Next Time, I Shall Not Be So Lenient!

Alex Wilcock writes a lot of words about Doctor Who. He’s followed DWM’s Time Team since 1999, and is now revealing everything he’s ever sent to them. Very gradually.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Edge of Destruction

The third Doctor Who story is an experimental tale unlike any other, but it does set one standard that an awful lot of other stories would follow – it divides opinion. It’s fair to say that this is the first ‘Marmite’ story, with those who are into it finding it compelling, and those who don’t thinking it’s a total waste of time. I remember seeing it twenty years ago on crummy 27th-generation VHS from a dodgy backstreet Doctor Who dealer (no, really; I had to traipse the seedy alleys of Manchester before widespread availability on VHS, DVD and YouTube) and being absolutely hypnotised. I still am. And if you’re not, it’s one of the shortest of all Twentieth Century Doctor Who TV stories – just two twenty-five minute episodes, making it the same length as the standard adventure today. At the very least, a useful breather between two seven-part epics, then.

Again, I’ve found a creation from Colin Brockhurst that showcases the story, a thrilling cross between a Hitchcock film poster and a pulp sci-fi comic. Oddly, while Susan has probably the most disturbing scenes in the story, here she looks the least demented of the characters – but watch out for those scissors…


My ‘The Review all Doctor Who Challenge’ posting in an online discussion, January 2004:

A great first episode with lots of mystery, a rather silly resolution at the end, but what a fun little story. Surprisingly creepy. Reminds you how good all the regulars are – Barbara has a great shouting match with the Doctor, and even Susan’s quite scary. In a good way.

And I Said…

This has a very odd feel when watched in a rush after the first eleven episodes; continuing the story in some ways, a breathing space in others, but harsher, and unsettling everything you’ve just got – nearly – used to. There’s very little music, and no other setting, so we just concentrate on the actors we know. And with everyone acting so strangely, it’s as if we don’t know them at all…

Barbara’s the most normal, but even she’s lost her memory a little; the Doctor’s scheming and suspicious; Susan frighteningly psychotic, with huge shaggy hair and knife-like scissors; and Ian in some ways the most disturbing, first amnesiac, next cold where you’d expect him to be concerned, then laughing and smiling at misfortune. By just a few minutes into the first episode, we’re alienated from all of them.

It’s often very stylised, and very intense – and with the two rooms and just four actors shouting at each other, it’s like the Pilot episode mixed with an experimental play. Shame the ‘climax’ is a bit of a let-down after the TARDIS’s psychodrama, but the last few minutes as they finally mellow to each other and the Doctor does his best to make it up with Barbara is rather lovely, too.

Yay for the first near-ideal Doctor Who title – welcome to “The Something of Something”. And, according to taste, you need only wait for the next story’s first episode or for Patrick Troughton’s arrival for the form to reach perfection with that all-important second “the”.

Despite our having seen it the previous week, the opening explosion is presented with shocking suddenness, shifting to brief darkness then harsh lights as the Doctor lies at a crazed angle. The music may be stock, but it’s very effective here – keening, up-swinging weird shit that makes us think, ‘OK, this is nothing as normal as Daleks…’

Disconcertingly, Susan doesn’t know who Ian is, but still wants to help him – while Barbara is more concerned with the Doctor. When Ian does come round, he’s cold and strange, alienated and alienating. I’m glad that doesn’t last too long; he’s usually such a reassuring presence that he’d probably have been the most disturbing of the lot (Richard adds, “Isn’t the idea that their personalities have become mixed up? Carole Ann Ford is playing ‘Barbara’; William Russell is playing ‘The Doctor’?”).

It’s a very staged moment when Susan confronts Ian with her scissors – she’s so starkly posed that it’s almost a tableau – but her not recognising him and then stabbing the mattress again and again makes the scene horribly strange and powerful.

The story’s most memorable scene comes when Barbara finally loses her temper with the Doctor and turns him to toast, but her anger flares up earlier, too; the Doctor tells Barbara the Ship must have landed somewhere and, fed up, she snaps, “You don’t know, do you! You’re just guessing!”

Susan, becoming hysterical – as she would be, with her home haunted – guesses that there’s something inside the Ship, which sets Barbara thinking (and makes the Doctor unreasonably defensive)… Then, with brilliant circularity, Ian’s warning not to share that theory with Susan for fear of scaring her is overheard by her, which only reinforces the paranoia that came up with it in the first place.

The ironic thing is, despite the idea that there’s something inside the spaceship being a product of Susan’s fears and the Doctor and Ian scoffing at the very idea of a man or an animal getting in when Barbara tentatively raises it, it turns out in the end that Barbara’s suggestion of “Another intelligence?” is right all along, just not in the way any of them imagined.

After we’ve already seen Susan’s violence with the scissors when Ian went in to her, we can empathise with Barbara’s nervousness as Susan sits in her dark robe and almost-wimple, asking cold questions – but that very nervousness just makes Susan more convinced that the teacher’s lying. Even Barbara seizing the scissors doesn’t relive the tension, as Susan carries on creeping Babs out about the silence, the shadows and then, with a note of triumph, possession.

The story’s most disturbing moment – of many – comes with Susan looking like a sweaty, evil nun under her ‘wimple’, apparently getting malicious satisfaction in worrying Barbara. Her suggestion that something’s hiding “In one of us” is as unsettling to the viewer as it is to Babs, then Ian’s “You must be clairvoyant” hints at Susan being not just suddenly nasty but a poltergeist medium.

One of the eeriest threats in this story is the series’ first hint of possession – though it turns out to be a red herring this time, it soon won’t be, and Doctor Who will never look back!

The best scene in the show is that magnificent face-off between the Doctor and Barbara when he, fuelled by his fears for his Ship and Susan, accuses the teachers of sabotage – but Barbara, furious, slices his argument and authority to pieces over his ingratitude for their having saved his life several times over. Just as importantly as the scene itself, it’s less than half-way through the story: it doesn’t resolve their differences; he takes a while to climb down and swallow his pride, just as in real life someone ripping you a new one doesn’t instantly win you over.

Barbara is fantastic, and fiery – so it’s a shame that she goes straight from giving the Doctor the tongue-lashing of his life to screaming at the melted clock. Otherwise, it’s one of the strongest scenes for any companion. And she’ll get a stronger one…

All the characters are all over the place here under the extreme conditions, but Barbara is the most plausible: unnerved by all the weirdness, but given strength by her fury! Her shouting the Doctor out in the first episode is a stunning moment, and if that sort of thing happened more often, it would do him a power of good. It probably inspired Donna…

The melted clock-faces are a great concept, but while I can ignore their logical failings, it’s difficult to forgive the director for making such a mess of them; there’s a belated close-up of the big clock and an indistinct one of Ian’s watch, yet the biggest reaction to them is of Barbara in long-shot, pulling off a watch we can just about see on a big modern telly and throwing down first it then herself. Has he heard of moving the camera?

Do the melting clocks prefigure the fast return switch for Dalí aficionados? What else does going back, and back, and back again signify but The Persistence of Memory?
The story’s most disturbing moment comes with Susan looking like a sweaty, evil nun and getting malicious satisfaction in worrying Barbara with her suggestion that something’s hiding “In one of us” – then Ian’s “You must be clairvoyant” hints at Susan being not just suddenly nasty but a poltergeist medium.
Billy looks great sitting in his chair, close to the camera (all the more effective for being almost the only close-up in the first episode), face half-shadowed, surrounded by huge concentric circles of light of light amid the shadows and deeply suspicious in both senses of the word.

The Doctor has some great plotting moments towards the end of the first episode, acting the devious butler after debating with Ian – who he thinks is trying to get the better of him – while Ian is still suspicious of the cleverer man’s motives. Both the trick with the drinks and that argument are direct echoes of their conversation over the Geiger counters in The Daleks, again with Susan as spectator (lurking by the food machine), though this time the Doctor’s deception is a response to clashing with Ian rather than the cause of it.

Susan tries to be the peacemaker with an unrelenting Barbara, like patching up a quarrel between parents – at once the youngest and the most mature of the party.

There’s a superb cliffhanger, with the Doctor prowling round his drugged companions to eerie, oscillating, high-pitched music, giggling nastily and waving his hand in front of them before going through to the console and stretching his fingers over it like a concert pianist – only for hands to appear round his neck. Next week, of course, you realise that this ‘strangulation’ is the series’ first really forced cliffhanger, with its first deeply unconvincing resolution. There’ll be much less plausible to come, though…

There’s a fascinating contrast between the two episodes, breaking noticeably into two acts through both the script and a sharp change in direction. The first looks occasionally shaky, but has great performances and powerful material, making it off-putting and compelling at the same time. The second makes far better use of close-up, light and shadow, but has uneven scripting and a very different threat – while initially we’re afraid that something has crept into the TARDIS while they were all unconscious and of what the Doctor will do as a result, by mere minutes after half-way he’s making up and leading rather than splitting the crew under the danger of disintegration…

We’re so used to Ian being buttoned up, metaphorically and literally, that it’s startling to see him apparently attack the Doctor, then collapse, twitching and raving. Almost as disturbing is his robe falling open all the way up to his boxers. No, no, he’s a teacher! Put it away! Avert your eyes and pretend he’s Arthur Dent.

Susan’s the one who seems the most changeable this story – varying from hysterical to coldly judgemental to the crew’s sole peacemaker at a bat of her huge eyes – but when the Doctor hints at putting the humans off the Ship, that threat seems to make sense of snapping her out of hostility and into concern. And though his manner doesn’t suggest a climbdown, after Susan pleads with him the Doctor tries to prompt a confession rather than promising expulsion, as if – as ever – looking for a way both to save face and to give in to his granddaughter.

It’s fascinating that, for the Doctor, a load of lights flashing is a more impossible trick for the teachers to arrange than melting every clock on the Ship. Still, once the whole fault locator goes off, the Doctor decides on the spot to stop diddling about and pull together.

I love how the Doctor reassures Ian and Barbara about his intentions by warning them that the Ship is on the point of disintegration! Kudos to him, though, for throwing away his prejudices – at least when the facts become overwhelming – and admitting he’s misjudged them both.

The Doctor’s sudden turn from scheming threat to the hero taking charge is abrupt, yet convincing and utterly compelling. Though William Hartnell hesitates over the odd line, he’s gripping, his authority sells the character completely, and the new director’s sudden switch to using close-ups and deeper shadows complements him perfectly just as the story really wants us to sit up and take notice.

“We had time taken away from us,” Barbara ponders, “and now it’s being given back to us… Because it’s running out!” Look, I know it makes no sense, but it sounds brilliant, doesn’t it?

That deep ‘thoom’ of power and flare of light as the force beneath the Ship’s console surges to agree with Barbara – making the four travellers stagger away from the straining column in a cross pattern – is a simple but brilliant effect, like the world’s loudest séance tap.

With the first episode centring on the clash between the Doctor and Barbara, here the Doctor’s been tempered by that chastening experience only to come out stronger, because now he’s willing to take others’ ideas and run with them, too.

Billy excels with his re-emphasised leading role, coming up to the camera with his hands on his lapel as he wonders if this is the end, working it all out in soliloquy against the TARDIS console as the camera slowly zooms in, then endearingly nervous and hesitant as he tries to make things right with Barbara once the danger’s past. It’s an outstanding performance.

“If only I had a clue,” exclaims the Doctor, exasperated, prompting Barbara, brilliantly, to suggest that “I think, perhaps, we’ve been given nothing else but clues.” And, of course, she’s right. What a fantastic team they make.

Billy gives a powerhouse performance here, but if you’re in the right mood, he’s also very entertaining at times without quite meaning to be – “You’d be blown to atoms by a split second!” at a deadly serious moment is one of his finest fluffs.

The Doctor’s soliloquy as he stands in front of the console, he and it lit in the dark, the camera slowly closing on them as if they’re part of each other, his seriousness and then delight as he realises that they’re at “A new birth of a sun and its planets,” something wonderful as well as destructive to them… A magnificent scene.

Unusually, William Russell’s been the least of the performances this time, but after Barbara and the Doctor have worked out all the difficult bits between them, Ian’s the one who asks the key question – where was the Doctor sending them? And, despite all his grumpy intransigence, it turns out he really had been trying to take them back, and that’s what got them into all that trouble. As he finds what’s gone wrong and fixes the spring, the power rises, the lights rise, the camera rises and your heart rises in what’s a glorious moment, ideally without listening to the dialogue.

The resolution seems at odds with itself, both ‘failure of limited computer literalism’ and ‘this isn’t just a machine – it’s alive!’ The ‘it can’t show us on the fault locator because there isn’t a fault (er, except for the broken spring)’ is familiar, now, as an example of ‘the computer can only say exactly what it’s programmed to say’; but all the weird shit is saying that, actually, the TARDIS can say all sorts of other stuff. Is this the TARDIS struggling towards sentience, finding roundabout ways to overcome its limitations, or is the fault locator an entirely separate machine which is dumb, while the TARDIS has a language all of its own, deeper and stranger?

The Doctor explains the anticlimactic climax to Susan in mid-hug, congratulating her on her bravery, only for her to prompt him about the others. Enchantingly, he hems and stammers, is instantly forgiven by Ian but, gathering himself, pays fulsome praise to Barbara – only for her to walk off. As he speaks admiringly of her to “Charterhouse” and tries to work out which control to try next, Ian laughs. And we realise that, in the crisis, he not only knew exactly which control was which but also got Ian’s name right…

The Doctor and Ian making up, one embarrassed and the other magnanimous, is lovely. And he pays a generous tribute to Barbara who, realistically (and as she did last week) finds it very difficult to forgive immediately. But both in his praise and in his genuine nervousness in approaching her, he’s utterly charming, charming us as well as her.

“As we learn about each other, we learn about ourselves.” And it’s all in Billy’s delivery – delivered less engagingly, he’d just have been summarising the point of the plot!

After being sinister and threatening for most of the story, it’s lovely to have the Doctor bashful, generous and charming at the end, desperately wanting Barbara to forgive him. With the help of a little homespun wisdom, some definitely not homespun fashion items from Susan, and at last the Doctor calling Barbara “very valuable” – that’s exactly what he said about the Ship! Bless him – she cracks into a smile, letting him genteelly hold out a coat and offer his arm. He really does apologise beautifully, and you can see the respect they have for each other from that point on.
Is this the TARDIS struggling towards sentience, finding roundabout ways to overcome its limitations, or is the fault locator an entirely separate machine which is dumb, while the TARDIS has a language all of its own, deeper and stranger?
Wonderfully, even the cliffhanger into the next story is just a minor part of another character piece. The Doctor and Barbara emerge arm in arm to find Ian in yet another enormous coat and to see rock and snow through the TARDIS doors with, blissfully, Susan chucking a snowball at them. Barbara rushes out to join in, and the Doctor links arms with Ian instead. How fab is that? Who needs Susan to find a giant’s footprint to tune in the next week? I would anyway with that lot.

That was absolutely gripping – I’m glad it was so short, though. The tension would have collapsed if it really *had* gone on as long as a night at the theatre. At such a perfect little length, I enjoyed it tremendously.

Brilliant as the New Adventures were, this story reaches a crisis for the TARDIS crew and resolves their relationships in much the same way the novels repeatedly did then, er, un-did. It’s much more settled here (though the forced beginning of The Reign of Terror is a bit of a drop back, isn’t it?).

After this, they all get on – when on occasion the Doctor’s paranoia and determination to put them off the Ship suddenly resurfaces in more shallow scripts, it just seems silly.

Sure, the explanation at the end is bafflingly mundane, but what ending could have justified all the weird shit? Isn’t it more disturbing that even a broken spring could trigger so much strangeness? Imagine what something really going wrong could do.

Richard asks: “It’s never really developed in the series, but is the ‘console’ the machine for communication with the TARDIS rather than the TARDIS itself – though in one sense you could end up thinking of that as a horse’s bridle or a ox’s goad? Then the bit of broken spring isn’t so glaring, as the ‘bridle’ is a considerably less complex machine than the ‘horse’.”

Whatever I think of the ending, I love the twists along the way. The threat moves from possession, to the Doctor’s plotting, then it seems certain that the Ship is threatening our heroes, and all the while it’s screaming at them in its own language that there’s an unimaginably big threat outside and it’s really not happy about it.

What suspense! How many ‘stuck in a lift / bottle’ shows have lighting that wants to be Hitchcockian, a Twilight Zone concept and acting for experimental theatre?

This is so often dismissed or overlooked, yet it’s the overlooked link between J. B. Priestley and Sapphire and Steel.

It’s a good job they decide to do this story while the console room is still huge! It looks how it always is in my head, less from being a small boy captivated by a smallish black and white telly with poor reception than from reading those marvellous descriptions and poring over those fabulous photos in The Doctor Who Monster Book.

Whether this was a planned piece of character development, a cost-saver to counter the overruns on stories either side, a rush-job to fill in when the next story wasn’t ready, or commanded by the BBC high-ups while they made up their minds whether to continue the series beyond its initial quarter-year, by accident or design it ended up like no other piece of Doctor Who. And I always side with an experiment.

It takes a long time before there’s anything quite as experimental as this again, but in Twenty-first Century Who there are similar forty-five-minute slices of formula-breaking oddity, and hurrah for that (“Don’t Brink!” shouts Millennium). But, still, imagine them doing anything like this today! …That’d look a bit like Midnight, wouldn’t it?

What a masterstroke to take the time travellers to prehistory, then a half-ruined, half-shiny future world, their threats lulling us into seeing the strangest space in the universe as our safe place – then make it haunted, surreal and just plain weird. It is not a space rocket with Batman at the controls.

Marco Polo will in some ways be the first ‘ordinary’ adventure, once the series has found its feet (or giant snowshoes); it’s easy to see the first thirteen episodes as one big story, the story of how our heroes come together, through time and space travel, and how they come to realise that even what they travel in is stranger than anything they know.

Nonsense though some of the end may be, it’s hugely influential on some terrific later stories: Logopolis making the TARDIS a strange and scary place again; Christmas On A Rational Planet showing the TARDIS’ deep intelligence; right through to this century, where Boom Town and The Parting of the Ways finally deliver on how dangerous the power under the console could be.

On this day thirteen years ago, Time Waits For No Man (oh, all right, the TV Movie) was first broadcast. And that has far less drama along the way, despite being nicked from this and The Deadly Assassin, and an infinitely less well-established and more rubbish TARDIS deus ex machina, where rather than the Ship being unfathomable, it’s soppy.

The Doctor’s Story

Reinforced as the undoubted lead by setting the whole story inside his Ship, the Doctor’s the focus of this story, and William Hartnell gets to showcase many facets of his character: first helpless, then deeply sinister, then brilliantly working it all out, before showing a side that we haven’t seen before – humility, generosity, and charm. After this, the Doctor’s much more willing to listen to other people. I say more willing… Perhaps the moments most to look out for are his utter discombobulation at being chewed up by Barbara, his fascinated concentration as soliloquises his way to working out what the threat must be, and his irresistible offering his arm to Barbara at the end. Perhaps the moment most to avoid is his confiding in Ian that they’re all going to die sooner than he’d told the women, to protect their girly heads, though the two men act ‘unconvincing’ rather delightfully. Still, at the end of this story, it’s clear that Barbara’s the member of the crew for whom the Doctor has the greatest respect. After this, the Doctor and other characters are that much more vanilla, but the series’ future – and formula – is more assured.

For those who’re obsessed with Billy Fluffs, of which there are several here – some evidently scripted, like his endearing stammering when trying to apologise, some evidently not – DWM’s Special Edition #7, from 2004, tells us that William Hartnell, rather marvellously, ad-libbed his line to Susan that “You know, my dear child, I think your old Grandfather is going a tiny little bit round the bend.” He’s only as bonkers as his Ship.

What They Said…

Time Team, Doctor Who Magazine 280, July 1999:
“‘It’s rather like a Samuel Beckett version of Doctor Who,’ observes Richard. ‘Everyone seems to be viewing the situation in a different way and although they’re talking to each other the flow seems very disjointed – almost as if they’re living in their own little world, unaware of the others around them. It’s all rather confusing.’”

“‘It’s terrible,’ says Jac calmly. ‘It’s certainly done like a stage play – but a terribly boring one. It reminds me of improvisation classes at school drama club – not too bad for the participants, but hell for anyone forced to watch.’”

“The malfunctioning time machine takes our travellers to The Brink of Disaster, which is apparently a more unpleasant place to be than merely The Edge of Destruction. The panel seem to agree.”
Hurrah! It’s only three stories in, and already I’m disagreeing with them entirely.

“You attacked us. And when we were lying helpless on the floor, you tampered with my controls.”

“But why would we? For what reason?”

“Blackmail, that’s why. You tried to force me to return you to England.”

“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?
“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.
Accuse us? You ought to go down on your hands and knees and thank us! Gratitude’s the last thing you’ll ever have, or any sort of common sense either.”
Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles’ About Time 1:
“And, joy, oh rapture unconfined; it’s the debut of Barbara’s ‘battle-dress’ of big jumper, capri-pants and court shoes (this isn’t just us being facetious. The production team called it that, and Ian says so on screen in The Chase).”
And it’s unsurprising that the author of Christmas On A Rational Planet should zero in on the role of the Ship:
“The ending seems risible because we’re looking at the wrong thing; the twist isn’t, ‘d’oh, the fast return switch was stuck’, the twist is that the Ship has been communicating. For anyone who grew up in the ’70s, the idea that the TARDIS might be conscious is natural and normal, yet here… We’re not supposed to notice that the Ship itself is a suspect.”
A Review by Geoffrey Glass
“Nothing can be taken for granted -- not the nature of the menace, not the decency of the characters, and certainty not their sanity. That is what gives the story its edge: this seems more like an excerpt from Psycho than a Doctor Who story.”
Paul Clarke’s Review
“Susan does well here – the scene with the scissors is both disturbing and dramatic and is well-acted by Ford; she has never seemed so unearthly. Her paranoia is more unsettling than the Doctor’s, precisely because she has been so trusting of Ian and Barbara up until this point and it is interesting that she seems more sensitive to the TARDIS than he does at this point – possibly part of the same theme developed further in ‘The Keys of Marinus’ and ‘The Sensorites’. She is also generally surprisingly likeable and is instrumental in cementing this first TARDIS crew together, as the natural link between her grandfather and her teachers (it is she, remember, who prompts the Doctor to apologize properly to Barbara, and he always seems more stung by her disapproval than that of others).”

Radio Times teasers for The Edge of Destruction

The Edge of Destruction
“A new adventure begins for the mysterious doctor and his companions.”

The Brink of Disaster
“Further adventures aboard the strange spaceship.”

Available In All Good Shops?

The Edge of Destruction has previously been released on VHS and published in an expanded and rather fun Target novelisation by Nigel Robinson which is worth looking out if you can find it (despite being a little too prosaic in terms of the characters at times, and sheepishly glossing over the spring), but the best way to enjoy it is on the DVD release, spruced up and with plenty of extras. On the downside, it’s the only complete story with no commentary, which is irritating, but it’s packaged along with two other stories as part of the splendid box set Doctor Who – The Beginning, and together those first thirteen episodes make up a larger story in some ways unmatched in the rest of Doctor Who. You can sample the story via a trailer that someone's put together for YouTube – I love the closing credits, though I'd put at least Verity Lambert, David Whitaker and the directors in big letters at the end…

Why Is This Brilliant?

  • It’s quite unlike anything else; Doctor Who as an experimental stage play.
  • Every one of the time travellers alienates us at some point, but Susan gets the prize disturbing moments – getting the series into trouble (for the first time?) by going crazy with the scissors, and looking like an evil nun as she does her best to creep Barbara out.
  • Barbara’s magnificent face-off with the Doctor, where she slices his argument and authority to pieces but, like any humiliation, that doesn’t really solve anything straight away.
  • William Hartnell and the brilliant use of light and shadow make the Doctor seem more alien and more compelling than ever – then he stammers bashfully when trying to apologise.
  • The TARDIS coming ‘back to life’ as the sound and light rises makes your heart soar.

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