The Edge of Destruction

Written by:
David Whitaker
Directed by: Richard Martin/Frank Cox
Starring: William Hartnell
Year: 1964
Video Availability: Try

The Edge of Destruction is the most experimental story of Hartnell's first season. It doesn't quite succeed and it isn't terribly popular, but then experiments are rarely either. I'm just glad it exists at all.

Each segment is the work of a different director, and while Richard Martin is one of the lesser to have worked on Who, he does a reasonable job here. There's an intentionally stagy feel to it all, with the cast overplaying their lines deliberately. It's not them being hammy, it increases the sense of detachment. All of them behave strangely towards one another, often failing to recognise crewmates or their situation. As a Doctor Who story set entirely aboard the Tardis then it's less a fannish endeavour, more an avant garde collection of scenes that could be performed on the stage.

Yeah, Ford overplays a little too much, and Ian's "if anything happens, let me know" could be used as an ironic gesture towards the (intentionally) unnatural slow pacing, but moans here are almost obsolete. The Hartnell years always seem a world away from even the Troughton regime, and compared to them Tom Baker's era seems like a megabudget blockbuster. But this is actually a plus, the supremely minimal budget causing the series to play to its core strengths of writing and characterisation. I would say "plot", but in this case there really isn't one. Guess what? It doesn't matter. Whitaker's script is strong and the scissors scene is alarmingly daring for a teatime slot. Another standout is Barbara's "Don't you realise, you stupid old man…" speech, a wonderful scene that is somewhat undermined by having them resume arguing again the next episode. Such cyclical plotting renders what should be a landmark Barbara/Doctor moment slightly redundant.
* * * * ½

William Hartnell is so underrated as the Doctor it really hurts. Sure, he blows lines in every single story except The Massacre, but then the companions and even The Mighty Trout do that, too. Put any of his successors in this "as live" shooting schedule and you'd see them do just the same, if not worse, of that I'm certain. Besides, it's a shallow indictment that completely overlooks his presence, diction, body language and facial array. Okay, he's not quite the best actor to play the lead role, but he's far, far from the worst and he's unfairly sidelined in fan affections.

"Just a moment," asks Ian, "Why did you say that? 'The brink of destruction?'" It's quite a charitable assessment, given that what Billy actually said was "We're on the brink of discuss… of destruction." For completeness' sake, then his second and third fluffs of the episode are "Don't underestimate… uh … underestimate my powers, young lady" and "releases the-the-the switch here" while his sole stumble in the first is "You're the cause of this disaster and you're both not, you'll knocked both Susan and I… I unconscious." In many ways it's so refreshing to see a story made in a pre-postmodern age. Who had self-awareness on tap from almost the beginning. (The joke about the Daleks not liking stairs is cracked by Ian, tongue rammed into cheek, during the second season). But this is one where all play it with conviction, and Russell even keeps a straight face when Bill blows the lines.

Sadly, however, this is also the episode where it begins to fall down, and on two accounts: motivation and explanation. For such a supremely clever guy, it takes the Doctor an age to discover that it's "the switch [...] there's a little spring inside that got stuck." Not only does Bill explain this about fifty times he even gives an analogy to Susan. Eventually the penny drops. Nah... go on, Billy, tell the audience at home one more time, I still don't get it.

Motivation is possibly worse - why would the Tardis malfunctioning cause the crew to go insane? Actually, on reflection I can forgive this - all it takes is imagination. The switch explanation is one of the most patronising in the series' history and is almost unforgivable. However, I can overlook even that for the final scene between the Doctor and Barbara (scenes between the Doctor and Barbara were always wonderful) which is genuinely touching. There's even a shot where the Doctor goes to hold Ian's hand so they can walk out of the Tardis arm in arm - magic!
* * * *

The ultimate lack of narrative logic does disappoint, but The Edge of Destruction is a daring and bold experiment for the series, and vastly underrated.
* * * *