Saturday, December 01, 2012


Doctor Who 50 – Eleven Great Cliffhangers

It’s Saturday the First of December, so what does that mean? That all of us faithful followers are looking forward to the very special day when he first came to save us – he looks like a man, but he’s a legend, and… And is that enough Advent blasphemy to make up for this morning? I’m counting down weekly to Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary, today with the definition of what gets you coming back next week: the cliffhanger. Before more of them enter my fifty great scenes across the year, here are eleven terrific scary moments to whet your appetite… Watch out for spoilers – often quite big ones!

The Dead Planet – the cliffhanger is a bargain between the image on screen and…

Vengeance On Varos – the viewers at home (who have the image left in their minds for a whole week)

The Daleks Episode 1 – The Dead Planet
The Doctor (William Hartnell)’s first adventure had fine cliffhangers to close each of its four episodes, not least the creeping threat at the very end of the story – but it was his second story that introduced not just the iconic monster but the iconic cliffhanger: a mystery; a monster; and a scream. The first episode of The Daleks is an early design triumph, as the TARDIS lands in the midst of a petrified jungle on an apparently dead planet. Exploring a strange metal city, full of sinister shining corridors with low arched doorways and with an eerie soundscape of hums and whirrs, the crew split up to explore… But when it comes time for them to meet up again, not only are they all feeling suddenly, strangely exhausted, but Barbara isn’t with them. She’s lost in the gleaming city, clutching the walls for support as she weakens, made all the more claustrophobic as doors close by themselves around her as if to herd her into place, hemmed in by a city coming alive and her own distorted reflections – then, as she’s reaching the end of her tether, to a piercing whine of musique concrète something extends a probe towards her as it closes in, and she screams…

It’s in the Daleks’ second story that they make perhaps their most iconic cliffhanger entrance (at least until 2006), shockingly rising from the Thames as masters of Earth in World’s End, but it was this cliffhanger that made Doctor Who an overnight success: bringing Barbara and the viewer to a pitch of tension, what could it be? Tune in next week! And the brilliance of it lies in part that it is not a monster reveal, but – after an episode of no-one else but our heroes exploring a strange world – the first intrusion of something else, a something or someone that we won’t see for another week. But Barbara’s seen it, and she’s terrified, and that reaction makes us desperate to know. It also establishes the iconic cliffhanger as something voyeuristic from the start – and rarely more so than in showing the climax not with the ‘viewers’ viewpoint character’ Barbara, but making us the very camera that threatens her.

Remembrance of the Daleks Part One
“The stairs!”
Another iconic Dalek cliffhanger, this time from twenty-five years later, now the mid-point of Doctor Who; exploring a school basement full of Dalek technology, the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and Ace manage to disintegrate a Dalek transmitting in… But the one already there closes in. The Doctor shouts to Ace the same thing everyone at home does, and she bounds up the stairs to escape. But before the Doctor can do the same, the cellar door’s slammed shut in front of him and, for the first time, we see a Dalek shockingly glide up the stairs behind him, his face captured in its computer display as it identifies the enemy of the Daleks and shrieks that he will be exterminated…

You can see some of that cliffhanger in this excitingly spoilery fan-made Remembrance of the Daleks trailer – and it may be coming soon…

Army of Ghosts
“That’s not Cybermen…”
“Oh my God—!”
The centre-point of Army of Ghosts / Doomsday doesn’t quite manage to spread today’s three Dalek cliffhangers evenly across the whole of Doctor Who’s first fifty years, but it’s close. The Doctor (David Tennant) goes downstairs again to investigate strange goings-on… Why does he keep doing that? It’s a thrillingly long build-up of tension that still manages to have the cliffhanger moment itself the undoubted climax: first, the Doctor is captured by fabulous villain Yvonne Hartman and Torchwood; then the Doctor works out (in an inspired twist on The Tenth Planet, with parallel rather than perambulating worlds colliding) that the Cybermen are behind it all; then the Cybermen effortlessly capture the Doctor and his captors; then the ‘ghosts’ across the world suddenly achieve full corporeality, as the Cybermen take control. The music, the imagery, Graeme Harper’s direction as the camera passes across eerily still Cyber-faces in close-up… It would be a terrific cliffhanger. So, pity the Cybermen, who have had some great cliffhangers of their own (faces in the snow, taking London in front of St Paul’s Cathedral, an army bursting from their containers and marching through a spaceship), yet the most exciting moment in their most victorious cliffhanger isn’t about them at all. I even usually name multi-part Twenty-first Century Who stories to myself after their first episode, yet this story to me is always “Doomsday” – because that’s about the Daleks, while “Army of Ghosts” seems more just the Cybermen.

All the while, an impossible sphere has been hanging in their air, defying all analysis; and just as the Cybermen come through, just as the Doctor thinks it’s all about them, just as the Cyberleader tells him that they merely followed the hole the sphere made between universes… The void-ship starts to open at last. And though Mickey Smith has turned from cowardly Mickey the Idiot to confident Defender of the Earth – that’s the positive power of gay sex – even he’s not ready for what’s coming out. A year after she destroyed every last Dalek in existence, Rose recognises the four Daleks as they float out of their sphere, identifying their location, the life-forms, and their desire, as always: “Exterminate! Exterminate! Exterminate! Exterminaaaaaaate!

Planet of Evil Part Three
“You can’t do this! It’s murder!”
“She’s right. You have no evidence. You cannot do it.”
“How much evidence do you want? The whole crew dead? Eject! Eject!”
Many of the cliffhangers I’m fondest of are those that most terrified me as a child. A man taking his wounded hand from his pocket and not recognising the half-Wirrn flesh it’s become; Sarah Jane recognising a Sontaran as it removes its helmet, or falling from a terrifyingly high gantry, or encountering the body, or brain, or body and brain of Morbius, or just not Sarah Jane at all; the Doctor caught in the merciless gaze of a dark god, or next to feel the blazing power of a cowled fanatic consumed by burning energy, or frozen underwater in the cliffhanger that most offended Mary Whitehouse (‘Finished, Doctor! The episode’s finished!’). Many more burned their way into my earliest nightmares – some of them will find their way into my Fifty Scenes across the next year, and it was very tempting just to fill up these eleven with more from the mid-Seventies. Instead, I’m going to write in detail about just one today, chosen – how else? – by virtue of being the one that gave me the most vivid and lasting recurring nightmare.

On a planet on the edge of the Universe, a scientific party has come to grief in the eerie living jungle, and the Doctor (Tom Baker) and Sarah Jane have inevitably taken the blame. There are more horrible deaths on the rescue ship; something is preventing it from leaving orbit; and something is very wrong with the expedition’s sole survivor, in a ghoulish sci-fi twist on the Victorian tale of Jekyll and Hyde. In the wrong place at the wrong time, the Doctor’s really not getting on well with the ship’s ambitious young commander, and things come to a head when, coming round from the Doctor socking him in the jaw, the commander finds him standing over yet another twisted corpse and shoots him down. We’ve already seen the ship’s dead ceremonially ejected into space; now the commander has the unconscious Doctor and the all too awake Sarah Jane strapped onto trays in the mortuary and presses the lever to send them the same way in a ghoulish sci-fi twist on the Victorian fear of burial alive, already out of sight down the tube as the music screams in… Claustrophobia, helplessness, arbitrary power and death all combine to make this the most horrifying cliffhanger of all when I was a little boy. For some reason, corpses and skeletons seemed exciting, but coffins frightening.

Vengeance On Varos Part One
“And cut it – now.”
Colin Baker (the Doctor) is trapped in a voyeuristic world of TV where people delight to see the contestants suffer and everything is ruled by a TV vote. Make your own topical jokes. Here are mine. Tense music swells; the Doctor makes his way through a baking TV landscape, and we see people seeing him seeing Peri (yes, it is a bit meta); even the viewers at home feel thirsty watching; Peri is dragged into the studio and bursts out in horror at what she sees on the screen; the director governor orders a close-up on his death throes; a mini-Jabba gurgles with delight in the most fabulously evil laugh of the ’80s; we zoom in on Colin’s still face on all the screens… They cut. One of Doctor Who’s most postmodern stories, surely its most postmodern cliffhanger as we watch what we’d normally watch on the screen on a series of screens – fittingly for such a superb cliffhanger, it’s the story’s peak, unusually far better around the middle than at the beginning or end.

The Space Museum Episode 1 – The Space Museum
“They’ve gone.”
“Yes, my dear. And we’ve arrived.”
It’s another time where the cliffhanger builds and builds to a crescendo – before finishing in sudden silence and on a moment of quiet, charismatic authority. The TARDIS lands by the space museum to the triumphs of this planet’s conquerors – or does it? The Doctor (William Hartnell) and his friends explore, only to find no-one can see or hear them, to find they can’t touch anything, and ultimately to find… Themselves. Frozen exhibits alongside all the other monuments of conquest. It seems the TARDIS has been doing something very strange, by accident or design, and this eerie, intriguing opening episode closes with time catching up with its passengers: it never fails to send a shiver up my spine when to a sudden eruption of frankly barking, strident strings the TARDIS has another go at it, our heroes’ footprints belatedly appear, the display cases of doom fade away, Steven Moffat materialises and the Doctor ominously observes that they’ve at last arrived.

Carnival of Monsters Episode Two
“What was that?”
“I don’t know – but it didn’t sound very friendly…”
When I think of Carnival of Monsters, I usually think of how funny it is, or how strange. The claim that it’s “Nothing serious, nothing political” even as it sends up xenophobic right-wingers; the high-concept weirdness that should mean the first episode’s cliffhanger is outstanding, though it doesn’t quite work on screen; the combination of the two in that what seems to be a puzzling mixture of times and places is revealed to be a peepshow satirising TV (and one show in particular). And yet the most memorable single moment is the most straightforwardly effective of all cliffhanger ideas: a simply brilliant monster reveal. The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and Jo find themselves in part of an alien swamp, and as the entertainer and the alien planet’s MPs watch (plotting a good disaster but with no wish to be devoured by such monstrosities, even in the cause of political progress), there’s a terrific scream from a monstrous dragon bursting out of the water to menace our heroes… The Drashig is, in this shot, still one of the best monsters in the series, and completely lives up to its fourth-wall-breaking billing in all the ways we’ve already been told with grisly relish how scary it is.

The Leisure Hive Part Three
“I’ve got a surprise for you all.”
Tom Baker’s final season as the Doctor is one of the series’ creative peaks: visually stylish; thematically brilliant; superb music; striking ideas. One of the elements it doesn’t get enough credit for, though, is its cliffhangers – it’s arguably Doctor Who’s most sustained run of terrific episode endings, whether in an outstanding mixture of villain revealed and turning point in the tale (not this one – a later one), fractured time suddenly crystallising as our hero arrives in danger (though differently to The Space Museum), or a lurch in the stomach of horror and delight at a mixture of fan-pleasing death and Tom solemnity. Two stories in particular stand out in every single cliffhanger. One of them’s made it to my Fifty. For the other, the Doctor’s pulled shockingly apart with a howl down a still shocking set of new titles; then aged to ancienthood; and in this third cliffhanger, the most shocking face-off of the lot…

The Doctor (Tom Baker) has been blamed (as usual) for sabotage and murder on an alien world. This is a holiday world, run by a dying race, and it’s going bankrupt; the sabotage and murder, apparently by green lizardy things lurking in the shadows, doesn’t help. Nor does their wolfish human business partner Brock, who’s making them an offer too good to refuse. Suddenly, though, things turn inside-out: a friendly green lizard helps the Doctor out and he takes it to see the Board, just as the next Chairman is turning into a fascist messiah. But that’s the least of Brock’s worries as the lizardy thing, turning not so friendly after all, makes a grab for him. He screams in xenophobic terror for it not to touch him, which seems for once justifiable – as, in a series of brilliantly horrible fast cuts and close-ups, we see it seize him and tear his head off. To reveal the lizard within.

The Trial of A Time Lord Part Thirteen – The Ultimate Foe
“This is an illusion. I deny it!”
“Not this time.”
“This – isn’t – happening!”
“You are dead, Doctor. Goodbye, Doctor…”
The Doctor (Colin Baker) has entered the Matrix – yes, just like that one. Doctor Who got there first, and this wasn’t even the first time (the first time was followed by a story with a great cliffhanger in which what looks like the Doctor’s evil self attacks him inside a computer. Completely different to this). Anyway, he’s gone inside this computer to track down his evil self, only to be enmeshed in dementedly Victorian bureaucracy. Told to go to a waiting room, he opens the door – and finds himself on a dour, windswept beach, the voice of his evil self (Michael Jayston) echoing down from the sky. He’s rather fabulous at that. Worried about his companion, the Doctor’s defiant – but threats boom like thunder to the Doctor himself, the music spirals, and below his feet the sand starts to heave as grimy hands erupt from it and, grasping at the Doctor’s legs, pull him to the ground. The Doctor tries to deny the reality of all this, but as the disembodied hands drag him deeper into the roiling sands, it seems all he can do is scream… The Doctor turning evil is one of the series’ great nightmares, so it’s appropriate that rarely has the Doctor been plunged into such nightmarish imagery.

The End of Time Part One
“And so it came to pass, on Christmas Day, that the human race did cease to exist. But even then, the Master had no concept of his greater role in events – for this was far more than humanity’s end. This day was the day upon which the whole of Creation would change for ever…”
OK. So not quite done with the Advent blasphemy. This is the longest buildup and cliffhanger in today’s choices (though not the longest scene in the Fifty, which will range from just a few seconds to…), as I will happily watch the last seven minutes or so of The End of Time Part One as one big climax. Russell T Davies has an amazing gift for great penultimate-episode cliffhangers, enthusing me for if usually outclassing the season finale that follows (here, neither the multiple Masters nor the Time Lords really seem to get a lot to do next time. But a great brink to teeter on). The Master (John Simm) is terrific, too, though I do rather prefer him more suave with occasional bursts of madness than the other way round, and so nearly went for the stunning images, music and charisma of his “Here – come – the drums!” …But it’s just possible that I may yet feature something else from that particular three-part story, and perhaps even another Russell pre-finale. What’s especially impressive about this cliffhanger is that, like Army of Ghosts’, it’s a double cliffhanger – setting up one huge menace that we expected, making it utterly victorious, and then topping it…

The Doctor turning evil? How about all of us? Perhaps overcompensating for disintegrating a git of a President last time the Master turned up, here we get some blatant hero-worshipping of Obama, Wilf gets Chekhov’s Button hidden behind the bluff of Chekhov’s Gun, and the man who thinks he’s the main villain gets to activate his big sparkly gate thing. But he’s not the main villain at all. The Master leaps into action and, with a burst of thrilling music, throws his self across the world and into every human. The Doctor (David Tennant) can only look on appalled as the Master’s laugh echoes from the entire formerly-human race, sometimes wearing rather stylish pink frocks, to the strains of the glorious music we always know as ‘Dance of the Macra’. But it’s a double cliffhanger, and even the Master this time isn’t the main villain either. We zoom out from Earth across the Solar System and far beyond as the President of the Time Lords (Timothy Dalton) promises the serried ranks of his people – all in Prydonian, or Dalek, colours, and whose death has been the only certain fact of the past five years – final victory, and the end of time itself.

The Tenth Planet Episode 4
“It’s far from being all over…”
From the other end of time, and from another regeneration story before anyone had the faintest idea there could be any such thing, comes the biggest, most inspired shock cliffhanger in Doctor Who, for all that we’ve had so many years to get used to the idea: the Doctor (Patrick Troughton) is no longer the Doctor (William Hartnell). His old body wearing thin, exhausted by fighting against the Cybermen and their vampire world, the Doctor has won, but is in a state of collapse as he staggers back to the TARDIS. His companions Ben and Polly (good-looking guys) follow, only to find the TARDIS apparently working the Doctor rather than the other way round, and the Doctor himself, in a blaze of light and roar of sound – changing

Though the rest of the story survives, the final episode of The Tenth Planet is one of those the BBC “lost” (though in this case, rumours suggest in a less straightforward way than the usual skip or furnace). Fortunately, not only does the soundtrack exist, as for all “missing” episodes, but so do three clips of the climax – two filmed off-screen of the buildup, and the first regeneration itself in full quality. And in a strange way, the juddery flickering of those clips just adds to the sense of something weird and powerful happening. It’s marvellous that we still have that mesmerising shot of the Doctor near-swooning into camera as he tells Ben he’s wrong about it all being over, then all those overlapping shots of the Doctor and the ‘alive’ console amidst a catastrophe of sound remains spellbinding – even before the end of the story itself in a new Doctor, still such a fantastic idea! As you could describe both as ‘Holy shit! What’s that?’ scenes – with both then having such satisfying answers – this cliffhanger and the first one above are probably the two most crucial moments in explaining why we’re still watching Doctor Who five decades later.

Next week – a last teaser before the Fifty start in earnest…

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You may appreciate a video I made this time last year, cutting together hundreds of the best Doctor Who cliffhangers (including eight of the ones you chose - I forgot The Space Museum!)
Thank you - that's excellent!

On one watching (so I may have missed some), there are another eight of yours to come in my full Fifty countdown... Including the very next one I write (which I must get round to writing), which'll have some bonus other cliffhangers mixed in.

You also had about another eight that made me think, 'Oh, I wish I'd had room for that one...'
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