If you were to ask me the one thing I missed the most about old-style Doctor Who – apart from the sense of general uncomplicated simplicity that’s kind of hard to pin down – it would be the cliffhangers.
I know it’s a silly thing to want back. I know that most of the time they were nonchalantly lacklustre, structurally constricting and poorly resolved. But somehow post-2005 Who hasn’t seemed quite the Doctor Who I knew when I was growing up. On the surface, that’s a ridiculous reason to criticise it. That’s exactly the kind of false nostalgia that I strive to avoid here (if I call something crap, it’s because it’s crap, it’s not simply because it’s new and different). At the same time, there was a certain water cooler value about a show where the lead characters were in dubious jeopardy three weeks out of every four. You spent the rest of the week wondering how the Doctor would escape that mine cart, or whether Bonnie Langford really could shatter glass. These days you know things will be wrapped up by the time the credits roll, with the exception of the obligatory arc reference that adds a note of ambiguity to a happy ending, or which sometimes changes things completely (see ‘The Almost People’ for a rare example of how the arc can improve a dull story; it’s usually the other way around).
No, by and large, cliffhangers have been sparingly employed. But no longer, it seems. In an interview in this month’s Doctor Who Magazine (still on the shelf, unread, next to the other six issues I haven’t got round to reading yet), neatly summarised over at Kasterborous, Steven Moffat confirms that the cliffhangers are back with a vengeance for series nine. “This feels more unpredictable. You don’t know,” he says, “how far you’re going to get through the story…”
I’ve written extensively about cliffhangers before, in a post that I’ve just reread and that still essentially stands up three years later – although the iPod is just used for music these days, and we no longer have the Zafira. Joshua, too, has improved, no longer bothered if an episode ends with the characters staring down the barrel of a gun, or trapped in a police car with plastic robots. Repeated exposure to old Who has helped with this. So too has the fact that he’s grown up quite a lot. It’s too bad that I haven’t.
There are types of cliffhangers. There are the “Location change” cliffhangers (‘Enlightenment’ part one; ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ part three). There are “Monster reveal” cliffhangers (‘Ark in Space’ part one, ‘Earthshock’ part one). And there are my personal favourites, the “Doctor in distress” cliffhangers, which were all basically the same, and which frequently ended with a companion’s half-strangled cry of “DOCTOOOOOOOORRRR!”, just before the sting that preceded the theme music.
Whatever my complaints about New Who I’ll admit that the times it’s employed the use of a dramatic ending have, for the most part, been pretty effective. The finale of ‘The Empty Child’, with gas mask zombies approaching Jack, Rose and the Doctor on a hospital ward, is still powerful stuff – and the final moments of ‘The Pandorica Opens’, which saw Amy dead, River trapped inside an exploding TARDIS and the Doctor imprisoned inside an impenetrable box (while the entire universe dies around them), culminate in one of the strongest “How are they going to get out of this?!?” conundrums since the series came back. So, too, the resolution to this cliffhanger is notable for actually not being dreadful, even if the rest of the episode was somewhat disappointing. In contrast, the climax to ‘Rise of the Cybermen’ was terrific, while its denouement (the sonic screwdriver, again) was utterly lame. I’m not really whinging about this. It’s not a new thing. It’s been that way, on many levels, since 1963. After a while, you grow to expect it.
But even if the resolutions were / are choppy (see ‘The Sunmakers’ part two for an example of a cliffhanger that is eventually resolved by completely changing what happened last week) the classic Who cliffhangers themselves were, by and large, generally quite good. Most of them. There are exceptions – the ones that you remember for the worst possible reasons. Here are just four of them.
(Note: the last two embeds in the list below are for DailyMotion videos, so if they don’t work in your browser / app, you should be able to view them on the website itself.)
“Sorry, what?” (‘Death to the Daleks’, part three)
(Start at 1:10.)
Look. I understand the principle of a deadly maze filled with traps. And yes, the floor is booby-trapped and can only be surpassed, as it turns out, with the use of Venusian hopscotch, which is presumably what the younger brothers and sisters of the Venusian Aikido students play in the car park outside the community hall while they’re waiting for classes to finish. But we don’t know that. All we get is a sudden jolt from Pertwee, who shouts “Stop! Don’t move!”, before the camera cuts down to a set of crazy paving. It’s very pretty, but it doesn’t really look particularly dangerous. It looks like a place mat design. Barry Letts probably had some in his dining room. A far better way to end the episode would have been for the Doctor to shout “Stop! Don’t move! Bellal, STOP!” while Bellal does something awful off camera. Then we could spend a week working out whether he was about to photocopy his arse with the shredder.
“But it worked in the script…” (‘Dragonfire’, part one)
This is the mother of all dodgy cliffhangers, so let’s get it out of the way. ‘Dragonfire’ occurs at the tail end of a dodgy series of Who stories, but does at least pave the way for Cartmel’s late 1980s development with the introduction of Ace. It’s thus a shame that the thing most people remember is the notorious scene at the end of the first episode in which the Doctor climbs over a railing and then hangs from the edge via his umbrella FOR NO REASON AT ALL.
In fact, there’s a very good reason, or at least there was in the script: it was supposed to be obvious that the Doctor had reached a dead end and that the only way was down. This doesn’t come across visually, but that’s not really the fault of the design department either: it’s just the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, which is inevitable in a show like this. The cast and crew have plenty to say about it in the video above, so I’ll just add that a better explanation for the sudden descent into the ravine would surely have been the appearance of Mel in the doorway above, holding a glass of carrot juice and the sheet music for ‘Doctor in Distress’.
“Censors indicate danger, Mistress.” (‘The Stones of Blood’, part one)
(Start at 3:30.)
‘The Stones of Blood’ is a joyous romp through pastoral England, as the Doctor encounters the delightful Professor Rumford and her somewhat less delightful assistant Vivien. There are sausage sandwiches and a notorious scene involving two campers. But the cliffhanger to episode one is utterly bizarre: Romana (Mary Tamm) is wandering along by the river when she hears the Doctor calling her from the distance. The next thing we know, she says “What’s the matter?” at some unseen creature, before stumbling backwards and falling over the edge of the cliff, which is where we find her dangling precariously at the beginning of episode two.
It works on paper. In practice it’s incredibly jarring. Still, there’s a simple explanation: the person that pushed Romana is supposed to be the Doctor (or rather, the story’s antagonist, disguised as him). Tom Baker understandably kicked up a fuss about this, fearing it would tarnish the character’s image – and this being the Graham Williams era, he got his way. (I wouldn’t mind, but this is a Doctor we’re supposed to believe has become diabolically evil only several stories back in ‘The Invasion of Time’.)
So instead, we never see the fake Doctor push Romana. We don’t see anyone push her – she just stumbles a bit and loses her footing. This wouldn’t be so bad but she’s already taken her shoes off earlier in the episode. Still, it’s the only really tenuous scene in an otherwise excellent story, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain. Much.
“How charming. A finale.” (‘Snakedance’, part three)
(Start at 4:55.)
You know the most ridiculous thing about ‘Snakedance’? It’s not the Mara laugh. It’s not even Martin Clunes’ weather outfit. It’s this scene, which more than any other epitomises some of the problems you face with episodic four-part stories. A need to constantly build in and deal with threats is all well and good when you don’t have much else in the way of a story (see ‘The Invasion of Time’ again) but sometimes it can just get in the way. Hence an interesting discussion between two of the leads about exactly how the events of ‘Snakedance’ relate to those of ‘Kinda’ is severely hampered by the need to get the Doctor and Nyssa out of the prison cell in which they’re being held, so that they can then be recaptured in a corridor. That’s bad enough, but Lon decides, for absolutely no reason at all, to execute them on the spot. Cue deathly scream from Nyssa, the only person behaving more out of character in this scene than Lon himself.
There are many ways you might excuse such a whim within the realms of, say, a novelisation, and there have been sillier moments. Nonetheless this does expose the problems you get when you’re having to constantly build to and then resolve moments of heightened dramatic tension, at the same points in every story – structure may be crucial, but there are times when it’s a noose around the creative neck. It’s a difficulty encountered far less in the books, or indeed within the two-part stories that would follow a couple of years later, when Doctor Who saw format changes that foreshadowed the approach taken in the multi-part stories we’ve seen since 2005.
So perhaps that’s where Moffat’s going. An erratic, more abrasive Doctor, and a selection of feature-length two-part stories. It could work. God knows we need a change. But please, no more charity singles.