Here’s a writing secret. Sometimes you write a book with ten long chapters, but the publisher thinks it would be better with twenty short chapters. So you have to decide whether to do a big rewrite, or to just find places where you can change some wording and punctuation and hope that’s enough to turn them from just another bit of the story to Gasp! Bit where it ends! What happens next?! It wouldn’t entirely surprise me to discover that a number of Doctor Who cliffhangers were created via the latter course. In fact on occasions they haven’t even bothered to change the punctuation (Death to the Daleks Part Three’s Oh no! It’s a floor! being an example). Cliffhangers have been a part of Doctor Who since the beginning, but they are an artificial construct, and sometimes it’s obviously been a struggle to get to that ‘gasp’ factor roughly every 23 minutes.
So, welcome to Season 21, a season where they barely struggled at all.
I should point out that I’m talking from the perspective of an eleven-year-old here. As an adult rewatching Warriors of the Deep Part One, I know that the Doctor isn’t drowned, and I want to shout at Turlough and Tegan for being stupid – but I just can’t help remembering how stunning that cliffhanger was on first viewing. The Awakening Part One goes back to that never-bettered device of revealing a bit of the monster and leaving the viewer desperate to see the rest. Frontios spoils us with an ‘OMG the TARDIS is destroyed!’ moment, a ‘the Doctor’s been caught!’ moment and an ‘unpleasant thing discovered’ moment – and, if that wasn’t enough, is so amazingly generous as to give us a ‘lead into next story’ cliffhanger at the very end too! Resurrection of the Daleks Part One has a friend revealed as a traitor, always a heart-stopping moment. Planet of Fire takes us back to those distant Pertwee days when ‘it’s the Master!’ was the default cliffhanger, but here with some rather fab twists – the Doctor’s companion Kamelion is the Master! Not to mention: the Master is tiny and in a box! Both wonderfully memorable. The Twin Dilemma doesn’t have any cliffhangers that stand out in quite the same way, but does pretty much give us a cliffhanger for the entire season with its ‘I am the Doctor – whether you like it or not!’ (translation: will the new Doctor get any better stories next year?).
Eagle-eyed readers will notice that one story is missing from that round-up. Oh, Caves of Androzani. Your every episode-ending is perfection, whatever age the viewer is.
Part One. Has there ever been a more incredible ‘how do they get out of that?’ moment than the one where we see the Doctor and Peri actually being shot? And as well as being astonishingly dramatic it’s also clever, because there’s been just enough information for the older (ie older than 11) viewer paying close attention to work out the solution – when we’re given it at the start of Part Two it doesn’t feel like a cheat – but it’s done well enough to fool most people.
Part Two admittedly has a fairly standard ‘will the monster find the Doctor?’ number, although the story as a whole has got the adrenalin pumping so much that even an Oh no! It’s a floor! ending would have seemed the most dramatic thing ever. Part Four – well, there aren’t going to be many cliffhangers where the Doctor really, truly dies and gets a new face, so this is a big one.
And then there’s Part Three. As a ‘tune in next time’ it can’t be beaten. The Doctor is dying from Spectrox poisoning. A man is pointing a gun at him and threatening to shoot. The spaceship he’s in is about to crash into a planet. Any one of those would have been good. All three together are astonishing. A combination of one of the best writers, one of the best actors and one of the best directors the show has ever seen coming together to make possibly its greatest moment.
Here we have a vulnerable – dying – man, who refuses to give up, even in the face of so many threats and dangers. And why will he not give up? Not to save himself, or even to save a close friend. Not because he needs to be seen to be doing something heroic, or because he’d think less of himself if he didn’t try. There’s no selfishness, no thought of self at all. He’s just determined to do his best to help a girl he barely knows, who is dying. It’s not only a brilliant cliffhanger in itself, it’s a character study of the Fifth Doctor in 28 seconds. It’s Doctor Who in 28 seconds. It’s just wonderful.
1. “It’s a face!” The Malus bursts through a church wall in the best second-episode monster reveal since five minutes into 1963’s The Survivors when we finally got to see the creatures behind the sucker arms. The Awakening Part Two.
2. “The earth is hungry. It waits to eat.” An upset Turlough echoes Captain Revere’s words, shows he has the widest eyes in showbiz, and incidentally possibly inspires an episode title 27 years later. Frontios Part Three.
3. “It’s stopped being fun, Doctor.” Has there ever been a more downbeat leaving scene for a companion (deaths excluded)? Tegan’s off again, and this time she means it. Resurrection of the Daleks Part Two.
4. “So what? I’m Perpugilliam Brown and I can shout just as loud as you can.” New female companion proves she’s going to be just as strong-willed – and loud – as the last one. Planet of Fire Part Two.