The Pit is open. And I am free. Bwahahahahahaha!
That’s very Classic Who, isn’t it: a cliffhanger ending on the villain’s maniacal laugh. And it’s a Classic throwback in more ways than one, because it is also a particular kind of cliffhanger where the villain’s plan is progressing in some way. The quote is taken from The Impossible Planet. The trapdoor has opened, and the planet has started to fall into the black hole. So there is a lot happening here.
What tends to happen in 21st Century Doctor Who is that ideas are borrowed from the Classic Series and then taken to the next level. So how do you take a cliffhanger ending that is about the villain’s plan progressing, and turn it up to eleven? Well, you end the episode at a point where the villain has comprehensively triumphed. So The Sound of Drums ends with London in flames, under attack by the Toclafane, and the Master victorious, giving his faux-biblical speech:
And so it came to pass that the human race fell, and the Earth was no more. And I looked down upon my new dominion as Master of all, and I thought it good.
Then in The Stolen Earth we get an episode ending with the Daleks in control of the Earth and having just exterminated the Doctor. Finally, The End of Time Part One is another comprehensive victory for the Master, who has imprinted himself on the whole human race.
These are examples of being inspired by the long history of Doctor Who cliffhanger endings, and taking them to the next level, but sometimes it is sufficient to just recognise a good format and do it again. The Davies era has a couple of cliffhanger ideas that are highly reminiscent of the Hartnell era. Utopia ends on a good example of a category of cliffhanger that was popular during the 1960s, with the Doctor and his companions separated from the TARDIS in some way; the “we can’t get back to the TARDIS” cliffhanger, alive and well in the 21st Century. The Hartnell era was partly told as a continuous narrative, with cliffhangers between stories. Davies does that too:
- Doomsday: Donna appears in the TARDIS in her wedding dress.
- Last of the Time Lords: The TARDIS crashes into the Titanic.
- Turn Left: Bad Wolf is returning.
But surely a creative mind like Davies came up with some entirely new ideas for cliffhanger endings? Well, we mentioned in the last article how Bad Wolf ends with the Doctor giving an inspiring speech, subverting the usual Doctor/danger cliffhanger by placing the monsters in danger from the Doctor. This is also an example of the major new category of cliffhangers that is predominant during the Davies era: the curveball. Something unexpected happens. There are much clearer examples.
In Rise of the Cybermen the episode ends with the Doctor surrendering to the Cybermen. We know what should happen next, especially if we have seen the Classic Series. The Cybermen will capture the Doctor and threaten to convert him, giving him ample time to find a way to escape. But the Cybermen throw a curveball, deciding not to accept the Doctor’s surrender and “delete” him instead. You can see the surprise and panic on the Doctor’s face. What normally works for the Doctor doesn’t work here, and that’s the nature of the curveball.
A couple of those between-stories cliffhangers mentioned above are also curveball endings: the TARDIS crashing into the Titanic, and Donna appearing in the TARDIS. In The Stolen Earth we probably get the ultimate curveball ending, with the Doctor exterminated by the Daleks and starting to regenerate. We are expecting an impending regeneration, but not yet, so for a week we are left to speculate if the Eleventh Doctor is turning up early and has been kept secret. Finally for the Davies era, in The End of Time Part One we seem to be heading for a straightforward cliffhanger ending with the Master victorious, as I mentioned above, and then the Time Lords show up.
In 2010 a new showrunner brought radical new ideas to Doctor Who, but did Steven Moffat also bring new ideas to the cliffhanger endings? We will find out when this series of articles concludes in the New Year… RP