Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Serial 43: The Wheel in Space

Doctor: Patrick Troughton (2nd Doctor)
Companions: Jamie, Zoe

Writtten by: David Whitaker and Kit Pedler
Directed by: Tristan de Vere Cole 

Editor's Note: Hey guys! Matt here reminding you that this week Cassandra's in to talk a little bit about... well... some Cybermen. I guess she's back to the weaker stories? BUT I DON'T KNOW! It's not like I planned this. (Wait. I did.) But oh well. She'll get some good stuff again quite soon, but for now let's hear her talk about the much maligned "Wheel in Space" and I'll be back next week for some more "in Space" action. But for now: TO HER.

Background & Significance: Cybermen were the new Daleks.

At least, that's how it was during the Troughton era. Much like Daleks kept popping up all over the place in Hartnell stories, so too did the Cybermen in Troughton stories. Which increasing the probability of really terrible Cybermen stories, but who doesn't love our funny-talking cybernetic kindred from Mondas? I mean, really.

Unfortunately, "The Wheel in Space" is one of those really terrible Cybermen stories and all because Terry Nation wouldn't agree to a Cybermen/Dalek team-up. (Which quite possibly could have been the greatest thing ever if Nation stayed out of it and David Whitaker scripted, but alas, that only leads to frustrated speculation on my part. And now yours too. (You're welcome.))

The great irony of this story, for me anyway, is that it is scripted by David Whitaker, who wrote "Power of the Daleks" and "Evil of the Daleks", among other things. We know he's a good writer, so how did he go from that level of awesome to "Wheel in Space" level of dull? Personally I think it's the story by Kit Pedler, but I'll get into that a little more in the commentary.

Another thing I do need to talk about before we dive in, though, and that's the fact that this story is the first appearance of Zoe Heriot, played by the adorable Wendy Padbury, who we all know goes on to be a Companion alongside Jamie for the duration of Troughton's tenure as the Doctor. Her predecessor, Victoria, departed in the previous story "Fury from the Deep", and the character of Zoe is a sort of response to Victoria's character; Zoe is from the future and extremely intelligent and forward-thinking, which contrasts with Victoria being from the past and her more conservatively Victorian-era sensibilities.

But enough of all that. Let's take a closer look, shall we?


Part 1:

Okay. Deep breath. Here we go.

Emulating the current standard operating procedures here at Classical Gallifrey, I’ll start off with some good things about this, which, to be honest, is a little tricky.

I appreciate what this first part is trying to do. Introducing the mystery and surroundings to the audience as the characters themselves discover it is a very standard storytelling device. It’s used in novels all the time as a way to acclimate the reader and the characters to the world simultaneously. Of course it’s also used in television and movies too; the very first episode of Doctor Who utilized this device, in the form of Barbara and Ian slowly trying to puzzle through the mystery of Susan. I think that first episode of “An Unearthly Child” is very successful because of that. But this episode... Not so much.

Perhaps if the mystery was something far more substantial than why the TARDIS is telling them to get away from there? I mean, obviously the TARDIS has a reason. And these sets are so sterile and clinical and the Doctor and Jamie wandering around an empty rocket is just so boring and uninteresting to me.

But I said I’d talk about good things a little more, and so I shall.

Of course, I love the team of the Doctor and Jamie. They’re so iconic and they have so much chemistry and they work so well together. And I like how exploring this deserted rocket gives them a chance to poke about and banter and so on, but at the same time... It’s just lacking. There’s not a lot of character work going on. Yes, I know it’s the 60s, but the writer’s David Whitaker, whom we saw just last week do some really intriguing character work and concepts. I expect so much more from him, so this is really disappointing.

I also think that this is one of those stories that really really suffers from not existing. Part of what makes Troughton so good is his physicality, watching the different nuances of his facial expressions or his body language as he talk-thinks his way through things. Of course, with the video missing, that isn’t possible. But I don’t think that the dullness of this story is entirely dependent on it missing; I think it only enhances what was there, which is an episode in which nothing happens and is not very engaging.

And I think I’m gonna have to blame Kit Pedler for this one, because... I mean, David Whitaker has a good, solid track record for stories. Sure, most writers have at least one flop to their name, but considering that Kit Pedler came up with the story and concept on this one... Let’s be honest. He’s the scientific advisor on the show. Yeah, this episode might have really cool sci-fi concepts like silver rockets and silly little robots and a circular space station that looks like that one that’s always in the background on the new Battlestar Galactica, but just because it’s a cool concept doesn’t mean you can build a story around it. Trust me on this one. We just watched a Baker/Martin story over the weekend, and they’re the kings of trying to build half-way decent stories around “cool” sci-fi concepts. (Spoilers, they usually fail.)

Good stories are built first and foremost on good, strong characters, and we know both the Doctor and Jamie are excellent characters, but they’re not utilized extremely well here. Victoria just left, and they were both pretty broken up about it, why not have them engage in conversation about that while checking out the rocket? Good, compelling character drama and conversation can make even the most mundane tasks interesting; it worked for Breaking Bad, so why not on Doctor Who as well?

And the other characters that we catch a glimpse of at the end... well, they’re introduced so late that there’s not much to hold on to. The commander person is high-strung and likes to blow things up, apparently. That one bitch asks a lot of questions. A couple of them have accents. That’s... that’s basically it. They’re just exposition repositories and I’m not a fan.

And then it just ends! Bah.

Part 2

Oh my goodness, this is so 60s.

The thing about watching this a second time is that I’m so determined not to fall asleep (actually happened the first time, don’t judge) that I’m forcing myself to pay extra special attention to certain things, and whoa nelly does this episode just reek of the 1960s.

It’s funny to me that, in portrayals of the future, shows like Doctor Who or Star Trek will strive for diversity in their principal characters, putting women in positions of power like it’s no big deal. But it’s always hilarious to me how the cultural attitudes always manage to bleed through into the story and the characters. Take, for example, the moment when Tanya and her cute Russian accent is expressing her concerns about the drop in air pressure in the Wheel to a fellow male officer, and he takes the opportunity to flirt with her, saying, “If you get scared, I’ll let you hold my hand.” THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENS.

Or when Dr. Gemma is trying to reason the Controller out of blowing up the rocket at the beginning, and he’s very derisive and dismissive of her (honestly, he sounds like my mother, but I digress), telling her not to “psychoanalyze him”, even though that’s clearly her job as ship’s doctor. I mean, come on. The Controller’s losing it, and we’re not even halfway through this story yet (oh god......).

Honestly, there’s not much else.... Oh! Zoe!

Zoe’s first appearance in this is fascinating, really. Having seen her in later adventures with the Doctor, it’s really interesting to me, watching this and seeing how much her character shifts and how much she develops over the course of traveling with the Doctor. She’s so clinically detached from other people, taking pleasure in monitoring and observing Jamie in a scientific capacity at Dr. Gemma’s request. This detachment and out-of-touchness with other people becomes more evident as the story goes on, when the crew starts making these really obvious statements about it (yes! we get it!), but I like that it’s immediately presented in her character and what she says. Subtle things, like “does it matter?” are good and point to this early on.

I’m not sure what else to say about this episode. It’s a lot more interesting than the first one, to be honest, but that’s not really difficult. And even by general standards, this is still kinda slow and boring. Slow I’m fine with, but just because your story’s slow doesn’t mean it has to be dull.

I think I would be a lot more invested if the first episode had done a better job of setting things up. To me, this episode feels a lot more like a first one than a second. Sure, we’re world building and getting to know the other characters better, but all of this should have been established in the first part, instead of having the Doctor and Jamie mucking around on the rocket for an entire episode. The rocket and the white bubble things are easy enough to set up in the context of the Wheel, and I think it’d still have the same impact.

Oh yeah, and the Cybermen show up in the white bubble things, which I guess are space cocoons? Or something? I don’t know. They’re weird and don’t make sense.

And have Cybermen always had only three fingers?

Part 3:

This one exists! Immediately I sit up and pay more attention. Although that also could be due to the fact that something actually happens in this part.

It’s funny how the Doctor shows up in this part and immediately I can feel the fact that he wasn’t in the last part at all. It’s like a swift kick to the gut, and I feel stupid for not realizing. But here he is again, and everything is a little bit better.

Thinking about it, though.... What has the Doctor done so far in this story? Hit his head? Been knocked out? Identified the Cybermats? That’s.... about it. Which is really disappointing. I mean, come on, this is a Doctor Who story for a reason, give the Doctor something to do for god’s sake. You have a wonderfully talented powerhouse of an actor at your disposal, use him.

Though I do really enjoy his interactions with Jamie and Zoe, especially after the Cybermat attack. (Again, Cybermats! I’ll talk about them a little later.) I like how he asks them for their theories, fielding questions, getting their opinions and weighing them against the facts before he says his own. The scene reminds me a lot of Davison’s interactions with his companions, which makes perfect sense, considering he based his interpretation at least a little bit on Troughton. It’s also good because it’s solid character work while advancing the plot, and who doesn’t love that.

So. Cybermen and Cybermats. It’s absolutely incredible to me that they managed to go from a story like “Tomb of the Cybermen” at the beginning of the season, to a story like “The Wheel in Space” at the end of it, especially since “Tomb” is frakking incredible. And you can see them trying to capitalize on the success of that story, and really, on the success of the Cybermen themselves (just like the Daleks! Hey-o, tie-in to the background). The reappearance of Cybermats stands out as one of those things, especially in this part.

Not that I’m complaining, because I love Cybermats. I want one. I think they’re adorable and silly and wonderful and everything good about Classic Who. But somehow, in the context of “Tomb”, they managed to make the little buggers absolutely terrifying, and I can see them attempting to do the same thing here. But it doesn’t work and it falls flat and the guy getting surrounded by Cybermats and overacting and dying is fucking hilarious. And I’ll tell you why.

There’s not adequate set up. The Cybermats show up and attack and kill someone all in the same episode. Yes I understand that the Cybermats are there to clear the way and set up the Cybermen’s invasion (more on that in a bit), but... It seems to me that they’re relying purely on what was already established in “Tomb of the Cybermen”, in that these things are actually really scary and can do some harm. They don’t take the time to set it up, to have them be cute and cuddly and build up to the sinister. Which is ridiculous, because this is a SIX PART serial, and, in my opinion, the first part was mostly useless. You’ve got the space, use it. Ratchet up tension. Play up the suspicion. The Controller’s obviously losing his mind, do a better job of dealing with that, instead of just having him be erratic and completely contradictory, like he’s being right now.

It’s frustrating to me the more I get into this story, because I really want to like it. By all rights, I should like it. It’s Troughton, it’s the introduction of a Companion I love, it’s Cybermen, it’s base under seige. Which, to be fair, is a pretty worn out and tired concept by the end of this season, but come on. Whitaker! What’s the deal, man? You can do better.

And the Cybermen. Why are they here, exactly? This could be any cookie-cutter alien threat, which just makes all of this feel so generic. Cybermen need a good, specific Cybermen story. And it’s the end of part three, we’re halfway through this story, and I still don’t even know why they’re here or what their goal is? That’s not good. That’s not a good utilization of space. I understand witholding information to prolong the mystery and beef it up and make it more interesting, that’s just common sense, but we’re not getting enough. Which, again, is so weird, because this story is six parts. It’s not like there isn’t space. It’s weirdly padded, but I think they could have pulled this off so much better and still kept it at six parts.

And the Cybermen finally do something and make their move and brainwash, or microwave, or whatever the hell it is they’re doing to the scouts from the Wheel, but it’s not a very good cliffhanger. I dunno. This just feels so weird. I think I’m okay with the Cybermen making their move at the end of part three, but having the Cybermat attack and the Cybermen revealing themselves to the scouts in the rocket seems like too much to me. Again, not a good utilization of space. Everything is just so off, and it’s not very well paced at all.

And we still have three more episodes to go? Oii vey.

Part 4

The 60s conception of the future is so wonderful and amusing and silly to me. Drugs and random ass crazy science to ensure resistance to hypnotic control, laser beams, space wheels, fuel rods. (And yet, despite all of these cool things, we get what looks to be a white guy impersonating a Chinese guy, complete with long braid of hair. Ah, racial stereotypes....)

I do really like these concepts and ideas, but this story... Sigh. I’m really disappointed in the story, all the more so because I should, in concept alone, love it. I really think Kit Pedler should have stayed out of it. I mean, sure, he cowrote “The Tomb of the Cybermen” but how much of that was actually him and how much was Gerry Davis? Another factor hindering this is its length. I think they needed a six-part story slot, and they decided to go with the Cybermen story that Kit Pedler was developing, but there’s just not enough going on here. It is so padded it’s ridiculous, and this episode is no exception to that.

We’re in episode four, and the Doctor is just now getting out of sick bay. He’s been down for essentially 2 and a half episodes. Ugh. At that point, why is the Doctor even in this? He’s not doing anything except identifying the Cybermen and the threat that they pose to the Wheel. What kinda lame role is that?

I think this story would work so much better as four parts. But even then, I think I’d still have issues.

Like what exactly is the Cybermen’s plan again? They board the Wheel because... they want to take it over, I’m assuming. The Doctor mentions offhand that the Cybermen need to colonize, so I’m assuming that means Earth (which sounds like every other Cybermen story we’ve had so far. Thanks, Kit Pedler). So they’re boarding the Wheel to get to Earth. Okay. Got that. They send over Cybermats to sabotage the ship. Okay. But now they’re trying to fix the laser again, when their original intent was to keep it from working and having the Cybermats nom on all the fuel rods. And a couple episodes ago, the Cyber Controller mentioned that they’re the ones that caused the supernova and impending meteor storm. But now, “The Wheel must not be harmed.” Ummm. Does this make no sense to anyone else?

Okay. Yes, I get that they want to take over the Wheel, not destroy it. But why did they have to set off A STAR EXPLODING? To make the humans panic? They coulda just done that with the Cybermats sabotaging everything. That just seems so detrimental to your plan. Like they’re making it harder for themselves. Which is so weird to me, because as creatures of pure logic, you’d think they’d be a little smarter.

Speaking of creatures of pure logic...

It failed to come up in my discussion of the last part, but it happens again in here, so I’ll just bring it up now: Zoe as stone cold emotionless person. It’s weird how they do such a good job of subtly introducing that with her character and the way she acts right at the outset, only to state it explicitly not once, but many many times over the course of the next couple episodes. I mean, come on. We get it. Zoe is very smart and she’s disconnected from people as a result. She has no way of relating on an emotional level because she operates on logic and facts. Dr. Gemma seems to indicate this is a commonplace thing in the future with students and other academics like Zoe. If you live in the future, you must know someone like this, it would seem. Right?

So why the fuck is everyone so mean to her about it? It makes no sense to me. Jamie I understand, because he banters and teases, that’s his character. (I also think he’s jealous and impressed with her smarts but begrudgingly so, only because she’s a girl. That strikes me as very Jamie.) But Zoe’s shipmates? Even Dr. Gemma? Come on. Not only is that discounting good character setup earlier, slapping us in the face with things we should sit up and pay attention to, the way these characters go around confronting her is just plain mean. It’s maddening, really.

Also maddening is the Controller. I hate his character, I don’t really care about him, he doesn’t interest me, there’s nothing to him. So he’s having a psychotic breakdown, so what? He was strung out at the very beginning. I’m not into that. If you’d shown him functioning perfectly reasonably at the beginning and then showed his deterioration throughout the course of the story, I think that would be more interesting to me. But the way it’s handled is not good. Some of the things don’t even make sense to me. I dunno. It’s just very shoddy and not well executed and it’s frustrating and every time that man opens his mouth and says something that’s supposed to be crazy, I facepalm. Also his voice is dreadful, so there’s that, too.

Part 5:

At last, we finally get a half-way decent cliffhanger. I mean, yeah it’s a standard companion-in-danger one, but at least it’s better than the nonsense we’ve been getting for the past four episodes.

I think it works so well (relatively, anyway) because I actually care about these characters. Fancy that. No, but really, I love Jamie and Zoe as companions. Remember how I was talking about the iconicness of Jamie and the Doctor? Yeah. That extends to Zoe too. I mean, I really really like Victoria too, probably more than most people out there. But there’s just something about Jamie and Zoe. Frasier Hines and Wendy Padbury just work so well together, and the pair of them work wonders with Troughton. It’s really a team-up for the ages. It’s just unfortunate that it has to begin with this story.

I do like the scene where the Doctor and Jamie argue over whose fault it is that the TARDIS piece whatchamacallit doodad got left over on the rocket, just because it’s the Doctor and Jamie and they’re going back and forth. I dunno. It amuses me. I gotta find solace where I can in this story, I’m sure you’ll understand.

I really really wish I cared more about this story and the characters. I really really do. I hate not being able to enjoy a Doctor Who story, because I love the show so much. And I suppose I’m a little more lenient than most when it comes to putting up with certain stories, but sometimes you just gotta call a spade a spade and say a story is fucking boring. (Even though an Irish dude does take on two Cyber-controlled guys at once. I love that the Irish guy of all people has a penchant for fighting rough. Yay, more racial stereotypes!)

To be fair, there is some pretty cool action in this episode. At least, I think it would be pretty cool if we were still able to watch it happening. The little snippets and the pictures tell me it’s pretty cool, anyway. And I enjoy the narration by Wendy Padbury, I think she does a decent job with it. But I’m left scratching my head as to how this story could have failed so hard as it did. It’s just a base under siege story! They’ve done so many by this point, it’s just astounding how bad they managed to muck it up. The Cybermen are in the Wheel but I don’t find myself rooting for the characters to beat them. I don’t find myself hating it to bits. I’m just sitting here watching passively, and that’s not good. This is supposed to be exciting! Cybermen infiltrating a space station! That practically writes itself.

I think it’s because the Cybermen’s goal isn’t exactly clear? At last we get an explicit statement of what their plans are (or, at least, what the Doctor believes their plans to be) but it’s not clarifying or enlightening. So the Cybermen want to take over the Wheel, so what?

Ugggghhh. And then they kill off the coolest character! Dr. Gemma was the closest thing I had to a touchstone and a point of caring about what happened to these people on the Wheel, and now she is dead. You’re killing me, Smalls!

Oh well. At least there’s only one more part left.

Part 6

I keep waiting for something to happen.

As a final episode, this part falls incredibly flat for me, for a number of reasons. One of which is there’s very little stakes. I mean, they do a good job of trying to have stakes, what with the meteorites, and then the Cybermen’s spaceship with the invasion force and all of that, but each of those is just blasted out of the sky by the laser and it just... Oh, it’s all so stale...

That’s another thing. The Doctor goes head to head with the Cybermen only once. It’s a moment we’ve been waiting for. It’s gonna be awesome. And it kinda is, since he fries a Cyberman with electricity and it’s kinda nuts. But how does he defeat them ultimately? With that fucking laser.

Really? Really. You’re gonna have the Doctor blow them all up with a laser gun? Sure, I guess it’s cool, but you guys can do SO MUCH BETTER than that. And I’m so not a fan of the Doctor with guns, as I’ve said before on numerous occasions. I mean, there isn’t even any epic parlay or anything like that. The Doctor just talks to them, states the obvious, blah blah a bit more exposition, blah, and then he fries one.

This is SO anticlimactic. I hate it. I was trying to be nice on this one, but this is just the last straw. I think maybe I would appreciate it more if it were more exciting, or if someone else had used the laser to figure out how to blast the Cybership into little bits, or there was some other way that they dealt with them, but this.... ugh. It just feels so lazy to me, and if you’re gonna halfass your story, well then you deserve what’s coming to you.

Deep breath. Okay. Calm place.

I do like Zoe sneaking into the TARDIS because she wants to go with them, even though Jamie’s being all weird and elusive about it. I like that she just does it. I think that’s the first step in her overall character arc, just going with it, even though it may not make sense. Why should she leave the Wheel? She’s got a good life and a good job. Going with the Doctor is not the logical thing to do, but she does it anyway, and I like that.

It’s really weird that she gets like a little teaser before the Doctor agrees to take her, though. That ending is so weird. But it was constructed to be a lead in to a repeat of “Evil of the Daleks”, since “The Wheel in Space” is the last story of the season. But man, if there’s anyway of making this story actually seem way worse than it was? It’s showing “Evil of the Daleks” right after it. Talk about a study in polar opposites as far as story quality goes. And both written by David Whitaker, too. But again, I blame Kit Pedler, so that’s that.

Final Thoughts?: This story angers me.

I was really hoping that watching this a second time, I'd get a lot more out of it. Maybe appreciate it more. That often happens when I rewatch stories and force myself to analyze them like this, look at them from multiple angles, consider story choices, stuff like that. Unfortunately, that's not really the case with "The Wheel in Space". (Rhymage!)

I know I've mentioned this quite a bit already, but good god is this story dull. I mean, every good thing I tried to pick out of this story just got constantly undermined by a bad thing. In that, I mean that even the good things that I was trying so hard to focus on weren't even entirely good. I could always think of a better alternative, a better story choice, a better character choice. And the bad, well, I guess I wrote about those plenty already.

I think my biggest complaint is that I'm not really sure why the Doctor is even in this story, aside from warning the people about the Cybermen. And even though he does that, he's not nearly in this story enough. He doesn't have anything to do, and it's the Classic contrivance of separating our team from the TARDIS so that we can see this story play out and whatever. It's just... Sigh. I'm really frustrated by this story.

I'm just gonna go outside, shake my fist at the sky and shout "Kit Pedler!" like Kirk yells "Khaaaan!"

Next Time!: 3rd Doctor! Ogrons! Space Opera! Random Master! Space walking! A Prison! Runarounds! Capturement! Also space! Lots of space! And Daleks? Whaaaaaaaaaaaaat? Oh wait. Spoiler. Whoops. "The Frontier in Space"! Coming Next Tuesday!


  1. This was an awesome breakdown of the episode! I'll definitely have to check this site out more often if you do these all the time.

  2. GREAT review... Thanks Cassandra! :) I like how you really get right to the heart of the problem here, your points about matching the story to the antagonist (having a Cyberman story for the Cybermen), and about the prevailing attitudes of the times bleeding through into the production, are just great, and your little humourous moments scattered throughout bring a smile to my face. I LOVE the Cybermen, more than any other Who regular baddies, and so it constantly frustrates me how badly they're handled. And yes - if you have an amazing actor like Troughton (and spot on remark about his physicality, too), bloody USE him :)