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.
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.
The episode relies on people behaving very stupidly. For a start, Jamie doesn’t attempt to explain why the Silver Carrier shouldn’t be blown up, he just goes off and wrecks the Wheel’s single means of defence. For all his protestations, he absolutely is a saboteur who’s placed everyone’s lives in danger. Then Duggan, the highly skilled engineer, finds a Cybermat, gives it a cutesy nickname like he’s Vicki (maybe the presence of Bennett reminded Whitaker of her and Sandy), hides it with the critical technical elements of the x-ray laser, and then acts surprised when it all goes Pete Tong.
It’s all quite efficient: the control room abuzz with activity; the international crew of highly-trained personnel; the base commander on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The trouble is, we have seen all this at least four times before, and writers Whitaker and Pedler don’t compensate for the repetition with anything new.
The most obvious thing to point out about this episode is that it feels like a Hartnell throwback. The continuation directly from the end of the previous serial; the return of the mercury fluid links and malfunctioning TARDIS; the arrival in a mysterious environment, and gradual exploration; the food machine, and the Doctor’s sudden incapacitation at the end of the episode, paving the way for his absence from the second part.
This is an astonishingly strange episode. A full fifth of it consists of the Doctor mucking about trying to fly a helicopter – which presumably meant some impressive aerial stunts on screen – then after the showdown with the Weed Creature almost half the running time consists of dealing with the aftermath, including having the Doctor sit down for a celebratory dinner with the Harrises. This is the Doctor who always slips away immediately after the monsters are defeated, choosing to stay on for small talk and supper.
‘It’s begun: the battle of the giants!’ The episode starts with a dramatic recap but what follows has nothing to rival Yeti attacks in Covent Garden. Instead, it’s a lot of people standing in rooms having urgent discussions while the Weed Creature’s servants creep about in the background stealing helicopters and looking shifty.
This is exactly the kind of story that Doctor Who can almost uniquely do: a collision between different genres. This episode very much reiterates that Fury from the Deep is a boardroom drama like The Plane Makers and The Power Game, warped by the presence of a creature from legend and an alien time traveller. So you have the arrival of the briskly commanding Megan Jones, the very picture of a Barbara Castle style “White Heat” technocrat, talking about government money and wanting a political solution to what she expects is a little local difficulty coming face to face with a cosmic hobo and a sentient vegetable.
The show’s 200th episode passes by without fanfare as the story meanders along pleasantly enough, throwing in some good creepy moments. Sadly, it also includes some really odd acting choices and script oddities that are inadvertently perplexing, and tend to detract from any sense of mounting tension.
This episode is starkly split between the futuristic control rooms of the Euro Gas facility and the amazing psychedelic domesticity of the residential block. Robson stamps around control bullying Harris and bashing heads with Van Lutyens, and everyone very earnestly talks about impellers and pipelines and gas flows like this is a knock-off of The Power Game. Meanwhile, in their apartment, the Harrises talk to each other like they’re in Brief Encounter (it’s all ‘darling’).