From his own people the Doctor has fled,
Kidnapped some teachers, aimed a rock at a head,
Conned his way onto the Dalek wastelands,
But centre stage this week it’s Sue-Scissorhands.
“As we learn about each other we learn about ourselves.” This might just be the most significant line in Doctor Who, because these two insignificant episodes are the moment that everything changes. Let’s look at what we had when Doctor Who first started:
(1) An initial run of 13 episodes, after which the series would have ended if the viewing figures were poor. Had Verity Lambert not been ballsy enough to ignore Sidney Newman’s “no bug-eyed monsters” instruction, that is what would probably have happened.
(2) A mysterious man who has run away from his own people to escape from a huge war, and cannot return home. This was unspoken on screen, but was the original concept, later echoed rather eerily (and possibly unintentionally as it is a lesser-known fact) in 2005.
(3) An anti-hero lead.
So (1) was sorted out by The Daleks, and (2) was forgotten until Terrance Dicks decided his own version of where the Doctor came from. (3) is a story arc, a journey the Doctor travels, and here is where he really changes for the better. That is not to say that he never again has his moments of being somebody whose motivations we are unsure about, but this story sets him on the right path. So far the Doctor has kidnapped two humans for utterly spurious reasons, basically because he got grumpy. He has come perilously close to bashing in a caveman’s head, until one of his kidnapped victims stopped him. He has lied about the TARDIS not working so he could explore a dangerous alien city, and caused his kidnapped victims to get radiation sickness in the process. And look what he does now: does he actually drug his companions? Then he gives a science lesson speech and acts like a total lunatic. But by the end of the story there is a tangible change. The highlight of the story comes when the Doctor forces himself to apologise to Barbara for the accusations he has levelled at Ian and herself. His discomfort in admitting his mistake is written all over his face, and it is a lovely character moment for Hartnell.
This is not the only reason why this is a landmark story. It is the first indication of the TARDIS as a living being. The Doctor claims that “my machine can’t think”, but then reluctantly admits “it must be able to think as a machine”. It is the beginning of the relationship between the Doctor and his living time machine.
The Edge of Destruction is a very strong story, fast paced and well directed. Some of the best Doctor Who stories are set in enclosed circumstances, and this is no exception, with a disturbingly claustrophobic atmosphere. William Russell does a good job of keeping the viewer guessing as to whether Ian has actually been taken over by some force or not, by giving a slightly altered performance. Unfortunately, Carole Ann Ford is a little less successful in this respect, although her crazy hair moment as she brandishes a pair of scissors is a lot of fun. She proceeds to stab her bed over and over again – a bit much for a programme that is meant to be suitable for children! Barbara gets to have a great row with the Doctor: “You stupid old man.” – Go Barbara! This is great character stuff.
The cliffhanger to the first episode seems somewhat illogical (one of those set pieces shoehorned in to create a point on which to finish) but it is in the second episode that the story really gains momentum and the cast seem to tighten their performances as the tension builds. We see more of the TARDIS, but here is where the budget gets in the way, because it looks quite Spartan. Susan and Barbara share a room, as do Ian and the Doctor. At times this does look like a bit of a rush job. The console has ‘Fast Return’ written on it in pen – a bit of a prosaic design idea! But The Edge of Destruction gets far more right than it gets wrong, even giving us the debut of that fantastic piece of stock music that later became synonymous with the Cybermen. And it ends on a highpoint too – it is easy to forget the simple joy of actually being able to see what is outside the TARDIS through the doors from the inside – something that was done in the early days but rarely for the rest of the classic series. That snowy landscape entices us out to the next story, Doctor Who has survived beyond it’s initial 13 episode run, and the Doctor has become a different, better person. RP
This story is also know (mainly by stubborn DWM) as Inside the Spaceship.
The view from across the pond:
The Edge of Destruction is a masterpiece. I’d be tempted to leave the review at that, but it’s unfair not to qualify that statement.
Bear in mind, at this point in the show, the Doctor is unknown. His crew, Ian and Barbara, are largely unknown. The only one we really seem to have a clue about is the unearthly child of the first story, and she’s a whiny little oaf. Put yourselves in that mindset and go into this story. We open with everyone unconscious. One by one, they wake. No one knows what happened. Was it some external influence? Some unseen menace? Did Ian or Barbara, perhaps in their desire to get back home, actually sabotage something and things went wrong? For the next two parts, clocking in at about 50 minutes, we are given clues that things are more than they seem. Images on the scanner cause the doors to open and close, water from a food machine is dispensed in a bag, a clock ticks backwards, a fault locator indicates the entire ship is broken. And there’s the ever-dimming lights… Claustrophobic in the extreme, this episode keeps your eyes glued to the screen!
Susan goes a bit bonkers, and while it’s a weak and somewhat strained performance from Carole Ann Ford, the logic behind it is that Susan just went from nearly being cooked by cavemen to nearly being killed by Daleks over the previous two stories. These take place immediately after one another; she hasn’t had a chance to rest. And this is a direct lead-in from where The Daleks leave off. She hasn’t had a break; in fact, if I recall correctly, she is still wearing the same clothes from the first story – they all are! She thinks after the ordeal on Skaro with the Daleks, she’s about to get some rest…. only to find herself knocked out, her grandfather lying face down on the ground with his head split open and the two people she trusts, her teachers, standing over him. She’s disoriented and scared. Then to overhear that something might be in the ship, possibly even inside one of them… it’s not that surprising that she breaks down. I don’t think her bed deserved the attack, but she’s had enough!
As my old friend from across the pond points out, the cliffhanger for part one is weak at best. Ian grabs the Doctor from behind seemingly ready to strangle him. Is he possessed? But the way Ian grabs the Doctor is more in line with a massage than an attack. And the Doctor is able to rotate and look Ian in the face; he doesn’t struggle to do it, he merely turns. As cliffhangers go, its as lame as they come but if viewed as one 50 minute story, it does nothing to hurt the episode. There’s barely a reason to pause for it as it goes into the next scene.
I won’t be mean enough to spoil the reveal but no bug-eyed monsters were needed to increase the tension of this story. The story itself carries the tension on its own and it’s brilliant! The Doctor has a great monologue as he pieces together what’s happening (and gives the kids a lesson in science) and goes a little nuts in the process, but it’s a fantastic moment for Hartnell. He has many in this story. His apology is fantastic and Barbara’s reaction is believable in the extreme – it’s not an easy thing to forgive and forget so when she does, it’s all the more realistic. Ian and Barbara set the companion standard high as they come to terms with their strange surroundings. Ian is fantastic, being quicker to let the Doctor’s poor behavior go. The crew grow as people and learn about each other but come out stronger from the experience. The music is tense and wonderful. Watched with the lights off, this has all the tension and fear one could want from classic horror movies and it’s part of our favorite series. This story makes me proud of the show and it’s early, experimental days. And it doesn’t hurt seeing so much of the TARDIS; it’s a wonderful experience, even if they could do so much more with it. There is a sense of it being sparse, but perhaps not knowing his ship that well yet, the Doctor doesn’t venture too far down the halls. I can accept that. I can even accept the times the Doctor stumbles over his words; I think in times of stress we all do – I’m actually surprised more shows don’t have people do that for the sake of realism!
The Edge of Destruction is a masterpiece. That’s all there is to it! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Marco Polo