Cliffhangers: First Doctor 1

cliffhanger1The 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

About Roger Pocock

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10 Responses to Cliffhangers: First Doctor 1

  1. Not the correct post to mention this, I know, but I finished watching Doctor Who. And now a void has opened up in my life🙁
    I think I like Peter Capaldi a lot too. Although there isn’t much you can attribute specifically to him except for his eyebrows, he was apt for the role.
    I was a bit skeptical in the beginning about the casting. The first few episodes were weak and it seemed as if they were trying to justify the regeneration through the struggles Clara had in accepting him. I wish they had gone about it subtly. To compensate for that, however, the next two seasons were delightful. He grows his hair and plays a guitar and gives himself these cool titles. I’m glad that he didn’t entirely replace the sonic screwdriver by his sunglasses( which did suit him but would have taken away the essence of the show, what with the lack of a catchphrase for 12).
    I liked Clara but not as much as Rory or Donna. And her departure( call it what you will) was sad. Why can’t they ever think of endings without either the Doctor or the companion forgetting the other? River’s, on the other hand, was amazing. I thought it would be another sad tale and even The Doctor seemed to be wihout hope but the ending surprised me. ‘The Husbands of River Song’ is easily one of my favourite episodes. Even the way the Doctor reacts upon entering the TARDIS was so funny!
    The two Neil Gaiman authored episodes were nice too. I wish he would write more Who episodes. He is now my most favourite person, besides being my most favourite writer, because he has the best choice of books, movies and TV shows.
    Also, I’ve added Missy to my list of favourite Doctor Who characters. Her elegance, ruthlessness and the gradual change of heart was such a relief from the monotonous cruelty of the Master. She shouldn’t have died the way she did. I hate the shoemakers for these kinds of endings. No wonder even the Doctor doesn’t like endings.
    I don’t know where this comment is going but I had a few questions and I didn’t know whom to ask.

    Now that the Doctor is a female, would
    Rose and River( given the chance to meet her) be able to love her as much as before?

    Why don’t the companions of the earlier Doctors ever return? At least Jack Harkness should, given his long long lifespan.

    What role does the Doctor have on Gallifrey? Why did the other Time Lords fear him when he returned? Did it have to with the long punishment he was given in the confession dial? Or was it something else? Of course, I didn’t expect a grand reception for him but not such fear from all those people.

    If the Doctor was living on his planet without time or space travel, to which time period on earth would his present correspond to? Does he come from the future or from the past? Or just from another planet in the current time period?

    What would happen if he should reveal his name, except leaving no basis for the naming of the show?

    I might have missed the answer to this in one of the earlier episodes but why do River’s and the Doctor’s timelines move in the opposite direction?

    That’s all I can remember as of now. I’ll bother you again as soon as I recall other questions.


    Liked by 2 people

    • Roger Pocock says:

      Great to hear from you again Vish, and what a fabulous comment! It’s such a shame you don’t do emails much because I think you would love our email group – we discuss all these kinds of things and a lot more. The thing is, a lot of the questions you ask are really open to debate rather than having definitive answers, but I’ll try to give you the best answers I can.

      I don’t think River would care much about the gender change. Rose on the other hand probably would, but she’s happily settled with her human Doctor anyway.

      Companions coming back: it’s a rarity. Mainly I think it is because (a) showrunners want to put their own mark on things, (b) they don’t want to alienate or confuse new viewers and (c) they put the story first, so if a story doesn’t have a good reason for it, they don’t do it. Personally I would like to see more, and was very disappointed that we didn’t see Ian when we were getting episodes set in Coal Hill School. The actor (William Russell) is in his 90s, so it’s not like they can wait forever for a chance to ask him to do a cameo appearance, so I think it was a missed opportunity.

      The Doctor was feared on Gallifrey because of his role in the Time War. He ended it, but also he was clearly an incredible warrior when he was the War Doctor. Big Finish have filled in a lot of the gaps there. Prior to the Time War, if you watch the classic series you will see several important moments where he earns himself a reputation on Gallifrey, including becoming President (unwillingly) for a while.

      It’s fair to assume that the Doctor comes from the far future. In a classic story called Frontios he goes further into the future than the Time Lords have knowledge of, and it’s the very distant future from our point of view.

      The Doctor’s name I think is a big mystery that will never be answered and should never be answered. I can’t see anyone coming up with anything that wouldn’t be rubbish, after over 50 years of mystery!

      River and the Doctor don’t quite meet in the opposite direction. It tends to happen, but not always. On audio she has met several of the classic series Doctor as well. But logically there is no reason why the Doctor would meet somebody in chronological order, as he is travelling in time. It just tends to happen like that because it’s such a difficult thing for a writer to do anything else!

      By the way, I know that feeling when you mention a void opening up. I have felt like that a few times over the years when I have finished various tv series or books. But I have never quite felt like that with Doctor Who, because there is always more to look forward to. The next series starts later this year, probably in October.

      Looking forward to more questions if you think of them!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for taking the time to answer! I was afraid I’d be annoying you with all those questions. I can’t think of any more right now.
        I could fill that void by reading the Doctor Who books but I am not sure that I’d like them as much. I’ve read some fanfics and except for two of them, all have disappointed me. I know I shouldn’t judge books by their fan fictions but I doubt that the intricacies of each Doctor’s nature and his( or her) peculiarity can be transferred to the written form. However, if you guys have found the books of interest, please do recommend.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Roger Pocock says:

        I haven’t read any of the recent books. All the ones I have read tie in with the Classic Series, so it would be better to watch some of that first if you can find a way to get hold of any of the older episodes. Interestingly enough, it seems to be the really early, black and white episodes from the 60s that capture people’s imaginations nowadays. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Twitch, but it’s an internet channel and they recently streamed every episode of the Classic Series. Everyone seemed to be hugely enthusiastic about the very early stuff. There can be something very haunting and scary about black and white television when it was done well, but I’m biased there because the 60s is my favourite era of Doctor Who. Mike I think would say the 70s. I prefer the audios to the books, although again most of those relate to the Classic Series. But they have done a handful of them with David Tennant (one box set with Donna and one with Rose), plus four box sets with the War Doctor and an ongoing series with the War Master, so that might be something to explore eventually to “fill the void”!

        Liked by 1 person

      • It might be difficult to find the older episodes. I so want to watch them!
        I’ve never read/heard audio books. Probably those box sets might be my thing.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Roger Pocock says:

        They are pretty good and they are made with a lot of enthusiasm – it’s nice to hear David Tennant playing the Doctor again, if only for a few audios. Hopefully he will do some more. What country are you in, if you don’t mind me asking (in fact, you’ve probably already said and I’ve forgotten!)? In the UK all the classic episodes are available on DVD and they are starting to bring them out on blu-ray, but it can work out quite expensive to try to build up a collection. One possible way on a tighter budget, if you don’t mind old technology and a poorer picture quality, is that the old VHS releases are now effectively worthless, and you can sometimes buy a collection of those on ebay for not much more than it costs to post them, but it’s not an ideal way to watch them, I know!

        Liked by 1 person

    • DrAcrossthePond says:

      Vish, I think Roger is right: you should join our email group. It’s only 5 of us with 2 people who sit in the wings and those two don’t say much. You wouldn’t be crushed by email, but you can always tell us your preference and we could leave you off things you’re not interested in. One of our number, for instance, doesn’t partake in any Doctor Who discussions (odd right?). Anyway, if you want to, you can write me at:

      Since Roger covered the bulk of the answers below, I’ll say this about Gaiman: I’ve been reading his stuff for ages. His Sandman graphic novels are incredible. i just picked up (and read entirely in about an hour) his latest Sherlock Holmes/Cthulhu graphic novel “A Study in Emerald” adapted from a short story he did ages back. We could talk more about him too at length.

      Of those questions above, I do think River would still love the Doctor the same way, but I do suspect Amy would have more of a problem with that. River is able to regenerate and has met enough of the past Doctors to know what it means. Amy is, ultimately human with all the prejudices that entails.

      The problem I always had with the Master meeting the Doctor was that no one ever thought back then to put them out of sequence. They always met in the right order. That made no sense. River was finally doing it closer to “right” but even then, it was too often exactly opposite, instead of all over the map. There should have been moments the Doctor knew that River didn’t but it always seemed to be River, working backwards, would know things the Doctor didn’t but never the other way around…

      Anyway, really hope to hear more from you. I’ll try to give you suggestions if you want to fill that gap with some good reading material. Let me know.


      Liked by 1 person

      • Roger Pocock says:

        I always assumed with Time Lords that perhaps they had some way of meeting in the right order, even when time travelling. I know that sounds like nonsense, but it could be something beyond our understanding. River isn’t exactly a Time Lord, so perhaps that’s why it goes random. That theory probably doesn’t hold much water (and certainly doesn’t when you take Big Finish into account), but I can’t think of anything better!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve read Neverwhere and American Gods and a lot of his non-fiction as well. Since the movie adaptation of Good Omens has David Tennant in it, I plan to buy the book for my birthday. I would love to talk about him.

        I would very much like to join your email group but I’m afraid I don’t have much to contribute. You’re like Who experts, what with your thoughtful commentaries on each episode, while I’m just someone who likes the show very much. If my relatively uninformed comments won’t be a problem to the discussions, I’ll gladly participate in them.
        I’ve been meaning to make a new email id because the present one is cluttered up with WordPress and school notifications.
        You can expect a message from me soon.

        Liked by 1 person

      • DrAcrossthePond says:

        OUTSTANDING NEWS! Vish, I look forward to you joining us. I’ll keep an eye out for that email.
        And your love of the show is the only thing you need bring with you. That’s all we have too; well that and a friendship that has existed for over a decade.
        Wait’ll we tell you about the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff…


        Liked by 1 person

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