Jun 08

Best Ever Doctor Who Cliffhangers As Chosen By Me

Do You See + FT32 comments • 1,681 views

Whatever happens next Saturday, now is a time for rejoicing as “New Who” delivers its first bona fide, ZOMG, who saw that one coming REAL ACTUAL CLIFFHANGER. Not that the new series hasn’t been jam-packed with moments that would have made magnificent old school episode climaxes (just imagine Professor Yana’s pocketwatch, or the in-your-face Weeping Angel, or the empty TARDIS in “Father’s Day” with the eeeeowwwwwwwwwww end of episode noise…) But often the new series cliffhanger has been a clumsy beast, generally through trying to pack too much in: either having every character menaced at once, or having the monsters yell their playground-ready catchphrase a few times too often, or by simply diluting the shock with parallel threats. Take this season’s “Silence In The Library” – a good cliffhanger to be sure, but if they’d just stuck to the “Donna has been turned into a computer terminal” one, left the lumbering skellington suit out and cut down on the repetition it would have been several times more effective.

Anyway, they’ve finally got it right, so to celebrate here’s my own list of Who cliffhangers that stick in the brain. Some of these are, I believe, canonically accepted as awesome, others more obscure. The list draws heavily on ones I saw as a kid, the prime time to be shoXoRed by a Who ending… and yes, there will be spoilers!

The “Oh Shit” Cliffhanger: The Ark Part 2
– for those brought up on the strong liquor that is the eeeeooowww sound, the silent cliffhangers of black-and-white era Who are somewhat underwhelming. This First Doctor story is the exception, using the silence to full advantage by letting the implications of the cliffhanger sink in. In The Ark, the TARDIS crew visit a huge spaceship, populated by the remnants of mankind and their servant race, the Monoids, fleeing the destruction of Earth to find a new homeworld. Under construction en voyage – only its torso complete – is a vast statue of a man, which will stand on the new world as an emblem of mankind’s survival. At the end of episode two, the crew jump forward 700 years to find the ship’s journey almost over. They arrive on the bridge and see the completed statue – the camera pans up it to reveal… a Monoid’s one-eyed head carved into the stone. What has happened to mankind? Find out next week!

The Widescreen Cliffhanger: Caves Of Androzani Part 3
– this is often cited as the best Doctor Who cliffhanger ever: the penultimate episode of the Fifth Doctor’s final adventure, with him suffering from terminal poisoning, hijacking the spaceship of the mercenary who’s captured him and sending it hurtling at full speed towards the surface of a planet. In many ways it anticipates New Who: big, noisy, widescreen planet-busting cliffhanger action. But what makes it so awesome is the way Davison, wrestling with the ship’s controls, also gives a speech explaining to the mercenary with remarkable patience exactly why he’s doing what he’s doing. Polite and reasonable to the end: it’s the perfect Fifth Doctor moment.

The Cerebral Cliffhanger: Four To Doomsday Part 2
– another Fifth Doctor story, representative of a short-lived species of cliffhangers based on atmosphere and unfolding plot rather than sheer thrill-power. Several McCoy stories have them, as do stories like “Kinda” and “Warrior’s Gate”: this is my favourite, an incongruously powerful moment in the middle of a slow-building story. A very kindly Ancient Greek dude, who the TARDIS crew have met on a huge spaceship, explains patiently, as if to children, that he is no longer human – “This is the real me”, he says, opening up his chest to remove a hard drive. It’s corny, and it shouldn’t work, but he’s been such a sympathetic character it’s still a shock somehow.

The Behind-The-Sofa Cliffhanger: City Of Death Part 3
– if you watch this now, with a bumbling scientist being aged into a skeleton by the time machine he’s been building, it’s played as much for comedy as anything. However, I was six and I was ABSOLUTELY TERRIFIED – it is the one cliffhanger which I simply refused to watch the following week, hiding at the other end of the house and insisting my Dad call me when it was over. For that I had to include it.

The WTF Cliffhanger: Carnival Of Monsters Part 1
– this is another famous one, a Third Doctor story which is notable for how well its first episode builds up weirdness and then resolves it with one extraordinary stroke. The story is quite bold in the way it simply doesn’t connect its two plot strands – the Doctor and Jo on board a 1920s ship which seems to be caught in a time loop, and a pair of galactic carnies trying to pitch their show on a xenophobic planet – until the closing shot, when one of the carnies reaches down inside his machine, and the Doctor is faced with a gigantic hand appearing to pluck the TARDIS away. More “what is going ON?” style cliffhangers, please!

The Nightmare Cliffhanger: The Deadly Assassin Part 2
– set inside the (later much overused) Time Lord Matrix, this sees the Fourth Doctor stuck in a dreamlike landscape, where, as in a nightmare, he gets his foot stuck in a rail and finds himself about to be crushed by an onrushing model train, driven by a sinister figure wearing a gas mask. The direction is the hero here, making the surreal images seem connected and horribly logical and giving real urgency to the Doctor’s imaginary peril.

The ‘Master In Disguise’ Cliffhanger: “Utopia”
– as mentioned in the intro, before this week this was as good as New Who got for its episode ends. They hammered it home a bit, but the “oh look it’s the Master” cliffhanger had never, ever been done well before in what seemed like a grillion old series tries, so they can be forgiven for going a little over the top. And the actual cliffhanger – stuck at the end of time with the TARDIS stolen – is pretty good too!

The Dalek Cliffhanger: Power Of The Daleks Part 2
– most Dalek episode-ends tend to just be some Daleks going “Exterminate!”. There’s nothing wrong with this as a climax really – it’s what Daleks do, after all – but the best ever Dalek cliffhanger is from this Second Doctor story. The Doctor has found an obscure Earth colony planet, struggling for resources, which has happened on a stroke of real luck – faithful and tireless robot servants they’ve salvaged from a crashed ship. We know, and the Doctor knows, that these servants are Daleks, but as the Doctor tries to warn the colonists the Daleks drown him out with an ever-rising chorus of “We! Are! Your! Ser-vants!”.

The Cyberman Cliffhanger: Tomb Of The Cybermen Part 2
– most Cybermen cliffhangers are just marching cybermen: again, a Second Doctor story used them best, the cyber-leader’s flatly inhuman “You belong to us. You will be like us.” both summing up the monsters’ USP and sounding really horrible and scary.

The NOES DONT DO THAT Cliffhanger: The Daemons Episode 1
– a lot of great cliffhangers rely on the Doctor trying to prevent some human or other doing a really really stupid thing. Often, as here, he fails. The Daemons spends its entire first episode building up to the stupid thing, in loving detail – some nice meta-television with the BBC interviewing locals and archaeologists about a (doomed, imminent) dig, the Third Doctor gradually realising that something is very very wrong. Will he prevent the human fools from unleashing forces they can’t possibly understand? Come off it.

The Next Episode Trailer Special Bonus Cliffhanger: “Bad Wolf” – instead of cliffhangers New Who has the “Next….” trailer, which was clumsily used at first, often revealing too much or getting in the way of the previous story. The trailer at the end of “Bad Wolf”, coming after a servicable ZOMG Daleks finish, was much better – a bonus extra cliffhanger, really, the booming “THEY SURVIVED THROUGH ME” at the end pitching fans into a world of speculation they hadn’t even known existed.


  1. 1

    of course you don’t actually NEED a cliffhanger AND a trailer — and i suspect the no-who loss of skeez on the former simply results from the omnipresence (till this ep) of the latter: if you have a CH every week (and a story-arc lasts at least four and possibly 12 eps), you can play games within the context of abundance

    one of the reasons i liked rose this ep — against the tide of all opninion apparently — is that it set up the “OH NOES bereavement” dynamic of DW pretty well; which is NOT “series cancelled despite we all love it so”, but “chemistry and concomitant atmosphere moves on BY CHOICE”

    viz rose is the identification-object of the (new) young watcher: striding along with a giant gun destroying daleks and doing good, but NOT able to be seen or have his/her opinion registered: it is — as always — funny watching the connoisseurs register their instant outrage at the exclusion of THEIR WELL-EDUCATED SENSIBILITY, but doubly funny when they are saying (of sad excluded rose) “hahas no one cares about your feelings”

  2. 2

    no-who loss of skeez = nU-who loss of skeez

  3. 3
    Billy Smart on 30 Jun 2008 #

    Like Tom, my six year old self was absolutely traumatised by City of Death episode 3. Looking at it again, the responses and reaction shots are played at a slightly parodic pitch of terror, but the effect is so well realised, the shots are so quickly mixed, and the concept of being aged to death is so unpleasant that it really does still stand up well.

    Episode one, where Julian Glover tears off the face of Count Scarlioni to reveal the form of Scaroth of the Jagaroth was also a defining moment.

    Amongst many, many, favourites, I’m always especially taken with The Horror Of Fang Rock 3, when a particularly bad-tempered Tom Baker tells Leela that they’ve made a terrible mistake – instead of locking the monster out of the lighthouse, they’ve locked it IN with them. This prospect was admittedly shown to be less terrifying when we got the reveal of what a Rutan actually looked like the next week, but even so…

  4. 4
    Tom on 30 Jun 2008 #

    I think with CoD maybe the effect is heightened by Kerensky being

    Fang Rock is a great cliffhanger because of Doctor fallibility, but it was one where I didn’t see the story until a lot later, so I knew about “the great cliffhanger” in advance of seeing it.

  5. 5
    Tom on 30 Jun 2008 #

    “by Kerensky being played as a bumbling comic foil until that moment” I meant to say before my post was aged to death.

  6. 6
    aldo on 30 Jun 2008 #

    My first thought was the Deadly Assassin one.

    Thinking about it more, I think my three favourites are all Hartnell ones.

    An Unearthly Child. Sad that it leads into the dull 10,000BC/Tribe Of Gum, but the notion that they’ve actually travelled out of the junkyard to… somewhere/when… and are about to encounter… something… is extraordinarily powerful. The shadow falling across the landscape makes out it’s humanoid, but other than that it could be anything.

    The Dead Planet (The Daleks/The Mutants episode 1). Barbara backing against a wall to avoid some unseen terror, of which we only know it has some kind of sucker on a metal pole. It might actually be my favourite story overall, but this is the high point.

    A Battle Of wits (Time Meddler episode 3). It’s been leading up to it throughout the episode, but the “It’s a TARDIS!” reveal is a WAU moment.

  7. 7
    Tom on 30 Jun 2008 #

    OH MAN can’t believe I forgot the Time Meddler!

    The Bad Wolf cliffhanger is actually the only new series version of a kind of cliffhanger which was very common back in the day, the monster payoff cliffhanger, where viewers are rewarded for their attention during an all set-up Episode 1 with a glimpse of the monster to fire their imaginations over the week. The Dalek one you mentioned is a great example. Not intro-ing your monster for a whole 45 minutes would be a massive luxury now.

    (Actually Utopia counts as this too)

  8. 8
    Dave Godfrey on 30 Jun 2008 #

    Whe I first heard the “They survived through Me” bit I immediately thought Woo! The Master! (The voice was all wrong for Davros.)

    I thought they showed the Emperor Dalek in the trailer though, scotching that idea completely…

  9. 9
    Billy Smart on 30 Jun 2008 #

    The Hartnell years also gave us what may be the oddest cliffhanger ever at the end of ‘Planet Of The Giants’ episode 2: A man washes his hands! – The implications of that are frightening in context, honestly…

  10. 10
    SteveM on 30 Jun 2008 #

    Why I HAET last Saturday’s cliffhanger:

    we know DT sticks around so it felt like a particularly contrived obstacle that ultimately won’t mean anything (other than a means of him being able to get with Rose, BUT WHO WANTS THAT?) rather than genuinely exciting like The Master turning from Jacobi to Simm.

  11. 11
    aldo on 30 Jun 2008 #

    The handwashing one is great, as is Gunfighters episode 1 (Steven and Dodo sing and play the piano) and The Crusade Episode 3 (“You’re going to die, but not for a very long time”).

    Actually, one of the most understated and best Toms might be Seeds Of Doom episode 3, with SJS strapped to the chair, bare arm showing, as the krynoid barely starts to emerge from the pod.

  12. 12
    Tom on 30 Jun 2008 #

    But! We only know that DT sticks around if we’ve “cheated” by eg. looking at set reports, news stories from non-BBC sources – it’s never been officially confirmed that he’s staying for the 09 specials etc.

    So it works brilliantly as a metacliffhanger too – not only “holy sh1t what happens next” but also “can they possibly have fooled us?”, anticipating our deviousness and thirst for spoilers and planting mocked-up set photos etc. I’m sure I’m not atypical of fans in having first thought “oh obv it won’t happen” and then thinking “but hold on….maybe…just maybe….” and letting that 5% of doubt creep in.

  13. 13
    Andy M on 30 Jun 2008 #

    Wot no Dragonfire P1?

    City Of Death P2 is up there for me as well: Doctor locked in dungeon in modern day Paris, escapes to 16th century Florence only to run straight into the same bloke who just locked him up is a great wtf moment.

    Nearly all the cliffhangers in Inferno are great too.

    The ending of Terminus P1 always sticks with me: “This is a leper ship. We’re all going to die!” is a different category of threat to a bloke in a big green suit that can be briskly side-stepped at the start of the next episode.

  14. 14
    Tom on 30 Jun 2008 #

    Yes, CoD 2 is excellent too, in fact better than part 3 but it didn’t shit me up remotely as much as ageing skellington.

    Terminus 1 is marred slightly for me by the fact that Romo Pirate dude has “ooh it’s my big line” syndrome a bit. Great set-up and situation though.

  15. 15
    aldo on 30 Jun 2008 #

    Dragonfire Ep 1 is up there with the SJS bit from the split in Five Doctors and Mary Tamm in Stones Of Blood ep 1 (NB this last one is the only vaguely convincing one of them). There’s also one of these literal cliffhangers in the middle of Timelash ep 2, right where the split would be if it wasn’t a 45min episode.

  16. 16
    Andy M on 30 Jun 2008 #

    Tom @ #12: Even if you’ve kept yourself completely spoiler-free, no one’s buying that the 10th Doctor’s last words are “I’m going to regenerate” surely? I guess they’ve got a hard job trying to make this look like a real regeneration whilst not blowing it all here in anticipation for when Tennant finally does go. I love the idea of unexpected regeneration in the middle of a story as shock cliffhanger, but next week…

  17. 17
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 30 Jun 2008 #

    aldo did you watch and remember hartnell in real time? i thought i was older than you?!! (lord sukrat = ilx’s mark s btw)

    ANYWAY: hartnell cliffhangers i remember (traumatically) from watching em in real-time = just two i think

    1: from earth invasion daleks (whatever it’s called) when the bedford van* is chased and rayed and set aflame by the dalek ships, after the resistance guy and susan have only just jumped to safety behind some rhododendrons

    2: regen of Doc1 into Doc2 (always my favourite), which was fascinating and distressing — the first Doc2 ep i remember as being in colour (it wasn’t), with pools of mercury shimmering on the planet’s alien surface

    *where mum and dad worked and i lived had a bedford van as a staff vehicle, and i was often in it, hence no doubt the intensity of the identification

  18. 18
    SteveM on 30 Jun 2008 #

    “We only know that DT sticks around if we’ve “cheated” by eg. looking at set reports, news stories from non-BBC sources – it’s never been officially confirmed that he’s staying for the 09 specials etc.”

    Well I thought it had been officially confirmed that he’d be in the specials and the Christmas one but the sources all blur into one for me…

    The ‘maybe we’ve been fooled’ thing just irks even more and I had a similar feeling with Lost and the twists and turns – almost approaching a sense of repaying bad faith towards viewers who can no longer be ‘trusted’ to not look at spoilers. I think spoilers are fine as long as it’s only yourself you’re spoiling it for. Conversely I don’t get much enjoyment out of everyone speculating (often with some arrogance) about what might happen next as people are often too good at this and effectively spoil it without even realising (I am quite poor at this and rarely try and anticipate when I’m watching a story unfold – a ‘lights off’ approach – so it’s sour grapes to an extent but sometimes I spoil myself as the thrill of knowing sometimes surpasses the thrill of not knowing). I just feel that with both Lost and Who it feels too much like the writers have gone out of their way to sow the doubt seeds but at the expense of the plot or flow of the storyline. This ties in again though with my own impatience and frustration with lengthy but dripfed arcs and sagas. I’d have preferred it if they’d been able to say DT signed up for 4-5 series from the start so you could settle down and enjoy the man at work without all the irritating speculation.

  19. 19
    aldo on 30 Jun 2008 #

    I’m positive press releases have confirmed DT is in at least the Christmas special.

    Yes, Mark, I am but a sapling. The first Who I remember in real-time is Carnival Of Monsters, distinct memories of the Doctor and Jo inside the machine, wandering about on the giant circuit boards. I am also, however, sad enough to be a big enough Who fan to have obsessively watched it.

  20. 20
    aldo on 30 Jun 2008 #

    (I have firm memories of other Pertwee bits, like the Gel Guards in 3 Docs, Ogrons, Sea Devils, Bernard Holley in a gold leotard, but I can’t tell for sure whether it was from watching the serials or from appearances on Pebble Mill, Blue Peter etc – although I can’t believe I was watching Blue Peter and not Who.)

  21. 21
    Andy M on 30 Jun 2008 #

    The cult of the story arc is becoming ridiculous, especially in US series. Stuff like Lost and Heroes is completely unwatchable the 2nd time around, so much emphasis has been placed on hiding then revealing stuff, with little thought as to the quality of said stuff (I can’t stop watching Lost as it airs but Heroes has used up its reserve of good will from me now). Why anyone would want to buy a boxset of Lost episodes they’ve already seen I have no idea. It’s like buying 20 hours of 12 month old Eastenders episodes. Sorry, going a bit OT here.

  22. 22
    SteveM on 30 Jun 2008 #

    Well there is SOME fun in rewatching old Losts to notice clues or references to things before the reveals, explanations, new links etc. although I haven’t done as much of this as I thought I would.

    Lost has had some brilliant cliffhangers too over the 4 series but obv this is a more integral part of that show as it’s one big arc unlike Who (where the cliffhangers for nu-Who multi-parters have usually been sucky).

  23. 23
    Andy M on 30 Jun 2008 #

    The cliffhangers haven’t been great, but it’s resolutions nu-Who really doesn’t seem to be able to do. Rise Of The Cybermen, The Impossible Planet, Utopia, Sontarans had so-so cliffhangers ruined by some cop-out the next week.

  24. 24
    Andrew Farrell on 30 Jun 2008 #

    My memory is going: was the “I’m coming for you!” at the end of Bad Wolf or the start of the next one? If the former I think that makes for a a fine cliffhanger in itself, not least because its effect on the Daleks is exactly the same as on us: getting them running around going “Oh noes what is the Doctor planning?”

    I hates and hates and hates the “next week” reel.

  25. 25
    SteveM on 30 Jun 2008 #

    even tho I have enjoyed this series a lot the next week reel came dangerously close to becoming ‘thing i most look fwd to about an episode’ at some points. ridiculous!

  26. 26
    Tracer Hand on 30 Jun 2008 #

    As a recent fan, I wondered why the BAD WOLF cliffhanger from last week wasn’t even mentioned this week! Maybe we’ll never know.

  27. 27
    chap on 2 Jul 2008 #

    Glad you got The Ark in there, it’s a favourite of mine – I’ve read a few best CH lists on t’web, and yours is the first to include it.

  28. 28
    crag on 5 Jul 2008 #

    The problem w/ Saturdays cliffhanger, although it was indeed a total WTF moment, is that any resolution is going to be a disapointment- either Tennant regenerates or he doesnt. If the former happens it’ll give Doc#11 the worst start for any doctor since the McCoy/Baker travesties of the 80s because the audience havent had any time to prepare themselves for Ten’s farewell or to get used to the idea of whoever the incumbent Doc might be(Please not James Nesbit!Actually Julian Rhind-Tutt gets my vote). If its the latter then it’ll just cheapen the whole thrill that you get with a genuine regeneration and take away the impact from when Tennant actually does leave. RTD has basically written himself into a corner from which there is no real chance of a satisfying resolution- although i’m obviously hoping to be proven wrong tonight…
    Fave cliffhanger thats not been mentioned-Image of Fendhal ep. 2 Tom Baker has his mind taken over by a spooky alien skull- totally freaked me out aged 4 and still pretty disturbing when i saw it again a year or so back……

  29. 29
    Tom on 5 Jul 2008 #

    I think (assuming it’s fake) that it’s actually fairly clever of RTD to do this – gently reminding attached-to-Tennant new viewers that a Doctor’s tenure is finite and drawing the sting for when he does go (especially if his going coincides with the intermittent transmission period we’ve got coming up)

  30. 30
    Dan R on 14 Jul 2008 #

    The Dalek Invasion of Earth, ep. 1 is pretty great, and has the benefit of being iconic in its way: the doctor cornered at the edge of the river and out of the Thames rises the creature we’ve been waiting for: a Dalek.

    Of course, this is slightly spoiled by wondering what the dalek was doing in the Thames (fishing?). There are perfectly good bridges (vis the famous publicity shot of the daleks on Westminster Bridge).

    The cliffhanger that scared me the most was Seeds of Doom ep 1. In the Antarctic Base, a crew member goes to see to his sick friend, but the bed is empty and in the dark corridors his totally mutated attacks him, strangling him to death.

    I didn’t sleep for a week. (I was 7).

    The Bad Wolf ending is unusual in its degree of sheer US-style heroism: ‘I’m going to rescue Rose from the middle of the dalek fleet, save the earth and then wipe every last stinking dalek out of the sky’. It’s not really a ‘peril’ cliffhanger, but a kind of ‘how on earth is he going to manage THAT’ cliffhanger.

    One of the most puzzling and exciting cliffhangers of my childhood was Deadly Assassin 1. The doctor appearing the assassinate the Time Lord President. The next week of school we were all full of theories. Which has to be a sign of a good episode ending.

  31. 31
    Alan on 16 Jul 2008 #

    Most important fact that must not be lost about the ecclescake bad wolf cliffhanger is that the final flourish in the speech

    “Rose,” “Yes Doctor?” “I’m coming to get you!”

    is much what the presenter (Davina) always said during evictions in Big Brother UK.

  32. 32
    SteveM on 16 Jul 2008 #

    Emperor Dalek “PLEASE DO NOT SWEAR”

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