It has been a fascinating exercise looking at the Doctor Who cliffhangers from the Classic Series, Doctor by Doctor. The 1960s were inventive and brilliant, and since then it has been a tale of steady decline in terms of new ideas and variety throughout the Third and Fourth Doctor eras, with occasional sparks of inspiration, followed by a collapse into repetitive tedium for the Fifth Doctor, finally reaching the lowest of low points for the Sixth Doctor, with the Trial of a Time Lord cliffhangers generally failing to function on a fundamental level and almost every episode ending with a crash zoom on Colin’s shocked face. By looking at the cliffhangers we have seen the issues facing Doctor Who in microcosm. I have mentioned in my articles about the individual Seventh Doctor stories how ahead of their time they were, and how they foreshadowed techniques used since 2005, so will the same thing apply to the Seventh Doctor cliffhangers? Of course it will.
But it will take us a little while to get there. Before we can find the glorious new ideas we have some of the traditional approaches. This time round, we start with a companion/danger cliffhanger in Time and the Rani before we get our first Doctor/danger cliffhanger. This is the sensible pattern we saw established in Robot, and forgotten by the time of The Twin Dilemma, where the first cliffhanger endangered a new Doctor we didn’t yet care about. The first McCoy era cliffhanger is an amazing one, with Mel flying around in that incredible CGI bubble trap. It says to the viewers “this is all brand new, and this is what we can do now”. While Mel is still the companion, the companion/danger cliffhangers tend to be accompanied by a scream, continuing a pattern from Trial. This also happens in Paradise Towers and Dragonfire.
When we get to Season 25 we have a role reversal. Instead of a familiar companion and new Doctor we have a familiar Doctor and new companion. Remembrance of the Daleks therefore gives us a reversal of Time and the Rani: Doctor/danger first, followed by companion/danger. Our first cliffhanger that endangers solely Ace is the second part of Remembrance, when she is surrounded by Daleks. As a footnote to the companion/danger cliffhangers, we get something slightly different in Delta and the Bannermen, with a pseudo-companion/danger cliffhanger. The Doctor is also in jeopardy at the end of the first part, but the focus is very much on Ray:
DOCTOR: If you kill for money, let the girl go. She’s worth nothing to you.
KEILLOR: I don’t just kill for money. It’s also something I enjoy.
As for Doctor/danger, they are the usual sorts of things we would expect: the Doctor surrounded by Tetraps (Time and the Rani), grabbed by the Cleaner’s claw (Paradise Towers), or threatened by various enemies such as the Kandyman (The Happiness Patrol) or Mordred (Battlefield). In Dragonfire we get our most obvious literal cliffhanger in Doctor Who, made nonsensical by poor direction and/or set design. It’s not completely unprecedented. Both The Rescue and The Mark of The Rani have something approaching literal cliffhangers.
I am going to need to praise the McCoy era a great deal when we get to the new ideas, but for the sake of balance let’s look at the clunky old ideas. The worse offence on display during this era is probably the preponderance of cliffhangers where somebody explains something or says what is going to happen. It’s one of the weakest forms of cliffhangers that has become more and more of a lazy way to end an episode as the Classic Series has progressed. Some of these are extraordinarily weak:
- “Actually, I think I may have gone a little too far.” (Delta)
- “After three thousand years, the Dragonfire shall be mine.” (Dragonfire)
- “I think I might have miscalculated.” (Remembrance)
- “You’re the next one due on in the ring.” (Greatest Show)
- “You’re too late, Doctor!” (Curse of Fenric)
We even get one of our old favourites, a maniacal laugh to end an episode in Battlefield. A couple of rarely used ideas from long ago resurface during the McCoy era: the villain’s plan progressing (Time and the Rani part 3) and the multiplication of the threat (the Dalek ship landing in Remembrance, or the reveal of the Cyber warships in Silver Nemesis).
There are also a few monster reveal cliffhangers, although Doctor Who has largely moved beyond those at this point (or perhaps forgotten about them). Silver Nemesis gives us our most straightforward example, but there is also one in Battlefield, for the Destroyer. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy achieves one with a transformation. Both cliffhangers in Ghost Light are variations of monster reveals. But when we are looking at monster reveals we start to come to the McCoy era inventiveness, because we get arguably our first big new cliffhanger idea since the 1970s: the villain gets a power-up. Our first big example is Remembrance of the Daleks, where the first cliffhanger is not so much about “look, Dalek!” but “look, Dalek can climb stairs!” The trick is repeated in Survival with a cliffhanger that isn’t just “look, the Master!” but is also “look, the Master is turning into a cat!” Those are the two most obvious examples, but we also get something similar in The Curse of Fenric, with Judson getting a power-up. Survival, our most forward-looking story, takes things a step further and has the companion getting a power-up as well, with the reveal of Ace’s cat eyes at the end of Part Two.
But the idea that is really ahead of its time, and will set the tone for the cliffhangers when Doctor Who returns in 2005, is the multiple jeopardy cliffhanger. There is one clear example, in Dragonfire. Yes, that much-criticised cliffhanger is actually years ahead of its time, because of what happens in the build up to it. We get the dragon menacing Ace and Mel, followed by the Doctor and his literal cliffhanger. So that’s everyone endangered in different places, by different threats, plus a monster reveal all rolled into one. We almost get the same idea again in Battlefield, with Ace trapped in the escape hatch that is filling with water while the Doctor gets knocked out by the energy snake. It’s not quite there because they are in the same room and there is a much clearer threat to Ace than the Doctor, who we know will wake up, but we are moving in a new direction. Think about the first cliffhanger ending we get at the end of Aliens of London, when Doctor Who returns in 2005. It’s a multiple jeopardy cliffhanger. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Cliffhangers post-2005 may be few and far between, but how were they accomplished and to what extent did they take inspiration from the past or come up with new ideas? We will find out next time… RP