I have watched every Doctor Who episode in order a couple of times, and on both occasions the big slog to get through has been the Third Doctor era. Somehow it always seems like an awful lot of the same thing. An analysis of the cliffhangers bears out that opinion. Both the First and Second Doctor eras were remarkably inventive with the cliffhangers, something I have already discussed in previous articles. The 60s went far beyond just the obvious ways of leaving the viewers wanting more: placing the Doctor in danger, and revealing the monster of the week. But the Pertwee era seems to shrink in its ambitions. Gone, or extremely rare, are all kinds of different cliffhangers pioneered by either the First or Second Doctor eras, things like showing just a bit of a monster, or the Doctor doing something strange or mysterious, or a threat getting scaled up, often as the villain’s plan progresses, or the threat multiplying, or the double-whammy cliffhanger. In fact, during the 60s there were three big categories of cliffhangers, broadly speaking:
- Monster reveal
- Game changer
The third one of those was important, and used to great effect, but is largely absent during the Pertwee era. In fact, it is remarkable how scaled down the inventiveness and variety are in that respect. Cliffhangers that place the Doctor in danger become the standard approach, nearly every week. In fact, the very first cliffhanger during the Third Doctor era does that, with the Doctor getting shot at the end of the first episode of Spearhead from Space, despite the viewers being largely unfamiliar with the new Doctor and frankly not caring very much. It would be all the same to us if he just regenerates again. In just the second Pertwee story, things are already being taken to absurdly repetitive levels:
- The Silurians 3: the Doctor is menaced by a Silurian.
- The Silurians 4: a Silurians uses his third eye on the Doctor.
- The Silurians 6: Silurians break into the lab and use their third eyes on the Doctor.
So that’s basically the same cliffhanger three times in one story, and if the Doctor didn’t actually get killed by a Silurian the first time round, why would we worry about it the second or third time an episode ends on that beat? That sets the pattern, with subsequent stories placing the Doctor in danger from an alien in a spacesuit (The Ambassadors of Death), a Primord (Inferno), lava (Inferno), Auton policemen (Terror of the Autons), a killer telephone cable (Terror of the Autons), the Keller Machine (twice, in The Mind of Evil), the IMC Robot (Colony in Space), Daleks (Day of the Daleks), a knife thrown by the Master in revenge for the bully eating his sandwich (The Sea Devils), Omega (The Three Doctors), Irongron (The Time Warrior), the snake-like city root (Death to the Daleks). At times this approach leads to extremely weak cliffhangers, such as King Peladon threatening to execute the Doctor (The Curse of Peladon) or Varan attacking the Doctor (The Mutants).
With the show largely Earthbound, we get a very prosaic variation on the Doctor/danger cliffhanger, which crops up again and again: somebody pulls a gun on the Doctor. I mentioned the first cliffhanger in Spearhead from Space above, and this is actually a rare example of somebody actually pulling the trigger. Most of the time it’s just somebody with a gun, pointing it at the Doctor and then we’re into the end credits. The resolution of course is nearly always the Doctor not actually getting shot, so there’s not much to worry about between episodes. Here are some yawn-inducing examples:
- Taltalian points a gun at the Doctor (The Ambassadors of Death 1)
- Carrington points a gun at the Doctor (The Ambassadors of Death 6)
- Morgan points a gun at the Doctor (Colony in Space 1)
- The Master points a gun at the Doctor (Colony in Space 4)
- A Sea Devil points a gun at the Doctor (The Sea Devils 5)
- Linx fires his gun at the Doctor (The Time Warrior 3)
- Daleks fire their guns at the Doctor, which are clearly not working (Death to the Daleks 1)
…and the Doctor being zapped by energy bolts in Planet of the Spiders is really just functioning on exactly the same level. Later in the same story we get a repeat of that, but with Tommy instead, which works because (a) we care about him, and (b) we know his assailants are trying to get to the Doctor. More often when the Doctor isn’t being endangered it’s the companion instead, sometimes even just repeating a Doctor/danger cliffhanger with a near-identical companion/danger. So we get Liz menaced by a Silurian (The Silurians), Jo getting shot at (The Mutants), having the Master’s fear machine used on her (Frontier in Space), or descending into a mine at high speed with the brakes failing (The Green Death), and Yates captured by Stevens (The Green Death, really running out of ideas). The Master becomes so familiar that he even gets to be endangered for a cliffhanger ending, being menaced by an unseen Azal whom he has just summoned in The Daemons.
So we have the Doctor in danger, over and over again, and the companion in danger, over and over again. What else? Well, how about the Doctor and the companion in danger, or a whole group of the good guys in danger:
- Jo trying to set off her bomb (Terror of the Autons)
- The Doctor and Jo menaced by an Axon (The Claws of Axos)
- The Doctor and Jo menaced by Bok (The Daemons)
- The Doctor and Jo menaced by a Sea Devil (The Sea Devils)
- The Master setting off his bomb (The Time Monster)
- The Doctor and Jo menaced by a Drashig (Carnival of Monsters)
- Hardy accusing the Doctor and Jo of being traitors (Frontier in Space)
- The Doctor and Jo menaced by maggots (The Green Death)
So you get the idea. Some of these are extremely weak, and look what happens with Invasion of the Dinosaurs:
- Part 1: T-Rex attack!
- Part 2: T-Rex attack!
- Part 5: T-Rex attack!
To be fair, there are some interesting variations. The third episode cliffhanger of The Claws of Axos, for example, works extremely well, because it is not just the Master trying to destroy Axos with the Doctor and Jo still inside, but also the Brigadier turning a blind eye to it. And the Third Doctor era does actually do a few very clever and inventive things with the cliffhangers. Examples are few and far between, but there are moments of genius. We’ll find out about those… next week. RP