It’s getting down to the wire. The Doctor is in imminent peril. Before you have time to process it, the famous “Doctor Who Scream” rips through you, tempting you back for next week’s episode.
Without cliffhangers where would Doctor Who be? Over the last fifty years, this distinctive weekly sendoff has become just as beloved and well known as The Doctor himself. But, what makes them so memorable? More to the point, which have stood the test of time and space to become classics in their own right? Be sure to bring along your jelly babies and fezzes as we examine: The Top Ten Doctor Who Cliffhangers!
Cold Blood / Air Date: May 29, 2010
This episode is a personal favorite due to the simplicity of its concept and the subtle acting skills of Matt Smith. The Eleventh Doctor has foiled a failed Silurian coup, Rory has been erased from time, and Amy’s memories of her fiancée are gone forever! As our hero is left alone to ponder his thoughts, he takes out the broken shard he pulled from the “Crack in Time”. Murray Gold’s haunting music pulsates through as The Doctor realizes he is holding a destroyed fragment of the TARDIS’s front door sign. Where does it come from? What does it mean? Matt Smith’s look of absolute silent fear and horror still resonate in this defining moment from Series 5’s “Crack in Time” storyline.
Human Nature / Air Date: May 26, 2007
On the run from “The Family of Blood,” The Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) temporarily alters his DNA to become something quite altogether unfamiliar to him… human. So human in fact that he has forgotten everything else and assumes the identity of teacher “John Smith”. Stuck in 1913, Martha Jones watches helplessly as he falls in love and leads an adventure like none other, a normal life.
All hell breaks loose later at a village dance when “The Family,” on a murderous rampage, demands The Doctor’s Time Lord essence. As collateral, they hold Martha and Joan, his girlfriend, at gun point. Faced with an impossible choice, John Smith watches helplessly as Son of Mine issues a chilling demand:
“Which one of us do you want us to kill? Your friend or your lover? Your choice!”
The War Games: Part Ten / Air Date: June, 1969
This is the first episode that really broke all the rules, and gave us the first glimpse into the “Who” of our favourite Doctor. The Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) is put on trial by his own people, the Time Lords, for his interference with the laws of time. He is alone for the first time since the series began as Jamie and Zoe, his long running companions, are forcibly returned to their own times.
Just when all seems lost, the Time Lords acknowledge his benevolent nature may have some use to the galaxy, but not before exiling him to Earth with a forced regeneration. We last see The Doctor, hurtling through the abyss of the Time Vortex, as a date with his third incarnation awaits. A seminal piece of Whovian lore to be sure!
The Empty Child / Air Date: May 21, 2005
By Spring 2005, fans already knew that the first season of the newly revived show was something to behold. Under producer Russell T. Davies, we had seen Daleks, Slitheens, a Jagrafess, and the deadly Reapers. But, nothing would compare to a little gas mask wearing boy and the simple, yet terrifying phrase “Are you my mummy?”
By the episode’s conclusion, we find The Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) up against the wall, literally. With Rose and Captain Jack by his side, he’s surrounded by a swarm of gas mask hospital patients all uttering “Are you my mummy? Are you my mummy?” All it takes is one touch... one touch to become like them. When all is said and done, this two-parter rightfully deserves its place as some of the best Doctor Who ever. We wonder who wrote it? Some guy named Moffatt we think.
Terror of the Zygons: Part One / Air Date: August 30, 1975
While investigating a destroyed oil rig, The Fourth Doctor, Sarah, and Harry find themselves in a conspiracy of “Zygon” proportions. It’s a conspiracy so big that it may also just involve a certain monster from Loch Ness.
Harry, wounded by an assassin’s bullet, drifts in and out of consciousness at a hospital. Sarah Jane, consoling him, leaves to phone The Doctor in the waiting room. Without warning, a Zygon hand clutches her by the shoulder. The big reveal of these creatures and Sarah’s blood curdling scream make for one memorable evening to say the least.
In their one television appearance, the Zygons firmly embedded themselves in the hearts of many fans. While Doctor Who always had aliens, there had never been ones as unique and frightening looking as these. Here’s to their welcome re-appearance next month in the 50th anniversary special!
Planet of the Spiders: Part Six / Air Date: June 8, 1974
Now we are partial to regeneration stories, but we promise this will be the last one on the list. But, really how can you pass up John Pertwee’s effective and restrained acting, coupled with the brief introduction of a certain Mr. Tom Baker?
Via the TARDIS, The Doctor wearily returns to UNIT headquarters on Earth. Three weeks have passed since he received a lethal dose of radiation during his battle with the treacherous giant spiders of Metelbelis III. The Brigadier and Sarah Jane, having lost hope of him coming back, rush to his side. As his third life slips away, The Doctor utters the now immortal line of:
“A tear Sarah Jane? No don’t cry, while there’s life there’s…”
We suspect Sarah Jane wasn’t the only one with a tear in her eye that evening.
The Deadly Assassin: Part Three / Air Date: November, 1976
Time Lords are a fickle lot. One day they help you, another day you’re doomed to execution. The latter was what The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) faced on his return to his home planet of Gallifrey.
Framed for the President’s murder, the Doctor enters “The Matrix” to find The Master and prove his innocence. It is here he finds himself hunted down in a hallucinatory world of Time Lord consciousnesses. To accurately describe in words what follows wouldn’t serve these surreal scenes justice. Just know that the final image of The Doctor being strangled underwater by The Master’s accomplice Chancellor Goth is notorious in BBC history.
Moral crusader Mary Whitehouse caused such uproar when it originally aired that it had to be altered for future broadcasts. A freeze frame was added and, edited or not, the imagery stays with you long after the television is switched off.
The Caves of Androzani: Part Three / Air Date: March, 1982
Not putting The Caves of Androzani in this list is akin to Who heresy. Peter Davison’s swan song is brimming with so many memorable moments that it’s impossible to list them all here. However, this particular cliffhanger in Robert Holmes’ brilliant script showcases how much The Fifth Doctor is willing to go through to save his beloved companion, Peri.
Trapped on a space freighter! Infected with deadly Spectrox Toxemia! The Doctor’s days are numbered! Throwing all logic to the wind, he highjacks the ship’s main control room in a kamikaze freefall back to the surface of Androzani Minor and Peri. The tension mounts as the crew members solder their way through the door. The Doctor, on the verge of collapsing, defiantly intones to the captain “…I’m not going to let you stop me now!”
The Daleks: The Dead Planet / Air Date: December 21, 1963
Already fresh out of the gate, Doctor Who was about to unleash its greatest enemy onto the world: The Daleks. The story begins when the original TARDIS crew, led by the First Doctor (William Hartnell), gets stranded in an eerily petrified jungle.
The Doctor, always suspicious, leads the way to a nearby futuristic city. It is here that Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) gets separated from the group, and is left alone to wander in a labyrinth of bleak hallways. As she rounds a corner, writer Terry Nation’s metal maniacs reveal themselves in a scene straight out of a horror movie. A Dalek “plunger” moves closer and closer as Barbara is pinned helplessly to the wall. With that millions tuned back the following week and a science fiction icon was born!
Survival: Part Three / Air Date: December 6, 1989
At the conclusion of its 26th season, Doctor Who had seen better days in terms of its support at the BBC. Like all good things, they must end.
After one last riveting adventure fighting The Master and riding on horses with Cat People, it was time for The Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) to gather up Ace and head back to the TARDIS. The producers, realizing this may be the end, had McCoy record this last voice over as the sun was seemingly setting on The Doctor’s adventures:
"There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea's asleep and the rivers dream, people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there's danger, somewhere there's injustice and somewhere else the tea's getting cold! Come on, Ace — we've got work to do!"
This cliffhanger went unresolved for much longer than fans would have liked. But, it ultimately proved that in Doctor Who the end is just the beginning!