The Edge of Destruction

The Edge of DestructionSo, this is interesting.  The first season of Doctor Who aired pretty much concurrently with the final season of Twilight Zone.  The Zone was at that point airing in a Friday night time-slot death spiral;  The Edge of Destruction, Saturday at teatime in the UK, was the the first Who episode to exhibit creepy visual images, in what was almost certainly not a direct homage to Rod Serling’s similarly immortal brain child, but which raises a bunch of interesting parallels between the two series anyway.

Specifically, Episode 1 of this story, also titled The Edge of Destruction, aired the evening after Night Call, a very creepy Zone installment that was A) based on a Richard Matheson short story, and B) the episode that had been pre-empted on November 22, 1963.

Perhaps even more interestingly, Episode 2 (the wonderfully-named The Brink of Disaster) followed the Zone comedy From Agnes – With Love, which was A) directed by Richard Donner, later of Superman , Lethal Weapon, and casting Patrick Trougton in The Omen fame, and B) starred Wally Cox, playing a Wally Cox-type computer programmer; Wally gets very poor romantic advice from one of his own machines that’s become a little too self-aware…

This isn't going to end well.

This isn’t going to end well.

Edge hews a little closer to the creepiness of Night Call, and is singularly lacking in the humor value of watching Wally Cox metaphorically trip over a hi-tech banana peel, even though the TARDIS-goes-mad element of Edge has faint parallels with Agnes.  But the melting clocks and watch-faces inside the TARDIS as it approaches the brink of descruc —  er, destruction (if you know what I mean, and I think you do) seem heavily inspired by the Twilight Zone opening titles from that season, the same opening titles that I still occasionally have nightmares about (and, by occasionally, I mean frequently).

"The brink of descruc -- er, destruction!"

“The brink of descruc — er, destruction!”

So a case can be made that The Edge of Destruction is an early DW attempt at Twilight Zone psychological drama.  After a colossal explosion shakes the TARDIS in the opening scene, the four regulars (there’s no guest cast) spend most of Episode 1 acting out in progressively bizarre ways.  Everyone is, by  turns, amnesiac, psychotic or paranoid, trying to figure out what has gone wrong in the TARDIS; the TARDIS itself does not help, by flashing conflicting messages on the Fault Locator, randomly electrifying panels on the control console, showing strange images on the scanner, and periodically openings its doors to reveal a white void.  There’s very little incidental music to play out over this; it’s very effective in providing stings when it’s there, but most of the psychodrama occurs in awkward silence, in a manner that seems almost deliberate (especially given how richly textured the various incidental scores are for nearly every other story this season).

This should all be great, supremely creepy television.  I remember loving Edge in the past, and fully expected to love it again this time.  But… it just doesn’t work.  Watched in sequence, as just the third story produced, it’s a too early in the show’s run to derive any meaningful drama from watching the regulars act out-of-character.  Susan’s psychotic break with the scissors is a jolt, yes, but ten minutes later, she’s changed moods again, and you realize that there’s been no lasting impact from that earlier business.  Ian spends literally the first five minutes of Episode 2 lying on the TARDIS floor in a too-short bathrobe, making repeated choking gestures with his hands.  The Doctor is a piece of work  in the story, yes, but he’s not still appreciably different than he’s been in the previous two stories; his character hadn’t yet settled into type we now identify as “Doctor-ish”, so there’s little drama to be had in watching him act delusional.

"Bart!  Let me show you my new chainsaw and hockey mask!!"

“Bart! Let me show you my new chainsaw and hockey mask!!”

What works about the story now, especially when watched in sequence, are the endings.  These are the first two misdirection cliffhangers that Who would give us.  Most of Episode 1 is spent wondering just why the TARDIS has gone mad; one of the possibilities suggested is that there’s an intruder.  When a pair of hands reach out to strangle the Doctor at the end, it seems as if that’s the answer!  Some unknown agent  has snuck on board, and has the Doctor at his mercy!  Of course, that’s not the case at all — as soon as the camera pulls back at the open of Episode 2, we learn that it’s Ian, and then a few minutes after that, we learn that he’s not in fact evil, he was just momentarily possessed by the TARDIS in an effort to prevent the Doctor from touching a “live” section of the console.  And the Episode 2 cliffhanger, which is a lead-in into Marco Polo, is also a misdirection: that’s not a giant’s footprint at all, we find out 90 seconds into the next story it’s just a bunch of Tartars… The misdirection cliffhanger has a time-honored role in Doctor Who, and here we get two in the same story.

The other fascinating aspect of the ending is how it finally, after 13 weeks of the Doctor as banana-peel fodder, the anti-hero whose comeuppance we desperately desire, merges the TARDIS crew into a unified group of friends.  From this point on, they will no longer be unwilling adventurers, but rather will be friends on the ultimate road trip.  Future stories are about the TARDIS crew’s adventures, rather than about the TARDIS crew arguing amongst each other as to how these adventures are to take place.

After this episode, this scenario no longer counts as Ian and Barbara's wish-fulfillment...

After this episode, this scenario no longer counts as Ian and Barbara’s wish-fulfillment…

This is also the moment where Barbara Wright really comes into her own.  She’s been erratic throughout the show’s first 12 weeks; you can see the potential was there for an independent-minded, strong-willed, single female who has no qualms about asserting herself, but then the script has her fall, or scream at something trifling, or develop radiation sickness, to make her look ineffectual.  Earlier in this story, even, her telling off the Doctor (prefaced with the great lead-in, “You stupid old man…”) is immediately undercut by her shrieking at the melted clock-face.  But then, at the end, it’s Barbara who pieces together all the clues and realizes that the TARDIS hasn’t gone mad – it’s trying to warn them of their impending doom.  This allows the Doctor, with a mechanical assist from Ian, to save the day by once again resolving the crisis with the pushing of a single button (followed by the Doctor giving an extended lecture to Susan about how the “on” button works on a flashlight, which is the sort of 3rd-grade-level science lesson that Inspector Gadget used to give Penny at the end of each episode).

During the extended denouement, we return to the Doctor apologizing sincerely to Barbara, explains how they all owe her their lives… and exit for good Hartnell as the anti-hero.  From this point on, there are very few interpersonal quarrels on board the TARDIS.  Now begins the Doctor who starts to name-check historical figures (here, Gilbert and Sullivan, from whose wardrobe he’s borrowed), for example.

Edge of Destruction, more so than any other Season 1 story, has not aged well.  The lack of incidental music and the random nature of the out-of-character moments make this story not so much fun to sit through.  However, as a bridge between the earliest version of Hartnell’s Doctor as anti-hero, and the series that we have today, it is kind of indispensable.  The last five minutes is where the fun part of Doctor Who actually begins.  And our revived series is much better than the revived Twilight Zones.

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About drwhonovels

An incredibly languid sojourn through the "Doctor Who" canon, with illustrations from the Topps 1979 baseball card set.
This entry was posted in 1st Doctor and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Edge of Destruction

  1. That was an excellent in-depth analysis, and I pretty much agree with all of your points.

    • drwhonovels says:

      Thanks! I was kind of disappointed during my re-watch — I was expecting to enjoy it a lot more than I did. And I love pretty much all of season 1 unreservedly (yes, even when we get to Marinus and the Sensorites…).

  2. Pingback: Marco Polo | drwhonovels

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