Barbara Wright at the Brink [WHO-50 —1964]

This feels like a major confession, but I haven’t actually seen all of Doctor Who. I tend to forget this, because I have seen, heard or read MOST of the stories, and don’t always remember which ones I have properly watched, and which I have merely imagined thanks to the old Programme Guide I kept close to my heart in the 1980’s.

Edge of Destruction is one of these – a surreal two parter set entirely in the TARDIS, in which the crew and/or the ship slowly go nuts. I had heard all about this story, read about the narrative beats and notable features many times over, and it never occurred to me that it wasn’t one of the missing ones until it was released on DVD some years back, in a box set with An Unearthly Child and The Daleks.

I still didn’t watch it. I meant to, but never got around to getting that particular DVD. And while my library is awesome at Doctor Who DVDs, I never order them because if I watch it, surely I’ll never get around to buying it!

More recently I discovered a bunch of Hartnells available on BBC iPlayer, and since I was trying to justify my subscription anyway, woohoo! Time to inhale some grainy black and white goodness.

“The Edge of Destruction,” which has also been referred to as “Inside the Spaceship” and “Beyond the Sun,” is the third story of the first season of Doctor Who, released early in 1964, straight after The Daleks. It’s only two episodes long, takes place entirely in the TARDIS set, and as a bonus shows us lots of extra bits of that set, including the complex food machine, a medical centre, doors and corridor, and even references to the vast wardrobe.

Doctor Who in these early days went episode by episode, so viewers would never know how long a “story” would take – there were no story titles (except behind the scenes in production notes, as stories generally made up production blocks), but each episode had its own title much like the stories today.

Already, at this early stage, they were messing with their own formula. We’d had one episode in contemporary London, three with the cave men, and seven on Skaro with the Daleks. The twelfth and thirteenth episodes (making up the entire first run that had been originally commissioned) were quite obviously a money saver. Good old bottle episodes!

It’s ironic that now in the 21st century, with fans longing to see more internals of the TARDIS, it’s actually been deemed too expensive to do so before now – all the little charity minisodes tend to take place in the current Matt Smith console room because it’s a standing set, but scenes taking place in other parts of the TARDIS are exceedingly rare – though they did keep that bit of corridor from The Doctor’s Wife, didn’t they? Didn’t they?

(actually it has been strongly hinted we’ll get to see some serious TARDIS real estate in the second half of season 7, I do hope this is true!)

“The Edge of Destruction” and “the Brink of Disaster” are basically an excuse to let the regular TARDIS crew throw all their resentments and suspicions at each other and work through the issues, so they can go forward without all the “you kidnapped us,” “you lied on Skaro,” “basically I suspect you’re going to slit my throat when I’m asleep” baggage from the previous two stories.

In Xena, they famously did this with a musical episode, The Bitter Suite. I’m a little sad that Doctor Who didn’t take that route.

In Season 5 of New Who, the emotional fallout from Amy snogging the Doctor and running away with him on her wedding night, and his awkward attempts to reunite her with fiancé Rory, came to ahead in a similar “bottle” episode, Amy’s Choice, that explored their psychological issues in the TARDIS. It used location shoots and dream sequences rather than just sticking them in the console room the entire time, however, which means they probably didn’t save a cent on it. Also, Rory never went crazy with the scissors, unless you count that business with the pony tail.

What we have here is four people pushed to the emotional brink, terrified and suspicious of each other, showing their very worst sides as they struggle to survive. Except Barbara, who rises to the occasion beautifully, and never ceases to be awesome even when her feelings are badly hurt.

Commentary while watching Edge of Destruction/Brink of Disaster (1964) for the first time in 2012:

1. Travelling through the time vortex is so dangerous. When they first took off back in An Unearthly Child, newbies Barbara and Ian were thrown around and lost consciousness. This time, the whole crew does, even the Doctor!

2. Susan seems very dazed and inexperienced at all this. And the Doctor is absolutely rubbish at working or understanding the TARDIS. Exactly how long have they been on the run from their people? We tend to assume as fans that they’ve been doing it for ages but these early episodes suggest it’s been maybe a fortnight. Not enough to be remotely comfortable with what the ship can do.

3. Barbara is still rocking her tight leggings and blankie look from Skaro, the week before.

4. It’s quite creepy the way that all the of the regulars experience memory loss in the turbulence of the ship. Ian and Barbara lose their new intimacy with each other and return at first to their previous formality as they struggle to remember where they are and how they got there.

5. It’s a very simple idea, but the TARDIS door opening on its own is very creepy, especially in space. And the whiteness beyond… Sure, it’s set lighting, and it’s a bit weird later on when Susan insists she can see nothing but “space” through those doors but quite effective.

6. I deeply love the food machine with its two water buttons and one milk button! Where is the cup of tea button?

7. Basically this entire story is pure, unadulterated acting. I don’t know what kind of direction they received or if they all just sank deeply into their own method, but it produces some odd and erratic results. Susan in particular has a tendency to scream frantically at quite unnecessary moments – “No, don’t put the scanner on!”

8. On the other hand Carole Ann Ford has to be appreciated for her dynamite ‘being unconscious’ acting, when Ian slings her limp body over his shoulders. That has to be so much harder than it looks.

9. Susan’s room, if this is her room, is sparse and strange. A chair and table, a glass wall (no privacy for this fifteen year old!) and a curvy bed that folds out from the wall. The only hint of personality is an ornate Chinese statue. At least it’s convenient for the food machine. Maybe it’s the “med bay” instead? Never entirely clear.

10. Oh boy, Susan going crazy with the scissors. This is quite an iconic Doctor Who moment, yes? And understandable that the adult viewers got a bit cranky about it. The first plastic daffodil moment of the show’s history, I think. Those are very scary scissors.

11. I do like the little settee by the food machine outside Susan’s room. There’s so much TARDIS here, room after room! They should definitely put this bit in the new series. Literally a water cooler for them to talk around.

12. Barbara once again (this comes straight after my watching of “An Unearthly Child” and “Cave of Skulls”) is the one calmly making theories about what is happening. She is awesome. Everyone else should go home.

13. Oh, Ian’s cardie is fraying at the shoulder. That’s a nice touch! How many jumpers is it that he and Barbara go through over their few years in the TARDIS? Someone should do a count. That reminds me of a recent quote by Peter Davison that he really enjoyed taking apart Tom Baker’s scarves in Castrovalva, and that they were “shoddily made” thus came apart easily. There’s a man who doesn’t understand how knitting works.

14. Carole Ann Ford seems to be having more fun playing crazy Susan than she usually does playing eerie schoolgirl Susan. The scene in which she suggests that there is an alien invader inside one of the crew is very tense, even though it proves to be a red herring. Then of course Ian turns up acting ever so slightly off (he’s really good at this) and there’s a moment where you sense that both Barbara and Susan are considering whether they should bash him over the head and run away.

15. The Doctor of course thinks it’s Ian and Barbara behind all the problems and after half the episode asleep is now rubbing his hands together and going ‘bwahaha,’ like he’s glad to finally get an excuse to be mean to them. Like he ever needed an excuse!

16. Barbara has a magnificent speech about how the Doctor is an ungrateful git who should “get down on your knees and thank us” for all she and Ian had done for him since they came aboard, in the Cave of Skulls as well as the Dalek City. She is the best one.

17. DON’T DRINK THE CUPPA FROM THE SUDDENLY FRIENDLY DOCTOR! Never mind poison or suspicious sleeping potions, I’m just not convinced he’s competent to make a half decent cup of tea. There isn’t a button for it.

18. Time jump thanks to the Doctor’s roofie tea (yes, it was a sleeping potion, obviously there’s a button for that), and now we get an unexpected fashion parade of TARDIS sleepwear! The ladies wear shapeless black robes, and Ian wears a shortie dressing gown/smoking jacket with bare legs. Sexy! I am disappointed the Doctor is not in a long nightshirt with cap.

19. The Doctor’s cruelty in deciding to throw them off the ship, and the befuddled vulnerability of Ian and Barbara is really scary. Poor vague Ian is still trying to protect the Doctor from the electric switch that traumatised him back in Episode 1. We know it’s the only thing you know about the console, dear, you don’t have to keep repeating it.

20. The fault locator blaaaarp siren is a pre-Cloister Bell, yes? I love that there’s a specific siren for ‘everything is wrong with everything on the ship, seriously, everything.’

21. Finally the Doctor has figured out that the TARDIS is on the edge of disintegration and that he misjudged Barbara and Ian – it’s a fault with his ship, and not based on sabotage. Still no apology forthcoming, though. “We have ten minutes to survive.”

22. Barbara is working through it all like a boss – pointing out the clocks moving “time” backwards. Why do they have clocks on a time machine? Doesn’t that get confusing? Barbara is also the one who figures out that the TARDIS is on their side, and trying to give them clues as to what is going on. Because the TARDIS loves them, and is well aware that the Doctor is completely incompetent. Ahh, The Doctor’s Wife really does make all these Classic stories slightly more awesome.

23. Seriously, the whole thing was caused by the fast return switch being jammed? No wonder he refused to use the thing again until the Paul McGann years. Oh, TARDIS. You and your complicated design and lack of an instruction book. Couldn’t you have stolen a smarter Time Lord? Or did you pick him based on the fact that he was going to get hot in a thousand years time?

24. Still no apology, but the Doctor concedes that Barbara is the queen of everything. “Your instinct and intuition against my logic…” he suggests. No, mate, Barbara used logic as well as intuition. You just flailed. Put Barbara in charge and have a nap!

25. “We all owe you our lives,” he concedes Also not an apology.

26. “Because I accused you unjustly, you were determined to prove me wrong…” Oooh, look, trying to pretend that him being a dick was helpful to Barbara’s problem solving abilities.

27. “We must look after you, you know, you’re very valuable.” Never has a truer word been said, Doctor. Barbara is a keeper. Hang on to her.

There’s a sweet extended scene at the end, once they have landed “on a cold planet” in which the Doctor and Barbara have their making up chat, Susan and Barbara have a snowball fight, and the Doctor and Ian banter about Ian’s new coat. This is a new side to the TARDIS team, a coziness that would continue for the rest of the year until Susan finally grew up and left them in The Dalek Invasion of Earth. They’re more like a family now, and it only took a disturbing, abusive group breakdown to make that happen.

With scissors.


Sue Watches The Daleks [Wife in Space]

Marco Polo [the Angriest]

Sue Watches Marco Polo [Wife in Space]

“”Temple of Evil” – Episode 1 of “The Aztecs” [Chronic Hysteresis]

“Planet of the Giants” [Chronic Hysteresis]

50th Anniversary Review: The Reign of Terror

Preview of animated episodes of The Reign of Terror

Podcast: The Dalek Invasion of Earth DVD review [Hoo on Who]

“Starlight” – a Barbara Wright fanvid made by Calapine:


2 replies on “Barbara Wright at the Brink [WHO-50 —1964]”

  1. david breslin says:

    Nice commentary! especially on the Doctor’s final non-apology. It’s a bit of a shock to watch these early episodes and see a Doctor who’s arrogant, sly and not as smart as he thinks he is…. (The Target book pads the story out with an odd bit where the TARDIS locks Ian in an airtight cupboard for no particular reason.)

  2. Kate C says:

    I’ve never seen these episodes but I laughed so hard reading this — thanks Tansy!

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