As cliffhangers go, they don’t get much more epic than the ending of The Pandorica Opens. Contrary to the title, the Pandorica actually closes on the Doctor, falling into a trap set by an alliance of all his greatest enemies. And some of the less memorable ones too.
And then Amy gets shot dead by her Auton fiancé. And then the TARDIS explodes. And then reality fades to black. And then the credits roll.
Ending the universe at the close of part one is really the only way that Steven Moffat could top some of the high stakes finales of the Russell T Davies era without lapsing into parody.
Frankly, I can’t imagine it would’ve been any more epic if the alliance of monsters had gone to the pub before arriving at Stonehenge, revealing that they’re all angry drunks. ‘Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, Slitheen, Nestene, Sycorax, Zygons, Chelonians, Drahvins, Terreleptils… and they’re all absolutely shit-faced! ‘
Not to be premature, but whichever way you look at it, it would take something pretty special in the next few series of Matt Smith’s Doctor to trump this cliffhanger as the best of his era. So what of the other Doctors’ best ever cliffhangers?
There’s never much of a consensus in Doctor Who fandom, but with some partiality towards ‘episode 1′ cliffhangers, here are my humble selections…
The First Doctor – The Daleks, Episode One
It was meant to be an educational show! No bog-eyed monsters! But in the original series’ eighth week on air, we got the first Dalek cliffhanger. And we don’t even see the Dalek itself.
Companion Barbara has been separated from her friends on a planet the Doctor doesn’t know anything about: Skaro.
In a point-of-view shot, something approaches Barbara. She backs against a wall, frozen with fear as we close in on her. She screams as we get the first glimpse of the Dalek manipulator arm. They made one of the best cliffhangers of all time, with a camera and a plunger. Even forty-seven years on, it is pure brilliance.
The Second Doctor – The Mind Robber, Episode One
Van Gogh’s The Pandorica Opens bears more than a passing similarity to the final scene of this episode, albeit with much more vibrant colour and exploding bits.
The Doctor, Zoe and Jamie are racked with pain by an alien noise invading their mind, and the TARDIS starts to use more power than it’s storing, in an attempt to block the signal.
It’s all no use as the TARDIS entirely dissembles while floating in space, its pieces fluttering away into the ether and leaving its crew clutching the console for dear life. Across space, Zoe catches sight of the Doctor, appearing to all the world to be dead, and she screams as the credits roll.
The Third Doctor – Inferno, Episode Six
Aside from Saturday’s episode, how many other cliffhangers can you think of where the Doctor flat out loses and everyone else dies? The one other I can think of comes in the penultimate episode of Inferno.
Stubborn fascistic counterparts to all your friends in an alternate universe can be hard to win round, as the Doctor discovers, and it seems to be the end for the parallel Earth he’s been trapped on.
Alt-Brigadier threatens the Doctor as a tide of lava closes in on his hut. Take everyone away using the TARDIS, or die with everyone. Alt-Liz shoots down Alt-Brigadier and the Doctor leaves as everyone else waits to be consumed.
It’s not a cliffhanger in the traditional sense, as we never see their deaths in the next episode, but it’s an extraordinary and bold ending.
The Fourth Doctor – City Of Death Part Two
There are more popular, Mary Whitehouse-provoking endings than this one, but it’s my personal favourite ending from my personal favourite Tom Baker story.
Steven Moffat has said that cliffhangers should be game changers, so the audience doesn’t have a sense of familiarity when they come back the next week, and this is definitely City Of Death‘s game changer.
Wanting to know why one Count Scarlioni has seven authentic Mona Lisas in his possession in 1979 Paris, the Doctor travels back to Florence in the 16th century to ask Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo isn’t there, but a dim-witted guard is, capturing the Doctor for interrogation by a Captain Tancredi. Tancredi walks in and appears to be… Scarlioni. Huh. Well, that changes things considerably!
The Fifth Doctor – The Caves Of Androzani Part Three
With the distinction of having two of the show’s greatest cliffhangers (Part One’s ending is a corker too), The Caves Of Androzani shows what the show was missing through most of the Peter Davison era.
It becomes clear that the Doctor is on a crash course with Androzani Minor as he commandeers his captors’ ship. At the door, they’re threatening him for all they’re worth.
Doomed to die within about one more episode, the Fifth Doctor states his futile mission to save Peri, the girl he only just met, from spectrox poisoning. And so his captors see he’s not gonna let them stop him now!
He flinches as the ship plummets towards the surface, and his character, so mild-mannered for the last three years, is nicely deconstructed in time for his death in the next episode.
The Sixth Doctor – Vengeance On Varos Part One
Hmm, about half of the candidates here are close-ups on Colin Baker’s face, in some variation on scared, shocked or stoic. Thanks, Season 23!
In one of the few real gems of an era that was largely badly written, we find the Doctor trapped in a corridor of death, his plight broadcast to a bunch of slack-jawed viewers as he hallucinates a desert all around him.
Falling to his knees, we see a mirage of Peri bearing water flicker away as he finally falls down, apparently dead.
In the television control room, the Governor of Varos waits for the most dramatic cut-off point. When he finds it, the screen goes dead and the episode ends. A truly chilling ending.
The Seventh Doctor – Remembrance Of The Daleks Part One
If the close-ups in Season 23 got ridiculous, they were never as bad as some of the clunkers in Sylvester McCoy’s run.
Scientists are still trying to figure out just what the holy hell the Doctor’s trying to do at the end of Dragonfire Part One (look it up on YouTube and send your answers on a postcard). It only makes the good cliffhangers from 1987-89 the more memorable, and I best remember Remembrance.
We’d seen a Dalek hover a bit in 1984’s Revelation Of The Daleks, but as the metal meanies finally conquered the lazy gags of a million journalists, the Doctor was as surprised as anyone that a Dalek was following him up the stairs, gliding forth and screeching that immortal battle cry.
Damn, Remembrance is a good story. Stop reading this for a minute and go check it out if you’ve never seen it.
The Eighth Doctor – The Chimes Of Midnight, Part Two
Cheating? No! What else was I supposed to put? The “Oh no, not again” ending from The TV Movie? It’s much more interesting to probe Paul McGann’s adventures in audio, and I’ve found this doozy of a cliffhanger.
In an Edwardian mansion where time’s running amok on Christmas Eve, the Doctor figures out that everything happens at midnight, and that he, his companion Charley and all of the mansion’s staff must stick together when the grandfather clock strikes 12.
But time speeds up, and the staff aren’t having any of the Doctor’s warnings. Mostly because they haven’t noticed the various murders and suicides of the same scullery maid in the course of the last few resets.
Despite the Doctor’s protests, they disperse as the clock speeds towards midnight. In a brilliant use of the audio format, the last thing we hear before the chimes of midnight is the Doctor’s desperate pleas…
The Ninth Doctor – Bad Wolf
He only had three, and it’s typical that, of those, the best Christopher Eccleston cliffhanger involves the Daleks. They’re inexorably linked with the show and thus some of the best cliffhangers ever have involved them. This time around, it’s more like they’re the ones in peril, for a change.
Like the crashing Fifth Doctor, the Doctor makes a blistering mission statement to the assembled hordes of half a million Daleks: he’s going to blow every last stinking one of them out of the sky. That’s on his to-do list because they kidnapped Rose Tyler.
With little in the way of a response, the Daleks can only squawk “Exterminate” and prepare for battle. The Oncoming Storm is here.
The Tenth Doctor – Utopia
No, not the end of The Stolen Earth. Did it make you want to see Journey’s End immediately? Yes. Was it also a massive cop-out that happened to pay off in terms of publicity? Yes. Instead take the revelation of the Master at the end of Utopia. What might otherwise have been a fairly disposable episode becomes absolutely gripping as kindly Professor Yana opens up his old fob watch.
Newly imbued with Magnificent Bastardry, he proceeds to kill his winsome lab assistant, get mortally wounded in the process, regenerate into John Simm and nick the Doctor’s TARDIS, stranding our heroes at the end of the universe. From the second he opens that watch, it’s one long-running cliffhanger, and it still raises goosebumps whenever I rewatch the episode.
I’m sure I’ve made omissions that people love and remember, so why not comment with your thoughts…Oh no. Oh no! How could I leave that one out?! (woooooooo… di-di-di-dum di-di-di-dum…)