in a position like this’, says the Doctor and he’s spot on, and not just because his accent wavers from South African to American and back again.

Jarvis dislikes his 2IC Gemma Corwyn’s (Ann Ridler) habit of playing armchair psychologist (in fact the script takes a few jabs at psychology in general, which a number of characters treat with disdain), but the irony is he’s gradually going crackers, and maybe a psych assessment would help. Plus his lines are all delivered with a kind of halting mania, so that when it’s his turn to take a nap mid episode (Seriously! Stay awake through the whole story please!) it’s a blessed relief for the other characters and the audience.

But the most, um, astonishing performance is Episode 4 is that of Peter Laird, who plays Chang. I don’t know anything of Mr Laird’s background, but I’m willing to bet he isn’t/wasn’t Chinese. This, in the worst yellow face tradition, doesn’t stop him putting on an oriental accent. His delivery of the line ‘I’m on my way’ is particularly cringeworthy. If the performances in The Talons of Weng-Chiang make you feel a little queasy, this one’s even worse.

In Episode 5, something approaching tension builds when the Cybermen attack the Wheel and kill Gemma. You feel genuinely sad when this happens. She’s the only character in the whole thing who seems to have her head screwed on right, and one of the few who’s not putting on an outrageous accent. Although she’s very quick to suggest electric shock therapy for Jarvis. You can’t trust those psychologists. Still, it might just be time to attach those electrodes, as Jarvis finally checks out, once Zoe stuffs a dead Cybermat under his nose. ‘Not true, not true!’ he mumbles, despite the tinny, googly eyed evidence in front of him.

And because the story only has two Cybermen at its disposal, much fuss is made about their ability to control humans and thus these walking zombies become surrogate monsters. There’s some fun to be had when two of the Cyber contolled humans (Laleham and Vallance, who sound like a snobby manchester store) take on gruff Irish crewmember Flanagan (James Mellor). Turns out the Irishman is itching for a stoush. ‘If it’s a fight you’re after, I’m your man!’ he roars. ‘You need a few lessons in the noble and manly arts, me bucko!’ No wonder that when Flanagan himself is zombified and turns into a quietly spoken rather passive fellow, the Doctor immediately spots something’s up.

And by then we’re on to Episode 6, which again you know all about and which finally brings the Doctor face to face with the Cybermen. There’s a scene where the Doctor lures them into a room and electrocutes them (Is this the ECT machine Gemma was keen to break out? Were those Cybermen depressed?) and while Troughton enlivens it where he can, it’s all very contrived and stagey. Which is true of the whole story really, a longer, flabbier retelling of other Cybertales.

I hope I haven’t disappointed you too much, history dwellers. But not every returned story can do an Enemy and turn out better than its reputation. But until the whole story is returned to the archives it might comfort you to think that you already have the story’s two best episodes on hand.

LINK to The Ribos Operation. Both introduce clever new companions.

NEXT TIME… I can’t see the point of Paris. So let’s home share with The Lodger for a while.

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