Doctor Who has always had cliff-hangers. Their the famous shock moments at the end of an episode, intended to get the audience back for the next week. During its classic run, every story was split up into normally, four-six episodes. Each week, the audience needed to come back so the producers would end each episode with a scary or shock moments.
As with many things in the Doctor Who universe, the cliff-hangers have divided fans since the sixties. Some are instant classics, some of which will be on this list and some are widely considered to be the worst. But everyone has their favourites like everyone has their favourite Doctors and Companions, Monsters & Villains.
The following list is my own favourite cliff-hangers. Their moments that shocked me, surprised me and made me want to watch the next episode. For me, these are some of the finest moments the show has to offer. Not everyone will agree with this list and I wouldn’t expect you too, these are my moments.
Are you ready?
Here we go…
10. The Talons of Weng-Chiang – Episode 3
One of the earliest stories I ever had the pleasure of watching was The Talons of Weng-Chiang. When I was a lot longer, I didn’t see some of the things that date it nowadays, the racist comments that have to be taken in historical context, the casting of a British actor as someone from China and the giant rat.
In fact, the giant rat still doesn’t bother me, not as much as the episode of The New Avengers, Gnaws, which saw Steed, Purdy and Gambit come up against a giant rat in the sewers.
Episode 3 of this story sees Leela having hunted Weng-Chiang back to his lair and has swapped herself in place of a cleaner to be his next sacrifice, waiting for a moment to strike, she pounces on the false god. It is a quick fight where he quickly gains the upper hand and Leela has no choice but to flee into the sewers, despite Weng-Chiang having left a gigantic rat on guard.
The Doctor, on the other hand, intends to kill the rat, armed with his Elephant Gun, (made in Birmingham), he heads into the sewers, leaving Professor Litefoot waiting for his return. He hears the rat squealing in delight and someone splashing about. Around the corner runs Leela, she stops in astonishment, not expecting to see the Doctor here. But those few seconds are vital, she is knocked to the ground and is set upon by the rat, gnawing at her legs and body as she screams in agony…
I’m not sure what makes this moment of the finest from the show in my opinion but I think it is the conviction of the cast. The rat, though it doesn’t bother me, does look incredibly silly but Louise Jameson sells it, this is a giant animal that is mauling her. It will eat her alive if she doesn’t escape. And the look on the Doctor’s face as he looks on, reading his gun, knowing he can’t do anything is brilliant. It is a real, “How will they get out this moment!”.
9. Pyramids of Mars – Episode 1
Pyramids of Mars was the first Doctor Who story I ever saw, watching it in class at school during the themed Egypt Week. I was a little confused at first but the cliff-hanger for episode 1 has forever been ingrained in my psyche.
The Housekeeper, Ibrahim Namin has been looking after the priory belonging to Marcus and his brother Lawrence Scarman. But he has been a servant for Sutekh, an ancient Egyptian evil who has awoken from his prison and is longing for an escape.
Calling the servitors, lumbering robotic mummies, a sarcophagus begins to hum and glow with power. Kneeling, Namin sees a figure in the distance, coming closer down the tunnel. He believes it to be Sutekh. The figure steps out of the tunnel and sets about killing him.
“I am the servant of Sutekh. He needs no other…”
There is something so gloriously disturbing about this moment. Namin’s shoulders are smoking and his screams display some real agony. But I think it is the blank look on Scarman’s mask that makes the moment. You almost know he is dead and he doesn’t care about pain.
That might have been a little strong for someone who was in Junior School at the time but I didn’t care. It was a marvellous moment and the moment that cemented me as a fan of the best show in the universe.
8. The Time Meddler – Episode 3
After three episodes of seeing the Doctor, Vikki and Steven chasing a mysterious monk around a little settlement in 1066, the end of episode 3 finally sees his identity revealed.
While he still goes by the name, The Meddling Monk, we learn he is actually a member of the Doctor’s people. Not named on screen at the time, the Monk is a Time Lord, looking to cause trouble. Looking around his monastery, Vikki and Steven look behind an altar.
“Its a TARDIS. The Monk has a TARDIS.”
The TARDIS is exactly the same set but it is made up differently, there are different objects on display and the Monk even smugly mentions how much better his is to the Doctor’s Type 40. But it still falls victim to the Doctor’s meddling and the Monk is left stranded on the coast in 1066, just as the Saxons invaded.
It is quite a shocking moment, not only because next to Susan, the Monk is the first member of Time Lord society we see but because he also claims that the Doctor gave him the idea. While the Doctor travels around the universe fighting evil, the Monk can’t really be classed as truly evil. He is doing what he believes is right to make the future best for everyone. But his meddling with established history is proving to be too much of a problem. In 1965, the sight of a second TARDIS must have been a real shock.
7. Remembrance of the Daleks – Episode 1
It had been a long-running joke that the Daleks couldn’t climb stairs. The joke had been used so much that the Doctor very often escaped them by climbing up ventilation shafts or other vertical apparatus. In Remembrance of the Daleks, the Seventh Doctor does the same thing.
Exploring the basement of Coal Hill School, the Doctor and Ace come across a Dalek Transport pad. It begins to activate and the Doctor sends Ace out for her own safety. Ace comes across the school headmaster, someone who has been taken over by the Daleks and who knocks her to the ground. Bolting the door, he leaves the Doctor to the mercy of a Dalek guard.
“You are the Doctor! You are an enemy of the Daleks! You will be exterminated! Exterminate! Exterminate! Exterminate! …”
The Doctor, having bolted up a staircase, obviously believing to be out of the range of his greatest enemies, hammers on the door only to turn around hearing a strange noise. To his shock and horror, the Dalek is hovering up the stairs.
What sells the moment is the look on Sylvester McCoy’s face, the Doctor has never seen them flying before, not when they are coming up after him. And there is the shock factor. Never have the Daleks flown before. In 1988 fans wouldn’t be watching it for the strings holding the Dalek up or looking at how it wobbles a little unsteadily. Even today, watching the classic Dalek serials, this one still has that ability to shock.
6. An Unearthly Child – Episode 1
It was the moment that shocked and frightened the viewers on November 23rd 1963. The TARDIS having taken off because the Doctor effectively kidnaps Ian and Barbara has landed on some rocky outcrop. The light is flashing and then a strange deformed shadow falls across it.
You can imagine how confused or frightened viewers would have been. Never before had something like Doctor Who been on screen. After the terror of the title sequence, they had been thrown into the relative normalcy of a school setting, two teachers talking a rather strange student called Susan Foreman. They then find out her given address is a junkyard.
Fearing for Susan’s safety they decide to follow her, (something the show wouldn’t get away with if they tried it now). Going into the junkyard they find a familiar sight, a blue police box, that seems to hum with power. Then a strange old man arrives, rummaging through the rubbish. Susan calls out from the Police Box. Fearing she might have been kidnapped, they barge inside the TARDIS.
“A Police Box, standing in a junkyard. It can move anywhere in time and space…” – Ian
Inside is astonishing, the box seems to be bigger on the inside. The Doctor chuckles and sets the controls to take off, Ian and Barbara have seen too much, he has to take them with him. He is on the run from his own people and can’t risk word spreading of where he and Susan are.
The next time we see Ian and Barbara they are lying unconscious or dead on the TARDIS floor. Outside, they appear to have landed on a rocky outcrop where a shadow appears.
After twenty-minutes of terrifying television, viewers were left wondering who or what that shadow belonged too for a whole week. It was the cliff-hanger that kicked them off. If it hadn’t worked, then the show wouldn’t have been the same. They pulled it off and the rest, as they say, is history.
5. BAD WOLF
I have to admit that Christopher Eccleston was never my favourite incarnation of the Doctor. But, one has to remember that when the show came back, I would have been in Year 4 at school. I remember very little about those earlier days, even though I do have some memories and got the DVD’s a year after they came out.
It was only recently, on a re-watch that: One – I got a new appreciation for Eccleston’s Doctor, making him one of my favourites since the show came back and Two – I saw just how good some of those stories were. I think out of that first series, it was only, The Long Game that I found particularly weak.
And then we came to Bad Wolf, a story that will age very badly, in fact, it already has, my sister had to ask me who Trine-E and Zu-Zana were. But that ending is just superb.
“I’m going to rescue her. I’m going to rescue Rose Tyler from the middle of the Dalek fleet. And then I’m going to save the Earth and then, just to finish off, I’m going to wipe every last stinking Dalek out of the sky! Rose? I’m coming to get you…” – The Doctor
This is a terrific speech, aided by some excellent performances from Eccleston and Billie Piper. But it is also the very end when the Daleks prepare for the coming battle, that you realise just how outnumbered they really are! It is definitely one of the strongest cliff-hangers of the modern series and deserves its place at number 5.
4. The Daleks – Episode 1
It was one of Doctor Who’s first make-or-break moments. Writer, Terry Nation had been hired to create a seven-part story, set in the future on an alien planet for a balance against the previous story. His creations, The Daleks, captured the imaginations of the British Public from the moment their iconic sink-plungers hit our screens in 1963.
The moment is legendary. Splitting up to explore the strange new city they have discovered. Barbara, looking down a corridor, suddenly notices that a door has come down behind her trapping her in. She hammers on the door before she realises how useless it is. Then she turns around and sees a sink-plunger heading towards her.
While it might seem like a silly moment in the history of the show, it is actually one of the most important. Had the Daleks never worked, Doctor Who wouldn’t have come back for a second series, let alone have survived 50+ years. It’s excellent fun. While many might wonder why this cliff-hanger is placed at number four, The Daleks is a pivotal moment in Doctor Who’s expansive history.
3. Earthshock – Episode 1
Earthshock, along with Genesis of the Daleks was one of the very first stories I had on DVD. Christmas 2007 saw my Nan and Granddad, giving them to me, along with Spearhead from Space, with that dodgy Auton shot on the cover. I cherished them, I’ve still got them, the only versions I possess.
A lot younger then than I am now, I must admit that much of Genesis went straight over my head. By I fully understood Earthshock and had a cracking time watching it. Although the DVD cover gives away which villains made their shocking return, in 1982, the Cybermen had been away for several years, with Tom Baker having faced them before in Revenge of the Cybermen.
“Destroy them! Destroy them at once!” – Cyber-Leader
That ending for episode one is one of the greatest shock moments in the history of the show. With the Cybermen having been absent from our screens for so long, many fans had only heard of them from the Target Novels or various information books. You can imagine the excitement for the fans, short and long-term in 1982.
It is a moment that still stands up today, watching the entirety of that first episode, there are subtle little hints at who the true villains are. Watching it in 2007, I had seen the Cybermen in the previous series of 2006. But even though they feature on the cover of the DVD, it is still a real moment. The music and then David Banks speaking and the tight and claustrophobic direction from Peter Grimwade make it one of the best moments in the entire history of the show
2. The Caves of Androzani – Episode 3
The Caves of Androzani is heralded by many, not only as one of the best stories of the Classic Series but of the entire show in general. And it is with good reason, there are some fantastic performances from the regulars, Peter Davison and Nicola Bryant, some great villains, Sharez-Jek, Morgus and Stotz.
One of the greatest moments, that encapsulates the whole idealism of the series happens at the end of the third episode. The Doctor, taken from Peri is being transported to Androzani Major but he manages to get control of the ship and crashes it into the surface of Androzani Minor.
“Not a very persuasive argument actually Stozy because I’m going to die soon anyway, unless of course I can find the antidote. I owe it to my friend to try because I got her into this. So you see, I’m not going to let you stop me now!”
It is an epic moment from Davison and one of the best written moments from Robert Holmes who delivered one of his bleakest stories here. What makes it even better is that at the beginning of the story, we see the Doctor fighting off the regeneration so he can save Peri.
Caves works so brilliantly in my opinion because it proves how awesome the Fifth Doctor actually is. He works brilliantly in the darker stories because he is so optimistic and full of hope. Put him in an environment where they will get stripped away from him and he proves himself to be a Doctor you don’t want to cross.
1. The Tenth Planet – Episode 4
The Tenth Planet is a special story for a number of reasons. One is that it introduced the Cybermen to the series and secondly, and most importantly, it introduced the concept of regeneration to the series. Visibly weak, the First Doctor is relegated to the background for much of this story, going for little naps or simply not being there, leaving his companions, Ben and Polly to do a lot of the action.
When he does appear, he does advance the plot a great deal. But with his ongoing health problems getting worse by the day, William Hartnell had no choice but to relinquish his control of the TARDIS to someone new.
“It’s far from being all over…” – The Doctor
How right he was, it was far from being all over. But at the same time, it was cutting it close. William Hartnell had been the Doctor for a long time. He was the only incarnation around at the time and the idea of changing the leading man was almost unheard of. But then the producers brought in the Time Lord trick of regeneration, Doctor Who’s greatest experiment to that point.
The Doctor collapses, Ben and Polly rush to his aid, he lays on the floor and is surrounded by strange light. The TARDIS appears to help him along and then it is all over, a younger man is lying on the floor. And Patrick Troughton took over the title role.
It is a historic moment, with the fourth episode still missing, we are lucky to still have the original footage of that first regeneration.
Had Patrick Troughton not been as brilliant as he is, Doctor Who would not have survived any longer than The Evil of the Daleks. The Tenth Planet deserves a lot more recognition than it gets and that final moment deserves to be at the top of my favourite cliff-hangers!
So there we have it, my favourite cliff-hangers from the whole series. It might come as a surprise that there aren’t any more Modern series moments on this list. But I find that so many of them have copout moments in the concluding episode that it steals from the moment in the first place. I’ve always loved the Classic series and I think it has some of the greatest moments in the show’s entire history. And its cliff-hangers are just superb.
In the future, I might write a feature of my least favourite cliff-hangers which should be interesting. Looking at my list I’m compiling now, there certainly are moments which will no doubt shock some! But remember that these are my preferences and I respect everyone else’s opinions, of which I’m sure you all have your own.
Feel free to tell us your favourite cliff-hangers either in the comments below or on the social media links!