“As we learn about each other, so too do we learn about ourselves” – The Doctor
The Edge of Destruction is one of those stories that I knew as a Target novelization long before I ever saw the actual episode. It also happened to be one of my top favorites that I read over and over again. Why? I think for the same reasons that I can say I enjoy the actual transmitted episode as well since the novelization closely followed both the dialogue and the general feeling of the broadcast episode:
First and foremost, the story is an excellent vehicle of characterization. It’s mainly nothing but dialogue in a tense environment and this drama plays out well in both what is said and how it is delivered. Stressful situations bring out some of the worst and best in everyone and this is demonstrated here. The Doctor’s mistrust and irritability reach epic proportions and yet it’s exactly why it finally can be dealt with. Ian and Barbara struggle valiantly to figure out what is going on and not overreact themselves. Barbara especially shines here as her indignation at the mistrust of the Doctor leads to her wonderfully climactic line “How dare you! Do you realize, you stupid old man, that you would have died in the cave of skulls if Ian hadn’t made fire for you?….Accuse us!? You ought to go down or your hands and knees and thank us!” Airing it all out seems to help in the end. It works so well as a bridge from them being a group of unwilling co-travelers to a functioning team that we see in future episodes that it’s amazing to think that this story was not originally planned.
Second, the entire story has a steady aura of dread and mystery. It’s not at all clear what’s happening, and the underlying fear of unknown forces or traitorous actions and their seemingly unstoppable fate builds tension well. There is a great ebb and tide to the tension in the story as well, each character taking turns to calm things down before the next point of contention arises. And the little clues and odd bits that the group has to start to put together not only move the story but really make one wonder what is going on.
Thirdly, the episode is filled with some interesting hard science fiction elements and explorations. There are discussions about (and palpable fear of) the power source of the machine, postulations on unseen entities, discussion of the formation of the galaxies. Above all, the idea of the role of the TARDIS trying to save itself and its passengers is a phenomenal addition. I think many casual fans of the modern version of the show would be surprised that the idea of the TARDIS as a “living machine” goes all the way back to such an early episode of the program. All these sci-fi elements lend an air of big ideas to what is really a very small story and make me enjoy this episode.
There are a lot of little things throughout the story that are great. From the very start after the opening accident, we find everyone acting a bit ‘off’ and the confusion adds to our unease. Barbara doesn’t know where she is, Ian speaks very stilted and childlike, muttering of the unconscious Doctor reveals some of his deepest anxieties (“I can’t get you back Susan I can’t) and Susan—well, Susan goes completely off her head, like a child with a fragile mind that has snapped. Her seemingly possessed mannerisms make the change scary and eerie. Even though it isn’t explicitly mentioned in the story, it makes sense that Susan would be especially affected this way since she is the one who would eventually be shown to have some psychic sensibilities. The fact that the crew are knocked out, disoriented, and feel headaches without any visible trauma shows that the they are being bombarded on a mental level not just a physical one.
The story toys with us a bit at this point—there are lots of lines hinting that it may be about possession and dark forces. (“There’s something here—inside the ship you feel it don’t you?” “I never noticed the shadows before. It’s so silent inside the ship” “Where would it hide?’–‘In one of us.”). We realize these were red herrings as the story continues but not just for the viewer—the characters also go through the stages of trying to figure out if these things are true which again helps build the suspense. As the story boils down to a clearer picture that they are in danger from outside physical forces, it picks up pace in the sense of a countdown. The constant bright flash of lights and deep ring at each small step towards understanding pushes towards the end. That is why the last second crescendo of the Doctor’s shadowed soliloquy of realization (“I know! I know!!”) when he figures out the danger they face is such a nice scene.
I could go on for some time more about how much the story is about building the relationship of the TARDIS crew. That’s why I’m not bothered by the rather implausibly simplistic explanation of a stuck switch having caused the issue. It could just as easily have been written as some technobabble gadget having failed and it wouldn’t alter the arc of the story at all. That the group dynamic is key to the whole story is shown by the two closing scenes—first the Doctor’s stilted (and initially unaccepted) apology to Barbara to show his sea change in character and the coda of them obviously coming to terms with each other and stepping out to new adventures and symbolically to a new relationships.
Best unsettling moments:
This story is chock full of them as such a story should be: The weird way everyone acts. Every ring of the bell and shake of the TARDIS at their discussion of danger. Susan’s attacks with the scissors are the most troubling—even better the second time when we realize Barbara has known all along that Susan was hiding them and was using her experience and insight as a school teacher to coolly talk her down.
- It’s alive! (The TARDIS as an entity)
- The power under the console
- The cloister bell (sort of—let’s say the danger signal is the ancestor of it)
I do wish the key scene with the melted ormolu clock and watch faces could have been as effective on screen as it was in my reading imagination. It isn’t as clear what Barbara is reacting to without that but she definitely sells that it supposed to be something horrifying. The explanation of the pen light switch (supposedly to help kids make sense of an unclear concept) is so clunky and belabored compared to the great rest of the dialogue around it that it’s almost embarrassing (and was thus entirely left out of the novelization.)