Based on the evidence of this episode, The Wheel in Space is a prequel to both The Moonbase and The Tomb of the Cybermen, with the Wheel’s crew apparently completely ignorant of the existence of the Cybermen – and even of their invasion of Earth in 1986. This prompts the Doctor to give a fairly effective potted history:
They were once men, human beings like yourself, from the planet Mondas, but now they’re more robot than man… Their entire bodies are mechanical and their brains have been treated neuro-surgically to remove all human emotions, all sense of pain. They’re ruthless, inhuman killers.
While the Doctor is convinced, the Cybermen remain a fairly shadowy presence through the episode. Their lurking aboard the Silver Carrier is swapped for them lurking in the Wheel’s loading bay. And while they lurk, the Wheel’s crew are still more worried about repairing the MacGuffin. This is broadly the same plot as The Moonbase, with a laser instead of a Gravitron and meteors instead of hurricanes. But because it’s half as long again, everything continues to move very, very slowly.
On the plus side, this allows for Whitaker to build up the Wheel’s personnel more than Gerry Davis did for The Moonbase. We learn Gemma Corwyn was married, but lost her husband in the asteroid belt. The Doctor discovers that Bennett is a man qho cannot countenance an insoluble problem. We learn about Duggan’s fascination with space flora and fauna, and we get to know more about Zoe – brainwashed at Parapsychology School, and left emotionally stunted, suggesting that humanity’s doing a fairly good job of making itself into Cybermen. Sadly we’re also faced with Peter Laird playing “Chang” with a pantomime Chinese accent, which prompts, cringingly, a ‘chop chop’ joke.
But on the whole, the slow burn character work isn’t enough to compensate for the fact we’re four episodes in and the story hasn’t switched up a gear. The reality is, none of the character work is deep enough, or the actors compelling enough, to make us really feel like we care about them, particularly as their situation doesn’t yet seem desperate enough. This is all so low key that it all feels a bit rarefied and academic.
Next episode: The Wheel in Space – Episode 5