Each time I prepare for one of these articles, the first thing I do is to make a list of the cliffhanger endings and then work out rough categories for them. The interesting thing is that this has been a diminishing process. Although each Doctor’s era has come up with new and inventive ways to do a cliffhanger, each era has also narrowed in its scope. For the mammoth era of the Fourth Doctor I was expecting more different kinds of cliffhangers than ever before, but the task was really no greater than any other Doctor. As Doctor Who progressed, certain formulas settled into place, and the cliffhanger endings are no exception to that. Clearly writers had noticed what worked, or perhaps a certain degree of laziness crept in, but the inventiveness of the 1960s in terms of different ways to leave the viewer wanting more had evaporated by this point, and nearly everything is either a monster reveal, or much more commonly the Doctor or his companion placed in some kind of danger. That’s not to say there aren’t a few new ideas, and we’ll get to those, but first of all let’s look at the traditional approaches and find ourselves a few interesting throwbacks to the past along the way.
So let’s start with that old favourite: the monster reveal. The very first Fourth Doctor cliffhanger does that, with the Robot confronting Sarah. Superficially it is a moment of danger for Sarah, but the robot asking her “Who are you? Why are you here?” isn’t exactly the most threatening thing in the world. Every story from Tom Baker’s first season has a monster reveal of one kind or another, including a couple of weak ones: the Wirrn at the end of the first episode of The Ark in Space is clearly dead, and the Sontaran and Dalek reveals from their respective stories are hardly surprising in light of the story titles. Subsequently, we get relatively straightforward monster reveal cliffhangers in Planet of Evil (the antimatter monster), The Masque of Mandragora (glowy-faced Hieronymous), Image of the Fendahl (the giant Fendahleen), The Invasion of Time (Sontarans on Gallifrey), The Ribos Operation (the Shrivenzale), Destiny of the Daleks (two of them, one for the Daleks and one for Davros), Nightmare of Eden (Mandrels), and Full Circle (a very traditional one with the Marshmen).
The Fourth Doctor era manages to find a slight twist on the monster reveal, with some examples of a human changed into a monster for the cliffhanger. Clear examples of this can be found in The Ark in Space (Noah’s bubble wrap arm) and The Seeds of Doom (the partially converted Winlett attacking Moberly).
In The Android Invasion, perhaps unsurprisingly in a story by Terry Nation, we get a throwback to the Hartnell era with a cliffhanger that just reveals a bit of a monster, with that fabulous closeup shot of the Kraal’s eye. It is so effective that it makes you nostalgic for the past when this happened a bit more often! The Bristol Boys give us another Hartnell throwback in The Armageddon Factor, with the can’t-get-back-to-the-TARDIS-cliffhanger:
ROMANA: The TARDIS! It’s gone!
We also get a Troughton throwback cliffhanger in Revenge of the Cybermen (unsurprisingly), with the Cybermen taking control of the Beacon, a fairly rapid example of what the Troughton stories used to do with the monster getting inside the base.
Moving on from the monster reveals and the 60s throwbacks, we have the most commonly used kind of cliffhanger ending: the kind that puts either the Doctor, his companion, or both of them in danger. Note how the first one of these is for the companion, as mentioned above, when Sarah comes face to face with the giant robot. It makes sense to do that first, knowing that the viewers already love the companion but are unfamiliar with the new Doctor, so it is the fate of the companion that the viewers really care about at this stage. An episode later, it is the Doctor who is confronted by the robot. This alternating pattern is picked up on in later stories. Have a look at these:
- Genesis of the Daleks 2: Sarah falls from the scaffolding.
- Genesis of the Daleks 3: the Doctor gets electrocuted.
- Terror of the Zygons 1: a Zygon menaces Sarah.
- Terror of the Zygons 2: the Skarasen menaces the Doctor.
- Pyramids of Mars 2: a Mummy attacks Sarah.
- Pyramids of Mars 3: Sutekh attacks the Doctor.
Note how Sarah tends to face a smaller threat, only for the Doctor to face the Bigger Bad later in the same story. Like many brilliant things, this pattern is largely to be found in the Hinchcliffe era. Look how The Seeds of Doom ups the ante with successive cliffhangers, with Sarah about to be infected at the end of episode 3 (very effective, as we have already seen what will happen), the Krynoid attack at the end of episode 4, and then the giant Krynoid attack at the end of episode 5. The Brain of Morbius does something similar, with (1) the Morbius body waking up, (2) the Brain of Morbius revealed and (3) Morbius attacking Sarah. And it is in the Hinchcliffe era that we also find the one big innovation in cliffhangers that the Fourth Doctor era has for us. We’ll find out about that… next time! RP