Friday, 9 February 2018

Inspirations - The Wheel In Space

The Wheel in Space is written by David Whitaker, based on an idea by Kit Pedler. Before this, Pedler had always collaborated with Gerry Davis. The "idea", one has to presume, is the same one that he has had for two of the previous Cyberman stories - namely that they besiege a base which houses an international pool of team members, and which has a boss who is totally unsuited to the role. First we had the Snowcap base at the South Pole, then we had the Moonbase, and now we have a space station. As with The Moonbase, the Cybermen don't just march up and smash their way in through the front door. They first have to infiltrate, so the humans are unaware of their presence until the second half of the story.
The way they go about this is convoluted, to put it mildly. We'll look at the plan in a moment, but first a quick word about the titular Wheel. Spaceships in Science Fiction were always presented as streamlined, aerodynamic affairs, but the default for space stations - constructed outside Earth's atmosphere and therefore not needing to pass through it - seems to have been the toroidal, or doughnut, shape. The most famous of these is probably the one from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it has filmic forebears in Conquest of Space (1955), Battle in Outer Space (1959) and other movies. Station W3 here, is not quite toroidal, but it is circular in shape. Then again, we never get a really good look at it beyond the side view.

So - onto the Cyberman plan. There is one aspect of the Cyberman scheme that remains hard to fathom - namely the showers of meteoroids that threaten the Wheel. The script seems to be implying that these were caused by the Cybermen blowing up stars. New companion-to-be Zoe mentions the Messier Cluster (M13), which is around 25,000 light years from Earth. For anything originating in that area of space to reach us, it would have to set off a very, very long time ago. The Cybermen could not possibly have been detonating stars that long ago just so they could have an excuse for having a couple of crates shifted, surely? For this to make any sense at all, the meteoroids must originate from the direction of M13, rather than from within it, and the Cybermen must have simply nudged them in our direction.
Anyways. The Cybermen basically want to use the Wheel as a staging post in their latest invasion of the Earth. Seems they cannot even find the planet without it. They set about redirecting meteoroids, as we have mentioned, in order that the station which they really, really need, gets threatened with destruction. That's because the Wheel has one particular method of defence - an X-ray laser gun - and this relies on power rods composed of the mineral bernalium. The Cybermen hijack a service rocket called the "Silver Carrier", which they refuel, and reprogramme its servo-robot to pilot towards the station. A couple of Cybermen are hidden aboard, in big egg-like pods. They need to be smuggled over to the Wheel, so the servo-robot sends Cybermats across from the rocket to burrow their way through the hull of the station. These Cybermats must then hunt down the bernalium supplies and corrode them. There is no attempt at subterfuge here, as the little critters seem happy to make their presence known. The Wheel crew then decide to send a couple of men over to the rocket to get its supply of bernalium - which is exactly what the Cybermen want them to do. The men are put under their mental control and ordered to carry the big crate of bernalium over to the Wheel, with the Cybermen hidden inside it. In other words, all of the above has just been to get two Cybermen onto the space station.

The thing is, the first reaction of the station's commander, Jarvis Bennett, is to blow up the rocket when it drifts too close to the Wheel. It is only down to Jamie sabotaging the laser, because the TARDIS is still on the vessel, that prevents this happening. The Cybermen could not possibly have foreseen the Doctor and Jamie's arrival, so it is pure fluke that the two Cybermen did not get blown apart before their plan could get underway.
Once they do get onto the Wheel, the Cybermen kill some people, and mentally subjugate some of the others. They intend to wipe out all of the humans, by poisoning the atmosphere with ozone. This part of their plan is foiled because the medic Dr Corwin overhears it and warns the Doctor. He in turn orders the command crew to switch to what definitely sounds like the "sexual" air supply. This might have made these episodes somewhat more entertaining, but presumably the word is supposed to be "sectional". The Cybermen are quickly destroyed, and another batch of them who attempt to force their way in after space-walking are sent spinning off into space by a force-field. The time-vector generator from the TARDIS is used to boost the power of the laser weapon, and it blows up the approaching Cybership.
There is one school of thought which claims that David Whitaker came up with this bizarre plot as a deliberate act of contempt for the formulaic base-under-siege format. Remember, he has just written two of the best Dalek stories ever, and then the one story of this season which doesn't follow the formula (The Enemy of the World). He is also the man who helped shape the programme in its earliest phase, and this version of the show might just not be how he intended it to go. He may have been really frustrated at having to adhere to Pedler's "idea", and he's kicking against it.

The counter-view is that this is simply his best attempt at a base-under-siege story, and he hasn't quite grasped how simple this format can be. You'll remember that he once wrote a story in which another spaceship couldn't find a planet, even when it was aiming right at it and was very, very close (The Rescue), so his science was never brilliant. Certain parts of the script are obviously Whitaker's work - such as the TARDIS sending obscure visual warnings to the crew when it is experiencing a technical fault (as in Edge of Destruction), the mercury fluid links, and a scene on the rocket involving a food machine (both The Daleks, which he script edited).
A couple of firsts for this story are the introduction of Zoe, and the Doctor gaining his alias of John Smith. Zoe is a hot-house child, educationally enhanced to be super smart at an early age. Back when this story was written, this sort of educational system was believed to be the thing of the future. Zoe is supposed to be an astrophysicist and astrometrist, yet she works in a parapsychology lab. That's the study of paranormal and psychic phenomena - usually covering things like telepathy, psychokinesis and clairvoyance. The two things don't quite match up. Perhaps she is some form of junior Dana Scully, tasked with debunking such phenomena. Then again, everyone from Philip K Dick to Babylon 5 seems to think that there will be telepaths all over the place in the future.
Zoe doesn't appear until the second episode. In the first part, we get a reprise of the closing seconds of the previous story - Fury From The Deep - which features a glimpse of Victoria Waterfield. This leads to Debbie Watling getting a credit. This derives from a contractual issue.
As for "John Smith", it is Jamie who gives the Doctor this alias, as he is obliged to give Dr Corwin a name for her comatose patient. He takes it from the manufacturers of a piece of medical equipment. The Doctor won't actually adopt it for himself until he needs a name for the Brigadier's files, once he has been exiled to Earth.

One final thing to mention about this story is the concluding couple of minutes. Zoe has realised that she is simply a machine, able to reel off facts but lacking the true understanding that underpins them. She decides to stow away on the TARDIS to see what real life is like. She is quickly discovered, hiding in the magic chest which has featured in previous Troughton stories - the one that just happens to contain whatever the Doctor and his companions need for that particular story. The Doctor decides to reveal a hitherto unseen function of his ship - a thought channel that can show mental images on the scanner. The Doctor elects to show Zoe his last adventure against the Daleks, though he oddly decides to begin with the end of Episode Two, and a sequence he wasn't present at. Luckily the following week he will go back to the beginning, and will include theme music, production titles and cliffhangers - making it look like a Doctor Who story. Of course all this is just to connect the end of Season Five with a repeat broadcast of Evil of the Daleks which will plug the gap between seasons.
This was the only full story repeat broadcast in the 1960's. The debut episode An Unearthly Child had been repeated a week later back in 1963, owing to the immediate aftermath of JFK's assassination.
Next time: Dominators dominate, and Quarks are both strange and charming...

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