DOCTOR: Oh, big mistake. Huge. Didn’t anyone every tell you there’s one thing you never put in a trap? If you’re smart, if you value your continued existence, if you have any plans about seeing tomorrow, there is one thing you never, ever put in a trap.
BOB: And what would that be, sir?
… and the Doctor fires the gun. That’s the first cliffhanger ending of the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who (from The Time of Angels), and it doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Superficially it’s a group danger cliffhanger, but it’s also one of those where the Doctor is doing something a bit unexpected, and to a certain extent it’s also one of those big speech moments. So a few previous techniques get rolled into one.
The Hungry Earth is our next example, and again it’s not hugely ambitious. Amy is about to be dissected by a Silurian, who is approaching her with a scalpel, and in the meantime the Doctor discovers a vast chamber full of Silurians. This is the Moffat era drawing on the past: take a Russell T. Davies double jeopardy, add a twist of The Underwater Menace, and a pinch of Planet of the Daleks, plus a good old Troughton-era escalation of the threat.
Then we have The Pandorica Opens. Rory weeps over the body of Amy, whom he just killed, the Doctor is trapped in the Pandorica, while the TARDIS explodes and the universe is destroyed.
OK, that’s a little different.
So we have a companion danger cliffhanger turned up to eleven, because the companion is dead. That’s not new. It goes back a long way. But also we have a situation where everyone and everything has been destroyed, and that’s the new bit. And here we have the big Moffat era cliffhanger idea: something seemingly permanent and final is going to have to be reversed in the next episode, so the cliffhanger poses the question of how exactly that is going to happen. It’s a stroke of genius.
It happens again in Under the Lake, with the reveal of the Ghost Doctor (how will the dead Doctor be un-deaded?), and The Zygon Invasion, with the Doctor’s plane exploding (a slightly weaker example). In both cases the cliffhanger revolves around the Doctor’s apparent death, and of course there are also occasions where that happens with the companion. Apart from the example with Amy above, there is also Clara’s death in Face the Raven, although that is not the moment of the cliffhanger (we’ll get to that), and the Cyber-Bill reveal in World Enough and Time.
Sometimes the cliffhanger can be about the Doctor or companion as the killer rather than the victim, and somehow these can seem even more dramatic, as they tend to be out of character. So we have the Doctor executing Ganger Amy in The Almost People, and on the verge of killing Davros in The Magician’s Apprentice. In The Impossible Astronaut, it is Amy’s turn to be the murderer, shooting the child astronaut. This is also a good example of a game-changer cliffhanger, a point two episodes pivot around. Other good examples can be found in The Rebel Flesh (Ganger Doctor!) and The Pyramid at the End of the World (Bill giving away the planet in exchange for the Doctor’s sight).
Sometimes these game changers during the Moffat era can be very left field: the War Doctor reveal (The Name of the Doctor) and the Doctor meeting the First Doctor (The Doctor Falls). They also tend to be BIG developments, such as the Doctor arriving on Gallifrey (Heaven Sent)… or this:
MISSY: Oh, you know who I am. I’m Missy.
DOCTOR: Who’s Missy?
MISSY: Please, try to keep up. Short for Mistress. Well, I couldn’t very well keep calling myself the Master, now could I?
So a lot of the Moffat cliffhangers function on all kinds of levels. Consider these ones:
- Amy shoots the child astronaut (The Impossible Astronaut)
- The Doctor sonics ganger Amy, while the real Amy is giving birth (The Almost People)
- River reveals she is Amy and Rory’s daughter (A Good Man Goes to War)
- The War Doctor reveal (The Name of the Doctor)
- Missy is the Master (Dark Water)
- Missy and the Master are teaming up, and Bill is a Cyberman (World Enough and Time)
These could all be summed up like this: everything you thought you knew is wrong. Unless you’re a particularly astute viewer, of course, or a spoiler addict. And to return to Face the Raven, the actual cliffhanger is not quite the death of Clara, but the Doctor teleporting away to somewhere unknown. It asks the question very strongly: what’s going to happen next?
But we’ll finish this series of articles exactly where the Moffat era finishes, and fittingly it’s with one of his new tricks: the post-regeneration Doctor/danger cliffhanger. The Eleventh Doctor arrives and immediately the TARDIS goes out of control. At the end of The Time of the Doctor, the Twelfth Doctor asks Clara how to fly the TARDIS. He is immediately in danger. And to bring us right to the end of the Moffat era, the Thirteenth Doctor’s first act is to fall out of the TARDIS, taking the Matt Smith first moments to their logical extremes. It’s hard to see where we can go from here, unless the Fourteenth Doctor regenerates and then immediately explodes. Let’s not go there. I think this particular approach to cliffhangers has run its course.
And where will Doctor Who take us next? Will there even be cliffhanger endings in the future at all? Will anyone ever invent a truly new way to leave us wanting more between episodes, or has every good idea been thought of? Only time will tell… RP