Doctor Who is a show that has told all kinds of stories over its modern lifespan. I, along with many other fans, would argue that many of the best stories are ones that span two, or sometimes even three episodes. The extended amount of runtime allows for so much more to be achieved than is ordinarily possible. The secondary characters get ample time to shine, the plot can swing to-and-frow a bit more often than usual, and this usually creates a much more compelling story.
They also provide us with the most exciting and hype-inducing trope in narrative history. Cliffhangers.
A cliffhanger cuts the story off at a crucial point. If done well, these cliffhangers will immediately get the audience excited and ready for the next instalment. When done perfectly, they can create some of the greatest moments in the history of the show. If anything is going to have you come away from an episode of Doctor Who still buzzing over what transpired, and what might transpire the following week, it’s a properly well-written cliffhanger.
I want to make it clear that, in this list, the quality of the episode following the cliffhanger is entirely irrelevant. I could point to a handful of the cliffhangers on this list that had disappointing payoffs, but that isn’t important. All that matters is that the cliffhanger itself left a lasting impact on me.
Now, let’s look at some of the best, from modern Doctor Who.
9 – The Sphere Opens – Army of Ghosts
Army of Ghosts is a bit of a flawed episode, but one of it’s best elements is the mystery surrounding the sphere. The way it’s introduced to us as this thing that needs to be observed and researched 24/7, the massive looming presence it has over the room, and even the way it doesn’t quite seem to fit in visually with its surroundings. The Doctor explains that it’s a void ship, designed to travel between parallel universes, and your mind immediately jumps back to earlier in the season, where the Cybermen overran that parallel universe. At that point, it seems like the episode has accidentally tipped its hand, but really, it’s just luring you into a false assumption.
They revisit it enough to keep it regularly in the back of your mind, wondering what on Earth it could be. Could John Lumic have survived his factory exploding? Could it be some incredible new type of Cyberman we’ve never seen before? As the episode ramps up to its climax and the Cybermen reveal themselves as the ghosts around the world, it seems like it’s a done deal. Then episode decides it’s going to totally blindside you.
First of all, the Cybermen deny having anything to do with the sphere. Our reaction is the same as The Doctor’s. Totally unexpected and immediately throws you through a loop. Then, while you’re still scrambling for any semblance of an idea of what it could be, BAM, DALEKS. It’s such an exciting moment, made all the more brilliant with how the episode goes to such great lengths to lure you into the false assumption about what it can be.
Even once the excitement of the reveal subsides, you suddenly come to the realisation that the Daleks and the Cybermen are in the same place at the same time. Will they team up? Will they fight? How will The Doctor possibly cope?
It does precisely what a great cliffhanger should do. It doesn’t just put the characters in danger that you know they’re going to get out of within 30 seconds of part 2. It poses you a whole bunch of exciting questions as to where the story is going to go, not to mention hitting you with a huge reveal.
8 – O – Spyfall Part 1
Having The Master as a recurring villain consistently makes for such great reveals, purely because they can change their appearance without our knowledge. You’d think I’d have stopped falling for it by this point, but every time a new human-looking mysterious villain comes along, I always fall for it.
The difference here is that O was presented as an ally of The Doctor’s that they already had a history with. Immediately there’s a bunch of intrigue surrounding the character, which was only magnified during O’s conversation with Graham earlier in the episode. There, we saw a hint of menace appear in the character, especially when discussing the topic of The Doctor. We get these very subtle hints that he’s hiding something, but nothing so overt to give it away. Even something like O seeing the inside of The Doctor’s TARDIS becomes a very weighty scene once we know the twist.
I understand why many people aren’t as big on this cliffhanger as I am. It was done in a way that went over a bunch of people’s head at first, and to be fair, I didn’t realise that the house flying alongside the plane was supposed to be The Master’s TARDIS either. However, I very vividly the remember the moment when it hit me that he was The Master. It was a revelation that almost left me winded when I connected the dots. It took me a few seconds after he claimed to be “the spy…master” to work it out, but once everything clicked, I felt blown away by it.
This was backed up by Sacha Dhawan acting circles around everyone in the scene for another minute following the reveal. It kept things building right up until the climactic plane crash. It hit me in a way that I don’t think any other cliffhanger has hit me on this show before, which is why I rate it quite highly.
7 – A Trap – The Time of Angels
Ok, this one is a bit of an exception to my rules of good cliffhangers.
This was a cliffhanger that really extends out about 5 minutes before the episode actually ended. It held a tremendous sense of rising tension, as things very slowly, then very quickly, got dire for our heroes. The fact of the Aplans having two heads is one of those facts that totally passes you by when you don’t know it’s important. It even doesn’t twig for The Doctor, that’s how insignificant it was, but I can’t describe the level of “Oh shit!” that went off in my head when The Doctor asked why the statues don’t have two heads.
From that moment on, it’s a remarkable moment for Smith’s Doctor. The way they immediately take control of the situation and gives out orders is The Doctor at his peak. Then, we have his speech about the flaw in the angel’s trap. The Doctor looks like such a badass hero as they talk circles around the angels and even though it doesn’t really raise any plot-related questions or have any significant revelations. I always feel so pumped when The Doctor finishes his speech, declaring “Me…” and firing the gun.
The Time of Angels is a blast of an episode outside of this, but this ending put the topper on things. It always leaves me pumped and always makes me want to rush right into the next part to keep the excitement rolling.
6 – The Pit Opens- The Impossible Planet
One of the best stories of the RTD era, The Impossible Planet is entirely based on the slow and creeping build of tension and mystery. Most Doctor Who episodes have some level of that, of course, but this episode makes it the central focus of the plot. It’s an episode that refuses to let you in on any of its secrets in part 1 and then hits you with everything it’s got in part 2.
This approach had the potential to cause part 1 to be boring, but it was built so brilliantly that it actually makes for some of the best edge-of-your-seat viewing from that era of the show. The way the episode starts to give you little hints and pile on the intrigue, slowly but carefully, makes the whole thing feel ludicrously tense in its delivery. The Doctor doesn’t even discover the pit until about 2/3rds of the way into the episode. However, it didn’t need to come in sooner because of how much it eats at you. It’s the most straightforward kind of mystery, there’s a locked door, and you want to know what’s on the other side. That alone could be enough to carry it, but then you throw on top of that the idea that The Devil himself could be in the pit? Now that’s excitement. That’s not all though, as I haven’t even mentioned about the mystery surrounding the Ood yet.
After spending the whole episode very slowly feeding you hints as to what might be going on and how it’s all going to fall apart, the writer suddenly slams their foot down and hits you with everything at once. First, the Ood start killing people, and Rose is trapped in a room with them. Next, the whole planet starts falling into a black hole, throwing everything into chaos. All of this is topped off by the pit being opened and some demonic voice declaring that they’re free.
While I did say that I don’t like it when a cliffhanger just throws a petty threat at the characters, here it works in tandem with the game-changing revelation of the pit opening up. It works because it accelerates the pace of the episode to a fever pitch, which after a very slow episode is incredibly effective. More importantly, it raises more questions than it answers. What’s free? What’s it going to do? How can The Doctor stop it? Why has the planet chosen now to fall into the black hole after orbiting it for so long? All these questions are the kind of thing that will float around in your head for the next week and ensure you come back for part 2.
5 – The Long Way Round – Heaven Sent
Let’s get this out of the way first, the payoff to this cliffhanger (i.e., the entirety of Hell Bent) is utter shit, but as I said, that has no bearing on how awesome this cliffhanger was.
I’ll talk about it more when I eventually rank Series 9, but Heaven Sent is an absolute masterpiece. The story it tells & the way it tells it are beautiful, while Capaldi put on arguably the best performance of his entire career, carrying a 45-minute monologue about grief. The emotional stakes by the end of Heaven Sent are insanely high. We’ve just watched The Doctor kill and revive himself several trillion times so that they could punch his way through a solid wall of the toughed substance in the universe. When it comes to a character journey, they don’t get much more emotional than that.
Then, you have the series-wide stakes. After 10 years since the revival of Doctor Who revealed that Gallifrey had been destroyed. After The Doctor spent all this time with the guilt of its destruction weighing on their mind; they have finally step foot on their home planet once again. That in itself is a massive moment, but when you pair that up with ordeal that the Time Lords had just put him through…it’s such a powerful moment.
As I said, Hell Bent would absolutely shit it all up the wall, but I refuse to let it take away from the genuine work of art that is Heaven Sent. This cliffhanger was easily the perfect way to cap off such an episode. It fills you with this desire for The Doctor to march into Gallifrey’s parliamentary rooms and show them who’s boss.
It’s an incredible combination of a historical moment for the show, with a meaningful and heartfelt character moment for The Doctor and that’s such a wondrous achievement.
4 – The Doctor Regenerates – The Stolen Earth
Is it a bit goofy? Yes. Does it mess with the laws of regeneration a bit? Definitely. Did it blow my God-damned mind when I watched it for the first time? Hell. Yeah.
I’m not entirely sure there’s much to say about this one, because what makes it so good is incredibly simple. The Doctor, without any form of indication or announcement, suddenly starts regenerating, with seemingly no way for stopping it. It’s entirely based on shock factor, which you could argue is cheap, but I say balls to that, I loved it.
It’s one of those Doctor Who moments where, when I think back to it, the first thing that comes to mind is the raw feeling of “WHAT?!” that I experienced at the time. Sure, as an adult, it would be reasonably apparent that this was a fake-out, but as a kid, it threw everything I was expecting into the bin. I was convinced that we were saying goodbye to Tennant and that we’d have some new Doctor for the finale. I can only chalk this up to the fact that children are stupid, but sometimes ignorance really is bliss.
Quite simply, remembering this cliffhanger makes me really happy. It’s very rare that any show or film can truly shock me or blow my mind anymore, so I genuinely treasure the times where a show like this properly blindsided me with something incredible.
3 – “Listen to me!” – The Pandorica Opens
Honestly, this could’ve made the list just for that final shot alone.
The Pandorica Opens is such a wild ride of an episode. We race through The Doctor’s adventures of Series 5 to get a message to them, then we mess around with the Romans; then we get a giant box of mystery; then Rory turns up after being erased from existence; then The Doctor gives an epic speech; then the Pandorica Opens…
This may be the greatest twist in Doctor Who history. The way it was built up with the most fearsome warrior in the universe, and how all of The Doctor’s old foes show up to get a piece of it. It builds so wonderfully to the climax, and you’re so very ready to see what’s really inside the Pandorica. The moment where it finally opens to reveal an empty chair is SO GOOD. The sinking look on The Doctor’s face as he starts to get dragged towards the box pulls in so many emotions, even to the way he starts to break down as he pleads with the monsters that they’ve got it all wrong.
It makes sure to show you just how dire the situation is too, with it continually cutting back to River trying to prevent the TARDIS from exploding but utterly failing. Then, just as one final kick in the nuts, Rory shoots Amy and kills her against his own will. That final shot of the camera zooming out from Amy’s body to the sight of the whole universe collapsing in on itself was pure genius. In a single ten-second shot, you’ve encapsulated everything at stake, the personal drama of the characters and the universe-wide threat of the crack in the skin of the universe.
What’s even more amazing is that it’s willing to end on a downbeat note. It doesn’t build with a bombastic soundtrack to a climax. It quite literally peters out into silence, leaving you with nothing but your own thoughts as to what on Earth just happened and how it could possibly be solved. It leaves you with a feeling of total hopelessness, which is perfect for reeling you back in for the emotional highs of the series finale.
2 – “I’m coming to get you” – Bad Wolf
(From my Best Doctor Who Speeches article)
I’ve talked a lot about The Doctor having his “hero moments” so far in this list, but I believe that The Doctor has never seemed like more of a hero than he has at this moment, even if he’s being motivated by hatred and rage.
You’ve got to take a look into The Doctor’s mindset during this speech, earlier in the series they thought the Time War was finally over, the last Dalek in existence killed itself and all of the sufferings they’ve gone through, and all of the horrible things they did seemed like maybe they might’ve been worth it to finally rid the universe of the terror of the Daleks. Now, they’ve just discovered that not only did more escape the Time War, but they’ve multiplied and now there are hundreds of thousands of them. This is a person who very recently wiped out his entire race just to get rid of the Daleks and now they’ve learnt it was all for nothing, how would you feel in that situation?
Ecclestone’s acting during this scene is top-notch, the minute movements in his facial expressions put forth this feeling of someone who is having to suppress so much rage, guilt and fear all at once. In the moments before this speech, they flick between mild joking and serious threats, their head is not in the right space and it shows. I almost get this feeling like they’re going to explode in a fit of rage and totally lose their mind – I know I would – but they don’t. Instead, what they do is channel it all and use it to fuel their drive and desire to do the right thing, as Rose would later say “To stand up and say no”, quite literally in this case.
The way the music swells as The Doctor decides to defy the Daleks’ demand, the way they don’t even raise their voice on the first “No”, it’s just a cold statement of intent, a statement that they’ve had enough of dealing with the Daleks’ shit and they’re not going to tolerate one iota of it this time around. They call the Daleks’ bluff and they tell them exactly what they’re going to do, only to totally ignore the Daleks in the end and simply tell Rose “I’m coming to get you” like they’re just picking her up from karate class, no big deal.
Every time I watch it, it gets me PUMPED and it created one of my favourite cliffhangers I’ve ever seen this show pull off.
To add to what I said there, there is no cliffhanger in history that gets my adrenaline pumping quite like this one. The revelation of the gigantic fleet of Daleks, just a handful of episodes away from seeing just one Dalek murder countless people; the look of fire in The Doctors eyes & the fury in his voice. It ends the episode letting us know that The Doctor is in for the fight of his life, and you’ll have to come back next week to see how it goes. Thrilling stuff.
1 – “Bye-bye!” – Utopia
Ok, I might’ve told a hyperbolic fib earlier. THIS is the greatest twist in Doctor Who history.
What’s brilliant about this cliffhanger is that you don’t actually need to know who The Master is to feel the gravity of the revelation. I definitely didn’t when I watched this episode for the first time, but the episode makes sure to hit you with all the big notes so that you understand what an unbelievable reveal this is. The use of the fob-watch was a great touch because you immediately think back to its use earlier in the series. It keeps piling it on too, you get the callback to the Face of Boe’s final words. Then, just to top it off, we see him regenerate to absolutely solidify the monumental threat this guy really is.
The turn in Derek Jacobi’s performance when he becomes The Master is an incredible piece of acting, only for the whole situation to be turned on its head when John Simm enters the scene. The work of the music that undercuts the whole thing cannot be understated either. It’s loud, brash and bombastic when the reveal first occurs, before moving into a more brassy affair, that’s slightly slower, but still carries the weight of the threat and despair that The Master imposes.
This is a cliffhanger that turns everything we were told since the start of the modern series on its head. The Doctor is no longer the last Time Lord, but this new Time Lord turns out to be one of The Doctor’s most powerful foes. Then, to throw several more spanners in the works, The Master steals The Doctor’s only constant companion in the form of the TARDIS and leaves him stranded at the end of the universe, with monsters bearing down on him, Martha & Jack. Also, Jack is there, which makes any scene better.
That shot of The Doctor staring at the space where the TARDIS used to be, with a mixture of shock, desperation & rage on his face is all that’s needed to up this from one of the best to the very best. It honestly has absolutely everything you could possibly want from a great cliffhanger.
And there you have it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this. Please, let me know of any Doctor Who cliffhangers you love, either in the comments below or on Twitter @10ryawoo. Finally, make sure to come back here this time on Wednesday for the next instalment in my 100 Favourite Games series!