The Brink of Disaster

A short time later, the Doctor is creeping around the TARDIS checking his companions are asleep before returning to the console room to examine the controls. Suddenly, he turns around with a start, as a pair of hand reach up and grab him by the neck as though to strangle the very life from his body…

The clearly labeled fast return switchLet’s skip directly to the dénouement, where it’s revealed that—spoilers!—it was the TARDIS all along.  In hindsight, it all makes perfect sense, and immediately we realize that not only is the Ship somehow thinking and aware—if not completely sentient—but that it has been doing it’s damnedest to direct the time travelers’ attention the entire time to the conveniently-labeled fast return switch that jammed after the Doctor used it in the hope of returning Ian and Barbara to November 23, 1963.

That the TARDIS is self-aware is something we take for granted in modern Doctor Who, but it would have come as quite a surprise to viewers in 1964.  Even Ian is incredulous: “A machine that can think for itself? Is that feasible, Doctor?” he asks. And yet, the Ship seems clearly able to do more than just think; it can act in order to prevent itself and the time travelers from being destroyed, up to and including, it seems, “possessing” the bodies of the crew, albeit in a very limited way. It was the Ship, acting though Ian, for example, that grabbed the Doctor at the end of the previous episode in order to prevent him from focusing on the wrong panel on the console.

The Doctor finally begins to understandThere’s more evidence, too.  It’s the TARDIS that melts the numbers off the clocks in order highlight that time is running out, and when the Doctor, Susan, Barbara, and Ian descend into bickering and infighting, it’s the Ship that puts its foot down by sounding a loud warning via the fault locator. As they finally begin to realize exactly what has happened, the TARDIS seems to acknowledge and encourage them.

The Doctor is reluctant to accept this idea, but is at least willing to concede that it may be able to “think” in terms of it’s programming, even if he doesn’t make the connection to its wider abilities.  This is remarkable: the Ship suddenly becomes more than “just” a machine—it’s really the fifth character (and arguably the constant character throughout the show’s long history).  It’s conceivable that story editor David Whitaker planted the idea of a sentient machine as far back as An Unearthly Child, when Ian exclaimed that the Ship was “alive.”

The characterization of the time travelers finally settles down here, too.  The Doctor’s initial threat to throw the school teachers out of the TARDIS aside, Ian seems genuinely fond of the Doctor, and perhaps finally recognizes just what an opportunity he’s been given.  Barbara, on the other hand, is still bitter and resentful—rightfully so—of the Doctor’s treatment of them, and is still longing to go home.  This wish to return to London in 1963 is something that never quite goes away, but by the end of this story, there seems to be a change in Barbara, an understanding that they may never see home again, and she begins to accept this and her place aboard the Ship.

These changes are rushed, because whereas more than three months have passed for us, the viewers, since Ian and Barbara followed Susan back to 76, Totters Lane, it’s only been a week, maybe two, for the characters.  Nevertheless, it’s easy to forget that, and it’s important to move on to a more “mature” relationship between the four time travelers for the sake of the ongoing story.

Snowball fight!The Doctor, too, undergoes quite a fundamental and important change almost immediately as soon as he realizes that Barbara and Ian are innocent of any subterfuge.  Up until this point in the series, he’s been condescending, arrogant, and unlikable.  These things are suddenly toned down as he realizes that he can trust these people who, for better or worse, he took responsibility for when he activated the TARDIS and carried them away.  He’s still irascible and obstinate, but it was untenable to characterize the Doctor quite so contumaciously, and the production team almost certainly realized this.

Susan, of course, has remained fairly consistent throughout the series, even if some of her more “unearthly” characteristics—heightened acuity and telepathy, for example—are never developed.  This is unsurprising in a way, considering that Susan hasn’t been giving too much to do for the past thirteen episodes—other than shout, “Grandfather!” and cry every now and then.  Susan simply hasn’t had the opportunity to grow as a character, and yet she is absolutely vital to the series.

Giant's footprintWith the Ship out of danger and the air finally cleared, the Doctor tells Barbara that they’ve arrived somewhere quite cold.  Susan starts a snowball fight with Barbara, and they run off for a little bit of fun.  As the Doctor and Ian turn to head out, too, Susan calls out.  On the scanner, she and Barbara have discovered an enormous footprint in the show.  It must have been made by a giant…

Daniel Lestarjette

Daniel is the owner and Managing Editor of Time and The – !. He’s been a fan of Doctor Who since watching Tom Baker regenerate into Peter Davison on his local PBS station as a kid. He launched Time and The – ! in 2011 after having the bright (?) idea to watch every Doctor Who story from the beginning and blog about it. (Yeah, he’s way behind.)

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