Soph Watches Classic Doctor Who – The Edge of Destruction

By Sophie Iles

This serial is something else. I really mean it. After stories like the Daleks and the Unearthly Child, you expect a bit of a pattern. We certainly do in the New Who world, this however is something completely different (Sorry Monty Python, but I couldn’t help myself) and because of that again makes it another favourite of mine.

The backstory to that is quite simple. A friend of mine sat me down, brandished her DVD copy at me and told me that this episode is unique and one of her favourites. The reason for this was that David Whitaker had only two days to write this story, with the pressure of the BBC wanting to do a thirteen episode run, with the limitations that due to budget they could only have the story take place in the TARDIS and only with the main cast. They had to fill this two week lull in their shooting schedule with something, and this is what we got.

Even with all those limitations, this strange story still is able to tug at my heartstrings just because the clever Mr. Whitaker saw as an opportunity to explore these much loved characters. Let’s see what the plot has in store.

After the Doctor tries to set the coordinates to move the TARDIS on after their adventure with the Daleks, there’s a sudden explosion, and everyone falls about and collapses. Barbara, Ian and Susan wake with memory issues, forgetting where they are or who their friends are, before finding the Doctor with a nasty cut on his head. Susan freaks out, but Barbara who seems the most normal at that moment starts trying to fix the Doctor’s wound. Ian sounds floaty, and Susan keeps complaining about the back of her head hurting. Already, everything is terribly weird and we haven’t got a clue how this has started or why.

The Doctor wakes, a bandage now on his head, also disorientated, and all of a sudden it’s finally apparent that this is the first time since they’ve stepped foot in the TARDIS they’ve had any time to think about their predicament. Ian and Barbara don’t trust the Doctor, and the Doctor doesn’t trust them back, making for some suspicious interactions particularly from the time lord. It appears he’s starting to suspect that it was the humans who had caused the problems with his TARDIS. This isn’t even to mention Susan’s erratic behaviour, looking violently at them and ending up stabbing a chair with scissors and being overall threatening to her former teachers in the process. This scene actually had the BBC pouring in letters of complaint, and I’m not surprised. I jumped out of my skin on my first viewing.

Susan’s actions with the scissors caused a lot of complaints.

Poor Barbara seems to be the only person with any sort of common sense or grounding in the episode, as she battles with a strange acting Ian, a suspicious Doctor and Susan being odd too. Even the TARDIS seems odd, only showing pictures on the scanner of what appears to be previous places they’ve been, opening doors and closing them on their own and producing water in bags instead of in cups, whilst also not showing that there’s any faults in the TARDIS on it’s fault locator. (PS: I would love the fault locator to come back one day. If you’re reading this Chibnall…)

Finally the Doctor makes his accusations, which he’s clearly been building towards. He blames Ian and Barbara for the whole affair, being knocked out and the state the TARDIS is in, with the theory that they wanted to blackmail him to get them home. The results produce a very unhappy Barbara pointing out some very important moments in the story so far, and is one of those famous scenes in Doctor Who history that just shows how valuable a companion really is to this crotchety time lord:

BARBARA: How dare you! Do you realise, you stupid old man, that you’d have died in the Cave of Skulls if Ian hadn’t made fire for you?
BARBARA: And what about what we went through against the Daleks? Not just for us, but for you and Susan too. And all because you tricked us into going down to the city.
BARBARA: Accuse us? You ought to go down on your hands and knees and thank us. But gratitude’s the last thing you’ll ever have, or any sort of common sense either.

Barbara ends this point by suddenly holding her head and screaming, everyone holding their head as all of a sudden, time melts away inside the TARDIS, the clocks and their watches literally melting, which Ian rightly points out couldn’t be their doing even if they had wanted the Doctor to take them home. 

Into frame pops the Doctor again, brandishing water on a tray very calmly despite this previous note, telling them they should all just sleep on the problem, and you’re immediately suspicious. Did the Doctor just completely deny that time was melting in front of them? (I did say this was a trip guys, I wasn’t joking.) This seems pretty ordinary, everyone goes off to bed, and not surprisingly the water was drugged to make them all sleep, apart from the Doctor. It’s apparent that all he wants to do is get those pesky humans away from his TARDIS so he can figure things out.

And it just leads to Ian strangling him — though it’s actually him just trying to stop the Doctor from doing something foolish — either way that’s what it appears, causing a pretty creepy cliffhanger. I wouldn’t have wanted to be the child to watch that episode unable to escape of the horror of what was happening on screen; that someone was strangling the Doctor.

He really doesn’t hate you that much, Doctor…

The second episode deals with Barbara once again, much like in the Daleks having a good head on her shoulders. Whilst the Doctor is ready to kick Ian and Barbara out of the TARDIS, she suggests that perhaps everything that’s happening is because the TARDIS is warning them about something. That the reason why they’re all acting funny, that the console is trying to hurt them, that it’s showing time melting — is because there’s a bigger threat at work.

It’s really the first time we see the TARDIS as anything but a machine, and this is obviously exploited in later episodes, to personally my complete joy. With Barbara figuring all this out, the TARDIS lets us know by causing little light explosions, that in fact the TARDIS is close to plunging back to the beginning of time and its own destruction. They only have so much time to figure out what’s causing the problem before they all die, and it takes the four of them together to ask the right questions and it’s the first time we really see them work as a team since the Dalek episode where they are trapped together.

And honestly, I was cheering them on. The rewatch had me cheering the Doctor finally understanding what it was that caused the ship to be faulty, Ian asking all the right questions, Susan checking the fault locator whilst Barbara kept putting everything together. It was a real triumphant moment to watch.

Just an added thing before we look at the end of this episode is talking about Hartnell’s performance as the Doctor. Honestly, I love his Doctor so much, and it’s in this episode that he really shines and gets an added wow factor. When we are so used to seeing him struggle with his lines, this episode has a soliloquy of the Doctor discussing the formation of the solar system. It’s an outstanding moment, and great fun to watch as you really feel he finally understands what’s happening. A real must watch for those who are getting into watching the First Doctor stories.

Though, perhaps it’s most amusing that in the end of it, it all happened because the Doctor pressed a switch and it got stuck. That’s right folks. A jammed switch is the reason for all this chaos, but look what it caused? By the end of the episode, the four travellers are talking to each other as though they are all on some sort of vacation instead of it feeling like two separate groups of people being forced together for adventures.

DOCTOR: Yes, I suppose it’s the injustice that’s upsetting you, and when I made a threat to put you off the ship it must have affected you very deeply.
BARBARA: What do you care what I think or feel?
DOCTOR: As we learn about each other, so we learn about ourselves.
BARBARA: Perhaps.
DOCTOR: Oh, yes. Because I accused you unjustly, you were determined to prove me wrong. So, you put your mind to the problem and, luckily, you solved it.

This quote truly is part of my favourite moment in the serial when the Doctor is talking to Barbara, their interaction speaks volumes of the Doctor growing to understand humans, and in turn  his companions understanding him. I love just how sweetly Barbara smiles at him when he offers to help her put on her new coat to explore outside. It’s a sign of true progression of these characters, basically becoming a little family.

And it honestly makes me want to love this team so much more than I already do.

This week as promised, my related doodle is a picture of the Doctor with a bandage on his head. Next week I’m going to discover Marco Polo, because as I have the novel, we can have a look at what we have left of this well liked serial!