Friday, January 21, 2011

A Far Wider Academy of which Human Nature is Merely a Part: The Edge of Destruction

It is February 8th, 1964. In the UK, the number one single is "Needles and Pins" by the Searchers, a Liverpool band. The songwriter, however, is American Sonny Bono, future Republican Congressman who will go on to author a massive copyright extension act that is itself a compromise over his own loathsome view that copyright should be perpetual. He will then ski into a tree and die. Speaking of  America, however, the number one single over there is fellow Liverpool band the Beatles, who have just touched down yesterday at JFK to a throb of fans, offering both a strange juxtaposition with Byron de la Beckwith getting away (for at least the next 30 years) with the murder of Medgar Evers and something of a significant colonization attempt, although for our purposes, the more intriguing product would not make its way to the US until 1972.

In the alarmingly more intelligent context of Doctor Who, the series third adventure, a two part serial hastily cobbled together in order to get the series to fill out its 13-episode initial order without requiring the use of any additional sets or characters. As a result, both episodes feature only the core cast - something that has, admittedly, happened twice previously in the series, but that will not happen again for more than a decade (I don't think, at least)

The rush nature of the story is all too clear at points. The opening ten minutes or so are horrendously awkward, with Ian and Barbara alternately acting like children and dementia patients, often changing over mid-word. At which point the episode improbably picks up with an absolutely insane and thoroughly chilling scene in which Susan deliriously stabs a whole lot of things with scissors.

The thing about early Doctor Who, though, is that even the rush jobs are massively significant. Doctor Who's canon is wholly additive, with new things just sort of being grafted on to the knobby bits as time goes on. Basically, it's a giant narrative Katamari. Nothing is ever contradicted or removed. In the event of a contradiction, basically, you've just created a new knobby bit. The only thing likely to happen to a bit of Doctor Who continuity is that it will be smoothed down until it's actually a good story, which, to be fair, it has not always been to start.

But in early Doctor Who, it was all knobby bits. So in these first episodes, a lot of things get established. We have the Doctor already. We have monsters. This story gives us two more things - companions and the TARDIS.

We have the TARDIS already, of course. It's where the show started, its incongruous and brilliant central premise. But this is where we are finally allowed to have a look at her. The pronoun, by the way, is not merely an homage to naval tradition. The pronoun is because this story has five characters in it, even if we don't see one of them until the very end. Because the TARDIS is not just a narrative contrivance. I mean, it is a narrative contrivance, but it is the single best narrative contrivance ever invented. Golden apples, spaceships, evil rings, they have all basically spent their time since November of 1963 sitting around feeling inadequate. The TARDIS has them beat.

Yeah, there's still the clumsy attempts to make it all make sense. They try to explain why the central column rises and falls, and do a terrible job that is rightly ignored. Most of these clumsy attempts at explaining, actually, get quickly derailed. Even in past episodes. There's an awkward scene in The Daleks existed talking about the TARDIS food dispenser and how it makes energy bars that taste just like the real objects. And it made sense, except for being really stupid and pointless and tedious. But here, the ship, quite frankly, goes a bit mad, starting early in the episode with a long shot in which we can clearly see that the food dispenser has separate buttons for water and... milk. This is absolutely fantastic. Because of course alien species love bovine lactation. Of all the liquids in time and space, they pick water and bovine lactation. Which is clearly about making tea. (Actually, there is a fair case to be made that this sequence is the root of the bit in Hitchhiker's about trying to get Eddie to make tea) I mean, that, right there, is the end of any claims that Doctor Who might somehow, if you think about it long enough, make sense. No. Doctor Who might somehow, if you think about it long enough, drive you very productively mad.

From there, the TARDIS's level of completely and inscrutably insane ratchets up progressively over the episode, including the first time I, at least, noticed the TARDIS coatrack, which is just so perfectly weird that some day they'll have to write an episode around it. Then come the TARDIS memory banks, which begin to establish the ship as alive.

When the memory banks are viewed, one thing that is displayed is the planet Quinnis, in the Fourth Universe. This is a throwaway. The nature of the Fourth Universe, and how it differs from universes 1-3, and, for that matter, which universe Doctor Who takes place in is never explained. All that is known is that this is where the Doctor had an adventure once. With Susan.

We should speak of Susan. I mean, we will need to speak of Susan a lot. She is a scary character - especially in this story, stabbing things with scissors and speaking ominously. She is fiercely loyal to the Doctor, even as she at times believes he has gone too far. But she is also not enough, somehow. There is, if you will, a problem of Susan, though not the first such problem in English fantastic fiction. Here, perhaps, we follow in someone else's archetypes.

The problem can be stated thusly - it is clear that, in order to become the Doctor, he needs companions other than Susan. Barbara snappishly points this out to him, noting that she and Ian have saved the Doctor's life more than once in their adventures thus far. She is not wrong - the Doctor's adventuring would have been disastrous without them. And in this story, his lack of trust in them is nearly catastrophic. Indeed, this story is unusual in that the Doctor takes on the role of villain, cruelly nearly throwing Ian and Barbara out of the TARDIS, apparently into deep space, the time vortex, or some similarly inconceivably awful place.

Susan is not sufficient as a companion. What, then, is the role of a companion? This question will recur, but here it is clarified. Not only have the companions saved the Doctor's life, it is Barbara, crucially, who understands that the TARDIS is, to some extent, sentient, and that the bizarre happenings are its version of a warning. This is, notably, something the Doctor does not grasp. He does not understand that the TARDIS is a magical box. He declares that it can't think. But it can, and in this moment, in Barbara's explanation, the TARDIS becomes a character.

It's her explanation that's wonky. First, all the clocks in the TARDIS melt. Then the fault indicators begin lighting up every fifteen seconds. From these two facts, Barbara, in the show's first real piece of completely nonsense technobabble (other than perhaps "Time and Relative Dimensions in Space") proclaims that "We had time taken away from us, and now it's been given back to us because it's running out," a declaration that makes no sense whatsoever, but is apparently the key to understanding the problem.

From there the Doctor connects the dots, culminating in a bizarre monologue about the forces of creation and destruction. The problem, as it turns out, is that a spring has busted on a switch (which is conveniently labeled. In Sharpie.) and it's stayed on. Which is, in many ways, the full establishment of the TARDIS - on the one hand, it is a magical box that can think and communicate with its inhabitants. On the other hand, it can accidentally have a spring get stuck and proceed to nearly explode. Which is, shall we say, a bit of a design flaw.

Inasmuch as the Doctor can be humbled, by this, at least, he is. He does not quite apologize to Ian or Barbara for nearly throwing them into deep space. But he does act graciously towards them, accepting that he needs them. And so the Doctor has his magical box, his friends, and his freedom. And with this story, the elements of Doctor Who are, by and large, in place.


Do you own The Edge of Destruction on DVD yet? If not, consider buying it from Amazon via this link. I'll get some of the money if you do.

3 comments:

  1. I just watched The Edge of Destruction for the first time and while it was a bit slow in spots, it also does have a couple of fantastically off-kilter, creepy bits. I did especially notice the "milk" button and the fact that the label is written in Sharpie because I had read this entry previously. I think what's fascinating to me is that it establishes the TARDIS not only as alive, but as having a level of emotion - when something is physical, it has a metaphysical effect on both the TARDIS and her inhabitants.

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  2. I can forgive the "Fast Return Switch" label written on the console, because it's a perfect foreshadowing of Doc Brown from "Back to the Future" (e.g. "Do not look directly into Flux Capacitor during discharge" Dymo-taped on). Both Doctors are absent-minded types who would stick a switch onto their machines and then forget what it does.

    As for the damn thing being broken in the first place, somebody on Gallifrey Base suggested that a Silence stowed away during "100,000 BC," and had sabotaged the console. You can't say that this is not so, for the Silence make you forget as soon as you turn your back...

    Also, in Dalekese: "BO-VINE LAC-TA-TION! *BO-VINE LAC-TA-TION!!*"

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  3. So this is the origin of the Milk faucet in "The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe", then?

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