Doctor Who: The Stolen Earth’s cliffhanger – was it worth it?


The Tenth Doctor regenerates at the end of The Stolen Earth…or does he?

(Image credit: Doctor Who/BBC.

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Before we review Journey’s End, let’s take a look at the cliffhanger for The Stolen Earth. How strong a cliffhanger was it? And what kind of impact did it leave on Doctor Who?

The Tenth Doctor is dying. He’s just been shot by a Dalek, just when he’s finally been reunited with Rose. Then the glowing starts. Many of his friends are there. And then the Doctor leads us into one of Doctor Who’s most shocking cliffhangers:

"I’m sorry. It’s too late…I’m regenerating!"

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Before The Stolen Earth had been broadcast, Russell T Davies had promised he would give us one of Doctor Who’s biggest cliffhangers. One even bigger than the cliffhanger for Utopia. The ending of The Stolen Earth certainly promised that. A regeneration scene that came out of nowhere? During one of Doctor Who’s biggest episodes?

It certainly had an impact, too. When Journey’s End was broadcast the next week, it was to over ten and a half million viewers. Not only was it the most viewed program that day, which would have been impressive by itself. But it was in fact the most watched program for the entire week.

That’s incredible, and a lot of the credit needs to go to how shocking The Stolen Earth’s cliffhanger was. But how satisfying was that cliffhanger’s resolution? And what kind of impact did it leave on mythology?

The resolution

As we all know, the Tenth Doctor didn’t regenerate. This wasn’t exactly surprising, though. With every new Doctor, a new announcement is generally made far in advance. Both to avoid the press leaking beforehand, and to give audiences time to get used to the idea first.

At this point, David Tennant was still a few months away from announcing his departure when The Stolen Earth was broadcast.

But still. Both new viewers and even old fans had to know: were they going to give us a new Doctor? Especially in the middle of the story?

As we also know, the Tenth Doctor cheated his way out of it by using his spare hand. Now, there’s elements that work about this in the context of the show, and elements that don’t.

As a resolution to such a huge cliffhanger, it works fine. Like I said, the fact that a new Doctor wasn’t introduced in Journey’s End wasn’t surprising. In fact, with so much happening in the finale, it would’ve worked against it.

It was actually refreshing that the Tenth Doctor’s spare hand, first introduced in The Christmas Invasion before the Doctor got it back at the end of Last of the Time Lords, was used for it. It was nice that something established was used to resolve such a major problem. Especially as it wasn’t just completely out of the blue.

The explanation

I think one problem I have with it is the way it gets explained. Now, I’m aware that the show was very pressed for time, even with an extra twenty minutes included.

But still, considering everything we know about regeneration, the Doctor explaining that he used the energy first to “heal himself”, then put the energy into his hand to avoid changing just doesn’t quite ring true.

Honestly, it makes it sound like regeneration focuses on healing before the change begins. Which is almost the opposite of what regeneration is supposed to be.

The reason Time Lords change with regeneration is that it is the healing process. Every single cell gets changed to heal the body. That’s why the change happens in the first place.

However, this isn’t too much of a problem. True, it could’ve been tidied up with a better explanation from Ten. For example, if he had explained he had used the energy to replace his damaged organs with brand new ones, and then expelling the energy before the rest of the change kicked in, that would’ve made more sense.

The Tenth Doctor avoids regenerating in Journey’s End. But at what price?

(Image credit: Doctor Who/BBC.

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But I think the bigger issue is the more long-term impact it had on Doctor Who mythology. For five years, it wasn’t made clear whether this regeneration counted. At least, not on screen.

Interestingly, Russell T Davies said in a commentary for Journey’s End that he didn’t believe the regeneration should have counted. Steven Moffat, on the other hand, clearly made it count in The Time of the Doctor.

Sometimes, a successor ignoring previous authorial intent can be a bad thing. In this case, however? It was definitely the right decision. Because if the regeneration in The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End didn’t count, you’d otherwise have a massive plot hole.

Specifically: why hadn’t other Time Lords tried this? Particularly with the Master? If it was that simple for Time Lords to not only be in the same form, but even cheat the thirteen lives rule, why hadn’t we seen others try the same trick?

With the Master once so desperate to extend his life, it’s not hard to imagine him removing a body part to put his extra regeneration energy into, as a way of surviving and cheating the regeneration limit.


Out of all the retcons Steven Moffat made in his era, making sure that the Journey’s End regeneration counted was probably one of his best. I’d say it’s a shame it had been unclear for so long, but then again, if Russell T Davies had made his intention clear, then we’d have been left with a huge plot hole. Not just in Journey’s End, but in the show’s mythology, too.

Regeneration is a crucial thing to Doctor Who. It’s a key reason why the brand has endured for so long. It’s not something that should ever be cheated, as Russell T Davies tried to do.

Was the near regeneration cliffhanger worth the viewers and publicity it brought? Yes, but barely. It also doesn’t hold up quite as well as, say, the cliffhanger for Utopia. Over a decade later, and that ending still gives me chills.

The ending of The Stolen Earth, on the other hand, is essentially a big fake-out. One that even brand new fans to the show will recognize, particularly if they know about the specials already.

Worse than that, it came dangerously close to undoing a huge part of Doctor Who mythology for the sake of ratings. The cliffhanger did its job and ensured greater publicity for the series. But it was almost too high a price for a cliffhanger that only lasted for a week.

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What do you think? Do you think the cliffhanger was worth the risk? Is it one of your favorites? Or are there other cliffhangers that you prefer? Let us know in the comments below.