Posts Tagged With: cliffhanger

Doctor Who and the Cliffhangers of Stupidity

Stones_Blood

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.

Mel-Montage

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.

Categories: Classic Who | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Goosebumps

Last night, Joshua and Thomas and I watched ‘Journey’s End’. I say ‘watched’. The reality is that Thomas got bored and spent half of it doing headstands on the armchair. Joshua was taken aback by the regeneration that wasn’t, and then stomped around in a huff when there was no ‘next time’ trailer, although I think he was probably just upset about poor Donna.

As for me, I sat there bemoaning the melodrama in the last fifteen minutes: there’s an earlier, very telling encounter between the Doctor and Davros in which the Time Lord’s pacifist sensibilities are challenged, even if it is hampered somewhat by Dalek Caan behaving like Johnny the depressed artist from The Fast Show. And there’s the crowd-pleasing moment when Sarah Jane, cornered by Daleks, is saved by none other than Mickey Smith, holding an enormous gun. And then there’s that stupid, stupid scene on the beach. And lots of hugging. And then Tennant redeems himself by a final, wordless scene in the TARDIS when he looks genuinely upset at the departure of the Most Faithful Companion, and you remember that given the space that New Who rarely provides, he can turn in a fine performance.

It’s a missed opportunity, but it did get me thinking again about something I’ve been tinkering with for a while – a collection of those moments which have genuinely lived up to their promise, the moments that single out Doctor Who as first-rate television, the ones that make the clip shows and the award ceremonies. The ones that make you cry, or – in the case of the examples I’m about to provide – the ones that make you want to shout with glee. This is not a definitive list (hint: your comments welcome), nor is it exhaustive (there are plenty in Classic Who, and one of these days I’ll get to them). But here, in no particular order, are my top seven Doctor Who moments that make you go “Yes!”.

1. The Tenth Doctor saves the day         (‘The Idiot’s Lantern’, series 2)

“Goodnight children…everywhere.”

Once upon a time, in the days before space-bound spitfires and silly dolls, Mark Gatiss wrote decent episodes of Doctor Who. This is the second (his first was ’The Unquiet Dead’, which I love), and the cracks are already beginning to show – there’s a lot of self-righteous cockney blustering and some absolutely excruciating dialogue between Rose and the Doctor at the beginning of the story. But in its favour, ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’ has Maureen Lipman, as well as sensitive support from Rory Jennings and Sam Cox, and one of the most exciting finales to any of the New Who stories. As the Wire gets on with sucking off the faces of the entire TV-watching population (the phrase ‘glued to the screen’ seldom seemed so apt), Tennant ascends the side of a transmitter in an attempt to wipe out the signal. There are obvious parallels with the ending of ‘Logopolis’ here, and that may have been the reason why, for the first time since 1987, I genuinely feared for the safety of the Doctor. You know it’ll all end well, and of course it does, but it’s a bumpy ride, and all the more satisfying when he inevitably triumphs – by capturing her on a Betamax cassette.

—-

2. The thing you never put in a trap        (‘The Time of Angels’, series 5)

“River, hug Amy. I’m busy.”

The Angels have everyone surrounded. There are tons of them. They’re vicious killers, which is new. They also appear on video. Basically things don’t look good. The creative decision to have them speak was controversial but, unlike the other change Moffat made in these episodes, it worked – it did, if nothing else, help us to understand their malevolence. But they’ve made a mistake by trapping the Doctor, because there’s one thing you never put in a trap, and that’s him. This is the first cliffhanger episode and as such it’s the first time we see Smith’s Doctor well and truly cornered, so it’s nice to see him respond in this way. So good, even a dancing Graham Norton can’t spoil it.

3. The Doctor saves Caecillius         (‘The Fires of Pompeii’, series 4)

“I can never go back. I can’t. I just can’t.”

Doctor Who’s always been a bit awkward about predestination. Hartnell bleated that “You can’t change history – not one line” and it’s long since been the show’s ethos: basically everything the Doctor does is pre-ordained. Hence things happen in history because he’s there to stop them, not because he pops in to change them, and it’s the wisdom of being able to tell the difference between pre-ordained action and meddling that makes him the tedious demi-God that has he thus become in recent years. (It’s a quality that his companions – being human – singularly lack, which is why the Doctor presumably calls them ‘stupid apes’.) But in this instance, Donna is right: Pompeii happened, and it’s clear from this that it was supposed to happen, but there’s nothing in the history books about a mysterious stranger saving a random family because no one would have believed it. This makes the Doctor’s rescue – bathed in white light, beckoning Caecillius and his wife and children into it as if lifting them from the depths of hell – all the more plausible, and the moment when he changes his mind and goes back for them is really very satisfying indeed. Seldom has the sound of the TARDIS’ materialisation been quite so welcome.

4. The Doctor defies the Daleks         (‘Bad Wolf’, series 1)

“Rose? I’m coming to get you.”

There are cliffhangers and there are cliffhangers. And then there’s this: a companion-in-peril moment that you expect to end in a look of abject horror, with a wide-eyed stare and a cry of “DOCTOR!”. Instead, Eccleston shows how, for all the arm-folding and grinning, he really was quite good at times: a Time Lord outmanned and outgunned and with no possible way he can win, but who is determined to go down fighting. The end result is goosebump-inducing. Accompanied by some of Murray Gold’s best music, the Doctor refuses to allow them the satisfaction of an easy surrender – and when he tells Rose’s captives the he’s going to rescue the girl, save the Earth and then, just for good measure, “wipe every last stinking Dalek out of the sky”, they believe him. And, crucially, so do we.

5. Rory grows a spine         (‘A Good Man Goes To War’, series 6)

“What happened to him? His voice finally break?”

A lot of people despise this episode. I think it’s a highlight of the sixth series, eclipsed in sheer brilliance only by ‘The God Complex’. The saga of the Doctor’s attempt to rescue Amy is muddled and confusing and refuses to explain why its supporting characters are there (only that they owe a debt to the Doctor, which Moffat’s no doubt going to come back to later), and there are ephemeral references to bow ties and the most ridiculously contrived (and thoroughly anticlimactic) ending you could imagine. But before any of that, there’s this: a stomping opening scene in which a captive Amy reassures her infant daughter that she’ll always be safe (Oh, Amy, if only you knew), because her father’s on his way. And Rory – wearing his gladiator costume for no really good reason, but let’s ignore that – stomps onto the bridge of a Cybermen warship, properly angry for perhaps the first time ever, and asks for the location of his wife. Never mind the ethics of the Doctor blowing up an entire fleet simply because he can – this is mind-numbingly good stuff.

6. “Everybody Lives”         (‘The Doctor Dances’, series 1)

“My leg’s grown back! When I come to the hospital, I had one leg!”
“Well, there is a war on. Is it possible you miscounted?”

The first Moffat Who story is a curious beast. It’s Jekyll / Hyde in nature, with a frightening, turbulent first half that features a strange, zombie-like child who can manipulate the telephone lines, and one of the most startling transformation scenes in the entire canon. And then, in part two, Moffat goes into zany screwball comedy mode. There’s an amusing denouement to the cliffhanger, when the Doctor frightens off the infected mob by telling them to go to their room, only to quip “I’m really glad that worked. Those would have been terrible last words”. Then there are jokes about ears, bananas and the Doctor’s weapon of choice (“Who looks at a screwdriver and says ‘Ooh, this could be a little more sonic’?”). There’s a kind of infectious joy about it, despite all the end-of-the-world palaver, and it all comes to a head in this closing scene, which sees the Doctor save the day by thrashing his arms around in a display of literal handwavium, but the zero body count for the story is rare and refreshing, and even if much of the dialogue is corny, the sentiment is heartfelt and appropriate. “Just this once, Rose,” cries the Doctor triumphantly, “Everybody lives!” – and it’s hard not to cheer along with him.

7. The Doctor and Amy go exploring         (‘The Eleventh Hour’)

“Amy Pond, the girl who waited. You’ve waited long enough.”

Yes, yes. I know everyone loves the fish custard scene, and that bit on the rooftop (“Hello. I’m the Doctor. Basically…run”). But my own air-punching moment came right at the end of this episode. It had been a dazzling tour-de-force from Smith, who spent an hour running around being manic and silly, in the days when Moffat’s scripts had him mostly doing that instead of acting sad and world-weary (which Smith also does very well, it’s just it’s less interesting to watch). So scrub to 2:44 and watch from there, because it’s the moment when you realise that even though he lets other things get in the way, Moffat still understands who he’s writing about and what the show represents. And when the Doctor announces, drily but with a wide-eyed gleam that he is, indeed, a madman with a box, I knew that Smith had nailed the part, and that I would love him. And I still do.

Categories: New Who | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

On the edge

We just watched this.

Himself was not amused.

“Oh, why was it a CLIFFHANGER?”
“Because it’s more exciting that way.”
“But I want to know what happens next!”
“And you’ll have to wait.”
“Oh, but why do they have to stop there?”
“Do you want to know the best part?”
“What’s that?”
“There’s no next time bit.”
“WHAT?!?”
“I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to wait.”
[Joshua immediately bursts into tears]
“Come on, now. It’s not as bad as all that.”
“But I WANT TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS!”
“Listen, when your mother and I watched this the first time we had to wait a whole week before it got resolved. I jumped out of my chair and said ‘YOU CAN’T LEAVE IT THERE!’. But they did.”
“I don’t want to have to wait a week!”
“You may have to. It depends when we get round to the next episode.”
“Oh, but [sniff] don’t you want to [sob] make me much happier?”
“No, because it’s past your bedtime.”
“Oh, but PLEASE!”
“Listen. I can tell you that there’s a new Doctor in next week’s episode.”

Well, it’s basically true…

Categories: New Who | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“He never got out of the cockadoody car!”

Joshua and I differ in our love of Doctor Who in one respect: cliffhangers. I love them, and he can’t stand them.

Age is part of it. The problem with each successive generation is that they expect things to be done faster. There is a certain amount of raw nostalgia in my recollection of the time – only a decade ago – when it would take me fifteen minutes to burn a CD. I can remember loading software from floppy disks. I can remember tapes. I can remember sitting in front of my Spectrum for ten minutes waiting for Chase HQ to finish loading, and cursing with all the swearwords an eleven-year-old could conjure when it crashed thirty seconds from the final block. I can remember having to rewind VHS videos that I’d left cued at the end credits of Superman IV. I can remember mail order services that took weeks, rather than days.

(A friend of mine recently pointed out the semantic irony in that the universal symbol for saving is – of course – a floppy disk. When was the last time any of you actually used a floppy disk? These symbols arose because they fitted the times in which they were created, and this icon has now become so synonymous with its function that most of us, I expect, could never imagine using anything else. But paradoxically we’re raising a generation of children who need explanations of once self-explanatory visual cues like disk drives and gramophones and eight-tracks, explanations that I suspect we’re failing to provide, and – like the monkeys in the cage – many children have no idea why we use certain symbols, except for the normal explanation of “That’s just the way it’s done round here”.)

These days, I get grumpy when my download speed drops below 100K a second. I fire up a dual layer dub and look at the estimated time left and despair. I become frustrated when I place an Ebay order at eight in the morning and it doesn’t ship the same day, even though the terms and conditions said it would go within three. I drum impatient fingers when emails I’m telling people I’m sending while I speak to them over the phone fail to materialise instantly. I glance anxiously at the dashboard clock at every red light my Zafira encounters, and stare at my watch at every raised signal. I know that if you’re reading this you will be nodding in recognition at having done at least some of the above. We live in a society that enables us to do more than ever, if we want it, and somehow it’s never fast enough. What hope for us, and what hope for our children?

So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that Joshua wants instant resolution. When you’re a child the world moves slowly. I have an iPod app that counts off the sleeps until Christmas. Joshua starts asking me for the numbers in June, right after his birthday. When December 25th has been and gone, I am asked for the time that has to elapse until his birthday. We are trying to teach him the value of patience by making him wait for certain things. It is not working. And actually that isn’t true. I should say, rather, that it works inconsistently, depending on mood.

I don’t tell him that the cliffhangers are coming, because when I do he spends the entire episode whinging “But Daddy, why does this one have to be a cliffhanger?”. And I’ve run out of patience because I always give him the same answer: “Because it just is. The writers found it necessary. And they thought it would make it more exciting.”

“Oh, but I want to find out what happens next.”
“Well, then, you’ll have to wait.”
“Can you tell me?”
“No.”
“Just give me one clue.”
“Certainly not. It’ll spoil it.”
“Come on, just one.”

And so on, all the way down to the bathroom and beyond.

Here’s the thing.  I grew up with Old Who. That’s important, because it explains my current position, which is not altogether impartial. There are several hallmarks of Old Who that didn’t fully survive the transition: wobbly sets, frantic over-acting and the multi-episode cliffhangers. These days we have CGI, and ‘worthy’ performances that are usually relatively low-key, even if they’re less fun to watch (you may imagine that I found Phil Davis, in ‘The Fires of Pompeii’, an absolute breath of fresh air). As for the cliffhangers, that’s a problem with the episode structure in general: forty-two minutes, now, being the operative time to introduce everyone, tell your story and wrap it up.

Most weeks it works, but there’s something missing. The pace is up, up, up: tight cuts, shouted explanations while Tennant or Smith is running down a corridor, and fairly bog-standard character development. It was notable that for Children of Earth, the third series of Torchwood, Russell T. Davies’ writing improved immeasurably: he elected to tell a single story over the course of five hours, a story that (crucially) could probably have been told in two or three with a bit of trimming. Free of the shackles of the standard runtime there was room for more reflection, more space, and pauses – the scene in which John Frobisher first engages with the 456, through a glass darkly, is the unquestionable series highlight, if only because it’s so – oh, just have a look, you’ll see what I mean:

You see? It’s jarringly slow (jarringly in the best of ways, because there are no lingering close-ups of Barrowman with tortured eyes and an obvious lump in his throat, under soft piano and strings). I wish I could have shown you the whole sequence, which consists of protracted introductions between Frobisher and the 456, with the sort of pacing that a bog-standard hour-long episode couldn’t accommodate.

When it came to Who, though, something had to change come the revival: gone were the cliffhangers and multi-episode storylines, and instead you simply got in and got out. Because, according to the powers that be, audiences were fickle and couldn’t commit to the same thing week after week. (Anyone at the BBC who truly believes that has obviously never watched 24, The Wire, or Murder One.) As a token gesture we are given the series arc: a series of linked references to the finale, where cards are held close to Davies’ manly chest, and lots of rambling about the Bad Wolf or Harold Saxon.

Then Davies jumped ship, and in strides Moffatt, who writes an entire season the way he used to construct episodes: the ontological paradoxes of ‘Blink’ are sustained for an entire season, with mixed results, and you really do have to watch every episode to figure out what the hell’s going on. In a way that’s an improvement, but it’s also needlessly convoluted. Everything is potentially significant, which means that nothing occurs at face value – there are all sorts of hidden meanings and codes and layers, and sometimes I just want to watch something entertaining without constantly rewinding to pick up on the significance of this or that. I’m difficult to please, I appreciate that. It’s more substantial than Davies’ soap opera, and yet unnecessarily so. There has to be a middle ground.

But there was a middle ground. It was called Old Who, and it worked quite well, thank you very much. In the series as it was once structured you’d have separate stories of between three and six episodes, with an obligatory cliffhanger every twenty-five minutes or so. Said cliffhangers were, to be honest, usually quite silly. Let’s be honest. Either the Doctor or a companion would be forced into some sort of life-or-death situation, cornered perhaps by a grisly monster, or about to fall a great distance (as Sarah Jane memorably did in ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, only for us to discover, the following week, that she’d only dropped about ten feet). The most effective cliffhangers usually involved the Time Lord himself, preferably in the presence of a female companion who could bellow “DOCTOOOOR!” at full blast just before the end credits rolled.

Then they’d have a week’s grace period, and the resolution of said cliffhanger would typically be fairly naff. ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ is a prime example: the sheer joy / abject horror of seeing a Dalek levitate, as its eye stalk zooms in on a terrified Doctor, trapped at the top of a staircase, makes it all the more tedious when an unconscious Ace manages to wake up and get the door open just in the nick of time. That’s the best they could have done? Really? A few years previously, ‘Mark of the Rani’ saw Colin Baker zooming down the Blists Hill incline towards certain death in a mine cart only to be rescued, rather incredibly, by George Stephenson (whose presence in the story is foreshadowed, but still, yawn).

But all that’s forgivable, really, because the whole point behind getting the Doctor into a sticky situation would be so that you’d worry about him, and worrying about the Doctor was what keeps the show going. It was something to talk about in the playground or over the water cooler, in the days when people actually did that instead of just discussing everything on Facebook. It’s not so much that you were worrying about whether he would escape, because you knew he would, but rather that you were trying to figure out exactly how he (or, typically, someone else) would manage it. The protagonists of shows like Doctor Who are granted a sort of unofficial immortality (in the case of Doctor Who, said immortality is even given its own name, context and rulebook) and there’s an unwritten law that states that their death must be given its own gravitas and significance, and cannot be shoehorned into a backed-against-the-wall-while-the-monster-approaches situation. Consequently, central characters would seldom die in cliffhangers, and the Doctor himself never really did (regeneration usually occurred at the end of an episode, but typically as the climax of a story, rather than as an ooh-what-will-happen-next type of thing).

Perhaps that’s why I felt so let down by the end of season four, because it really felt like they were going to do something different for once, and actually regenerate the Doctor with no warning. And it’s not just the fact that it’s a crappy resolution, it’s the fact that it’s dealt with so rapidly (and yes, I know that it comes back to haunt us later with the Human Doctor, but THAT’S NOT THE POINT) and the fact that Tennant is so smug in the way that the Tenth Doctor always was when he was at his most irritating (which is right about now). And oh look, as if we needed any more shots of fawning Rose, here’s her looking upset. With teeth you could use to open beer bottles.

In contrast, New Who has thrown up a couple of spectacular two-parters, with cliffhangers that work by varying degrees of success – but this is my favourite:

I mean, it’s bloody brilliant. Aren’t you getting goose bumps just seeing it again? The story as a whole is second-rate, but having the Doctor stand up to the Daleks (and comment pithily on his own resourcefulness with a single line of dialogue) is an extraordinary moment and almost worth waiting a whole series to see. It was the first time I truly believed in Eccleston as the Doctor, and he bowed out in the next episode, which is a shame.

Anyway, here’s a quick summary. The traditional cliffhangers were usually fairly inconsequential. The resolutions were predictable or silly, in equal measure. All the same, it was a part of the show, as central and integral to its structure as the cliffhanger in a two-part Batman story. Again, those would see the dynamic duo tossed into a ludicrous situation that usually relied on Batman’s possession of an obscure gadget in his utility belt that would do the job quite nicely, thank you, and there was never any real doubt of their escape and subsequent victory at the end of the story, but altering the structure would have felt somehow cheap.

I therefore miss the multi-part Who stories, and could frankly live without Moffat’s season-length meandering, with ‘clues’ that only a mindreader could spot. I’d just like to have him – the Doctor, I mean, not Moffat, although if he throws up another episode like ‘The Wedding of River Song’ I may reconsider – strapped to a table as a mad scientist tries to cut him open, or about to be fed into a compost machine, or dangling precariously from a wire by his umbrella (no, on second thoughts, let’s never go there again). It doesn’t matter how silly it is, because silliness is part of what made Classic Who so much fun. These days it’s far slicker, far more evenly structured, and almost doomed to implode from gorging on its own worthiness, but the change in format has, I think, made it lose a part of itself. Still, Josh is happy, so I suppose that has to count for something.

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