Most of us who are regular readers of this or similar Doctor Who sites have at one point or another wanted to write our own on-screen adventure or two about the Doctor and his companions. I for one have conjured up numerous tales in my head over the last few years. Of all the baffling and/or boring narratives my brain has constructed, my favorite has always been a forty-minute horror piece that takes place entirely in the TARDIS, where some unknown entity has found its way onto the ship and threatened the Doctor and company.
Then I watched The Edge of Destruction, which slightly ruined my brilliant plan. And it wasn’t long before both Amy’s Choice and The Doctor’s Wife were broadcast for the first time, and crushed out any remaining hope I had of hacking into Steven Moffat’s computer and depositing the scripted version of my idea onto his desktop. Those latter two episodes from Matt Smith’s freshman and sophomore seasons join countless other Who stories, both classic and modern, that owe at least part of their existence to plot concepts initially introduced in Doctor Who‘s very third story.
Continuing on from the cliffhanger at the end of The Daleks that saw the TARDIS’ residents knocked out due to an apparent crash of the ship, The Edge of Destruction witnesses Ian, Barbara, Susan, and the Doctor each attempting to recover from their resulting physical and emotional injuries, all while dealing with their fellow travelers’ traumas and trying to get to the bottom of the TARDIS’ malfunctioning. Diagnosing the problem isn’t easy, as so much as touching the console can be grounds for some sort of electric shock that dooms the offending person to a rather painful slumber on the floor. The quartet has an equal amount of difficulty with determining where or when they are, with the TARDIS’ scanner displaying a slideshow of everything from the English countryside to asteroids in outer space.
It doesn’t help that the four TARDIS dwellers seem less comfortable around each other than before. A subtle rift has arisen that causes the Doctor and Susan to be particularly mistrustful of Ian and Barbara. Susan goes insane (more than usual) for much of the first episode, threatening both Ian and Barbara with a sharp pair of scissors and finally unleashing her bottled-up frustration by stabbing her bed a bunch of times. The two schoolteachers speculate that some evil entity has entered the TARDIS and perhaps even possessed her, a great intellectual step forward for a pair of individuals who didn’t even believe in time travel a couple of stories ago.
The Doctor spends most of the tale with a large bandage wrapped around his head thanks to a large cut acquired upon the ship’s initial crash. Being an old man and all, it is he who takes the longest to regain consciousness after the first blow, and Barbara has to fill him in on what has happened so far. Shortly thereafter, in a very un-Doctor-like manner, he accuses Barbara and Ian of sabotaging his ship and being the culprits behind the whole catastrophe. He then proceeds to drug all three of his companions to sleep with a cup of tea and sneaks around trying to fix Sexy all by himself. This attempt is cut short when Ian stops being asleep and grasps the Doctor by the neck, which is enough to get himself and Barbara almost thrown off the ship and into oblivion.
If you’re a very new Whovian or just haven’t seen this one and don’t want the ending spoiled for you, skip to the next paragraph. It turns out that all along the ship never really crashed so much as got sent back to an early period in time at the start of the creation of a new solar system, and it only did so because the controls had been accidentally jammed and couldn’t stop at its preselected destination. In other words, the Doctor proved himself inadequate at operating his time machine, a trait that might be seen again in, oh, say, every single one of his successive incarnations. Further, the four companions put their heads together and realize that the TARDIS was trying to tell them this all along. Could this mean that the TARDIS is alive?
There are many more details to the plot than this that we could cover, but if we covered it all then there wouldn’t be any space left for review, would there? Of course, the details and the layers to this story are perhaps the most standout feature of The Edge of Destruction and its remarkably similarly-named second part, The Brink of Disaster. This is the original Doctor Who two-parter, and it’s a considerable acceleration of pace when compared to the preceding four- and seven-part stories. Events in this story roll along so smoothly and quickly that The Edge of Destruction wouldn’t be out of place lined up against any of the post-2005 adventures, and as was implied before, elements of its plot can in fact be glimpsed in both Amy’s Choice and The Doctor’s Wife.
I would argue that there are two layers of meaning to this story–the perceived and the actual. At the surface, The Edge of Destruction is a classic survival horror children’s show, if there ever was such a thing. It’s the most modern sense of sci-fi of the three stories so far, what with all its talk of possible sentient beings possessing our heroes, and said heroes being stranded in outer space aboard a ship that might just have a mind of its own. You could possibly even be forgiven if you had never heard of Doctor Who upon watching this episode and thought you had stumbled upon an old Twilight Zone.
But even if you took out all the fantastical elements and just made it some kind of soap opera aimed at children, you could effectively throw four people into some unfortunate situation where they don’t trust each other and tell the same story. While Doctor Who in this era was by design supposed to educate youngsters about either science or history, it seems the show’s writers also had something of a “basic moral values” agenda. The Edge of Destruction turns characters who should be and have been working together against each other. Even the Doctor, one of the most effective role models of all time, nearly forces Ian and Barbara to walk the plank. He hurts Barbara’s feelings considerably, and spends the last few minutes of the episode seeking her forgiveness. She takes a moment to do so, but in the end, she grants it to him. Both children and children-at-heart are reminded that it is best to forget the trespasses of one’s peers and not hold too many grudges. All in all, this two-part filler story is not so much a science or history lesson as it is a good-virtue lesson, and thus it is one of the most thoughtful episodes of the season.
If you are able, I’d like to encourage you to watch all the stories as we cover them for this 50th anniversary review series, because doing so might just prove to be an awesome buildup to the big event next year. If nothing else, you should at least watch The Edge of Destruction. Like the much-longer stories before it, it has many of the elements of Doctor Who that we know and love today, and it won’t even take up an hour of your time, I promise! You should also read Kasterborous’ other review of the story published by Joe Siegler two years ago. It’s much better than this one.