Tuesday, July 21, 2009

All's Well That Ends Well: Final Episodes, Cliffhangers and Goodbyes

Approximately a week ago, author and blogger Brad Templeton penned a vast (and widely-linked) essay terming Battlestar Galactica's series finale ("Daybreak") "the worst ending in the history of science fiction on the screen."

His reasoning is sound, not to mention brilliantly expressed, and the author points specifically to three problems. They are: an egregious scientific error, an overall sense of storytelling laziness to resolve important "mysteries" (relying on God and God's powers as the explanation for a multitude of events), and most damningly, poor internal consistency. In that final regard, "Daybreak 1 & 2" don't even track with earlier episodes of the four season series, particularly one important installment set on Kobol.

I suggest you read the entire, meticulous piece for yourself, so you can draw your own conclusions. Personally, I agreed with the author on at least one of his main points. Although I never even registered the Mitochondrial Eve/scientific error (and scientific errors tend not to bother me that much anyway...), I was dumbfounded that audiences were expected to believe "Daybreak's" closing conceit: that a technological race would voluntarily (and in one voice...) give up health care, air conditioning, telephones, and indoor plumbing to live on a primitive planet in close proximity to their sworn enemies (you know, the ones who had attempted their genocide...). I mean, the Colonists had only survived the Genocide because of technology; because of their spaceships. I just don't believe for a second that an advanced people would willingly give it all up. I also disliked the final explanation -- or lack of explanation -- for Starbuck's character. It was a cop-out on a cosmic scale.

Yet I write today not to curse Battlestar Galactica's disappointing finale, but because the essay got me thinking about the ways that other genre series have arrived at their final chapters. It wasn't that long ago, actually, that most series just went off the air without any sort of wrap-up whatsoever.

We never saw the final voyage of the U.S.S. Enterprise's five year mission. Nor did we witness the Alphans discover a new home, or return to Earth. The Searcher never found those "lost tribes" of Earth.

Television audiences never knew if David Vincent stopped the alien invasion of Earth, or if Carl Kolchak finally convinced anybody that there were monsters running around Chicago. Nope. Those TV series just...stopped. The axe of cancellation fell...and that was the end of the story.

On the other hand, some notable series did get to inscribe their last acts, ending with some modest sense of completion (even if dedicated fans were left begging for more....) Now, I'm specifically discussing endings in this essay, folks, so you might consider the descriptions ahead as spoilers. If you don't want to know how a number of sci-fi series ended, then read no further.

"Fall Out"
First off, we have Patrick McGoohan's legendary series about individualism and "The State," called The Prisoner (1968). The 17-episode roster ended with an episode titled "Fall Out." If you've never seen it, there's simply no way to satisfactorily explain it, except to state that, well, it's really bonkers. The imprisoned Number Six (McGoohan) -- after undergoing a trial/psychological test of sorts -- discovers that the Village's leader, Number One, is actually a man in a chimp mask. No scratch that...Number One is actually himself. Then Number Six destroys the Village, flees with a midget, and -- through images repeated from the familiar opening credits montage -- we are led conclude that the whole cycle of imprisonment may be starting over again.

Though bizarre, the ending of "Fall Out" succeeds because it suggests that even outside the walls of the Village, Number Six will always be a "prisoner" in an increasingly de-humanized society determined to catalogue and number citizens. We relate this message to us: we're all prisoners.

Yet "Fall Out" isn't coherent in any traditional storytelling sense, and it actually abandons the tight, "literal" narrative of the earlier episodes for an entirely allegorical finale. Some regular viewers of The Prisoner were actually enraged by the abandonment of the literal for the metaphorical, while others undertook the tough task McGoohan had sought for them: they interpreted the psychedelic, powerful images and found their own answers about the underlying meaning.


Blake's 7 (1978-1981), another British sci-fi series, also featured a rather definitive and downbeat ending, and one much more literal in nature than "Fall Out." I like to call it "The Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid" End. After years of successfully fighting against the tyrannical and powerful Federation, Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) finally leads his gang of rebels into a trap from which they cannot escape.

The last scene of the episode "Blake" (and of the series) involves all the main characters being gunned down in slow-motion by Federation soldiers. Our last view of the cunning Avon sees him offering a strange smile...and raising his own weapon in a futile demonstration of defiance. The screen goes blank and laser fire dominates the soundtrack...

This ending was and remains perfect -- not because of the brutal massacre -- but because of the character-based events leading up to it. Before Avon faces the shock troopers of the Federation, he encounters the idealistic, missing hero of the series, Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas) and -- because of a misinterpretation and poorly chosen words -- ends up killing him in cold blood.

Blake's 7
always concerned character fireworks more than action, and "Blake" is true to that longstanding quality. Blake trusted too much...and died. And Avon trusted too little...and also died. In other words, the same problems that had always plagued these men throughout the series plagued the freedom fighters right through the violent finale. Yes, "Blake" is dark, but any other ending wouldn't have seemed realistic in Blake's 7's cynical universe. Tie-in writers, fans, and producers have toiled ever since "Blake" aired to figure out an acceptable way for the heroes to somehow survive the events of this final episode, but the massacre stands as the final video chapter of Blake's 7. And it remains one of the most mind-blowing series finales in the genre's history.

"All Good Things"

In 1994, after seven successful seasons in syndication, Star Trek: The Next Generation achieved the sense of closure that the Original Series had been denied. It occurred in an adventure called "All Good Things" that recalled the past (and the premiere episode, "Encounter at Farpoint,") had one foot in the present, and even featured a subplot set in the future, twenty-five years down the line.

Although "All Good Things" was mired in tongue-twisting techno-babble, the story -- which saw the Enterprise-D and Picard investigating a mystery in three time periods -- was satisfactorily epic: the entire universe was at stake. The God Entity Q even took Picard back in time to the Dawn of Man in one dynamic scene. But by going returning to the beginning of the series ("Farpoint"), and Q's "Trial of Humanity," "All Good Things" also granted The Next Generation series a nice book-ends quality. Q's trial was finally adjourned...and mankind passed with flying colors.

"The Truth"

The X-Files (1993-2002) ended after nine highly-rated seasons on broadcast television, and unlike other series finale's featured on this list, it's goal was not just to wrap-up character fates, but actually offer the viewer a linear, top-to-bottom explanation of the show's long-standing alien conspiracy and mytharc.

Creator Chris Carter used the occasion of fugitive Fox Mulder's trial to present evidence (and exposition) about the conspiracies that had become part and parcel of 1990s pop culture. Witness testimony, first-hand evidence, and character recollections painted -- for the first time -- a larger, more coherent picture of the X-Files meta-story.

So much of The X-Files also concerned two world views or perspectives in conflict...and in love, exemplified by the believer Mulder (David Duchovny) and the skeptic, Dr. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). Appropriately, "The Truth" reunited this pair, and gave them one last go at the Cigarette-Smoking Man, the enduring villain of The X-Files. Then, in a touching and romantic coda, Mulder and Scully talked about their future....and the planet's. There was even the hint of a sequel since these final moments discussed the date for the alien "colonization: 2012.


When creator Joss Whedon first imagined Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he projected the future of horror's most popular archetype, the "Final Girl:" a woman who could not only defeat the monster, but whom the monsters actually feared. The long-lived WB/UPN series followed the adventures of the heroic Slayer, but even as an admirable female superhero, Buffy was still trained by men (A Watcher), and sent on missions by men (A Watcher Council).

So it was only appropriate in the final episode of the seventh season that Buffy all-but-declared her independence. With the help of Willow's powerful magic, Buffy not only led an army against the forces of the darkness, she "awakened" the female power of would-be female Slayers the globe over, who were suddenly able to harness their "potential."

It was, perhaps the ultimate statement of "Girl Power," which seemed entirely logic given the development of the series, and Whedon's original intent of creating a character who could overcome monster/horror movie cliches. "Chosen" also saw the final destruction of Sunnydale's pesky Hellmouth, the source of all the series' monsters over the years. So not only were viewers inspired...they knew they could sleep safe at night.

Many other series had interesting conclusions too. Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) brought Voyager home in Star Trek: Voyager. Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) grabbed his young daughter Jordan (Brittany Tiplady) out of school and went into hiding with her after Peter Watts' death. And so on and so forth.

Another kind of series ending doesn't really bring closure at all. On the contrary, a number of programs ended on a catastrophic cliffhanger -- one with evil on the ascent -- that was intended to be resolved the following season. When that next season never came, the cliffhanger became the de-facto ending of the whole run. American Gothic (1995) offered one such cliffhanger, with Lucas Buck -- the Devil himself -- finally taking over the soul of his son in the South Carolina town of Trinity. Angel (1999-2005) ended with an unresolved battle against an army of demons in a dark alley' a perfect reflection of the main character's fight against a more powerful foe.

"The Trap"
Sapphire & Steel (1978-1981) was another genre series that went out with a cliffhanging bang. On a seemingly normal mission, our heroic "agents," Sapphire & Steel investigated a strange gas station and diner in a pocket universe of sorts. They quickly learned that the cosmic way-station was a trap sprung for them by an unseen enemy.

The serial and thus the series ended with Sapphire and Steel peering out from their inescapable prison...into infinity itself. This cliffhanger was ultimately resolved in a 21st century audio production, but the time trap stood for years...a chilling reminder of the dangerous, enigmatic nature of the series. It was an ironic capper too: after years of solving temporal riddles, Sapphire and Steel finally walked into a riddle they couldn't figure out, a deliberate reversal of the initial premise.

"The Return"

V: The Series (1985) had a tumultuous run on NBC, with an unusually high degree of cast and character turn over. Ham Tyler (Michael Ironside) and Robin (Blair Tefkin) had been written out mid-season, and Elias (Michael Wright) and Nathan Bates (Lane Smith) had been killed off. These unexpected deaths and surprise departures worked well in a series about a life-and-death Resistance fight against evil, militaristic aliens. The final cliffhanger was no different: it offered abundant surprises. Peace was suddenly declared on Earth, and the Star Child, Elizabeth (Jennifer Cooke), was slated to marry the Leader (unseen on a Visitor spacecraft).

In the episode's final moment, Elizabeth's human boyfriend, Kyle (Jeff Yagher), stowed away on the Leader's ship for the journey back to the distant Visitor home world. But a not-quite vanquished Diana (Jane Badler) revealed she'd planted a bomb aboard the same ship...one just waiting to detonate.

V: The Series ended with a long, dramatic pullback (from the viewpoint of the imperiled, departing shuttle...) as Willie (Robert Englund), Donovan (Marc Singer) and Juliet (Faye Grant) watched it lift off. Did Diana kill the Leader and the Star Child? Did Kyle stop the inter-species marriage? We'll never know, but at least V: The Series went out with a dramatic flourish.

How we judge the success or failure of a series finale ultimately depends, I suppose, on how we viewed the series that preceded the ending. Enterprise (2001-2005) had a terrible, insulting finale that randomly killed off a beloved character and ended with the terrible idea that the whole series was a holodeck game for Will Riker. But who -- watching that show -- could have honestly had high expectations for the finale? I know many people believe Battlestar Galactica set the bar high...and that's why "Daybreak" felt so weak. Let's face it: if the producers begin every episode of their series with the line that the bad guys "have a plan," the producers should probably have one too. And that plan should eventually be made clear to audiences. It never was. The mystery of the five Cylons overtook the series' real sense of drama in the last two years, turning Battlestar into what I once termed "a cosmic game of Clue:" a parlor game about guess who "the secret Cylon" was. Everything else became secondary...

But heck, at least the Galactica's crew didn't go down to Earth on flying motorcycles, right? Or encounter invisible cub scouts from space? Which series endings (listed in this essay or not) stick with you as being the best? Or particularly irk you?


  1. Surprised that there is no mention of the first ever series finale: The Fugitive.

    Also, MASH and Bob Newhart had great endings. But The Fugitive remains my favorite all time show if not the best ending.

  2. Hey Jmilesgran,

    Thanks for writing. I'm a big fan of The Fugitive, it's just that I tried to keep the focus on sci-fi/genre shows, in keeping with the essay about Battlestar Galactica.

    John Kenneth Muir

  3. Gatchamandave7:02 AM

    I was watching Fall Out the other night, by coincidence, and I noticed something much more resonant now than it was then, such as to make the series almost nostalgic.

    The theme of the show, right there in the title, is imprisonment. Now, just to remind you, Leo McKern’s Number 2 walks back into Parliament, initially in his village outfit but in the last shot in civil service garb – bowler hat, briefcase, newspaper rolled under the arm, brolly.

    But what struck me as rather sad is that nowadays strolling up to the gates of Parliament and walking in the door is impossible.

    Because the Houses of Parliament are now surrounded by a twenty foot high reinforced steel fence set into concrete blocks, with big spikey bits on top to discourage trespassers. Worse, any suspicious activity within a kilometer of Parliament, such as wearing a t-shirt that says ex PM Tony was a B-liar or chanting loudly, can subject one to arrest.

    So parking a ruddy great lorry outside then jumping up and down in front of a policeman whilst a dwarf looks on is probably right out…

    What a pity Pat died earlier this year, he missed the ultimate joke. I live in a country in which Parliament has imprisoned itself out of cowardice, and watches the populace outside through cameras. The result ? A division between the country and its representatives such that they are currently soiling themselves about the results of the pending General Election because the public has discovered the extent to which it’s MPs have been embezzling public funds. Vox populi is at an all time high and they fear it…he’d have loved that.

    Oh, and next time you watch Blake listen to the final gun shots over the credits. Mary Ridge deliberately left us with more of an enigma than you might have thought

    Favourite ending – the saga of the Fifth Doctor. It caps the whole tone of the Davison era, a Doctor who regularly endures agony for those he intends to protect – so he atones for his early failure to save Adric by sacrificing himself for his latest companion, dying with the lost boy’s name on his lips.

  4. I wish more Tv shows had the stones to go full-freak like The Prisoner for their finales... c'mon, wouldn't a psychedelic weird-out have been a much better way to wrap up "Galactica" or "The X-Files"?

    BTW I think it's time for a re-appraisal of the Monkees' movie "Head"... it's very similar to "Fall-Out" in many ways.

    Also BTW, speaking of psychedelic weird-outs a note that the X-Files' "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" was clearly inspired by the work of John Keel ("The Mothman Prophecies), who passed away a few days back. He was the most prominent paranormal researcher to investigate the genuine "weirdness" that surrounds UFO phenomena (and I'm not talking about its fan base)

  5. Another fascinating finale to a series that divided fans and critics alike is, of course, TWIN PEAKS. I thought it was quite brilliant Lynch took us deep into the Black Lodge as Agent Cooper fought (unsuccessfully at it turns out) for his soul. We also catch glimpses of the fate of Leland and Laura Palmer along the way.

    I also appreciate it another context. At the time, Lynch had been away from the show and when he returned was shocked at how it had mutated since he was absent (Coop wearing lumberjack shirts?!) and he decided to end things in shocking fashion, throwing out most of the scrip that had been written and doing his own thing, nearly killing off half of the principal cast or leaving their fates unknown. I got the feeling that he knew the show had been canceled and this was big kiss-off to the network.

    I remember when I first saw this episode when it was broadcast and being absolutely blown away by it. Lynch had somehow brought an absurdist/surrealist quality to mainstream TV. Amazing stuff.

  6. The Prisoner remains my favorite television series of all time, followed closely by Doctor Who in all of its incarnations.

    How about that last bit of "Survival," the last episode of Classic Who?

    "There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea is 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 is getting cold. Come on, Ace, we've got work to do."

  7. I'd like to mention the ending of John Doe- a finale that not only ended in the traditional cliffhanger, but was also the kind of ending that took everything we knew about the show and it's chracters, and "flipped it on its head", so to speak (that phrase sounds better in my native language, I know) - giving us a whole new perspective on the show.

    I didn't care much for the ending of The X-Files- it was pretty weak for my taste, but I did like the fact that the ending for The Lone Gunmen occurred on an episode of The X-Files - something that doesn't happen much in television.
    It also had the coolest name for an episode- "Jump the Shark"- named after..well, you know the whole Fonzy thing. (-:

  8. Anonymous2:56 PM

    Been a long while since viewing, but I loved the last episode of the prisoner, metaphysical, but also very deep with regards to individualism vs collectivism & imagined self-identity. The faceless groups of 'anarchists' 'loyalists' etc... being enraged at not being able to pigeon-hole him. Themselves having lost true individual identity for adopting socially acceptable monikers.
    And of course, No.1 being himself, IMO, can be construed to be that you are ultimately responsible for the mental prison you put yourself in. but of course that is one of many ways to interpret it, which I why I loved the finale.

    Just thought I'd also mention another British, (but hard to find) series much recommended, which you may enjoy, called 'Dead Head', scripted by Howard Brenton http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Head_(TV_series)
    More info here: http://www.startrader.co.uk/Action%20TV/guide80s/deadhead.htm

    on the RHS column. With a bit of searching you should be able to locate a copy, but the http://www.classicuktv.co.uk/ site where I got mine, seems to be not working anymore.

  9. Interesting choices. However, the BLAKE'S SEVEN one is all the more intriguing when you realise that the producers had set it up as 'just another' season cliffhanger, as they thought there would be a fifth season where the battle with the Federation would end for good. They were taken aback when the BBC dropped it after Season 4 got very good ratings.

    To that end, we actually avoided what could have been the biggest cop-out ending in genre history in favour of what is regarded as the most brutal (although I would put ANGEL's not far behind it).

    BABYLON 5 and DEEP SPACE NINE I would put forwards as good examples of shows that also had good endings.