The fifth season of Doctor Who marked a special time. It introduced some iconic monsters, menacing moods, classic concepts and the sonic screwdriver. We had political intrigue, would-be world rulers and ecological horror. Somehow this white heat of innovation doesn’t quite come together in the final serial. Still fun though.
Running 27 April to 1 June 1968, the six episodes of The Wheel in Space don’t sit in my mind in the way that Fury does. Or Tomb, Abominable, Web, Enemy, etc. It doesn’t help that four of those episodes are lost, only episodes three and six survive intact (see the Lost in Time DVD set). However, it is available as an audio recording narrated by Wendy Padbury who made her debut as astrophysicist Zoe Heriot. There is also a BritBox recreation that uses telesnaps.
Wheel is a variation of the base under siege stories that became a hallmark of Doctor Who during these years. The story was devised by futurist and ophthalmologist Kit Pedler and scripted by Who-architect David Whitaker. It has some decidedly wonky science running through the tale.
When we last saw The Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and Jamie (Frazer Hines) they had said goodbye to Victoria (Deborah Watling) and are missing her as they fly off to new adventures.
A fault with the fluid links forces the duo off the TARDIS as mercury vapour fills the control room. They are on board a spaceship, unmanned unless you include a servo robot sending egg-shaped constructs towards a space station, the wheel in the title.
The Wheel is an international effort, studying deep space phenomena, and they have been experiencing strange power losses and pressure drops. They are not expecting the spaceship which seems to have drifted their way, although Zoe calculates that it could only have reached them if deliberately flown there.
It is the Cybermen, using the spaceship as a trojan horse to gain control of the Wheel, which will somehow allow them to launch an attack on Earth. Deactivating a laser cannon is key. Jamie inadvertently helps with that, but a meteor storm is on the way. Cybermats are eating spare parts and the station commander doesn’t believe Cybermen exist.
I rather like a scene where Jamie exposes his inexperience as a space traveler, at least in the conventional sense, when he wastes a cup of water. That’s a definite no-no among the astro-community.
The surviving episodes also feature some space suits previously seen in The Tenth Planet and destined to resurface in the original Star Wars Trilogy.
Naturally, the Cyber-plot fails, The Doctor swipes some new mercury and Zoe stows away on the TARDIS. The Doctor uses a thought projection device to give an idea of what she will be facing. This was a subtle hint that next week would begin a repeat showing of The Evil Of The Daleks.