Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Serial 3: The Edge of Destruction

Doctor: William Hartnell (1st Doctor)
Companion: Susan, Barbara, Ian

Written by: David Whitaker
Directed by: Richard Martin & Frank Cox

Background & Significance: Doctor Who was under threat of cancellation.

There's only a few times you can say that about. One time is during Michael Grade's attempt to completely shut down Doctor Who starting in the late late Davison era and continuing all the way through until the show's ultimate cancellation in 1989. Another was at the end of the Troughton era, during which the show was more or less floundering creatively and underwent a massive reboot to get it into a place where it was palatable to a brand new audience.

But the first time was episodes twelve and thirteen of season one, also fondly known as "The Edge of Destruction". The BBC's initial order for Doctor Who only took them to the end of this story, so really, it was entirely possible Doctor Who would have been cancelled once it was done.

Now granted, by the time this episode aired the show was almost assuredly going to stick around for a while. "The Daleks" had done gang-busters for the show in terms of ratings and the BBC ordered more scripts and episodes immediately. There would be no interruption in the production process (remember that at this time Doctor Who was producing some forty plus episodes a year), but the production team required an extra week or so to prepare the elaborate sets for Lucarotti's forthcoming historical epic "Marco Polo", so to save on money and set construction script editor David Whitaker took matters into his own hands and wrote what's essentially a bottle episode(s) of Doctor Who set entirely on the TARDIS and featuring no one but our main cast of characters and the one character you rarely ever think of but who's around all the time...

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

It’s thrilling to not know where a story is going. Not only is it fun to try to guess what’s around the corner, but it’s also legitimately surprising whenever it takes another weird turn.

And what Whitaker is doing here is really conducive to a two-part story. Granted, there’s no way we’d know watching this for the first time that it was two episodes long. Hell, there’s no real distinction at this point that there’s even “stories”. It’s just an extended, never-ending serial of adventures with each episode ending in a place where you want to tune in next week. It’s a novelty that I’m sad the show more-or-less lost as it went on, but sustaining that continuity would’ve ended up eventually cumbersome and less-good in the long run. And allowing individual stories really just gives Doctor Who long episodes and plenty of jumping on points, so I can’t complain.

But that’s the way to watch this story, I think, because this is one of those stories most hurt by knowledge of the future and what’s going on, or at least a more informed knowledge about these characters. That’s not to say there aren’t any surprises if you do know the characters, I just mean that it really hurts the long run to think about how The Doctor isn’t really some evil, nefarious schemer guy or that Ian wouldn’t sabotage the TARDIS (which, to be fair, does seem outside his scope of knowledge/interest even at this stage). This is the first TARDIS crew, and one that will end up supporting each other to the bitter bitter ends. It’s a good team built on trust and care. The Doctor might not care about these people yet, but he most certainly will and greatly, and not too far down the road from where we are here.

No, the truly surprising thing here is Susan and the way that she seems to completely lose her god damn mind.

What makes it fantastic is seeing just how much it dials into the fact that we know very little about Susan and how much Susan (despite being inherently problematic) really would be a gangbusters of a character if she were to come around today. As we see here, there’s something dangerous about her and Carol Anne Ford really plays that up for all its worth. Everything involving her and the scissors is enough to set even the most even-tempered fan on edge. She’s out of control, almost rabid and nothing anyone seems to say or do is able to stop her. There’s the notion that something got into the ship early on and that maybe it’s possessing them and the clear suspect is Susan because she’s vaguely homicidal here and it’s just so… dangerous. Imagine that storyline playing out today: the quiet companion going mad and total serial killer in a locked-down TARDIS. Someone go write that.

There’s other weirdness, though. There’s the bit where we see the melting clock (which is not well shot, I think; we have to be told what it is, but that it horrifies Barbara is telling) or the fact that the TARDIS doors keep opening and closing or that even touching the console can knock you out of commission (or worse, make you a homicidial maniac). It all plays into this notion that the TARDIS has become this nightmare of a place and that nothing is safe. This place, which for the past two stories has been a goal of sanity and respite for our characters has been turned against us. And why? Hell, even the TARDIS’s ostensible master The Doctor has completely lost control of the situation, which leaves us… where exactly?

The effect, I think, is enhanced by Richard Martin’s direction. It’s a little shaky in places (weird camera bumps and the like), but it really goes for wide, wide master shots. Characters stand far apart if they’re even in the same shot together at all.

This use of space is really jarring and clever to represent the emotional chasm between these four characters who (at least in some way) still haven’t quite come together as the team you might expect them to be. And this is who they are when they are at “home”. Out there in the fantastic beyond the doors they come together as the team, but this inherent fracture is not something that can be sustained moving forward. They gotta figure out a way to come together, lest this lack of trust completely destroy any chance they have of surviving in whatever adventure is coming up next week. I mean, even seeing The Doctor alone in his own wide shot is shockingly stark in ways you can’t even imagine. It makes The Doctor look small amidst this massive ship of his.

So I love this. A lot. It’s really masterfully done. I love watching our heroes try to suss out the problems while deeply distrusting each other. There’s not even a main character here. It’s all an ensemble chamber piece and it’s as captivating as anything else. The mystery is engrossing and indecipherable at this point (for a number of reasons) and the thing is at times shot and paced like a thriller because we have no idea what’s going on. It’s just a bizarre twenty five minutes that’s about as good as anything you can imagine. There’s nothing not to like and I love just about everything about it because it just…. It’s so ballsy. It’s really unlike anything else. Really.

Part 2:

So if you thought the first episode was confusing I can’t imagine what you musta thought of this episode.

This story is, of course, written by David Whitaker, and the thing I love about David Whitaker is how impossibly ambitious he is. We see it in something like “Evil of the Daleks” or even “The Crusade” where he’s constantly shoving Doctor Who into new and interesting directions. Hell, we talked about him just two weeks ago. But this is him really pushing the show into new and interesting territory. Hell, he’s changing the entire game of the show and before the show’s even through its initial thirteen episode order. It’s complete madness.

I mean, the premise of this story is that the TARDIS is broken and is trying to get the attention of her occupants so they can fix her and set her right.

Think about that. That’s completely nutty. The Doctor’s spaceship is alive. And sure, it’s easy to digest now, especially after “The Doctor’s Wife” made concept reality. But it’s kind of a mind bending thing to deal with, and it even takes the TARDIS crew a few minutes to figure the whole thing out. And Whitaker even gives us a play in real time as they suss out what’s happening. From the start of the episode until The Doctor unsticks the fast return switch (or maybe it’s even a bit later) is all one big unbroken scene and it’s remarkably engaging even though it’s not ever really clear what the hell’s going on. You can always tell there’s a lot of explaining going on when multiple characters keep going “of course!” every few minutes and the “of course” features leaps in logic.

The idea behind this, of course, is that Barbara is the one who’s instrumental in conveying The TARDIS’s message that something is clearly wrong.

What’s wrong is the fast return switch. A spring came loose and the TARDIS is essentially fast returning back to all of its previous destinations and getting dangerously close to the beginning of time, which is where it started from. And okay… First of all? Fast return switch is remarkably clever and awesome on Whitaker’s part and that it’s stuck is a fantastic use for it. I also love that the solution is remarkably simple: things aren’t connecting the way they should. The trust between these four people is not nearly where it needs to be for their relationship to be okay and then… suddenly, something snaps into place and while things aren’t perfect they can at least move onto something else and the healing process can begin.

As to how all this gets figured out, I’m at a total loss. I don’t quite understand how melting a clock would get someone like Barbara to “think about time.” Personally, it’d make me worried that the clock was melting. Same with the doors opening and closing.

And yet there is communication and it gets everything settled. But it’s weird. Really weird. There’s nothing like watching The Doctor backed up against the console giving that monologue about the formation of a solar system and how fantastic that is to him. It’s scary and beautiful all at the same time. But it’s quintessentially Doctor, isn’t it? This is a young guy thirsty for experiences like that and it shows. The hunger in Hartnell’s eyes is why he’s totally underrated as The Doctor and the way he bounces from serious to cheery when explaining that they only have five minutes is really, really excellent.

I gotta say, though. It’s really beautiful to see The Doctor apologize to Barbara at the end and him offering his arm to her in the final minutes is one of the most elegant things I’ve seen on the show. It’s quiet and touching and really the first time that The Doctor shows true compassion to someone.

That’s what I love about this: it’s really just a character piece about The Doctor learning to trust the people around him and how important that trust is moving forward. The Doctor denied that The TARDIS was a living, thinking machine, but with the help of his friends he figured it out and learned something about himself. And the fluffiness of the last few minutes of this is so damn delightful and cathartic. It’s nice to see the crew take a few minutes to themselves between adventures. It’s moments like this that I treasure on the show and what I miss from the Moffat era in general.

But it’s here and Whitaker does it in two episodes. It’s awesome.

Final Thoughts?: It's one of the gems of the Hartnell era and his first season in particular.

Really, what it comes down to is that it's so... unique, even by Doctor Who standards. It dials into the promise of the premise of Doctor Who: that this show can be and do anything.

And there's a reason why to this day they've never attempted something like this again. I mean, we'll see something similar next week, but that's only for the first episode. This is a story completely set in the TARDIS and revolving around The Doctor, his companions, and his trusty spaceship. And everything about this is magical. It's magical in both form and content. The TARDIS has never felt more like a living and breathing and strange place, before or since, really. The characters pop here in a way they really can't do later. And unlike the rest of the Doctor Who stories, Whitaker doesn't get to lean against a guest cast or crazy sets. It's very pure, very boiled down, and very personal.

I love it. Clearly.

And it's really just... everything I want out of Doctor Who. It's exciting, it's insightful. It's got a great plot. This crew is never better than it is here. As good, perhaps, but never better. And Whitaker's script is sharp and impossibly ambitious. It takes us across the universe and through time and space, to the very edge of destruction of the TARDIS herself and pulls us back. It's got slasher motifs that never come back (Susan takes the pair of scissors for no reason) and beautiful monologues. Richard Martin shoots the hell out of the first episode and Frank Cox really nails the character stuff in the second one. It's really beautiful and one of the best two parters in the entire Classic series. Sure, the bar is low, but god dammit is it fantastic. There's nothing like bizarre and ambitious Doctor Who. Nothing. And it's a high that the show never attempted to hit again.

I'm over the moon it holds up and it definitely goes on the short list of great Hartnell stories.

Next Time!: 2nd Doctor! Fake Jamie! Ticker tape! Toy Soldiers! Sword fights! Medusa! And The Master? Its our last regular entry before our victory lap tour of each Doctor in turn so let's go out with a real, real bang! "The Mind Robber!" Coming Next Tuesday!

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