The Edge of Destruction [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  But recently I decided to spend some of my 50th birthday spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters. (However, I already owned this one–but it was rewatching all those others that inspired me to revisit it again).

(Daily Doctor Who #53)

The Edge of Destruction

Starring William Hartnell as the First Doctor.
Companions:  William Russell as Ian Chesterton, Jacqueline Hill as Barbara Wright, and Carole Ann Ford as Susan Foreman
Written by David Whitaker (the story editor at the time).  Directed by Richard Martin (episode 1) and Frank Cox (episode 2).

Format:  2 episodes, each about 25 minutes long (individually named The Edge of Destruction and The Brink of Disaster)
Originally Aired:  February 1964 (Episodes 12 & 13 of Season 1)

When Doctor Who was originally commissioned, it was possibly only going to run for 13 episodes. When a cheap, two part story was needed to fulfill the initial contract, story editor David Whitaker wrote The Edge of Destruction in only two days, making this the least expensive full length Doctor Who story ever produced–and the first to feature only the regular cast and to take place entirely on the TARDIS (aside from the brief lead-in at the end to the following story.

Spoilers Ahead!

The Edge of Destruction is an interesting beast. It’s basically the show’s only true “bottle episode”–no guest characters, no new locations (although perhaps certain portions of the TARDIS hadn’t been seen before), and all quite cheap to produce. But from a character point of view, it’s a pretty critical story. Without the events of this adventure (or some equivalent) we don’t really have the feeling of family on board the TARDIS that the series is known for. For this is where all the strife between the Doctor and the two school teachers really comes to the surface–there is an excuse for this, with the way the TARDIS is basically driving everyone crazy, but it all clearly springs from the tensions that have been built into the characters so far.

Of course, the bulk of the story feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone–right from the get-go, everyone is confused, off-balance, with only parts of their memories intact, and threats are emerging from all sides. Susan threatening her fellow travelers with a pair of scissors is quite a striking image (enough to get the show into a bit of trouble back in the day). And beyond that, there’s the TARDIS doors opening, the clocks melting, the controls being electrified, all of Susan’s talk about something evil invading the ship, Ian randomly trying to choke people, and of course, the Doctor threatening to throw Ian and Barbara off the ship, which builds tension not only in that the school teachers’ lives are threatened, but also in that the Doctor seems to be ignoring the other signs of danger around him.

On one hand, the whole cast does all right with his new format, but on the other hand, it’s a bit hard to tell since everyone is mostly playing a half-wake dream-state version of their characters, so any oddities in performance can be chalked up to that. Perhaps the strongest, though, is Jacqueline Hill’s Barbara, who is fine form when she lays into the Doctor: “Accuse us? You ought to go down on your hands and knees and thank us. But gratitude’s the last thing you’ll ever have, or any sort of common sense either!” she cries. And though it takes him until the end of the story, the Doctor actually learns a measure of humility from the whole experience: “As we learn about each other, so we learn about ourselves.” There is some lovely and genuine interaction between the characters, and never again will their interactions have the air of suspicion and resentment which has characterized the first two serials. Instead, we have genuine affection, which may not be as dramatic but does make the series easier to watch over time.

The actual resolution to the plot is a bit loopy. A switch is broken, threatening the ship and everyone in it. So the TARDIS, which has got some measure of intelligence, by the way, starts to drive everyone insane in order to warn them. I suppose we have to assume the TARDIS wasn’t trying to drive the crew crazy, but more that it was having a “reaction” which affected everyone, especially the Doctor and Susan because of their alien physiology / telepathic abilities.

Ultimately, I enjoy the story a lot. I love this version of the TARDIS crew, so it’s great to see them get so much time in with each other. I like the way we see some of the differences with Ian and Barbara–where Ian doesn’t seem to hold onto any resentment, Barbara really struggles to let go of, as the Doctor says, the injustice of the situation. And I like how the show expands the idea of the TARDIS itself–it’s not just a ship. For the first time, it’s becomes something like a character.

By the way, back when I wrote about An Unearthly Child, I commented that it was odd to see Barbara breaking down and crying. This turns out to be a mistake, though, as Barbara actually breaks down and cries in both The Daleks and in this story. So…maybe she did this a lot? I don’t mind, I guess-certainly, most of the menaces she meets would probably turn me into a quivering mess.

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