Thursday, October 31, 2013

Doctor Who: in defense of "The Wheel in Space"

The fifth of seven neglected or maligned Classic Who serials that I consider worth revisiting, one for each Doctor. The series commences with "Terminus," then continues with "The Ark," "Delta and the Bannermen" and "Death to the Daleks."

Revisiting "The Wheel in Space," in preparation for this post, made me sad -- not the reaction I was expecting. "The Wheel in Space" is a largely ignored serial, one that I realized during my latest rewatch is even better than I'd remembered. But I was also reminded that a key reason it's under-appreciated is because four of its six parts are missing. And that is to say, the visuals are missing. But here's the thing: the audio is still there. And there are amazing reconstructions: Loose Cannon (obviously) did one, and I see, online, at least two others that I like. And Wendy Padbury narrated the audio book. So there are all kinds of ways to "watch" and appreciate "Wheel in Space" even though only two of the six episodes survive in their entirety, but I've come to realize that some fans -- even some diehard ones -- won't, because it calls for the kind of viewing effort we're not used to these days.

And I get it, truly I do. A half-century ago, when these serials first aired, TV viewing always involved effort: you changed the channel, then spent 15 minutes adjusting the rabbit ears. But these days, we expect instant results. This past week, as I rewatched "Wheel in Space," via a superb restoration at Daily Motion that combined telesnaps, surviving video, production photos and Wendy Padbury's narration (plus, obviously, the two surviving episodes from the Lost in Time set), I kept getting pop-up ads and commercials, and my iPad kept having buffering issues or taking me to the App Store (I don't know why) -- and it was a pain in the neck. But it was a pain in the neck that was so worth it, because "The Wheel in Space" is superb. It's the forgotten stepchild of both the superlative Classic Who Season 5, and of the whole Classic Cybermen canon. And watching it this past week, I realized that, in its own unusual way, it might just be the best of the Classic Cybermen stories, which I realize is heresy -- but I'm pretty confident in saying that it's as good as "The Tenth Planet" and "Earthshock" and superior to all the rest. It's certainly the best of the Troughton Cybermen serials, but as it's the only one not released on DVD, the only one without an easy way to view in its entirety, I grew disheartened recognizing that a lot of folks won't have the pleasure of that realization.

So: off my soapbox now. I encourage you to make the effort to watch it, and if you do, I envy you the experience of discovering one of the lost classics of the Who catalog. And if you don't care to watch, I hope I can do some justice to it here.

David Whitaker's writing career on Who was remarkable; I know many gravitate towards Robert Holmes or Terrance Dicks as the best of the regular Classic Who scripters, but for me, no one's style and approach get to me like Whitaker's. As the show's first story editor, he's the one who taught everyone how to write Doctor Who, and then, when he left his post and began scripting, showed that he could do it better. So many of my favorites are Whitaker's: my favorite historical ("The Crusade"), my favorite Dalek serial ("Evil of the Daleks"). And he's there, paving the way at so many critical junctures: at the earliest redefining of the TARDIS dynamic ("The Edge of Destruction," which made the rest of the series possible), at the addition of the first new companion ("The Rescue"), at the introduction of the first new Doctor ("Power of the Daleks"). He gives Troughton arguably the greatest tour-de-force in Classic Who history in "Enemy of the World," and gifts him both his female companions, Victoria and Zoe. Whitaker's intelligence, creativity and warmth are evident in all those scripts, as is his canny understanding of how Doctor Who audiences watch the show -- and often he would use that knowledge to undermine our expectations and double our pleasure.

"The Wheel in Space" is a serial he was asked to write (to bring back the Cybermen for the end of Season 5) and not one that he himself proposed. And because of that, the legend has grown around it that it was a story his heart wasn't in, and that it's not up to his best work. And the truth is that, often, when very good Who writers are handed assignments, and pen something without genuine inspiration, the results can come off like... well, like Robert Holmes' "The Power of Kroll."

But trust Whitaker. However he came to write the serial, he found a way in that clearly interested him. He wrote a character study. Not a character study of the Cybermen: that had pretty much been taken care of in their initial story, and part of the problem with the two follow-ups, "The Moonbase" and "Tomb of the Cybermen," is that once you'd "explained" the Cybermen, their make-up and their motives, there wasn't much else to do with them. So Whitaker writes a character study about a group of people aboard a space vessel in the future: a serial with clearly defined characters who evolve through the course of six episodes. They're put to the test in ways they never expected: some rise to the occasion, others crash and burn, and several use the experience to reevaluate their future. "The Wheel in Space" is as much slice-of-life drama as sci-fi, fantasy or thriller. It would be much the same serial without the Cybermen; most any monster or sizable threat would have worked, and the serial would have played out in the same way.

But because Whitaker is saddled with the Cybermen, he uses them in counterpoint to his own characters. The Cybermen's defining trait -- their suppression of human feeling -- allows him to cast a critical eye towards mankind and observe how our own emotions define us: how they deepen us and how, sometimes, they destroy us. And the Cybermen's very duality -- part robot, part human -- becomes the gauge by which he measures his own characters, and never more so than with Zoe Heriot, the young astrophysicist who's set to become the next companion. Script editor Derrick Sherwin envisioned Zoe as a scientific prodigy, but as always when he designed new characters, Whitaker dug deeper: he conceives Zoe in Cybermen terms. Here's the Doctor, in Episode 3, describing the Cybermen to the ship's controller:

The Doctor: They were once men, human beings like yourself, from the planet Mondas, but now they're more robot then man.
Bennett: You mean half and half?
The Doctor: Oh no, more than that. Their entire bodies are mechanical, and their brains have been treated neuro-surgically to remove all human emotions.

And here's Zoe and Doctor Corwyn in the following episode:

Corwyn: Do you ever feel anything emotional, Zoe?
Zoe: Emotional? Do you know, that's the second time I've been asked that in the last few hours. Leo said I was like a robot, a machine. I think he's right. My head's been pumped full of facts and figures which I reel out automatically when needed, but, well, I want to feel things as well.
Corwyn: Good. Unfortunately, the parapsychology unit at the City tends to ignore this aspect in its pupils. Some of them never fully develop their human emotions.
Zoe: You don't think I'll be like that, do you?
Corwyn: No, you seem to have survived their brainwashing techniques remarkably well.
Zoe: Oh, good.

"Their brains have been treated neuro-surgically." "You seem to have survived their brainwashing techniques remarkably well." "They're more robot than man." "Leo said I was like a robot, a machine." The parallels are clear. It's a remarkable portrait of someone who's about to become the next member of the TARDIS crew, because it's someone who sees herself, in her own words, as "a freak."

Zoe: There's too much I don't know. I was trained to believe logic and calculation would provide me with all the answers. Well, I'm just beginning to realise there are questions which I can't answer.
Jamie: You're just not trained for an emergency like this.
Zoe: Well, that's the whole point. What good am I? I've been created for some false kind of existence where only known kinds of emergencies are accounted for. Well, what good is that to me now?
Jamie: Hey, we're not done yet, you know.
Zoe: And if we survive? What then, Jamie? Suppose we do get ourselves out of this mess. What have I got left?

It's beautiful dialogue, and brilliant character building. Zoe can spit out facts for days, but when it comes to facing the unknown, and responding to events intuitively, she's out of her element. And the experiences of "Wheel in Space" make it clear to her that that's not a life she wants for herself. ("What have I got left?") But wanting something and getting it aren't the same thing, as she learns when she sneaks aboard the TARDIS at the end and stows away in a trunk. The Second Doctor, never the fool, knows she's there, and knocks on the trunk -- and she sheepishly appears and admits that she longs to travel with the Doctor and Jamie. But it's not that easy. Because the Second Doctor has his issues with Zoe, as he expressed in their very first conversation in "Wheel in Space," when Zoe proffered figures as fact:

The Doctor: Well, it's an interesting theory.
Zoe: Oh, it isn't a theory. You can't disprove the facts. It's pure logic.
The Doctor: Logic, my dear Zoe, merely enables one to be wrong with authority.

The Doctor has learned, over a long lifetime, to balance reason and emotion -- even when it means being cutthroat (as he was in Whitaker's "Evil of the Daleks," and as he is again in "Wheel in Space," when he sends Jamie and Zoe on a mission that might prove deadly to them, because he knows it's the only way to save humanity). That's how he's survived. But can Zoe learn that? Can she be an effective crew-member? It's a novel notion: the Doctor inviting someone aboard who may well be ill-equipped to handle the perils at hand -- and if I'm less fond of Zoe than other fans are, it's because this aspect of her personality was rarely touched upon again. Once she boards the TARDIS, and a new season gets underway, she's mostly chipper and quick-witted, becoming a sounding-board for the Doctor, and a brainy little sister for Jamie. And arguably, she's used "well," but is she used best? Because there's something inherently sad, and even tragic, about Zoe, as Whitaker envisioned her, that's largely overlooked or ignored in the serials to come. But that's a blog entry for another day; my point is that "Wheel in Space" gives her a sensational introduction.

Zoe, the product of a mind-controlling parapsychology program, is fundamentally (but not fatally) damaged, and so is the ship's controller, Jarvis Bennett, who's undergoing a nervous breakdown. A lot of commanders in Who are stricken with "why-won't-they-listen-to-reason" sickness -- it's how the writers sustain the story-line, by having those in authority refuse to heed the Doctor "until it's too late." But Bennett's stubbornness in ignoring the Doctor's warnings isn't used for plot purposes; it simply serves as another example of the tug-of-war between logic and emotion that humans and Time Lords (unlike Cybermen) have to endure:

The Doctor: Tell me about the controller.
Corwyn: Tell you what?
The Doctor: He's a strange man to be in a position like this.
Corwyn: In ordinary circumstances, no.
The Doctor: Are there any ordinary circumstances in space?
Corwyn: Normally he's more than capable of commanding this station. It's a continuous and merciless responsibility.
The Doctor: Exactly. One does wonder what a man like that will do when faced with a problem for which he has no solution.
Corwyn: I must confess I've been concerned. Jarvis shows signs of blocking off his mind. He just can't face the truth.

Like Zoe, Jarvis Bennett has an analytical mind that can't process anything outside the realm of experience -- but whereas Zoe cries out for help, Bennett shuts down. Whitaker eschews melodrama: Bennett doesn't "go off the deep end and damage key components, sending everyone plummeting towards certain death." "The Wheel in Space" is about how people of different backgrounds and varying aptitudes respond to stress and crisis, and Whitaker is careful not to editorialize his characters. His style is refreshingly dispassionate. He simply captures the cadences of everyday speech -- the joking, bickering, flirting and fussing -- and allows us to draw our own conclusions. The Doctor, early on, suffers a blow to the head, and in Episode 4, Dr. Corwyn examines his X-rays and assures him that he'll be fine:

The Doctor: Oh, I'm so glad there is no damage, Miss Corwyn.
Corwyn: Mrs.
The Doctor: Oh, forgive me.
Corwyn: My husband died in the asteroid belt three years ago.
The Doctor: Oh. I'm so sorry.
Corwyn: My name's Gemma.
The Doctor: Gemma. How nice.

The characters in "Wheel in Space" take the time to interact, and sometimes you feel they're so rich that details of their lives simply have to spill out. One of the pitfalls of Who scripts, particularly in the "monster" episodes, is that once the creatures attack, the dialogue becomes bland and reactive. It's "what do we do?" and "what do they want?" "Wheel in Space" is the unusual serial where you believe the characters had a life before we met them, and that they'll have one after we leave; it's the rare Who with a shipload of people where none feel interchangeable.

“The Wheel in Space” is so bristling with talk that Whitaker can indulge in delicious jump-cuts that alternately deepen and streamline the story-line. When Zoe takes Jamie to meet the jovial Bill Duggan, the ship’s expert in interstellar flora, Duggan is fascinated by this multi-faceted scientist that Jamie travels with: “He certainly sounds like an interesting character, this Doctor of yours,” Duggan exclaims. (It’s one of Troughton’s rare weeks off, and so his character has suffered a concussion, and been confined to sick bay.) “When is he going to be up and about?” “If he’s just suffering from concussion, not too long,” comes the response, but it’s Dr. Corwyn in a scene with Bennett, discussing the very same topic, and they continue their conversation from there. Later, when Jamie, to protect the TARDIS, destroys the ship’s laser, and the crew confronts him in the operations room — why did he do it? — he offers up the only explanation he can: “The Doctor told me to protect it.” “Well, that’s marvelous, isn’t it,” the Doctor replies, only now we’re at his bed in sick bay: “The Doctor told me to protect it.” Newly revived, he admonishes his companion, “You don’t give a reason, just leave me to get you out of trouble.” Whitaker omits all the dreary, expected scenes — the crew disbelieving Jamie’s excuse and putting him on the defensive — and cuts right to the critical one: the Doctor’s response to Jamie’s excuse. Whitaker establishes a ship full of chatter, then cuts through the chatter to give us the scenes we need, in ways we don’t expect.

"Wheel in Space" continues the tradition of multi-cultural casts of which Cybermen creators Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis were so fond. (The script credit here is "by David Whitaker, from a story by Kit Pedler." Pedler was a scientist turned writer, so some of the technical jargon is no doubt his, and his field, like Zoe's, was parapsychology, but the script -- in structure, characterization and tone -- is clearly a Whitaker effort.) One of the things that makes "Tomb of the Cybermen" tough to sit through is that the stereotypes are so heavy-handed, in the scripting and in the playing. "Wheel in Space" keeps the multi-culturalism, but it's done with finesse: there's a lightness of touch -- a consistency of style -- that's refreshingly P.C. The characters' shared experience and shared humanity define them more than their accents. The subtlety of the playing is something you sadly don't get in the telesnaps; one of the dangers of watching reconstructions, I'll fully admit, is that when you see the same photos over and over, you start to think the line readings might suffer from a certain sameness. But the two extant episodes of "Wheel in Space" happily put that fear to rest: in the surviving video, the interactions between cast members are graceful, varied and convincing. The six most prominent figures in the guest cast -- Bennett, Corwyn, Leo, Tanya, Duggan and of course Zoe -- are splendidly and lovingly drawn. There are no villains among them; this is merely a group of competent and admirable professionals who, faced with a hostile and unpredictable environment, find their ability to function -- much less properly do their job -- sorely tested. And as somewhat of an antidote to "Tomb," which was rife with the sort of xenophobia that taught you to distrust any characters who weren't Caucasian, the final shot of "Wheel in Space' is of two crew members from different countries -- an Australian man and a Russian woman -- holding hands. (It's a flirtation that's played out through the serial, one that only turns into something more, we imagine, because of the crisis they faced.) Watching "Wheel in Space," you feel that -- despite all the Cybermen and Daleks and Ice Warriors marauding the galaxy -- there might be hope for mankind after all.

There's virtually nothing wrong with "Wheel in Space," except it being missing. (OK, there's one wonky moment as the Cybermen flap their arms while entering the ship -- but it follows a majestic shot of them walking through space, so you let it pass.) It's not as flashy as its best Season 5 stablemates: it doesn't have the Troughton doppelgangers of "Enemy of the World," or the introduction of a new villain and slam-bang direction of "The Ice Warriors," or the hypnotic atmosphere of "Abominable Snowmen." But it's solid throughout, and often superb. The direction is striking, the set design imaginative, the costumes effective. And the use of sound effects instead of a score is quite novel. It's a Cybermen serial without musical underscoring -- in particular, without that thumping piece of Wilfred Josephs stock music that had been used and reused in all their earlier appearances. Instead, Who sound designer Brian Hodgson gets the composer credit, and fills "Wheel in Space" with the sounds that might be heard as background noise on a spaceship: the hums and beeps and pulses that create their own tension. (Because really, when we're home alone, aren't the scariest sounds the ones that emanate from our own house, that might be something else?)

Subtlety rules in "Wheel in Space," because again, the emphasis is on character, not carnage. And because of that emphasis, the chaos caused by the Cybermen carries some weight, as they toss Whitaker's full-blooded creations through the air, or strangle them, or blast them into oblivion. And tellingly (and this a tribute to director Tristan de Vere Cole, and how much he understood the themes being explored), often when the Cybermen go on a rampage, we experience it through the eyes and ears of a bystander, and we view the impact that it has on them. When Cybermats close in on radio operator Rudkin, and his piercing screams dissolve the screen to black, we instantly cut to crew members reacting in horror to his cries: Dr. Corwin and Duggan in a corridor; the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe in sick bay. When the Cybermen spot Bennett, and move in for the kill, we see it solely through a monitor, with the Doctor and Leo and Tanya in the foreground; as Bennett is thrown across a corridor, then torn apart with Cyber-blasts, our focus remains squarely on those forced to watch it happen. “Turn it off! Turn it off!” Tanya cries, as she collapses into Leo’s arms.

Because in the end, "The Wheel in Space," the most human of Cybermen stories, isn't about violence; it's about trauma. It's not about counting the fatalities; it's about tending to the survivors. It's about the effects that a brutal attack can have on everyday people, and about our varying capacities to cope and carry on. And in the serial's final, unexpectedly uplifting moments, as Zoe, broken and uncertain, is welcomed aboard the TARDIS, it's about one Doctor's ability to heal.

Next up, the Sixth Doctor's "Attack of the Cybermen." And if you want even more Doctor Who, I rank and review all 158 Classic Who serials here; take an affectionate look at the William Hartnell era; do an overview of the Jon Pertwee era (including a 10-best list); and take an expansive look at the Peter Davison years.


  1. Another robust defence, sir! haven't looked at this serial in yonks but do remember loving the Zoe/Doctor exchanges and I think she's a better fit than Victoria. I do remember, however, the ridiculously convoluted plots of the Cybermen. Less logic, more Dr Evil! Well done for these pieces, I hope they reach a wide audience! Happy holidays!

    1. Happy holidays to you as well! I went into "Wheel in Space" (watching it, I think, for the third time) expecting to enjoy it, as always. This time, I realized it's a real lost classic. Do watch again sometime, if you get the time. The Cybermen plot in this one is actually quite simple, which is one of the reasons it works: take over a spaceship with clearance for Earth. I didn't even realize until this viewing how heavily Eric Saward borrowed the plot for "Earthshock" -- but, of course, he didn't have Whitaker's gift for characterization.