Doctor Who (Classic): “The Edge Of Destruction”
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Doctor Who (Classic): “The Edge Of Destruction”

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Doctor Who (Classic)

“The Edge Of Destruction”

Season 1, Episode 13

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Doctor Who (Classic)

“The Edge Of Destruction”

Season 1, Episode 12

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“The Edge Of Destruction” (Season 1, episodes 12-13. Originally broadcast Feb. 8-15, 1964.)

There are few Doctor Who stories quite like “The Edge Of Destruction,” which is both its curse and its saving grace. It’s an odd little curiosity, slow and strangely paced, with some bizarre characterizations and acting in service of a central mystery that doesn’t work as well as it should. One of the shortest serials in Doctor Who’s original run, “The Edge Of Destruction” was conceived as a stopgap two-part filler that would allow the series to complete its original 13-episode order in case it wasn’t renewed. It was put together quickly and cheaply, and it shows, from David Whitaker’s uncharacteristically thin script to the unusually large number of line flubs by lead actor William Hartnell. It’s not the easiest story to love, with the cast wandering around disoriented or even violently paranoid for reasons that are never really explained all that well, and a plot that’s too opaque to succeed in building the sense of impending doom that the title of the story promises.   

Still: It’s not a must-see classic, but by virtue of being the third Doctor Who serial ever produced, it has an outsized importance to the history of the show as a whole. It’s unique in the history of the series in featuring no sets other than the TARDIS interior and no characters other than the main cast, which gives a little breathing room to develop the relationships between the four main characters of the show’s first season, and especially to let some trust develop between the suspicious Doctor and his companions/kidnap-victims Barbara and Ian. It’s also the first major look inside the TARDIS itself, and establishes some important elements of the relationship between the police box and her thief that guide the series to this day. 

The story begins on the cliffhanger that ended the previous serial, “The Daleks”: The characters are gathered in the TARDIS control room when there’s a sudden lurch and everyone falls unconscious. Whatever happened was worse than mere turbulence, because all four show signs of confusion, amnesia, and even temporary insanity after they awake. Barbara, the first to regain consciousness, seems surprised to see Ian, who she calls “Mr. Chesterton” as if they were still nothing more than colleagues working together as teachers at Coal Hill School. Ian is even more befuddled, and spends most of the story half-dazed as if he’s in some kind of a drug haze. The Doctor’s granddaughter Susan is distraught and volatile, freaking out when the TARDIS’ outer doors open on their own and insisting that she feels something else inside the ship with them. Carole Ann Ford sometimes overplays Susan’s histrionics, but also delivers an unnervingly effective lapse into homicidal paranoia when she threatens Ian with a pair of scissors and frantically stabs the furniture instead—a good reminder that she’s Doctor Who’s unearthly child. And the Doctor himself is injured, with a mysterious knock to the back of his head that makes his vision blurry, his memory hazy, and his judgement suspect.

The ship itself is behaving oddly too, opening doors and then closing them when people walk up to them, showing images on the viewscreen that aren’t real, and worst, knocking the crew unconscious via some kind of electric shock whenever they touch the console. And yet the ship’s inbuilt fault locator doesn’t show that anything is wrong. 

But something’s wrong. So what is it? Susan sticks to her story about an intruder hiding in the ship, suggesting darkly that it may even be hiding “in one of us.” She might be right: Barbara seems to get a shifty look in her eye when the Doctor talks about someone hitting him from behind, and in the cliffhanger to the first episode, Ian actually tries to strangle the Doctor. The old man has been both untrusting and untrustworthy long before this situation, of course, and as a treacherous person he suspects treachery in others, accusing Ian and Barbara of sabotaging the ship to force him to return them back to Earth. He even threatens to throw them off the ship, which is essentially a suggestion that he’s willing to murder them since he has no idea if the TARDIS has landed somewhere that supports human life. And it’s hard to say if this is a bluff, since temporary homicidal mania has affected both Susan and Ian already.

The emotional impact of all this is a little less powerful than it could have been, since it’s impossible to tell just how much of the negativity is irrationality caused by the outside influence affecting everyone. But there’s been trouble brewing between the Doctor and the two schoolteachers much longer than that—he did kidnap them, after all, and he’s repeatedly behaved with the same selfish sneakiness he’s accusing them of. (He’s even sabotaged the ship himself!) So when Barbara finally loses her cool and reminds him how often she and Ian have saved the Doctor’s life, it’s an explosion that’s been needing to happen for some time. The blow-up and eventual reconciliation between them is crucial in moving the series forward. Not just in terms of these four characters, who needed to be able to trust each other if they were going to be forced to live together, but also because Barbara’s point applies to the Doctor’s future companions as well: Those who travel with the Time Lord, the best of them anyway, help him by bringing some quality he lacks but which he needs if he’s going to survive out there. And the Hartnell Doctor, proud and arrogant though he is, is also inexperienced and far more vulnerable than he thinks he is. He needs Ian and Barbara, and by extension all the ones who will come after them, and  “The Edge Of Destruction” is the story where he finally realizes that. Which is not to say he won’t keep on behaving badly—the First Doctor never really loses his rascally quality, and the same reckless curiosity that nearly got them all killed twice already will lead him to lie repeatedly about where he’s taking his passengers in the future.

But despite the Doctor’s patronizing dismissiveness, it’s Barbara who finally figures out what all the strange technical malfunctions and melting clocks actually means. Her explanation doesn’t actually make much sense on the face of it—“we had time taken away from us, and now it's being given back to us because it's running out”? But the gist of it is clear enough: Everything that’s been happening has been the TARDIS itself trying to warn them about a malfunction that its own fault-locator can’t see, and which is hurtling them back to the formation of the solar system where the cataclysmic birth of a new sun could destroy the ship.

The Doctor has been insisting that they have to find their way out of this mess through logic, and once he’s given the right clues, his method works. But that’s only true to a certain extent, because the TARDIS is apparently unable to communicate in any direct, linear, logical fashion—perhaps a malfunction, or perhaps just the way the ship works—and Barbara’s intuitive leap finally makes the connection. 

The fact that the Doctor doesn’t believe her at first reveals just how little he understands the TARDIS at this point in the series: “It? It? What do you mean? My machine can't think.” But we’ve been getting hints about this all through the story, mostly from Ian and Susan at their most loopy, out-of-their-gourd moments. After trying to strangle Barbara, Ian mumbles that he was trying to warn her that “the controls are alive.” And Susan (whose latent telepathy will be explored more fully in “The Sensorites”) was, of course, exactly right when she said she sensed an intelligence on board the ship. The intelligence on board the ship is the ship. Though never quite acknowledged as such during “The Edge Of Destruction,” future developments in the series would clearly establish that the TARDIS is sentient in her own right, and during this episode she functions as something of a stealth fifth character whose actions drive the plot.

Of course, it hardly seems productive to try to warn people of danger by knocking them out and turning them into scissors-stabby maniacs, so the question is really why the TARDIS couldn’t have done something a little less drastic, like maybe putting up a picture of the broken fast-return switch instead of oblique scenes of places they’d visited before. The real-world answer is “David Whitaker didn’t quite get this idea worked out properly when he wrote the script,” but there’s an in-story explanation that makes sense to me, and fits the character.

Who would design a machine that was intelligent enough to give its users hints about what was wrong with it, but unable to communicate the problem directly, without endangering the people it was trying to warn? Nobody. And certainly not the all-powerful Time Lords. Therefore: Not only does the Doctor not really understand how the TARDIS works yet, but he’s also stolen a machine that was already broken. Or perhaps she’s just inexperienced. She’s never been stolen before. She’s probably used to being piloted by people who know what they’re doing, and have the owner’s manual handy. And she’s telepathic. So maybe everyone else starts acting paranoid and terrified because that’s how she feels. She’s the only one who knows what’s going on, and she’s panicking.  

Stray observations

• When Ian examines the unconscious Doctor, he notes that “his heart seems alright”—which is fine except that seven years later, in “Spearhead From Space,” an X-ray of the alien Doctor shows that he has two hearts. It’s not exactly a continuity error, since nobody had thought of the second heart yet, but it’s certainly possible the bleary Ian was so out of it that he just didn’t notice a second heartbeat.

• Upcoming schedule (biweekly on Saturdays at 2 p.m. Central): 

• April 5: “Trial Of A Time Lord part 3: Terror Of The Vervoids”

• April 19: The Second Doctor meets the Cybermen in the newly restored “The Moonbase.” 

• May 3: “Trial Of A Time Lord part 4: The Ultimate Foe”

• April 19: Seventh Doctor serial, to be determined. (I’m leaning toward “Paradise Towers.”)

• Coming up: The Fourth Doctor’s season-long “Key To Time” arc, in order, with stories from other seasons in between. I’ve already covered the first Key serial, “The Ribos Operation,” so we’ll pick it up again with part two, “The Pirate Planet.” 

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