Saturday, 14 January 2012

TV Review 3: The Edge of Destruction, written by David Whitaker (1964)

Broadcast: 8th – 15th February 1964

The Doctor – William Hartnell
Susan Foreman – Carole Ann Ford
Ian Chesterton – William Russell
Barbara Wright – Jacqueline Hill

Main Production Credits

Producer – Verity Lambert
Story Editor – David Whitaker
Writer – David Whitaker
Directors – Richard Martin (Episode 1) & Frank Cox (Episode 2)
Designer – Raymond Cusick
Costumes – Daphne Dare
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Special Sound – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

Story Summary (SPOILERS!):
The TARDIS crew are all knocked out and made temporarily amnesic after a mysterious blowout and malfunction in the TARDIS itself. But even when they recover, the Time ship’s occupants are affected and perplexed by a number of strange, bizarre and unexplained events. No one can figure out how or why, except that it isn’t them, and their growing individual suspicions lead the Doctor to turn upon his human passengers, Ian and Barbara.

However, the TARDIS fortunately intervenes, raising the alarm as to the immediate danger that afflicts them. Barbara correctly works out, despite the Doctor’s opposition, that the TARDIS has been responsible for the strange events, trying to contact them through clues both symbolically and telepathically. The Fast Return Switch on the TARDIS Console was stuck down due to the result of a faulty spring, and is now in danger of travelling back into the Big Bang. The fault repaired, the Doctor, sorry of his own injustices against Ian and Barbara, apologises and makes peace with them, renewing their friendship as the TARDIS takes them elsewhere.

Story Placement

Between The Daleks (TV Serial) and Marco Polo (TV Serial)

Favourite Lines

Barbara Wright – “Accuse us! You ought to go down on your knees and thank us!”

The Doctor – “As we learn about each other so we learn about ourselves”.

As The Edge of Destruction proves, good characterisation and character development can go a long way in making a successful TV Drama, even if the story appears to be somewhat basic. The Edge of Destruction is in my view, yet another underrated hit in a trio of relatively underrated hit Doctor Who serials. The fact that the first production team got Doctor Who so right and spot on in those first six months, not just as a TV programme, but also as a work and series of fiction in its own right, never ceases to amaze me.

The sad thing is, due to the decline (or dumbing down if you prefer) in quality of many Doctor Who scripts and serials throughout the late 1960s, most casual Doctor Who followers overlook the programme’s early years in favour of the more popular mid-late 1970s, or for younger viewers the recent modern resurrection of Doctor Who from 2005 onwards. They forget just how imaginative, magical and well-written it was back then, especially while the original companions William Russell and Jacqueline Hill were still part of the cast. Of course I’m not trying to pretend it was all TV gold, but the level of detail and characterisation were frequently on a level with all the adult drama shows of the time, and commanded your attention just like other later successful drama TV series like Inspector Morse, Cracker, Prime Suspect and Life on Mars. From late 1966 onwards Doctor Who descended into clichéd one-note sidekicks that either screamed, frequently needed rescuing, fulfilled the action requirements, or sometimes all of the above; casual sci-fi run-arounds with a monster-of-the-week; and often without much character development or complex detail to be found. This was thankfully rectified from 1970 onwards, but not in the same way, and ironically it was during 1988 and 1989, the final continuous years of Doctor Who series before the programme was axed, that we finally got the same (and better) level of detail and development seen in characters over two decades previously.

I’m talking about characterisation in particular, because The Edge of Destruction is a tour de force of character development that is so daring, brave, exciting and compelling that I was glued to the screen, especially during episode two. David Whitaker takes the four characters he has moulded, grown and developed during An Unearthly Child and The Daleks, and takes their current loose relationship and pushes them both to the limit. With hindsight of course, we can see that this was only logical place their early reluctant companionship could be taken, with the numerous resentments in the various characters having festered over the last nine episodes just waiting to boil over and come to the fore. The Edge of Destruction creates the opportunity for such a fall out to happen, and as a result it produces some of the best drama ever seen in Doctor Who. Of course, the other brilliant aspect to the break up in their joint relationship is that at the end of the serial it allows them to genuinely make peace with other for the very first time and become much closer friends than they had ever been before; and also in the case of the Doctor in particular, have an epiphany that helps him to become a better person in general. David Whitaker’s complex and multi-layered character development is so beautifully written, constructed and executed that it genuinely feels that you are watching something special.

The basic nature of the story does admittedly let it down slightly though. David Whitaker contrives a simple mechanical fault in the TARDIS that it interprets as ‘human’ error (or Time Lord, if we’re being technical) and on the basis of this, it sets in motion a range of extraordinary events in order to make its crew aware of this before it is too late. These mysterious events are intended to be clues made by the TARDIS to help the crew work out the approaching danger as it travels towards the Big Bang, however, some of these supposed clues are somewhat bizarre. The TARDIS scanner picture sequence and the telepathic shocks sent to crew members who try to touch the sides of the console that don’t contain the problem are really well done, but the melting of various time pieces, interpreted as a symbolic taking away of time is a bit more dubious and less well conveyed; meanwhile the erroneous food machine is so vague as a clue that it only serves as a metaphor to remind us that something important in the TARDIS isn’t working, without ever hinting at what it could be. The most bizarre effect though, is when Susan is turned into a tense paranoid psychotic, who is suspicious of everyone and violently strikes out on at least one occasion with a sharp pair of scissors. It’s certainly a very surreal and fascinating turn of events, but the narrative reason for it totally eludes me. However, these contrivances aren’t too hard to forgive, as David Whitaker writes a well-paced plot and script that not only doesn’t drag, but positively sparkles due to some cracking dialogue, and of course the aforementioned fantastic character development.

The Doctor is the character that certainly seems to go on the biggest journey. He starts off fairly helpless and amicable, confounded by both the inoperative TARDIS, as well as the odd events, but he soon rather narrow-mindedly concludes that Ian and Barbara can be the only logical culprits, given that he cannot find fault with the TARDIS. I suppose you could argue a case for paranoia, but I think it’s more likely a case of hubris. The Doctor’s reliance on pure scientific logic means that he’s unwilling to consider or believe in anything illogical, out of left field, or beyond the plain obvious. Ian and Barbara are the only intelligent beings who would and could affect his ship, so therefore he thinks it must be them. The Doctor’s ferociously stubborn and arrogant belief, both in himself and his mental abilities, means that he finds it difficult to believe that he’s ever wrong. So when events reach a climax in episode two and the TARDIS indicates to him that he was wrong all the time, it comes as a very visible shock to him, so much so, that it takes a great effort for him to accept just how wrong and unjust he was, and apologise. Importantly for the first time he realises that he can be just as fallible as his travelling companions, even if it’s not in the same ways, and begins to finally appreciate their true characters and values. Although the Doctor will remain an occasionally irascible old man with a mysterious unknowable past, at the end of The Edge of Destruction his hard demeanour begins to slowly melt away, and for the first time we get a glimpse of the hero we’ve come to know and love. This is the climax and resolution of the Doctor’s personal character story arc that started back in An Unearthly Child. It’s not an instant transformation, by any means, as the First Doctor gradually warms and lightens up over the course of the next two years (1964-1965). That’s what I call good character development, good characterisation that continues to naturally evolve over years, not just over a few serials, and rewards loyal viewers.

However, any viewers of The Edge of Destruction can’t be in any doubt that this is really Barbara’s big moment too. Barbara’s character story arc has been more about a journey of self-discovery than enlightenment. As a character, Barbara has grown enormously. The unfolding crisis and mystery in the TARDIS, and the desperate need to solve it as well as the erratic nature of her fellow companions, forces her to try and make sense of the situation, and eventually take control of it when everyone else fails to. Furthermore, the Doctor’s rude and outrageous accusations spur her on to finally believe in both herself, and her own convictions properly for the first time on screen. In short, Barbara becomes a hero, saving the lives of the time travellers from certain death, and courageously defending her own pious beliefs and convictions against a narrow-minded old fool. The character has changed so much over the last eleven episodes that she is barely recognisable compared to her past unsure and more timid self back in An Unearthly Child. Now Barbara is a strong character of resolve, courage and conviction that is more than a match for the rest of the TARDIS crew, as well as the numerous horrors that she will have to face in upcoming stories. More importantly though, Barbara is by far the strongest female character ever written in Doctor Who till Ace came along during Dragonfire in 1987; and like Ian, is one of my all-time favourite companions.

Ian on the other hand, takes more of a back seat on this occasion, while Barbara gets her first chance to lead. He has play the diplomat for most of the story, preventing the TARDIS crew from breaking up completely during the Doctor’s rude behaviour, and also tries to lighten up the mood in places when he can. I also love that Ian is beginning to build up a sort of camaraderie with the Doctor, getting used to his flaws and foibles, and quickly learning that he doesn’t always mean everything that he says, or just not feel quite as strongly, despite the acidic words that come from his sharp tongue. Ian actually has quite a good measure of the Doctor, and as the Doctor realises this more and more in future, their relationship begins to positively shine.

Susan as a character gets a lot to do in The Edge of Destruction, but when the strange effects disappear, she’s pretty much back to her previous self, while her friends have changed around her for the better. After the initial explosion, Susan is bewildered and incoherent, but she quickly turns into a tense paranoid with moments of psychosis, ever suspicious of Ian and Barbara, and lurks and scowls with equal measure. In fact, Susan feels even more wildly alien and unnatural here than during her titular introduction in An Unearthly Child. It’s very creepy and atmospheric, but in The Edge of Destruction it ends up being rather disappointingly irrelevant to the ongoing mystery and plot of the story, and is left unexplained by the serial’s end.

I suppose the TARDIS is almost a character too in some respects. It thinks for itself, and isn’t always particularly logical either. I really love that fact that the TARDIS isn’t just another non-descript machine like every other fictional space (and time) ship, but then again that was also partly hinted at by An Unearthly Child too with its imaginative concept. The TARDIS can independently think for itself, make proactive decisions, operate itself automatically should it need to, has a consciousness of sorts (in other words, self-aware), and even has a very small semblance of personality too, practically shouting at the Doctor through alarms when it’s had enough of him arguing with the humans and misunderstanding (well that’s what it felt like to me anyway).

Despite this story only featuring the regular cast, they rise to the challenge with great gusto and all deliver amazing performances. Jacqueline Hill in particular is astounding, revelling in her character’s chance to take centre stage as well as the great material she’s given, and absolutely steals the show. William Russell and William Hartnell are still consistently brilliant too. William Russell maintains Ian as the ever affable, considerate and likeable character that’s always a joy to watch. Hartnell on the other hand, has to deliver some quite nasty dialogue, and manages it with conviction without pushing away the audience. He also rather miraculously calms the Doctor down at the end of the story so well, that he becomes genuinely quite warm and likeable, with a wonderfully subtle performance that emphasises the character’s big positive change. There’s also that brilliant soliloquy that the Doctor has to give, and I love how dramatically and enthusiastically Hartnell delivers it. It is a truly magical moment to behold. Carole Ann Ford also gets to have a lot of fun in The Edge of Destruction, due to the larger range of emotions she gets to play. She relishes playing those scenes as a darkly disturbed lunatic, and is really quite eerie, almost having the appearance of a villain at times.

The direction in The Edge of Destruction is quite effective too, maybe not quite as innovative as during The Daleks, but with some great flashes of brilliance nevertheless. I love how a lot of the music and sound effects have been deliberately left out or held back so there is very little non-diegetic sound, or even little diegetic sound effects either, making the drama very theatrical, but this time in a very good way. The lack of sound makes the TARDIS feel a much smaller and tighter place, and as a result the dramatic tension just builds and builds till it is positively palpable and you’re glued to the screen (well I was anyway). We feel how the characters feel, and the drama is open, honest, raw and utterly compelling because of it. A lot of the story also seemingly takes place in real time, lending the drama a certain immediacy. Throughout the first episode, the lightening is massively toned down, helping to create a very atmospheric mood in the visuals and helps to highlight that all is not well in the TARDIS. This is mostly left out of episode two, until the TARDIS is within minutes of destruction. This helps to make the reprieve all the more powerful, as the reintroduction of surround lighting as well as the TARDIS sound effects help it to appear as if the ship is returning to life, as it were, and emphasises that all is safe and well in the TARDIS once more.

Speaking of sound effects, I must say that the direction and use of the TARDIS sound effects, helps us to appreciate just how brilliant Brian Hodgson and the Radiophonic Workshop’s work has been in Doctor Who, and how brilliant it will continue to be. When the TARDIS is restored in episode two, the rising pitch of the ship’s background hum is so beautifully done, it feels glorious, and makes you want to cheer inside. The chosen stock music is somewhat patchy in quality and effectiveness, though. For every amazing moody piece created by the Radiophonic Workshop there’s a clunky non-descript music piece, which really jars during viewing and rather unintentionally encourages you to welcome the returning background silence. Still that’s stock music for you, I guess.

Despite on the surface appearing to be an inconsequential two-episode filler story sandwiched in-between two narrative epics, The Edge of Destruction for me is actually a fantastic atmospheric drama, and a master class in character writing. The premise of the story as well as some of the reasoning behind its events may be a bit dubious, but the powerful journeys in character that both Barbara and the Doctor go through, along with both the enthusiasm of the regular cast, and some creative direction work wonders and make for gripping television. The Edge of Destruction is an important early landmark adventure in a trio of landmark adventures, the only important difference being that this story marks the moment when the Doctor turns from an anti-hero into the benevolent and avuncular time traveller we have all grown to love over the years. The end of the beginning of the fictional hero’s long story.

Score: 9/10

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