The #missingepisodes reviews: The Wheel in Space

My sabbatical from blogging has lasted rather longer than the initial month I had forecast! To that end, I am going to get back into reviews – and so I am turning to those Doctor Who serials that did not get an honorable mention in my countdown – my favourite topic, the infamous missing episodes of Doctor Who! And I kick off with a story I’d held off buying in audio form for many months, not least when rumours began circulating that the serial was set for release on DVD – The Wheel in Space.

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I listened to this adventure over the weekend, and rather conveniently the story fell into two neat sections – two missing episodes then followed by a surviving episode which I was able to watch on the Lost in Time DVD set. Many of the adventures I have recently listened to have been entirely missing, such as the preceding adventure Fury from the Deep – so it was a welcome change to get a visual feel for the story in the midst of the audio.

It was a very interesting experience to listen to the audio before having a visual reference point. Despite reading the photonovel on the BBC site almost a decade ago, the only characters I found easy to imagine were the series regulars. Perhaps this is because many of the characters are a pastiche of previous characters – the character of Jarvis Bennett, commander of the space station ‘The Wheel’, is almost identical in type to Hobson from The Moonbase, Clent from The Ice Warriors, and Robson from Fury from the Deep. This observation perhaps best explains some of the antipathy to this serial from fans – there’s a definite sense of deja-vu, and its possible that by this point the base-under-seige motif was getting a bit tired.

With dire warnings that the serial was not the strongest Cyberman adventure around, I was pleasantly surprised by the adventure. It is true that there is extensive padding at play – in the Tom Baker era episodes 1 to 3 would almost certainly have been condensed into one episode. I actually rather enjoyed the gentle pace of the adventure – you got a steady character development that is almost impossible to enjoy today, including Jamie coming to terms with Victoria’s departure in the preceding episodes, and Zoe wrestling with what it means to be a human. My enjoyment may be in part because one ends up enjoying the adventure as an audio play, and the story would not work as well if we could see the original televised episodes.

It was very strange to experience Zoe’s first adventure, as she is very different to the Zoe we meet in The Dominators at the start of Season 6. If you watched the story not knowing what came next, it wouldn’t necessarily have been evident that Zoe was being lined up to join the TARDIS team. It is a shame so much of Zoe’s debut adventure is missing, as it would be fascinating to see Wendy Padbury’s interpretation of Zoe’s character evolution, from relative automaton to a much more rounded and likeable person. As it is, a welcome surprise to the story was to experience the disconnect of the Zoe we know being so different to the Zoe we know!

So I admit that I enjoyed the character development, and also felt it was a perfectly enjoyable and serviceable space adventure. It might not be groundbreaking by any means, but it is light-hearted fun with a sensible measure of peril thrown in. That said … let’s acknowledge the elephants in the room. Or, to be more precise, the two Cybermen. It is debatable whether their slow and stealthy approach in this episode is a clever and creative re-imagining of how to use this menace, or a shameful waste of a sinister foe. If that is up for debate, their new voices are definitely not an improvement – nor the necessity of the Cybermen to nod when speaking so that the actors knew which Cyberman was talking at that moment. I didn’t feel it let the story down too much, but it was undoubtedly a challenge to ignore!

The other significant elephant in the room is the plot. It is very far from groundbreaking, which is reflected in the fact that the commander is an identikit from the base-under-siege stories, and like every other story of this type he is complemented by a predictable crew; a steady number two (Gemma) whose job is primarily to wonder whether the Doctor might be right after all, and an international crew to show how humanity sets aside its differences in the future. Perhaps the story was easy to enjoy as I enjoyed it in isolation – perhaps if you came to story fresh from many of the other base-under-siege adventures you would find it much harder to soldier on.

The Wheel in Space may not be a terribly imaginative adventure. But I found it to be good fun and look forward to listening to it again. If the rumours are true that this story is due to be animated, I would be delighted to have the opportunity to watch the story in full. And if the even better rumours of recovery were true, I should be even more delighted to experience Zoe’s debut adventure as originally intended!

Where would I rank it?

I rather enjoyed the Wheel in Space … and I think I would place the adventure somewhere between Remembrance of the Daleks at 56, and The Hand of Fear at 55. It may look good at first glance, but bear in mind that Troughton’s other Cybermen adventures are in 19th and 1st place …

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