The Doctor, Barbara, Susan, and Ian are enjoying the chance to relax and talk after their travails on Skaro. The Doctor is at the controls, and then—the TARDIS console explodes rendering the time travelers unconscious and plunging the Ship into darkness, the machine’s great engines grinding and scraping to a halt…
The Edge of Destruction—or Inside the Spaceship, if you prefer—is proof that it doesn’t take expensive special effects or extravagant location shooting to produce inspired and genuinely brilliant television (especially after The
Ennui of Daleks). This is Doctor Who at it’s very best, precisely because of it’s limited scope.
Right from the start, it’s clear that The Edge of Destruction occupies a narrative space that’s more or less unique in Doctor Who. The four time travelers’ behavior is bizarre to say the least, which is understandable from a certain perspective considering the force of the explosion that disabled the Ship. Barbara, who was not in the console room at the time of the accident(?) is confused and perhaps even in a state of shock, but Susan seems to regain consciousness almost too quickly, and then her words and actions are strange and uncharacteristic, going so far as to wield a pair of scissors at Ian, before stabbing them violently into her bed as though she’s trying to exorcize some demon, finally collapsing in exhaustion and momentarily regaining a sense of composure.
Ian, too, who was practically leaning against the console when it exploded, seems to recover remarkably fast, but like Susan, he doesn’t seem to display any of his usual mannerisms. In fact, both Ian and Susan behave very much like puppets who are being manipulated by an outside force—something that Susan later suggests, much to Barbara’s horror.
There’s a slight hint at the Doctor’s psychology when, still unconscious, he mutters a few words as though reliving a previous conversation : “I can’t take you back, Susan. I can’t, I can’t…” The words are heavy with a sense of anguish and guilt, as though he regrets the decision to bring her with him on his flight through time and space when they left whatever home they had behind.
The Ship, which has always been a refuge for the time travelers, especially after their experiences on prehistoric Earth and on the planet Skaro, is dark, cold, and foreboding—even the familiar and omnipresent hum of power has fallen silent. And yet, even it seems to acting as though it’s under the influence of some outside force: all but one section on the TARDIS console is electrified; the scanner shows bizarre sequence of pictures; the doors open and close of their own accord; the food machine registers empty when it’s not; and, most unnervingly, the numbers on all the clocks in the Ship melt away. Barbara believes (quite reasonably, I think) the TARDIS crashed somewhere, which Susan insists is impossible.
But for all their strange behavior—or perhaps because of it—the time travelers finally seem remarkably like themselves in a way that Anthony Coburn and Terry Nation had only partially been successful at capturing in a completely natural and realistic way. Barbara’s sense of shock at her abduction, which was very present in the previous two serials, is finally replaced by raw, unmitigated anger toward the Doctor when he accuses them of sabotaging his Ship, and she lashes out at his arrogant, condescending self-righteousness that nearly cost them their lives more than once in the short time they had traveled together. The Doctor is clearly shaken by these accusations, and is unable to defend himself other than to offer a nightcap to help them all relax and sleep.
The Edge of Destruction is an underrated masterpiece of Hitchcockian suspense, and while Richard Martin’s direction is excellent and creative as usual, it’s clear that his style is not quite suited to this particular story. In fact, this seems like a story taylor-made the nouvelle vague-style direction that Waris Hussein used so effectively in An Unearthly Child. The creepy and sparingly-used incidental score created so beautifully by the Radiophonic Workshop fits the tone story very well, though I can’t help but wonder if it was really necessary at all—the scenes where there is simply dialogue seem all the more chilling and strange without it.
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…
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.)