Cliffhangers: Third Doctor 2

A fiendishly decorated floor! Cue credits.

Last time we looked at some cliffhangers from the Third Doctor era and noted how limited they had become in comparison to the Sixties episodes.  Placing the Doctor and/or his companions in danger was the default cliffhanger.  What we didn’t note was how that danger is occasionally expanded to the whole planet, a fairly obvious thing to do with the Doctor being exiled to Earth.  So we get the first death from the Silurian virus at the end of episode 5 of The Silurians, and the computer counting down to penetration zero in Inferno, episode 4.

Also blasting back from the Sixties is a subset of the danger cliffhanger where the Doctor is separated from the TARDIS, a very Hartnell-esque end to an episode, such as the giant hand grabbing the TARDIS from the miniscope in Carnival of Monsters (episode 1), but this kind of thing is few and far between.  One of two other ideas from the 60s return, used sparingly.  Somebody simply telling us the plot rears its head again:

  • “Somewhere on this planet there are ten thousand Daleks!” (Planet of the Daleks)
  • “I am the computer!” (The Green Death)
  • “We left Earth three months ago!” (Invasion of the Dinosaurs)

…and of course Doctor Who wouldn’t be Doctor Who without the occasional monster reveal cliffhanger.  Right off the bat, the Pertwee era gets two of those in the first story, with the Auton starting to move in the factory (episode 2) and the Scobie duplicate (episode 3) – different aspects of the monster as much as anything.  Then we get the dinosaur in The Silurians, some interesting variations on the monster/danger cliffhanger in Terror of the Autons with the Auton policemen unmasked and later the deadly telephone cable, Azal in The Daemons, a Drashig in Carnival of Monsters, Linx in The Time Warrior, the snakey root in Death to the Daleks, and The Monster of Peladon shoehorns in three of them, with phantom Aggedor, real Aggedor (a weak one if you remember The Curse of Peladon, because the resolution is obvious), and an Ice Warrior in successive cliffhangers.

Some of the Pertwee era monster reveals are pretty weak, unfortunately.  We get a cheaty one in The Mind of Evil (episode 3), which functions like a Dalek reveal although the Daleks are not in the story, and otherwise basically repeats the first episode cliffhanger.  Day of the Daleks also bodges the Dalek reveal, as the cliffhanger is not their first appearance in the episode, as if the story is pretending at that moment that (a) we haven’t seen them yet and (b) we haven’t noticed the title of the story.

But a couple of the cliffhangers I have mentioned above are not quite as simple as they might appear.  For example, the computer countdown in Inferno is not just about the danger to the planet, especially as we are on a parallel world at this point.  It is something the Pertwee era really focusses strongly on in contrast to the 60s: what will happen next?  This might seem like an obvious thing, but it is subtly different to much of what has come before.  Previous cliffhangers have broadly done one of three things:

  • Revealed the monster, or a bit of the monster.
  • Placed the Doctor or his companions in danger.
  • Changed the direction of the story.

None of these strongly ask the question “what will happen next?” if you stop and think about them.  In particular, if you ask “what will happen next?” to a cliffhanger that places the Doctor in danger, the answer doesn’t take much thinking about.  He’ll get out of it.  But the Pertwee era gives us some great moments that challenge the audience to ponder on what might happen next week:

  • The Ambassadors of Death 2: the Doctor orders the capsule to be cut open.  What will be inside?
  • Inferno 2: the Doctor and the TARDIS console dematerialise.  Where has he gone?
  • The Daemons 3: something unseen menaces the Master.  What will it be?
  • The Sea Devils 4: the diving bell comes up empty.  Where is the Doctor?

Other great examples of the “what next?” cliffhanger can be found in The Time Monster (basically a repeat of The Daemons, with the Master summoning Kronos this time), The Three Doctors (UNIT HQ zapped into the black hole), Carnival of Monsters (the miniaturised Doctor tumbling out of the miniscope), and Frontier in Space (the injured Doctor sending a telepathic message to the Time Lords).

A subset of this kind of cliffhanger is one where a mystery is created or revealed, such as the invisible Dalek in Planet of the Daleks, the phantom Aggedor in The Monster of Peladon, and Lupton vanishing from the hovercraft in Planet of the Spiders.  Perhaps counterintuitively, a more effective method is to reveal the solution to a mystery rather than to ask the question, such as the BOSS revealing that he is the computer.

But my favourite mystery cliffhangers are the really odd ones.  In Death to the Daleks, this happens:

DOCTOR: Stop. Don’t move!

and… OMG!  It’s a patterned floor!  So the cliffhanger, unintentionally, asks the question of why it’s a cliffhanger at all.  It’s laughed at, but oddly enough it probably made people think more than most other Third Doctor cliffhangers.  “Why is this a cliffhanger?” is probably the ultimate mystery.  But best of all is the very first Pertwee cliffhanger:

Who told you to fire, you stupid…

Now that’s what I call a mystery cliffhanger.  Leave the audience pondering on the question for a whole week: what’s the missing swear word?   RP

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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3 Responses to Cliffhangers: Third Doctor 2

  1. DrAcrossthePond says:

    I’ve said it many times, Rog… the titles are terrible more often than not. Keep the mystery! It’s the very nature of a show called “Doctor Who”! Having a title like Day of the Daleks is horrible if you want a cliffhanger reveal. An unknown creature, like the Zygons, worked fine during Baker’s era, because we had no idea what a Zygon even was but that means any subsequent episode with them, if there are plans to give us a cliffhanger reveal, cannot have their name in the title. Seems pretty basic to me!


    Liked by 2 people

    • Roger Pocock says:

      I suppose it’s a trade off between keeping things secret and bringing in the casual viewers, who might tune in for one with “Daleks” in the title.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Mike Basil says:

      Few of the classic Who stories that seemed justified enough in keeping the villainous names (of singular or alien-races villains) out of their titles were The Visitation, Kinda, Frontios, Vengeance On Varos and Survival. These were during the 80s of course in regards to how story titles were significantly improved under JNT’s reign.

      One can naturally imagine The Hand Of Fear and The Face Of Evil sounding better as “The Hand Of Eldrad” and “The Face Of Xoanon” rather than just reusable title words. The Brain Of Morbius and The Curse Of Fenric were quite okay with me. Of course in regards to Pyramids Of Mars, keeping Sutekh’s name out of title was understandable, given how the climactic significance of Mars for the final episode could be acceptable enough in due course for the audience.

      Thank you both for your thoughts on this page.

      Liked by 1 person

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