For many years when references are made to the Hartnell story "The Edge of Destruction" it has always been a part of the negative criticism of the early years of the show. It is generally looked down upon as a bad example despite that fact that this story was the highest rated story of the first season according to "Doctor Who: The Sixties" by Howe and Stramers. "It's so cheap" or "There's no plot" are the most common remarks yet when Warner Video released the story with the "Missing Years" video many of those comments started to change as the story was finally being viewed in a different light. Not only did the new release have a cleaner picture and sound quality but it included the original ending that was cut from the US broadcasts.
To address the first complaint about how cheep the story was I'd like to introduce you to a television term called a "Ship in a bottle" show. This term refers to episodes that are produced using only the already existing sets. These stories are very popular with producers because they allow them to work inside the budget constraints by saving time and money with the designing and building aspects. It is a commonly used practice in all television genres but is most prevalent in the science fiction field. You would be hard pressed to find a series that's never done it at some point. "Star Trek-TOS" used it in several episodes including "Doomsday Machine," "Immunity Syndrome," Tholian Web," and "The Changeling." All in all the fact that only one story was a bottle show in a twenty-six year run is a very impressive accomplishment.
As for the second complaint of "There's no plot" this will depend on your approach. If you look at this as a high event driven story like "Talon's of Weng-Chiang" then there is no plot. But if you look at it as a high powered character driven story then there are many things happening.
The Doctor is presented in most of this story as a villain. Since kidnapping Ian and Barbara there has been a growing animosity for him but he has come across as a stubborn man with an insatiable curiosity that gets him, and them, in to trouble. In this story he goes beyond that to where he is not only directly lying to his companions but he also purposefully drugs them to put them out of commission while he works on the TARDIS.
Many fans have commented on how the 7th Doctor becomes such a chess player in the series and the Virgin novels. Many of the elements that made the darker Doctor so popular are in the 1st Doctor's persona and are present in this story. Susan is one who is also expanded to darker levels bordering on violence. For a good part of her time on the show she is used as a buffer between the Doctor and Ian and Barbara. Here her paranoia and suspicions manifest themselves as she turns on the Earthlings she has previously admired by threatening them with scissors. Even by today's standard that is a very strong depth of character that shouldn't be faulted.
The audience also gets to see different sides of Ian and Barbara. Until this point Chesterton had withstood all the fantastic things going on around them. He has taken everything easily and has worked hard to be a sturdy pillar for the group. But here he shows that, like everyone else, he is vulnerable. He takes to the sidelines and tries to act as a peacekeeper while Barbara's much stronger character is featured. She burst out at the Doctor for being ungrateful for all they have done for him. This story succeeds in making them stronger and deeper characters for the audience to relate to.
This episode also strongly changes the way the characters relate to each other from this point on. It is obvious by the end that the Doctor realizes he has badly underestimated his companions and they have, grudgingly, earned his respect. Even to the point where he apologizes to Barbara for the cruel things he has said and admits his mistakes. "As we learn about each other we learn about ourselves."
One of the other aspects of this story that makes it stand out are the atmosphere and music. The usual bright areas of the console room are sunk in to shadows. The entire presentation is much darker than usual for the series with haunting sounds and music. As the characters become more aware of their situation and try to investigate there is discussion of the threat that something else may have entered the TARDIS when they were unconscious. This is heightened when we see the Doctor checking the others, as they appear to be sleeping. Then, as he works on the console, a pair of hands suddenly grabs him by the shoulder, swing him around, and then clasp very tightly on his throat. The result is very shocking and successful, perhaps even frightening, cliffhanger for the first episode.
Looking back on these two underrated episodes it is clear that this is a quality story on it's own as well as being important to the future of the characters. From the next story, "Marco Polo," on the four main characters are much deeper and more interesting than they were at the beginning. As viewers we are made aware of just how far these characters can be go and the suspense of what lies underneath their cool exteriors makes them much more exciting to watch. Watch this story again for the sheer excitement and drama of a character driven story and you'll soon see how this is an example of the series at it's best.