Aired 27 April – 1 June 1968
‘The Wheel in Space’ often tends to be overlooked with so many classics with visual episodes surviving fighting for attention and fame during a very strong season. The Cybermen return once more to bookend the season, this time planning to use the titular space station as a beacon for another invasion of Earth, and the claustrophobic and sterile corridors and environment make for a perfect setting for yet another tense siege.
Still stricken by the emotional departure of Victoria, the Doctor and Jamie land on the Silver Carrier, a seemingly deserted ship. The first episode makes great use of the desolation and allows Troughton and Hines plenty of opportunity to shine as they explore and soon find themselves threatened by both a Servo robot and a laser from the Wheel. Indeed, as the heroes become ore intertwined with events proper, the direction and sound design continue to evoke an eerie and tense feeling that helps underscore the inherent danger.
Unfortunately, the Cybermen on display here are a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, they are presented as an incredibly formidable force, and their brute strength comes into focus here more than ever previously. Also equipped with new weaponry that utilizes negative lighting effects, the metallic foes unabashedly convert and kill human crewmembers with no second thought or ounce of remorse. However, the story struggles with presenting their overall plan as a credible one. Rather than simply amassing numbers and strength for a true invasion, the Cybermen instead send Cybermats to the Wheel to eat essential Bernalium supplies, the intended effect being to leave the Wheel defenseless against a coming meteorite storm that was also created by the Cybermen. It’s overly complex and certainly does not emphasize the logical foundation of the popular foes.
While Commander Bennett’s actions play into the Cybermen’s plans perfectly, allowing the Cybermen to begin their incursion onto the ship, the script at least affords the Doctor ample opportunity to show his brilliance. After putting the defensive laser to use as a scanner to discover the Cybermat presence, he also deduces the influence of the Cybermen over certain crewmembers and is vital in creating the means of canceling it. Even once the Commander admits to the invasion and commits himself to the cause as the death toll continues to rise, it’s up to the Doctor to use his time vector generator to enhance the laser’s power, thus allowing the Wheel to finally destroy the approaching Cybership. This is once more a Doctor much more firmly entrenched in events from beginning to end, unafraid to impose his will at any costs for his belief in the greater good.
Strong characterization- especially of Anne Ridler’s Gemma Corwyn- and clever ideas struggle against a general lack of action despite a mounting death toll and an inconsistent portrayal of the Cybermen. Again, this story certainly has enough to stand on its own merit when taken in isolation, but it doesn’t offer anything unique to make it stand out from the other recent stories of bases under siege. With the Cybermen perhaps beginning to suffer from overexposure as the Daleks did when ‘The Chase’ came about, the inclusion of Wendy Padbury’s Zoe Heriot as the new traveling companion is unquestionably a highlight. She has an infectious enthusiasm, and her charm more than compensates for her sometimes arrogant and condescending brilliance. Still, by story’s end it’s clear that the roguish and irrational nature of the Doctor is rubbing off on her, and it’s a strong debut for the final piece of what is widely regarded as one of the best classic TARDIS teams.