‘The Edge of Destruction’, first broadcast in February 1964, is a curiosity. This is partly because David Whitaker, the script-writer, appears to be confused as to what he was trying to achieve, and partly because the story was a two-part ‘filler’ to make the original series up to thirteen episodes, and, hard though it might be to believe with hindsight, there was a question as to whether Doctor Who would be renewed for a second series.
But there’s also another reason, perhaps not in anyone’s awareness at the time, linked to the very nature of the writing and story dynamics and what was happening in these early days of the show.
Most of the screen time is taken up with the various characters - the Doctor, his granddaughter Susan, teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright - wandering around aimlessly, apparently lost in some kind of paranoid delusion. In the late 1980s, this kind of thing took place all the time in various settings as stories degenerated into confused messes, but with this being only the third story in the series as a whole, we have to assume that there was a little more conscious knowledge on the part of the writer and director that what they were doing had some purpose and meaning.
At the start of the story, the Tardis control room suddenly lurches, everyone falls unconscious and awakes in confusion with amnesia and temporary insanity. Barbara calls Ian ‘Mr. Chesterton’ despite having called him Ian many times in the past; Ian is perpetually dazed; Susan is panicky and loud; the Tardis’ outer doors enigmatically open on their own, odd pictures appear on the scanner and the console becomes electrified. Susan insists that there’s something inside the ship with them and threatens Ian with a pair of scissors; the Doctor receives a mysterious knock to the back of his head, blurring his vision and his judgement. Though the Tardis has an in-built fault locator, it itself appears to be broken.
At the end of the first episode, for no apparent reason Ian attempts to strangle the Doctor, who has been very suspicious of the teachers and their motives. This is despite his own kidnapping of them, and later in the story his threat to kill them by throwing them out of the ship.
The problem is that, because things are so confused, it’s not really possible to tell to what degree the characters are being influenced by some kind of external power. Russell T. Davies modern episode ‘Midnight’ had a similar scenario - a small group of individuals are trapped in a confined space with an unknown and invisible assailant who gradually takes over their minds, even that of the Doctor (played at that time by David Tennant). But in ‘The Edge of Destruction’ we have hardly had time to get to establish what is going on and the script itself seems a little out of control.
Barbara eventually reminds the Doctor how often she and Ian have saved his life, and things begin to head for reconciliation. And this is the key point, perhaps not consciously perceived at that time but following on from what has already been established in the previous story, ‘The Daleks’: the characters’ roles within the show were shifting.
As written about previously, the Doctor was, in the initial serial and in the early events of ‘The Daleks’, shaping up to be the programme's antagonist - he had kidnapped Ian and Barbara and had sabotaged the Tardis to set in motion the events of the earlier tale. Ian, as the ‘all-round hero’, was lining up to be the programme’s protagonist, accompanied by female companion Barbara. The psychological drama amongst the inhabitants of the Tardis, as we feel particularly in ‘An Unearthly Child’, had to subtly change now that there was an external power, though as yet seen only once, which outranked the threat from the Doctor himself: with the advent of the Daleks, the perfect antagonists, roles had to be re-aligned.
This re-alignment is what we see taking place in ‘The Edge of Destruction’. Hartnell’s Doctor, proud and arrogant, vulnerable and inexperienced, with part of the essence of his character captured by accident in Hartnell’s flubbed lines, had to become an ally of and friend to the teachers he had kidnapped. The First Doctor does not suddenly become entirely benign, but in this story we see the darkness that could have led to an ongoing malignity being punctured. This is the first step towards the Doctor becoming the protagonist, a role he grows into and then maintains over the next fifty years.
What was actually going on aboard the Tardis? Barbara intuitively gives us an ‘answer’ which makes no logical sense: ‘we had time taken away from us, and now it's being given back to us because it's running out’. What it means is that the Tardis, whose fault locator is itself faulty, has been trying to warn the crew about its perilous situation, hurtling towards destruction at the birth of the solar system. In doing this by affecting the crew’s mental state, it displays a certain amount of illogic and insanity itself, not to mention sentience and telepathic ability, but those qualities also help to give it a strange humanity, a subtle and hardly ever explicit quality which will pervade the series for the next five decades.
Despite the clues that we are given - Ian saying that the controls are ‘alive’, Susan sensing a ‘presence’ on board - the Doctor himself at this point is ‘out of tune’ with his ship, refusing to believe that it has telepathically influenced anyone: ‘It? It? What do you mean? My machine can't think.’ This is another indicator of a ‘beneath the surface’ transformation that is occurring in story archetypes: if the Doctor is beginning a journey towards being the protagonist, in order to remain balanced and archetypal strong, the story as a whole will need the all-knowing character usually portrayed in fiction as an old man with a stick.
This archetype takes on the role in most stories of pointing out the biggest problem, the plot-driving issue which is at the heart of any successful story’s events. In other tales, we have Gandalf, or Dumbledore, or Merlin or Obi-Wan Kenobi. We have, in Doctor Who, in many ways, as we shall see, the Doctor himself. But if he is to be also the central ‘hero’, then the overall tale of Doctor Who needs another shadowy figure who can point characters and events at the right target. In this case, it is the ship itself taking on that function. From this point on, it's possible to see the Tardis - as the device which always 'points' the characters at the events which formulate any story - as the show's archetypal 'old man with a stick'.
So although on the surface ‘The Edge of Destruction’ seems a little messy and incoherent, and although the superficial causes of that were scriptwriter uncertainty and a rushed schedule, the underlying story dynamics show that the show was finding its feet: foundations which were to last half a century and more, so solid and archetypal they turned out to be.