Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Wheel in Space written by David Whitaker and directed Tristan DeVere Cole

This story in a nutshell: The story in which it takes the Cybermen six episodes to try and stow away aboard a space station…

Oh My Giddy Aunt: Whilst the Doctor’s characterisation is generally excellent in this tale, there is an oddly muted atmosphere in the first episode where he and Jamie try and cope with the loss of Victoria. Its clear that without a female presence in the TARDIS that this dynamic feels a little jarring (when it was one of the highlights of Evil of the Daleks). He really should stock up on Mercury, he’s had his fingers burnt once to often in this respect. They try and smooth over the Doctor’s absence in episode two by filling the story with lively guest characters but the show is called Doctor Who for a reason and its only when charismatic companions can take up the slack left by the absent central character that they get away with it (such as The Seeds of Death episode three). It’s the first instance of his alias Dr John Smith and its handed to him by Gemma. Perhaps his affection for her encourages him to use it in subsequent adventures. The first time Troughton gets to show any moments of charm is in episode three which would be unthinkable in any other adventure (even in The Underwater Menace he is off for a paddle on the beach within five minutes). The chemistry between Patrick Troughton and Wendy Padbury is immediate and you can see how her no-nonsense intelligence is going to rub up against his social anarchy. There’s affection there but she is often far brainer than he is and he has a great deal more life experience its that personality clash where all the fun is. You’ll see it time and again in stories like The Mind Robber and The Krotons. The Doctor talks far more passionately about the threat of the Cybermen (‘they’re ruthless inhuman killers!’) than the director does. Nowadays far more would be made of the moment when the Doctor is forced to watch Gemma get needlessly cut down by the Cybermen. It would be the feature of a ten minute coda where he endlessly bursts into tears. The Wheel in Space at least gets this angle right, showing us the Doctor’s pained reaction to her death and then takes a breath and gets on with his responsibilities.

Hairy Highlander: It only takes Jamie a few moments in Zoe’s company to threaten to put her across his knee and spank her…they are clearly going to be great fun together. Jamie listening to himself on a tape recorder is the first time in an age where they have made reference to his (lack of) knowledge. Its been dropped completely since he emerged into his second season, the show instead highlighting his glowing chemistry with Troughton. It’s a shame because I would loved to have seen the Second Doctor educate Jamie in the same way the fourth does with Leela in her initial run of stories. He’s always thinking of his stomach.

Brains’n’Beauty: Zoe makes an immediate impression and clearly stands out amongst the (mostly) dreary Wheel personnel. If you stood back from this story without any knowledge of the future and asked yourself who would be ideal as the next companion there really isn’t any other option (Gemma is fantastic but I can’t imagine her being a particularly stimulating regular…plus I would always be wondering what she and the Doctor are getting up when my back is turned!). Wendy Padbury embodies the role of Zoe wholeheartedly, laughing at Jamie’s kilt, patronising the Doctor and generally coming across as a condescending know-it-all. Perhaps not what you would consider ideal companion material because of her arrogance but it is Padbury’s obvious charms that smoothes out this characters rough edges and makes her so watchable. Zoe is socially awkward and completely unaware of her ability to piss people off until its too late – exactly the sort of person the Doctor should take under his wing and show the universe. That’ll teach her some life skills. In a scene that says more about where Zoe has come from than any other she admits that she is terrified of the idea of being considered an unemotional robot but she fears that she those that call her one might be right. She has had her head packed so full of facts and figures that there isn’t room for anything else. Its impossible not to feel something for her at that moment. She realises she has only been trained to react in certain kinds of situations and that she is pretty much useless now unless she breaks her programming and behaves irrationally. Some of the Doctor’s rebellious nature is rubbing off on Zoe already. There’s a mischievous look on Zoe’s face when Jamie says goodbye which says everything you need to know about her next move (you really didn’t need the shot of her crawling into the chest).

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Well at least you didn’t think of x-rays. That would have been awful’ – another reason Zoe works so much better than Victoria for me, she puts Jamie down so brilliantly.

The Good:
  • Characterisation was always David Whitaker’s forte and if this story has numerous plotting and pacing problems then the characters are at least very real. Skipping back to his time as script editor on the show, Whitaker includes a little prologue at the beginning of the story that sees the Doctor and Jamie leaving in the TARDIS and Victoria waving tearfully on the beach. Its proof that her departure is going to have an effect on them rather than simply      skipping into the next adventure without mention of her passing.
  • Of the strong guest cast, Anne Ridler stands out in particular as Gemma Corwyn as a strong female character who speaks as the voice of reason for everybody on the Wheel. It’s her unusually intimate relationship with Jarvis that prevents him from becoming just another meglomaniacal Commander and her interaction with the Doctor is unique in that it is perhaps the only time during his run where Troughton actively flirts with an actress. There’s a great moment when she corrects the Doctor who has called her Miss Corwyn and he sounds momentarily disappointed. She’s effortlessly likable because she talks such sense and remains the most morally sound character in the show. Gemma is the one who puts all the facts together and tries to cohere the plot, she’s the one who can charm her way in with the Doctor and Jamie and she’s the one who Jarvis listens to because she approaches him logically. She understands people. Gemma’s death is treated with appropriate seriousness, the Jarvis commits suicide, the Doctor is traumatised and Jamie and Zoe pass her body in a mute scene loaded with gravity.
  • Interestingly the Doctor mentions that in times of emergency the TARDIS interior can become a police box…which might offer an explanation to what happens to the Ship way in the future in Father’s Day. Maybe.
  • I love the design of the Wheel model, an unusually functional looking satellite rather than something visually dynamic. One thing that this story does get very right is that you believe this is a functioning station with credible personnel. If only Whitaker had put as much energy into his plot as the background details. The focus is on operation over aesthetics although the designer does have a bit of a party on the Silver Carrier with the groovy lava lamp design. 
  • The fella who is surrounded by Cybermats and starts doing chimpanzee impressions provides a few moments amusement.
  • Jamie and Zoe hanging in space between the laser and the asteroids is an ambitious sequence and frankly it’s a relief that something has started happening. The meteorites might be spinning rice crispies but it’s the most exciting thing you are going to see.
  • Donald Sumpter is an actor that I have become more and more aware of of late (The Sarah Jane Adventures, The Secrets of Crickley Hall, Game of Thrones) and yet it wasn’t until it was pointed out in The Sea Devils DVD that he was in this story that I even realised it was him. This happens with me rather a lot in Doctor Who – actors take on roles decades apart and I don’t even realise it is them!

The Bad:
  • The Doctor and Jamie investigating a deserted Ship is a fantastically eerie idea (so effective it would be duplicated to much greater effect in stories such as The Ark in Space) but to make it an episode long exploration is stretching the idea too thinly. Its perhaps not wise to kick start a story in such a paceless, staring at your watch until something happens, way. Filling time, Whitaker plays out scenes from The Daleks with the travellers sitting around reading space food. It might have worked better had the Servo Robot not been so tickle under the chin cute, stomping around the Ship on its stubby legs, its bulbous bulk filling the corridors. Without the input of guest characters this is all oddly flat – normally I could watch/listen to Troughton and Hines larking about all day but there is a distinct lack of humour or real danger. The most effective aspect is the music, trying to generate the atmosphere that isn’t apparent elsewhere. Bizarrely the Doctor and Jamie aren’t even aware of the  greatest danger (Jarvis pointing the x-ray laser at the Silver Carrier) and they would hardly be killed off in ignorance like that. It makes the cliffhanger strangely ineffective.
  • It’s the most drawn out narrative Doctor Who has ever concocted with Whitaker failing to explain himself as the story progresses so the thrust of the first three episodes is random problems being thrown at the Wheel and viewer having to remember the (frankly dull) incidents and try and assemble them into some kind of plan on behalf of the Cybermen. Its also a little galling that the plot that Jarvis spells out to Gemma (that the Doctor and Jamie are terrorists having sneaked about the Wheel via the Silver Carrier to sabotage it and stop the space programme) is actually far more gripping than the one we actually get! Nothing seems to happen in the first two episodes beyond the Doctor and Jamie’s arrival on the Wheel and yet we’re told later that these episodes were full if instrumental stages of the Cybermen’s plans. A shame that we have to figure that out later because a little dramatic incident wouldn’t have gone amiss in the first half. It takes the Doctor three episodes to figure out the Cybermen are even involved and its through something as banal as x-raying a Cybermat. Unbelievably episode six features a sequence where the Cyberplanner works through all of the Wheel’s personnel, learning their function and appearance. This should have happened in episode one…by this point the action should be so furious that such establishing scenes should be unthinkable.
  • Its only when you get to watch an episode that it becomes apparent that Tristan DeVere Cole wasn’t best suited to directing Doctor Who, As the stalwarts of the time prove (Douglas Camfield, Michael Ferguson, David Maloney), Doctor Who needs pace, visual excitement and a sense of urgency. Cole displays none of these virtues. Its basically the point and shoot approach with only the actors trying to give the material any lift.
  • The Cybermen are starting suffering from the Dalek syndrome in that their first handful of appearances were so effective that there eventually had to come a story where they didn’t work (for the Daleks it was The Chase). At the beginning of this season they were breaking from ice tombs like some icy parody of the dead, now they form inside eggs (what the hell?) and hatch like innocent chicks. Its hardly a move in their favour. Its another change of design (are these the least consistent looking monsters?) and not an unpleasant one (I love the teardrop) but the voices are all wrong (they sound both retarded and camp). What’s horrible is how inactive  they are; we are treated to countless scenes of them loafing around chatting to their flashing light bulb Cyberplanner rather than doing something. Since few writers ever bother to capitalise on the horror of the creatures (the idea that these are human beings turned machine) the most exciting thing about the creatures is how imposing they are visually (something that Earthshock understands perfectly and slaps menacing imagery across the screens like flashy Doctor Who wallpaper). When you take that away from them as well they are just motionless automatons; lacking character, lacking threat and lacking interest. The Wheel in Space marks the beginning of the end for the Cybermen for me with only two stories between now and the end of series working for me (The Invasion and Earthshock with Revenge of the Cybermen and Silver Nemesis two of my least favourite stories ever). When the most intimidating thing about the Cybermen is the cutesy wutesy Cybermats there is a problem. When the Daleks were as scheming as the Cybermen are here (Power of the Daleks), they were riveting to watch. As usual the metal meanies from Mondas are second fiddle. How could somebody ever think that the clearly artifical Cybermats are space fauna? Apparently ‘the Cybermen need to colonise! They must have the treasures of Earth!’ Goodness knows what the Doctor is talking about here (I had a gigglesome image of the Cybermen screaming off into space with a ship full of paintings, doubloons and jewels plundered from the Earth) unless he considers humanity the treasures of Earth. When one Cyberman towers over Jarvis, picks him up (with the rather obvious help of a harness unfortunately) and tosses him about I was rather relieved that they are capable of some action. The expected confrontation between the Doctor and Cybermen in episode six is rather hampered (despite Troughton’s commitment) by their penchant for rocking back and forth whenever they talk. Wonderfully the Cybermen mince when they space walk in the final climactic (rather a dramatic term for what is essentially just shutting the doors on their invading asses) set piece. The less said about them floating off into space, the better. Not the Cybermen’s finest hour.
  • Its rather sad that we’ve come to a point where we expect the leader of any base to have a nervous breakdown. Characterisation on Doctor Who should never be that predictable but after the irrationality of Cutler, Hobson, the Commandant, Krishong, Clent and Robson its clear that Jarvis is going to head down the same route. Its what makes Radnor such a breath of fresh air in The Seeds of Death, a genuinely pleasant Commander who refuses to stand in the way of the plot. Its irritating that just when the plot looks like it might get moving we waste another two episodes dealing with Jarvis’ nervous breakdown.
The Shallow Bit: There’s clearly something going on between Leo and Tanya. They are a pretty pair but they don’t exactly set my world on fire. When compared to the much more subtle flirting between the Doctor and Gemma, it lacks any substance. There’s no doubt in my mind that Leo and Tanya are offer to bed at the end of this adventure, the hand holding makes it explicit.

Result: The Wheel in Space is not completely without merit (there’s some fine characterisation for a start) but its one of the least dynamic Doctor Who stories you are ever likely to watch. People often claim that season six’s eclectic harkening back to the early years of Who is a deliberate reaction against the claustrophobic one location under threat formula of season five but come The Wheel in Space its clear that with regards to this sub-genre of Doctor Who the well has run dry. Its not the case of having to tell fresher stories next season, more a case that there simply isn’t anything else to be extracted from the base under siege blueprint. Thanks to an unsympathetic director this lacks claustrophobia, atmosphere and tension and thanks to (the usually reliable) David Whitaker the plot is just a tick list of mundane, procedural events. You might feel the need to blame Kit Pedlar because he wrote the outline but any writer worth his salt would fight against those constraints and produce something with energy and personality whereas Whitaker seems to have given up at this point and just goes with the flow. Have the Cybermen ever been this dull? At least in Revenge of the Cybermen they are so bad you can have a laugh at their expense. Here they sit mooch about plotting and scheming, not even bothering to have any kind of visual menace. Their voices are so lax even they sound like they can’t be bothered. It might not be so bad but if you hop over the Wheel and all they are going is sitting around (the Doctor doesn’t get out of bed until episode four) and discussing things with each other too. There is a general dearth of action that is unusual for this show and especially unusual for a six parter that needs that oomph to kept the audiences interest. Its telling that when the Australian censor clips showed up there was barely more than ten seconds excised from this deliquescent tale. The Wheel in Space has three massive pluses in its favour and that is Patrick Troughton, Wendy Padbury (Zoe makes an attention grabbing entrance) and Anne Ridler (Gemma). Frazer Hines is about but Jamie is pretty wasted in this environment. Whitaker wrote three phenomenal stories for the Troughton era so it’s a crying shame that he should depart the show (I don’t count Ambassadors of Death) on such an ignominious note: 4/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @ http://hisi79.deviantart.com/

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nowhere near as bad as you say, though a great review as ever. Episode 3 is excellent, Troughton is superb, love his little 'oh good' and his chuckle at the Zoe put down you mention. Season 5 is violent, the Jarvis death is shocking, the Cybermen so imposing and terrifying. The confrontation scene with the Doctor is great. 'You know our ways' and 'I imagine you have orders to destroy me' from Earthshock will always give me goosebumps. Good story. Your point about the decline I feel stems more from Innes Lloyd leaving than running out of base under siege stories. Enemy of the World wasn't one of these. Bryant is not Lloyd, I think that's clear. This however was a good story.