The Seventh Doctor stories were ahead of their time in many ways, and when we looked at the McCoy era cliffhangers we noticed something that foreshadowed the return of Doctor Who in 2005: the multiple-jeopardy cliffhanger. When Doctor Who returned in 2005 it was in a 45-minute episode format, but the cliffhanger endings were not abandoned altogether. There was a mix of single episode and two-episode stories, and that was the pattern that would continue for several years. So our first cliffhanger ending of the 21st Century is at the end of Aliens of London, and it is a multiple-jeopardy cliffhanger:
- In the Tyler’s flat, Jackie is menaced by PC Strickland, who is unzipping his head.
- In the Cabinet Office, Margaret Blaine is unzipping her head.
- In the Briefing Room, Green electrocutes a room of people, including the Doctor.
Whether this is a clever new way to turn the cliffhanger excitement up to eleven, or just displays a lack of confidence in the very last-century idea of a cliffhanger ending, is a matter of opinion; a new approach, or just hedging their bets? Either way, it is an approach that was not pursued very much, with the only other examples of multiple-jeopardy cliffhangers in the Davies era in The Empty Child and The Stolen Earth.
Note in the Aliens of London example how there is a hierarchy of danger, working towards the end of the episode. Jackie Tyler is in her flat, Rose is in the Cabinet Office, and the Doctor is in the Briefing Room. So we have a heirarchy of pseudo-companion, companion, Doctor, with the episode ending on the Doctor being endangered.
Placing the Doctor in danger is one of the most frequently used and basic forms of cliffhanger in Doctor Who, and happens again in The Empty Child, Rise of the Cybermen, Utopia, and Silence in the Library. In The Sounds of Drums the Master ages the Doctor almost to death near the end of the episode, which is something of a throwback to the Tom Baker era in terms of episode endings: the damaged Doctor cliffhanger. In Silence in the Library we also get a damaged companion cliffhanger, another Tom Baker era throwback, with Donna “saved”.
In common with the Classic Series, the companion/danger cliffhangers are just as commonplace as Doctor/danger, if not more so. The companion(s) are imperiled at the end of the episode, either individually or part of a group, in The Empty Child, Rise of the Cybermen, Human Nature, Utopia and The Stolen Earth, but in all cases their peril is not the sole focus of the cliffhanger. There is always somebody else in danger as well. Interestingly, the one cliffhanger that really goes out of its way to focus on a single companion is The Sontaran Stratagem, which ends with Wilf trapped in a car filled with gas. This is something extremely rare prior to 2005 (again, the McCoy era provides us with our best precedent), the pseudo-companion/danger cliffhanger. This also happens in the aforementioned Aliens of London multiple-cliffhanger with Jackie, in Human Nature with Joan, and as part of The Stolen Earth multiple-cliffhanger with Ianto and Gwen.
There is also one glorious subversion of all these cliffhangers that place the Doctor and his friends in danger. Bad Wolf ends with the Daleks clearly scared of the Doctor, who is promising to “wipe every last stinking Dalek out of the sky”. Now that really is clever: a monster/danger cliffhanger, i.e. an ending that endangers the monsters rather than the Doctor, and with the Doctor as the source of that danger. But this particular example is functioning on another level as well, which we will get to.
We have talked about cliffhangers which endanger the Doctor and his companions, but there was another big category of cliffhangers during the Classic Series: the monster reveal. So what about those? Do we get any of those during the Russell T. Davies era? In the 20th Century they tended to happen at the end of the first episode of a four or six-part story, but the Davies era does not have that luxury, with multi-part stories consisting of only two (or at the most three) episodes. So the monster reveals tend to happen earlier in the episodes, often during the pre-credits teaser, which in many ways functions like an old Episode One cliffhanger. That’s not to say that the RTD era is devoid of monster reveal cliffhangers. It’s just that when they occur they have to be secondary monsters. In Army of Ghosts, we have already had the presence of the Cybermen in the story revealed, and the Daleks turn up as well. In Daleks in Manhattan the secondary monster is the human Dalek Sec, and in The End of Time Part One, the Time Lords turn up as a secondary villain. Note how each of these attempts to raise the stakes.
The Davies era also comes up with some exciting new ideas for cliffhangers that really depart from anything we have seen in the Classic Series. We will look at those next time… RP
I feel in certain ways that modern Who cliffhangers have changed for the better. For the sake of giving Dr. Who a whole new scope for this century, the Whoniverse is virtually a whole new sci-fi universe within the modern Who than the classic series, which worked similarly enough between the classic Star Trek and The Next Generation. Series 11 may not have cliffhanger reviews with what Chibnall has intended so far. But it’s a reminder of how Dr. Who still embraces change for either the sake of just breaking molds or the inevitable adjustments of the times. Given how the most recently generalized shifts in the sci-fi TV universe for this century are indebted enough to how successfully revitalized Dr. Who has become, to the point of specifically mixed reviews for both Dr. Who: S11 and Star Trek: Discovery, it may just come down to on how much Whovians want more Dr. Who and how much Trekkers want more Star Trek. But if fans would easily find enough appreciation for obvious changes, when the main Dr. Who formula is either progressed (either with better FX or more impacting cliffhangers) or considerably mellowed as seen in S11, then quite simplistically and refreshingly it comes down to how uniquely unpredictable Dr. Who continues to be.
Thanks for beginning your cliffhanger reviews for the modern Who.
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