Michael Ridgway Revisits Classic Who’s Most Infamous Cliffhanger
Having swum halfway to the Kenyan island of Lamu, I realised I might have miscalculated. The guidebook said it was ‘do-able’ and I’d wanted to impress my wife. However, years of Netflix, Pringles, and Reese’s Pieces had taken their toll. It was a bad decision. Exhausted and panicking, I thought of my family and friends – and I thought of my childhood hero. What would the Doctor do? The response which flashed into my mind as I flailed pathetically about the Indian Ocean wasn’t his epic victories over Davros or the Master but his ridiculous near-demise in Dragonfire.
For those who haven’t seen the 1987 adventure, the Seventh Doctor is exploring Ice World looking for the legendary Dragon. It’s a good tale, notable for the introduction of companion Ace and a startlingly gory special effect. It is also features a notorious cliffhanger. At the end of Episode One, the Doctor inexplicably lowers himself over the side of a cliff and dangles moronically from his umbrella.
Doctor Who fandom (whose divides are as ferocious as Brexit) seems in rare agreement that Dragonfire Episode One is amongst the dumbest cliffhangers in Doctor Who history. It features regularly in ‘worst of’ cliffhanger rankings by fans and fanzines. Some consider it a parody of the genre.
Yet this cliffhanger has been done a grave injustice. It features extreme peril and doses the audience with the critical question; ‘What happens next?’ In short, it does the job. Watching as a child, it was deeply distressing and horribly realistic. The Doctor could have perished (we have seen the Doctor fall to his death before). Surely my vertigo is directly related to this episode (thanks BBC). It’s definitely more memorable than the dull non-cliffhanger of Episode Two where the icy villain Kane stares at the camera and says something villainy. Remember it? Of course you don’t.
What riles fans is the total lack of narrative sense. Criticism is barraged at the production team who themselves savage it in DVD extras. Script Editer Andrew Cartmel still seems sorely vexed that a scripted explanation – whereby the Doctor attempts to circumvent a blocked path – was omitted from filming. Director Chris Clough describes it as a “complete cockup”. Writer Ian Briggs pinpoints the scene as the one thing he’d change.
All of which is a real shame because if we only use our imagination, plausible narrative explanations are in abundance. Imagination is of course a necessity for us Doctor Who fans who enjoy an ambitious science fiction show with routinely ropey science and Poundland production values.
For instance, the Doctor’s actions are due to his unpredictable persona. The Seventh is a man of contradictions: a clown, a fanatic, an entertainer, a genocidaire. Gone is the confident certainty of earlier (and future) incarnations and in comes utter randomness. On top of this, the early post-regeneration Seventh Doctor is certifiable. Scale a cliff for no discernible reason? Of course! Little wonder so many of the Seventh Doctor’s opponents suffer anxiety issues: they don’t know whether he’ll break into song, hurl himself off a building, or trick them into annihilating their own worlds. He talks at least three of his opponents (including villain Kane from this story) into a panic attack induced suicide.
Or perhaps his actions are more along the lines of the legendary ‘Cartmel Masterplan’. This is no ordinary Timelord. Nothing is random and everything is planned for he is the master manipulator. Time and again the Seventh Doctor tricks friends and foes for his own gain. His predicament on Ice World was a massive deception. Think about it. We learn from Episode Two (Spoilers!) that the drop wasn’t actually that far. He was in no real danger besides a broken leg or two. Yet his ‘rescue’ by his uneasy ally Sabalom Glitz elevates the Doctor to Glitz’s confidant, resulting in Glitz sharing his schemes and actually giving the Doctor the map to the Dragon whose brain-energy-crystal-treasure thing (it gets a bit weird) saves the day. Coincidence? I think not.
Credible though this seems, I subscribe to the following. The Doctor was in genuine jeopardy. We know this because in the 2013 episode The Name of The Doctor Eleventh Doctor companion Clara Oswald infiltrates the Seventh Doctor’s timestream to this very incident and (assumedly) instigates his rescue, just as she saved the Doctors other incarnations from certain death.
And so the more mundane explanation for his climb. It is simply this. The Doctor made a mistake. He needed to descend the cliff and thought he could climb. He wanted to climb. He was giddily excited to explore the catacombs earlier on in the episode. See his little face light up when he starts his foolhardy descent. He’s loving it. Perhaps climbing Ice World was on his bucket list. His Lonely Planet said it could be done. Maybe Mel egged him on offscreen. He just miscalculated and made a bad decision. It won’t be the last during his tenure. And refreshingly so. I’m tired of living in the shadow of know-it-all Doctors. The Seventh Doctor’s screw-ups makes me feel better about myself.
Whatever explanation you conceive, I think Sophie Aldred (Ace) nails it in her defence of the cliffhanger on DVD extras as “pure McCoy”. This wonderful scene is pure Seventh Doctor if we open our minds, and we shouldn’t change it for all the world.
As for my swimming adventure? Luckily I had my own Sabalom Glitz to rescue me (a boatman who realised I was a twit and monitored me from afar). All I lost, as a small excited crowd greeted me on the shore, was my dignity and my swimming trunks. The two are related.
So things could have been worse, Doctor. And wouldn’t that have changed the tone of this cliffhanger