Welcome to the third installment of Walking In Eternity! How great was the season finale of this year's Doctor Who?! I absolutely loved it, and can't wait to review it, in the far, far distant future. With a renewed interest in the First Doctor, it looks like I've chosen the perfect time to start these reviews!
It's a bit of an untraditional story today, but I hope you like reading my thoughts on it!
1.3 The Edge Of Destruction
2 episodes. Broadcast 8th – 15th February 1964. Written by David Whitaker. Directed by Richard Martin and Frank Cox.
Synopsis: The Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan are trapped in a malfunctioning TARDIS. What could have caused the ship to break down? And why is everyone acting so weird? Could the ship have been invaded by an alien presence?
It’s a good old-fashioned bottle episode as Doctor Who experimentation continues...
The most important thing to remember about Doctor Who at this stage of the series’ life is that the program makers haven’t quite figured out how to do this show yet, so we see them stumbling around in the dark, offering up potential directions the series could take. While that formula would eventually see The Daleks as Doctor Who at its most typical, it’s interesting to consider what the show would’ve been like had, say, ‘The Edge Of Destruction’ been a more popular story.
While most modern day viewers tend to dismiss this as an inconsequential bit of filler, I’ve always had a great soft spot for it. That could be because it seems to fit into that most wondrous of TV traditions, the bottle episode. As I have discussed previously, I have a huge love for this kind of what appears to be a simpler kind of episode. Basically, the idea is you shove a small number of characters into a space, isolate them and watch the tensions ratchet up to fever pitch (Doctor Who’s ‘Midnight’ is one of the most recognisable examples, and it was something Seinfeld did all the time). While these episodes are cheaper to make (only one set means no hiring of set designers and only having the main characters means no need to pay extras), they are often incredibly difficult to pull off well. At their best, they are like mini theatre pieces, with their focus on character and story over flashy attention-grabbing scenes. At their worst, they’re dull and look cheap.
So, how does Doctor Who’s example hold up? Surprisingly well. Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. This is a strangely amateur-looking production with several shots weirdly out-of-focus and/or over exposed and the walls of the TARDIS looking like cardboard wobbling on a studio set. I know this was done on the cheap, but it’s so distracting it pulls you out of the story, especially as I am now studying film. And the ending is atrocious, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
The problem here is that there’s actually a lot to love about this story. It has a nightmarish, eerie quality about it, with elements of danger lurking around every corner. The Doctor is yet again a monstrous figure, threatening to throw Ian and Barbara out of the ship when he suspects they’ve been possessed by an alien force. Susan is acting strangely, continually trying to stab Ian with a pair of (very phallic) scissors, before murdering a couch. The clocks melt, the lights go out and the tension just increases with every moment. And all of that weirdness works, coming across as terrifying and strange, like the Doctor Who version of a Twilight Zone episode. However, while The Twilight Zone is an anthology, what makes this story so effective is its use of continuity and the bond between characters.
There are two all-time great scenes in The Edge of Destruction, both of which I’m reminded of when people dismiss this. The first features my beloved Barbara. There are a lot of reasons to love her. She’s the heart of the TARDIS crew, but also a stone-cold badass with a great hairstyle, but somehow always comes across as a consistent likable character. She keeps her head when things get crazy, so when she starts screaming, we know it’s about to get bad. While many argue that The Aztecs is Barbara’s shining moment, I’d argue that the real reason to love Barbara occurs in this story. Throughout, she’s calm yet firm, but then finally, the levy breaks. The Doctor threatens to throw her out of the ship and she delivers a blistering, unforgettable takedown of him. She reminds him that she and Ian didn’t ask to go on this journey yet they have consistently helped him and Susan, against the cave of skulls and the Daleks. Now, he wants to throw them out of the ship? He should get on his knees and thank them! It’s a great, fist-in-the-air moment, because it relies on continuity but does so in a way that develops character, but also because it’s the telling off the Doctor needed. If this were a modern drama, this would be the climax, but here it’s treated as another moment in this effectively creepy little story. If you don’t shout GO BARBARA after this story (which also sees her figure out the reason all this is happening), then you’re missing something.
The second, more famous scene, sees the Doctor giving a monologue about the birth of a star. It’s a beautiful moment for William Hartnell (no fluffs!) and the most recognisable moment of Doctor-ishness so far. It’s also really well-written, informative and wonderfully staged and shot (the lighting is on-point there), so it ticks a lot of boxes.
So, The Edge Of Destruction is moody, has two legitimately great scenes and wonderful performances, so why is it so hated? Well, apart from the shoddy production value, the story’s biggest flaw is the ending. This creepy, mood-piece happened because... the fast-return switch on the console got stuck. It’s infuriating and silly, making something creepy into a technical fault. It’s an annoyingly bad ending that leaves a bitter taste (almost, but not quite, redeemed by another sweet scene between Barbara and the Doctor).It’s hard to know what to make of this, especially seeing there isn’t a lot of Doctor Who stories one can compare it to. The bonkers first episode of the Second Doctor story ‘The Mind Robber’ comes close, but it’s interesting to think what the series could’ve been like had these sideways in times stories been more popular. It’s a weird story, but what can I say, I’ve always liked the weird ones.
Next time: The TARDIS crew meet Marco Polo and face off against the terrots of ancient China!