Now Get Out Of That!

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.

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  1. Caleb Goldberg says:

    Don’t forget Earthshock Part 1. “De-STROY them! De-stroy- them- at- ONCE!”

    Great list, though.

  2. Dr Moo says:

    This is a good list but you left out THE greatest cliffhanger of them all:

    • Dr Moo says:

      Also shoutouts to the new series cliffhangers (which were generally lacking from this article) in The Almost People, The Impossible Planet, Army of Ghosts, The Stolen Earth and Silence in the Library.

    • Cryer says:

      The greatest cliff-hanger of them all is the end of episode 3 of The Caves of Androzani. By far.

      • Dr Moo says:

        While I wouldn’t quite call it the greatest (I stand by The Name of the Doctor having that honour) it is right up there, probably the best cliffhanger of the classic series followed closely by Inferno episode 6.

  3. Tom says:

    I’ve always cited ‘The Pandorica Opens’ as one of my favourites. The Doctor imprisoned, Amy shot dead by Auton Rory, TARDIS about to explode and every star in the Universe going supernova. In terms of ‘get out of that then’ I don’t see how this can be beaten.

    • Pantz says:

      The way they did get out of that though makes no sense at all. How exactly did the Doctor escape to give Rory the sonic screwdriver from the future to enable the Doctor to escape from the past? Does Moffat’s quick line about time paradoxes being more prevalent in the event of the universe collapsing really cut it? It’s pretty weak to me.

      • Dr Moo says:

        I disagree, I think it works fine. But we’ve already discussed this elsewhere so I’ll let that go.

        Say/think what you will about it, there’s no denying that it’s a brilliant cliffhanger!

      • Tom says:

        There isn’t a paradox created by his escape. In fact it was all causal. Because the Doctor had given Rory the sonic to let him out, he could get out to give Rory the sonic to get him out….. etc. I think he said something about time jumps being easier as the Universe is now so small (makes sense to me). In fact, as far as cliffhanger resolutions go, I personally think its one of the best. It doesn’t involve anything that the audience was previously unaware of and it’s resolution wasn’t got out of the way quickly to get on with the story – the resolution was the story being told. To each his own I guess.

  4. bar says:

    Dare I go tangential here…? One of my childhood all time stunner cliffhangers was the end of a season: Blake’s 7 (sorry, the ocd in me can’t miss out the apostophe) season 2 ended with them about to enage the andromedan fleet single-handed, Avon shouting ‘fire!’ – and that was IT! – for MONTHS before we found out what happened to them, and not even video let alone DVDs to stave off the cravings til they returned. I remember the whole family going ‘Nooooo! you can’t leave it there!’

    • Dr Moo says:

      Don’t apologise for the apostrophe, it’s called English grammar and you should not be sorry for using it.

      • Ranger says:

        It’s just a shame that Terry Nation didn’t feel the need to use it – thereby causing anxiety and angst to English teachers everywhere.

        I remember the same reaction in my home, Bar. But it was even worse with the very last episode: what’s going on, is Avon dead or what? Aarrrggghhh!!!

  5. TheLazyWomble says:

    The archetypal cliffhanger has got to be Survival episode 3.

  6. Cryer says:

    Great list 🙂

  7. Ranger says:

    You are, of course, all wrong. The best cliffhanger to end all cliffhanger is the end of episode 1 of Dragonfire.

    (Ducks for cover!)

  8. TimeChaser says:

    Unfortunately I never grew up with Who cliffhangers. Our PBS station aired them in full movie format, so it wasn’t until they started putting them on VHS in the original episodic format that I ever saw a cliffhanger (The Curse of Fenric was the first one I saw this way). So I never really enjoyed cliffhangers as they are meant to be until the new series came along. Besides the end of The Name of the Doctor, the two that always stick out in my mind are Utopia and The Stolen Earth. Those had me rolling on the floor in conniptions for the entire week before the resolution.

  9. DoctorWho50 says:

    One of the best surely has to be The Daleks Part One (The Dead Planet) for the iconography.

    • TheLazyWomble says:

      Also The Dalek Invasion of Earth part 1 and The Chase part 1.
      Terry Nation did like Daleks emerging from stuff.

      • DoctorWho50 says:

        The reveal of the Daleks was always pretty good, until they started to put ‘… of the Daleks’ in the title and still acting as though it was a surprise.

        • Dr Moo says:

          If we’re going with monster reveals I’d vote for the Sontarans in “The Invasion of Time” part four.

        • TheLazyWomble says:

          The classic being Planet of the Daleks when the Doctor after sending the TARDIS off after them is surprised when an invisible Dalek is revealed.

        • Dr Moo says:

          Oh look, it’s a serial entitled “_____ of the Daleks” I wonder if Davros will be making a *SURPRISE* appearance? Oh look, there he is!

  10. Dr Moo says:

    I would like to raise an issue with the article’s comments on “Vengeance on Varos” which is referred to by the writer, Nick May, as “flatly directed, hammily acted, poorly scripted tripe”. Sorry, what?! VoV was one of the finest serials of mid-80s Doctor Who and one of few decent (televised) stories for the Sixth Doctor. Today it has, in a way, taken on an interesting afterlife as it provides a brilliant satirical commentary on reality TV, it was DECADES ahead of its time! How can you not like it???

  11. Canine Faecēs says:

    Nothing beats Colin Baker belting down a hill on a wheeled plank of wood.

  12. Namnoot says:

    I’m not too sure how I feel about the return to 2-parters. Of late Part 2 has often been seen by fans and critics as a letdown from Part 1 (there are exceptions, but dig through the review archives and I bet you’ll see plenty of examples of this). Plus, while I may be in the minority I do feel Moffat, at least, does his best work with a limited time. Blink, Girl in the Fireplace, Listen, definitely Night of the Doctor. None of those would have worked as multi-chapter stories. And Neil Gaiman delivered perfection in 45 minutes with The Doctor’s Wife, too. I agree the cliffhangers are fantastic (last season’s Missy reveal being a prime example and I agree with the samples from the classic era too and can probably name a bunch more). My problem is more often than not in the modern era the followup hasn’t lived up to the cliffhanger.

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