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Wheel in Space. 1968.

January 30, 2016


The Space Station has an international crew.  This generous and progressive view of the future is, predictably enough, the basis for a lot of bad accents and dodgy make up.  The wheel (as everyone calls it) is run by one of those stock characters – the shouty boss who can’t think outside the box and who falls apart in a crisis.

To be honest, the pacing is off with this six parter.   Very little seems to happen in the first episode while too much is going on in the last episode.  Any explanation of the precise nature of the Cybermen’s scheme is deferred until very late, at which point it is explained in a rather rushed fashion.

The supposedly “classic” four part structure was never, in fact standardised until the Tom Baker era.  Not until the mid seventies were four parts were considered the normal and predictable ingredients of an adventure.  There were plenty of four part adventures in the sixties and seventies, but they jostled along other adventures of variable length.

The four part structure works so well because it builds tension along the following lines.

  1. There may be strange thingies.
  2. Here are the strange thingies.
  3.  This is what the strange thingies are trying to do.
  4. This is us, stopping the strange thingies.

Now there’s absolutely nothing wrong with six part adventures either.  A good six parter sometimes goes like this.

  1.  There may be strange thingies.
  2. There are definitely strange thingies.
  3. Here are the strange thingies.
  4. The strange thingies aren’t quite what we thought they were.
  5. This is what the strange thingies are trying to do.
  6. This is is, stopping the strange thingies.

But Wheel in Space gets us feeling rather bored and frustrated by the time we find out what we’re facing, and there’s an almost resigned quality to the “Oh it’s cybermen” we emit after too long a wait.  Of course, back in the 60s, if the actor playing the Doctor wanted to go on holiday, he could be blipped on the head at the end of one episode and spend the next episode as a shape under a blanket.  A m0re generous age, but perhaps not great for storytelling purposes.

There is, in the meantime, quite a bit of enjoyable detail to be picked up along the way here, if you can stay patient with it.  We’re reminded that it was Jamie who first came up with the Doctor’s pseudonym of “John Smith”, as he reads it from a piece of medical equipment while being gently interrogated – in a scene that may have (but almost certainly didn’t) inspire the interrogation scene from The Usual Suspects.  Continuity pedants (and aren’t we all?) will grin immediately at the fact that the Doctor is given an X Ray which apparently does not reveal his two hearts.  Or maybe Dr Gemma Corwyn is an even more absent minded medic than Harry Sullivan, which seems unlikely – since it’s blindingly obvious that she should be in command instead of Captain Shouty.

Gemma’s death one of the cruelest deaths of the Troughton era, mind – the sacrifice of a genuinely admirable character – handled coolly and unsentimentally.

Finally, of course, we do pick up Zoe, one of the most engaging of all of the Doctor’s companions.  Diminutive, childlike, yet terrifyingly brilliant and utterly self confident, the contrast between Jamie and Zoe is both dramatic and hilarious.  In some ways she anticipates Romanadveratrelundar.  At no point does Zoe ever think of herself as The Doctor’s intellectual inferior – and nor should she.  (The Krotons have a very high regard for her.)

A classic line up is complete.


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