Doctor Who: The Edge of Destruction, Part One

“You can’t blame us for this, Doctor.” – Ian

After fighting off cavemen and nightmare pepper-pots, Doctor Who‘s third serial features our companions facing their most insidious enemy yet: themselves. As the back two episodes of a 13-episode initial series order, The Edge of Destruction could serve either as an ending or a transition point. By the end of the serial, the companions would come to trust each other, we’d learn a few more tantalizing clues about the Doctor and Susan’s journey, and we would be left aching for more. But, I am getting ahead of myself. This first episode offers us no obvious villains or planets to explore: just four travelers who have to figure out how to work together to solve a problem that none of them understand. It’s fantastic.

There is tons to say here, but as usual, we’ll start with a recap after the break.

"The Edge of Destruction", Season 1, Episode 12. First aired February 8, 1964.
“The Edge of Destruction”, Season 1, Episode 12. First aired February 8, 1964.

Time Space Visualizer – The Recap

The Doctor works at the controls while Ian and Susan stand around the console talking. Suddenly, there is a white flash and everyone collapses.

Some time later– seconds? minutes?– Barbara emerges disoriented into the console room, still grasping a blanket. She seems to remember Ian, but before she can approach Susan bolts upright. The young girl is worse off, appearing delirious or even drugged. Susan announces that she knows Barbara, but then gasps in pain from her head and neck. Just as it subsides, she notices her grandfather on the floor– he has a gash to the head. Barbara sends Susan away for some ointment and water; Susan is momentarily distracted by Ian (who she does not appear to recognize), but Barbara pushes her to get the medicine. Ian wakes and imagines that he is still at Coal Hill School, asking Barbara if she is working late. Barbara mentions Susan and Ian seems to remember her name, but as a student.

While Ian looks over the doctor– the cut is not as bad as Barbara feared– Susan is in another room, cutting a roll of bandages with a pair of scissors. The Doctor talks in his sleep telling Susan that they cannot go home. Was this a memory? Or a nightmare?

Susan uses a machine in the TARDIS to dispense some water.
Susan uses a machine in the TARDIS to dispense some water.

Susan brings the bandages and water into the console room, but stops short: the TARDIS door is open. Ian suggests that the Doctor opened them before collapsing, while Barbara suspects they opened when they crashed. Susan disagrees with both of them; she fears that some thing or some one is inside the ship.

The colored part is the ointment. You’ll find the color disappearing. It goes into the wound. When the bandage is completely white, it means the wound is healed. – Susan

Remembering the Doctor, Susan and Barbara start applying the futuristic bandages to the Doctor. Ian walks over to inspect the door, but it closes before he arrives. It opens again when he walks away. Susan tries to shut the doors from the console, but as soon as she touches it she is shocked into unconsciousness. Ian carries her into another room to lay down while Barbara tends to the waking Doctor. His head and neck hurt too, just like Susan’s.

Ian deposits Susan on a fancy space-bed then goes to get her a cold cloth to place on her head. When he returns, Susan is upright and very agitated: she’s holding the pair of scissors that she had used to cut the bandages like a knife. She does not recognize Ian and attacks him. Ian defends himself as best he can, but before Susan can hurt him she cries out in pain and stabs the bed over and over again before collapsing.

Susan threatens Ian with the scissors.
Susan threatens Ian with the scissors.

A few minutes later, Ian and the Doctor look at the pair of scissors that Susan had used, now on a table in the console room. The Doctor thinks that the ship set them down somewhere, but Barbara is dismissive. He says that he will have to check the fault locator– but that doesn’t explain Susan’s actions or memory loss. Barbara asks if something might have snuck into the ship such as an animal or an intelligence, but the Doctor dismisses that thought out of hand, even calling it absurd.

“Where is not as important as why, young man.” – The Doctor

As a show of trust, the Doctor invites Ian to help with the fault locator– a job usually given to Susan. But as they talk, they do not notice Susan hiding behind some equipment. She grabs the scissors and heads back the way she came. When Barbara visits her a few minutes later, Susan at first seems to recognize her but this may have been a ruse: she calls her “Barbara” instead of “Miss Wright”, the name that she had just heard Ian use a few moments before. She pounces on Barbara with the scissors, demanding to know why they are keeping secrets from her. Is there something on the ship? Is something hiding inside of them, invisible? Barbara manages to get the scissors off of her again and Susan calms down just as Ian arrives. He and the Doctor could find no fault with the systems. They resolve to turn on the scanner and see where they are but Susan panics again: she does not want the Doctor to touch the console because of what it did to her.

The scanner turns on without the Doctor being injured, but what is on the screen doesn’t make sense: an idyllic scene on Earth. The Doctor says that it doesn’t make sense: that’s just a photograph. Things start to go a bit crazy: the door opens and closes again, a planet where the Doctor and Susan had visited before appears on the scanner before getting smaller and disappearing in a white flash.

Is that England on the screen?
Is that England on the screen?

The Doctor accuses Ian of knowing what is going on. Barbara wants to open the doors, but no… the Doctor stops them. He “knows” that Ian and Barbara sabotaged the ship to force him to return them to England. Barbara responds brilliantly, in fact so brilliantly I need to reproduce her whole speech:

How dare you! Do you realize, you stupid old man, that you’d have died in the Cave of Skulls if Ian hadn’t made fire for you?
And what about what we went through against the Daleks? Not just for us, but for you and Susan too. And all because you tricked us into going down to the city.
Accuse us? You ought to go down on your hands and knees and thank us. But gratitude’s the last thing you’ll ever have, or any sort of common sense either.

But before tensions can get any higher, Susan screams: a clock in the console room looks like it is melting. Even Ian’s watch is blurry. Barbara takes off her watch and throws it away. Ian exclaims to the Doctor that he and Barbara could not be blamed for what they are seeing.

The Doctor disappears into another room for a moment, coming back with drinks for everyone. They need time to think, he says, and the drinks will help them relax and sleep. He offers one to everyone, starting with Barbara.

“I wish I could understand you, Doctor. One moment you’re abusing us, and the next, you’re playing the perfect butler.” – Ian

As the companions shuffle away to their rooms, Ian confronts the Doctor and tells him that he must apologize to Barbara. But the Doctor brushes him off. He needs time to think, he says.

Some time later, the Doctor moves from room to room in the TARDIS verifying that everyone but him is asleep. He gets ready to do something in the console room, but before he can begin a pair of hands reach out to strange him.

Who is that strangling the Doctor?
Who is that strangling the Doctor?

To be continued!

The Companions

The Doctor

“One man’s law is another man’s crime.” – The Doctor

One of the great things in this episode is the glimpses that it provides into the Doctor’s state of mind and his morality. We discover that he and Susan have been traveling for some time, having adventures even before meeting Ian and Barbara. But more importantly, we learn that he cannot go back to wherever he is from, and that he fears (or knows) that Susan wishes that they could.

To use an old Dungeons and Dragons term, we also find that the Doctor considers himself a bit “Chaotic Good”: he does not hold himself to laws and rules when he does not agree with them. This will hold true for the rest of the series.


“I never noticed the shadows before. It’s so silent in the ship.” – Susan

Susan spends much of this episode in a poor state of mind, perhaps hallucinating or like under the influence of a drug. She tries to attack both Ian and Barbara, she sneaks around the ship and hides behind the machinery to spy, and she is extremely paranoid. Towards the end of the episode, she seems to recover her composure somewhat as she apologizes to Barbara for her grandfather’s actions, but for much of this episode Susan is the most visible antagonist.

Woah. Far out. 


“You can’t blame us for this, Doctor.” – Ian

Ian is strangely absent as a key figure in this episode, with most of the strongest role being given to Barbara. We get a bit of a character glimpse as he acts very formally around “Miss Wright” when he imagines himself back at Coal Hill School, while Barbara seems to have less of a problem recognizing Ian when she is in a similar state. The best character moment for Ian is when he pushes the Doctor to apologize to Barbara, which allows the old man to open up to Ian a bit about his world view but ultimately changes nothing.


“I’ve been very patient with you, Miss Wright, and really, there’s no more time for these absurd theories.” – The Doctor

"Don't you realize that you would have died in the Cave of Skulls if Ian hadn't made fire for you?"
“Don’t you realize that you would have died in the Cave of Skulls if Ian hadn’t made fire for you?”

As I think the recap makes clear, Barbara gets all of the best parts of this episode. Her monologue against the Doctor’s suspicions is fantastic, probably my favorite quote of the series so far. She is kind and compassionate, even when half out of her head, and she shows that her true colors are very much like the ones that she wears on the surface.

Final Thoughts

It has become something of a Sci-Fi tradition to include an episode early in a show’s run that takes a group of characters and causes them to act irrationally.  Star Trek did this with the “Naked Time” (as the fourth episode) and The Next Generation did this again with the “Naked Now” (second episode). Doctor Who beat both of those shows to the punch, but also does it better: we’ve had eleven episodes to learn about how these characters tick and that makes what we see her more profound and more interesting. Star Trek would have been wise to wait as long!

I just love this episode. We get a glimpse at the psychology of our characters, we get world building around the Doctor’s background and past adventures, and we get to see how the TARDIS operates and how the groups have settled in so far. Susan and Barbara share a bedroom! Admittedly, they are all small things but knowing that our characters have rooms where they can rest and change clothes makes the journey seem more real somehow.

The paranoia and tension keeps increasing throughout the whole episode as we come to think that perhaps someone has infiltrated the ship, even takes over one of our cast members. Could it be Susan? Ian? Barbara remains our viewpoint character, so suspicion is not placed on her– but is that a false lead? Even the Doctor seems to not be above suspicion. Did he just drug all of his companions? And to what end? I do not remember how this cliffhanger ends, but boy does it have me hooked to find out what happens next.

The Good

  • The suspense is killing me! A cliffhanger done right.
  • Our most detailed view yet of the interior of the TARDIS, where everyone sleeps, and how they deal with necessities like water.
  • The Doctor seems to have drugged all of his companions! It’s a scary moment, but one that works well in the episode. You really have no idea at the end what is going to happen next.

The Bad

  • The acting is quite bad in places, especially whenever Susan tries to look wonked out, but it mostly comes across as stoned.
  • Was the pair of scissors really the only weapon Susan could find? It seems risky to go out to the console room for them again.
  • A throwaway reference to the Doctor having only one heart will set fandom on its ear someday.

I am so looking forward to seeing what happens next.

Previous episodes this season:

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