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It’s The End, But The Moment Has Been Prepared For…
The Cliffhanger in Doctor Who
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To Be Continued…

Many of Doctor Who’s most iconic moments are those end of episode cliff-hangers, the dramatic hooks that ensure the viewers will tune in again for the next instalment. To be successful they need to provoke two reactions – the wow (“did that really just happen?” “that was unexpected” “that was edge of the seat stuff” etc.) and the how (“how will they get out of that one?” “How can the writer resolve this one?” “How will such and such a character react to that?” etc.). It was the brilliant combination of both that made the ending to The Stolen Earth one of the greatest Doctor Who cliff-hangers of all time. It is the nearest the show has got to a “who shot JR moment?” as the nation wondered whether or not the Tenth Doctor would regenerate.


Inferno, Part One (1970)

The Role Of The Cliff-hanger.

There are a number of cliff-hanger types and subtypes at the writer’s disposal. They are not unique to Doctor Who or indeed the medium of television. The cliff-hanger is an age old device, favoured by Shakespeare and later Dickens and Thomas Hardy for its commercial potential. It was the bread and butter of the serialised novels of the nineteenth century and helped the authors establish their fanbase.

“Primal and unashamedly manipulative, cliff-hangers are the signature gambit of serial storytelling. They expose the intimacy between the writers room and fanbase, auteur and recapper – a relationship that can take seasons to develop, years marked by incidents of betrayal, contentment, and occasionally, by a kind of ecstasy.” Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker, Jul 30th 2012

The types of cliff-hangers used in Doctor Who are no different from those in any other show or medium and at their heart is the desire to leave the audience wanting more.

The Reversal Ending.

One of the most effective types is the reversal ending in which an element of the story is turned on its head. They can be reversals of fortune, of setting, of character or of plot. The Stolen Earth ends with a reversal of fortune, after the apparent reunion of the Tenth Doctor and Rose is shattered by the Doctor being exterminated, triggering his regeneration. But perhaps the most memorable example is Horror Of Fang Rock when the Doctor at the end of part 3 realises he has “made a terrible mistake” by inadvertently trapping the Rutan inside the lighthouse with him.

In the very first Doctor Who cliff-hanger, the TARDIS arrives in the Stone Age as the shadow of a tribesman falls over the landscape. Somewhat surprisingly for a show where the protagonist travels in time and space the location shift is rarely used as an episode ending. The reversal of setting was most in evidence during the Jon Pertwee era. With the Third Doctor exiled to Earth by the Time Lords, it marked a welcome twist in the tale against a backdrop of Earth based contemporary stories. Examples include Inferno 2, The Time Monster 4, The Three Doctors 2 and Invasion Of The Dinosaurs 3.

Unlike the location shift a reversal of character is frequently employed as a cliff-hanger device in the classic era. It can take many forms but one popular approach was for the writer to toy with the audience’s expectation that good characters will do good things. These are effective for their shock value, none more so than when at the end of The Deadly Assassin Part 1 it appears as if the Doctor has assassinated the president. Other examples include Turlough attacking the Doctor in Mawdryn Undead 1, Sarah being revealed to be an android in The Android Invasion 2, Kamelion shape shifting into the master in Planet Of Fire 1, Ace falling under the influence of the Cheetah Planet in Survival 3, and the Doctor appearing to push Romana over the edge of a cliff in The Stones Of Blood 1.

Reversals in plot, the twists in the tale that change the whole direction of a story, are the hardest to pull off and consequently are few and far between. None have bettered the very first example of this from the underrated Hartnell story, The Ark. At the end of episode 2, just as the viewer thinks the story has been resolved, everything changes when the time travellers return to the Ark in the future to discover that the human statue that was under construction when they last visited has now been completed. The camera slowly pans up the sculpture until we see that it has a monoid head. Compare this tour de force with the disaster of The Invasion Of Time in which we suddenly discover in the part 4 cliff-hanger that it is the Sontarans and not the Vardans who are the main villain of the piece.

The Revelation Ending.


The Dalek Invasion of Earth, World's End (1964)

Some of the most iconic Doctor Who moments are the monster reveals. Usually reserved for the cliff-hanger, they are examples of the more general meme – the revelation ending (which can also be a plan, a motivation or a character reveal). From very early on it became part of the anatomy of a classic Dalek story to save the first sight of a Dalek for the end of part one. Often the focus is on the gradual manner of the reveal with no thought to the story. Inexplicably for instance, in The Dalek Invasion Of Earth a Dalek emerges from the water. In a similar vein in The Chase a Dalek slowly rises out of the sand of Aridius. It works more effectively when the reveal is part of the storyline such as in Planet Of The Daleks, where the third Doctor literally exposes the Dalek by applying the liquid paint spray.

Another classic monster reveal moment comes at the end of Robot 1. The story requires the audience to follow the robot in action from very early on in part 1, but we do so only from the robot’s point of view. The nearest we get to seeing Kettlewell’s robot is a teasing shot of the shadow of its arm. The full reveal is saved for the cliff-hanger to great effect. Many a classic Doctor Who monster was first revealed in a cliff-hanger. But possibly the most iconic monster reveal is that of the Sontaran Linx when he removes his helmet to expose his potato head and creepy tongue – the stuff of nightmares. So effective, it was repeated in the very next season’s The Sontaran Experiment.

Dragonfire, Episode One (1987)

The Peril Ending.

The ending that most casual viewers associate best with Doctor Who is the peril cliff-hanger. It could be the companion, the Doctor, the Earth or the whole universe that is in danger. This type of ending doesn’t really work when an incidental character is under threat because the viewer needs to be emotionally engaged with them. For example the ending of part five of The Daleks with the Thal Elyon’s scream. Subtypes of this choice of hook include the fall, the capture, the trap and the execution. When artificially dividing up the anniversary special The Five Doctors for an episodic repeat, the stumble of Sarah over the embankment is given the Doctor Who sting (Doctor Who’s equivalent of Eastenders’ dun, dun, duns). Worst fall ending ever. The peril has to be a situation of real jeopardy and immediate threat, hence the equally derided Death To The Daleks part 3. It also has to be logically connected to the story as if there was no alternative. The cliff-hanger in Dragonfire 1 is sometimes explained away as a meta reference, but the editing of the story is at fault for making the Seventh Doctor’s “fall” over the cliff seem self-inflicted.

The Portent Ending.

There is a more subtle ending that, like the twist in the tale, usually does not require an immediate resolution – that of the portent; usually a visual signal of impending doom, whether it be a skull (An Unearthly Child 2) or a dead body (Marco Polo 4). In one of the show’s most creative uses of the cliff-hanger, The Celestial Toymaker 1, 2 and 3 all end on a riddle, anticipating the next challenge that will befall our heroes. In most cases only one of these cliff-hanger types is sufficient and it can be quite counter-productive to add too many layers. Portent ending work best in isolation. Take Revelation Of The Daleks for instance. The image of the sixth Doctor’s statue would have been far more effective without it randomly toppling onto the Doctor. It’s as if a decision was made that an element of peril had to be shoehorned in. By contrast The Face Of Evil 1 ends with the Doctor having seen his face carved into the cliff simply observing, “I must have made quite an impression.”

The Resolution.


Gratuitous excuse for nudity.

The “what happened next” can make or break the cliff-hanger. Written badly and the viewer feels cheated. This disappointment is then projected backwards making the once dramatic ending now feel like a damp squib. In the case of The Stolen Earth, was the payoff in Journey’s End a success?

Among the most irritating resolutions are the ones when quite out of the blue a person, a situation or an object comes to the rescue. The utility belt escape might be brilliant for the tongue in cheek approach of sixties show Batman and Robin, but viewers of Gotham would be unimpressed. Doctor Who might not always take itself as seriously as a modern US superhero drama but cheap get outs are not meant to be on the agenda. Even the best of stories can fall victim to the occasional poor resolution. Genesis Of The Daleks is a case in point. Poor Sarah Jane and her falls – here, at the end of episode 2 she falls off the rocket silo, plummeting to a certain death. And the resolution? There was a platform not far below that hadn’t been revealed to the viewer the week before.

Returning to the Tenth Doctor’s regeneration escape in Journey’s End, the hand in the jar has been seen by some as a similar cop out, but it’s not like it was placed there without the viewer knowing. If this was the first we knew of the hand since The Christmas Invasion then it would have been far too convenient for the Doctor to have preserved it and kept in in the console room. However, as fans of Torchwood especially will know, the hand was never forgotten. From the moment the Tenth Doctor took it from Captain Jack it was always likely to have some later significance. In fact, Russell T Davies gives us another reminder partway between Utopia and Journey’s End, when in The Poison Sky/The Doctor’s Daughter it reacts to Jenny’s birth. The Doctor’s hand plays a crucial role in Journey’s End, and proves to be more than a tool for resolving the cliff-hanger.

The power of the cliff-hanger can also be diminished by the revelation that all was not how it first appeared. There’s nothing wrong with misdirection, so long as sufficient clues have been left in the story. The possibility of the audience working it out has to always be present. The writer might just about be able to get away with it in a series long arc (the death of the Doctor in The Impossible Astronaut) but it can be deeply disappointing when an end of episode cliff-hanger is followed in the next by a resolution that the audience could not have reasonably guessed (good examples would be The Pirate Planet 3 and The Caves Of Androzani 1). It feels like the writer is not playing by the rules. For a completely unforeshadowed “it wasn’t what you thought” resolution to work, the characters need to have been as much in the dark as the viewer (as for instance in Blake’s 7 Redempton).

But the worst of the worst “get out of jail free” cards are those in which the whole scene is reshot with significant changes to boot. Spearhead From Space part 1 and Planet Of The Spiders part 5 are among the culprits here.

The Cliff-hanger In The Revived Series.

Modern Doctor Who whilst inspired by the endings of old has tended to focus on the peril type and is surprisingly limited when compared to the breadth we see in the original run. However it has also introduced novel approaches to the cliff-hanger. For starters, the device has found its new natural home in the pre-credits sequence. Secondly, the rise of so called “event” TV during Russell T Davies’ tenure led to a ratcheting up the stakes for the penultimate episode cliff-hanger. Not only had the scope and scale of the danger been increased but the cliff-hanger itself had exploded into multiple wow moments. Steven Moffat’s first finale followed this trend, but by series six he was reining in the threat, turning it personal. The cliff-hanger has been no less jaw-dropping for that. The 2010 series was divided into two halves with A Good Man Goes To War ending on what Moffat described as “…an earth-shattering climax, a cliff-hanger we never normally do because it would be too long before it came back.”

Steven Moffat’s era will one day be remembered for its game changing endings (A Good Man Goes To War, The Name Of The Doctor, Dark Water), but they will never surpass The Tenth Planet Part Four. Even if the Doctor was to one day regenerate into a woman, the fact that it has been teased and foreshadowed means it is unlikely to eclipse the shock that viewers felt upon seeing William Hartnell morph into Patrick Troughton. Once that precedent was set, future regenerations would inevitably loose the wow factor. Interest shifted towards how and when the Doctor would regenerate. In The Caves Of Androzani 3, in one of the most effective cliff-hangers of all time the Doctor is about to crash land the gun runners ship into the planet, leaving the viewer unsure as to whether this will trigger his regeneration early in part four.


Never surpassed?

In the early days of Doctor Who even the end of a story would occasionally include a cliff-hanger – a lead in to the next adventure (e.g. An Unearthly Child, The Daleks, Edge Of Destruction). Forgotten fairly soon after individual episode titles were dropped, the modern era has re-established this (e.g. The Poison Sky, Doomsday, Last Of The Time Lords, The Beast Below and The Name Of The Doctor). But unique to the new series has been the story ending that provides a link to the season long arc.

The cliff-hanger has become an overused device in recent television history. It is a staple ingredient of a continuing drama like Eastenders. For commercial broadcasters there is often now a cliff-hanger before each intermission. The placement of ad breaks interferes with the structure of a story by having several equally spaced cliff-hangers ruining its flow and natural sequence. The real time format of the hit show 24 highlights this problem, when the end of each hour conveniently includes the most dramatic scenes for the sake of the cliff-hanger. Even in the earliest examples of the cliff-hanger, there was a commercial factor at play, but arguably in today’s climate the device has been cynically manipulated at the expense of story – see for instance the new trend of releasing video games episodically.

Going against the flow, in 2013 Steven Moffat bravely took the executive decision to move away from the two parters to focus on self-contained 45 minute stories. This approach continued in series eight with the exception of the series finale. It was a welcome relief and typical of Moffat who is keen to shake up the format of the show to keep it fresh, subverting tried and tested formulas. The revelation that series nine will predominantly consist of two parters might be seen as a retrograde step were it not for the fact that these are two parters with a twist. Moffat has promised that there will be a discernible shift between the two halves of the story, explaining why some of them have different writers. Exactly what this will mean for the cliff-hanger is unclear, but the reversal of setting or the twist in the tale ending would be the most likely scenario.


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Michael East
Michael East is the founder of Doctor Who Worldwide. Best selling author, great statesmen, Ambassador to the Netherlands… Michael is none of these things. He was however named TIME Person of the Year in 2006 and 2011, is an award winning web designer and a comedy Marxist. He enjoys beards, retrogaming and classic TV. He is not a hipster.