I think this is an improvement over the previous episode because it’s a bit tighter and there’s a greater attempt to make both the TARDIS and the Doctor more threatening. The lights go dim towards the end, as the TARDIS approaches the brink of disaster, which made me sorry this wasn’t done sooner to add a bit more atmosphere. The Doctor and Susan turning on Ian and Barbara at the start of the episode is genuinely nasty, and Hill’s horrified reaction really sells the danger she and the unconscious Ian are in. It’s a pity this tension dissipates so quickly, as Susan almost immediately changes sides.
This is very much Hill’s episode, and she’s great throughout, working out that the TARDIS is trying to warn its crew that they’re all in terrible danger (and doing a pretty bad job of it). The end of the episode, which features a lovely reconciliation between Barbara and the Doctor, recognises the value she adds to the crew: ‘It was your instinct and intuition against my logic, and you succeeded.’ However, even Hill is defeated at one point by some of the dialogue – explaining time’s been taken away but now it’s being given back.
In fact, everyone struggles with their lines, particularly Hartnell, who gives the impression at a couple of points that he’s making it up. This leads to one of the first great Billyfluffs as he tries to explain that they are on ‘the brink of dish– destruction’ and William Russell, hilariously, asks, with studiedly perfect enunciation, ‘Why did you say that, the brink of destruction?’ Whitaker also gives Hartnell another big speech, talking about the wonder of the birth of a solar system. It’s nice, especially underscored with weird, atonal music, but it’s not particularly pitched towards the actor’s strengths, (Hartnell giggles his way through it a bit) I remember fewer of these as the series continues.
On the other hand, Hartnell and Russell also get the sweetest moments of the episode: firstly, when the Doctor confides in Ian that he has lost hope and asks Ian to face the end with him, and then later when they’re about to walk out of the TARDIS arm in arm to discover the roof of the world. Without being mawkish about it, it’s a resolution to the tension that’s existed between the two men since An Unearthly Child.
The reveal is that everything that’s been happening is due to a broken switch. It’s deliberately bathetic, although the idea of a machine relentlessly executing its program is a hallmark of Moffat episodes from The Doctor Dances to Heaven Sent. There’s a lot in this episode that’s influential later: from images of other places appearing on the scanner as messages, to the TARDIS being pulled into a hydrogen inrush, to the idea that the TARDIS has a heart, under the console, and a kind of alien intelligence.
Although I think this episode and the last one are the weakest so far, there’s a lot more here to love than I remembered. That said, if these had been the last ever episodes, which looked likely as late as December 1963, I think they would have been a hugely disappointing way to end the series.
Next episode: The Roof of the World