Doctor Who is about two things: (1) a really cool time-traveler and his really cool time machine; and, (2) the stand-ins for the audience, or the Companions. Edge of Destruction, in two quirky episodes, gave us the Companions, as we know them today. Here’s how, and why you must watch Edge:
1. Small budgets do wonders for artistic creativity. The 7-parter The Daleks, featuring miniatures, metal-ish Dalek corridors, explosions, and several Daleks themselves, had gone over-budget. And the production team faced another impending 7-parter, Marco Polo–a costume drama, also with miniatures and elaborate sets (and one of the “lost episodes“). Budgets were tight. Series script editor David Whitaker was tasked with writing a two-parter on the cheap.
Whitaker also faced another problem. Unearthly Child and The Daleks portrayed The Doctor as fiercely distrusting of Ian and Barbara, his “kidnapees.” If Who was to have any legs, this dynamic had to end: somehow, that plotline needed to disappear to both permit further character development, and to free up script space for more engaging and ambitious ideas.
Whitaker’s solution was a product of tight pursestrings and deference to the preceding two serials. But, it was genius. Using only the TARDIS set and the cast of four regulars, Whitaker penned an amazing two-part story. None of the cast knew of the budgetary origins of the spartan script, though Jacqueline Hill guessed–incorrectly–that the Marco Polo costumes simply weren’t ready yet.
And so the cast threw themselves into the script with gusto. As written, it risked becoming little more than an avant-garde moody-artist piece with disjointed, stilted performances. As acted, it’s very satisfying, from Ian’s dazed recovery in the beginning, to Barbara’s strong performance overall and particularly in her substantial speeches (directed at the Doctor) in both episodes, to the Doctor’s transformation from possibly malignant manipulator into the “protector of companions” we have today.
One additional note: it’s interesting that Peter Brachacki, designing the TARDIS control room, made one of those budgetary constraints calls that carried through to today’s TARDIS. He saw a 3″ piece of molded plastic with a repeating pattern of round holes. He liked it so much that he had that very same piece of plastic photographed and enlarged, and printed: it became the 2-dimensional console room walls of roundels, repeated and modified for the next half-century of Who. Now that’s cool. And, again, it was initially simply “on the cheap.”
2. Barbara vs. The Doctor, or, The Birth of the Companions. The audience is roped-in with Ian’s incredulous outburst, early in the first episode, just under ten minutes in. We’re yanked into the story because Ian’s disbelief exactly mirrors what we, the audience, are thinking: why are the regulars passed out, draped over the TARDIS console and floor? Is this performance art?
Barbara immediately takes the baton from Ian, and carries it through the remainder of Edge. She, as Ian, and as the Companions always do, is the conduit to the audience–she’s us. She immediately assumes care for the Doctor, waking and comforting him, and calms the unbalanced Susan. We cheer as she forcefully rebuts the Doctor’s unreasonable accusations against her and Ian. Her fiery rejection of the Doctor’s suspicions presage the final, seminal scenes of episode two. It must have been a recognition of Jacqueline Hill’s strong performance in rehearsals, and it was a smart move, that several of Ian’s lines were transferred to Barbara.
Finally, it’s Barbara that solves the underlying mystery: she pieces together the clues and saves the day, only moments before total annihilation. The scenes that follow witness the birth of the modern Who Companion. Barbara stares into space, hurt by the pain the Doctor inflicted on all of them; and when the Doctor formally, if stiffly, acknowledges his debt to her saving the TARDIS, Barbara flinches, and bolts from the room.
But the Doctor, in a new and significant turn of character, pursues her. He sits close to Barbara on the couch–the gap between the characters is finally physically narrowed. He explicitly admits his failings–and narrows the psychological gamp. He, in essence, tells her that by learning from Ian and Barbara, he has finally discovered himself. And so the rift from the first episodes is bridged. The Doctor now is not mistrusting, distant–but is the Doctor, grandfatherly, self-admittedly flawed, and protector of his companions. This is the birth of the Companion.
The physical closeness continues: he offers his arm, and he and Barbara walk to the console room. And the Doctor even offers his arm, or hand, to Ian–it’s hard to tell if it’s a Hartnell flub or improvisation–and they walk out to join Susan for a snowball fight. And this new dynamic is our dynamic today: Doctor as protector of companions, as grandfatherly figure. When you watch the concluding scenes of Edge, you’ll see the birth of modern Who.
3. “My machine can’t think!” The second innovation was equally a product of budget. Constrained to the TARDIS as the only set, and the regulars as sole cast, Whitaker needed dramatic tension. Whitaker’s brilliant solution was to bring the TARDIS to life: the eerie poltergeists plaguing the TARDIS, we learn, were the TARDIS itself leaving clues for the crew. The TARDIS doors open and close by themselves in response to the crew’s actions; the scanner displays the same sequence of images, repeated several times; the “fault locator” lights and warning bells activate, inexplicably, every 15 seconds; the TARDIS causes physical pain to the crew, but only when they approach certain parts of the console; the TARDIS displays misleading indicator lights on machinery that is otherwise working perfectly.
It’s the origin of the idea that the TARDIS is alive. Directly from Edge we get the power source that’s “held down” by the time rotor, the “heart of the TARDIS,” that reappears in Arc of Infinity, Terminus, Boom Town, and Parting of the Ways. We get here the first indication that the TARDIS is sentient, that the TARDIS has mind of its own, revisited en force in The Doctor’s Wife. Interestingly too, we get the first inklings of the Matrix: in Edge, just after Susan drops the bomb that she and the Doctor had, earlier than Unearthly Child, visited the planet Quinnis “in the fourth Universe,” we learn that the TARDIS records all the Doctor’s journeys. This returns in Trial of a Time Lord.
4. The Doctor’s crazy-manic love of science. It’s telling that Sydney Newman required Verity Lambert to subscribe to “New Scientist” and read it, monthly. One directive of early Who was to feature science front and center, and be educational.
Here, the Doctor’s turnaround involves a lengthy speech by Hartnell–the first such speech by the Doctor–about… science! It begins with the Doctor leaning back against the TARDIS console, the lighting strikingly altered for the scene–the Doctor lit in dramatic chiaroscuro–and the camera slowly tracking towards Hartnell (this was before the BBC had zoom lenses).
Hartnell was nervous about the speech’s length, famously forgetful of his lines. But it’s a fine performance: you can almost see hubris and the hunger for serious actor’s cred in his eyes during this soliloquy. He deserves it: it’s a memorable speech, and it conjures images of Baker’s toothy grin and wide eyes wondering at some scientific anomaly, or Tennant’s luscious drawl at a newly discovered alien species, “awwwwww, you’re beautiful!”.
Hartnell thus delivers, and we get the paradigm for future Doctors’ zealous-manic love of all things science.
5. Who trope: the unintended consequences of small actions. Whitaker had one final puzzle piece to place: if the TARDIS was the fifth cast member, what caused the chain of events? Whitaker’s answer, human, or unintentional error, was brilliant and is one of the repeating and often most successful themes in Who. The cascading consequences of small, unintended errors underlies some of Who‘s best episodes, including one of my favorites, Gridlock, but also The Doctor’s Daughter and many others.
So Edge is weird, quirky, but it’s uber-cool.
A few final observations: (1) it finally fully dawned on me in watching Edge the extra bells and whistles from the interior of Hartnell’s TARDIS that were transferred to Eleven’s: the bulky rectangular grid of square panels that disappeared in Who’s early years, reappears beautifully in Eleven’s console room. And as I’ve noted before, there’s the hanging thingie of concentric circles that’s Hartnell era, as well as the faux CRT scanner that is so steam-punk lovely. (2) first true on-screen date with the Doctor’s Wife (well, they’re going out, but before both sides realized it was a date, you know, a sorta Emma and Mr. Knightly thing going here). (3). The Daleks, the 7-parter just preceding Edge, introduced the Doctor’s longest standing enemy and gave us the words “Skaro” and “Thal.” Edge, in contrast, is the avant-garde moody art piece that gave us a sentient TARDIS and the modern Who companion. Edge: for depth of substantive impact on Who history, it’s the hands-down winner.
Who Verdict: Acquittal. Watch!