“The Edge of Destruction” is a story that is loved by a small group of dedicated fans and widely forgotten by nearly everyone else. While it’s not the first example of “studio needs dictate the story” in Doctor Who (“The Daleks” only comes so early because Terry Nation was the first to rush a script together), it is the first episode of “nothing’s ready so the script editor needs to fill the hole. Because of this, and other logistical reasons, “The Edge of Destruction” is a two-part story, clocking in as a 48 minute interlude that inadvertantly breaks up the past-future-past-future rhythm of the show’s first season (a pattern Russell T. Davies would adapt to his own needs from 2005 onward). It is also one of the three shortest stories in the show’s first forty years, tying with “The Sontaran Experiment” and surpassing only “Mission to the Unknown”, which both had similarly unique circumstances.
In lieu of a story or prepared sets, script editor David Whitaker put together Doctor Who‘s only true bottle episode, featuring no sets outside the TARDIS (even in dreams) and no cast members outside William Hartnell, Carol Ann Ford, Jacqueline Hill and William Russell (not even dreams). In place of these extra elements, Whitaker concocted a psychedelic slurry of events that prove that not even the Doctor has a grasp of the weirdness the show is capable of. To truly demonstrate what this entails, the best place to look is the gap between this episode and its spiritual successor, 2011’s “The Doctor’s Wife”. It took 48 years for a new take on Whitaker’s “The TARDIS is a living, thinking being” to truly to be spun, even though this concept informed everything from the core of the TARDIS temporarily posessing Rose Tyler to the Virgin New Adventures featuring TARDISes that are essentially people that are bigger on the inside (like a tesselecta, only not remotely).
With all of this influence, why is it ignored by more casual fans? Well, for one thing, a bottle episode that breaks all of the rules of its era (serials are four to seven episodes long, fit into a past-future-past pattern, and involve going places while the Doctor acts wise) can be hard to pin down as a quantifiable entity. It has no interesting places, monsters or supporting cast to sell, and is too short to merit a solo VHS or DVD release.
For fans outside of 1963, it holds the unhappy fact that the Doctor is at his absolute least charming here. The Doctor is every bit the angry old man of “The Tribe of Gum” in addition to lashing out at any conceivable explanation to what he doesn’t understand. This results in such unpleasant scenes as the Doctor threatening to throw his two human companions into the time vortex while his daughter begs him to reconsider, and being adamant that apologizing for his behavior is too rash of an act to be taken. Of course, the episode ends with them all making up, leaving the most vivid memories of the episode things such as Susan and Ian being posessed by the TARDIS, feigning killing the others and then fainting; running water and milk despite being an alien ship; the TARDIS taking away ten minutes and then giving them back once they understand the true danger; and the unfortunate conclusion that the TARDIS – who often travels wherever it wants – was pitching itself into the Big Bang because of a stuck spring.
This episode is unmistakably a product of the show’s first season, and save perhaps (arguably) season 22 or parts of the relaunched series 1, there is no other time in the show’s future that “The Edge of Destruction” would play out quite the way it did. This keeps it from being as timeless as “An Unearth;y Child”, but as a view of the “grumpy old man era” crystalized in amber, it’s a spectacular look at an era of the show where simply turning on the screen each week was an adventure of unknown dimensions. It’s also notable as being the one moment where David Whitaker was left to his own devices – not editing another writer’s story and not subject to a different story editor as he would be for his Second Doctor scripts. This is the one story that one of the most influential figures in the formation of Doctor Who wrote while not beholden to anyone (except the Producer and the Head of Drama), and it’s the story of the most influential yet sometimes forgotten (except as a prop) companion of the Doctor’s.