12 Brilliant Doctor Who Cliffhangers
Any serious fan of Doctor Who has got to love the series’ legendary cliffhangers. A couple of years ago, I listed some of the very worst, my reasoning being that most of us Wholigans could probably name all the best ones from memory with no trouble. Even so, it’s worth recounting them all anyway. As I said in my first post, this show has been around a long, long time and viewers have witnessed probably every type of cliffhanger imaginable: dramatic, horrific, silly, surprising, bizarre, emotional, or confusing. Bad cliffhangers create arbitrary danger that is eye-rollingly contrived or, at worst, completely incomprehensible (OH NO! A TILED FLOOR!). Great cliffhangers, on the other hand, can wake up an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative and inject a much-needed left turn into the proceedings. Some of these have become iconic, and a lot of them are ten times more famous than anything else in the episodes they arise from. It’s relatively easy to put your main characters in harm’s way and call it a day. It takes a little extra oomph to turn that into something really involving and hair-raising. Let’s dive in then, shall we? Spoilers ahead, naturally.
12) Discombobulation, “The Leisure Hive” Part 1
“Leisure Hive” is no classic by any means and in fact signals the beginning of the end for Tom Baker’s illustrious reign; its main distinction is that it features a physically old version of the Doctor, a concept I still find slightly confusing. The man’s already been around for nearly a millennia; what’s another century or two, more or less? (the next story, “Meglos” is most memorable for featuring Tom as an evil cactus, so you get the idea). Still, this cliffhanger is pretty goddamn terrifying, as our hero investigates an alien device only to be apparently dismembered. I think part of the reason this works so well is because Tom Baker’s scream seems to extend into the stinger music and echo across the cosmos. Who cares if the image of him on the screen kind of looks like something from Weinerville?
11) The Dalek Takes the Stairs, “Remembrance of the Daleks” Part 1
Fans familiar only with New Who might incorrectly site the Eccleston episode “Dalek” as the first time the Doctor’s most famous foes managed to “elevate”. Not true. This essential Seventh Doctor episode featured a classic ending in which Sylvester McCoy discovers this unnerving Dalek feature while investigating the basement of Coal Hill School. It begins as a bit of a wink to fans, who had long pointed out that these supposedly formidable monsters could easily be evaded if you kept away from ramps: the Doctor’s instinct to run for the stairs seems to come from years of experience. But even the change-averse Daleks can surprise you every once and awhile, as seen in the complete look of panic on McCoy’s face. That’s a little more credible, actually, than the completely ridiculous part where the schoolmaster punches Ace in the stomach and knocks her apparently unconscious. The effect is fortunately temporary, but it lasts just long enough to make this a solid nail-biter.
10) The Human Dalek, “Daleks in Manhattan”
Shocked? I know this two-parter usually isn’t considered very good by the general fan populous. This first episode is downright embarrassing at times (starting with the title: I’m wondering how close they came to replacing “in” with “take”). The Doctor and Martha in a British person’s idea of Depression-era New York, evil industrialists with bad accents, homeless people. Ho hum. It all turns a corner, however, once writer Helen Raynor introduces her central conceit: the Daleks are experimenting with evolution but incapable of accepting the necessary change to their philosophy that this would entail. In the following episode, the far superior “Evolution of the Daleks”, Dalek (Manlek?) Sec would prove to be an enlightened forward thinker and ultimately a martyr, a figure capable of bringing compassion to a race that has no use for it. We didn’t know all that when this happened, though, and you can’t say you weren’t at least a little excited to see that monstrous broccoli-headed creature step out of its shell. That and David Tennant saying “Skaro” almost made it worth sitting through all of the showtunes, pig-people and clunky Biblical symbolism. Almost.
9) Cybermen March on London, “The Invasion” Part 6
Say what you will about the budgets, pacing, and sporadic unintentional racism: the Troughton era did manage to produce some damn good cliffhangers. “The Invasion” may have a boring title and a bloated plot but it does boast one of the best and most famous scenes of the entire series, and quite possibly one of the best moments of television, period. At this point at the end of the sixth part, we’ve had loads and loads of build-up and seen plenty of horrific things, including an emotion-filled Cyberman screaming in the sewer tunnels. Things seem like they might be slightly better: the Second Doctor and his team are protected from the Cybermen’s signals by polarizers and for a moment, there is nothing. Then that hand punches out of the sewers, and one creepy montage later downtown London is swarming with machine-men. It would all be merely silly and awkward if it wasn’t for the eerie droning techno that plays as they march. Overlook the zippers and spray-painted sneakers and these Cybermen do seem pretty creepy.
8) A Dalek Advances, “The Daleks” Part 1
(The action starts at 20:30.) Oh yes: before “Remembrance of the Daleks”, “Resurrection of the Daleks”, “Death to the Daleks” and “Copyright-Infringing Lesbian Orgy of the Daleks“, there was this, the second Doctor Who story of its first season, simply called “The Daleks”. Imagine being a child in 1963, hooked on this new show and having absolutely no idea what terror was approaching hapless history teacher Barbara Wright, pinned up against the wall in a strange alien complex. The icky undertones of sexual menace aren’t hard to pick up on, either. Fans may be surprised to know that the First Doctor’s era occasionally featured dark and brutal themes, despite its initial pitch as a children’s program (the otherwise comic story “The Time Meddler” even featured an implied rape). They may have become the objects of ridicule and irony later on, spawning skits, novelty Christmas songs, and dubious Britain’s Got Talent acts, but here, in the very beginning, there was nothing all that funny about the Daleks.
7) The Dalek Fleet, “Bad Wolf”
Here’s another one you have to use your imagination to fully appreciate. Cast your mind all the way back to 2005: the new series is in full swing but, aside from the sensational story “Dalek”, the Doctor’s most famous enemies are nowhere to be found. That changes at the climax of “Bad Wolf” in a way that’s satisfying for fans both old and new. N00bs get the thrill of seeing waves and waves of a race thought to be extinct while seasoned vets can enjoy the references to previous Dalek appearances (including an homage to number eight on this very list). And everyone can appreciate Christopher Eccleston’s grandstanding as he enters yet another stand-off with impossible odds. This episode is also a reminder of the short but sweet period when Rose, the Doctor and Captain Jack actually traveled together, before the regeneration, Canary Wharf, and all that Torchwood business. Would that it had lasted longer.
6) The Doctor Is a Murderer, “The Deadly Assassin” Part 1
Doctor Who is routinely praised for its ability to transcend genre and switch tone from episode to episode (sometimes from scene to scene), but there are few stories as tense and psychotic as this Season 14 classic, kind of the closest thing we’ve ever had to an in-series political thriller. The Doctor, working alone for one of the only times in the series, is summoned back to his home planet Gallifrey. We learn some interesting things about his native culture and history, particularly that he is an alumnus of the Prydonian school, as opposed to the Patrexes and Arcalian chapters (obviously). Once there, he soon realizes that he was not called in by the Time Lords but by a shadowy presence who is trying to frame him for the murder of the Lord President. He attempts to stop the assassin (who does indeed turn out to be Deadly), only to be caught in extremely incriminating circumstances. The editing of this scene is so effective that it looks like he really is guilty; it’s not until the Part Two that we discover the Doctor was actually trying to shoot the real killer. It will take some fugitive detective work and a nightmarish trip through the Matrix (suspiciously similar to the later Wachowski film) to clear the Doctor’s name. Fun fact: the Time Lord played by Bernard Horsfall in this story, shiny Chancellor Goth, may or may not be the same Time Lord that sentences the Second Doctor to exile at the end of “The War Games” (also played by Horsfall). It’s never confirmed or denied, so by fan logic, it must be true. In addition, Horsfall starred as Lemuel Gulliver in another Troughton story, but that’s a little more of a stretch.
5) The Pandorica Closes, “The Pandorica Opens”
Lest you think I’m more biased towards the old or obscure stuff, allow me to give my full approval to this one, the closer of the penultimate episode of New Series Five. In more recent years, I’ve been admittedly tiring of Steven Moffat’s repeated vaults over the top, but in my opinion this one remains indisputably good. In Roman Britain, the Doctor, Amy and River Song investigate a strange, ancient artifact, and things only go downhill from there. What makes this dramatically effective is that everything goes wrong for everyone at the same time in the worst possible way: Auton Rory is forced to shoot his fianc?e, River is trapped on the exploding TARDIS, and the Doctor is imprisoned by all of his enemies at once in the mysterious Pandorica. After triumphantly proving throughout the whole season that he really was the old madman we’ve always loved, here the Eleventh Doctor finally does seem too young, like a trapped little boy. Matt Smith is excellent at selling his desperation, and the universe blowing up is just the cataclysmic cherry on the Armageddon cake. Of course, the next episode negates the emotional impact a little bit, but we all knew there was a timey-wimey solution in the works, and we can still appreciate the masterful bit of craziness on display here.
4) Dead Man Flying, “The Caves of Androzani” Part 3
To be honest, this cliffhanger, which routinely tops fan lists, has never struck me as the greatest. It’s a little too confused. The action and intensity makes it hard to grasp the dialogue, and everything goes by a little too fast. One second we’re in the cockpit of a ship about to crash back down to Androzani Minor, the next we’re looking at Peter Davison’s face in the galaxy. But it is pretty awesome, especially as it comes near the climax of arguably the best Doctor Who story ever. The appeal of the Fifth Doctor is sometimes misunderstood. He wasn’t just a mild, ineffective character: he was a failed Doctor, the hero who tried to resolve conflicts without violence but couldn’t. Time and time again we saw him lose, from the death of Adric to the ending of “Warriors of the Deep” which famously concludes with him saying “there should have been another way.” In his final story, he careens from fuckup to fuckup, first getting him and companion Peri poisoned, then losing her to psycho recluse Sharaz Jek, then becoming tangled in the conflict between the military, smugglers, androids, and the dread cave beast. This crazy, desperate attempt to fight back proves that the Doctor now has nothing to lose, and leads to the insane final part, where all hell breaks loose. I know there are some who like to claim that this story isn’t actually as good as its reputation, but whatever its flaws it has some serious setpieces and is a major series landmark if nothing else. Seriously, people: if you’re at all interested, you should just stop reading this and go watch it. The classic series can be intimidating but this one is an excellent encapsulation of why we love it.
3) The Tardis Gets Plucked, “Carnival of Monsters” Part 1
(Begins at 22:30.) If you’re like me, you tend to be partial to the more cerebral moments of this show, even when they fail. Many bad cliffhangers try to pull the rug out from under us and just end up being confusing, but this one gets away with it due to a startling and hilarious visual. Ever since the Doctor and Jo arrived on this weird 1920s-era ship (en route to Metabelis 3, of course), things have seemed out of whack; this is confirmed when a giant hand comes down to remove the TARDIS from the ship’s hold right when it was most inconvenient. What’s even better is the way it’s paced: we hear a noise and think it might be the monster we’ve just seen pop out of the ocean, but instead it’s something completely different, and we only get a couple of seconds to process it. Imagine going a week before finding the answer to that. Of course, the hand belongs not to Terry Gilliam but Vorg, a donut-wearing interplanetary showman trying to wring money out of the monochromatic people of Inter Minor, who unknowingly has the Doctor inside his space-warping Miniscope. We also have an appearance of Ian Marter in a supporting role; he would go on to more memorably play companion/imbecile Harry Sullivan in the Fourth Doctor’s era. Good luck trying to make that work continuity-wise. As far as I’m concerned, what happens in the Miniscope stays in the Miniscope.
2) The Time Lords Arrive, “The War Games” Part 9
(Begins at 22:30.) Out of context, this just looks like a bunch of weirdly dressed people running in slow motion, but it represents one of the most important moments of the show’s 50-year history. The climax of Patrick Troughton’s incredibly long finale, “The War Games”, sees him in dire straits, stuck in the middle of a battle between all of Earth’s most notable wars orchestrated by nefarious aliens and overseen by a rogue Time Lord (who, if you’re willing to bend the facts a little, could be an earlier incarnation of the Master). The situation proves to be too much for him to handle and the Doctor is forced to send for help — via telepathic mind cube — from his people. For the show’s first few years, our only real understanding of the Doctor’s native race was that they were very powerful and he had been forced to flee for some unmentioned reason. We had met other Time Lords before, but not THE Time Lords, the ones in power, and there is a palpable sense of doom and mystery built up around them before they finally appear in Part Ten. Having summoned them, the Doctor tries desperately to flee, attempting to fight against the forces of time itself in a way that feels almost apocalyptic, especially with that organ music. Of course, the Time Lords turn out to be not fearsome Galactus-size space rulers but bureaucrats in weird headdresses who put the Doctor on trial for his meddling, setting the stage for the events of the Third Doctor’s years. Later stories would further diminish the image of the masters of Gallifrey, and while it’s nice to finally know a little more about where our hero comes from, there’s no recapturing the suspense of this moment.
1) The Total Mind Fuck, “The Mind Robber” Part 1
Relatively early in Who history, the show established the idea that practically anything was possible and nobody was safe, not even the leads. If the companions could die, and the Doctor could, in effect, die, then it seems to make sense that the TARDIS would be vulnerable as well. All the same, the Doctor’s ship served primarily as a symbolic place of refuge. Usually, it could be left pretty much anywhere and be found later, unharmed. Heck, this very story, “The Mind Robber”, opens with the TARDIS being almost submerged in hot lava and making it out in one piece. But even with all that, there’s no preparation for the psychological effect of seeing the closest thing we have to a home base blasted apart by the Master of Fiction. The Doctor is helpless, Zoe is screaming, and everyone’s plunging headlong into the void. As silly and whimsical as the events that follow are, they can’t erase the sheer terror of this moment. The whole of Part 1 is pretty disturbing, actually, with its white robots, claustrophobic sets and jarring imagery. And no, I’m not just putting this particular cliffhanger as number one because of the gratuitous shot of Wendy Padbury’s behind, though it’s hard to watch this scene in a group without at least one person snickering as it rotates into view. What else can be said? It was the ’60: if you weren’t wearing a spangled catsuit and draped across the console of an exploded time machine, you weren’t living.