I was puzzled the first time I watched this two-episode story. It comes in the same DVD set as the Doctor Who pilot, the Stone Age story, and the introduction of the Daleks, and yet I’d never heard a thing about it.
It’s a curious little story to come so early in the show’s development, featuring no actors except for the show’s four stars and no scenes set off the Tardis. A bottle show, primarily of interest for some character development and for our first look around Tardis beyond the control room. If you’re wondering how they eat and sleep and other science facts, this is the opportunity to find out.
The informative text that accompanies all the early Doctor Who episodes on DVD explained things. This story was developed before the success of Doctor Who was firmly established. The show’s creators had initially planned to go directly from the Daleks into the 7-part Marco Polo story that follows, but with the possibility of cancellation looming, the BBC didn’t want to spend money on another long and expensive storyline yet. They asked only to have a 13-episode package to complete the series. One Unearthly Child, plus 3 Stone Age episodes, plus 7 Daleks equals 11; these two hastily written episodes fulfill the obligation.
The extra features on this DVD also have the story’s creators speaking of taking a little time out to expand on the characters of the Doctor and his companions between their two first big adventures. The foursome had really had little chance to show us who they were prior to this point, what with getting captured and escaping and bickering with each other from the moment the Tardis took them away from London. But I suspect that that’s a justification after the fact.
The Edge of Destruction
It starts with an explosion, the same one that we saw when the Tardis left Skaro at the end of the previous episode. Everyone is thrown back from the console and knocked out. Barbara is the first to wake.
It takes her some time to recognize the others and remember where she is. Ian and Susan experience similar disorientation when they wake, and Susan seems wary and suspicious of her two schoolteachers.
The Doctor has sustained a head injury and remains passed out longer than the rest of the group. Barbara and Susan bandage his head; Barbara doesn’t seem to notice that the old man she’s tending has two heartbeats, and I wonder when that idea was first introduced.
When Susan touches the Tardis console, she gets an electric shock and passes out again. Ian carries her into her bedroom.
This is the first time we see the Tardis’s sleeping arrangements. Susan’s bed is a curvy sort of metal-framed chaise lounge or padded deck chair that folds down out of the wall.
Ian then goes to fetch water from the food machine in the corridor outside. We glimpsed this machine at the beginning of the Dalek story, when the Doctor produced food rolls that tasted like bacon and eggs for Ian’s and Barbara’s breakfast. This time, the machine tells Ian that it’s empty, but gives him a little plastic bag of water anyway. He uses this to moisten a handkerchief.
When Ian returns to Susan’s room, we are treated to the most striking image of the episode: Susan is kneeling on her bed and holding a pair of scissors as if she means to stab him.
The BBC got complaints about this scene.
Susan demands to know who he is and behaves in an extremely paranoid way for a minute or two before she regains enough sense of herself to stab the mattress repeatedly instead of stabbing Ian. Ian seems rather calm and somewhat befuddled about the whole incident–which is how he pretty much is through this episode and the next.
When Barbara checks in on her a little later, Susan has the scissors in hand again. She’s as hostile and suspicious as she was with Ian, but Barbara, as an inner-city teacher, is used to dealing with students with weapons and deftly gets the scissors away from the girl.
Meanwhile, the Doctor has regained consciousness. He and Ian go to work on an enormous bank of controls that cover one whole wall. The Doctor calls this the “Faulticator”*. It’s meant to alert him to mechanical problems around the Tardis, but nothing shows up on any of the displays they check.
The only part of the Tardis console they can touch without getting a shock is the scanner control, but all the monitor will show them is images of places the Doctor and Susan have visited, or else a crater-pocked planet at increasingly greater distances until it’s lost in a starfield. The scene then dissolves away in a flash of white.
To help everyone’s increasing paranoia along, the Tardis doors keep opening and closing even though there’s nothing to be seen outside but a white void. Barbara is convinced that something’s gotten aboard and may be influencing them. The Doctor pooh-poohs this idea as “not very logical,” and Ian laughs at it. Men.
The Doctor begins to behave as strangely as his granddaughter. He accuses Barbara and Ian of sabotaging the Tardis in order to blackmail him into taking them home. Barbara has had just about enough at this point, and tears into him.
If you thought that all the Doctor’s old companions were nicely deferential girls, consider this speech:
“How dare you! Do you realize, 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 you and Susan too. And all because you tricked us into going down into the city. Accuse us? You ought to go down on your hands and knees and thank us, but gratitude the last sort of thing you’ll ever have–or common sense either.”
She stops then, and screams, when she notices that the face of the ornate clock the Doctor keeps in the control room has melted. So are the faces of the watches she and Ian are wearing. As if Time has stopped.
The Doctor, apparently subdued by Barbara’s outburst, slips out of the control room while everyone else is looking at the clock. He returns with cups of cocoa on a tray and offers these around to soothe everyone’s nerves before they go to bed.
Barbara, still angry at the Doctor, takes her cocoa and goes to bed. After she exits, Susan says, “Make it up with her, Grandfather, please do,” before going to bed as well.
Ian wants the Doctor to apologize to Barbara too, but the first Doctor is kind of a jerk and only chuckles to himself.
A little later, he goes around to check on the others, who are all sleeping quietly. Barbara is sharing Susan’s room, using another curvy bed that comes out of the wall. Ian doesn’t have a room, but sleeps in a curvy bed in a little bay off the corridor. The Doctor is still chuckling as he looks them over.
He’s back in the control room, checking over console but not touching it, when Ian comes up behind him and puts his hands around the Doctor’s throat.
The Brink of Destruction
Instead of throttling the Doctor, Ian faints and crumples to the floor. (Ian is, by the way, showing a surprising amount of leg in this scene, right up to his boxers.)
Susan and Barbara, hearing the commotion, wake up and come into the control room to see what’s going on. What follows is what I like to call the Paranoid Pajama Party.
The Doctor now wants to put Ian and Barbara off the ship in spite of the fact that they aren’t actually anywhere. Susan, who has had her bouts of suspicion about the two teachers, takes her grandfather’s side at first, until he says this, then she protests and begins to defend them.
Just as the quarrel reaches its highest pitch and it looks like the Doctor is about to cast them out into the void, Barbara has an epiphany that saves them. After her part in the Dalek story and this one, she has become my favorite of this first foursome.
What she’s figured out is that all these odd things that have been happening are clues, from the Tardis. It’s been trying to warn them.
The idea that the Tardis is alive and has an independent consciousness is part of the long-term viewers’ understanding of her nature; in The Doctor’s Wife, the episode written by Neil Gaiman, she even briefly inhabits a woman’s body and tells the Doctor what she thinks of him after all the years they’ve spent traveling together. But in early 1964 this was startling and innovative. Ian scoffs at the idea of a “machine that can think for itself.” The Doctor persists in calling the Tardis “the machine” or “the ship” even during this discussion of her sentience. Men.
It’s here we also hear the first mention of the incredible power that lies at the heart of the Tardis, which will feature in the New Who.
As they puzzle out what the Tardis is trying to tell them, they come back together as a group. The Doctor comes to his senses and starts calling Ian “my dear boy.” He even admits that that cocoa he gave everyone was drugged to sedate them. Ian laughingly says he thought so (and yet he still drank it?)
The problem that’s put them in danger turns out to be a tiny mechanical fault; the spring beneath the button for the “Fast Return” has broken. The Doctor pushed it when they came aboard… and instead of going back to Earth in 1963, they’ve gone all the way back.
What’s more amusing than this idea of a broken spring causing all this trouble is that the label for the Fast Return button is handwritten on the console with what appears to be a magic marker. The DVD extras speculate that this wasn’t meant to be shown, but was a note for William Hartnell to go to the correct instrument on the console.
I’m a little confused about how far back they’ve actually gone because of this stuck button. At one point, the Doctor says that they’re heading back to the original event, which sounds to me like the beginning of the universe. The Big Bang. (Which the Tardis did do much later in “Castrovalva.”) But a bit later he’ll speak of the birth of a solar system, presumably the Sol system, which was also a very, very long time ago but not as far back as that on cosmic terms.
With only minutes to live, they work together and save themselves. Then I assume everybody goes back to bed.
When the next scene opens, they’ve landed on a snowy planet. Barbara is still upset about the way the Doctor treated her, until he finally apologizes for being unjust to her and Ian, and points out that it was her anger and desire to justify herself that saved them. Then everybody’s happy. They put on winter coats–Ian donning an enormous Inverness cloak that the Doctor claims he got from Gilbert and Sullivan–and they go out to play in the snow.
Susan and Barbara discover a large footprint in the snow. This introduces the next story–which isn’t the one about the Yeti. That comes much later, during Patrick Troughton’s run.
The next story is sadly lost, but there’s a great additional feature on this DVD, which I’ll do as a separate blog.
* Okay, so I did know one thing about this story, although I didn’t realize until I was watching it that this is where it came from. One of William Hartnell’s most famous flubs occurs when he calls the Faulticator the “Fornicator.”