The Wheel In Space is called on to achieve a lot, as the climatic story of one of the programme's best ever seasons. The Conventional Opinion of Whovians (COW) states that it fails in this respect, that it is padded out and dull. I, on the other hand, quite like it, but then I did have the benefit of seeing the existing episodes young. I bought Cybermen: The Early Years, which along with its Dalek equivalent was an excuse to release fragments from largely missing stories. I should say that I have no problem with this at all, and the Cybermen from this story, as well as the ones from The Moonbase (also provided on that tape) are indelibly burned into my head as one of the definitive versions of the monster. It took a while for me to catch up with the other episodes, which I did through a Joint Venture reconstruction; it is quite strange reviewing it then, as I am unfamiliar with 66% of it but can recite the other 33% by heart.
Most of the criticism of this story is focussed on the first two episodes, and I have to say that it is largely justified as they are horrendously padded out. I feel that this story might be better regarded if the first two episodes had been edited together; of course this would leave the season running an episode short but I feel The Web Of Fear could have stood up as a seven-parter. And if you think I'm talking idly, look at Planet Of Giants. The first thing that strikes me about episode one is that the TARDIS warning mechanism makes no sense at all, trying to tell the Doctor that the outside world is dangerous by showing pictures of a tropical paradise. Talk about reverse psychology. So what happens, the TARDIS materialises in the Emperor Dalek's throne room and the Doctor and Jamie rush out in their swimming trunks? Both sides would be as surprised as each other, probably. "Doctor, do you have your sonic screwdriver?" "Er..."
The first episode is quite atmospheric though as it trades on a sense of the unknown, something common in pre-Star Wars science fiction. Just look the titles of early sci-fi, full of the unexplained: It Came From Outer Space, The Thing From Another World, Out Of The Unknown, Them!, It: The Terror From Beyond Space and, of course, Doctor Who. The mystery here though is straight from stock as Jamie opens doors by falling on switches and suchlike. Still, it's better than its reputation.
One thing notable about this story is the way that sound effects are used very effectively as music: that chiming sound of outer space (nonsense but pleasant), the evocative buzz of the Cybermen and the bleeping of the Servo Robot. From what can be heard, the largely silent scenes featuring the robot may well have been very effective and I'd like to see them. Meanwhile, the exhaustive list of foodstuffs fed into the dispensing machine is a huge frivolity and demonstrates the padding of the episode, not to mention being a single cream bun away from Monty Python's Flying Circus. Also, the space age food-in-blocks idea was done earlier in The Tomb Of The Cybermen, and it wasn't new then. Ah, those innocent days before Rice Krispie Squares.
The rocket lurching forward is the first piece of action for a while, and it caught me quite off guard. The floating eggs scene was probably horrible (I can just imagine them wobbling about like Thunderbirds puppets), but as Bill King is a generally reliable effects technician and the meteorites in part six look superb then I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. The Time Vector Generator is interchangeable with the Sonic Screwdriver for most practical purposes, but I'll let it go.
After twenty minutes of the Doctor and Jamie eating and napping, the sudden cut to the Wheel is a not unpleasant shock. The dialogue is good, as is usually the case with David Whitaker, but as the story progresses the characterisation can come across as a little inconsistent. An immediate standout, even in a missing episode, is Dr. Gemma Corwyn, a very well written character excellently played by Anne Ridler. The sense of mystery is continued here as the Cybermat eggs morph through the hull of the station, although this is very implausible.
The second episode largely focusses on the characters. This is a euphemism for horribly padded of course, but it does make for interesting viewing (ok then, listening) in places. What is clear though is that Whitaker feels very uncomfortable writing romance between Leo Ryan and Tanya Lernov; a lot of the time he just sticks to having Eric Flynn (son of Errol and father of Jerome, so my sources tell me) put his hand on her shoulder and we're left to draw our own conclusions. The episode is very slow to begin with, but the scene where Jamie lies his way through a medical test (including making up the pseudonym 'John Smith' for the Doctor) is fascinating to hear. Zoe is a better character than Victoria, being less inclined to squeal and run behind Jamie at the first sign of rain, although Perky Padbury is a little annoying in her first outing especially when trying to portray mirth. There is a slightly obvious scene as well where Bill shows Jamie the weapons system (presumably all strangers get this) including the power array, targeting system and the best place to sabotage it.
Tanya's nose speech is an unusually bizarre piece of writing, especially since the second half of her conversation takes place in the next episode. When I first saw episode three then, I thought it was the weirdest thing I'd ever heard. There's a great cliffhanger though as the robotic hand burst through the shell of the egg, although it does raise the question of how the Cybermen tie their bootlaces with only three fingers.
Episode three is where the story really gets going, not least because Patrick Troughton's bad from his holidays and on top form. The Cybermen look fantastic, although how they got a teardrop in their mouths is beyond me. Their voices are great, a smooth droning, and we also get the joy of the truly brilliant Mark II voices courtesy of the Cyberplanner. One problem with the new costumes though is that the mouths don't move; it would seem that the production team saw the mouths that just hung open as the words streamed out as a disposable gimmick. In fact, apart from being totally amazing it also served as a visual indicator of which Cyberman was speaking and without this the Cybermen are forced to rock backwards and forwards as they speak to give the actors something to react to, which looks rather strange. The scene with the Cyberplanner is slightly crude in the exposition as the monsters explain their plan to each other, but as the dialogue is delivered through such amazing sound effects I'm happy (a shallow vindication I know, but there you are). There is some amazingly cool direction though, mixing to the face of a Cyberman just as the Doctor is talking about an unknown menace...
The Cybermats look better than on their previous outing and actually have a clearly defined purpose and means of executing it, but fundamentally they are still a very strange concept: small infiltrating robots I can accept, but the Cybermats are just odd. Kemel's terror at them seems excessive, even though it turns out to be justified; Kevork Malikyan here wins the award for the Episode's Best Screamer (and who said this show was sexist?). Although the episode does tend to tread the same ground insofar as the script goes, the Doctor's realisation of the presence of the Cybermen is still a good scene even though we already know this. Maybe it's just because Troughton is blatantly the most talented actor the play the role.
Leo's attack on Zoe seems a little unprovoked and is an example of the slightly dodgy characterisation I mentioned earlier. Flannigan rocks hard, but only in a slightly patronising drunk-Irishman kind of way.
The Cybermen's plan is complex but generally it holds water; they can't attack directly because the station would send a distress call and they can't set up their own transmitter because it would be detected. So therefore we have an example of a complicated scheme that can't really be picked at. But the cliffhanger - what's happened to their voices? "Youwa willa trya my pizza, izza ze best ona Telosa". The voices improve a bit in part four, but they only really go back to normal in part five. Part four hold up very well through being very tense, and it starts with the Doctor desperately trying to convince Jarvis of the problem. The stages of Jarvis's breakdown match the episodes: three is aggression, four is contentment, five is withdrawal and six is acceptance.
It strikes me as odd that the crew doesn't react to the fact that Laleham and Vallance are suddenly talking like they've been lobotamised, as if their personalities switch on and off regularly anyway. Zoe records data on the incoming meteorite storm on magnetic tape, which I find amusing (but hey, according to The Daleks' Master Plan it was still cutting edge in the year 4000). Jamie, in yet another example of weird characterisation, reverts back to being the ignorant 18th century traveller not knowing about sound recording.
I don't know if Peter Laird is really of oriental origin, but his accent is straight out of a cartoon. He gets a good death though, and the Cyberman putting his body in an incinerator creates a gruesome mental image. The scene where the Doctor checks for hypnotised crew is nail biting, and the surviving footage of Duggan's death shows a return to the trusty "negative" effect; which is good, as it's one of the programme's most successful effects ever.
Part five carries on as normal as the sight of the Cybermen only confirms what we already know. Zoe's growing dissatisfaction with her life is an obvious pointer towards her joining the TARDIS crew, but it's nothing clunky and it's a good effort at providing some kind of explanation for what normally is simply a simple "take me with you Doctor!" set up in the last five minutes.
Surviving footage of the fight scene in this episode shows possibly the show's wobbliest ever set, but I could listen to Flannigan yelling "you need a couple of lessons in the noble and manly arts, me bucko!" all day. The lava lamps in the oxygen room date the show badly, but no more so than the plasma ball masquerading as a time drive in Remembrance Of The Daleks.
It's back to moving pictures for the final episode and some terrific model work is on display. Even the cartoon X-Ray laser bolts look good in a retro kind of way. We do get one of the most out of character moments ever though as the Doctor advocates sacrificing Jamie and Zoe, albeit reluctantly; surely he'd look for a solution that didn't involve sacrificing anyone? Still, it's not as bad as Jon Pertwee gunning down an Ogron in cold blood in Day Of The Daleks. This is made up for by the very stylish scene immediately afterwards where the Cybermen systematically work out who is aware of their presence. The confrontation scene between the Doctor and the Cybermen is one of my favourite ever largely due to Troughton's performance: his resigned line of "I imagine you have orders to destroy me" is possibly the most iconic of his era although I must admit we have Earthshock to thank for that. Even in the face of (apparently) certain death the second Doctor was always a step ahead while appearing to be a step behind...come on, he was the best of them all!
If the Cybermen don't need air, then how does the plastic spray kill them? That's my only real beef with the climax, although the issue of whether or not Cybermen need air is one I'll return to when I review other stories featuring them. Zoe's joining scene is the usual fair - but what better end to a season can you get than the entirety of The Evil Of The Daleks?
I took the mick a bit but this really is a good story, very tense and generally well written and acted. It has the unfortunate distinction of being the penultimate Cyberman story where they actually had any credibility, and while it is slightly drawn out I always enjoy it and I'm proud to have it (or what's left of it) in my collection.