TRISTAN DE VERE COLE
'LOST IN TIME' DVD BOX SET (BBCDVD1353)
RELEASED IN NOVEMBER 2004;
'THE WHEEL IN SPACE' AUDIO CD (ISBN 0-563-53507-5) RELEASED IN MAY 2004.
Taking drastic measures to escape a TARDIS malfunction, the Doctor and Jamie arrive on a rocket, apparently deserted in space, and soon encounter its aggressive robot guard. When a blow to the head then renders the Doctor unconscious, Jamie’s only hope of rescue lies in contacting the Wheel space station which is orbiting nearby.
In fact the rocket has other occupants, who are sending out mysterious egg-like spheres to penetrate the Wheel’s outer surface. What dangerous cargo do the spheres bring to the human crew of the Wheel, and what is the intention of those who are sending them?
ALL BUT EPISODES THREE AND SIX ARE MISSING.
The Wheel in Space
27TH APRIL 1968 - 1ST JUNE 1968
With the benefit of hindsight, The Wheel in Space was perhaps one Cybermen story too far. Since making their first appearance in William Hartnell’s swansong serial, The Tenth Planet, Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler’s creations had returned to invade The Moonbase just a few stories on, only to be dug up again a few months later in The Tomb of the Cybermen. As all three stories had proven to be stunning successes, it’s easy to see why David Whitaker was commissioned to close Doctor Who’s fifth season with the longest Cyber story yet, but unfortunately his six-part serial offers very little that hasn’t been done before – and done more effectively, too.
Episodes 3 and 6 of the serial still exist today, but whilst they offer us the flavour of the story, there is simply too much missing for a viewer to be able to follow the narrative. However, when viewed between sessions spent listening to the BBC Radio Collection’s narrated soundtrack and viewing John Cura’s online telesnaps, it’s possible to garner a fairly good impression of what The Wheel in Space once was.
The serial’s length works to its advantage in some ways - the slow build-up to the action means that the Cybermen’s unexpected appearance at the end of the second episode has a lot of impact. It’s not Earthshock league, I’ll grant you, but it works well nonetheless. However, the price paid dwarves the gain – the first episode is little more than a brazen money-saver, functioning almost completely independent of the main storyline. Until its last couple of scenes, which I suspect were filmed alongside the second episode, the episode only features Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines and a Flash Gordon-style servo robot. It takes nearly nineteen minutes for us to get our first glimpse of the Wheel and its crew, and even then nothing of note happens until well into the Doctor-free second instalment.
Fortunately the story’s languid pace is buoyed by Whitaker’s predominantly credible human characters, who, just like those he created for The Power of the Daleks, easily outshine the monsters. This time around, instead of Lesterson; Bragen; and Janley, we have Clare Jenkins’ Tanya Lernov; Michael Turner’s troubled Commander Bennett; and Anne Ridler’s Dr Gemma Corwyn. The latter is used particularly effectively as, despite being portrayed as a woman of both reason and logic, she instinctively trusts the Doctor to the benefit of all. This serves as a delectable counterpoint to her astrophysicist colleague Zoe Heriot, who is every bit the scientist that Gemma is, but has absolutely no idea at all about life – no common sense, no instinct. In many respects, she’s no better than the Cybermen – “…all brain and no heart.”
“I’ve been created for some false kind of existence, where only known kinds of emergencies are catered for. Well what good is that to me, now?”
Actress Wendy Padbury does a fabulous job of conveying not only Zoe’s emotional and instinctive immaturity, but her awareness of it. As incredible events unfold around her, she becomes increasingly aware of her shortcomings and the fact that she can’t overcome them by herself. It’s only through exposure to the likes of Jamie – who within moments of meeting her threatens to put her across his knee and spank her – and the Doctor that she can grow out of her ‘Tin Man’ cage.
Regrettably not of the Wheel’s characters are as well-drawn. Attempting to build upon the success of The Moonbase’s Trek-style multi-ethnic crew, Whitaker ensures that his Wheel’s crew is just as diverse. The trouble is, some of his characters lack the depth of their Moonbase counterparts, and as a result a few of their number could be construed as distasteful racial stereotypes. Tanya’s cod Russian accent is eminently forgivable, but Chang the Chinaman? Flannigan the big, bearded Irishman? A token Yankee? Clearly lessons weren’t learned from The Smugglers. The narrative is similarly wanting, at its best recycling elements from The Moonbase as the Cybermen insidiously infiltrate the Wheel, at its worst failing to explain why they’d want to - an “overriding ambition to invade the Earth” doesn’t quite cover it.
However, whilst Whitaker’s plot for The Wheel in Space might not win any awards (unless there’s one for rigid adherence to formula), Tristan de Vere Cole’s direction should. When listening to old Who soundtracks, even those that can be married up with the appropriate telesnaps, it’s almost impossible to judge the direction. However, with a third of its episodes still in the archive, here we can appreciate the sterling work of de Vere Cole. The final episode in particular houses some beautifully majestic moments: just look at Jamie and Zoe floating in space, or the Cybermen marching towards the camera with that ‘mirror effect’ on them. Even the Wheel itself is a striking forerunner of Star Trek’s Deep Space Nine, albeit one where analogue tapes have made an unexpected comeback. That’s attrition for you.
We’re also fortunate in that the final episode offers us a glimpse at something unique. When Zoe elects to join the Doctor and Jamie on their travels, determined to cast off her institutionalised innocence, the Doctor uncharacteristically decides that he should warn his would-be companion of what she’d be in for, reaching inside a TARDIS roundel and pulling out a strange contraption that allows him to weave his thought patterns into a sort of story for her - a monochrome, serialised story in fact, complete with cliffhangers, opening and closing titles and everything. Cue Doctor Who’s first ever repeated serial, The Evil of the Daleks, duly woven into the series’ continuity. As Zoe is still in the TARDIS at the start of The Dominators, I can only assume that the Daleks didn’t put her off.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2006
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