Whenever the Doctor regenerates the next few cliffhangers tend to concentrate on placing the companions in danger rather than the Doctor. This doesn’t always happen, but is a good rule for the series to follow because we perhaps care a little more about what happens to a familiar companion than a new Doctor. It is doubly important when we are not sure whether we like the Doctor or not, so the Colin Baker era gets off to an odd start immediately, with the first two cliffhangers in The Twin Dilemma placing the Doctor in danger. We start with a Pertwee era throwback, with Lang pulling a gun on the Doctor, and then we have a very weak moment of false tension, when Peri thinks the Doctor has been killed as the base explodes, although we have literally just seen him transmat out of there. He is such an unlikeable Doctor that we probably wish he had been blown up along with the base at this point.
When we start to care a bit more about what happens to the Sixth Doctor we get some more effective Doctor/danger cliffhangers, such as the Doctor strapped to the rail cart in The Mark of The Rani, heading towards the mineshaft entrance in something approaching a literal cliffhanger ending. Then, in Vengeance on Varos, we get the variety of Doctor/danger cliffhanger that takes things a step further, with the Doctor apparently dead (and bonus points for the fourth wall lean, with the final words of the episode “cut it… now.”)
The Trial of a Time Lord tries to do some Doctor/danger cliffhangers, which is really a very foolish approach considering we are seeing a lot of the action in flashback. So when the Doctor says “I really think this could be the end”, we really think it couldn’t. Similarly, when Merdeen fires a crossbow at the Doctor, or Crozier turns his machine on the Doctor, we know he will survive it because there he is in the Trial room, as large as life. A much better choice of cliffhanger in those trial flashbacks is when Peri is placed in danger. She is missing from the trial, we don’t know what happened to her, so when she gets shot at the end of Part 7 we can’t be sure she’s ever getting back up. That’s a cliffhanger that works, unlike virtually every other Trial cliffhanger.
Peri in fact provides a significant proportion of the cliffhanger endings during the Colin Baker era, which has a troublesome approach to the companion role. We get examples of the companion/danger approach in The Twin Dilemma (Part 3), Attack of the Cybermen, The Two Doctors (both cliffhangers) and of course Trial. The same thing happens with Mel, but with bonus screams in perfect pitch with the theme music (Parts 9 and 10). In the era of the reaction shot, we regularly get either the Doctor shouting “PERI!” (The Twin Dilemma 3) or Peri shouting “DOCTOR!” (Revelation of the Daleks, in response to the Doctor’s death-by-polystyrene) or simply “NO!” (Attack of the Cybermen). Then there’s the old favourite, somebody laughing maniacally (Tekker in Timelash and the Valeyard in Trial Part 13). Trial also goes big with another old favourite, that weak form of cliffhanger where somebody tells us the plot, and it’s terribly repetitive:
- Part 1: “I strongly suggest the termination of his life!”
- Part 2: “I really think this could be the end!”
- Part 4: “When I have finished, the court will demand your life!”
- Part 7: “In your mind, perhaps not. But in reality it is somewhat different, Doctor!”
- Part 8: “I was taken out of time for another reason, and I have every intention of finding out what it is!”
- Part 11: “Your colleague is aiming the Hyperion Three into the eye of the Black Hole of Tartarus!”
- Part 12: “The charge must now be genocide!”
I mentioned in previous articles how the variety and inventiveness of the cliffhangers were in steady decline since the 60s, and then collapsed almost entirely into tedium for the Fifth Doctor era. Remarkably, the Sixth Doctor era has proven to be even less inventive, but mercifully there are fewer cliffhangers, with the 45 minute episode format for most of the stories. Trial is probably the worst ever Doctor Who story for cliffhanger endings, and not just for the various reasons I have listed above (telling us the plot, endangering the Doctor in flashback), but also for the obsession with crash-zoom shots on the Doctor’s face. I mentioned above that the Colin Baker era loves a reaction shot, but there is an obsession with them for the Trial cliffhangers. We get zooms into the Doctor’s troubled (or pained) face for Parts 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 11, 12 and 13. There’s even a little bonus at the end of the whole story, zooming in on the Valeyard’s face at the end of Part 14.
These are hardly cliffhangers. In fact, you might say we have fallen off a cliff, and hit rock bottom. Things can only get better from here, right? We’ll find out next time… RP