Weighing in at an impressive 800 episodes, Doctor Who has been entertaining audiences for the past 50 years. Yet, despite this vast backlog of content, I know next to nothing about the actual series. For that reason, I’ve decided to watch this unusual show from the beginning, to discover the source of its unique appeal. Come with me as I tackle this daunting sci-fi phenomena from the very beginning in The Complete Doctor Who.
Warning: the following contains spoilers
The Complete Doctor Who: Serial 3, Episode 2 – The Brink of Disaster
Last time we experienced the show’s greatest moment so far with each member of the cast trying to out-crazy one another. The Doctor lost his mind, Barbara became afraid of clocks, while Susan took to wielding a pair of scissors like some space-born Norman Bates.
Unfortunately, fun like that doesn’t go on forever. Every mystery has its explanation and writer David Whitaker has cooked up a real doozy, one that’s simultaneously wildly incomprehensible and simplistically stupid.
We begin at the ship’s controls. The Doctor is standing there, leaned over the instrument panel when a bug-eyed Ian wanders in and makes a comical attempt at choking him before finally passing out on the floor.
This latest bout of madness fully convinces the Doctor that Barbara and Ian are behind the TARDIS’ sudden malfunctions.
“This is a plot between the two of you to get control of my ship,” he says with his usual venom.
As punishment, he decides to toss the two of them out of the ship, stranding them in the middle of nowhere, but before he can act on it, he’s interrupted by what sounds like a booming foghorn. Turns out, it’s an alarm designed to call his attention to the ship’s fault locator, which tells him that the entire ship is “on the point of disintegration.”
Realizing sabotage on such an extensive level is impossible, the Doctor does a complete 180 and begins working with the others.
As the Doctor scurries about trying to determine the cause of the ship’s problems, Barbara starts putting things together on her own and offers the following theory regarding their situation and why everything’s gone gonzo.
“We had time taken away from us and now it’s been given back to us, because it’s running out.”
Everybody got that? Nope, me neither.
Then an explosion rocks the inside of the ship and that goofy little column in the middle of the controls goes up.
Which is apparently really bad news because if it goes all the way up, the vast energies powering the ship will escape. Or, as the Doctor puts it, “We have ten minutes to survive.”
Barbara is convinced that the random weirdness they’ve been experiencing is actually a series of clues left by the TARDIS itself as a kind of warning.
Then the viewscreen starts running what looks like an iMac slide show, showing them pictures of nature, a planet, then cutting away to an explosion. The doors swing open and they realize there’s nothing outside.
The Doctor weighs all the evidence and determines that they’ve traveled back to the dawn of the solar system.
When we started this story, there were a lot of different ways things I thought this could have gone. A small group of strangers trapped in an isolated area, unsure of whom they can trust. It’s a pretty rich concept used by everyone from H.P. Lovecraft to John Carpenter in The Thing.
So, in the proud tradition of those other creators, what exactly is at fault for the last episode and a half’s worth of mayhem. Is it some kind of mental parasite? A malevolent spirit possessing their bodies? Some sort of shape shifter? Hell, I’d even take “cosmic radiation” as a viable explanation.
Nope, turns out it’s none of those things. The real culprit is a broken button.
Yup, that’s right, the ship’s “fast return” switch is jammed, sending them back to the dawn of time.
Now, I have a smoke alarm in my apartment. It cannot travel through time or space, nor is it particularly self-aware, but when it’s in need of a battery change, it doesn’t communicate that need by pushing me to strangle my wife, forcing me to scream at clocks, or by running me through a series of debilitating blackouts. It just chirps at me a little. I hear it, change the battery, and everyone goes on their merry way.
This is apparently far beyond the capacity of the Doctor’s time machine, which breaks down faster than my old Chevy Beretta, then attempts to solve the problem by driving its crew insane. The TARDIS everyone, what a miracle machine.
After dropping an anti-climax like that, you’d think we could just wrap things up right there and head home, but think again, because this episode has one more tonal shift left in the chamber.
With the crisis over, it’s time for the bonding portion of the script. A master of social niceties he is not, but the Doctor has truly outdone himself this week, alienating himself on a truly epic scale.
Ian shrugs it off, but Barbara is less than pleased. The two of them share a heart-to-heart, during which the Doctor actually apologizes.
He’s actually pretty charming here and the two of them build what might be the show’s first believable human interaction.
Then, they all break out the winter gear.
Ian gets a fantastic Sherlock Holmes coat and they head out for a bit of fun in the snow. Susan stumbles on a giant footprint and the episode draws to a close.
Next time, a brief discussion of Marco Polo, the first of Doctor Who’s many missing episodes.