To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.
The Edge of Destruction originally aired in 1964.
The Edge of Destruction is an interesting little two-parter. Basically created to fill out a two-episode gap in the end of the initial run of episodes following the four-part An Unearthly Child and the seven-part The Daleks. It wasn’t possible to bring Marco Polo forward into this production block, as it was too long, and there wasn’t any budget provided for a guest cast or for new sets. So, as seemed to happen quite a lot on the show, the production team’s ingenuity forced their creativity. The Edge of Destruction (or Inside the Spaceship) ended up being a two-part “bottle” episode, featuring only the four members of the lead cast.
It’s funny, looking back on The Edge of Destruction, to see how it takes a lot of the rough edges of the first two serials and sort of smooths them out into the shapes we’re familiar with, while telling a fairly self-contained little psychological thriller. Perhaps the biggest revelation of The Edge of Destruction is the suggestion that the TARDIS itself is alive, something that feeds into the Doctor’s inability to control it, but also paving the way for decades of development leading to The Doctor’s Wife.
The implication is that the TARDIS is self-aware enough to realise that there’s a fault and the disturbances around the crew represent an attempt to alert them to the problem. I’m not entirely sure that provoking murderous paranoia is the best way to do that, but we can chalk that up to an alien misunderstanding. “A machine that can think for itself?” Ian asks, and the Doctor confirms it – to a certain extent. In fairness, at this early stage of the game, the TARDIS is still clearly a machine rather than a living organism, but The Edge of Destructiondoes kick-start that fairly key part of the mythos.
However, The Edge of Destruction is probably more notable for marking a fairly clear transition from the grumpy and cowardly Doctor of An Unearthly Child and The Daleks to the more heroic figure we know today. At the height of the crisis within the TARDIS, the Doctor very clearly threatens to eject Barbara and Ian from the craft, despite Susan’s protests that it could kill them. “Or it might be the Earth in the twentieth century,” he weakly suggests. “Hadn’t it occurred to you?” This sort of conduct, his reckless indifference to the fate of Ian and Barbara, is perfectly in-character for the Doctor we’ve seen in the opening two serials, but it’s quite clear that he’s gone too far here – he even seems to recognise it after the fact.
Once the crisis has passed, William Hartnell seems to transform into the character that we know and love, the version we’re familiar with from the years of stories that followed this point in the show’s history. He’s suddenly far more cooperative with his human guests, and far more sensitive to their needs. “We must look after you, you know,” he remarks to a recovering Barbara. “You’re very valuable.” This is a woman he was more than willing to leave behind one story earlier. Later on, he’s even joking with Ian, engaging in some of the jovial name-dropping we’ve come to expect from the show. “You know,” he tells Ian, “I acquired that ulster from Gilbert and Sullivan.” And the two laugh like old friends.
It’s curious to consider what brought about such a curious change in the character. While talking to Barbara, he suggests, “As we learn about each other, so we learn about ourselves.” Perhaps the Doctor learnt something about himself when he threatened to eject Ian and Barbara from the ship, and he didn’t necessarily like it. I’ve remarked before that I like the theory that traveling with Ian and Barbara actually mellowed the Doctor out slightly, and that it made him the sort of wandering hero that he is. Of course, that’s just my own pet theory, no more or less valid than anyone else’s. Anyway, this new and happy Doctor is the one present from here on out. Sadly Marco Polo is a lost serial, but – when we join him again in The Keys of Marinus – he’s joking away with Ian and Barbara and risking everything to save Ian from a mockery of justice. It’s a nice touch.
There are some other nice touches. Though it’s frequently considered a gaffe, I like that the console on the TARDIS appears to be labeled. I know that William Hartnell would use the labels for rehearsals, but it sort of fits this Doctor’s forgetful personality – in fairness, quite a few of the First Doctor’s quirks come from accidents of Hartnell’s performance (the famous stumbling over words, for example), so I don’t mind that particular element sneaking in under the radar. Given that even Matt Smith’s Doctor doesn’t know how to fully use the TARDIS, it seems fitting.
There is a rather awkward “very sixties” moment where the Doctor choses to confess how desperate the situation is to Ian. “I lied, deliberately,” he explains, “so that they won’t know.” While you could justify the Doctor opting not to tell his grand-daughter Susan, it does feel just a little bit sexist to leave Barbara out of the “circle of trust” within the soon-to-explode TARDIS. But that’s a minor point.
The Edge of Destruction stands perfectly as a transition point between the initial block of episodes that laid the template for the series, and the selection that would go on to reinforce that foundation. Even today, it’s hard to point to a show that found its feet so well in the first thirteen episodes, but it’s a testament to all involved that the show had formed such a perfect outline for what was to come, all within the space of thirteen episodes.
You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of the classic Doctor Who:
- An Unearthly Child
- The Daleks
- Edge of Destruction
- Marco Polo
- The Keys of Marinus
- The Aztecs
- The Sensorites
- Reign of Terror