TROUGHTON AND THE WHEELIES
Someone once said that if you could remember the sixties, then you hadn’t lived through them, and yet in many ways it’s the television of those times which seems to have had the most impact on viewers. I wonder whether people born in the eighties get all misty eyed about half-remembered episodes of things like Worzel Gummidge, Tripods, Star Cops or The Box of Delights? Perhaps they do.
Memories are precious things, and they have an annoying habit of slipping away from you as you get older. How long will it be before no-one can actually remember watching Doctor Who on first television transmission any more? Anyone born after 1990 (13 year olds and under) won’t have experienced this – unless they happened to be in on one May bank-holiday evening in 1996 – and yet in many respects, it’s that great nostalgia kick that comes from recalling something from your childhood which forms a large part of the appreciation of sixties Doctor Who.
With Doctor Who we are very lucky. Not only can we reach for videos to refresh our memories, but we can also access soundtrack recordings of shows that no longer exist in any visual medium. For me there is nothing better than settling down in a big armchair, headphones on, glass of wine in hand, and bunging in a soundtrack to listen to. And 'The Wheel in Space' is a favourite.
Back to a time where an entire episode of Doctor Who could be given over to a single mystery: where has the TARDIS landed? Add to that warnings of danger from the TARDIS, a hunt for mercury (shades of the first Dalek story there), strange markings on the floor, a mysterious absence of people, and then, a robot, sudden course corrections, and the realisation that we’re on an abandoned rocket, but where are the crew and what is in the locked control room? The opening episode is one of only a handful carried by just the regular cast (others include 'Inside the Spaceship' and 'The Ark in Space') and it’s both eerie and effective. It’s only in the closing moments that we meet the crew of a nearby space wheel and realise the danger that the Doctor and Jamie are in.
My memories of 'The Wheel in Space' are hazy, but I do recall the tangible sense of menace that the Cybermen exuded. A big part of this came from the sound they made. You knew they were near when that eerie electronic humming started up, and the scene which sticks in my mind is when the Doctor and Zoe hide among crates as a Cyberman passes by. Very scary stuff, coming at the end of one of the greatest seasons the show ever enjoyed. Season Five. The Monster Season. From Cybermen to Yeti to Ice Warriors, back to Yeti, parasitic seaweed and then the Cybermen again (with a strangely out of place historical adventure with a chap who looked like the Doctor in the middle).
In 'The Wheel in Space' the Cybermen were scary, they had a big plan, complex and clever in its creation (but also riddled with holes you could drive a herd of Cybermats through). And the Cybermats … creepy little critters. In 'The Tomb of the Cybermen' one wondered what all the fuss was about as they were never actually seen to hurt anyone, but here … they could flash their eyes and paralyse a man. They too had a signature sound, a nerve-grating yeti-sphere like whistling tone. Impressive sound effects dominated and defined Doctor Who in the sixties and for me the Radiophonic Workshop, and especially Brian Hodgson and Dick Mills are the unsung heroes of Who.
But wait, there’s more. Not only do we have Jamie of the kilt and the hairy legs for the ladies, but now there’s cute catsuited Zoe. Pretty as a button, sparky, argumentative … a perfect foil and the companion who gave the second Doctor some of the best lines of the series: ‘Logic, my dear Zoe, merely enables one to be wrong with authority.’ And then she joins the TARDIS crew at the end and ensures another generation of male viewers … marvellous stuff.
We know that the memory can cheat, and that an audio only gives half the story. The episodes that do exist to watch from 'The Wheel in Space' perhaps tell a different tale: one of occasional overacting (I give you Kevork Malikyan), of strange rocking Cybermen, of dodgy Cyber-voices, of slightly suspect visual effects, and of a rag-tag army of about three Cybermen loping through space. But despite all this, it doesn’t seem to matter. As slices of sixties television go, 'The Wheel in Space' is great fun. Doctor Who doing what Doctor Who did best – adventuring through time and space and outwitting the baddies. What can be better than that?
‘You know our ways!’
© David J Howe 2003