Steven Moffat has promised the first half of Doctor Who season six will end on a cliffhanger that will keep you on the edge of your seat all summer. But how will it stack up to these other spine-tingling cliffhangers?
Cliffhangers are part of the life-blood of Doctor Who. In the early days of the show, every episode ends on some kind of cliffhanger, including the final episode of each individual story. As Moffat has pointed out, the best cliffhangers are game-changers in some way, which reveal something terrible and startling — so that even if our heroes survive the immediate peril, you are left wondering how this new status quo will play out. Weak cliffhangers are often a symptom of weak storytelling, and the greatest cliffhangers provide a structural backbone for a terrific, twisty story.
Interestingly, Moffat's mid-season cliffhanger will be one of the few big season-ending cliffhangers in the show's history — the "Trial of a Time Lord" season-long storyline was supposed to end on a cliffhanger, but the producer vetoed the idea. And an early version of "Journey's End" would have ended with Cybermen breaking into the TARDIS, leading into "The Next Doctor," but Benjamin Cook convinced Russell T. Davies it was too much after the string of sad scenes involving Donna's mind-wiping.
So here are the most thrilling cliffhangers in the show's history:
1) "An Unearthly Child." (1963) The show's very first episode ends with a doozy, as the TARDIS is uprooted from 20th Century Earth and lands in a rocky barren landscape. And then a weird, misshapen shadow slinks towards the ship, menacingly...
How is it resolved? The shadow turns out to be a caveman, and it just looked misshapen due to the light.
2) "The Dead Planet" (1963) Another cliffhanger where something we never get a good look at advances in a menacing fashion — this time around, it's a single sink-plunger arm, belonging to a Dalek, and we don't get to see the Daleks in full until the following episode. (Famously, the show hadn't actually built the Daleks yet when they filmed this episode, so literally all they had to show was the Dalek's arm.) How is it resolved? The Daleks... unveiled!
3) "The World's End" (1964) The Doctor and his crew arrive in a post-apocalyptic London, where they're terrorized by cyborg enforcers... and then a Dalek comes climbing up out of the river, revealing that the true force behind the successful invasion of Earth is the Doctor's deadliest enemies... the Daleks! The original game-changing cliffhanger. How is it resolved? "The Daleks are the masters of Earth!"
4) "The Space Museum" (1965) One of my personal favorites — the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki jump their time track and visit their own future — and at the end of the first episode, they discover their future selves, immobilized and held as exhibits in an alien museum for all eternity. How is it resolved? They vow to change their own futures... before it's too late!
5) "The Plague" (1966) Another clever use of time travel. The Doctor, Steven and Dodo visit the survivors of the human race, who are traveling to a new homeworld after the destruction of the Earth. The humans are working on a giant statue of a man, which will be completed when they reach the new planet, and they're accompanied by a race of servants, the Monoids. But when the Doctor and his friends leave in the TARDIS, they jump forward seven hundred years, visiting the same Ark in the future — and the giant statue now has the head of a Monoid, because the Monoids have enslaved humanity. It's a really neat visual trick that tells you everything you need to know. How is it resolved? The Doctor and his friends team up with some invisible aliens (budgets being what they are) to help humanity.
6) "Power Of The Daleks" episode 4 (1966) The Daleks are hoodwinking a group of gullible Earth colonists into thinking they're docile servants. Good thing there are only a handful of Daleks around, then... right? Oh wait. Here's a huge giant Dalek production line cranking them out by the tons. Zut alors! How is it resolved? "DALEKS CONQUER AND DESTROY."
7) "The Moonbase" episode 3 (1967) The Doctor has outwitted the Cybermen and driven them out of the Moonbase, closing off their secret entrance... except now the whole Cyber-fleet has landed and a huge army of Cybermen is marching across the Moon's surface, with a huge cannon aimed at the base. How is it resolved? The Doctor figures out how to use the Moonbase's Graviton against them.
8) "Tomb Of The Cybermen" episode 2 (1967) A whole army of Cybermen is in cold storage underneath their tomb on the planet Telos, and as the Doctor watches in horror, they thaw out. The Cyber-Controller approaches and announces that the humans belong to the Cybermen, and "you will be like us." How is it resolved? The Doctor barely gets out of that frozen reliquary in one piece.
9) "The Mind Robber" episode 1 (1968) The TARDIS explodes! You don't get much more cliffhanger-y than that. (In fact, you could do just a list of cliffhangers where the TARDIS explodes, but I believe this was the first one.) The Doctor and his companions are left floating in an eerie void with the shattered pieces of the Doctor's time machine. How is it resolved? They drift into a land of make-believe... and the story goes downhill from there.
10) "The War Games" episode 9 (1969) The Doctor has no choice but to contact his own people, the Time Lords, for help... but can he escape before they arrive? Apparently not, since everything starts to turn into a slow motion nightmare, and the Doctor passes out while trying to get his key into the TARDIS door. How is it resolved? The Doctor finds a last burst of strength and gets the TARDIS open, pulling Jamie and Zoe inside.
11) "Doctor Who And The Silurians" episode 6 (1970) The Doctor and the Brigadier are crouched over a dead body — the first of millions who will die from the Silurians' plague. How is it resolved? A whole lot of people drop dead in the street, in one of the show's more graphic scenes of death and disaster.
12) "Inferno" episode 6 (1970) The world is destroyed. What more could you ask for? Oh, sure, it's an alternate Earth. But the Doctor is trapped there, watching helplessly as the world ends in flames — and "our" Earth is next. How is it resolved? The Doctor manages to get the TARDIS working at the last moment, returning to "our" world.
13) "Colony In Space" episode 4 (1971) Almost every cliffhanger in 1971 involves the evil Time Lord, the Master, trying to kill the Doctor in some playful fashion. I particularly like the one in "Terror Of The Autons" where the Master has the Doctor strangled by a living telephone cord. But the one that always sticks in my mind is the one in "Colony In Space," where the Master decides that he's done with the fun and games, and he's just going to shoot the Doctor in the hearts. He pulls out a gun and appears perfectly happy to pull the trigger and then pretend the Doctor died in the crossfire. How is it resolved? Someone interrupts the Master before he can pull the trigger, and he has to maintain his cover identity as an Adjudicator.
14) "Genesis Of The Daleks" episode 4 (1975) Yep, there's a big gap here — but I honestly can't think of any outstanding cliffhangers from Pertwee's final three seasons. The Dalek origin story is a different matter, offering a few great cliffhangers to choose from. The best one involves the mad scientist Davros torturing the Doctor's friends to compel the Doctor to divulge the secrets of how the Daleks are defeated in the future. If the Doctor breaks, it'll make the Daleks invincible forever. How is it resolved? The Doctor breaks.
15) "Pyramids Of Mars" episode 3 (1975) The Doctor manages to destroy Sutekh's rocket, finally putting an end to the mad god's scheme to destroy the force field generator on Mars that keeps him a prisoner. But to do this, the Doctor must venture into Sutekh's pyramid in person — and he's helpless before the unspeakable power of the Osirian. How is it resolved? The Doctor becomes Sutekh's puppet.
16) "The Deadly Assassin" episode 1 (1976) The Doctor rushes to prevent the assassination of the Time Lord president — but he fails, and to the viewers, it looks like the Doctor himself is the assassin. How is it resolved? The Doctor is accused of assassinating the President and must prove his innocence.
17) "The Face Of Evil" episode 1 (1977) The Doctor is confronted with the huge carving of the face of the Evil One, the mythical boogeyman that terrorizes Leela's tribe — and it's his face. How is it resolved? The Doctor vows to find out why his face is the image of ultimate evil, when he doesn't even remember visiting there before.
18) "The Invasion Of Time" episode 2 (1978) The Doctor's become president of Gallifrey, his home planet. But no sooner does he finish swearing his oath to protect the people of Gallifrey then he destroys the planet's defenses and invites in a race of cruel invaders — the Vardans. He tells the Time Lords to bow before their new masters. How is it resolved? The Doctor is up to something.
19) "The Pirate Planet" episode 3 (1978) This one freaked my shit when I was a kid. The Doctor goes back to confront the Captain and his mysteriously bossy nurse — and they make him walk the plank, driving him off the edge, where he falls to his apparent death. How is it resolved? It's not really the Doctor, but a projection he's created, using Queen Xanxia's secret.
20) "The Leisure Hive" episode 2 (1980) The Doctor is put into the tachyon generator as a kind of trial by ordeal, plus a test of Hardin's time-manipulation theories. Romana is fairly confident the Doctor will emerge from the generator just a few years younger — but when she returns to Hardin's lab to gather something, she sees that an hourglass that was reversed in time has exploded, with the fragments suspended in a horrible force bubble. This means all of their calculations are wrong, and the Doctor is trapped in the generator as it ages him hundreds of years. How is it resolved? The Doctor is left an old man whom nobody will listen to.
21) "The Keeper Of Traken" episode 4 (1980) I'd also mention episode 3, where the evil Melkur tricks everybody and becomes the Keeper, sitting on the throne that allows him to wield ultimate power, as one of the all-time great cliffhangers. But it's dwarfed by the horrifying end of episode 4, where the Melkur (revealed to be the Master in disguise) traps Nyssa's father, Tremas, and takes over his body. How is it resolved? The Master has a new body... at last.
22) "Earthshock" episode 1 (1981) Killer robots terrorize the Doctor and his friends in a cave — but their secret masters are revealed to be the Cybermen, watching on a monitor. How is it resolved? The Doctor eventually confronts the Cybermen.
23) "The Caves Of Androzani" episode 3 (1984) The greatest Doctor Who cliffhanger of them all, I'd argue. The Doctor is dying of Spectrox toxaemia, so weak he can barely walk, and he's been taken prisoner by vicious gun-runners. He manages to get into the control room of their spaceship and steers it back to Androzani Minor, where his also sick companion (and the cure for their disease) are. The gun runners are about to shoot him in the head, but he's dying anyway, and he's NOT GOING TO LET THEM STOP HIM NOW. He sends their spaceship on a collision course with the planet. How is it resolved? The ship crashes.
24) "Remembrance Of The Daleks" episode 1 (1988) I'm including this one against my better judgment, because I know it's regarded as one of the great cliffhangers by many fans, but the actual execution is pants, with Sylvester McCoy pulling some dreadful faces. Basically the Doctor gets trapped in a basement with a Dalek, so he climbs the stairs to escape — but the Dalek starts levitating up the staircase. How is it resolved? Ace lets the Doctor out of the basement.
25) "Curse Of Fenric" episode 3 (1989) The Ultima cipher machine springs to life, unlocking the secrets of the Viking runes, as Millington intones that the chains of Fenric are shattering. But the new host body of Fenric isn't Millington, it's Dr. Judson, who rises to his feet with an evil smile and tells the Doctor the game is beginning again. How is it resolved? The Doctor is forced to play the "game of traps" against Fenric.
26) "Bad Wolf" (2005) The mysterious force behind the evil game show satellite turns out to be the Daleks — and they've captured Rose. And they have a huge fleet of ships all heading for Earth. They try to hold Rose hostage, but the Doctor gives another one of his great speeches in which he says he'll save Rose and thwart the Daleks. How is it resolved? The Doctor saves Rose. Thwarting the Daleks, though... slightly more complicated.
27) "Army Of Ghosts" (2006) Not only have the Cybermen basically conquered Earth already, but the mysterious extra-dimensional sphere is opening. What could be worse than an unstoppable Cyber-army all over the world? How about a handful of Daleks who survived the Time War! How is it resolved? The Cybermen and Daleks throw down.
28) "Utopia" (2007) The Doctor realizes too late that the professor is actually the Master. Who steals the TARDIS, stranding the Doctor in the distant future, about to be killed by a ton of Mad Max rejects. The following cliffhanger, in which the Master ages the Doctor hundreds of years and decimates the human population, is also pretty amazing. How is it resolved? The Doctor uses Captain Jack's vortex manipulator.
29) "The Stolen Earth" (2008) The Doctor is exterminated! And the same appears about to happen to Sarah Jane Smith and the Torchwood crew. And the Doctor starts to regenerate. A whole nation gasps, wondering if we're really going to see a new Doctor next week. How is it resolved? Bit of a cop-out, really. The Doctor doesn't regenerate after all.
30) "The End Of Time" part 1 (2009) Every single person in the world — except Donna and her grandfather — turns into the Master. While the secret narrator of the episode turns out to be the President of the Time Lords, who's planning something nebulous but apparently nefarious involving "the end of time." Booyah! How is it resolved? Actually, everyone on Earth stays the Master for quite a while, surprisingly enough.
31) "The Pandorica Opens" (2010) The entire universe ends, while the Doctor is trapped inside an inescapable prison. And meanwhile, Rory turns out to be an Auton duplicate, who shoots his fiancee Amy dead. How is it resolved? Timey wimey. Also, wibbledy wobbledy.
Want a second opinion? Den Of Geek has this great list, but it seems to be somewhat hampered by the decision to choose one cliffhanger per Doctor — which means having to dig up a Colin Baker cliffhanger from someplace. (For me, the scariest Colin Baker cliffhanger is the end of "The Twin Dilemma," when we're faced with the horrible threat that this guy is the Doctor, whether we like it or not. I actually think Baker is a fine actor, as he proved in some of the Big Finish audios, but his televised performance was not optimal.) There's also a partial list of cliffhangers here. And Topless Robot just posted a great list of the worst Doctor Who cliffhangers, although they're missing several bad ones, including some Pertwee stories where the episode just... stops.