LOOKING FOR TELOS – “The Edge of Destruction”

τέλος • (télosn (genitiveτέλεοςorτέλους); third declension

completion, accomplishment, fulfillment, perfection, consummation

The Whoniverse is wide, and rich, and crazy.

And sometimes, bits of it go overlooked. There’s no way around it, we, at DoWntime, are children of the New Series. Our cultural sensibilities and our tastes in Who have been shaped by it. And of course, when we’re embarking in the big task of producing Discourse, we naturally tend to tackle recent events, controversies and stories. But that doesn’t mean the twenty-six seasons of Classic Who are undeserving of some in-depth coverage – and what better way to deliver said coverage than to watch it.

ALL of it. In order. Without skipping anything.

We’re looking for our telos, and it starts now.

 

EPISODE 1: THE EDGE OF DESTRUCTION

TIBERE: Ooooh, it’s by David Whitaker. That’s nice. Liked what I’ve seen from him.

SCRIBBLES: So, for context, this serial’s a bit of weird one. It’s a two-parter, of course. And it’s a bottle episode.

TIBERE: Seriously, I’m still shocked at how experimental and odd the Hartnell era is. For now, it’s all rather quiet, but you still have the signature ambiance work of the previous two serials at work – it’s moody and atmospheric and looks great. Also, it allows for a really nice look around the TARDIS set. We didn’t see it much until then, really – the shots tended to be centered around the console. Here, they play a lot more with the space, and the possibilities the setting offers offers.

SCRIBBLES: I really love how Ian’s disoriented state allows a revisit for his character to his roots. They’ve come so far in two adventures, but where they came from is what makes them so compelling.

TIBERE: “You’re working late tonight, Miss Wright” – it’s nice to get both a reminder of their dynamic, and its romantic undertones; and of the time and place they come from. They’re really grounded characters.

SCRIBBLES: Also, Ian sounds perfectly off. The direction is really selling there being something wrong with him, all coming askew angles with that slightly drugged sounding voice. Even hysterical Susan works well here because everyone’s at stagey extremes. It’s practically Brechtian.

TIBERE: The “GRANDFATHAAAAAAAA”s haven’t reached memetic status yet, I concur. Love how they create tension by playing with the most things – just fiddling around with the set, see what happens. It’s simple, but effective.

SCRIBBLES: Though the odd, uneven door motion does remind you people are on the other side moving them. Again, this serial feels really like a stage drama, and moments like that add to that sense.

TIBERE: Oh, I don’t mind that, really. Really, I enjoy the minimalism of vintage sci-fi, artificial special effects and visible strings included. There’s a sort of childlike innocence and wonder to it.

SCRIBBLES: Barbara feels off too, now. Calling Susan “the girl.” I like it. It feels like a surreal stripping back of the character relationships to the starting point to show how far they already have come, in an exaggerated, stagey state.

TIBERE: It feels like an interesting move, coming out of “The Daleks”, which spent a lot of time establishing the characters and their different moral standpoints – pushing them in a place of tension and confusion, blurring up the lines again.

SCRIBBLES: In particular, we see a dangerous Susan, after her life or death ordeal in the jungle. The knife she has sort of invokes that tribal survival imagery.

TIBERE: Blimey, the visual of Susan brandishing a knife is properly scary. And her throwing a fit and stabbing and the furniture has a sense of … Physicality, I guess? There’s something concrete, immediate about the problems the characters are facing here. Like, “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS”, on the same principle, is all highly stylized imagery and big bold effects; but that traditional approach maybe fits that kind of script better.

SCRIBBLES: Susan is at her best, really, when bridging the surreal alien with coming of age survival, isn’t she? This sort of pushes that to extreme. I mean, I’m sure plenty of students have considered scissors+teacher=no homework. I dunno. This is all a distinct illogic, but there’s something evocative to it. Which I think sums the serial up.

TIBERE: It’s both a very concrete threat and a very abstract one. It plays a lot on sleepwalking imagery, reality being twisted. With the black and white, it kind of feels like a German Expressionist film like “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari”. Or maybe “Eyes Without a Face”, for a more recent example.

SCRIBBLES: “Susan, why don’t you give me the scissors?” this feels like the nightmare a teacher would have.

TIBERE: Still on the symbolism – I feel like scissors, sharp objects, kind of fit into a fairytale aesthetic that suits Susan well. You know, the wheel in Sleeping Beauty, that kind of things? It’s an interesting visual nexus.

SCRIBBLES: And I like how it’s being used to bring out the existing character tensions. The patriarchal obsession with keeping secrets from the young girl, for example, is creating a dangerous, corrupted Susan, while the mistrust of the Doctor keeps Ian and Barbara on edge while he equally sees them as a danger.

TIBERE: There’s a sort of inversion at play. Susan was the mystery in the first episode, now she’s the one being kept out of the loop. The teachers have inserted themselves in the family dynamic: and maybe it’s the process of re-shaping that dynamic that causes such trouble and turmoil.

SCRIBBLES: Lol, Quinnis. Rest assured there’s a Marc Platt audio of that briefly alluded to adventure. But it’s an evocative sequence, that attempt to find their location on the scanner, images and music in meaningless order, with the characters struggling to make meaning of it

TIBERE: That music, with the view of planets, kinda gives me a Gustav Holst vibe. English tradition and all. And now Hartnell is accusing Barbara and Ian to having sabotaged his machine  – once again, interesting inversion: they are accused to be the tricksters and the violent ones, qualities that have been mostly associated with One so far.

(We fall silent as Barbara slays the Doctor with the greatest call-out ever)

BARBARA: How dare you! Do you realise, you stupid old man, that you’d have died in the Cave of Skulls if Ian hadn’t made fire for you? And what about what we went through against the Daleks? Not just for us, but for you and Susan too. And all because you tricked us into going down to the city. Accuse us? You ought to go down on your hands and knees and thank us. But gratitude’s the last thing you’ll ever have, or any sort of common sense either.

SCRIBBLES: CALL! HIM! OUT! BARBARA! One of the greatest moments ever. Bar none.

TIBERE: Daaaaaamn, Barbara is fucking awesome. Seriously, feels like proto-“Kill the Moon”. Which, interestingly, if Phil Sandifer is to be trusted, kind of plays like a return to that original One dynamic.

SCRIBBLES: The moment after was truly bizarre, though, as chaos erupts again in the TARDIS. That music was really orientalist, the sort of cliche you’d get with a Hollywood portrayal of India, but with none of the visual signifiers usually attached. This serial is strange like that. All sorts of loaded images and signifiers divorced of context.

TIBERE: And now Hartnell is making tea … It’s … An odd moment. But honestly, I feel like it works really well. Especially with the following beat – Ian asking how the hell they even can know whether it’s night or day. There’s a mix between the common and the supernatural here that I feel quintessentially Who – this sense of weird superpositions, of the ordinary meeting the bizarre. If I may refer to series 8 again, that’s a big part of why “Listen” is such a favourite of mine.

SCRIBBLES: I love the framing of Ian confronting the Doctor with Susan lurking in the background. She’s capable of being the scariest thing in this TARDIS, easily.

TIBERE: Oh damn, that shot revealing Susan is the background is truly a thing of beauty. She has a great, sinister quality here – and Carole Ann Ford works wonderfully. I feel like she’s great at physical acting, honestly – she makes the sets believable, and now how to use them to make her character moments hit harder.

SCRIBBLES: After a story about human survival, this serial is truly alien, the other side of the coin, with the humanity in it scared and confused and ready to call it all out. I’m not entirely sure what we just watched, but it feels more out of this world than anything The Daleks could offer, and probably the better for it.

TIBERE: I am loving this. Like, really, properly loving it. It’s the kind of weird-ass Who I crave.

 

EPISODE 2: THE BRINK OF DISASTER

SCRIBBLES: I really love the title to this second part. “The Brink of Disaster.”

TIBERE: It feels very series 9, those almost question/answer titles. Not a coincidence, considering how much that opening two-parter draws from “The Daleks”, down to One cameo in the pre-titles of “The Witch’s Familiar”.

SCRIBBLES: I was going to say that, yes. It  brings a unity to this between all that’s odd and disparate in a nice way.

(Susan appears out of a door, and sides with One against Ian and Barbara)

SCRIBBLES: Susan looks like her head’s been turned around like that woman from Miracle Day.

TIBERE: That costume really suits her, and the story, well. It gives her a Gothic, sinister edge.

SCRIBBLES: this drama works with it, yeah. The Daleks really explored how the Doctor endangers the rest of the crew, and Barbara just called it all out. But he’s still got reason to be paranoid about Ian and Barbara

TIBERE: “Don’t und … Don’t underestimate my power”. Oooh, a Hartnell line flub! Nice.

SCRIBBLES: He’s done a few here. Often it adds. It does in this serial. He sounds flustered and lost and scared trying to be assertive. Everyone’s at their scariest side in this serial, and while it’s to an unusually great degree here, it comes from a real place in all of them.

TIBERE: There is still this game of inversions at work – the thing the teachers covet, getting out of the TARDIS, is turned into a threat against them.

SCRIBBLES: And now even Ian tries to strangle Barbara. They’re characters always destined to touch each other, but not in that way. I like how the Doctor sees that and tries immediately to tell them not to be afraid of him. “All four of us are to blame.” That’s the right note to go with here, I think. We’re seeing the dark sides of all of this crew in a surreal landscape, full of backwards necklines and weaponized scissors.

TIBERE: Oh, so the tea was actually a drug. One is such a manipulative, cunning old fox. I like it, though. But yes, I agree with you – it’s interesting, you know, that reading, compared with the very Expressionist imagery. Themes of psychology, of the return of the repressed, of tensions and darkness within the family unit – there’s a really strong thematic core at work here.

SCRIBBLES: I mean, this is a story about the TARDIS breaking down. And already, it’s been our vehicle between genres, between stories, the embodiment of Doctor Who magic. But those doors that normally connect stories are opening to nothing. The ship is going to collapse. I guess, straightforwardly as it can, this is a story about the Doctor Who narrative collapsing.

TIBERE: And also a house, for the Doctor and Susan – with food machines and comfy beds. The house and the family unit are disintegrating.

SCRIBBLES: Macro and micro meta levels.

TIBERE: Whitaker is a really good writer. I know, that’s a risqué opinion right there.

SCRIBBLES: It’s fitting that this is also the story that suggests the TARDIS is alive. I love Barbara deducing the logic of the clues the TARDIS has given them, about how it wasn’t at fault, but rather the crew were. The TARDIS, the core of the show, speaks through character drama and weird imagery to the crew. It’s an instrument of narrative, using arbitrary powers to tell them what to do.

TIBERE: Susan and Barbara get sent away through a lie while One and Ian make a heroic stand. That’s … Yeah. Kind of iffy.

SCRIBBLES: It’s outright sexist. But equally, I suppose we can see the Doctor’s chauvinism as the problem. The TARDIS is often coded as feminine, is it not? Though, of course, this is the beginning, she hasn’t been yet. But here, the Doctor’s erasing her personhood, even when she’s shouting to be heard and to fix everything. That seems a potent metaphor, at least to pick at in retrospect.

TIBERE: Shame, because there’s a lot of power in Susan, that character tied with fairytale logic, being the one to look beyond the gates. This idea of the threshold, of something strange at the end of the road, of the strange door at the end of the corridor – it’s Angela Carter and the psycho-analysis of fairytales, everywhere. And then, Hartnell gets this great monologue about the the birth of the galaxies – it’s a fantastic acting moment.

SCRIBBLES: It’s a straightforward science lecture, done with the most magnificent presentation, a long take on him full of wonder and enthusiasm and a bit of horror. Total magic.

TIBERE: It’s a science lecture played as poetry – oh, that turn of phrase kind of ends up in “The Pilot”, too, doesn’t it? Still – the way it plays out, with the slow zoom and Hartnell directly addressing the audience, is a fantastic moment of acting and directing. There’s a weird magic that manifests itself at this moment, I think – sums up the serial well, between the grandiose, dark, psychoanalytic aesthetics and the hard sci-fi edge.

SCRIBBLES: Sums up the era, I think. This is Hartnell throwing every narrative value and aesthetic in and daring itself to go further.

TIBERE: The plot justification is kind of naff, really, but honestly, I couldn’t care less about it. It’s pure aesthetics and themes – and my jam, really.

SCRIBBLES: But equally, how perfect is it that it’s a switch? It’s them making problems out of small things, until it escalates into a dark and murderous surreal drama. They all owned up, they were the ones at fault, all four. And like you often get in close living situations, little things become the end of the world for the group. Existing fault lines crumble all over, and show where every anxiety lies, no matter how unfounded.

TIBERE: One’s over-the-top embarrassment is a delight, honestly. Hartnell is bloody wonderful in that serial, honestly. And it ends up with Barbara, clearly hurt, but with One acknowledging he underestimated her – that’s a great moment, I feel. The story plays on her vulnerabilities, but it doesn’t make her into a passive or flat character – she truly is a force to be reckoned with.

SCRIBBLES: I love how Doctor resolves that they can all start again, now. So much of their squabbles are so small, like the switch, against the cosmic lives they lead. He’s handled it particularly badly so far, but I’m glad that incident lets him see that. His new seeking of an understanding with Barbara is one of the greatest character moments for two of the most dynamic characters this show’s had.

TIBERE: Quiet dialogue scene between Barbara and One. “It’s by knowing the others we know ourselves” – great little line. And Barbara warming up and smiling, choosing to go out on this new, snowy planet is a delight. Oh, and she leaves on One’s hand, too. Honestly, that TARDIS theme is just precious, frolicking in the snow and having fun. How can you not enjoy that gang, honestly?

SCRIBBLES: This is really an adorable ending, yeah. The adventures go on, to new times and places and monsters, but now the crew is ready to actually face it all together. Three serials in and they’re already one of the richest teams in the show’s history. Any degree of weird plotting is worth it for that absolute triumph.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

SCRIBBLES: So, this is where I make my confession. I first watched this serial in high school. That’s when I began my first watch through of the classics. And, I didn’t like it. There’s good character moments, but the whole thing was just too avant garde for me to process. Well, now I’ve seen it again. Which I was really looking forward to, out of this process, I felt like it was overdue and needed me as I am now to make sense of it. Yep, this whole thing isn’t just for Tibere, though I mostly pushed for this to get him through it. I feel like I need to look back at the classics to understand some of them, too. To look, I guess, for Telos. Sharing that only expands that pleasure. Well, I didn’t really know till, like, halfway through that second part, but I think I’ve made up my mind in a new place on this story, all from talking it through here. That was wonderful. One of the best serials of one of my favorite eras.

TIBERE: God, I loved every second of this. It’s all I want from Who, basically – compelling character dynamics wrapped in gorgeous, complicated, messy symbolism. I was kind of dreading this marathon, but honestly, so far it has been great fun. There is just something that clicks about this initial run of episodes – they have a very specific, rich, dark, gorgeous feeling to them, and I’m really into it. The slow, almost contemplative pacing bringing strong themes and striking visuals, with support from a great cast – is a really, really efficient combination.

SCRIBBLES: For me, it comes down to the characters, more than anything else. And here, for all their exaggerated, stagey directions, they feel utterly human. Ugly, scary, angry, but really, overall, totally believable. The big scenes mattered, and those in between sold the alien dangers and paranoia the characters all were totally justified in feeling, but also totally wrong to do.

TIBERE: It reminds me a bit of Class’ “Detained”. It invokes theatre in a way that feels voluntary and deliberate, to escalate character tensions set in motion by previous stories. And much like that story, it relies a lot on ambiance work and a gorgeous direction.

SCRIBBLES: Seriously, can we just appreciate that direction for a moment? We’re three serials in, thirteen entire episodes (wow, that was fast), and not a single one has looked bad. Classic Who is known for looking ropey and silly and naff, but that’s so not all it has to offer. This early era sings with the production design and cinematography. It feels utterly atmospheric and compelling.

TIBERE: The direction in those first three serials is honestly better than most of the stuff the New Series did until the Moffat era. I feel like Lambert and Newman’s will to avoid the “bug-eyed monsters’ tropes and the clichés of the 60s sci-fi did wonder for the show – they really had to think about the visuals, about the way they wanted their weird epic to look and feel and sound. And that research, those efforts, paid off wonderfully – the use of visuals here is stellar. Honestly, I’m a bit of a sci-fi nerd, and I’ve watched more than a few old flicks from that era of cinema – this look just as good, if not better, than most of the movie releases of the time.

SCRIBBLES: And the TARDIS set captures that best of all. We got our best look at it so far in this serial, and none of it disappointed. Little details like those chair beds, which could so easily look absurd, look so at home, so natural. The aesthetic unification of this is second in power only to the character-driven core. That’s really quite remarkable.

TIBERE: “Quite remarkable” is a good way to sum it up, really. It’s a fantastic story.

SCRIBBLES: And speaking of fantastic stories, I can’t keep myself bottled up any more. “Marco Polo” is next! I mentioned before, this is my second visit, and I was excited to revisit things I felt I needed to come back to to understand. This isn’t that. “Marco Polo” was, without a doubt, my favorite serial of the first season last time I gave it a look. And I am so, so, so excited to go there again. Even if it is seven episodes long, all of which missing.

TIBERE: My first recon. That’s going to be an interesting experience. I’ll bring some snacks and a cat.

SCRIBBLES: I hope, if nothing else, the aesthetics, the wonder, and the character shine through still, even without the images. Because, so far, I’m utterly delighted that you are seeing this era much as I do, as a unique moment of power and poignancy in the history of the show. There’s nothing I hope for more than that that can keep it up.

TIBERE: Fingers crossed!

2 thoughts on “LOOKING FOR TELOS – “The Edge of Destruction”

  1. This was such a fascinating read! I first saw this serial back in May and it just confused the hell out of me. Starting to get it now, Ill have to go back and rewatch.
    Also, how are you guys finding/watching the episodes that are lost? I’m using BritBox and I’ve just been skipping the episodes BritBox doesn’t have. Are the reconstructed ones available somewhere or something?
    Cheers!

    Like

    • Thanks a lot for the kind words!

      I’m sadly not able to answer that question, because we so far haven’t covered any recons (and there goes the illusion of us actually preparing those in advance and being organised …)! I assume Scribbles will be able to go into more details on that one, though, the Classics and where to find them are more his area than mine 🙂

      (and anyway, Marco Polo is lost, so we’ll have an idea by next week!)

      Like

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