Doctor Who episode 208: The Wheel in Space – Episode 5 (25/5/1968)
The most impactful scene in this episode is the death of Gemma Corwyn. It repays the effort writer David Whitaker has put into making her a more rounded character than the normal base-under-siege fodder. Her calm bravery as she insists on delivering her final message to save the Wheel, fully aware of the approaching Cybermen, and the Doctor’s desperate reaction to seeing her gunned down, is a powerful moment. Season Five has seen several stories placing women in key roles: Miss Garrett, Astrid, Anne Travers, Megan Jones, but they’re usually the ones left to pick up the pieces at the end of the story. Gemma seems to be set up to play this part, especially given Bennett’s nervous breakdown, which makes her heroic sacrifice even more shocking.
Elsewhere, though, The Wheel in Space continues to do fairly predictable things pretty slowly. As it’s largely a remake of The Moonbase the Cybermen’s infiltration plan seems pretty familiar – the twist being they plan to poison the air rather than the sugar, which is a more sensible option. But they’re still just lurking in the shadows in a single room, and despite the Doctor’s ominous warnings it’s hard to get a sense of the threat they really pose to Earth.
I understand Whitaker’s desire to create atmosphere and dread, but at some point you need to ratchet up the peril: if this was a zombie or a war film, you’d need the enemy to have launched an initial attack to whittle down the survivors, and to establish their credentials. By this stage in The Web of Fear – which did an even better job of creating atmosphere – the Yeti had launched an assault on the besieged soldiers. This episode takes ages on a sequence of the X-Ray laser shooting some meteorites, and having a comedy Irish man wrestle with some mind-controlled people. Gemma’s death stands out precisely because it’s the one moment that makes the Cybermen themselves – rather than their Cybermats or human slaves – look frightening.
These new Cybermen look quite good, although the old style head doesn’t quite fit the sleeker bodies as well as it did the shapeless suits of The Moonbase and The Tomb of the Cybermen. I think I slightly prefer Earthshock‘s chunky, Invasion-style heads on baggy bodies than The Wheel in Space‘s streamlined heads on figure-hugging suits. But when the costumes are the most notable thing about the monsters, something isn’t quite up to scratch.
One area that does stand out it Whitaker’s focus on the reality of life in space: the constant danger of meteors and radiation; the precious resources of air and water. This adds to the sense of isolation and peril, and makes the general setting feel a lot more realistic than the tea-tray repairs on the Moonbase. And the episode does have a more serious tone: Bennett’s histrionics have been replaced by withdrawal, Tanya and Leo’s flirting is parked. Only Zoe, bemoaning her own contribution to the defence efforts, seems to have missed the memo that things are getting really grim.
Next episode: The Wheel in Space – Episode 6