A despondent Jamie tells the Doctor to pilot the TARDIS wherever he likes. When the TARDIS lands at its next location, the Doctor has trouble getting a visual until the monitor bombards him and Jamie with images of beaches and waterfalls. The Doctor remarks that the TARDIS has landed somewhere dangerous and is trying to get them to leave – which raises the question of why it hasn’t done that many, many, many times before or since, but in this case it may be really justified since the TARDIS literally overheats. Outside they find themselves on a spaceship that seems deserted and drifting in space. The Doctor wants to leave, but can’t since he needs mercury to repair the TARDIS. Suddenly, unseen by Jamie or the Doctor, a robot jettisons several pods from the ship and begins piloting the ship toward an international space station. Catching attention of the stowaways, the robot menaces the Doctor, but Jamie disables it using a torch-like device of the Doctor’s, the time vector generator. Unfortunately, the TARDIS has been sealed behind the door and the Doctor was injured when the ship was accelerated.
On the space station, the crew finds out that the ship approaching the station is an off-course supply ship. The station’s controller, Jarvis Bennett, wants to use the station’s laser to destroy it, afraid that it may collide with the station. The debate over whether or not the ship should be investigated or destroyed between Jarvis and the station’s doctor Gemma Corwyn is interrupted when the station’s communications are overwhelmed by static. It’s Jamie trying to use the generator on the ship’s defective communication equipment to try to let out a signal. The Doctor, who has fallen unconscious, and Jamie are rescued and tended to Dr. Corwyn. Jamie nervously tries to convince Dr. Corwyn that they were passengers, but she isn’t convinced, especially when Jamie calls the Doctor “John Smith.” Dr. Corwyn enlists the station’s librarian, Zoe, to show Jamie around the station and see if he shows any suspicious behavior. Dr. Corwyn and Jarvis suspect the Doctor and Jamie might be saboteurs from a fanatical group back on Earth that opposes all space travel. Jarvis’s suspicion are inflamed when Jamie sabotages the laser when it’s about to be used to destroy the supply ship in order to protect the TARDIS.
One of the crew members sees a Cybermat, which infiltrated the station through the pods jettisoned by the ship’s robot, and, in a stupid moment worthy of a slasher film, thinks it’s an alien bug from one of the fauna he takes care of for the station and puts it in a closet, where it destroys the material bernalium needed to power the laser. Meanwhile the Doctor meets Zoe, who calculates through her knowledge of mathematics that the ship could not have flown off-course all the way to the station without an outside agency to guide and refuel it. Finding out about the Cybermat invasion, the Doctor pleads with a skeptical Jarvis to believe that the Cybermen are involved, but the Cybermen are completely unknown to him and evreryone else. At the very minute, the Cybermen, under the broadcast directions of a Cyber Controller, have brainwashed two crewmembers checking the ship for bernalium and stowed away in the crate. Later the Cybermen and the brainwashed crewmen repair the laser, insisting that an incoming meteor shower must not harm the station. Their plan is to convert the station into a base that could transmit a signal for their fleet, helping them to invade the Earth and strip it of raw materials. When the Doctor finds out that crewmen had been to the rocket, he deduces that the Cybermen have infiltrated the station – too late, though, as one of the crewmen under their control kills himself in order to short out the station’s communications.
Jarvis has had a breakdown, basically leaving control of the station to Dr. Corwyn who oversees while the crew uses the now repaired laser to fend off the meteor shower. The Doctor suspects the Cybermen had deliberately caused the meteor shower; indeed it was, just in order to test the type of weapons Earth has. Dr. Corwyn is killed by the Cybermen, but not before she manages to tell the Doctor that the Cybermen are planning to poison the station’s oxygen supply, allowing the crew to switch to a protected emergency supply. Seeing Dr. Corwyn’s corpse snaps Jarvis back to sanity, only for him to be killed as well. But before the invasion can really get under way, the Doctor uses the generator to boost the laser to the degree that it could be used to blow up the Cybermen’s flagship. Meanwhile Jamie and one of the crewmen manage to jettison a few invading Cybermen out into space. After all is said and done, Zoe insists on traveling with the Doctor and Jamie, but the Doctor is reluctant and, to show her what she would be in for, the Doctor uses a device to project images on the screen to warn her how dangerous his travels is (and specifically uses scenes from “The Evil of the Daleks”).
Doctor: Logic, my dear Zoe, merely enables one to be wrong with authority.
Our Future History
In this unspecified future, not only is there a massive space station and space travel is fairly routine, but mind control is apparently a common enough issue that there is specialized equipment for treating and sensing it.
No one the Doctor encounters in the space station has heard of the Cybermen. Nor has Zoe heard of the Daleks, even though this story, despite not taking place in a specified time, almost certainly has to take place after “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” (unless there was a giant space station when all the bad stuff went down in that series and no one wanted to come down to Earth to deal with the Daleks, which is understandable).
The Doctor remarks at the start that he’s caused the TARDIS’s interior to “become an ordinary telephone box again”, which really doesn’t fit with…well, anything. Seriously, I got nothing.
Mercury is also what the Doctor needs for the TARDIS in “The Daleks.” It’s the first time the Doctor goes under the alias “John Smith,” although it’s completely Jamie’s idea.
An isolated compound, a stern authority figure who is suspicious of the Doctor and has a breakdown under stress, monsters organizing a siege…is it possible to come down with a fatal case of deja vu?
To be fair, there are things about “The Wheel in Space” that make it stand out. The new companion Zoe gets a good introduction, even if her complaints that she had a “blind reliance on facts and logic” was a cliche even at the time of the episode (especially for female science-y characters). And for the most part the crew of the station are well-defined, more fleshed out than they needed to be.
And yet…maybe it’s because I’m biased against the Cybermen as villains, still not finding them that interesting or even all that different from the Daleks, but the whole saga fell flat to me. The most enjoyment I had was from the effects they used to show the Cybermen falling into outer space, which, with all due respect to the special effects crew on “Doctor Who” and the harsh limitations they had to work through, looked like they were smeared under a microscope glass slide.
To end on a positive note, this is the first outing for the most popular companion/Doctor team of the Second Doctor era, and it’s already a strong one with good scenes already between Jamie, Zoe, and the Doctor (the Choice Quote above being from one of them). Plus it’s not only the first appearance of Zoe, but of fan favorite, Zoe’s butt, which, yes, has its own Facebook community.