If there's one thing we can depend on in 1960s Doctor Who it's a corker of a season finale. At least it's worked out so far that the story broadcast last each season - whether or not it was the last in a production block - has been great. The Wheel in Space has the dubious honour of being the first disappointing season finale, and I so wanted to like it - David Whitaker writing, Cybermen, introducing Zoe, these things all got me quite excited. However, it's a story with problems.
I'll get into those later, because it starts well, with a first episode mostly featuring only the Doctor and Jamie as the TARDIS lands in an empty ship with a few surprises aboard. The odd exception aside, I prefer it when in Episode 1 of a story centers on the regulars and keeps the threat ambiguous until the cliffhanger. It's the perfect format; it gives us (and the TARDISeers) a breather, as well as character moments, and allows us to better put ourselves in their place as the plot unfolds around them, rather than simply dumping them into the plot and all its baggage within the first few minutes. The Doctor and Jamie are a proven team and they haven't been this fun to watch together since Victoria joined. Even if the story's not that interesting, starting it this way tends to put me in a better mood, like waking up to sunshine.
I could tell within the first few minutes that David Whitaker was writing. Images of idyllic places appear on the scanner to tempt the Doctor and Jamie to leave, and when they don't the fluid link explodes, forcing them to do so anyway as the mercury vapour from the fluid link would be fatal - I can almost hear William Hartnell fluffing a line as I type. The Doctor and Jamie would have investigated the rocket anyway but it was worth it for their reactions to the images on the scanner. A search for mercury follows in the rocket, but the Doctor and Jamie find no crew. Then Jamie decides to go for a nap, but a service robot effects a course change which causes the Doctor to bump his head. Tristan de Vere Cole's direction is a bit flat but I'm going along with the story enough to see where it goes.
Meanwhile, we're introduced to the senior staff of the Wheel, an Earth space station. Throughout the story there are frequent attempts to make the human crew people rather than ciphers, and the results are muddled; there are quite a lot of them, for starters, and the characterisation comes in two varieties; the more important characters are well written and come across as more real for the most part, these include Dr. Gemma Corwyn, a personable yet professional woman, and to a lesser extent Bill Duggan, a sort of everyman character, and commander Jarvis Bennett, who is quite different from the usual base commander in that he seems sane, yet simply not that good at his job. Obviously Zoe Heriot receives the most characterisation given she's the new companion. The other characters aren't ignored, but as there is limited time to do anything with them all we get are not-so-subtle quirks to identify them by - for example Tanya going on about her nose, which I thought was bizarre. In these base-under-siege stories with their numerous similar characters, putting a name to a face is often difficult, and this is probably an attempt to rectify that somewhat, however this was the wrong way to go about it. I prefer it when characters make an impression by actually doing something.
The crew is keen to destroy the rocket as it's off-course, never mind the possibility of survivors, which provides us with our first cliffhanger. Episode 2 sees the Doctor and Jamie rescued before ending with.... the same cliffhanger. Except this time Jamie sabotages the laser, obviously to protect the TARDIS (isn't the TARDIS indestructible? Did the removal of the time vector generator change this?). Episode 2 also introduces us to Zoe.
Ah, the lovely Zoe. Zoe is what Victoria isn't (and vice-versa). Victoria was a very dated type of companion, a generic screamer beyond her first two stories, for the Doctor and Jamie to protect and rescue, and although there was a certain endearing quality about her, her uselessness got tiresome. As a direct replacement, Zoe is about as big a contrast as there could be to Victoria. What they've created with Zoe is a character that it's okay not to develop - she's a scientific and mathematical genius, whose world is opened by meeting the Doctor as he proves that logic is fallible, and that there's more to life than studying. She still screams sometimes but her book smarts allow her to make valuable contributions to plots and hold her own against monsters. I say it's okay not to develop her as a character because she is too much of a logical thinker rather than emotionally driven, and she travels with the Doctor simply to see more of the universe. Obviously Wendy Padbury is gorgeous, so that helps too .
Two episodes survive from this story - Episodes 3 and 6. As Episode 3 begins, we discover that Cybermen are hiding aboard the rocket. The Cybermen's plan in this story is fairly complicated and it mostly holds up to scrutiny; the Cybermen want to invade the Earth using the Wheel by smuggling themselves aboard with the help of some of the Wheel's crew whose minds they have controlled after luring them to the rocket to find bernalium supplies after Cybermats have eaten away the ones on the Wheel which was needed to power the x-ray laser which is needed to destroy meteorites approaching the Wheel after being caused by a nova engineered by the Cybermen. There, as simple as that. Never mind the fact that the Cybermen have a big great spaceship that could do a fair bit of invading by itself. Knowing how clueless the humans of the era are, I don't foresee any problems.
Anyway, in Episode 3 the Doctor is recovering from his injury in the first episode. The good thing about the plot having so many unnecessary stages is that it makes the six episodes rattle along at a good pace; it's never dull - the direction is uninspired, so any lifelessness is down to that. Episodes 4 and 5 are all about the controlled crewmembers doing the Cybermen's deeds aboard the Wheel, while the Doctor works out the Cybermen's plans.
The Cybermen themselves are one of the story's key problems. They've been stripped of most of what is great about them - the funky voices have been replaced by generic alien voices, their distinguished and fascinating background isn't even referenced, they're simply invaders who have set their sights on Earth. They look impressive at least, we only ever see two of them at once which is quite disappointing but but they're imposingly tall. From the standpoint of the portrayal of the Cybermen this is one of their weakest stories, because their plan could have been concocted by anyone and we learn nothing about them. Arguably they will never be quite like as powerful they were in The Tomb of the Cybermen again.
With the meteorites fast approaching, Episode 6 is the story's thrilling conclusion. There is lots of spacewalking - it's good to have a story in space after so many Earth stories - while the Doctor confronts the Cybermen who have infiltrated the Wheel, dismissing them simply as killers and dispensing with them quite easily and quickly. Hardly one of the great Doctor/Cybermen confrontations! The story lacks a proper climax, winding down fairly unsatisfactorily with the airlock closing on some Cybermen reinforcements as they spacewalk to the Wheel and the Cybermen's spaceship is blown up. Some great moments like Gemma Corwyn sacrificing her life are a little too understated and end up having their effectiveness reduced. It's a good last episode but lacked the focus a finale needed.
As the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe return to the rocket with the necessary mercury to get the TARDIS going again, Zoe stows away aboard, curious about the mysterious craft, and is allowed to join the team, forewarned about the danger with a viewing of The Evil of the Daleks (curiously of a scene that didn't have the Doctor in it).
Zoe shows a lot of promise, and to some extent we never see it realised because Zoe is pretty much the same in every story: reliable, clever, and wearing some strange outfits. However in an era in which most stories sit in a comfort zone rather than pushing the boundaries of what Doctor Who can do, Zoe is the perfect companion, and she's certainly one of my favourites. I liked her relationship with Jamie, obviously she considers herself smarter than Jamie, while he thinks she's too bossy, but he's also protective of her and she's too nice to lose her patience with him. Obviously the Doctor appreciates Zoe as someone who can make herself useful and who almost understands the things he says. Season 5 doesn't exactly end with a bang, but in a manner that bodes well for Season 6.
Horror quotient - Any attempt at horror falls completely flat, except at certain moments the Cybermen themselves.
Comedy quotient - David Whitaker has written some funny lines for the three regulars in this. It's no comedy though.
Drama quotient - The threat is too convoluted to be believable. Each setpiece involving danger has its own sense of drama, but the overall story doesn't, which hurts the conclusion.
Some big flaws but there's a really good Doctor Who in here somewhere. Better than its reputation but not by much.