The Doctor Who Column: Cliffhanger classics!
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Is there another doctor in the house..?
If there's one thing that I lament about the new series of Doctor Who it's that there aren't enough cliffhangers. Ever since the Time Lord returned from a cancellation grave, the seasons were divided into bite-size standalone stories and hefty two-parters, which meant maybe three cliffhangers per season.
Which isn't really enough. Up until 1989, one of Doctor Who's signature hallmarks was the cliffhanger. It was the method by which to bring back the viewers for the next instalment, a ploy going way back to those creaky old B-Movies in the black and white days. Many of the soap operas always end the episodes on cliffhangers, from grimy old EastEnders through to sunny Neighbours (hopefully one of these days, a Neighbours cliffhanger will involve slimy rat-boy Rhys and a hungry bear).
The cliffhanger is a trick that especially appeals to kids – I should know: I remember in the good old days wondering what would happen next in time-honoured classics such as Codename Icarus or The Red Hand Gang (although they just seemed to repeat the same old three adventures every summer between around 1977 and 1984). And because a good number of kids tune into Doctor Who, the cliffhanger's a great way of not only tempting them back for more, but also scaring them out of their wits.
So let's salute the great entity that is the Doctor Who cliffhanger – as seen in a not-too-unlucky 13 options...
DOCTOR IN PERIL
Normally cropped up at least once per story between 1963 and 1989. The Doctor In Peril cliffhanger has the Time Lord in some terrifying scenario that could leave him at death's door. So he's been grabbed by alien beasties and snarling monsters, threatened with the chop by countless boo-hiss baddies and cornered by his deadliest enemies. It's the meat and potatoes way of bringing back the viewers next time to see if he will have to use up another regeneration, or at the very least, see how he will get out of his terrible predicament.
Notable examples: The Mind Of Evil uses this particular trick on The Doctor a lot, and what makes the cliffhangers to Episodes One and Three work is making the rock-solid, fearless Third Doctor have a full-on panic attack. It also helps that these two see The Doctor cry out in fear and terror – even at a floating picture of a Zarbi, so things must be bad. Making The Doctor scream raises the stakes even more, since his chances of survival look next to zero.
A good example of this is, of course, in Pyramids Of Mars' third part, when a furious Sutekh flings The Doctor back against the wall with a green light and a bellowing “AAAAAAGGGGGHH” that's guaranteed to perforate the eardrums. No one can quite do agonised pain like Tom Baker, and he really sells the intensity of this cliffhanger. Furthermore, Hinchcliffe and Holmes didn't let the Time Lord off the hook quite so easily, since the first five minutes of Part Four boast a healthy mixture of mental anguish, torture and more screaming than a Justin Bieber fan club.
By the 1980s, The Doctor was still feeling the wrath of alien horrors, and in 1988, his most fearsome adversary nearly achieved its wish. Yes, it looked like the Daleks had nearly cracked the case of exterminating The Doctor at the end of Remembrance Of The Daleks' first episode. Great technique of shooting The Doctor's terrified fizzog from the Dalek POV, although in the end, all it took was for Ace to open a door.
DEAD AS A DOCTOR
Some cliffhangers went further with the whole Doctor In Peril routine, by actually seeming to kill off the Time Lord. It looked like there was no return for the good Doctor in some stories, with only a devious get-out clause ensuring that this wasn't quite the case.
Take the ending of The Leisure Hive, in which Tom's Doctor is apparently dismembered in a big black bubble with an almighty roar. Not even a super-size tub of superglue could quite fix this, so it's handy that it just turned out to be a convenient projection. The Doctor also apparently dies at the end of Vengeance On Varos after the mental illusion of a hot desert becomes too much – good cliffhanger, but he's back up and about not long after, and making sarky quips at two crispy fried guards.
Perhaps the best example of providing a neat resolution to a Dead Doctor is tying up the ending of Caves of Androzani Part One. So The Doctor's been riddled with bullets while suffering the indignity of dressing up as Little Red Riding Hood. In fact, it turns out that The Doctor and Peri have been rescued by Sharaz Jek, who has craftily replaced them with perfect duplicates. All the clues were there – the emotionless behaviour of both 'victims', Jek's mad laughter and his chuckling factory antics: meaningless at the time, but a big plot point in hindsight.
COMPANION IN PERIL
You can't have The Doctor in peril all the time, so you need to alternate this with putting the companion in deep schtuck. Given that most companions were girls with loud, shrill screams, there's a whole load of melodrama to be had here.
Some companions fare better than others, although in the case of tough Sevateem warrior Leela, it's all the more jarring to see her screaming in pain while being dragged to her doom by a cuddly giant rat (Talons Of Weng-Chiang, Part Three). Others, however, are tailor-made for the cliffhanger sting – take Victoria Waterfield, a bawling crybaby who would presumably jump in terror at the sight of a mewing kitten. Fury From The Deep Episode One probably proves to be her finest hour, trapped at the mercy of a clump of seaweed (and all to the strains of some great sound effects and electronic noodling from Dudley Simpson).
Sarah-Jane's another one, despite her tough Women's Lib stance – The Brain Of Morbius has three Sarah-Jane cliffhangers, all at the claws or brain of the ranting maniac. Genesis Of The Daleks Part Two even has her freeze framed in mid air after falling from the rocket gantry, although, inexplicably, she glides into a handy ledge to land on.
And there's also any Mel cliffhanger, which is usually accompanied by screaming so shrill, the building will fall down around you if you watch them in succession.
What better way to introduce your brand new blobby alien? Build them up to spin out the intrigue and then, in the hands of a good director, bring them in with a great big camera zoom-in and the cliffhanger scream. The Silurians aren't seen until the third cliffhanger of their début story, which takes quite a bit of staying power. There's also the brilliant build-up of the ending of the first part of Terror Of The Zygons, which is textbook genius from the mind of Douglas Camfield.
The granddaddy of this genre goes all the way back to 1963, when the Daleks are introduced. The first part of The Daleks ends with Barbara shrieking at a sink plunger. Now that's clever stuff – it's a monster revelation, but even then, you're forced to wait until next week to find out what this terrifying being looks like.
GOODIE GOODIE DUM DUM DUM
An interesting cliffhanger is when one of the incidental good guys meets a horrible fate. Now this is intended to heighten the fear and raise the stakes by saying that even the good guys and gals won't make the bitter end. So there's an angry Winlett Krynoid throttling the life out of a well-meaning Moberley at the end of Seeds Of Doom Part One. Or a smug Count Scarlioni bigging up his badass status by reducing his hapless professor to a dusty old skeleton at the end of the third part of City Of Death.
Maybe the oddest example of this is Kinda Part Three, in which shrivelled wise woman Panna is pronounced dead by a foghorn-voiced Todd. Quite what makes the old bat expire is never really explained – perhaps it's the effort of showing Todd and The Doctor the dreaded TOTP video effects of doom. Or maybe Aris came up and bashed her over the bonce in secret – although this is unlikely, since both The Doc and Todd would have been alerted by his very subtle laughter. Doesn't quite warrant a cliffhanger though - “It's the end of everything!” would have made for a much better hook. But it's just a small nitpick of this superb story.
YOU KNOW I'M BAD
The opposite end of this spectrum is to put one of the so-called bad guys in trouble at the end of the episode. Normally, this is at the hands of a much greater force, thereby reducing the original baddie to a laughable amateur. Take The Daemons Episode Three, in which certified bad guy The Master is left cowering and screaming at the prospect of having to listen to Stephen Thorne bellow at the top of his voice for an eternity. And Roger Delgado does the screaming in fear thing just as well as any companion.
The Hinchcliffe years are especially good at this trick. Two smokin' examples come in the quaking forms of Ibrahim Namin and Count Federico. Having summoned what he thinks is Sutekh with the theme tune from '70s kids' show, Potter's Picture Palace, Namin gets a nasty shock when it turns out that he's a useless diversion, now that Marcus Scarman has returned from the dead in a bin liner/crash helmet ensemble. Cue lots of hideous screaming and agonised death throes at the burning hands of the real Servant of Sutekh.
Count Federico also gets the same sort of treatment when he's burnt to a crisp by his old sparring partner, Hieronymous. It's a different sort of deal – whereas Namin regarded Sutekh with reverence, Federico regards Hieronymous with sneering contempt. But the tables are turned on the hammy old fool when Hieronymous has clearly ascended to another plain quite beyond his comprehension. And as Federico departs from this mortal coil with a bolt of fire and a hearty shriek, it's quite clear that his machinations were pretty small beer indeed.
PROVERBIAL HITS THE FAN
This is when it seems as if everything has gone to pot, and there's absolutely no chance of a happy ending. Even back in the 1960s, cliffhangers could end with no hope whatsoever. Take the ending of the first instalment of The Mind Robber. The TARDIS blows up. The Doctor spins away in a cloud of smoke. Jamie and Zoe are left clinging onto a disembodied central console. No redemption in sight, with adolescent boys only consoled by the sight of Zoe's arse.
The reboot of Doctor Who does this sort of thing on a much grander scale. The Pandorica Opens apparently imprisons The Doctor for good and kills off Amy, while The Sound Of Drums handed The Master victory on a plate, complete with side-dishes of an aged, helpless Doctor, a captured Jack and the Earth at the mercy of the infernal Toclafane. Now that's a cliffhanger and a half.
THE MANY-TIERED CLIFFHANGER
NuWho also does the many-tiered cliffhanger – coming hot on the heels of the three-tiered Masque Of Mandragora ending to Part Two. I would say “well”, but sometimes this isn't quite the case. Aliens Of London ends on a three-tiered cliffhanger: Jackie at the claws of a policeman Slitheen; Rose and Harriet at the claws of Margaret Slitheen and The Doctor gurning and groaning while being electrocuted by two cackling imbeciles. Problem is, it's quite ham-fistedly shot with the end result being that it takes about 25 minutes for the episode cliffhanger to finally end.
Fortunately Silence In The Library did it better with the traditional cliffhanger of The Doctor being stalked by a spacesuited skeleton going up against the macabre sight of Donna's disembodied head on a revolving pedestal.
WEIRD SCIENCE FICTION
Surreal can be a good thing in Who cliffhangers, and when The Doctor's trapped in the Gallifreyan Matrix, this is normally fair game. The Ultimate Foe's cliffhanger of The Doctor being pulled into quicksand by disembodied hands works for this reason, although The Deadly Assassin Part Two remains the king. It's that off-kilter way in which it's filmed with the jerky, speeded-up train hurtling pell-mell at a grimacing Doctor. The masked train driver only adds to the surreal horror of the scenario. Reactionary old battleaxe Whitehouse was none too pleased with the next drowning cliffhanger either.
Sometimes though Who cliffhangers can make viewers go “What the...?” but for the wrong reasons. The Daleks In Manhattan cliffhanger is jarringly odd, but only because it's hard to believe that the production team could have thought that Dalek Sec was actually a half-credible baddie in the first place.
THE DARK SIDE OF THE LOON?
So The Doctor can be lured over to the dark side, eh? Even Patrick Troughton's mild-mannered Doctor could have been swayed by the dark forces, if you believe Episode Eight of The War Games. Time Lords stick together, eh?
Well, not according to the mid to late 1970s. Tom's Doctor was one of those incarnations who could have just possibly gone over to the dark side. The Deadly Assassin and The Invasion Of Time push this concept to the limit. The former sees The Doctor apparently gun down the Gallifreyan President, while the latter has him bursting into evil laughter as three sorry tin-foil shapes invade his home planet. Cracking, compelling stuff, and convincing enough to make you wonder if The Doctor really had hung up the good fight for good.
TAKING IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL
Some cliffhangers rely more on deepening the mystery of the story, and taking the adventure to the next level. Each City Of Death cliffhanger steers the tale in a new direction, and adding an extra plot strand in the process (eg: How is Scarlioni the one-eyed tentacled monster? How is Scarlioni in 16th century Italy?).
The Davison years also mastered this idea with intriguing results. Bigon's robotic reveal at the end of Part Two of Four To Doomsday is a notable example, as is the first part of Enlightenment, which reveals that the traditional old Edwardian ship is actually floating deep in the heart of space.
CHEERS NOT TEARS
A reversal of the traditional 'Doctor In Peril' cliffhanger, in which The Doctor actually makes the viewer cheer with his gritty optimism at getting out of a bad situation. While some of the recent examples of this breed have been strong, they still don't compare with the breathless adrenalin rush of Caves Of Androzani Part Three, in which a dying man focuses on one single aim – to save his companion. Bravura acting from Peter Davison and stellar, powerhouse direction from Graeme Harper make for a formidable combination.
Mind you, Eccleston's Bad Wolf shopping list of things to do was pretty awesome too. The Doctor's vengeful tirade against the Weeping Angels would have been too, if it wasn't for a pesky cartoon animation of Graham Norton.
The BBC at their finest.
While we're on the subject of poor decisions, let's spare a thought for the truly useless cliffhangers – a gaggle of useless effects, illogical logic and underwhelming dilemmas. Time-Flight Part One sees The Doctor surrounded by men in cat turd costumes. Death To The Daleks Part Three pits The Doctor against a mosaic on the floor. While Dragonfire Part One sees The Doctor officially lose the plot and try to take the quick way down an icy ravine using only his brolly.
Cliffhangers, by and large though, have provided the fans with some enduring memories. They kept the viewers thirsty for more with their death-defying scenarios and iconic images. I haven't even scratched the surface with the choices above, so if you wish, you can post some of your favourite cliffhangers in the comments box...
John Bensalhia is a freelance journalist who has extensively written for more than 10 years on subjects such as franchising, ports, Italy, DIY, tractors, sports and arboriculture. Not to mention reviews for Blake's 7 and Doctor Who, which he's been a fan of ever since he was a little kid.
When not writing, John likes drumming, guitar strumming, cycling, cartoon drawing, pre-1990s music and animals. He lives with his lovely wife Alison and many guinea pigs. Catch some of John's work or get in contact through his website at www.johnbensalhia.co.uk.
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