CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO - The Edge Of Destruction Part 2

THE EDGE OF DESTRUCTION: “What Is Inside, Madam, Is Most Important At The Moment” - Part Two
(c) 2009 Frank Collins. If you wish to quote from this article please ask the author's permission.

Queer readings
In both episodes it’s clear that the two female roles, Barbara and Susan, become aggressive and defensive towards the two male characters, Ian and the Doctor. They are the two characters that emerge first from the ‘disaster’ at the beginning of The Edge Of Destruction and then dominate the narrative through their mother/daughter, teacher/pupil, saint/sinner and masculine/feminine signifying axes. The story combines the anxiety narratives of Barbara and Susan with the highly redolent Gothic melodrama and horror theme of anarchic female sexuality trapped within a ‘haunted house’, here represented by the TARDIS. This emerges as teenage tantrum and disturbing paranoia, as a result of child/adult role confusion and the ongoing traumatic experience within the domestic environment of the TARDIS. The horror/haunted house/Gothic genres are often seen as highly progressive ones because they have the ability to subversively comment on sexual difference, objectification and spectatorship. Within the context of the subversive Gothic genre is it possible, for example, to adopt a ‘queer’ reading of the relationship between Susan and Barbara and specifically to Susan’s aberrant behaviour?

BBC publicity shots of Carole Ann Ford, William Hartnell and Jacqueline Hill

Harry Benshoff, author of “Monsters In The Closet: Homosexuality And The Horror Film” suggests a series of ways by which the horror genre and sexual difference intersect: gay characters participating in the narrative, the production created, directed by or starring gay or lesbian artists, a homosexual subtext or connotation in the narrative itself, and finally, “queer readings” wherein a spectator, in tune to the nuances and multiplicity of the narrative codes, is sensitive to alternative meanings not necessarily explicitly constructed in the text. It is feasible to find an alternative queer reading within The Edge Of Destruction as it is feasible to find similar readings for much of the Doctor Who series itself. Indeed, the figure of the Doctor himself has become codified, over the duration of the series, as asexual, gay and as straight romantic lead or a blurred combination of all three.

The figures of Barbara and Susan could be codified as ‘queer’ in a number of ways. The modes of dress and their physicality for instance; Barbara is physically taller and bigger, is dressed in what would pass for rather masculine attire in the early 1960s – leather trousers and a white shirt; Susan is more girly, very petite, elfin and is wearing a one piece skirt that displays her legs. This could codify them within the lesbian stereotypes of ‘butch’ and ‘femme’. Compare them to the two similar figures of Claire Bloom and Julie Harris in that haunted house film par excellence The Haunting. Harris is the sensitive, child-like insecure one whilst Bloom is the strident, no nonsense, Mary Quant wearing one.

More importantly codification could be through the way symbols of sexual power are traded between, and affect individually, Barbara and Susan. When Susan talks of ‘something here, inside the ship’ is she invoking the spectre of aberrant sexuality that is about to manifest itself in her? Is the monster or presence in the ship part of what Norman Nolland and Leona Sherman see as the Gothic formula trope of ‘the image of woman plus habitation’? The TARDIS becomes the ‘uncanny’ house that Susan and, to some extent Barbara, must explore symbolically as much as coping with the ‘disaster’ itself provokes a different reading of their repressed sexuality. The TARDIS doors, flung open, are perhaps indicative of the borderland into a realm of gender confusion and they close in the presence of Ian, in particular, perhaps signifying a rejection of the male authority figure. The crisis is finally exposed when Susan tries the controls and she is ‘shocked’ into a completely different mode of behaviour.
'something here, inside the ship'

Scene from 'The Edge Of Destruction'

When Ian brings the unconscious Susan some water, Susan appears to be possessed and is behaving abnormally, in a state of high anxiety and heightened sexual power, clutching a pair of scissors. Phallic power – the ‘something here, inside the ship’ is now hers in the form of the scissors and she immediately rejects Ian’s feminised role as nurse/carer until she is overwhelmed by this anxiety and attacks the bed in a manner akin to Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates launching his assault on Janet Leigh. The sexually frustrated Bates figure is again another influence on the codification of sexual aberration in the story and Hitchcock’s Psycho is full of blurred sexual connotations and readings itself. Interestingly, the scissors are zoomed in on and pulled away from at the end of one scene and the beginning of the next, implying within them some sort of power and they certainly could symbolise a penis in the way that the shape of them is framed so deliberately in the shots.

Meanwhile, Barbara also starts to react to the crisis in a very dominant manner by aggressively questioning the Doctor. ‘You don’t know, do you! You’re just guessing aren’t you!’ she hysterically barks at him after asking him where exactly they are. Again, Barbara postulates that something could have entered the TARDIS, underlying the gender-disruptive threat at the heart of the story. Ian ridicules her, ‘What? A man, or something?’ and the implication again is the notion of an aggressive male power either stalking or possessing the two women, releasing a repressed sexuality. The Doctor dismisses this as irrational, as ‘absurd theories’ thus denying the power of the uncanny and by extension a queer or gender-blurred reading of the story. It’s interesting to note at this point a number of reversals occurring in the scene that follows – Ian and the Doctor believe that a rational, science based approach is required to solving their dilemma, Barbara has become silently passive and Ian positions her back into the role of carer and in the background, in the back of the shots in this scene, Susan is dressed in a dark grey shroud-like robe and flits back and forth, overhearing their conversation. She has become the spectre haunting the TARDIS, the ‘man, or something’ Ian ridiculed Barbara about.

Scene from 'Black Narcissus’ Kathleen Byron; Scene from ‘The Edge Of Destruction’ Carole Ann Ford
domestic paranoia
The saint/sinner-aggressive/passive transformation of the two female leads is underlined in the next scene. Susan has become rather like the figure of Sister Ruth in Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, yet another essay in sexual repression where, as Gary Morris in his review states: ‘the driving force of the drama is the conflict between an increasingly aggressive and unhinged Sister Ruth, representing civilization sundered by contact with a pagan otherworld and Sister Clodagh, who stands for righteousness and piety at all cost, even as she finds herself, like Sister Ruth, aroused by the hunky, usually shirtless Mr. Dean.’ Carole Ann Ford seems to glisten with sweat, just as Sister Ruth does in a state of pent up desire in Black Narcissus, in this scene and looks like a nun with her makeshift wimple of a damp cloth placed on her head. She is brimming with a predatory, sexual aggression and the conversation between her and Barbara discusses the presence in the ship, culminating in a very significant statement from Susan suggesting the uncanny force is capable of hiding in one of the crew. Again the scissors are brandished as a symbol of male power, rather more provocatively this time, and when Susan raises her arm in defiance (symbolic of an erection, perhaps?) her grip on power is broken when Barbara seizes them away from her. The two women exchange a symbol of power, with Susan seemingly relaxing and physically calming down afterwards, almost as if in a state of post coitus.

BBC publicity shot of Carole Ann Ford

Returning to the ‘haunted house’ theme of the Gothic genre, nothing happens to the Doctor when he tries the console and activates the scanner to see what is outside of the ship. Once again the doors open of their own volition, just like the ghostly occurrences in The Haunting, and this time there is a growling, bestial roar perhaps representative of the spectre that both Susan and Barbara believe has possessed them both. Immediately after this, the Doctor turns on Ian and Barbara and accuses them of physically attacking Susan and he and the ship’s controls. Barbara, powerfully and aggressively, challenges the old man. She dominates him physically and implies that he should be supplicant to both Ian and her. It’s a scene of enormous tension and again, like Susan and the scissors, Barbara’s aggressive female stance is defused by a symbolic object. The sight of the melting clock and the damaged wrist watches tip her over the edge into a breakdown, flopping rag doll like into a chair. The crisis is then deflected back to the theme of the TARDIS as Gothic mansion where the typical Gothic narrative features, as Helen Wheatley has said ‘a female protagonist caught up in a matrix of domestic paranoia, trapped within a decaying home by a suspicious and/or murderous husband. More often than not these narratives centre around the heroine’s departure from an idealised family home to the threatening marital home, and her eventual escape to independence… ’ That female protagonist trapped in a domestic paranoia could easily be seen as Susan moving from her status as teenager to adult, leaving the TARDIS and beginning a new life with David Campbell.

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