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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Doctor Who: The Wheel in Space

Serial Title: The Wheel in Space

Series: 5
Episodes: 6
Doctor: Patrick Troughton
Companions: Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines), Zoe Heriot (Wendy Padbury)


The TARDIS is perhaps as despondent as Jamie at the departure of Victoria, and those cursed fluid links (for reals this time, not just an excuse to go and explore Skarro) overheat, boiling poisonous mercury fumes into the air. The Doctor and Jamie are forced to evacuate, yanking the crucial Time Vector Generator on their way out- reducing the TARDIS' ability to access the alternate dimension that is its interior, and rendering it on the inside what it is on the outside- an ordinary police box. Wow! Talk about your slam-bang opening!

Searching for replacement mercury, the Doctor and Jamie explore the seemingly abandoned spaceship, The Silver Carrier, that they’ve materialized in- but the Doctor soon gets into a battle with an inexplicably hostile (no, there’s honestly never any explanation given) porter robot, and in defeating it, is also knocked out cold. Jamie discovers nothing but a strange pair of large white spheres before rushing back to the unconscious Doctor’s side.

Meanwhile, on the Wheel, a human space station out on the frontier used as the spatial equivalent of an airport Traffic Control Tower, the derelict ship is detected. Like the unusually high number of meteor bombardments of late, it’s bound directly for the Wheel. Jarvis Bennet, the commander, prepares to blast it out of existence with the primary laser to prevent a deadly collision rather than risking a rendezvous to bring the potentially erratic unmanned ship under control. He is also distracted by sudden, strange drops in pressure in compartments around the outer hull that just as suddenly repair themselves.

At the last moment, Jamie uses the Time Vector Generator to signal the Wheel like a beacon, and the destruction of the ship is averted... but perhaps it shouldn't have been, as the two large white pods that Jamie discovered earlier open shortly after the rescue party departs, revealing... a pair of Cybermen! Hey, they cheated again! This isn’t called 'Wheel of the Cybermen,' or even the slightly clunkier 'Wheel in Space of the Cybermen!' This would’ve been a great Moonbase-esque surprise... if the Fury from the Deep copy we viewed hadn’t had a vintage “Next Week” spoiler-filled trailer attached to the end. Ah, well. Speaking of being extremely similar to the Moonbase, let’s get back to the plot...

On the station, the unconscious Doctor is taken to sick bay, and Jamie meets Zoe Herriot, the para-psychology librarian (I’ve heard of specialized fields of work, but that’s ridiculous! Has psychology grown large enough in the vague “Near Future” [What, AGAIN?!??! Dates, give me DATES, TIME TRAVEL SHOW!!!!] 21st century that it requires its own library?) as well as her boss, Doctor Gemma Corwyn. Bennet is suspicious of the new arrivals, believing them to be potential saboteurs. He probably also refuses to shut off the gas-flow, but we are not shown this on-screen.

Unfortunately, Jamie confirms his suspicions by BECOMING a saboteur, sabotaging the main laser just before it can destroy the derelict Silver Carrier, not having time to explain about the TARDIS. The Doctor awakens into an arrest, and is none too pleased- but the Wheel staff have already moved on to deal with another incoming meteor shower, this time having no functional laser to repel it. And they’ll have even less laser once the Cybermats (who tunneled through the hull and resealed it behind them, accounting for the mysterious pressure drops earlier) finish consuming the backup bernalium rods that power it. Once that is complete, the only other source of Bernalium in the area will be the Silver Carrier, brought onto the Wheel like a Trojan horse (Wheelian-horse?)- yes, the entire ongoing meteor crisis has been engineered by the Cybermen to force the Wheel to take aboard the seemingly abandoned spaceship and facilitate their conquest, which they will then use as a stepping-stone to invade Earth.

Crewmen start to die from Cybermat attacks, but Bennet (who is mentally deteriorating from the stress) refuses to acknowledge the danger or believe in the existence of the creatures, or, presumably, to shut off the gas-flow. (Seriously, the guy is a carbon-copy of Robson.) Anyhow- two crew members are dispatched to the Silver Carrier for Bernalium, and quickly fall under Cyber-hypnosis. They sabotage Wheel communications, and bring over a series of crates, containing “Bernalium,” the quotation marks being my clever little way of implying what you’d already guessed (so why am I drawing this out so long?)- they contain Cybermen instead.

The Doctor and Co. manage to destroy the Cybermats with a sonic wave, but the Cybermen are unhindered, repairing the laser (to destroy their own incoming meteorites, as they want to keep the station intact now that they’ve taken it) and preparing to guide in an invasion fleet. Jamie and Zoe spacewalk over to the Silver Carrier to retrieve the Time Vector Generator, while the Cybermen pick off the Wheel crew one by one, including Gemma. Bennet dies in a blaze of ineffective glory, and the Cybermen seem to have won- until the Doctor uses the Time Vector Generator to increase the power of the main laser and blasts the Cyber-invasion ship to atoms with it, ending the invasion threat. The incoming Cyberman platoon is blown out into space, and the few remaining Cybermen are destroyed.

In the aftermath, the Doctor and Jamie return to the TARDIS with the needed mercury, and leave- with a stowaway aboard. Librarian Zoe wants to expand her horizons. While the Doctor is glad to have another companion aboard, he first seeks to warn her of the potential dangers, by way of a re-run of Evil of the Daleks. Zoe, undeterred, wishes to stay.

The Wheel In Space is an odd duck. It's forgettable yet brilliant. Cliched yet compelling. It's a study in contradictions, divided right down the middle.

The opening is brilliant. The fluid link is an excellent callback to "The Daleks." The folding-in TARDIS. The disabled ship with a killer robot servant (prefiguring Girl In The Fireplace quite nicely). The Doctor and Jamie trapped aboard a ship about to be destroyed as a derelict. The Doctor unconscious and Jamie having to make a rash decision to protect the TARDIS. Fantastic stuff! And then...

It becomes 'The Moonbase' again. Cliched Cybermen-taking-over-a-distant-outpost, complete with a visually stunning (some truly awesome looking special effects) Cybermen-army-walking-in-a-hostile-environment shots before they are repulsed away into space at the end. Plus, an overly cliched paranoid commander. While he's not another 'Gaston/Zentos/Tor' (that role's reserved for upstart second-in-commands), he's a character that's become the epitome of 'stock character' on Doctor Who- last seen in THE VERY PRECEEDING SERIAL, Fury from the Deep. He's Robson, with shades of Bragen (Power of the Daleks) Leader Clent (Ice Warriors), and even a tinge of Moonbase and Macra Terror's commanders, as well. The unreasonable, paranoid commander is becoming overdone quickly enough, but to use him two serials in a row, in a plot derivative of the last major Cybermen story? That this tale was a quickly-drafted replacement (for an intended Cyberman/Dalek war, the likes of which we wouldn't see until the New Series' "Doomsday," kiboshed by Terry Nation's ongoing Daleks-pouting) is rather obvious... and yet the first half is so GOOD- tense and exciting and engaging! It's hard to judge this one. Let's look at the particulars...

Like...who is this guy? Exactly.
The characters, I found to be largely forgettable. The commander is an incompetent paranoid, the counselor/second-in-command a competent and likable character who sacrifices herself, the rest of the bridge crew forgettable, and the remainder of the Wheel staff idiotic.

It’s the Cybermen who thrive here- from creepy visual moments (ranging from their emergence to their repulsion into space), to a great showdown with the Doctor (and its cheer-out-loud conclusion)... the Cyber-controller has a cool, creepy look despite having that “Bzzta grffa nzzt dzzt tzzt” indecipherably buzzy Cyberman voice from previous series- thankfully, the walkabout models have a voice more similar to the Daleks than anything... while the Tenth Planet original Cybermen voice is still missed, this one is still a vast improvement, rendering the Cybermen largely comprehensible.

This is also the introduction of Zoe... she seems to have inherited the mannerisms of Dodo (and somewhat of Susan as well), as they behave remarkably similarly- the character hook of a cold computer, a walking database of facts who want to come into contact with her human emotions (an arc exploited to great success with Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, among others), is an interesting one- I look forward to seeing how it plays out. However, like the Vulcans from the series Enterprise, various android foes, and even the Cybermen themselves, Zoe shows a lot of emotion from a supposed 'cold computer'- curiosity, arrogance, impatience, smugness, etc.- that the analysis of her as an unfeeling computer seems artificial and arbitrary. As with most sci-fi shows, emotion is associated with positive emotions- happiness, cheerfulness, etc.- and social behavior, rather than actual emotion; if you don’t behave with happiness or interact socially without stiffness, sci-fi will label you “emotionless” as a stand-in for “Not showcasing the emotions that I prefer people to display around me.” Anyhow... as I said, I look forward to seeing her development as a companion.

(Note from Andrew, 3 months later: In retrospect, I see I was wrong about Zoe’s character. She was poorly described as 'all brains, no emotion' in this serial, which set up my expectations incorrectly. Instead, the character of Zoe is, as I understand it, all brains but no maturity. Like a child, she is very impulse-driven and naive, simply doing what she wants to do or thinks would be fun without considering the consequences- very intelligent, but lacking in ‘real world smarts’ to a degree that puts her on the same level as an 8-year-old. Based on this, her portrayal past this initial source is good, and fairly consistent- even amusing- giving the Doctor a very parental role even more so than the witty-and-canny-but-ignorant-of-technology-and-alien-societies Jamie. However, I did not come to understand this for another 3 or 4 serials... so you will see my mounting frustration and annoyance with Zoe’s portrayal failing to live up to the premise- "intelligent but unemotional, wanting to become more human despite being initially robot-like" as I understood it in this serial... only in retrospect and hindsight, as of ‘The Krotons,’ do I finally come to understand her character. Thus, if you watch these serials with this understanding, you will likely find her far less frustrating than I describe in subsequent blogs.)

Jamie is good in this serial- very human, if a bit technologically inconsistent in his understanding (sometimes knowing more than he should, other times being completely ignorant). He’s placed into difficult situations, forced to improvise, and makes some rash and foolish choices, but only out of good will. He also gives the Doctor his John Smith pseudonym for the first time, though it doesn’t have the origin you’d suspect it would... regardless, Jamie is at his most human and most 'real' to date in this serial- flawed, but trying hard to do the right thing, and very likable.

The Doctor... well, save for an awesome showdown with the Cybermen, and what may or may not be an excellent fight with a hostile service droid (curse you, lost episodes!!!), he doesn’t have all that much to do. There’s also an Hartnel-style actor-takes-a-vacation disability for the Doctor in this one- if only they could be a bit less obvious.

Cybermats are back- goofy looking, but deadly effective nonetheless... perhaps more fearsome to the characters than to us, but pretty effective where they’re used. Is this their swan song? I hope so... (Note from Andrew, one year later: Actually, now a-days, I have quite a fondness for the little buggers, and cheered their re-introduction in the New Series' "Closing Time." However, this is their swan song for about 7 years. And I really must stop crossing my own time-stream in this blog...!)

The space walk scenes are pretty cool- sure, they’re clearly hanging from wires in gravity... but hey, they’re trying. The Cyber-beams continue to have tracking issues as they move from forehead to forehead, but also look cool. The smoke used to give atmosphere to the space scenes is pretty cool, lending the effects shots a class beyond their means. The only real effects failure... save for the truly bizarre, seizure-inducing repulsion at the end (which itself follows the so-eerie-and-cool-we’ll-ignore-that-it’s-ridiculous Moonbase-ripoff spacewalking scene) is the meteors... described as 'meteorites of all shapes and sizes', they are all spherical, of roughly the same size, spin rapidly, and move uniformly. Uhhh... oops.

Effects failures and character issues aside, this story is a cause for celebration- it’s the end of ‘The Hump’ and the final episode of Series 5- Series 6 begins a nice, straight stretch of pure, beautifully varied, gloriously mobile VIDEO episodes... if you discount the Invasion’s missing parts (due to the official animated reconstructions), then only one serial with missing episodes remains from here on out. The sense of accomplishment and euphoric relief, having conquered this hump and emerging into episode 6 of this serial, the first of a new video dynasty, after the seemingly-eternal reign of the reconstructions, cannot be overstated, or even adequately conveyed, to anyone that hasn’t experienced it for themselves... my friends, we have conquered the mountains, and the valley lies before us at last! Hurrah!!! After nearly 10 straight hours of still images, we have Troughton in motion before us!

The reconstruction, meanwhile (episodes 3 and 6 survive... I’d rather have had 1 and 6- from the TARDIS collapse to the robot battle, an intact Episode 1 would have been SO awesome) was decent- we went with a youtube fan version (having come to distrust the mishmash our Hard Drive collection offered us completely by now) that had relatively sharp photos and a few video bits (Troughton stories are great for this- between repeated FX shots, and lipless villains like Cybermen, the Great-Intelligence-behind-a-curtain, etc., there is a lot of footage that can be played over existing audio and look like it belongs there... and this one went the extra step and mirrored a Cyberman-conversing-with-hypnotised-victim shot, making it still look different from the repeat when the shot was re-seen in the Episode 6 video, a nice above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty touch that, as an editor, I greatly appreciated), and most significantly, narration by the actress who played Zoe. We’ve found that we prefer the narration versions to captions by a long shot, and this one didn’t disappoint- maybe not as stunning as some of the Loose Canon works of the past, but nonetheless, as a note to go out on, it was one of the better Troughton reconstructions we’ve seen.

Jamie, CLEARLY wearing Luke Skywalker's
flight suit from the Empire Strikes Back
So, while the cliched and frustrating stock second half does much to tarnish the good impression left by the originality and suspense of the first half, I’d say that the character of Zoe- with myriad possibilities to be explored- and incredibly strong showing for Jamie, and some cool, atmospheric and stylish visuals tip the balance to positive on this one in the end despite a weaker showing for the Doctor... and most other characters as well. It wasn’t the best of the best, but it was cool and slick, and I liked it. (That’s what she... never mind.)

Great moments:
The whole first chapter- the TARDIS folding in on itself, the trapped-ship drama, etc. - plus the Cybermen spacewalking at the end, and the spacesuit bit.

Like who is this guy even....??? Exactly.
Overall Rating for this story is 3.5 out of 5 Elec- no, make that Instant Plasitc-Encased Cybermats – this story had more positive points vs. negative than nearly any I can remember- Weak Doctor vs. Strong Jamie, intriguing Zoe vs. annoying commander, clich├ęd story end vs. unique story beginning, forgettable characters vs. cool atmospheric visuals... it was a real back-and-forth with SO MANY good elements, and so many bad... in the end, it ends up on the positive side of the scale.

The reconstruction gets 5 out of 5 Instant Plastic-Encased Cybermats for the little touches- like that mirrored shot- that were clearly put in to keep it fresh. As a ‘final’ (save for one more late in the season), it was a refreshing labor of love. And unlike the more technically ambitious Web of Fear reconstruction referenced recently, it’s smooth and polished, emphasizing the story instead of distracting from it- making its simpler approach far more effective, despite a lack of digital manipulation or compositing flair.

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