The original run of Doctor Who from 1963 to 1989 was almost entirely episodic, with stories comprised of anywhere between two and fourteen episodes, most commonly four. This meant there had to be some way to finish one episode and start the next, and that was therefore an opportunity to do something dramatic to tempt the viewers back next time: a cliffhanger.
The term “cliffhanger” dates back to the Victorian era, where books were often published as a series of individual instalments in magazines. The most likely origin of “cliffhanger” is the literal cliffhanger in Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes, although the practice of a dramatic ending to a chapter to keep people reading goes back much further than that. The Victorian serialised novel was popularised by Dickens in the 1840s, and cliffhanger endings can even be found as far back as One Thousand and One Nights. The date of that is hard to pin down, but it is at least as old as the Ninth Century. Looking at it from the point of view of its influence on English language works, it was first published in English in 1706.
The technique crossed over into films and television during the first half of the 20th Century, especially soap operas (anyone who has ever complained about Doctor Who becoming too much like a “soap” tends to forget that it was built on a lot of “soap” traditions). As far as sci-fi is concerned, The Quatermass Experiment on television and Journey into Space on the radio (both 1953) were doing cliffhanger endings a decade before Doctor Who started. So this was a technique that was relatively familiar for viewers at the time.
The obvious choice of cliffhanger for Doctor Who has always been the monster reveal. However, it took a while for a straightforward example of that, and the early Hartnell cliffhangers tended to be reveals of bits of monsters rather than the whole monster, a clever way to spark off the curiosity of the viewers. Even before we get any monsters in Doctor Who, the very first cliffhanger actually functions exactly like that: the TARDIS has moved, and the shadow of something is cast across the landscape, shot in such a way to make the shadow look unnaturally large for just a human. Then in the next serial we get our first proper bit-of-monster cliffhanger, and the most iconic example ever: the sink plunger menacing Barbara at the end of the first episode of The Daleks. Despite revealing the Daleks in full in the next episode, the serial manages essentially the same trick again at the end of the third episode, showing us a Dalek mutant claw. Another straightforward example can be found in Galaxy 4 (a Rill eye) and then we have a red herring example at the end of the ninth episode of The Daleks’ Master Plan, with a bandaged hand reaching out of a sarcophagus.
Functioning much like the shadow at the end of the very first episode, we also get a giant footprint at the end of the second episode of The Edge of Destruction, leading into Marco Polo. The Hartnell serials commonly placed cliffhangers between serials as well as within them, but we’ll come back to that. An alternative to showing a bit of a monster is to just reveal its voice. This happens with the Animus in The Web Planet, and again with WOTAN in The War Machines.
The natural evolution of this is to do the full monster reveal. It takes a while for Doctor Who to get there, but when it does it starts happening a lot, with our first view of a Sensorite (The Sensorites 1), the Slyther (The Dalek Invasion of Earth 4), the robotic copy of the Doctor (The Chase 4), and the Cybermen (The Tenth Planet 1) amongst others. We also get red herring versions, most notably in The Chase, with a Mechanoid as the monster reveal, although it is actually saving the Doctor and his companions from the Daleks, and is relatively friendly. There are also some slightly bizarre pseudo examples, such as the cat at the end of the first episode of Planet of Giants. The Massacre gives us an episode ending that is the reveal of the Abbot as the Doctor’s double; this functions in exactly the same way, although it is not a monster as such.
Predictably it is the Daleks who provide our first example of a very peculiar twist on this version of the cliffhanger: a monster reveal that is a monster we have seen before and we know is going to be appearing in the story. The point of this really is to build up the anticipation before it happens, and leave the viewer excited for the next episode. This first happens in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, with a Dalek emerging from the Thames (note this story hedges its bets with a new monster reveal later in the story) and the trick is repeated in The Chase with a Dalek rising from the sand, even though there is little surprise to this moment, having already seen the Daleks on screen. In fact, at the end of the previous story we get a between-stories example of the familiar-monster reveal, but this one really is a surprise of sorts, with the Daleks popping up at the end of The Space Museum. Note also how the reveal of the Daleks at the end of the first episode of The Daleks’ Master Plan is only a reveal from the point of view of the Doctor. We have been watching the Daleks all episode, and in fact for an entire episode five weeks before, so this cliffhanger is all about the moment the Doctor finally catches up with the viewers.
Sometimes rather than actually seeing the monsters we see the effects of them, such as the TARDIS being dragged down to the planet Vortis at the end of The Romans, and that brings us on to a different kind of cliffhanger altogether, one that places somebody in danger. But I’ll leave you on a cliffhanger. We’ll look at those… tomorrow. RP