10 classic Doctor Who cliffhangers

With Doctor Who promising to leave us on a cliffhanger and a half this weekend, Jeff looks back at some of the show's finest...

With this past week’s head-spinning climax, and the impending transmission of A Good Man Goes To War, the rumor is that we’re going to get yet another “game-changing” cliffhanger for Doctor Who. That’s no small feat for a television serial originally based around cliffhangers.

Here are, in no particular order, ten previous standouts from the series, both old and new:

The Tenth Planet: Part 4

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The fact that the Doctor is capable of regenerating is one of the hallmarks of the show we’ve come to expect. But could anyone back in 1966 have predicted the lead actor morphing into a new one part way through the show’s fourth season?

The 8mm off-air film clips reveal a transformation with style, alternating showy cuts between the ailing Hartnell and the time rotor, with spacey sound effects we’d never heard from the TARDIS before (or again) being thrown in for good measure.

The Caves Of Androzani: Part 3

Peter Davison’s Doctor is dying from spectrox toxemia, as is Peri (in the clutches of Sharaz Jek back on Androzani Minor), but he’s trapped on a spaceship orbiting the planet. Running out of time, Davison resorts to one solution: crash-land the ship back onto Minor while he’s still in it.

The whole serial comes to a frenzied climax as gun-runner Stotz (Maurice Roëves) ups the cliffhanging ante by cutting through to the control room to shoot our imprisoned hero. It’s all done without music, but with great rhythmic editing and a crescendo of sound (the whine of the laser cutter, the roar of the ship as it comes barreling towards Androzani), and the intense zoom into Davison’s face as he braces for the end.

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The War Games: Part 10

Fine, it’s another regeneration scene, but it was unclear back in 1969 whether or not Doctor Who was going to get greenlit for another season, and so the series ends on an ambiguous note.

The Doctor had already been ‘renewed’ from Hartnell to Troughton. Here, the Time Lords impose a regeneration on Troughton’s Doctor, but it’s a vague transformation, as he’s forcibly spun into a black void, sans TARDIS.

The Time Lords were never as creepy as they are in their emotionless role as judges, jury, and executioners. There’s something really unsettling about the way Troughton is transferred from the courtroom onto a two-dimensional screen that may have inspired the Phantom Zone prison in the Superman movies.

The Deadly Assassin: Part 3

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The Doctor is fighting for his life in the Matrix, and seems to be on the verge of getting killed by Chancellor Goth. While this is, basically, the same cliffhanger as in episode 2 (in which the Doctor is almost run over by a toy train), what works here ( and which was subsequently cut out after Mary Whitehouse got in a tizzy) is the freeze-frame with Tom Baker’s head submerged under water.

It’s a typical badass move of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes years that ultimately precipitated the end of an era, especially after Whitehouse felt they went too far.

Vengeance on Varos: Part 1

Colin Baker’s Doctor believes himself to be dying in a desert (when, in fact, he’s just under mind control in a typical subterranean corridor). The supposed death is okay, but it’s the context that breaks down the fourth wall and wows.

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As the Doctor stares vacantly into nothingness, elsewhere the Varos Governor (Martin Jarvis) is souping up this death for the citizens to watch at home. “And cut it, now!” he tells the editor, in a knowing wink to the actual audience watching at home (er, on Earth). Quite possibly the coolest cliffhanger ever.


There had been hints throughout the third season that we’d be meeting a fairly ‘Masterful’ villain for the two-part season finale. The delicious surprise is that Utopia is actually the first of a three-part adventure without advertising it.

The trailers for this story, following the masterful Blink, made it look like last minute filler with subpar monster folk. Lo and behold, this Graeme Harper-directed episode pulls out all the stops, as Professor Yana is revealed as the Master.

If that isn’t climax enough, he’s then shot and regenerates into John Simm, hijacks the TARDIS, and leaves David Tennant and company stranded at the end of the universe to be torn apart by the futurekind.

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Too bad Russell T. Davies weaseled a cheap way out of it, but you’ve got to give the man props for coming up with one of the more memorable crisis points in recent memory.

The Keeper Of Traken: Part 4

Speaking of stories which both end on cliffhangers and that also involve the Master changing form, let’s kick it old school and throw this into the mix. What’s fun is how Anthony Ainley’s goodie Tremas is just a tease for the transformation into the Master at the story’s conclusion (though not terribly well hidden if you’re into anagrams, a trend that would continue throughout the JNT era).

Anthony Ainley wasn’t as maliciously lovable as Roger Delgado, but his zeal at finding “a new body at last” is infectious.

Silence In The Library

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A cliffhanger of catch phrases: “Donna Noble has left the library,” and “Hey? Who turned out the lights?”

The former is actually the solution to the story (all of the patrons in the library have been ‘saved’ to the computer’s hard drive), but we don’t know that yet, and Donna’s image suddenly appearing on the library drone is totally unnerving. The walking skeleton in a spacesuit with the second catchphrase is just crazy fun.

There’s too much going on for it to be truly menacing, but it does leave the viewer wondering what the heck is going on? And how will David Tennant get out of this one? Thankfully, Steven Moffat doesn’t cheat and gives exciting solutions to both.

Pyramids Of Mars: Part 1

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It’s rare when a cliffhanger actually involves a villain getting bumped off. On the one hand, it’s comforting that viewers aren’t seeing the Doctor nearly meet an untimely end. On the other hand, baddie number one is strangled to death by an even greater menace.

There’s a great buildup to the culmination of this first episode, complete with Dudley Simpson’s malevolent organ score and Tom Baker’s conviction that something terrible is about to happen, and he’s too late to stop it.

Sutekh gets an unearthly introduction in all his shiny, black-hooded creepiness, but it’s not even him. It’s his servant. Just how bad can this Sutekh dude be?

Points for ending in the middle of a strangulation, by the way, along with the eerie line: “I bring Sutekh’s gift of death to all humanity.” Throw in some dry ice for his footsteps, and Gabriel Woolf’s resonant voice, and you get one of the best introductions for a Doctor Who villain.

The Daleks (The Dead Planet)

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The ‘monster reveal’ is an old standby for Doctor Who, particularly in opening episodes (see The Sensorites, Terror Of The Zygons, City Of Death, The Time Warrior, etc.).

The second serial in the series gives us arguably one of the better monster reveals. We don’t actually get to see a full Dalek. Instead, we’re presented with a point-of-view shot from its perspective, the teasing sucker plunger in the foreground and a screaming Barbara in the background.

Tristram Cary’s evocative soundscapes and the claustrophobic setting just hammer it all home.

Viewers would have to wait a week to find out just why that toilet plunger was causing such a fuss, and it turned out to fuel the imagination of a generation. Go figure.