Doctor Who: The Edge of Destruction, Part Two: The Brink of Disaster

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

As the third serial of Doctor Who comes to an end, the show finally reaches something of an equilibrium. No longer are Ian and Barbara prisoners, but rather full-fledged “companions” in the modern sense of the word. If the show had not been picked up for a full season, it would have ended here: as a fun little science fiction adventure told in thirteen parts. But, as we know, what they really did with these early episodes was launch a sensation.

As the strange happenings continue on the TARDIS, our companions argue with each other until the true danger is discovered. With their collective lives in the balance, only then do they come together to save themselves. It’s a deep dive into the nature of our key relationships, both with the Doctor and with each other. The tension is high, but the ultimate resolution is surprisingly low tech. We are also left with a key but enduring mystery: is the TARDIS alive? More thoughts on this after our recap.

"The Brink of Disaster", Season 1, Episode 13. First aired February 15, 1964.
“The Brink of Disaster”, Season 1, Episode 13. First aired February 15, 1964.

The Recap

We emerge from the cliffhanger to discover that it was Ian who was attacking the Doctor! But why? Ian appears to be in a daze, practically sleep-walking. He pauses for a second and seems to wake up, only to collapse immediately to the floor. Barbara runs out of her room to beg the Doctor for help, but he deflects. He doesn’t believe anything is affecting them and in fact believes that this proves that Ian and Barbara are out to take control of the TARDIS. Even Susan is turning against them.

But Susan sees the look in the Doctor’s eyes: he is planning something. Without saying what, the Doctor tells her that there is no alternative, but she begs otherwise. She begins to remember the previous episode’s events, the headache and strange pains in the back of her neck, and argues that something strange is going on. But the Doctor does not care; he cautions her to not listen to her teachers as they are trying to divide and conquer them.

The Doctor confronts Barbara who is tending to the collapsed Ian.
The Doctor confronts Barbara while she tends to the collapsed Ian.

During all this, Ian awakens momentarily and warns them not to touch the center console before collapsing again. But the Doctor ignores him as he plans to throw them all off the ship. Susan argues that it would be a death sentence as they have no idea where they are: it could be too hot or too cold, or even without breathable air. Before the Doctor can put this plan in motion, a loud claxon rings out; it is the “danger signal” and something is very wrong.

“I’m afraid I must have misjudged you both…” – The Doctor

The Doctor runs to the fault locator and the news staggers him: everything is wrong. Every light on the fault locator is lit up at once, signaling that the TARDIS is near disintegration. The Doctor acknowledges that Ian and Barbara could never have done this kind of damage and that they must be innocent. The Doctor confesses that he had given everyone a sleeping drug, explaining both why they were all so eager to go to sleep last episode as well as Ian’s sleepwalking.

Although the extent of the problem is now understood, the Doctor does not know the source of it. They have not crash landed, nor does there appear to be a hostile force in the TARDIS itself. Barbara recalls the melting clock face and hypothesizes that it is a message of some kind because the fault locator only started to go off after they did not respond to the earlier signal. Could the TARDIS be trying to tell them something? The Doctor insists that is impossible as the ship is not alive.

“A machine that can think for itself; is that feasible doctor?” – Ian

The Doctor tells everyone his prognosis: they have only ten minutes to live. Susan panics and Barbara comforts her as flashes erupt from the control column. Ian asks if power is escaping, but the Doctor does not think that it it, even as the flash happens again a few seconds later. Susan and Barbara go to the TARDIS door to observe and report back what they see, but as soon as they are gone the Doctor reveals the truth to Ian: they actually have only five minutes to live. He did not want the women to know when the end would come, but still wants to face it bravely with Ian.

“When the end does come, they won’t know anything about it. […] Will you face it with me?”- The Doctor

Susan recoils as the TARDIS doors open to reveal a bright white nothingness.
Susan recoils as the TARDIS doors open to reveal a bright white nothingness.

The doors open and Susan and Barbara get their first look outside: nothing but empty space! A planet appears on the scanner again, but not visible out the door. It appears to get further away before a blinding flash. The Doctor realizes that the flash on the scanner is the ship refusing to destroy itself, triggering a defense mechanism that has been trying to warn its passengers ever since.

The Doctor has an eureka moment! He said earlier that it would take the total force of a solar system to destroy the TARDIS, so that is what they are in the middle of: the birth of a solar system. Dust is gathering, forming lumps, then eventually forming a sun and the planets around it. They are surrounded by all of that potential energy.

Ian asks the Doctor where he was trying to go when this all started and he admits that he was going to take them back to Earth using the “fast return switch”. Ian asks to see the switch and they make a low-tech discovery: the switch is stuck. The Doctor fixes it easily and the lights turn back on, Everything seems to return to normal and the whole group can breathe a sign of relief.

Susan reminds the Doctor that he had said some terrible things about his companions, but Ian stops him before he can apologize. Barbara is not satisfied and the Doctor tries to admit his guilt to her, remarking that it was her observations about the clocks that saved all of their lives. She remains unconvinced.

Barbara turns a cold shoulder to the Doctor.
Barbara turns a cold shoulder to the Doctor.

A short time later, the Doctor visits Barbara in her room. He tells her that they have landed on a planet and coaxes her into exploring with them. He suggests that she takes advantage of the TARDIS’s large wardrobe to find proper winter clothing. Just as they start to explore their new surroundings, Susan makes a starting discovery: a massive footprint. Could it have been made by a giant? To be continued!

The Companions

The Doctor

“I told you I’d treat you as enemies.” – The Doctor

This episode perfectly encapsulates the Doctor’s first arc, progressing from antagonistic mystery man to trusted leader in one 25-minute episode. Once again, we see the fiery and distrusting Doctor of “The Unearthly Child” in the cold way that he not only drugs all of the companions, but then plots to have them killed. And yet, once it is revealed that they are not to blame, he goes quite the opposite way. He is contrite! By coming to see his companions as trustworthy friends rather than enemies, he saves his own life and theirs as well. Nothing could better encapsulate the fundamental shift we have seen in the Doctor in these first episodes.

I especially love the Doctor’s bonding with Ian here, when he realizes that there is so little time left. In a bit of outdated misogyny, he does not tell Susan or Barbara how long they have to live– so they will not see the end come until it is too late. But with Ian, he confides in him and wants to share his last moments with him, facing their fear of death together.  It’s a beautiful little scene as no matter how close he is to his granddaughter, he cannot really show her his vulnerability.

Hugs are nice.
Hugs are nice.

Susan

“Oh, Grandfather. He doesn’t know what’s happening. I won’t let you do this.” – Susan

I fear that I am getting used to Susan’s bipolar characterization. On one hand, we have a great vision of Susan in this episode: she comes to defend Ian and Barbara when the Doctor thinks to throw them off the ship, she realizes that the faults are coming on a regular pattern, and she makes the observation that the melting clock face might be something trying to reveal that they are running out of time. And yet, we also have the screaming Susan who gets very upset when the TARDIS doors open to a deep white nothingness.

The worst aspect of Susan’s characterization is the purportedly educational scene after the Doctor discovers the fault: he has to explain to Susan, in unnecessary detail, how a spring-powered switch works and how it got stuck. Susan is, by Earth standards, a genius. Surely, she didn’t need to have a switch explained to her.

Ian

“Don’t bother to say anything, Doctor. You know there are times when I can read every thought on your face.” – Ian

If this episode has a hero, it’s Ian. He begins the episode drugged and hallucinating, but still lucid enough to warn the Doctor several times about the dangers of touching the central console. And by the end, he is the one that gives the Doctor the clue to retrace his steps and find the “fast return” switch was broken. Along the way, we get the excellent bonding between the Doctor and even the dialog tries to sell us their tighter bond: Ian doesn’t need the Doctor to apologize because he already knows that he is sorry.

Ian tries to strangle the Doctor.
Ian tries to strangle the Doctor.

But I am puzzled by Ian’s attack on the Doctor at the beginning of the episode. Yes, he was drugged at the time, but the Doctor implies that the drug would only make them sleepy and perhaps in their drowsiness cause them to reveal their true intentions. If the medicine worked like that, then yes it does appear that the show may be hinting that Ian has some ulterior motive at work. I’m going to be on the lookout for little hints like that in the future, but my suspicion is that the authors were more concerned about building a good cliffhanger rather than consistent characterization.

Barbara

“I think. I think, perhaps, we’ve been given nothing else but clues.” – Barbara

For all that Ian is the hero this episode, Barbara is owed almost as much credit. She is the one that made the connection from the melting clock and she was unafraid to confront the Doctor directly when Ian was drugged. While she still gets the job of comforting Susan whenever the writers decide that she needs to scream more, she’s actually being written quite strong overall here. She was written better in the first part of the serial, but I have to give the writers credit for not being afraid to make her the center of the show.

Final Thoughts

I’ll have more to say when I look back at the serial as a whole shortly, but these two episodes make up some of my favorites from the First Doctor era, at least of the serials that I have seen so far. This one in particular is a favorite because of where it leaves the Doctor/companion relationship. For the first time in the series, the Doctor and the others are happily leaving the TARDIS to explore an alien realm as a team.

The surprisingly well-labeled "Fast Return" switch.
The surprisingly well-labeled “Fast Return” switch.

The Good

  • The low-tech solution is at once laughable and perfect; never has such high stakes been assigned to a simple stuck button before!
  • The Doctor is able to show range, but also acceptance as he comes to understand that his companions are to be trusted.
  • After their disastrous trip to Skaro in the previous serial, the Doctor was trying to return Ian and Barbara to their own place and time. Was he having second thoughts about keeping them after they rescued him from the Daleks? And does that mean he is still planning to return to Earth at the end of this serial?
  • Ian spends the entire episode saving them all while just wearing what the British call a “dressing gown”. It’s very Arthur Dent, fifteen years early.

The Bad

  • The science here is decidedly mixed. The Doctor’s explanation for the creation of a solar system is right on, but not something that happens all at once as it is implied here.
  • The Doctor’s chauvinism when he tells Ian the truth about how long they have to live, while allowing the women to die thinking they had twice as much time as they did.
  • Susan screams again.

The cliffhanger looks interesting, but next episode will be the first of many in Doctor Who that are lost to us. Fortunately, we have the audio from all of the missing episodes thanks to fans and tape recorders and I will be covering the missing episodes in a variety of ways, depending on what is available. More on that when I get to “The Roof of the World”.

Previous episodes this season:


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