Doctor Who #13: The Brink of Disaster

"As we learn about each other, so we learn about ourselves."TECHNICAL SPECS: The episode is on disc 3 of The Beginning DVD boxed set as part 2 of The Edge of Destruction (AKA Inside the Spaceship). First aired Feb.14 1964.

IN THIS ONE... The TARDIS crew come to their senses long enough to fix a sticky switch that has sent them back to the Big Bang.

REVIEW: Coming off the heels of the disjointed previous episode, The Brink of Disaster starts out rather badly, with zombie Ian trying to strangle everybody (it's this week's pair of scissors) and Hartnell is on full-on fluff mode, but soon, the paranoia subsides and the characters start working on the clues the TARDIS has been giving them. So if you didn't catch them in the first episode, they're all repeated, with Barbara in the lead detective role. She asks all the relevant questions and we start to get some answers. As it turns out, in trying to get the teachers home, the Doctor pressed the "Fast return switch" (written in marker right there on the console... WTH?), the button got stuck, and the ship tried to go too far back, further back than the Big Bang. So yeah, malfunctions aplenty.

Though the Doctor believes the TARDIS can't "think", he imagines that its computer banks attempted to communicate with the crew through its various systems. It's a little ridiculous that it apparently couldn't just throw that information on a screen. Instead, what we've got is something reminiscent of Batman and Robin's famous jumping to conclusions in the 1966 movie. The bit about losing time so you could get back time because it was running out is particularly stupid. Not as stupid as the basic problem, which is how a little spring got stuck inside a switch (the TARDIS was an analogue mess from day one, it seems), as Susan acts the cabbage head who needs to have this explained. Educational mandate fulfilled! What ISN'T properly explained is why everyone went a little mad for an episode and a half, though the accumulated canon would point to the telepathic circuits having something to do with it. Or maybe the human mind wasn't built to exist in the conditions necessary for the Big Bang. Either way, it's not explained. Hartnell does get a nice mad-scientisty speech about how solar systems form, though I'm not sure I'd use it to pass my physics exam (early Doctor Who has problems distinguishing the universe, galaxies, solar systems and constellations from one another).

The plot is rubbish, but the ending does give us some sweet character moments. Barbara is the last to accept the Doctor's apology, restrained as it is by ego. He has to interact with her one on one before a meeting of hearts is achieved, and I dare say this is the moment the four of them come together as a family/team. From this point on, the antagonists will be played by guest actors and not William Hartnell (aside from The Massacre, I suppose). The mood shifts, the characters get a change of clothes from the wardrobe (Barbara gets the costume she'll most wear on the series), and just like that, they're having a light-hearted snowball fight in the TARDIS. The snow-covered cliffhanger would have us believe they'd meet the Yeti in the next episode, but that wouldn't come true for a few more years...

THEORIES: This episode has the first onscreen evidence that the 1st Doctor only had one heart (as opposed to the twin hearts of Time Lords as we know them today). Ian inspects a fallen Doctor, and he says his heart is fine. Leaving aside the fact that Ian isn't a physician and wouldn't know to look for two heart beats, I've never found the question of the 1st Doctor's single heart too problematic. Obviously, his people didn't have two hearts at the time, nor were they even Time Lords. Not from the writers' perspective. But if we're looking for a justification, it could simply be that his first heart has long failed due to old age. Such a long life might require this biological redundancy. To me, this is a simpler explanation than any kind of theory that would have the second heart grow from the first time the Time Lord regenerated.

Speaking of hearts, this is also the first mention of there being some kind of power in the heart of the TARDIS. It's that power that's in survival mode, trapped under the central column, and though we won't hear much about it over the next decades, it's something Russell T Davies used to powerful effect in Boom Town and The Parting of the Ways. It's really not so different in this episode than it is there, melting clocks and zombie Ians may not be Slitheen eggs and Bad Wolves, but it's the same kind of literal "deus ex machina". See? It all ties together eventually.

VERSIONS: The 1988 Target novelization by Nigel Robinson expands on the TARDIS exterior, introducing an immense engine room and the Doctor's laboratory.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - The irritating insanity of the first episode gives way to more lucidity and eventually, to charming scenes of the the crew being closer than ever. The cast dynamic of the next year is decided in the last act.

STORY REWATCHABILITY: Medium-Low - Though the last few scenes of episode 2 are pretty great - and important to the show's emotional continuity - the first three fourths of this are annoying and silly. Skip and scan ahead consequently.


snell said...

"What ISN'T properly explained is why everyone went a little mad for an episode and a half..."

Well, they obviously passed through the same sector of space as the Enterprise did in The Tholian Web...

Siskoid said...

The Tholians kind of ARE Doctor Who monsters, not Star Trek monsters (i.e. not actors with stuff stuck on their faces).

Randal said...

My only complaint for this episode is that the Doctor doesn't call the TARDIS "sexy" even once!


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