Five Hundred Eyes

Just what the Doctor ordered

Attempted below is an examination of Doctor Who's use of the cliffhanger - an essential part of each episode since the very beginning. That is to say: not so much what they are - and subsequent long lists - but why, and by what necessity, they are a success.

Contrary to assumption, it is rare for anyone to be seriously menaced in a cliffhanger, since of course we all know the Doctor and his companions will escape, and the only real satisfaction is the thrill of the Situation, and how the resolution will be worked. A case in point is Caves of Androzani 1, in which Davison appears to be shot, the anxiety heightened in certain respects by the knowledge that this will be a regeneration story, and the attraction is in the ingenuity of the ending. Naturally he'll get away - next week's 'Radio Times' would tell you that; perhaps 'anxiety' should be replaced by 'excitement', the excitement of the build-up of tension, and the equal thrill of its deflation. (There are some biological analogies I could make here, but this is a family zine, so I won't.) Compare also Pirate Planet 3, similar although even more cleverly constructed, where, after plunging to his 'death' from the bridge, the Doctor proceeds to walk back on the set to confront the Captain - and where, especially fascinating for young viewers, his reappearance is both joyous and fascinating.

Episode endings can also be non-threatening in a negative way: ie. they are predictable. Resurrection of the Daleks 1 (2) and Day of the Daleks 3 are comparable: the Doctor menaced in an impossible situation, and where the hurried intervention of a human crying "No! (we still need him, etc.)" has a ghastly inevitability about it.

There are, however, a few exceptions - where there is genuine uncertainty over the survival of the person threatened - Daemons 3 being an example, in which the Master is overcome by the materialising Azal. Having the Master menaced was itself unusual and one must assume (as the production team did) that the audience sympathised with him, but since he was the story's principal baddie it was almost likely that episode four would see him finally killed off. Another, and no doubt the finest, example of genuine uncertainty was An Unearthly Child 1, and probably throughout Hartnell's first season each threat appeared greater, as the concept of the Doctor and his companions as invincible heroes had not emerged as it soon inevitably did. In Sensorites 2, as Susan elects to go off with the Sensorites, it is just possible that if the creatures turn out to be evil, she will end up lost and tears all round will finish off the entire show - whereas in Day of the Daleks, when Jo finds herself in a future Earth and is 'as good as dead', the excitement is in knowing more that the Doctor, in playing God to Jon Pertwee as he travels in time to see if she has survived her trip. Even if we had not seen her entertained by Aubrey Woods, we'd all know she had.

So genuine threat is not really any part of a cliffhanger. The threat is frankly irrelevant, for whether the Doctor is attacked by a monster or simply trips while walking down a corridor, he receives equal amounts of pain and trouble during both occurrences. The reason in fact why the latter would be a hopeless episode ending is because it has no 'style'. Visual style and cleverness is important. That's why Terry Nation was able to get away with the incomprehensible ending for Dalek Invasion of Earth 1 ('World's End') and no one noticed, or why The Chase 1 ('The Executioners') would have worked if they'd taken trouble over it, as a Dalek rises for no good reason from out of the sand. Perhaps the best cliffhanger in the history of the programme (no less) is The Sea Devils 2. It really has to be seen to be experienced. After a sword fight between the Doctor and the Master, the Doctor wins and appears confident. The two men exchange some witty words and the Doctor turns and leaves. The camera cuts to the Master who picks up a gleaming knife and throws it spinning at him with exceptional speed and the last we see is it glancing through the air, presumably at the Doctor's back. Granted, the resolution is obvious - the blade just misses and sticks in the wall by the door - but the scene simply looks so good, and is swiftly and tensely shot. It actually provokes a smile more than anything else, which is part of the fun. Sea Devils 2 is also irrelevant to the plot, and acts in the end as near-comic relief. Compare Robots of Death 1, the resolution of which is a bit silly (it is a forced coincidence that the Doctor carries a snorkel about with him in case he just happens to get trapped in a sand hopper) - but the scene is really rather funny, and hence a success. Similar types of resolution are often used, and should not be dismissed as an easy way out by the writer - even if they are.

Hartnell's early stories were able to utilise to a greater extent the fear of the unknown threat (Ark in Space 1 does it, but that is unusual), the most famous example being The Daleks 1 ('The Dead Planet'), as Barbara turns to face - what? Audiences of that time didn't know, the show was much more a journey into the unknown, whereas now everybody realises it's a Dalek, an Ice Warrior, a Mandrel, or any other nasty; we all know they're fierce, and they're all just the same. Hence Kinda 2 was a brilliant success - when a mysterious box is opened, there is a scream, and the 'threat' is a jack-in-a-box, and expectations are turned on their heads. It is successful though only really inasmuch as we know the resolution, otherwise there is no particular thrill. I think The Daleks 1 was also more successful because Doctor Who at that time was more subtle in a number of respects. We didn't see the threat because the tension was more important than the shock revelation. Compare Claws of Axos 1 - all can see and gaze upon what is menacing beautiful Jo - the effect is cruder and more typical. Not that one could see a return to the old style - cliff-hangers in a long-running series exhaust themselves, no one is interested in a hidden menace since we've got a pretty rough idea of what it'll look like - the director must parade more and more explicitly his monstrosities - and hence the episode-endings cease to be shocking, and must rely always if they are to be a success on confounding the audience and amusing them.

None the less it is important to have the popular characters threatened, otherwise the ending is flat, however much it may look nice visually. It is difficult to explain this although I think it should be looked at in terms of identification with the character. If Sarah Jane is attacked clearly we feel it and associate ourselves with her but it is not just a case of straight empathy. We all know she'll get away. The reason lies in wanting to be her, to be in that situation, which televisual fantasy or fantasy of any sort is all about. There is certainly a feeling (supressed more into the subconscious with increasing years) that in Sea Devils 2 for example one would want to be the Doctor, and experience the pleasurable excitement of having a knife thrown at you and knowing all the while that everything will be alright. And this touches of course on the real reason for the show's popularity, or the popularity of any story come to that; forget the 'unique concept' and 'limitless variety' ... all Doctor Who's really have only one plot. The experience is also a fantasy inasmuch as the cliff-hangers, even though they show menacing situations, are fantasies of dominance. The viewer identifies with the Doctor who can get involved in all these situations and still be master in the end. And the cliffhanger is the only way in which this leitmotif can be worked into the story.

And that is why Ghandi, or the story of Christ (lots of potential cliff-hangers there), is not an experience of domination. The point also arises that if not the Doctor - a female companion or character is often threatened. This goes right back to tying girls on railway tracks, and a lot further than that too. Here the intention is not to make the male viewer identify with her but with the Doctor or whoever 'male' will drag her out of whatever self-inflicted mess she has got herself into. (Claws of Axos 1, Genesis of the Daleks 2, The Sensorites 5, Mind of Evil 5, etc., etc.). Therefore Doctor Who remains unpopular with little girls as there is an essential big-brother ethos. Which is why in turn female Daleks or a female captain Dent would look and sound peculiar or even stupid. Certainly I don't feel the Rani works as a character, in the same way as people have difficulties with Margaret Thatcher as prime-minister. That however is beside the point.

Occasionally, just occasionally, the production team try shock tactics, probably more out of luck than design. Face of Evil 3 is one of the programme's most effective, as the Doctor collapses writhing on the floor, crying "Who am I? Who am I?". The scene is both disturbing and wounding because it attacks at the core the very person the boys and men identify with - the only threat over which to exert dominance being the most frightening thing of all - the self. This is worrying even if we realise Leela will come to the rescue. Face of Evil 3 is almost the equivalent of the Doctor stopping suddenly and stabbing himself - not really fair play. It is consequently an uncommon device!

On a more practical note, cliff-hangers are a useful hook for the writer to base his images around, in drafting and thinking up the story, its situations and passage. Most ideas begin with a potential cliffhanger situation. The birth of Invasion of the Dinosaurs is a good example - not 'What would happen if a group of beautiful people decided to start the Good Life on an alien planet?' but: 'What if dinosaurs menaced modern London - and the Doctor?', as in fact the production team's reasoning went, and hence a good ending for episode one.

It is understandably easy for cliff-hangers to become monotonous, that is: as in Robots of Death, Mind of Evil, Colony in Space, ad infinitum ad nauseam, an enemy lunges at the Doctor intoning "Kill the Doctor" or something like it. "Kill" is not fortunately a word that lends itself easily to laughter on being repeated often enough, but the danger is indeed constantly there. There can also be a predictability in their resolution which producers try desperately to avoid, and in doing so ruin that resolution by making the resumŽ different from the ending, ˆ la 50's B-adventure serials, examples being Seeds of Death 5, and Planet of the Spiders 5. However the cliffhanger is very, if not vitally, important and it would be dangerous to undermine it. This is why the The Chase as a serial does not work - the endings are all flat. The Daleks simply carrying on their jokey pursuit of the Doctor and co. is a let down of the action, a negative deflation, breaking the oft-quoted 'W' rule of script-writing. Thus is demonstrated the most important pre-requisite of an episode ending - it should notably speed up the action. Which is why The Chase 1 doesn't excite, because it is slowly executed, inevitable (we know the Daleks are after the time-travellers and so do they), and funny before the resolution (as a toy Dalek grunts and labours up through the sand). Usually the way-out is obvious. In Robots of Death 3 it was clear Uvanov would save the day somehow, but the speed of filming gave the scene its credibility as a robot menaced the Doctor near the bank of Laserson probes.

So then: cliff-hangers. Although there is a lot more to them than that, paper is limited, like the attention-span. Nonetheless, or because of the latter, they are far a more important ingredient in the continued success of Doctor Who than is generally admitted.

Issue five contents
Five Hundred Eyes index