When it comes to season finales, mid-season finales, or even Holiday specials, Doctor Who always makes it interesting. This week, we take a look at the Top Five Best Doctor Who Cliffhangers.
The Stolen Earth
Chris Chibnall’s production team is tighter than the proverbial, and almost never leaks. Indeed, possession of Doctor Who production secrets outside the sacred ring of the BBC is now basically a crime against the State. By contrast, Russell T Davies basically let it all hang out. A voracious consumer of media and something of a showman, Davies ensured that the public image of the show was front and center during his tenure.
Except…when he didn’t.
Season finales, especially two parters, are always showstoppers. Whether it is the return of the Daleks, the destruction of the universe or the complete rewriting of Time Lord history, the new series’ showrunners don’t hold back. Narratively, these sorts of stories don’t always work, due to all the elements being shoehorned into the limited running time. If someone can explain to me what exactly happened during the episode ‘The Big Bang’, the finale to Matt Smith’s first season, they will be doing God’s work. But the audience largely doesn’t care, even if the fans rage against the dying of comprehension. Indeed, the bigger and bolder the spectacle, the more the general audience laps it up. ‘The Stolen Earth’, which featured the return of all the Tenth Doctor companions, plus the Daleks AND Davros, is the sort of spectacle the audience loves. Basically the televisual version of throwing the kitchen sink at the audience, it featured one of the more awe inspiring pieces of bravado by Davies during his tenure.
The Daleks are rampaging across the Earth, dragging it across space to help power a monstrous machine they will use to conquer the Universe. Rose, who was trapped in another reality, has made her way back to the Doctor’s reality to warn and assist. The Tenth Doctor and Rose’s partnership presented one of the high points in the popularity of the series. David Tennant and Billie Piper together lit up the screen, bringing the sort of chemistry to the show last scene with Tom Baker and Lis Sladen. But where the production team of the mid-70s would never have countenanced a romance between Time Lord and companion, in the 21st century, that is basically what the audience got – and they loved it.
So, amidst all the ruin and devastation of the Dalek invasion, improbably, impossibly, the Doctor and Rose find each other. When they parted, the Doctor ran out of time to tell Rose exactly how he felt about her. But the sheer, rapturous joy on his face when he sees Rose at the end of a shines like a beacon. In the sort of schmaltzy scene that would embarrass a Hollywood director from the 1950s, the Doctor and Rose race towards each other. Director Graeme Harper cuts between the two of them, as they hurtle towards each other with utter abandon, a reunion that fans had been crying out for years.
And then, like a very bad penny, a Dalek turns up.
Any good drama, particularly genre drama, will pile up the incident and obstacles to ensure the heroes of the hour don’t simply sweep to victory. Every victory has to be earned, otherwise what is there to entertain the audience? So as the Doctor and Rose race ever closer, the appearance of a Dalek immediately triggers warning signals in our brain. We’ve seen this before. Anyone watching the dying moments of the movie ‘Von Ryan’s Express’ will understand the feeling. The Dalek screams ‘exterminate!’ and, unbelievably, not only fires at the Doctor, but hits him!
Flung from his feet, the Doctor lies in agony. Captain Jack appears, destroys the Dalek, and with Rose’s help, carries the Doctor into the TARDIS. Jack warns everyone back and as the companions watch, the Doctor staggers to his feet, thrusts out his arms, and begins to regenerate…
Holy moley – how come we weren’t told this was going to happen? No rumors, no leaks, no nothing. How could the production team get away with this without anyone knowing? Regenerate the Doctor without his successor being announced? Hang on, who is the new Doctor? We have to watch next week…
The week that followed was one of the most intriguing ever for a fan of the series. Who would Tennant’s successor be? How would it all play out? And why wasn’t I told!? If the best thing an audience can experience is stunned surprise, amazement, and a rising sense of excitement, then the cliffhanger ending to The Stolen Earth takes the award of greatest cliffhanger…ever!
The Mutants (aka The Daleks) Episode 1
The brains behind the creation of Doctor Who, Sydney Newman, famously demanded that his new brainchild have no ‘bug-eyed monsters.’ Created to fill a gap between the sports coverage on the BBC on a Saturday afternoon and a music program called Juke Box Jury, Newman envisaged Doctor Who as being an educational themed series that would appeal to a family audience. Any hint of the tawdrier end of science fiction was to be disavowed, with the emphasis on action and adventure.
After the prehistoric adventures in the previous four episodes, the TARDIS crew land on an alien planet. Venturing outside (and ignoring the radiation meter which slowly rises into the lethal zone), they encounter a strange landscape, fulling of menacing shapes, petrified animals, and a remarkable city. Venturing into the city, which is seemingly abandoned, leads directly to one of the most famous cliffhangers in the entire series.
A POV shot of a screaming Barbara Wright, with a strange looking ‘sink plunger’ arm in the frame, ends the episode. What was it that Barbara saw that caused her to scream in terror? What sort of alien would be armed with such a strange device? Who would be living inside such an alien city?
The answers would come in subsequent episodes, as the machinations of the Daleks in their endless war against the Thals were played out. But it was that moment, of pure, unadulterated terror, which shocked the watching audience. The viewing figures leapt to new heights, and the commercial phenomenon, dubbed ‘Dalekmania’ by the press, swept Britain. Endless supplies of merchandise tagged with ‘Doctor Who’ or ‘Dalek’, marched out of the stores, as children badgered their parents about the latest craze. Kids played at Daleks in the school ground, and went back to watch Doctor Who in increasing numbers. By the time Dalekmania exhausted itself 18 months later, Doctor Who, and the Daleks, were prominent features not only on television, but in popular culture of that time. It is safe to say, aside from making writer Terry Nation a very wealthy man, the Dalek ensured the success of the series for many years to come.
Seeds of Doom Episode 3
‘I must know what happens when the Krynoid touches human flesh…’
It’s not often you see a thug hold a gun to the head of a beloved companion. And it’s not often you see a psychopath, obsessed with all plant life, be willing to sacrifice said beloved companion to an insidious alien plant looking to convert its next victim in the most horrible manner…
‘The Seeds of Doom’ is one of the most striking, dramatic and downright scary Doctor Who stories. It is directed by one of Doctor Who’s most lauded directors, Douglas Camfield, who brings a sense of brooding menace unique to the series.
The Doctor and his companion Sarah Jane Smith land in Antarctica, where a research team has unearthed two strange pods from the deep ice. In short order, one of the pods is defrosted, and a questing tendril latches onto a scientist, bringing on a horrific and inexorable transmutation. The scenes where the human is overtaken by the alien plant matter stand out as some of the most terrifying visuals in the series. The creature escapes, killing the entire crew, and only good fortune enables the Doctor and Sarah Jane to survive, but not before the remaining pod is spirited away by the minions of eccentric millionaire and botanical lover, Harrison Chase…
The beauty and richness of The Seeds of Doom comes from the marriage of a number of elements into a harmonious whole. It is hard to argue that the team up of Tom Baker and Lis Sladen is the best Doctor/companion relationship in the show’s long history. By this stage in their work together, Baker and Sladen are perfectly at ease with each other (in a way that Baker would initially not be with Sladen’s successor, Louise Jameson). The writing by Robert Banks Stewart (who re-purposed an earlier script of his for 60s spy series, The Avengers) mines one of the great horror tropes – possession and the loss of the individual self – like no other Doctor Who story before or since. Geoffrey Burgen’s incidental music is a joy – sonorous woodwinds throughout – as can be seen in the lead up to this cliffhanger. And what a cliffhanger.
The botanically obsessed Chase, who far prefers the company of plants and spends his fortune hunting for rare examples, hungers to see the transformation the Krynoid’s infection will cause. His thug, Scorby, has captured Sarah and brings her back to Chase’s mansion. There, with his pet researcher, Keeler, Chase impatiently waits for the Krynoid pod to burst open. Scorby holds Sarah’s exposed arm next to the pod, while the Doctor watches impotently through a skylight above.
Sarah stares in disbelieving horror as the pod cracks open, while Chase watches the scene unfold with rapt attention. Green juice spills from its spasming form and then the title music begins to wail and the screen dissolves…
Caves of Androzani Episode 3
Imagine you’ve found a nice young companion, who is full of vim and vigor and is eager to explore the universe. Your first mistake is to land on a barren planet, where the sea dried up millions of years before, and where the core made up of boiling mud which frequently erupts. Add in some hard case mercenaries, a crazed scientist burned beyond recognition dressed up in 80s fetish wear, and a capitalist so monstrous he makes Gordon Gecko look like a kindergarten teacher.
Yes…the Doctor really chose a great place to introduce Peri Brown to the wonders of time travel.
‘The Caves of Androzani’, Peter Davison’s swansong, is one of the greatest stories in the history of the show. The direction by Graeme Harper is peerless – his willingness to get out of the gallery and down onto the floor enabled him to personally direct the actors. Watching him in action in the behind the scenes footage on the DVD release is to see a man totally invested in the production, willing to push the limits of what a studio bound drama could do, all in the service of bringing a fantastic script to life. Written by Robert Holmes, one of the series’ finest writers, the script is a blackly humorous look at the military/industrial complex gone mad. Androzani Minor is good for one thing – the life extending drug known as Spectrox. Men want it, and will kill for it.
Add into the mix a fantastic array of devilish characters, from the scarred Sharaz Jek, to the filthy capitalist and CEO of Sirius Corporation Morgus and you have a story consistently in the top 10 for the last 30 odd years whenever a poll of fans is conducted.
After entering the caves, the Doctor and Peri become exposed to raw spectrox. In its refined state, it can extend life indefinitely. Raw, it causes spectrox toxaemia; a fatal disease cured only the milk of the bats that inhabit the airless depths of Androzani Minor. In short order, the duo are caught in the middle of several factions maneuvering for advantage in the tunnels beneath the surface, the Doctor and Peri struggle to survive long enough to find the antidote and escape the carnage intact.
Not everything goes to plan.
Taken prisoner by the gun running mercenaries, to be set up as a dupe for a failed raid on the stolen horde of Spectrox, the Doctor is in transit to Androzani Major when he breaks free. Half maddened by pain and with a relentless determination to return to Androzani Minor and save Peri, the Doctor takes command of the ship. He manages to stave off his regeneration long enough to pilot the ship, and even when faced with being shot, grimly announces, as the ship shakes and the music rises and rises, he announces he will do anything to save Peri, even at risk of his own life.
Peerless performances, brilliantly directed, with a desperate Doctor willing to sacrifice his life – what more could you ask?
Vengeance on Varos Episode 1
Colin Baker’s tenure as the Doctor was…variable at best. Hamstrung by a terrible costume, facing a lack of support from the script editor, and with a producer at the helm more interested in flying to the USA on the weekends to attend paid appearances at Doctor Who conventions instead of doing his job, Baker faced an uphill battle. Effectively sacked in 1986, Baker has, despite his ill-treatment, gone on to be an effective ambassador for the show in the public, and also rehabilitated his portrayal of the Doctor through many appearances on Big Finish Productions audios.
Even though his time on television had mixed reviews, there are gems amongst the dross. ‘Revelation of the Daleks’ may be the best Dalek story of the 1980s, full of grim, gothic imagery, a ‘Soylent Green’ inspired storyline, and an impressive performance by Terry Molloy as Davros. But it is in the story ‘Vengeance on Varos’, and in particular, the cliffhanger to episode one, that Colin Baker’s time in the role reached its apotheosis.
Written by Philip Martin, who created the mind bending, fourth wall breaking series, ‘Gangsters’, in the mid-70s, Vengeance on Varos is ostensibly the tale of the Doctor and Peri supporting a rebel group attempting to overthrow a corrupt, cruel regime on the prison world of Varos. There’s enough in all that to satisfy the kids – black as black bad guys, traps and dangers along the way, a handsome resistance leader, and a final victory at the end. However…
Lift the hood, and there’s more at play here. The population of Varos has little more to do than watch televised violence. In fact, aside from its mineral wealth, the only real income the planet earns comes from exporting the violent scenes of punishment, torture and death that play out all day, every day. Given Britain was going through a crisis of censorship against movies that were considered violent and horrific, and then you have an atmosphere ripe for Martin to satirize.
The perils of Varos are physical and mental. From the central control room, commanding a network of cameras that record everything that occurs, the controllers can impose illusions on the unwilling participants, causing them to believe they are really suffering. The Doctor, in the closing stages of episode one, finds himself thinking he is fleeing across a desert. Sweat bathes his face; light blinds his eyes, as he staggers on. All this is being recorded and avidly watched by the brutes watching the monitors. The Governor, an earnest fellow who wants to do the right thing but finds himself overborn by others around him, is directly supervising the recording. At the pivotal moment, as the Doctor collapses and lies, seemingly dead on the corridor, the Governor orders a close up of his face, and then, as the end titles ready themselves to crash in, he says the immortal words, .’…and cut it!’
At that moment, Doctor Who the television show becomes Doctor Who the reality television program. The line between fantasy and fact has blurred. A Greek chorus, comprising two of Varos’ inhabitants, has been raptly watching the action on their view screen, commenting as we, the audience, watch the scene unfold. Their embrace of the violence, their commentary of it in real time, foreshadows the sort of Twitter culture we have today. It is a brave way to end an episode, and arguably the most thought provoking of this particular era.
It is worth noting that there is a cliffhanger of sorts at the end of the concluding episode. We come back to this duo at the end of episode two, when the Governor, triumphing over the villains and embracing the rebels, orders the televised tortures ended. They look at each other, and then at the blank screen, and wonder what they’re going to do now…
Do you have a favorite Doctor Who cliffhanger? Use the comment section below to share your list!
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