Doctor Who (Classic): S01E03 “The Edge of Destruction”

Season 1
Directed by Richard Martin (Episode 1), Frank Cox (Episode 2)
Written by David Whitaker

After Friday’s seven episode serial, we get a big change of pace with a two episode long bottle episode that is almost the very definition of “filler” considering it only exists as a quick fix to fill out the initial order of episodes. In this case however, the filler gave us quite possibly the best serial to date. That’s not to say it’s not a mess and even owing to the fact that there hasn’t really been an established normal, these episodes are a still quite a bit strange.

The first episode picks up where “The Daleks” left off with an explosion on the TARDIS and from there descends into paranoia as The Doctor and his companions try to figure out what happened. As everyone gradually wakes up (first Barbara, then Susan, Ian, and later The Doctor) the episode is purposefully(?) unclear on exactly what everyone’s status is. Susan has amnesia and doesn’t remember Barbara or Ian while Barbara and Ian both seem to only have knowledge of each other as work colleagues with Ian seems to have little clue where he is and The Doctor post suffering a head injury is his usual cryptic self. As they regain their memories, there is almost no comment about regaining these memories as the show has no desire to stop and explain itself.

There’s a large amount of distrust involved considering how secretive The Doctor is and how little he knows all of them. The Doctor assumes Ian and Barbara are sabotaging his ship which isn’t helped by Ian’s propensity for random mood shifts and attacking the Doctor and fainting then waking up only to do the same to Barbara. Ian assumes that The Doctor is doing this to him because well he did kidnap them. Barbara has reservations about The Doctor but is by far the sanest and eventually the one to figure everything out. Susan is suspicious of everyone, faints at the controls and attacks both Ian and Barbara (and an innocent bed in by far the funniest scene thus far) while being convinced that something got inside the TARDIS through the open doors which only The Doctor dismisses because he says so (and it’s not like he was proven wrong in his assumptions about the Daleks last episode). Granted they eventually all start trusting each other after only a quick and gibberish filled remark from The Doctor (which is certainly not something the show would ever try again), but I still appreciated bringing these issues even further to the surface and continuing the work done in “The Daleks” of getting everyone on the same page. The bickering makes sense to start the show considering that Ian and Barbara were kidnapped/unintentionally stowed away, but it’s not something that would be sustainable from either an enjoyability or narrative standpoint. There’s only so many times you can rehash the same narrative beats before it gets repetitive.

The transitions in this episode are jarring to say the least as each moment lurches to the next one. There is loads of inconsistent characterization that seems to change from scene to scene which at the very least gets a nod by the episode itself. It doesn’t excuse it, but it does at least make it feel more intentional. Once everyone is on the same page, there is more consistency, but in an ideal world, this serial would have gotten another pass from the writers to smooth everything out and make the growing paranoia spring up more naturally. The explanation that everything is the TARDIS trying to warn its crew doesn’t really fit with everything that happened as there has to be a better way for it to do so aside from having the crew attempt to murder each other, but you can’t get more Doctor Who than an overcomplicated plan to achieve a simple goal. The episode still entertains as it really does keep you guessing while developing the characters and their relationships, but it’s hard to overlook all its faults especially in that first episode.

Grade: B

Stray Observations

– Until the Fifth Doctor’s era, only the prequel for “The Daleks’ Master Plan” (“Mission to the Unknown”) was shorter and only “The Rescue” was equally as short as “The Edge of Destruction”.
-There’s a number of line flubs by William Hartnell which show just how quickly these episodes were filmed, but they fit in character (and for someone post head injury as I can attest to based on personal experience) and if I didn’t know to look for them, they’d almost seem like intentional acting choices by Hartnell.
-Ian accepted The Doctor’s explanation for why The Doctor drugged him awfully quickly considering how little he trusted him before.
-“What do you mean, my ship can’t think”. Each serial, it gets more apparent how little The Doctor knows about the TARDIS and certain events in the future (especially the wonderful “The Doctor’s Wife”) will make it clear just how alive the TARDIS really is.
-I felt strong parallels to the much later Buffy and Angel episodes “Tabula Rasa” and “Spin the Bottle” especially the latter with both episode featuring everyone being knocked out, the amnesia, and later trying to find out who, if anyone, is the monster while also using limited sets.
-This week in cliffhangers: Susan discovers a giant footprint in the snow outside of the newly restored TARDIS

Next Up: “Marco Polo” on Friday the first of the missing episodes and the first time I will be striking into uncovered by the AV Club ground