The Edge of Destruction – beyond the brink and back again

A long, long time ago, in 1978, I scammed a copy of the legendary original 1973 Radio Times Doctor Who Anniversary Special. Somewhat battered it got read until it fell to pieces and the remnants got lost during a house move in the early 1980’s.

I adored that magazine because it provided a glimpse into the curious black and white pre-history of Doctor Who in an era before VHS, repeats and the internet.  With sepia/green photographs of the early serials and its quirky, too brief descriptions of their storylines that somehow contrived to make the lacklustre stories sound exciting and the benchmark ones sound plodding, the special was a holy grail.

I mention this because of all that missing history the one serial that seemed utterly baffling then was The Edge of Destruction. It was a rare two parter for a start but what an intriguing one!

According to the Radio Times “the doors swing open and they are suspended in space” …“The Doctor accuses the teachers of sabotage” … “Finally even Susan begins to suspect Ian and Barbara and tries to attack Ian with a pair of scissors – she is quietened by her grandfather”  The Doctors granddaughter attacking Ian with scissors? Hey what?

Later on when I began to see some of the early episodes in all their mixed quality I wondered if it would turn out that the Radio Times special gilded the lily here. Would this odd two parter  turn out to be trite and silly?  The first pre Pertwee episodes repeated by the ABC in Australia was The Krotons and then The Mind Robber, while like many fans I rushed to buy the Tomb of the Cyberman, so I was used of the idea that expectation might not meet delivery.

Yet nothing could have prepared me for the experience of sliding The Edge of Destruction into my VHS which revealed that the 10th Anniversary Special might have told us an even more lurid tale:

“Susan lunges at her Teacher with a set of giant pointy surgical scissors like a bayonet before tearing a couch to shreds like a female version of Anthony Perkins in psycho. She hides them, shuffles around in a trance and then threatens Barbara. Dr. Who does nothing to intervene and then drugs everyone. Ian wakes up and tries to strangle Dr. Who. The Doctor then threatens to throw them into space while Ian reaches up and puts his hands around Barbara’s neck …”

Crikey. Hey what?

Perhaps the biggest shock –which exemplifies the way this serial goes over the brink of expectations – was the sight of those legendary scissors. My mind’s eye had imagined safety scissors; but these look like they have been sharpened by Rambo, while Susan wields them like a slasher coming down from heroin. Take an eye out? You could take a leg off.

This is jagged, edgy drama that cuts through in 2011. We learn almost as much about the Tardis and its crew than the previous 11 episodes and a trove of the mythology of the series is to be found here: the idea that the Tardis is alive, the fast return switch, Quinnis and the idea that the Doctor is fleeing some terrible danger and can’t go back.

The final scenes seem to be the instant when the ‘’tone’’ of the series defaults to factory settings – gone is the suspicion, paranoia and anger as the travellers, the Doctor above all, realise they need each other.

And the settings are here to stay. When Donna implores the Doctor to ‘’find someone’’ at the end of The Runaway Bride it is a moment we can trace here – the Doctor needs his companions to make him stop and think.

Future moments when the Doctor seems to round on his companions – such as in the Evil of the Daleks, The Claws of Axos, the Invasion of Time or Logopolis will be shocking. When the formula is cracked – such as the Doctor’s treatment of Peri – it will be enough to scuttle the whole series.

Moments of greatness

  • A great opening scene – they are all on the floor and the Doctor is last to wake. Followed by the strange detached mannerisms of William Russel and Jacqueline Hill as the two companions imagine themselves back at Coal Hill. “You’re working late this evening Miss Wright?”
  • Barbara’s confrontations with the Doctor are bitter, priceless and shocking – when he wakes up she snipes “You don’t know where we are, do you” and then a marvellous scene where she rounds on him and recalling their previous trips to the Cave of Skulls and Skaro tells him that he ‘’ought to get down on his knee’s and thank us”. This isn’t anger – its contempt. At the end it is Barbara that will not forgive and forget. She needs no words to convey it as she simply stalks from the room.
  • Susans performance seems more whacko than ever as she sashays around in a strange black kimono and then lies with her sweat covered manic face on a couch flashing those scissors.


  • The costumes are drab, shapeless and underplayed – a risky but inspired move which tightens our focus on the drama. Susan toddles like a monk in that black loose Kimono, Ian spends much of the serial in flannels and Barbara at one point looks like she’s been sewn into a hessian bag. The Doctor spends most of the serial in a silly headband.  Contrast this with the outfits all the travellers wear in Marco Polo and we can see a deft hand matching costumes to the drama.
  • The serial plays brilliantly with the idea that something might have gotten into the ship. Where would it hide? “In one of us” Susan intones in a scene which explains why she would be a very bad person to be stuck in a spaceship with. The next few scenes play with this idea as we imagine the creature hiding in Susan, in the Doctor (after he drugs them all and rushes to the console with glee) and then in Ian during his trance scenes. It is hard to see the brilliant David Tennant episode Midnight as anything but homage to this.
  • The tension between the crew is unendurable and it is ironic that we feel a palpable sense of relief in Episode Two at the moment when the danger is greatest and the whole fault locator lights up. Everything might be broken, but at least we trust each other again.

The bum notes are rare but there are a couple:

  • Great speech by Barbara showing her as gutsy, fearless when cornered and able to hold her own. All ruined when she turns around and screams like a banshee … at a melting clock.
  • A few off key nods to the shows educational remit as the Doctor feels inspired to give a lecture on how a spring works in a switch and a pen light.  However these are more than balanced by a brilliant scene when, backlit against the console – Billy explains with wonder and passion the coming together of a solar system.
  • If the Tardis is sentient it has a very roundabout way of communicating and the riddle eventually discovered by Barbara is circular and obtuse.  A literal mind stilll wonders why it didn’t manage to flash “The-switch-is-stuck” on the scanner screen.
  • The fast return switch is written in felt tip. We’re also told it works on a valve. Really?

Aussie connection:

None of the cast, the writer or production crew seem to have even visited our antipodes so not even I can manage to scrape together a connection here.

Craig Wallace

Craig Wallace is a marketing manager and project coordinator with Nican a national community organisation and has been a community leader with various organisations for more than a decade. He is the President of People with Disability Australia, a leading cross disability rights organisation in Australia and is a member of the ACT BLITS business group.

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