Wednesday, June 8, 2011

That's Just Wizard (The Wheel in Space)

In a scene not actually in the episode, the Cybermen
menace Zoe as she fiddles with the sexual air supply.
(The sexual air supply, I should note, is in the
episode.)
It's April 27, 1968. Louis Armstrong is declaring how wonderful the world is, and is at #1 doing it. He continues proclaiming this for four weeks, before being unseated by one of the great anthems of pedophilia, Union Gap's "Young Girl." What a wonderful world indeed. So wonderful that nothing too terrible happens during these six weeks - just your usual nuclear tests, Vietnam war protests, deadly tornadoes, nuclear submarine sinkings, and Manchester United winning the European Cup. This last one I actually quite like, as a Manchester United fan, but I'd be lying if I said it was a hugely relevant point. Oh, and the May 1968 events in Paris. But those are for Friday.

While on television.... Hooboy. This may be the most misunderstood story by Doctor Who fandom I've yet covered. I commented to the endlessly brilliant Anna of the lovely blog A Random String of Bits last night that The Wheel in Space has what are possibly the two least likely cowriters in Doctor Who: Kit Pedler and David Whitaker. Long time readers of this blog probably have some sense of how weird this is, but if you don't, imagine Alan Moore rewriting Arthur C. Clarke and you're at least in the general ballpark.

See, Kit Pedler is... OK, let's be honest. He's not much of a writer. I mean, this surely isn't a huge revelation. Every writing credit he has on Doctor Who (and, so far as I can tell, every fiction writing credit he has period) is co-authored, which, while not an immediate sign of anything, is suggestive. (He does have solo credit on the first two episodes of The Tenth Planet, but from there on out it's co-authoring flat out, so let's face it, I bet Gerry Davis did a fair amount of work on those two as well.) One imagines that Pedler's involvement in his scripts amounts, in most cases, to declaring a location where the Cybermen will show up (The moon! A tomb! Panama!) and... possibly nothing else, actually. I mean, we should give the man credit - the Cybermen were a brilliant idea, and apparently The War Machines was his as well, which... OK, well, The Cybermen were a brilliant idea.

But at the end of the day, Pedler is an optometrist with a flair for creating "hard SF" premises. Previously he was, seemingly, brought into the program mostly because Gerry Davis liked working with him. Since Gerry Davis walked away from the series for seven years after leaving as script editor, this left Pedler without a co-author for Cybermen stories. So clearly they had to find someone else to do it. Thankfully, the show has a lot of candidates - one can readily imagine Ian Stuart Black, Victor Pemberton, or Brian Hayles getting tapped for this role, for instance, or current story editor Derek Sherwin. All would make sense. Heck, just about any past writer on Doctor Who would make sense to hire for the job of turning Pedler's plot ideas into stories. I mean, the only one it's tough to imagine pairing with Pedler is... David Whitaker.

I mean, it's tough to stress how utterly weird this pairing is. On the one hand, we have the archetypal base under siege crafter - the one, actually, who invented the genre - with a hard SF bent. On the other hand, we have someone who is apparently an alchemist who likes penning lengthy deconstructions of the show's entire premise. I mean, Whitaker apparently believes that you can eat metal by draining its life energy and corroding it. He is the last person who should be writing hard SF. A co-authored story with him and Pedler is a juxtaposition worthy of... well, Doctor Who, actually.

For my part, I have to admit that I have fallen completely in love with David Whitaker's work. I think he is an absolute genius. And so yes, I may have gone out of my way to love this bizarre bastard child of a story. But my God, I love it. I'm in no way convinced my love of it translates to it being good television, but I'm pretty confident that it's a great watch in 2011 and a delightful treat to anyone who is the sort of person to whom "traditional base under siege story" is a meaningful phrase. The thing is, I'm pretty convinced that Whitaker is offering a deliberate parody of, or at the very least withering comment on, the standard base under siege story that has shown up in every story of season five he didn't write.

The problem, at least in 1968 terms, is that Whitaker carries this out by demonstrating the flaws of the base under siege format, sometimes in ways that feel more like the grueling slogs of absurdist theater than like mainstream sci-fi drama. For instance, the first episode mostly features Jamie and the Doctor wandering around the TARDIS and a rocket - 20 minutes or so pass in which they're the lone characters, in fact. If you compare this to other stories around it - things like The Ice Warriors or, as we'll see on Monday, The Dominators - the most obvious thing is that this is a total reversal of the direction the series has been trending. Of late the series has decided to introduce its situation, establish a level of crisis, then drop the Doctor into it.

Instead we get twenty minutes of Web Planet-style exploration. Except it's of a cramped rocket. We're faced here with two possibilities. Either David Whitaker has turned into a complete hack overnight or he's just decided to embrace completely messing with the audience. The latter shouldn't be discounted. After all, both possibilities involve the assumption that Whitaker does not actually like the story he's being paid to write. (He has said in interviews that he tried to restructure the story so it had characters.) So why wouldn't we assume that the writer of The Edge of Destruction - a piece with some serious absurdist/existentialist theatrical influences - would bash out a Brechtian assault on audience sensibilities in which he stubbornly and loudly refuses to give the audience what they want at any turn.

Which just about sums up what the lengthy exploration of the cramped rocket does. Whitaker, maddeningly, approaches this story like he's writing a season two story, even though all the plot elements are season five elements. So he insists on doing an episode of wandering around exploring, even though the show has long since given up on creating interesting worlds to explore and now just goes with cramped metal corridors full of monsters.

Likewise, the basic structure of the base under siege these days is that episode one ends with a big monster reveal. Thus far every story this season except for The Web of Fear and Whitaker's own (monsterless) The Enemy of the World has used the monster reveal as its first cliffhanger - a trick originated in The Dalek Invasion of Earth (No, not The Daleks. The whole point of the cliffhanger of the first episode of The Daleks is that we don't know what's menacing Barbara, we only know her terror). But what works when The Daleks are the series' only monsters becomes tedious when every story is about monsters. So Whitaker flatly refuses to give us our big Cyberman cliffhanger on episode one, instead waiting until episode three to reveal them in full. Even when he does reveal them, he refuses to do a straight monster reveal, instead reverting to the original The Daleks-style cliffhanger of showing only a part of the monster. Again, this amounts to structuring a Season 5 story like it's Season 2. (The Web Planet, after all, does not make its initial cliffhanger about the Zarbi)

This structure applies throughout. Whitaker declines to give the Doctor and the Cybermen a major confrontation, declines to give us a major "Cybermen burst out of the tombs" setpiece, and declines even to have the Cybermen in most of the story. There are plusses and minuses to this. It means that the expected thrills aren't there, which renders the story frustrating in spots. On the other hand, the Cybermen are scarier here than they've ever been save for perhaps The Tenth Planet.

Similarly, the focus on building the world of the Wheel is a mixed bag. It makes the story move at a glacial pace in spots. But on the other hand, instead of just callously running up the death toll of supporting characters, Whitaker spends episodes building the culture of the Wheel so that when the deaths start we actually feel their impact. This is exceedingly welcome. Even the standard overly skeptical base commander is given an overhaul, with his excessive dependence on traditional scientific evidence being presented explicitly as a mental illness.

This last point gets at one of the most interesting things about this story. It is much, much more human than any previous Cybermen story. The most interesting dimension is probably Zoe, the incoming companion. Miles and Wood (available from the spinny widget on the right of the site, although if you're a UK resident you probably prefer this link) make an interesting argument about how Zoe represents 1968's view of how information processing would work in the future, even though 1968 didn't really know that information processing was a part of the future. Zoe is the arch-technocrat, filled with an encyclopedic level of knowledge so that she can be an effective administrator of society. From a 1968 perspective, this is unsurprising - absent any sense of the digital revolution, a future of technocratic humans seemed the only alternative.

What Whitaker does with this that is so interesting, however, is that he overtly parallels Zoe's situation to the Cybermen's. Zoe frets that the fact that she was only prepared for expected crises renders her effectively useless and like an inhuman calculator. This is, of course, very much like what the Cybermen are. On the other hand, Zoe is likable. Indeed, as Toby Hadoke points out in Running Through Corridors, (Also available from the spinny widget or from this link for UK customers) Zoe is very much the image of an obsessive Doctor Who fan (firmly rooted, I would argue, in the trainspotting tradition that developed into the "anorak" stereotype), contrasting her with the Cybermen becomes an oddly brilliant move.

All of which basically captures the strangeness of this story. Given that Whitaker's point seems to be how far the show has drifted from its origins, his insistence on writing a Hartnell-style base under siege often runs into problems. But I'd argue those problems are the point. Whitaker knows full well that two very different visions of what Doctor Who is are on display here, and the whole point of the story is to show the ways in which they conflict. It's not always fun, as a result, but it is fascinating. If nothing else, if you haven't seen the story in a while, fire it up again and pretend it's a Hartnell story. You still may not love it, but you'll at least understand it.

The surviving episodes of The Wheel in Space are available (and this is the second to last time I have to say this) on the Lost in Time DVD set, available in both the US and the UK. Buying from those links helps keep the site running and is greatly appreciated.

7 comments:

  1. I have not yet attempted Wheel in Space. I tend to find all the monsters and bases of the Troughton era a bit boring, so I expect I wouldn't like this one. Maybe one day.

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  2. You're not going to do the repeat of Evil of the Daleks as an entry? I could imagine you saying some interesting things about the relationship of the show to repeats, the fact that the show now defines itself by the monsters Zoe might meet, something about the missing episodes, etc.

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  3. I don't think I have a recon of this, but I managed to get through it with the audio once. It's a bit hard to judge, frankly. The question why are they invading the Wheel eludes me, frankly.

    Of what does survive, we get a very weird mix of characters. Also, the cheapness is fun. I will say that I kind of like all the stuff of them on the tiny spaceship and the pin-scatched film lazer beam affects we used to do as teenagers on super-8 film.

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  4. While I’m not sure how meta- David Whitaker intended this story to read, I wholeheartedly agree with your review, and goodness, wasn’t I surprised to! This story has an awful reputation because it’s slow and the Cybermen aren’t in every scene. In actual fact, Whitaker simply plays to their strengths and minimises their weaknesses.

    I think the tension you talk about is, surely, what comes of a good dramatist writing a story from a bad outline – the main problem being that the Cybermen seem to generously manoeuvre themselves in awkward positions to suit the concept of base under siege. It’s quite telling how LITTLE their bits of the story sense, compared to the otherwise credible set-up (and the background to Zoe’s character).

    And I’m beginning to suspect that the production team are deliberately avoiding the body horror which essentially defines the Cybermen, making them Daleks with legs. If it weren’t for that, this story would be absolutely terrifying and, perhaps, better remembered.

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  5. Thank you for articulating some of what makes the first episode so different. It really did make me sit up and pay attention. Personally I think it's somewhat reminiscent of the film 2001. Although, having just checked dates, one wonders whether it was possible for them to be reminiscing about it!!

    I did enjoy the story as a whole, and didn't mind the more subdued pacing, but yhe remaining episodes don't seem anywhere near as noteworthy as the first one. The characters of both Zoe and Gemma are nicely done. It's a pity that some parts of the plot don't make a lick of sense - an exploding star affecting meteors is one of the stupidest notions yet, and it gets repeated multiple times. And those Cybermen sure do know how to take the indirect approach.

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