Doctor Who Week: The Cliffhanger Cut-Away

Last post was all about the happy accidents of Doctor Who. The limiting factors that ultimately make the show better and weirder. This post though, is about the two acts of intentionality that anchor each episode...and always make it better and weirder: the theme song and the end-of-episode "cut-away" that teases the next episode.

Listen to the way that rubbery, from-space bassline meets up with some synth or theremin noises, all essentially scoring a slightly more "Pop" version of Dave's trip in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It gets you pumped. It's a classic, telling theme song. The same way the Full House song gets you ready for family comedy wackiness or, like, that sad-sack joint from Cheers gets you amped to empathetically chuckle along with some losers in a bar, the Doctor Who theme prepares you for the odd, always 3am alternate reality, hung-over-but-heady pace of the show.

That's the thing about Doctor Who: it's this strange, kinda boring but engrossing show, and just as you're nodding off or whatever from the flat, mostly music-less tone, that space-prog theme song kicks-off the new episode and you're just like, "Oh shit, how's Sarah--who's kinda bangin' by the way--gonna escape the Wastelands?!". It's on. That signature, extended ping sound and bassline though, serve an even greater purpose when it comes to the end of the episode cut-away.

See, each show always does this super-abrupt, kinda avant-garde, mid-word, mid-action jump to the credits. It doesn't fade-out or wrap-up nicely, it's this odd, a-few-seconds-before-you-expect-it cut-away, just as each episode's action is about to come to an end or building up to something that won't wrap-up in the next 18 seconds. You know it's coming because the Doctor Who theme starts rising out of the soundtrack to warn you, but it's always jarring when, just as the bassline chugs through, the credits arrive. Here's a fairly typical example from one of the show's best serials, Genesis of the Daleks. Just as a new, obviously important character arrives...the cut-away:

Now that, though, is still sort of a typical use of TV (or just serialization in any kind): End theme on a shocking twist or new piece of information. It's especially cool and fucked-up, but it's still working on the need to have questions answered and all that. The best use of the Doctor Who cut-away though, when it kinda becomes its own thing, is when it's employed at episode's end almost to like, let you have a breather or chill-out when things have gotten too crazy and the stakes too high. Because it's sci-fi, people's lives or the universe's fate is often seconds from destruction, so this happens quite a lot.

But there's just something so perfectly disturbing about letting an episode build to this moment of fear and disaster and just as it seems like too much--go to credits. See below, where it's not even something like explainable that's happening, it's just that Davros is yelling "DESTROY" and it's weird and fucked-up feeling and there's nowhere to go but the credits. I'd advise, if you can spare the entire five minutes, even if you don't know what the heck is going on in the clip, to watch the whole thing. You'll get a better sense of the palpable sense of apocalypse that the cut-away relieves you from:

An argument can be made that this adheres to the main goal of TV: to keep you coming back. It's an especially cool and effective way of doing so, and while it has the strange byproduct of making you relieved the episode's over, you'll return next week or load your next tape in because nothing's completed. But even when an entire serial's over, the cut-away remains. Notice how this serial wraps-up quite well, the Doctor even imparts some kind words and junk, but the cut-away's as awkward as ever:

I think it has something to do with the never-goes-away, onto another adventure reality of a character and series like Doctor Who. That weird dread or jarring unexpectedness never's totally gone, the show can never effectively wrap-up. There's always somewhere else to go. And so, that abrupt jump to the credits, as the theme song rises in volume is always there. This is especially moving in episodes where something very significant occurs.When say, Sarah is dropped off on earth or when Leela stays on Gallifrey.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Tom Baker's Doctor Who is how he's both this totally chill bro and this very awkward, kinda emotionally stunted weirdo. He's really bad at goodbyes. He often smirks or jokes around instead and bails out a few moments before he really should. The Doctor's essentially immortal (or something) but he acts like he's always running out of time. Everything is temporal and unstable, he's always keeping chaos at bay. Comfort lasts a few moments, duty and responsibility return and you'll be up against a creeper like Davros or some Cybermen or some Sontarans soon enough whether your sidekick is gonna accompany you or wed some fruity Gallifrey-an (?). The cut-away is a structural trick, a kind of well-used piece of television grammar that imparts some of that same, temporal feeling onto the audience.

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