Tuesday, 14 February 2017
Inspirations - The Edge of Destruction
AKA Inside the Spaceship...
... Because the whole story takes place within the confines of the TARDIS. This two part story, written by Story Editor David Whitaker, owes its origins to the fact that Doctor Who almost got axed after just 13 episodes. The cost of the TARDIS set, amongst other things, gave the BBC cold feet.
As we had already been given one story going into the past, and another going into the future, this potentially final slot would go to a "sideways" story. There was no money for additional sets, nor monster costumes, nor guest artists.
As it was. a further 13 episodes were agreed, but the historical epic of Marco Polo was still a couple of weeks away from readiness. Whitaker stepped in to write a story featuring just the four regular characters They would be faced with a puzzle that would lead to them learning more about themselves - and the Doctor would learn more than he knew about his own ship.
When last we saw them, the travellers were leaving Skaro. There was an explosion, and they were thrown to the floor as the ship was plunged into darkness.
Edge of Destruction opens with the aftermath. First Barbara wakes up - seemingly in a daze and unsure of where she is. She sees Susan, who is standing groggily by the console. It's when Ian gets to his feet that things seem oddest. He recognises Barbara, and then recalls Susan - but speaks as if they are still at Coal Hill School and quite unfamiliar with each other. He talks in a strange, almost mechanical way - as though he is not himself.
Later, the TARDIS crew will speculate that something has gotten inside the ship - some alien presence - and we, the audience, start to think that maybe one of them has become possessed. This is why reviewers of this story often mention "Who Goes There?", by John W Campbell Jnr. It's the novella, first published in "Astounding Science-Fiction" magazine in 1938, that was filmed three times as The Thing / The Thing From Another World. This tells of an isolated scientific outpost which discovers a crashed UFO. The occupant is not dead, and it has the power to imitate people and animals.
If we thought that it was Ian who had become possessed, just wait until you see what happens to Susan. She goes totally out of character. She becomes moody and withdrawn, openly hostile towards the two teachers, and at one point comes close to attacking Ian with a pair of scissors. She'll hold these threateningly when speaking to Barbara also. The teachers are scared, but she is homicidally paranoid.
The Doctor finally picks himself up off the floor, but he is having none of this alien possession nonsense. Quite simply the teachers have sabotaged his ship, to force him to take them back to the London of 1963. He seems to be quite lacking in the imagination exhibited by the others.
Each of the two episodes comprising this story is directed by a different person. Episode One is by Richard Martin. He makes great use of lighting, and the TARDIS console room - almost always described as "brightly lit" - becomes filled with ominous shadows. It becomes a haunted house, with ghosts potentially lurking close by.
Strange things then start to happen, and the supernatural elements of the first half episode get pushed down in the mix. The TARDIS decides to make itself known as the fifth character in this drama. People get a shock when they approach certain parts of the console. The scanner shows what seems to be a random selection of images - a nice forest, a nasty looking jungle, then a sequence moving out from a planet to its solar system and beyond, until there is a blinding flash. The doors open when there's a nice picture, and close when the jungle is shown. Later, a clock face will melt, as will the dials on everyone's watches.
Whitaker is now looking at the nature of time, and it's a good bet that he has read or seen on stage or screen some J B Priestley. He wrote a number of plays about the nature of time - most famous being An Inspector Calls (1945). In this, the said police inspector arrives unannounced at a rich family's home, investigating the suicide of a destitute young woman. He shows how each member of the family knew her, and contributed in some way to her sad demise. It then transpires that the woman has been found and has died only after the inspector had called. He appears to have visited them from out of the future.
Priestley was influenced by a number of writers who argued against the straightforward linear movement of time - one moment following inexorably after another. They posited that time was more fluid, and ran at different speeds for different people in different places. These writers included French philosopher Henri Bergson (try "Time and Free Will", 1889, for starters). You might also want to have a go at John William Dunne's "An Experiment With Time", 1927. In this, Dunne sought to explain a number of precognitive dreams he had experienced, and came to believe he was experiencing time in a non-linear fashion. Deja Vu, anyone?
I mentioned above the TARDIS becoming the fifth character in this drama. It has often surprised me that the fan groups who stage Doctor Who stories live haven't had a crack at this one. (Okay, Daleks sell more tickets). This story would be perfect for the stage. One main set, with a small bedroom one to the side, and just the four actors. You can be in the pub in an hour as well.
Ian and Barbara trying to work out who they are in relation to each other, and where they are, reminds one of Luigi Pirandello's absurdist work Six Characters In Search Of An Author (1921). This baffled audiences when first performed, but a few years later Pirandello added a foreward to the play text to explain where he was coming from. In this, a group of actors are rehearsing a play (by Pirandello) when six people wander on stage - each a family archetype (father, mother, son, daughter and so forth. This particular TARDIS crew have also been seen as family archetypes, with Ian the dad, Barbara the mum, Susan the teenage daughter, and the Doctor the granddad or odd uncle). The six characters have come from an unfinished work, and want resolution as to who they are. Once they've finally gone, even the director within the play hasn't a clue if they were real or not.
The play has inspired many other writers - with characters who think they are characters and not real people, or real people who discover they are just characters.
As the story draws to a close, all of this new stuff also gets shoved out the way, and we head towards a good old-fashioned rational explanation for everything weird that has happened. The TARDIS has a form of sentience (described like Artificial Intelligence), and it has been trying to warn them all that they have been heading towards destruction. Time - as in linear, measurable time - has been taken away from them (the melting clocks, plus the ship's warning alarm sounding more frequently) in order that they would become aware of time. (I hope you're following this at the back). The bit of the console that's safe to approach houses something called the Fast Return Switch. It has gone a bit wonky. The spring has become stuck, and the ship is hurtling back through time to be destroyed in the explosive birth of a new solar system - even though solar systems aren't necessarily born that way.
Yup, it was a broken spring all along.
Soooo disappointing of Whitaker to collect together all these inspirations, then have the ending such a mundane anti-climax. The resolution may be a bit rubbish, but the journey has been worth it. We've had a story that allows us to get to know a little more about the companions, and the TARDIS is coming forward as something more than just the magic cupboard that gets them all from A to B. The seeds of the telepathic circuits, translation circuits, and The Doctor's Wife start here. The Doctor also has some of his rougher edges smoothed off. He'll be much more appreciative of the school teachers from this point on.
Next time - back into history, with the first real historical person. Except it won't be...