The Edge of Destruction

It’s a little surprising that after just two stories, 1964’s Doctor Who had already turned inward for the two-parter “The Edge of Destruction”/”The Brink of Disaster”. But after going to prehistoric Earth and then the planet of the Daleks in Earth’s far future, maybe it seemed like a logical next step to explore the ship taking them there. It makes even more sense when you consider what a delicate point audiences were at with the characters: after eleven episodes, we knew them well enough to care what happened to them, but not well enough to know quite what they might be capable of if pushed to extremes. The paranoia this episode traffics in really had to happen at this point to be truly convincing.

When you know the ending, it’s hard for this episode to hold your attention by plot alone, but it’s still worth watching for the atmosphere and the acting. Ian seems more stoned than anything else, but Susan and Barbara both freak out in convincing and unexpected ways. The tension between them feels a bit like some existentialist French play, especially the scene where Susan threatens Ian with the medical scissors, holding them like a dagger and then stabbing them repeatedly and viciously into her mattress.

The story is set entirely on the TARDIS, and though we don’t see much more of it, what we do see is austere and beautiful. The console room seems huge if you’re used to the later episodes of the classic series (but not the new series, where it’s the size of a house again), and the smooth surfaces and open spaces suggest classical architecture as much as futuristic technology. There’s also some cool modernist furniture like the curvy fold-out Murphy beds. Occasionally the visuals let the episode down, such as the bits with the clock faces where it’s hard to even make out what’s happening (though it could have been the video quality), but for the most part they support the feeling of the story much better than expensive CGI showing the ship disintegrating would have.

The puzzle itself works pretty well. They don’t overplay the question of whether something (“an intelligence”) has penetrated the ship, but the crew’s odd behavior (which never seemed quite adequately explained) does keep us guessing. When there’s a series of pictures playing on the scanner, intended as clues, and the Doctor talks about his TARDIS as being able to “think as a machine” with a “bank of computers,” it calls to mind “The Doctor’s Wife” and what that episode retroactively implies about how the TARDIS really does think. For being old and (by his own admission) growing senile, the Doctor here seems young and a little naive; it takes him a while to figure things out, he seems impulsive and foolish in his reading of events and other people, and he obviously doesn’t know his own ship that well yet. One of the fun contradictions of this show is that it starts with an old Doctor with an old spirit but an immature mind, and is now showing us a young Doctor with a young spirit and a mature mind.

The Doctor tells Barbara (though he might be trying to placate her) that her “instinct and intuition” beat his “logic” in figuring out the problem, though it’s worth noting that the problem itself is as purely scientific as this show gets. (Again, contrast the “bank of computers” with “Idris.”) Barbara does have the best and most ominous (if perplexing) line of the episode: “We had time taken away from us…and now it’s being given back because it’s running out.” Beats the pants off the Doctor’s over-the-top monologue about solar systems.

Next time: back to new Who with “Let’s Kill Hitler!”

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