Monday 21 November 2016

Doctor Who - The Edge Of Destruction

Quo Tardis

Doctor Who - The Edge Of Destruction
8th and 15th February 1964 BBC1

Okay, so The Edge Of Destruction is one of those old Doctor Who serials that I’ve wanted to see for a long time because it’s unique in a lot of ways. As far as I can remember, this was the first and only two part story until 18 years later, with the broadcast of the Peter Davison story Black Orchid. It’s also the very first bottle neck episode in the history of the show which, considering it’s only the third story in, could be something of a record for TV bottlenecks. In case you don’t know, a bottleneck episode is a show which is made on a very limited budget, to compensate for overspend on other episodes of a TV show. They’re very cheap and you can usually tell when you’re watching one within five minutes because, often, the episode will consist of an excuse to gather just a few of the cast in a single room where they reminisce about things that have happened recently. The episode would usually then quickly devolve into a series of clips/highlights from previous episodes of the show so the running time is padded out completely and, hey presto, you’ve hardly spent any money on that edition.

Bottlenecks weren’t a new thing even back in 1964, of course. I know the theatrical serials from the 1930s to the 1950s, such as the Flash Gordon serials, would also tend to contain a similarly lower budgeted episode where the good guys would stop and take stock of their current situation. I don’t know what year the phenomenon came to television, though. I do suspect, however, that the producers of the show were in a tight spot after presumably spending a good chunk of their money on the prior story, which was the debut of The Doctor’s most famous adversary, The Daleks.

Well, The Edge Of Destruction doesn’t contain any flashbacks to previous episodes but it does limit itself to the only four regular cast of the show at that time, comprising William Hartnell as The Doctor, Jaqueline Hill as Barbara, William Russel as Ian and Carol Ann Ford as The Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan. And it’s all a very simple, studio bound set as, for the only time I can remember in the show, the entire story is set inside the TARDIS, in just two rooms... mostly the main console room. A few years ago there was another ‘mostly’ TARDIS set story called Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS (which I reviewed here) but while the majority of that story took place in The Doctors favourite mode of transport, not all of it did. There were some significant sections set outside the TARDIS whereas this story has absolutely no external setting at all, apart from what is seen on the TV monitor in the background of the set. Running at about 50 minutes for the two episodes, it’s also a bit longer than the more modern story too.

One of the reasons I’d always wanted to check this one out is because the drama of this one strips away the way the characters present themselves to each other, to a certain extent, as they all turn against each other to try and figure out just what is going on. They all wake up with temporary amnesia and go into almost a trance state at times, often cowering in pain as they try to approach the central control panel. There is even a moment where Susan tries to attack Ian with a pair of scissors, instead letting them rip and tear into a couch she’d been resting on. I noticed, at this point, that the music illustrated her actions with stabs of tone which, although they weren’t performed here on strings, I suspect owed a certain debt to Bernard Herrmann’s similar musical shenanigans in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho, already. Susan also later threatens Barbara with these same scissors and it’s interesting to see these characters suddenly so paranoid about each other at such an early stage in the show’s run. Although it’s a bottleneck story, I’m guessing viewers at the time must have been riveted to this one. Similar hostility is shown in the end of the first episode’s cliff hanger... which concludes with Ian, who was supposedly drugged by The Doctor, attempting to strangle the time lord where he stands.

The fallout in terms of character’s relationships with each other in this one is that, after the story has concluded, Barbara does quite a bit of extended sulking, The Doctor finally apologises to her and tells her that she is a valuable contributor to his accidental crew. So the episode does go some way towards building the characters and the way they approach each other in future episodes.

The reason The Doctor realises her value is because, at some point in the second episode, Barbara realises that there’s some kind of pattern to various strange things that have been happening in the TARDIS and this leads The Doctor and Ian to eventually conclude that the problem is that the TARDIS is stuck going backwards and forwards in time between the start of the universe and, presumably, the planet Skaro, where our heroes had been to in the prior episodes of the season. So once The Doctor works out what’s wrong, he manages to put things right and then go on to explain that, although the TARDIS is a mechanical device, the funny shenanigans such as clock hands disappearing are the machine trying to warn them. And it’s here that we get the first idea that, despite The Doctor’s protestations in this episode, the TARDIS is actually a conscious, sentient entity and, of course, this would be picked up in the Russel T. Davies era of the show, culminating in the Steven Moffat produced episode, written by Neil Gaiman, The Doctor’s Wife (reviewed here).

Unfortunately, as far as I’m concerned, this explanation makes not one lick of sense as to why anything has been happening at all in the story and goes down as one of the most ‘WTF?’ moments in Doctor Who history. Seriously, a time loop means everyone keeps going into a trance, losing their memory, getting headaches and then pinching pains in the back of their neck... not to mention large, unhealthy doses of paranoia. It’s a poor explanation for what has been, up until this point, a fairly interesting story.

That being said, if you’re going to do a bottleneck episode, this is the way to do it. It’s got a nice, claustrophobic feeling to the two episodes and even when Susan and Barbara go outside the TARDIS to lead us into the next episode, they are only viewed by Ian, The Doctor and ourselves through the scanner in the TARDIS so... yeah, all set in the TARDIS. Good stuff. This is certainly one of the favourites of the, admittedly few, Hartnell stories I’ve seen and, though I wouldn’t start with it if you’ve never seen any of this era of the show’s stories, I would certainly include this one in on a viewing list. In fact, those first three Hartnell stories are definitely worth seeing in order, I suspect, as the characters and their relationship to each other are properly set up over the course of many weeks. Despite the sheer lunacy of the ‘answer’ to the mystery of the story, it’s a pretty good entry in the series and, possibly, even goes into Sapphire And Steel territory at one point. Definitely worth taking a look at this one.

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