I like the Cybermen episodes so far because they’re unannounced. Aside from ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’, they’ve all taken me by surprise. Unlike the Dalek episodes, where you know it’s a Dalek episode because it has “Dalek” in the title, you’re not just waiting around for the Cybermen to show up, they just suddenly appear. You see those unmistakable helmet handles and then “surprise! It’s a Cyberman episode!!”
The Wheel in Space is set on a wheel… in space. A rotating Earth space station that monitors stellar phenomena, and is armed with a laser for deflecting meteors and such. Doc and Jamie materialise aboard a seemingly abandoned spaceship that’s heading towards the Wheel, and only narrowly avoid being shot down by them as an off-course rogue ship.
Once aboard, things take a turn for the strange. Cybermats manage to get through the hull and sabotage the laser’s fuel rods, requiring a salvage operation aboard the rogue ship. This gives the Cybermen, who were hidden aboard it, their chance to get aboard the Wheel and start brainwashing the crew. The Doctor wasn’t anticipated in their rather convoluted plan to conquer the Earth (The Wheel provides a safe gateway to Earth, for some technical reason given in the eleventh hour), and his knowledge of the Cybermen is enough to fend them off. They’re blasted into space and their ship is blown up.
This story struck me as rather similar to a lot of others in this series. It was perfectly enjoyable, but once again we have the corruptible power-hungry leader, the hidden enemy who no-one believes at first, the brainwashed humans acting against them in secret, and so on. Fury from the Deep, The Ice Warriors, The Moonbase… it’s a formula they seem to be sticking with. As I say, it’s perfectly fine, and there’s plenty of strong performances, but it’s getting a bit old.
One of the station staff, the emotionally-crippled brainiac wondergirl Zoe, decides to stick with the Doctor and Jamie. Isn’t it a funny coincidence that new companions always join them on the very first mission after the previous one leaves?
Six episodes seems to have become standard practise again, and this one does drag a little. It takes an entire episode just for the Doctor and Jamie to get off the spaceship!
Only two completed episodes of this serial exist, but Loose Cannon’s reconstructions are some of the most thorough I’ve seen so far (these are available on Youtube). Aside from the usual telesnaps and composites, they’ve reused bits of clips from the two available episodes wherever possible, and they even made some CGI sequences of the little robot, the Cybermats, the Cybermen and even the astronauts walking around. Impressive work, team!
Noteworthy mention: When interrogated about the Doctor, who is absent for episode 2 (having hit his head!) Jamie says his name is John Smith, seeing it on a label on a piece of equipment. The Doctor sticks with it as his name for the rest of the story.
Another noteworthy mention, not specifically about this story but classic Doctor Who in general… the supporting cast of characters are portrayed as actual intelligent and believable human beings. In modern stories (certainly in most ‘New Who’), the hero is the clever one, maybe the sidekick too, but the supporting cast are slow and dimwitted in order for the story to proceed and the hero to be seen as clevererererer. That doesn’t really happen here. It’s not all about the Doctor, he’s just a cog in the machine. Anyway, just an observation.