Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"This is no time for personal quarrels"

Day 3, and we spent all day trapped inside the TARDIS. Not much to do, really. But the whole time, I got the sense that there was something in there, with us...

The Edge of Destruction may only be two episodes long, but it's got the character meat of Season 1 contained in it, and it's arguably the most important story of the season. This is where the central conflict between the regulars (that Ian and Barbara don't want to be onboard the TARDIS, and the Doctor doesn't really want them there either) comes to a head, with the Doctor being openly hostile towards Ian and Barbara, and Susan caught somewhere between them. Before this, it was pretty clear that the TARDIS crew was a collection of thrown-together people who didn't really know or like each other. After this story, though, the crew finally seems like a group of companions, who respect and like each other, even if they have disagreements sometimes. They resolve their differences here, and the end of the story sees them venturing out into a new environment together, ready to face whatever it throws at them. It's this story that's the turning point for this TARDIS crew.

But beyond all that, The Edge of Destruction is also a fantastically put together script, which does some genuinely fascinating things with the TARDIS, and ramps up an atmosphere of claustrophic terror. This would be the first of many stories to be hurriedly written to fill a gap in the schedules - David Whitaker penned this one when it was realised that there was a two-episode gap between the extremely expensive Dalek epic and the extremely expensive Marco Polo epic (which we'll get to tomorrow). He had no sets to work with except the existing TARDIS sets, and there was no scope to include any actors except the four regulars. So, within these extremely demanding limits, he produced a TARDIS-bound script which forces the regulars through series of surreal, inexplicable events, driving up the panic among them and causing many rifts which had been developing throughout the previous two stories to come to the surface. And it works spectacularly well. The first episode of the story in particular is a flat out psychological horror story, with the TARDIS immobilized, and our heroes running around inside desperately trying to work out what's going on.

What's fascinating to watch at the beginning of the story is the way in which Whitaker plays with a number of different ideas as to what has actually happened to the TARDIS. The most significant one is the suggestion that something has gotten into the TARDIS and possessed one of the regulars, and it's this idea that really pushes the paranoia of the episode up. The idea that one of our heroes - who, despite their various different flaws, have so far been the only reassuring figures in a terrifying universe - might actually be the 'monster' themselves here, is a genuinely scary one, and David Whitaker pushes that further and further as the episode progresses. While on repeat viewings, you know that Whitaker will eventually subvert what's going on, the first time I saw this, I bought entirely into the possession angle, and spent most of the first half of the story trying to work out which of the regulars has been possessed.

The obvious answer is Susan, who is being bloody scary and weird throughout the first half of the story. Thinking about it, I'm going to pre-empt my thoughts on the rest of her stories, and say that Carole Ann Ford's performance here is probably her best on the series. With her huge, empty-looking eyes, and stilted body language, Susan has never worked more effectively than when she's being used here to scare the shit out of you. While the infamous scene where she attacks a bed with a pair of scissors was condemned on broadcast for being unnecessarily violent, and setting a bad example for the kiddies... holy crap, it's still an effective scene. I actively recoiled from the TV screen. Whitaker is pulling the same trick with Susan as was used in the pilot, making her do utterly inexplicable things, and once again it's kind of disturbing. Meanwhile, William Russell is doing a more subtly unsettling performance at the start of the story, but it's still very effective. Until about halfway through the first episode, at which point he basically returns to normal, serving as Barbara's backup in her disputes with the Doctor, Russell is playing Ian like he's not all there, which is extremely effective in ramping up the possession paranoia. The character just appears to drift around the console room, not really connecting or caring about what's going on, which is unlike the Ian we've become used to, who is usually pragmatic and caring. It's not as eye-catchingly weird a performance as Susan's, but it nonetheless proves significant as the story progresses.

Throughout the first episode, Whitaker seems to be building towards a reveal of who the possessed crewmember is, and the story's one and only cliffhanger, when it comes, appears to play into this interpretation, suggesting that Ian is the real danger, and that he's now launched an attack on the Doctor. We don't see Ian's face in the cliffhanger, but the hands around Hartnell's neck pretty obviously belong to a man, and Ian is the only possible candidate. Susan was apparently seeded as a red herring. The subversion, then, where it's revealed that none of the crew are actually possessed and something more complicated is going on, works not only to change our understanding of what's going on, but also absolve Ian of the blame which appears to have been attributed to him at the cliffhanger. It's a fairly sophisticated bit of scripting, misleading the audience while also continuing to push up the tension, and it effectively takes us into the second episode, where the TARDIS crew band together to try and work out what's going on.

If I'm totally honest, I'm not entirely sure if I understand the explanations of what has happened to the TARDIS crew in the second episode. It's something about the TARDIS heading back to the birth of a star, and the TARDIS warning them of this danger. But that doesn't make the scenes where the Doctor ponders what has happened to them any less effective. The direction is fantastic, with the atmospherically lit profile shot of Hartnell at the TARDIS console, ruminating on the

beginning of a new solar system, standing out in particular as an incredibly powerful moment. Never again would the TARDIS seem like such a fascinating and complex environment in itself, and never again would the Doctor be so obviously at the mercy of his own time machine. We have Whitaker to thank for the characterisation of the TARDIS, of course. It's never been so clear that the Doctor's time machine is alive - the machine an active protagonist in proceedings here, initially appearing to be as threatening an environment as Skaro or 100,000BC were in previous stories, but eventually turning out to be trying to help our heroes. It's attempts to communicate with the Doctor and co. are kind of vague, admittedly, but seeing as that gives us inexplicable, atmospheric bits like the melting clockface in episode 1, I'm happy to give that a pass anyway.

Even once it's revealed that the TARDIS isn't the problem in the story, though, it still comes across as an incredibly powerful and potentially dangerous thing. The description of the energy source underneath the console is kind of awesome and terrifying at the same time. And while some have criticised the resolution of the story, where it turns out that a faulty spring is the cause of all the TARDIS crews' woes, I actually think that this kind of serves as further characterisation of the TARDIS as something disturbingly powerful. Just think... all it takes here is a loose spring to almost destroy the TARDIS and everyone in it. It's not a comforting thought.

Nonetheless, despite the fact that Whitaker is still trying to push the idea of the TARDIS as a scary place throughout this story, I think this is the point where travelling in the TARDIS stops being the terrifying thing it's been until this point in the series, and starts to become something wondrous and beautiful. Take note that the end of the story, with Barbara and Susan running into the snow, isn't treated as something to be fearful of, but instead as something exciting and new. It's an uplifting moment when they venture out into a new world, not a tension-laden one. This ties into the episode's central character conflict, with the Doctor at his most arrogant and unpredictable, and Barbara forcing him to confront how horribly he has treated her and Ian since he kidnapped them from their own time and place. While Ford and Russell both give great performances, it's Hartnell and Hill as the Doctor and Barbara who sit at the heart of this story, and it's their conflict which makes it so memorable. By making the Doctor see that he must begin to look beyond the needs of himself and his granddaughter, Barbara forces him to accept that she and Ian are valuable people to have around. The Doctor won't be this overtly selfish and arrogant again, and it's at this point that Ian and Barbara begin to forge a friendly relationship with their fellow traveller, explaining why their TARDIS travels have suddenly becomes something to value and appreciate rather than something to be fearful of. You could also make the argument that this is the point where the regulars earn narrative immunity from the scripts. It's not something you can exactly pin down, but I kind of feel like I could believe that Ian and Barbara could die at any moment until the end of this story, whereas after it, there's always the vague sense that they will escape somehow. And that's thanks to the conflicts examined here. Travelling in the TARDIS is still a strange, bizarre experience, but it no longer feels like one that's going to kill you.

(Incidentally, it's good to see that after the previous story, where Ian got all the important story beats, Barbara here is the more important one to redress the balance.)

The Edge of Destruction is over before you know it, and I'm still not entirely sure that I know what was going on, but it's brilliant anyway, and I love it for its atmosphere and performances. A wonderful piece of work, which serves as an effective culmination to everyting that we've seen so far.
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