The two episode Edge of Destruction serial was not part of the initial plan for season one of Doctor Who. As work on the series started, some serials got dropped (C.E. Webber’s The Giants), some got shifted around in the lineup (The Daleks was at one point planned to be the fourth serial but ended up being the second), and in the case of The Edge of Destruction, it was conceived and written by series story editor David Whitaker as a place-filler. Production on a serial entitled Marco Polo had to be pushed back two weeks because of the sets and costumes required for it, leaving a gap in the schedule. That gap had to be filled in with something simple, and cheap since The Daleks went over budget, so Whitaker came up with an idea that would require only the standing set of the TARDIS ship and the show’s four main characters.
Within moments of departing from the planet Skaro at the end of The Daleks, the TARDIS is jostled hard, there’s a loud booming noise, a bright flash of light, and the Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan are all knocked down and knocked out.
When they come to, they’re all slightly out of it at first. They briefly have trouble remembering each other, for a moment Ian thinks he and Barbara are still at work at the Coal Hill School back in 1963 London. As the Doctor wakes up, he says something about, “I can’t take you back, Susan”, presumably having a memory of Susan asking to go back to their home world.
The Doctor received a gash in his head when he fell, and the cut is treated by wrapping his head with a bandage that has lines of colored ointment on it. The ointment will be absorbed by the wound, and once the bandage is completely white you know that the wound has healed. In the first episode of The Daleks, Barbara mentioned that she sometimes thinks the Doctor deserves to get hurt on their journeys, but when he is hurt, she shows concern and cares for him. Like the companions helping the villainous caveman in 100,000 B.C., this shows goodness of character.
Ian and Barbara speculate that the TARDIS might have crashed, although the Doctor assures them that’s impossible. But impossible things are happening, the ship seems to be going haywire. Susan is terrified to see the TARDIS doors standing wide open. Nobody on board opened them, and they can’t open on their own… and yet, the doors open and close themselves as the characters look on. The scanner that’s supposed to show them what’s outside the ship merely shows photos of places it’s been to before, photos that were saved in its memory bank, shots of space and different worlds, like the planet Quinnis of the fourth universe. Touching the control panel can knock a person to the ground.
As the Doctor sets the ship’s fault locator to find what’s going wrong, paranoia runs high among the travelers. The Doctor accuses Ian and Barbara of sabotaging the controls and very nearly throws them off the ship, Susan arms herself with a pair of scissors and threatens to stab people, Barbara even theorizes that the problems could be caused by “another intelligence” having boarded the ship, an evil intelligence… And sometimes, Ian wanders around in a zombie-like state and grabs people by the neck.
When the fault with the ship is located in the second episode, entitled The Brink of Disaster, the prognosis is dire: the TARDIS is on the point of disintegration. Those on board have mere minutes left to live.
Facing death, the Doctor and his companions are forced to work together to solve this problem, and in doing so they begin to put away the bad feelings they’ve had toward each other over the episodes that have preceded this serial. The Doctor realizes that Ian and Barbara really are good people, certainly not potential saboteurs, and he has been underestimating them up to this point. He comes to respect them. In turn, the Earthling school teachers finally figure out that the Doctor really isn’t a bad man at his core. The character interactions had been building to a blow-out confrontation among the group over the preceding episodes, and The Brink of Disaster is where it all finally comes to a head and is worked through, allowing the travelers to move forward as a more cohesive group.
After slogging through 100,000 B.C., The Daleks is the serial that shifted Doctor Who into the proper gear. For me, The Edge of Destruction continues its ascent. I may be entertained by robots with plunger arms, but if you really want to win my heart, give me a story about paranoia and in-fighting that’s confined to one location. A lot of my favorite movies are like that, like George A. Romero’s original Dead trilogy (being ’60s and black & white, this is especially reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead ’68) and John Carpenter’s The Thing, and I enjoyed this variation on that concept.
The tone of these two episodes is quite dark, and even the music leans toward a horror style. Similar horror stories, particularly The Thing, come to mind even more when there are lines where the characters fear that they’re being toyed with by an otherworldly force, saying there’s “something here, inside the ship”, “Where would it hide?”, “In one of us.”
Ian’s zombie walk also plays into that, and some of my favorite moments in the first episode involve Susan, who takes on a very creepy demeanor, puts on a distrustful expression, sneaks around in the background in her black dress, and of course wields scissors in a dangerous manner.
The Edge of Destruction serial consists of such an out-of-the-ordinary pair of episodes that apparently opinions on it among fans are divided, but I have to say, I could see this becoming a favorite of mine. Of course, I have a long way to go before I can decide.