Why does Doctor Who: Flux keep ruining its own cliffhangers?
Perilous, exciting endings are being spoiled by "Next time..." trailers - but is there a solution that keeps everyone happy?
The new series of Doctor Who is full of exciting cliffhangers – so why does the show itself keep ruining them? It’s a bigger mystery than any question posed about Swarm, The Division or the Timeless Child.
After all, the big marketing push for Doctor Who: Flux primarily focused on its unusual (for modern Who, at least) serialised story, with the standard standalone stories jettisoned in favour of a connected week-to-week adventure.
This means a few changes – characters appear across multiple episodes, not everything has to be wrapped up in one week, and there are plenty of mysteries that roll on – but perhaps most exciting of these is the potential to end every episode with a cliffhanger, before picking up the action again in next week’s episode.
"As a kid growing up in the 1970s, part of what got me addicted to Doctor Who was the cliffhangers,” showrunner Chris Chibnall told Doctor Who Magazine in 2020. "They were essential to the DNA of the show. That’s not the case in the same way in the modern show. So when you do get the chance to do a cliffhanger now, it’s really exciting."
And when COVID forced a change of production for series 13, Chibnall clearly saw his chance to bring back this classic feature of the show. "There’s a couple of my favourite cliffhangers that we’ve done this year. I think you’ll know [them]…" he told fans during a virtual panel at Comic-Con @Home.
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And in some ways, it’s worked. Taken on their own, the cliffhangers – the Flux raging through the TARDIS, Yaz about to be consumed by time itself – have been fairly exciting. Unfortunately, they’re completely undercut by what comes next.
For both of its first two episodes, the serialised Flux has concluded the action with huge moments of peril, some or all of our characters potentially about to perish, and no obvious way to escape… only for their survival to be confirmed just a few seconds later in the Next Time trailer.
Last week, it was hard to take the threat of the Flux too seriously when we saw the TARDIS gang knocking about in the Crimea in footage played right after the credits. This week, Yaz and Vinder’s danger at the hands of Swarm looks all too real… unless you wait 30 seconds and see them both investigating a ruined city with the Doctor et al, and getting involved in other sci-fi business.
Really, it’s a shame. Of course few would expect the series leads to actually be killed off halfway through the series, and we all know the Doctor will get out of any scrapes eventually, but part of the fun is making an audience believe that characters could be in real danger. At the very least, the show should believe Yaz and Vinder might be killed off, keeping the stakes real for the characters and viewers at home. Revealing seconds later in a trailer that they’re all basically fine feels like a big shrug – the cliffhanger doesn’t matter, because even the show doesn't pretend it will materially affect the story in any way.
To be fair, it is a tricky balance. Do you awkwardly cut characters out of the Next Time trailers, when you and everyone watching doesn’t seriously believe they’ll perish? That’s often laughable. Do you drop the Next Time trailers altogether, to preserve the illusion? That might undercut the importance of pulling the audience through week to week.
Perhaps the answer is somewhere in between, then – an initial teaser that doesn’t directly contradict the importance of the final scene of this week’s episode, allowing for something more explicit later on in the week once the dust has settled (a little like how new preview images usually crop up on Tuesdays).
Certainly, there was plenty else in next week’s trailer – including new characters, a Cybermen attack and much more – to keep us entertained without knowing for sure what was next for Yaz and Vinder.
For now, it's hard to feel like the excitement of Doctor Who: Flux's cliffhangers last any longer than the length of the end credits. When you've got a week to wait between episodes, the show could probably do a bit better than that.
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