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).