Doctor Who From The Beginning: The Edge Of Destruction

The Edge Of Destruction
Writer: David Whittaker
Directors: Richard Martin and Frank Cox
DVD Availability: As Disc 3 of The Beginnings Box Set
(Buy from Amazon)
Other Availability – legally viewable on YouTube for those with Flash – episode 1, episode 2

A review I read of last night’s Doctor Who (which I’ve not yet seen) says it was “like something from an Indiana Jones film which [sic] shows [Moffat’s] heightened aspirations for what the show is capable of.”

Fun as the Indiana Jones films are, I don’t think that emulating them is a hugely worthwhile aspiration. To see what Doctor Who is *really* capable of, we should go back to early 1964, to the cheapest story they ever did.

Set entirely within the TARDIS (except for the cliffhanger going into the next story, Marco Polo), featuring only the four regular characters, and with the most threatening thing in the story being someone running with scissors, The Edge Of Destruction is very clearly a cheap story made because the budget for the earlier episodes had overrun. The plot, such as it is, is ludicrously simplistic (a switch has got stuck on the TARDIS console, causing the TARDIS to try to telepathically warn the characters – the first sign we’ve had that she’s more than just a machine).

But this plot is used as the basis for one of the most astonishing pieces of drama ever broadcast as children’s TV (and whatever designation it’s given now, in 1964 Doctor Who was explicitly aimed at relatively young children). Back in the 1960s (and even as late as the 1980s), British TV came from a theatrical rather than filmic tradition, and this story is an absurdist drama that has far more in common with Becket or Brecht than with Indiana Jones or Aliens.

Of course, this isn’t to say it has that much in common with either – the characters here don’t go giving long speeches about the superiority of socialism to fascism, or attempting suicide through sheer boredom – but what is clear is that not only was Whittaker (the show’s script editor, and therefore the go-to man for quick filler cheapy scripts) aware of these movements within the theatre, but he was influenced by them too. In particular, while the characters aren’t aware of their fictional nature, they *are* aware that something is manipulating their behaviour, and in many cases that they’re acting like puppets rather than like themselves.

In this sense the TARDIS is acting as a surrogate author here, manipulating the characters in dramatic ways, so they attack each other to add conflict to the story even when they have no prior motive for doing so.

Edge Of Destruction is known as a character-centred piece, but in fact the only actual ‘character’ here is the Doctor. While the other characters behave in out-of-character ways, the Doctor’s paranoia (at one stage he drugs Ian and Barbara because he believes them to have sabotaged the ship) and egocentrism are entirely in character for him up to this point. The others are all active – but their actions are not in their control. The Doctor, for the most part, is passive – merely griping from the sidelines – but he’s the only one who appears to remain more-or-less in control of his own actions.

This is one reason why his apology at the end of the story is so significant – he remained responsible for his actions, and so he has to *take* responsibility for them, even though those actions (mostly just making false accusations) were far less dangerous than, for example, Susan trying to stab Barbara or Ian trying to strangle the Doctor.

Because, in some ways, this is the end of Doctor Who as it originally started. By this time, the production team knew the series was going to continue past the initially-commissioned thirteen episodes (this two-parter would have otherwise made up the last two episodes) and so used the enforced cheap two-parter to rewrite the Doctor’s character from his previous curmudgeonly, anti-heroic status to a more conventionally sympathetic version.

Incidentally, a bit of thought about this makes the story make a lot more sense than people who focus on the MacGuffin of the ‘fast return switch’ realise. It’s very easy to argue that the whole story is actually about the TARDIS trying to teach the Doctor how to cope with other people – as he says at the end, “As we learn about others, so we learn about ourselves”. The Doctor has ended up learning what his ‘true character’ is, by being the only person *allowed* to act as he wishes.

Unfortunately, this story also marks the last time the character of Susan is remotely interesting. You can’t have everything.

The story also sees the start of David Whittaker’s most obvious influence on the series; the incorporation of a proto-New Agey mysticism. While the show, like the title character, has for the most part stood up for Enlightenment values of small-l liberalism, scientific enquiry and rationalism (sometimes with a big dollop of Buddhism thrown in), Whittaker himself seemed to have about as much comprehension of science as a border collie does of the 1912 England cricket team, being happier with a kind of pop-Platonism.

Here this is shown in a rather sexist manner, as Barbara uses her female intuition to decode the obvious Freudian clues the ship is leaving all over the place (melting clocks straight out of Dali, that sort of thing) which the Doctor’s ‘logic’ can’t cope with. But even here, we have a fantastic monologue (wonderfully performed by Hartnell) where the Doctor describes the formation of solar systems which is one of the best examples of scientific sensawunda you’ll find in the show. Shame it’s completely wrong.

Despite its crass imitators (as a rule of thumb, the inside of the TARDIS should never be shown), Edge Of Destruction remains, along with the first episode and The Aztecs, the definite highlight of Doctor Who‘s first year.

Though the next story might rise to those heights. It’s hard to tell though, as it’s been burned.

Next – Marco Polo (or what’s left of it).

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13 Responses to Doctor Who From The Beginning: The Edge Of Destruction

  1. Prankster says:

    For the record, the review you linked to is referring to a plot element as being like Indiana Jones, not the episode as a whole. Except maybe for one scene, the episode was nothing like Indiana Jones, really.

    Also for the record, I’m really enjoying this season. Maybe it’s Stockholm syndrome at seeing the show be written competently after 4.5 years of Davies, but I really look forward to watching it these days.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Oh, I agree that the episode wasn’t very Jonesy, but it’s just a particularly good example of the difference between the show in Hartnell’s time and the current one. I’m not saying that the Hartnell series was any better at what it wanted to do – in some ways it was worse – but what it wanted to do was very, very different.

      And I’m finding the new series very odd… it’s the Davies series but competently done, which means that it’s got a huge number of problems for me, but I’m still watching it. I’ll probably do a series roundup next week…

      • Prankster says:

        As I’ve said, I don’t know much about classic Who, but having grown up on various genre shows like Star Trek:TNG, The X-Files, and Buffy, I understand what you mean by the lack of narrative ambition of the current show. Or I think I do, at any rate. The highlight of those shows, to me, was when they’d every so often throw out a crazy episode that was filmed backwards, or with almost no dialogue, or whatever. It’s kind of interesting that the current show is taking so many cues from Buffy, and yet Buffy was a much more narratively experimental show.

        On the other hand, Moffat has already shown he’s willing to do interesting things with the show’s storytelling, with Blink and The Girl in the Fireplace and so on, which makes the Davies-ness of the current run odd. I wonder if it’s either a) Moffat trying to show off how much better he is as a writer than Davies by essentially remaking him, b) the network insisting that they stick with the winning formula, or c) the opposite of a–Moffat being unsure of himself and not wanting to stray too far from the established boundaries that the show has set out. If it’s any of these things, there’s hope that the next season might push things a little further.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          I think it’s actually something else – Moffat doesn’t like taking risks, and now he’s in charge, it’s him who has to be held to account if the risks don’t pay off.

          See for example this, from (one of the most wrongheaded discussions I’ve ever read, if you compare what they’re talking about to the reality):

          “Andy [Lane]: I’d go for reliable old Robert Holmes, a man who knew what drama was. The Talons of Weng-Chiang Part One, perhaps.
          Paul [Cornell]: A hack. A very good hack…
          Steven [Moffat]: How could a good hack think that the BBC could make a giant rat? If he’d come to my house when I was 14 and said ‘Can BBC Special Effects do a giant rat?’ I’d have said no. I’d rather see them do something limited than something crap. What I resented was having to go to school two days later, and my friends knew I watched this show. They’d go ‘Did you see the giant rat?!’ and I’d have to say I thought there was dramatic integrity elsewhere.”

          Now, in actuality, Bob Holmes was one of the two or three best writers ever to work on the show. He was, as Cornell puts it, a ‘good hack’, but I don’t see that as being at all an insult. He knew how to make interesting, intelligent, scary, funny genre stories that children and adults could both watch, with great dialogue, that pushed the format just a little beyond what it had previously done.

          Moffat on the other hand thinks Holmes – a writer whose shoes Moffat is frankly not worthy of licking – is not even a good hack, because he had the temerity to try stuff that failed.

          “I’d rather see them do something limited than something crap.” is *exactly* the attitude Moffat is taking now, and it’s exactly the opposite of the attitude something should take if it’s to be called Doctor Who…

          • Prankster says:

            Alright, well, I bow to you here; I know nothing about Moffat, or any other Who writer who isn’t Douglas Adams. I’m just going based on what’s on the screen.

            (Though in Mr. Moffat’s defense, that whole exchange sounds an awful lot like he’s, as you Brits would say, taking the piss…)

          • colin smith says:

            Thank you for this quite astonishing link, Andrew. There’s no chance I’d ever have come across this if you hadn’t pointed it out, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so … surprised and taken aback by reading the transcript of such a conversation. What a nightmare it must be, to have all those hundreds of interviews and panels in the historical record …

            But you’re quite right in that there’s alot said there that wouldn’t, shall we say, sit well in an interview with the Radio Times today. As for how I feel about what was said, I’m still rather baffled by it all. I’m not even sure that I know enough to have an opinion yet. But I know I want to in order to work out where I stand here. And so I’m really grateful you posted that link. The mind boggles, it really does.

            • Andrew Hickey says:

              That link actually clarified quite a few things for me when I read it, because the rather nasty, bullying tone I’ve seen in much of the Welsh series is exactly the same as the tone that comes across in that conversation. It is, of course, unfair to judge people by things they said fifteen years ago (or however long ago that was, 94 I think), but I read that and it explains *exactly* what I don’t like about the Welsh series…

  2. I had no idea Edge was available in its entirety at YouTube. I recently downloaded The Aztecs from iTunes and I’m definitely in the mood for more Hartnell.

    Great reading about the old episodes. Keep up the good work.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      There’s *tons* of ‘classic Who’ on Youtube (and other sites, but I don’t know which ones), all legally available as promotions for the DVDs…

  3. James Baker says:

    That’s a good point about the Tardis interior, I’ve never thought about it before, but a on reflection a good part of the 5th and 6th doctor stories I didn’t enjoy had extended Tardis interior scenes. Taking into account only seeing each serial once and my own confirmation bias of course.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah, it’s a quite common criticism made by a certain type of reviewer that the TARDIS should only ever appear at the beginning and end of a story. I wouldn’t go *quite* that far – Lawrence Miles did a brilliant short story entirely about the TARDIS, for example – but it should definitely be severely in the background…

  4. malart says:

    Thought you might be interested in this


    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Thanks – I’d seen that a couple of places. Damn competent writers and funny people stealing my idea before I had it ;)
      I’ll probably buy at least the first volume, as I like Shearman’s writing a lot, and Hadoke can be very funny (though in his stand-up he does rely too much on the same material – I see him quite regularly compering in Manchester, and he doesn’t have a great turnover of material, so I hope it isn’t repeated too much in this).

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