For some, the most exciting news about the forthcoming season is not that Jenna Coleman has decided to stay, which is a welcome development, nor the news that Missy is set to return (which isn’t), it’s the news that Steven Moffat is reintroducing two-part stories.
A common criticism of modern Who is that too much is crammed into too little time, to the detriment of the story. Many of the gems of the new run have been the two-part stories: The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, Human Nature/The Family of Blood, Flesh and Stone/The Time of Angels… all proof-positive that some stories need the space to develop towards a successful final pay-off. For longer-term fans, the cliffhanger is Doctor Who, the thing that kept us tuning in week in, week out growing up. Two of my earliest Who memories are of cliffhangers- the spiders emerging from the fruit in Full Circle and the Doctor imploring Tegan and Mace not to open the cages of infected rats in The Visitation. One cliffhanger, The Deadly Assassin Part Three, was deemed so horrific that it no longer exists in its original format.
Here, in defence of the art of the cliffhanger, is my choice of the weird, the wonderful and the edge-of-the-seat episode endings the series has employed to keep us tuning in every week:
The Invasion Episode Six
For me, the quintessential epic Who cliffhanger. Shamelessly aped at the end of Dark Water, the original sees director Douglas Camfield take four extras, some tight editing and half a dozen Cybermen to create the impression of, well, an invasion. The sequence where they march down the steps of St Paul’s is still something to behold, and it shouldn’t have been repeated. By anyone. Ever.
The Caves of Androzani Episode Three
Something else the series needs to get back to is regeneration stories like this: ones where things spiral of control and aren’t going to end well for our hero. Things are already looking pretty grim for the Doctor (Spectrox poisoning, firing squads, keeping a straight face with the Magma Beast) by the time he tries his hand at landing an unfamiliar spacecraft by nosediving it at the ground. Graeme Harper plays the tension like a violin throughout the story, building up to the grim events of the final episode with this seemingly terminal-looking encounter.
The Face of Evil Part Three
A prime example of the show at its most bonkers, as the Doctor is subjected to the ultimate temper-tantrum by a schizophrenic computer that doesn’t want to acknowledge him anymore. The final shot of the Doctor curled up on the floor surrounded by images of his own face as a child’s voice repeatedly screams ‘Who am I?’ is almost Kubrick-esque and must rank as one of the series’ most novel cliffhangers.
Inferno Episode Six
A story with more than its fair share of strong cliffhangers, Inferno builds to possibly the ultimate ‘now get out of that’ moment when the Doctor and his parallel universe allies come fact-to-face with the end of the world. Fittingly for this doom-laden story, the solution isn’t clear-cut, as Section Leader Elizabeth Shaw and co have sacrificed themselves to the lava in order for the Doctor to return home to stop Stahlman making the same mistake here.
The War Games Episode Nine
The Time Lords are coming to sort out the mess created by the War Lord and his cronies. They’re the Doctor’s people, so why isn’t he happy about involving them? The War Lord intimates that no good will come of it, but by then, the TARDIS regulars and Lt Carstairs have gone back to an eerie, deserted 1917 Zone. Suddenly, Carstairs just disappears. As Dudley Simpson’s eerie church organ score kicks in, the air is filled with a strange screeching. The Doctor and friends struggle against an unseen force to return to the TARDIS but are seemingly overcome – the Time Lords are coming! What happens next will shape the show for the next twenty years and beyond, but at that point, the mystery of the Doctor’s past provides one last tantalising moment of peril…
Vengeance on Varos Part One
Surrounded by ninety minutes of flatly directed, hammily acted, poorly scripted tripe, the denouement to the first episode of this story is a cleverly self-referential moment. If it had gone to the credits on the word ‘Cut!’ over the Doctor seemingly dead on the floor, it would have been great, but director Ron Jones chose to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with some evil laughing to underline the point that the baddies had the upper hand. Close, but no marsh minnow.
The Empty Child
Proving that the new kids can hold their own against the classics, the Moff’s 2005 two-part debut has many great moments (my favourite bit is still the moment they realise the reel-to-reel has run out of tape) but the cliffhanger in particular is a corker. The show may be faster-paced and more self-aware than in the days of yore, but for tension and suspense, nothing is better for building up the tension than having your regular cast backed into a corner by a horde of gas mask-faced zombies. The resolution to it is amazing, too.
There are, of course, many other examples and everyone will have their favourites. Equally the show has given us some of the least cliffhanging cliffhangers ever committed to videotape. An Ogron in a chair- sitting! The Master in danger- isn’t that meant to be a good thing? And let’s not forget the legendary “Nuzzink in ze vurld can shtop me now!” from The Underwater Menace, though I really wish I could…
Love it or loathe it, triumph or turkey, the cliffhanger is part of the series’ DNA and it’s great that it’s coming back to resume its place as a staple of the show.