The Edge of Destruction is something of a peculiarity – and that’s a good thing. It is an incredibly well-made, dramatic and effective piece of television, one which still haunts now as it surely did on its first airing. Born of a need to create a cheap, self-contained two episode story, with no money for sets or extras, this is a four-piece kitchen sink drama oozing tension so thick you could cut it with a knife – or a pair of scissors, as it may be. Despite it being a taboo, it was written by then script editor David Whittaker very quickly. The script was in turn adapted during rehearsal and filming processes, as the cast milked all of the power of silence and potential of odd looks to make it even more powerful.
As the first episode starts, where the last serial let out with the TARDIS juddering and shuddering, throwing the crew asunder, knocking them all unconscious, it is horribly terrifying – we have no idea what has happened or why they are being thrown such. In addition, it is Barbara who first awakens; one of the outsiders who could never understand the TARDIS and what it does, surrounding by such a strange location, adorned with the slumped unconscious forms of Susan, Ian and the Doctor. She is utterly out of her depth, and Jacqueline Hill performs throughout this serial with a dedication that is unwavering. She is magnificent, fluctuating between controlling school mistress making important decisions and a woman just on the brink of sanity. Her voice breaks uncontrollably, and the scene in which she admonishes the Doctor for his suspicion – when he should be “down on (his) knees and thanking” them – is powerful, moving and unnerving.
When Ian first wakes up, William Russell’s delivery is horrific, monotonal and dead of emotion, as he ignores his surroundings, addressing Barbara as though they were still at Coal Hill School. As he strides towards her, zombie-like, there is an air of menace about him – a theme which continues with every one of the characters, as each and every one of them contains the potential to be dangerous.
The scene with Susan – and one in which Carole Ann Ford actually shines, for once appearing alien and powerful all at once, whilst also managing to be convincing – with the scissors gained a great deal of bad press at the time, with even BBC executives being unsettled by it, and rightly so; she is dangerous and manic, threatening and yet composed (sometimes) and she creates a sense of danger only hinted at by the others up to now. As she is subdued by the others, calmed temporarily, and the Doctor slowly becomes more and more suspicious, the group threatens to unravel, tearing itself apart despite the need for them to stand as a united front.
Both episodes have a sense of Poltergeist to them – a possessed girl, things moving, clock faces melting and doors opening and closing by themselves, and what is truly magnificent about it all is the way in which even the cast seem unsure about what they are doing. There is a sense of disconnect throughout, as they flip acting styles as flippantly as one might usually throw the door switch on the central panel. The TARDIS is invaded – their very home is dangerous, and whatever is causing this might be in “one of us”, a chilling realisation. Doctor Who hasn’t yet done possession; although this is a plot device used very, very frequently from here on. The scanner is displaying what are obviously stock photographs, and a modern viewer may well mock it, pointing out how faux it all looks – but then it turns out that it is just a photograph, and the audience are once more left flummoxed. This story is so self-aware, so painfully aware that it is being created on a shoestring that it even questions our own expectations – whether a contemporary audience would have noticed we’ll never know.
The first episode ends with the Doctor having drugged the rest of the crew, pacing calmly between their bunks as they lie unconscious with a bizarrely calm smile across his face. As his fingers twitch expectantly over his faithful control panel, hands lurch into the shot and grab him roughly about the throat. The Doctor is in dire peril – and then the credits roll. Hartnell gives a sterling performance throughout, his growing paranoia about these outsiders onboard his ship oozing from him with a growing sense of menace. In episode 2, “The Brink of Disaster”, as Barbara cares to a fainted Ian, he stands over them, dominating the background, shadows thrown up the roundelled walls of the TARDIS.
Of course, as it is only two episodes long, they quickly get to the root of the problem – “we must all work together” – and join forces to puzzle through what has been a series of seemingly disconnected abstract events. Barbara manages to join the dots together, figuring out that it is the TARDIS which is causing all of their troubles – albeit only because it is trying to help them figure out the problem. The problem, however, is the shortcoming of this story. A stuck button. Really. Not only that, but a button marked with tape and felt pen. It feels ridiculous, and it is ridiculous, but it’s also perfect – the TARDIS as we now know it is a living breathing thing, and it is desperately trying to warn the inhabitants that they are on the brink of disaster, hurtling toward oblivion.
What this serial does, setting up groundwork essential for our appreciation of the show, is to gel the characters together. Whilst three of them remain as always, but with a higher appreciation for the value of teamwork, the Doctor becomes a markedly different man from this – Hartnell’s blustering, cranky old man warms to the hitchhikers as he realises that he needs them. His soliloquy on the birth of solar systems, beautifully framed and shot, atmospherically lit, shows the passion the character clearly feels, and his lie to the girls about how little time they actually have is touching, melodramatic and ultimately wonderful. After they have solved the problem, and have resumed their normal flight, he attempts to apologise to Barbara – desperate for forgiveness, he thanks her for her work, realising how clever and useful she is, and will be. He becomes a warmer figure, less abrasive, and as such, the audience are able to feel for him – a feeling which has grown in the 49 years since it was first broadcast and which spans regenerations.