The Edge of Destruction: Doctor Who, S1 Serial 3

The Doctor: First Doctor (William Hartnell)

The Companions: Susan (Carole Ann Ford), Barbara (Jacqueline Hill), Ian (William Russell)

The plot: The TARDIS crew begin acting strangely when a force knocks most of them unconscious

Written by: David Whitaker

First aired: 08/02/1964-15/02/1964

Continuity: First suggestion that the TARDIS has its own intelligence

Theme Song: Delia Derbyshire’s 1963 Radiophonic workshop, including the beautiful and haunting middle eight.

Barbara approaches a clock while Susan looks on, scared

Season 1, episodes 12-13 review

There is much about Doctor Who‘s first season that is emblematic of television generally. Not enough time, not enough money and a desperate scramble for content as stories fell through and producers planned both for renewal and for cancellation.

In the midst of this chaos, David Whitaker was asked to fill a two episode hole in the show’s first season. With nothing more than a thought bubble and no money for sets or extras, Whitaker cobbled together one of television’s earliest bottle episodes: The Edge of Destruction.

Filmed on the show’s permanent set with only the main cast and a minimum of special effects, The Edge of Destruction is less a serial of Doctor Who and more an arthouse play. Some of this at least was due to way Doctor Who in this era was filmed: as if it was a theatre production to which someone took a camera. Actors delivered long monologues in a single shot and moved around a sparse set dressed as if it was a stage. It was rare for scenes to be reshot and if an actor flubbed their lines or a set fell over then they shouted “Cut!” and moved on nonetheless.

Watching The Edge of Destruction feels very much like being in a tiny theatre watching an experimental one act play. The kind where you go for coffee afterwards and ponder exactly what it was you just saw. While there are some important character moments and some nice development – especially between the Doctor and Barbara – when explanations do come they’re nowhere near explanatory enough.

The whole thing – mixed together quickly from ideas knocking around in Whitaker’s brain – feels half-baked. And yet, The Edge of Destruction does provide a nice transition from an exhausted and divided TARDIS crew lurching from one disaster to the other to a group of comrades on a grand adventure.

Barbara and the Doctor in a moment of new cameraderie.

The episode opens as The Daleks ended, with a loud bang and a flash of light as our TARDIS crew are knocked unconscious. When they come to, they seemed dazed and disorientated, suffering from headaches and amnesia. It’s not just the travelers that are behaving erratically but the TARDIS itself, which begins to have what seem like malfunctions: a food machine that registers empty but isn’t; doors that open when you walk away and close when you approach; a console that shocks anyone that touches it; and a vid screen that displays random images of places the ship has been.

Our characters become increasingly paranoid over the hour, with Susan insisting that ‘something’ has gotten into the ship and the Doctor convinced that the two newcomers are trying to steal the TARDIS. Susan is almost hysterical, threatening Ian and Barbara with a pair of scissors and becoming frantic when anybody tries to touch the controls.

Susan threatens a confused Ian with a pair of scissors

In the cliffhanger to the first episode, the Doctor tries to drug everyone and Ian tries to strangle him. But is it Ian or some other intelligence? And is he acting of his own volition or responding to the Doctor’s actions?

The TARDIS fault indicators show there’s nothing wrong with the machine so each character fixates on someone they believe must be behind what’s going on. It’s a dynamic built on several long weeks of mistrust: with the Doctor having kidnapped Ian and Barbara and sabotaged his own ship at least once; and the presence of the two adults having upset the power balance between the grandfather and his very young charge. The Doctor then threatens to throw the two schoolteachers off the ship into an unknown and possibly hostile environment. It’s a threat that would mean certain death.

While the grounds for this conflict are well established in the physically and emotionally devastating events that have occurred since the Doctor willfully set the TARDIS in flight with the two on board, it’s still hard to see it as being entirely in character. It is as though another consciousness is at work but in the final estimation it’s not really explained. At least not in anything we see on screen.

A confused Ian and Barbara look at the bodies of Susan and the Doctor lying unconscious on the floor

At one point, Barbara sees a clock on a plinth and recoils in horror; even letting out a rare terrified shriek as she tears her own watch off her wrist. It’s the kind of moment that is supposed to ratchet up the tension but instead feels unearned. It’s hard to see or understand what has caused her terror since the clock is just… there… and there’s nothing to tell us what it has to do with the watch. Other than a general statement about time…

They are, after all, in a time machine. And it’s Barbara in the end who works it out. In many ways, this is Barbara’s episode as she uses her scholarly skills of historical synthesis to put all the clues together and work out what is going wrong. And the Doctor’s change from dismissing her to listening to her to eventually apologising to her is a well-developed growth that will set the tone for the rest of the season.

Barbara also gets the serial’s biggest moment of catharsis, dressing down the Doctor in fine form for his arrogance, his heavy-handedness, and his sly tricks that have endangered them twice.

How dare you! Do you realise, you stupid old man, that you’d have died in the Cave of Skulls if Ian hadn’t made fire for you?.. And what about what we went through against the Daleks? Not just for us, but for you and Susan too. And all because you tricked us into going down to the city… 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!

Barbara, Edge of Destruction
The Doctor with a head injury, Ian in a dressing gown and Barbara look with concern at the TARDIS' central column.

Barbara’s conclusion that the ship has been trying to warn them of pilot error is a masterclass in induction. When the Doctor bounced the ship from Skaro, he pressed a fast return switch that has stuck propelling the TARDIS back in time to the destructive birth of a solar system. As the machine spiraled to its eventual destruction, it enacted a self-defense protocol to try to warn the crew that it was not the problem but that something they had done was.

A TARDIS trying to communicate inexpertly with its inexpert crew.

Christopher Bahn, writing for the AV Club on this episode, makes several observations about its events that I find compelling. The first is that Susan was right when she said she sensed an intelligence inside the ship and that intelligence was the TARDIS itself.

And while I would never normally copy in full several paragraphs of another writer’s work, I feel he has made his case perfectly in his own words – albeit informed by considerable hindsight.

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.”

Christopher Bahn, AV Club review of The Edge of Destruction

The Doctor ends the episode with an apology tour, admitting he has underestimated Barbara in particular and thanking her for saving their lives. I take some issue with his assertion that her realisation was due to her ‘instinct and intuition’ against his ‘logic’ but the embedded sexism in that comment unfortunately fits within his crotchety Victorian gentleman-scholar persona. Nonetheless, both Ian and Barbara have now proven themselves to him and the change is considerable.

As the episode ends, the Doctor and Barbara are arm-in-arm like old friends and Ian responds to the old man’s clear inability to fly the TARDIS with amusement instead of frustration. The two disparate groups have merged. They are now a united TARDIS crew excited to see their next planet.

And since no episode is complete without a cliffhanger, in this case it’s a giant footprint on an ice planet. And, tragically, since Marco Polo is a lost Doctor Who serial, it’s a mystery we will never uncover.


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