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The Edge of Destruction

Review by Graham Howard

‘Total destruction!!’

I'm really rather glad that BBC video decided to release Inside the Spaceship as The Edge of Destruction. Inside the Spaceship sounds so uninviting, so ‘working title-ish’. Added to this is the fact that I've always known it as The Edge of Destruction, and always called it that - ever since first reading that brief synopsis in the 10th Anniversary Radio Times Special long ago.

When looking at the stories of the first season, one of the most striking features is the imaginativeness of the story concepts: An Unearthly Child sets up the time travel premise, as seen through the eyes of Ian and Barbara. The Daleks (aka The Mutants) is a strikingly imaginative tale of post-nuclear holocaust. Likewise for The Keys of Marinus, the five keys of the title providing an innovative linking device, enabling the presentation of several self-contained ‘mini-adventures’ within the overall quest to locate and return the keys. Then there are the historicals, with their fictional interpretation of historical figures and cultures as shown in Marco Polo, The Aztecs and The Reign of Terror. Planet of Giants explores the concept of miniaturisation, while The Sensorites illustrates the damage that can be caused by xenophobia and, if superficially, considers the use of mental or thought energy as a physical and/or psychological weapon.

The remaining story of the first season is, of course, The Edge of Destruction. Perhaps it is best known as the first season's ‘psychological thriller’, or ‘the one set entirely within the TARDIS’. To some it might seem to be an innocuous two-parter that could quite easily go unnoticed. Yet, The Edge of Destruction is pivotal to the development of the interpersonal relationships between the first TARDIS crew. It is the story in which Ian and Barbara cease to become unwelcome passengers, and begin to become friends and companions. In essence, the events of the story allow the characters to purge themselves of residual doubts and fears as to the others' motives, and to begin to form relationships based on mutual trust and respect. That this occurred is evident in the remaining stories of the first season, and beyond. In my view, uncertainties surrounding the Doctor and Susan's alien nature, were then able to become less of an issue, in the sense that the viewer could begin to presume a unity of purpose as they tackle the various perils that befall them on their travels. My personal view is that it was important for the development of the programme that the viewer be able to come to a point where they could trust and relate the Doctor in a moral and relational sense (albeit not completely). One of the key effects of this is that Ian and Barbara thereby ceased to become the sole means of viewer identification in the programme.

‘I wish I could understand you Doctor. One moment you're abusing us — and the next you're playing the perfect butler’

Edge is a story that could really only have ever worked in this early or formative stage of Who's development. As I've already suggested, the viewer is still relatively unsure how to take the Doctor and Susan, in the sense that there is still a deep sense of mystery surrounding their characters. They look human and sound human, but they are still alien. We can see the similarities to human beings, and that tends to make us think they will behave or respond like humans — when in fact they may not. We really know hardly anything about the Doctor and Susan's background, or their motives. Even their standards of morality cannot be taken for granted. The Doctor himself notes that ‘One man's law is another man's crime’. It is this sense of mystery and unpredictability that writer David Whitaker is able to exploit in Edge. The irony is that the Doctor and Susan's behaviour — given the extraordinary circumstances they are facing in the story — appears to me to be totally human. What man or woman — ‘on-the-run’ — wouldn't display the human trait of suspicion, especially towards strangers? Or demonstrate a protective attitude towards his property and his family when potentially threatened?

In this story, it is clear that the Doctor's only loyalty is to Susan and the TARDIS. The Doctor has been suspicious of the two teachers right from the start, and the mysterious happenings inside the TARDIS give him an excuse to forcefully voice his suspicions. Just in case the viewer was beginning to feel that the ordeal with the Daleks in the previous adventure has brought the TARDIS crew closer together, Edge is a stark reminder that the trust of the Doctor, and even of Susan, is not so easily gained.

‘What's going on here?!’

Right from the start the viewer is caught off guard — following the burst of energy that knocks everyone out, all of the characters, apart from Barbara, seem to have become disorientated, which is quite unsettling to the viewer. The disorientation manifests itself with temporary memory loss, perceptual difficulties and extreme emotional disturbances. Most noticeably, Ian seems to be in a daze, and Susan has become incredibly tense and fearful, to the point of violence. This unusual behaviour appears to have been designed by Whitaker to give credence to the idea that something, some kind of entity, could have found its way into the TARDIS and be influencing or controlling one or more of those on board. Susan claims ‘there is something here, inside the ship’, and interestingly suggests to Ian that ‘you feel it don't you?’ Add to all of these things the puzzling behaviour of the TARDIS, and the impression is quickly gained of some imminent and life-threatening danger. It is a recipe for unrestrained paranoia, firstly by Susan (culminating in the scissors ‘attacks’):

BARBARA: ‘We wouldn't hurt you Susan!’
SUSAN: ‘I never noticed the shadows before...it's so silent in the ship’
BARBARA: ‘Where would it
[an intruder] hide?’
SUSAN: ‘in one of us’

...and then by the Doctor:

BARBARA: ‘Why does he keep looking at us like that?’
THE DOCTOR: ‘You sabotaged my ship! You're the cause of this disaster!’


THE DOCTOR: ‘When we were lying helpless on the floor you tampered with my controls!’ [thereby causing the problems with the ship]

Barbara stingingly rebukes the Doctor for his outburst (‘How dare you!!’), but it is not really until the next episode — and after more accusations (‘I see, divide and conquer — she's [Barbara] trying to poison your mind against me.’) and a threat to put Ian and Barbara off the ship — that the truth finally begins to dawn on him. It is only a few story's later, that these attacks and accusations would be seem almost inconceivable, and such hostility would be quite out of character. Yet at this early stage in Who's history it is still credible, therefore the drama works. For we still know very little about the Doctor's race, and probably even less about the workings of the TARDIS.

THE DOCTOR: ‘Rash actions are worse than no actions at all.’
IAN: ‘I don't see anything rash in apologising to Barbara.’

As with numerous other occasions in the first series, it is Barbara who begins to put the pieces together, leading them to the cause of the strange behaviour of the TARDIS. In the end the Doctor is humbled — ‘I'm afraid I must have misjudged you both’ — and repentant, and it is on this that the viewer is persuaded that a breakthrough has occurred. And this is part of the attraction of Edge: the viewer does want to see reconciliation between the characters. In an uncharacteristically poignant moment with Barbara, the Doctor admits that it was ‘your instincts and intuition against my logic... we all owe you our lives’. To me, this scene demonstrates that even at this early stage of the first Doctor's tenure, Hartnell has an ability to offset the crotchety or obstinate qualities of his character with endearing and likeable qualities (unlike Colin Baker, in my view).

‘We're on the brink of destruction — all four of us must work closely together’

The plot of The Edge of Destruction is extraordinarily simple (or threadbare, some might say). In some ways the so-called ‘psychological suspense’ elements could easily be removed without affecting the main premise — that something is dangerously wrong with the TARDIS. Yet in the end, as noted by the Doctor, the tensions that the imaginary fears placed on the TARDIS crew's relationships was important in driving the characters towards a solution to the very real danger to their lives. A further consequence was that it brought them to a new level of maturity in their relationships with each other.

‘Things aren't all very logical are they?’

Of course, The Edge of Destruction does have weaknesses. For example, the cliff-hanger at the end of episode one is terribly contrived. Perhaps some of Carol-Ann Ford's acting, especially in the first episode could be described as a little ‘over-exuberant’ at times. Some aspects of the plot seem rather far-fetched. But as you can probably tell, for me, it is the character interaction that ultimately provides the greatest satisfaction in Edge. Notwithstanding the few weaknesses, to anyone who hasn't seen The Edge of Destruction, I would say ‘give it a try — it's better than you might think!’

This item appeared in TSV 61 (December 2000).

Index nodes: Inside the Spaceship/The Edge of Destruction