Saturday 5 October 2019


(aka 'To Boldly Go Absolutely Bloody Nowhere')
Written by David Whitaker
First broadcast February 1964
Plot spoilers reside within

Intro: This new series of classic ’Doctor Who’ reviews is timed to cunningly coincide with the twelfth anniversary of Lucid Frenzy. It would start from the get-go. But due to time and space anomalies I have already blogged about ‘An Unearthly Child’ and ‘The Daleks’, so we skip straight to...

”You’ve been behaving very strangely!”
Susan, you could say that again

The Brink of Cancellation

As I may have mentioned before, one of the prize possessions of my childhood was the Radio Times’ ’Doctor Who Tenth Anniversary Special.’ As quickly as my clumsy thumbs affixed their prints to it, my young mind recognised what was clearly a sacred historical document.

Before video releases, before even the Target novelisations, this was your only window onto a lost world of previously transmitted episodes. And inaccessibility, as any fule kno, was a cast-iron guarantee of quality. This was a map of lost treasures where every square was surely filled with a promissory X.

...except two things confused me. Try as I might, there were two storylines I simply could not picture in my petit cranium. We will get to the second soon enough. But the first was the third ever ’Who’ tale, the two-part ‘Edge of Destruction’. The Tardis crew visit... nowhere at all? They think they may have been infected by an alien consciousness, then it turns out they haven’t. Phew, that was a close one, eh? I was not as yet familiar with the acronym WTF. But I did know that wet breaks at my school passed in a similarly uneventful way, and were chiefly marked by those involved wishing they were over.

As it always did whenever confronted by something it didn’t understand, my child brain concluded this must be something clever and grown-up. I’d return and re-read the entry, trying to make sense of it anew each time I was a few months older. It still sounded dumb. Which must mean it was very smart.

In retrospect it occurs that I may have been looking in the wrong place. My young mind assumed the show came to us from some heightened Platonic realm of unparalleled invention. After further consideration (and I hope I’m not spoiling things for anyone here) I have come to the conclusion that we are actually talking about a BBC TV show produced on the cheap and in a hurry. No sets but the Tardis itself? No actors but the regular crew? Need a clue? Try imagining the rustling of cash. Then not.

Most people will be familiar with the term ’bottle episode’. But there’s an extra twist. These usually scrimp on budget to spend the money elsewhere, such as an explosive finale. Here the BBC were just saving money! The two episodes are called ’The Edge of Destruction’ and ’The Brink of Disaster’, but they should really be called ’The Threat of Cancellation.’ 

Hilarious but true, plummy voices from higher up were then suggesting the show was spending too much on shoestring and cardboard and needed reining in. Two episodes were still to be made on the original production deal, so it was agreed they could go ahead (with those onerous restrictions) while the argument was resolved. David Whitaker then went home and wrote it over a weekend.

With no guest stars allowed, Whitaker’s conceit is to suggest an invisible one. The crew wake up after a crash (set up in the previous cliffhanger), with the Tardis not working. Through a process not necessarily involving logic, they contend that an alien intelligence may have stowed on board and is manipulating them. With hilarious consequences. Well, with consequences. Well, sort of. Okay, not really.

It should be said that bottle stories are not necessarily a bad thing. The New Who episode ’Midnight’ (rated by many, including me) is not just a bottle story, but one with a very similar set-up. And a great many stage plays are effectively bottle stories, simply because they may as well make a virtue of their limitations. They're like lab experiments. Stick the animals in an enclosed space, then introduce controlled ingredients.

In addition, genre fiction is often based around a ‘safe house’, akin to home base in games and sport – Sherwood Forest, Liang Shan Po, The Fortress of Solitude and so on. To temporarily take away that ‘safeness’ once it has been so established, that can be effective. (Though of course we probably have a stronger sense of the Tardis’ impregnability than contemporary audiences would, at this early point.)

And others have thought to combine this defamiliarising of home with the budget gains of a bottle episode. ‘Star Trek’ did it at least twice, and in fairly short succession, with ’Wink of an Eye’ (1968) and ’The Mark of Gideon’ (1969).

”Everybody's Havin' Them Dreams”

The story starts with the crew waking, but it’s like they're still asleep and having a collective nightmare. The Tardis becomes one of those places in dreams, ostensibly familiar but now rendered inexplicably sinister. (“I’ve never noticed the shadows before.”) They take on a stilted, intonatory way of talking, which suggests at both psychological disassociation and bad acting though not necessarily in that order. Dialogue is weird on about every level. (“He’s cut his head open.” “I’ll get some ointment.”)

As things turn out they had overshot the present and were going past the start of time. And the Tardis is tipping them off to the danger via visual prompts, mostly on the monitor but with one actual hallucination. (Not quite sure how it manages that one, but anyway...) So as the Tardis turn out to be the invisible presence they perceive, presumably its also the cause of their paranoia. So perhaps its indirect and unorthodox attempts to tip them off inadvertently induce a panic reaction. Except it doesn't really go into warning mode until after its been established everyone's gone doolally.

The Doctor gets a bump on the head. It needs bandaging, acting as a handy reminder the crash happened. But maybe having been in the same crash they all got identical bumps on their heads, inducing the same reaction. Fictional knocks on the head have caused people to turn evil or good, remember or forget things, manifest superpowers and wake up hundreds of years in the future. Quite possibly all of the above at the same time. But believing an alien spirit has possessed your mates.... then timesed by four... that’s a bit of a new one.

One possibility is that Whitaker went bonkers under the pressure of writing it, and got his own madness down on paper. Certainly the formula seems to be a variant on the formula 'crisis creates opportunity' where ‘problems equal material'. The untransmitted ‘pilot episode’ had been partly marred by the Tardis doors opening and closing of their own accord. That gets written into the script here.

We flirted earlier with the meta notion that the invisible menace is actually the show’s own cancellation. Which is not necessarily the media studies suggestion it sounds. As this completes the show's originally allocated thirteen week production block, falling off the edge of time becomes like running out of airtime, like driving off the page. At the storyline’s end time effectively starts over.

But with the persistent white flashes and references to time “running out”, if you wanted you could also see it as some parable about anxieties over the (then highly contemporary) Bomb. Which threatened the end of history, if not time.

Or it could be they're aping some Euro art movie. While the Doctor and Ian insist on the literal reading you’d expect of an SF show its Barbara, the arts teacher, who's the only one who interprets the Tardis' frantic messages as symbols. As the Doctor says to her “you read a story into these things”. Admittedly, not one that makes much sense. But then neither did Antonioni and he won awards.

But perhaps the closest comparison didn't arrive until later. Of course it's possible to play compare and contrast endlessly between 'Doctor Who' and 'The Avengers', but there's a bigger-than-usual overlap between 'Edge' and 'The Hour That Never Was' (below) - broadcast some eighteen months later. There's the same unsettling piercing noise, the same accident, the same waking up in some other-place resembling ours and yet not. (One where people are missing leaving an unsettlingly empty space, the other where relations between characters are essentially erased.) There's the same motif of the stopped clocks, played up by 'The Avengers' into the episode title. Set in an RAF base, the piercing noise in 'Hour' cannot help but resemble a siren alarm – which might seem to take us back to Bomb anxieties.

But it's more likely they're riffing on themes the culture of the day associated with more blatant Bomb paranoia but really ran deeper. As Bob Dylan put it in his 1963 number ’Talkin’ World War III Blues’, itself a somewhat sardonic example of the trend - “now it seems everybody’s having them dreams”.

In short we have an overlap rather than a match. Both stories suggest, crudely speaking, that the condition of modern living consigns us to Limbo - an edgeworld defined simultaneously by entrapment and absence. (Theological types please be advised I’m going from the colloquial sense of the term rather than the doctrinal definition.) It ostensibly resembles our world only to emphasise they way what is lost is so intangible and so essential. Stopped time is a frequent signifier of Limbo.

It’s not the bomb that threatens us, it’s modernity itself. If the Tardis had gone outside time, then perhaps so had the world the show was broadcast to. Everything that made the Sixties dynamic and exciting also made them uncertain, as if the links of social solidarity which had once moored us were now snapped and we were left adrift.

This sense of the past as ‘real life’, as connectedness, as a state we’ve since fallen outside of, is stronger in ’Hour’. Steed has served with the missing pilots in this RAF base, and tells endless anecdotes about their times together. A scene of the empty, Marie Celeste-like mess hall is succeeded by one where it's inexplicably back to bustling with bushy mustaches, beer and good cheer. But its at least implicit in ’Edge’, with its recurring references to past adventures.

Is this starting to sound like existentialism yet? (As in “a philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe.”) Its not something which started with the Sixties, of course, but the decade saw a spike of interest. Of course “interest” often meant no more than wearing moody black and smoking continentally, while trying to look like you were contemplating your own death, preferably in French. Think of Bowie's 'Join The Gang' from '67: “Johnny plays the sitar/ He's an existentialist”. Nevertheless, there had to be some fire beneath all that artistically blown cigarette smoke.

And 'Edge' often feels like a highly earnest existentialist drama, Sartre’s ’No Way Out’ (1944, below) performed by a mixture of Sixth formers overdosing on Quaaludes and old folks plucked from a retirement home who do not necessarily know they’re in a play. If we're not boldly going somewhere new, that's because we're being asked if we really know where we already are and the people we're with.

Though ostensibly set in Hell, ’No Way Out’ features many elements of Limbo, not least the hotel setting – transient, yet for the characters within the play eternal. They express surprise that this is not the setting they were expecting, the Medieval illustration Hell of pitchforks, fiery pits and triumphalist red dudes.

It should perhaps be conceded that 'Edge' is not a modernist drama which invites comparison to Sartre. In fact 'Hour That Never Was' is a whole lot better, now I come to think about it. However, if it is not always highly thought of, it should be acknowledged there are some genuinely good moments. When, confronted by the apparition of the broken clock (below), a disturbed Barbara throws off her own watch. It's genuinely reminiscent of the reapplied lipstick scene in the surrealist classic ’Un Chien Andalou’ (below below). And Susan is given the most to do since the first episode. Though the once well-behaved schoolgirl has now become a scissors-waving delinquent. (There were, I kid not, complaints to the BBC.)

But overall this bottle episode is as half-empty as half-full. Besides, it is essentially smashed a little way into the second episode when they twig there is no invisible menace. The story has effective been the steeped aura of paranoia. With that let out, there is nothing left at all. The second episode should really be called ’The Middle of Bugger All’. Things then meander along until the actual problem with the Tardis is discovered. (I won’t reveal it here, not to avoid a plot spoiler but because if you don’t know it already you’ll never believe it could be that banal.)

Yet you don’t really get the measure of the thing by lining its successes up against it’s failings. As we'll see, Hartnell stories run the gamut. Some are genuinely good, others pitiably bad. Yet others are so blasted odd, so full of deranged conviction, you have to respect them even if you’re not sure you like them. The original production notes coined the term 'sideways', for stories neither going back nor forward in time. But it's also a handy tag for the otherwise uncategorisable. And the first outbreak of sidewaysness is right here.

Together For the First Time fact, it’s the first of a fair few things. For a two-part filler, written for a show that could well have then been cancelled, this might seem counter-intuitive. Then again it was written by script editor, and effectively what we’d now call show-runner, David Whitaker. Even if the show risked cancellation, he had a space to fill and may as well fill it with something.

This means that, whatever you think of the description above, if you are interested in the development of the show you cannot skip this storyline! (Apologies to those now going as white as the Tardis monitor.)

Most significantly, Whitaker closes down one theme and opens up another. Which is the moment of untruth to my facetious comment that the episode lacks any kind of resolution. It undoubtedly wants for a proper ending, in plot terms. But the consequences - we are still living through them now. Even after ’The Daleks’ Ian and Barbara are still the central characters, thrust aboard the Tardis by happenstance not choice. As Barbara not unreasonably points out to the Doctor, it’s mostly been them rescuing him.

Here, though Barbara suggests the idea of the alien presence, it is the Doctor who takes and pins it on her and Ian. (He suggests they’re trying to blackmail him, despite this making no kind of sense. But as I might have said...) They become, like the injured caveman in ’Tribe of Rada’, an obstruction which he threatens to throw off the ship whatever the danger.

But of course while a strange Doctor is a good long-term plot enabler, an antagonistic one is not. We have already seen a kind of retreat from this. When the first episode was re-shot (albeit for technical reasons), the chance was taken to moderate Hartnell’s character. (We are now so familiar with this then-untransmitted ‘pilot episode’, it is impossible not to write it into his arc.)

Here the matter is brought to a head in order to lance the boil. In fact it's almost like a direct sequel to 'Unearthly Child', which ends with Ian struck unconscious and Barbara asleep. As things resolve, the Doctor gives Barbara a kind of Mel Gibson version of an apology. (He effectively says “my baseless attempt to kill you has given us all a chance to reflect and see life anew”.) 

He is still an irascible traveller, the cosmic writer of wrongs yet to come. Ian and Barbara remain the chief characters. But they have become a kind of honorary family unit. If this had a ’Friends’ title it would be ’The One Where Matters Are Brought to a Head, Until There’s the Nearest English Thing to a Group Hug.’ He even ends the episode by referring to a celebrity historical encounter, with Gilbert and Sullivan. I think this may well be the first of these.

We should also look at the function of continuity itself. At this point the crew would often remind each other (and, more likely, us) of previous storylines. (“Remember when I became a pagan God?” “Rather! That was a weekend and a half!”)

But normally these are illustrational, passing references. Here Barbara telling the Doctor that they have saved his fool life has a direct impact on the storyline. Again, this is in part forced on Whitaker by constraints. We need to be reminded of the background they are arguing about, and besides we need to be reminded of past actions because so little is happening right now! Yet, forced as it may be, it’s still significant.

There’s also some faux-continuity, as the ship’s memory bank shows us things the Doctor and Susan did before they were aboard. This of course minimises his role as an antagonist. But it also makes the series, like the Tardis, appear bigger on the inside. Which is to say, there has to appear more of it than there actually is. Today, steeped in countless spin-offs and fan fic, with lost episodes we can only imagine, this seems intrinsic. But at the time it was a TV show of which very few episodes had already been made. And it already appears to have some kind of virtual life, of which us TV viewers only get glimpses.

Introducing the Tardis

And more importantly, and of course most beloved to fans, for the first time the Tardis is revealed to be sentient. Okay, let’s not get carried away. As we’ve seen Whitaker’s only recourse to guest stars was to employ invisible non-acting ones. After feigning an invisible foe, he has to explain the weird stuff somehow – so we find an invisible friend. Had an episode of ’Holmes and Watson’ been subject to such circumstances, the French dresser in their flat might well have come to life.

Whitaker persistently referred to this storyline as ’Inside the Spaceship’, disappointingly suggesting he saw the Tardis as just a spaceship after all. Yet let’s remind ourselves of Ian’s comment on first sight of the blue box – “it's alive!” (Of course the Doctor seems unaware that it’s sentient despite later explanations that Tardises are “grown”. The most likely explanation for this is that they were making things up as they went along.)

We also should remind ourselves that, just like a later core concept revealed in ’The Time Meddler’ (all to come), this would prove to be a great idea in the right hands – and an equally ruinous one in the wrong ones.

What actually is it that's significant here? Sentient machines are of course a staple of children’s fiction, but they normally think in terms of their programming. Cars will say “would you like me to drive you somewhere today, huh, boss?” Doors will luxuriate in opening, sometimes annoying robots. 

I commented earlier how the show's initial scenario was quite similar to 'Lost In Space', with the untrustworthy Doctor as Zachary Smith. The main two differences being that Susan's related to him instead of Ian and Barbara (itself something of a last-minute decision) and (some way before K9) there's no equivalent to the Robot. Yet here the Tardis performs the Robot's most basic functions, the equivalent of flailing it's arms and shouting “danger, old bloke and schoolteachers, danger!”

But these comparisons merely highlight what's so idiosyncratic about the Tardis, how its somehow more than a machine programmed to think. It communicates, after all, not by info-screens but by symbols and hallucinations. This characteristic may be accentuated for us, who navigate a couple of dozen dialogue boxes in a day. (“You are about to fall off the edge of time. You will die and therefore not be able to undo this action. Click 'OK' if you still want to proceed.”) But it would have been there for contemporary audiences too.

Because more important than the sentience is the personality - it seems as strange and eccentric in its ways as the Doctor is in his. Whikater's novelisation of the later story 'The Crusaders' (to come) features Vicki (also to come) “staring fascinated at the lights that flashed and the wheels that spun, a constant source of never-ending delight to her”.

At this stage the Doctor and Susan are not runaways but lost. And the presumption seems to be that the Doctor built this ship, so not only is it imbued with his strange inscrutability and funny foibles, but they are also in some semi-symbiotic relationship. The lights that flashed and wheels that spun are Vicki's externalised perception of his mind. All of which would be played up in future episodes. While simultaneously undercut by that banal denouement where it's not just a mechanism after all but one made of the cheapest and most shoddy parts and the (later) news he stole the Tardis and (later still) the risibly pedestrian notion that he nicked it from a parking lot of the things.

'Edge' could not honestly be called an unqualified success. But given its awkward genesis, its is probably better than it had any right to be. As I might have already mentioned, it doesn’t really make much sense. (I did remember to mention that, didn't I? I meant to mention that it doesn't make much sense.) But the first episode at least has genuine atmosphere. And there’s a strange paradox to it. It’s a product of a singular necessity, a strange one-off, a curve ball. But it’s also the bridge between a semi-shapeless prototype and the show we know.

Further Reading: David Layton takes a Jungian approach:

“The split personality results from the trauma of this experience, which can be assuaged by the unified personality’s resolution of the conflict…. the TARDIS in this story becomes the 'head' in which the four aspects of the personality enact a psychodrama…. The Doctor and his companion, whoever she may be or however many there may be, are one person.”

(The entire article isn't on 'Edge' but it makes for one of the earliest and more convincing examples of his theory.)

A general plea! Should you like what you read, please tell someone. I am entirely dependent on word of mouth. And by a similar token, ’Who’ reviews a long time ago became exigencies; it’s as much about what I think of what you thought as what I thought of the show. So if you spot someone you think I should be reading but don’t seem to, please let me know.

Coming soon! Gig-going exploits for a week or two, then back to the classic Doctor...


  1. Loved this. Thank you so much for writing it. I have tweeted it, and will link the next time I blog about Doctor Who.

    1. Thanks Mike! Glad you liked it. I was a bit worried about starting the series on a less-than-fan-favourite episode, but needs must.

    2. Here is the promised promo spot on my blog. I hope it brings you some of the visitors your writing so richly deserves!

  2. Well, often there is more to say about unsuccessful episodes than successful ones.

    1. Not jumping ahead, but the Hartnell era's doing a good job of proving that so far.

  3. Sadly, I must again just give you a "Right on" comment. I have more affection for this story than most fans have, but I certainly don't think it's good. It's just interesting in a completely bonkers sort of way. It's like the latest (and almost certainly last) season of Twin Peaks - much of it will stick with you for the rest of your life even though none of it makes a whole lot of sense.

    1. Interestingly bonkers would cover quite a lot of the Hartnell era, I think. And that's a large part of it's appeal. It came from before everything became a horse built by focus group.