Doctor Who: The Edge of Destruction

I'M NOT GOING BACK TO COAL HILL SCHOOL!!!
(a.k.a. Inside the Spaceship)

Two episodes, one set, no guest cast, no budget, no problem!

Season 1, Serial C
Starring William Hartnell as the Doctor
With William Russell (Ian), Jacqueline Hill (Barbara) and Carole Ann Ford (Susan)
Written by David Whitaker
Directed by Richard Martin (ep 1) and Frank Cox (ep 2)
Produced by Verity Lambert

Episodes and Broadcast Dates:
  1. The Edge of Destruction – 8 Feb 1964
  2. The Brink of Disaster – 15 Feb 1964
PLOT SUMMARY

Our heroes wake up dazed and disoriented. Both they and the TARDIS are behaving very strangely; the crew become gripped with paranoia, hallucinations and occasionally violent psychosis, and the TARDIS is silent, opening the doors on its own, showing odd images on the scanner, etc. The Doctor accuses Ian and Barbara of sabotaging the TARDIS; Ian and Barbara suggest an alien culprit, and Susan generally freaks out.

After much mutual hostility, with the Doctor going so far as to threaten to boot Ian and Barbara off the ship, they realize the TARDIS is attempting to warn them that they’re all in grave danger. Barbara pieces the clues together. Eventually a stuck switch is revealed to be the culprit, nearly plunging the TARDIS back to the beginning of time. The switch is repaired, all returns to normal, and the Doctor uncomfortably apologizes to Ian and a still very much annoyed Barbara.

They then arrive on a snowy plain, and Susan discovers a giant footprint in the snow...

ANALYSIS AND NOTES AND STUFF

Although there are some notable concepts introduced here, particularly that the TARDIS appears to have a degree of sentience and the ability to psychically communicate with its passengers, let’s not pretend this is anything more than two hastily-written bottle episodes to fill out the original 13-episode production block, that needed to be so cheap that they couldn’t afford guest actors or any sets beyond the already-built TARDIS interiors. And there’s no need for us to pretend that these two episodes are part of anyone but the most obsessed fan’s must-see list.

If the Daleks hadn’t gripped the public’s interest in the previous weeks, this would likely have been the end. The videotapes of the thirteen episodes would have been promptly wiped, the film copies – if they even bothered to make them – would have ended up on the rubbish tip, and Doctor Who would have faded into obscurity alongside the BBC’s similarly mostly-lost early sci-fi like The Quatermass Experiment or A For Andromeda. And we’d all be watching Star Trek or something.

I wonder if there was ever an alternate ending ready to be filmed if the program got the axe, in which the TARDIS crew squabbles so much that they fail to notice their impending doom. This might actually have been a great way to close the show if that’s what was to happen, a profoundly metaphoric statement about how the human race is too busy fighting amongst itself to notice that the world is collapsing into ruin.

Each episode had its own director, and the difference is pretty marked. Richard Martin is my leading contender for the worst director in the show’s history, with seemingly every shot containing some degree of incompetence in conception or awkwardness in execution. Frank Cox fares a bit better in episode two with a number of high-angle shots, and the ‘monologue spotlight’ for Hartnell that add a lot of visual interest, though poor Billy seems to fluff every other line of dialogue - apparently at one point he says "Check the fornicator!" instead of "fault locator," but I can't hear it.

Hee hee... you said "fornicator..."
Everyone loves to point out that the Fast Return switch, the cause of all the trouble, is labeled “FAST RETURN” in marker. Many believe that this is a deliberate design choice, indicating that the Doctor is so untrained in the operation of a TARDIS that he has to manually write the function of each control. However, the surviving cast recall that they themselves wrote the label simply so they could remember which button to push, and the production crew forgot to erase it before filming.

My take on this... Martin’s more of an actor’s director than a technical one, so he gets potentially interesting and nuanced performances out of the cast but the filming process robs the performance of the interest and nuance. What probably seemed really intense and eerie in rehearsal comes across onscreen as awkward and stilted; the camera angles and shot selections could have served to emphasize and accentuate the alien-ness of the situation, but it looks flat, bland, and devoid of inspiration. Or alternately, the cameras frequently fail to be in the right place at the right time, the boom mics are often a few seconds behind the actors.

The multi-colored bandage for the Doctor’s head “with the ointment built in” is a silly concept. Susan and Barbara’s snuggie-style bedclothes are very foolish looking indeed, especially compared to Ian’s silk bathrobe (oops, you can see his undies when he’s prone on the floor in episode 2 - evidently he's a briefs man).

But for all the mess and awkwardness, the moment where the switch is repaired and the TARDIS comes back to life is actually quite nice, and the Doctor’s apology is necessary to the evolution of Ian and Barbara from kidnapping victims to companions. “As we learn about each other, so we learn about ourselves.” Indeed.

RATING: 2 out of 4 stuck return switches.
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John Geoffrion balances a career in hospital fundraising with semi-pro theatre gigs, and watches way too much Doctor Who and Britcoms in between. He'll create an author page after he puts up a few more reviews.

2 comments:

Juliette said...

I loved these episodes. I loved Barbara and the Doctor sparring (Ian and Barbara are two of my favourite companions) and I thought the development of the TARDIS as a sentient being was fascinating.

Dave M! said...

Man, that was a rough review!

The business concerns that create "bottle episodes" exist in the marrow of every motion picture and television program. According to Inside the TARDIS, the very show was created to fill a specific time block for a targeted audience. So the existence of business stank isn't enough to discredit the story.

Given the new Who's popularity, one could argue that anything before Tom Baker would be on "the most obsessed fan’s must-see list."

That said, I found the story difficult to watch the first time...mostly for the directorial issues you cited so well. It took a second viewing to appreciate the character growth. I think Barbara telling off the Doctor changed the show's tone for the better.

There's something to be said for writers who can make gold out of executive's errors (poor budget, short-term thinking, etc.)

Thanks for the insightful review. You keep writin', I'll keep reading'!