The Six Best Doctor Who Cliffhangers

Saturday teatime, 5.25, mum in the kitchen and dad somewhere in the garden playing with his tools. But I’m curled up on the beige and brown sofa scarred with sticky, plastic cigarette burns. My brother’s there and probably anyone else who has nothing better to do: grandma, uncles chuckling away, the dog chewing some unpleasant object that it’s found under the sofa. Everyone’s watching the same thing … everyone’s watching Doctor Who.

It’s part of the fabric of our lives, and a huge part of the fun is guessing what that week’s cliffhanger will be.  Being kids, we didn’t really keep an eye on the time, so we were also suckers for the false cliffhanger. The moment when a man in a rubber suit lurches out of the darkness only fifteen minutes into that week’s episode. The real horror there was that the episode would be over too quickly, and we would be whisked back from the edge of the universe to dull suburbia all too soon.

Here is my selection of the six best Doctor Who cliffhangers.  It’s curious though that three of the best are from the First Doctor’s era, and two of the others come from the same story. However, that story, The Caves of Androzani did come from the pen of the master, Robert Holmes.

An Unearthly Child         episode 1 (1963)

Possibly the finest episode in the series’ history is the very first one.  Is it a coincidence that both Doctor Who and Star Trek had their pilot episodes filmed twice? This was almost unheard of in the 1960s. Yet both of the world’s longest running science fiction series were given another go. In the Doctor Who The Beginning box set you can see the original pilot and the final transmitted version, and the greater energy is clear to see.  Star Trek’s first episode, by contrast, was completely rewritten and much of the cast replaced.

But that cliffhanger! With no warning, we have moved from a London scrap yard in 1963 to a deserted wasteland. We see the mysterious Doctor in his qaraqal hat and black coat, looking like a Gothic sorcerer. He surveys the screen with the desert waste without, but he seems as puzzled as us, whilst his kidnapped travellers lay strewn and unconscious on the floor.

Outside, the Tardis stands in a barren expanse of blackened trees and dust.

Then, stepping from screen left, the shadow  of a watcher slips over the dry earth towards the Tardis’ landing site. Grainy white text flashes up on the screen, a tantalising glimpse of the adventures to come:  “Next episode: The Cave of Skulls.”

Our lives would never be the same!

The Time Meddler           episode 3 (1965)

As Doctor Who moved on, it created its own formula and story-telling ticks. Many cliffhangers revolved around the Doctor or the companion in peril, facing some foe that remained unseen to the viewer at home. In the early days, the writers had somewhat more freedom in setting up an episode ending. The very best of all came at the end of The Time Meddler episode 3.

By this stage in the story, most people will have guessed that the Meddling Monk is a time traveller. The anachronistic bric-a-brac that fills his monastery is sufficient evidence of that. Yet the moment when Vicki and Steven wander through a deserted monastery and head beneath the altar is still a complete surprise.

As Vicki gasps “it’s a Tardis! The monk’s got a Tardis!” We also jump back in surprise. The Doctor is not alone! There are others like him, but more mischievous, and even evil. Up to this point, no other Time Lords have appeared in the series, in fact their race hasn’t even been named. Now suddenly, we are faced with the prospect that other travellers cross space and time in a Tardis of their own, with the huge potential for story-telling that that involves.

The Ark                 episode 2 (1966)

The monoids don’t work. Dodo’s character is a bit odd. The future population of earth are wearing some very dodgy glad rags. By 21st century standards, the pacing is painfully slow. Yet, at the heart of The Ark is a concept that is much underused in the series. What if the Doctor jumps forward and sees the effects of his actions many, many years later in the future?

The hinge of the story is a fabulous cliffhanger at the end of episode 2 where the time travellers move forward in time rather than space. They return to an apparently deserted ark and discover that the humans’  incomplete statue has now been finished. However, as the camera slowly pans up the body, the awful truth slowly dawns on us. The human head has been replaced with a monoid! The mute servants of the humans have taken over the Ark!

Part of the surprise here comes from the fact that the 1960s script writers were writing science fiction stories first and foremost, and Doctor Who stories second. This is why the stories constantly surprise us, in the way that the 1970s ones often do not. Once Doctor Who became written to a formula based around four similarly constructed episodes, it became much more of a show, and less of a showcase of ideas.

Honourable mention:

The Tenth Planet              episode 4 (1966)

Although this episode is missing, the final regeneration scene remains and can be seen on The Lost In Time box set. This sequence must have amazed viewers back in 1966. The appearance of the Doctor suddenly changed from William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton. Even as this is taking place, an eerie atmosphere permeates the Tardis as the lights flicker and the controls take on a life of their own. Suddenly, we were reminded that the Doctor was an alien, and very different to ourselves. “This old body of mine is wearing a bit thin…”

Dishonourable mention:

The Stones of Blood        episode 1 (1978)

You have to love David Fisher’s tongue-in-cheek cliffhanger, where the Doctor’s companion Romana really is left hanging by her fingernails at the edge of a cliff. A case of the writer’s revenge?

Destiny of the Daleks     episode 2 (1979)

Perhaps a personal choice here, but the end of this episode is etched in my childhood memory. Accompanied by a band of robotic Boney M dancers, the Doctor flees  a squad of daleks. He heads further into the ruined and deserted base of the Kaleds. Everything is covered in dust. Broken machinery lies all around. Deep below the ground is something the daleks are searching for: the seemingly dead body of their creator, Davros.

The last time we saw Davros and this complex in Genesis of the Daleks, the master scientist was being exterminated by his own creations. When the adventurers come upon the cobwebbed body, still trapped in his dalek chair, we have no idea that he may still be alive. As the Doctor and Romana’s attention is taken by the pursing daleks, Davros is left alone. His fingers begin to quiver … he is alive!

The Caves of Androzani              episode 1 (1984)

One of the problems with Doctor Who is that the writers often want to set up utterly impossible scenarios. The viewer is left gasping, thinking “how on earth can this be happening?” Only then to discover at the end of four weeks that the impossible has been achieved by preposterous plotting.

In The Caves of Androzani, Robert Holmes pushes the envelope just as far as he can. We see Peri and the Doctor executed by firing squad. Normally, the episode would break at the word “ready … aim … fire!”, just before a deus ex machine pops up off camera to save the day. In this case, there is nothing. The guns blast. The episode ends. The Doctor and Peri are dead! And we believe it for two reasons. Firstly, there is no other possible solution. Secondly, by this stage in the series’ history, we know all about regeneration. Press reports have told us that a new lead actor is coming. This time, we know the Doctor really can die at any time.

When we discover the truth, that a master scientist, Sharaz Jek, has created android replicas of the Doctor and Peri, we can just about accept it as a fair resolution.  It is gripping, and it’s only on second watch (which we didn’t have back in the 1980s because the repeats were few and far between), that we notice how stilted the android Doctor and Peri are, as they are lead towards their ‘execution’.

The Caves of Androzani              episode 3 (1984)

Having written such a great cliffhanger for episode 1, Holmes then trumps himself with his epic cliffhanger for episode 3, and here the director Graeme Harper must take some of the credit. With a budget of pennies and working just within the confines of a BBC studio, we see the Doctor apparently piloting an out-of-control space ship directly towards the surface of a planet. Peter Davison puts in a great performance as he strains and struggles to battle with the failing controls. All the while, a gang of villainous mercenaries are trying to cut through to the cockpit to seize control of the ship. The camera shakes. The craft vibrates. They surge closer to the planet ahead. The Doctor screams they will all very likely die. It’s the penultimate episode of the Fifth Doctor’s run … surely this is the end?

As if that wasn’t enough, all the while, Peri is menaced by the sinister Sharaz Jek, defenceless in his clutches, as he stalks his underground lair. It’s melodrama of the very finest kind. It’s also far more exciting than any other episode either in the classic series or the modern one.

Just as an aside, although The Caves of Androzani has two of the best cliffhangers ever, it also has possibly the worst. The less said about the appalling monster that shambles around a polystyrene cave at the end of episode 2, the better. It’s unintentionally hilarious and such “heights” would not be reached again until, er, the very next story The Twin Dilemma, which I won’t be blogging about either now or at any other point in the future!

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4 responses to “The Six Best Doctor Who Cliffhangers

  1. Davros brings back memories. I have the novelization of Genesis of the Daleks by Terence Dicks. My family would travel to England in November and I was lucky enough to go to Foyles and buy a box of books and ship them back to the US. I saw the cover of the book and was amazed, since the US was behind the UK schedule with Doctor Who by about 2 years. I read the book, loved it and was even more amazed by the actual episodes when i finally could see them.

    What struck me the most was when the Doctor did not destroy the Dalek lab and had the monologue “What alliances will not be formed if I take this step. Will they be at war with each other instead of in league against the Daleks?” Great stuff.

    Love your blog – I came upon it via the “Freshly Pressed” in WordPress and look forward to reading more.

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