All Along The Watchtower

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Classic Cliffhangers

It's season and series finale time in TV-land. As seasons come to an end, the audience is often left hanging on a cliffhanger, insuring we'll speculate all summer on what might happen next. Some of these cliffhangers will be resolved, some won't due to cancellation.

The Pheonix has a discussion of the top ten season ending cliffhangers of all-time. And while the list is good, they made some crucial mistakes.

The first is any list of cliffhangers in incompleted without acknowledging the greatest cliffhanger of all time, "Mr Worf, fire!" Apologies to Dallas and the question of "Who shot J.R.?" but when it comes to cliffhangers this one from the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation is the gold standard by which all others are judged (and for the most part, found wanting). The unstoppable Borg have Picard and have altered him to be a servant of the Borg. The Enterprise has one chance to stop them with a weapon that will hopefully destroy the Borg ship or at least cripple it enough to allow Starfleet to bring the fleet to take it out. They have one chance and they've got to take it...but it means killing Picard as well. And Riker orders the weapon be used and then as the music builds to a crescendo, those three hated words 'To Be Continued" appear on screen.

The thing was that since TNG aired in syndication, you wouldn't hear a collective shout of "Nooooooooooooooooo!" all across the country. It came at different times during the week as you realized you had to wait four long months to find out what happened next. And sure, I'll admit that the resolution wasn't as strong as the episode that lead up to it. But what I do recall is one long, hot summer in the days before the Internet existed (at least in my world) to find other fans, to puruse rumors of what would happen next and how it would go, to maybe find SPOILERs...nope, instead, we were left to wonder--did TNG have the courage to kill off the lead of the show just as it was getting really good and hand the show over to Riker? Deep down you knew they couldn't...but then again, maybe they could.

So, any list without that episode is incomplete.

Also, I have to take them to task for their choice of Buffy cliffhangers. They cite season five's "The Gift" as the best Buffy season ender. Yes, it was the 100th episode of the show and yes, it was a satisfying wrap-up to a classic season. And Buffy throwing herself into hell and dying was a great way to end the season. But, when it all comes down to it, "The Becoming, Part 1 and 2" from season was better. Those episodes rank right up there among the best written, best acted and best directed episodes in all of television. Buffy must stab Angel and send him to hell to save the world. Her life in ruins from having been kicked out of school, suspected of murder, revealed her secret to her mother and been told to not come back, alienating her friends and then killing the man she loved just as his soul was restored. And then Buffy leaves town to the strains of a Sarah McLaughlin song that perfectly sums up where our favorite Slayer is. Sure it wasn't a moment along the lines of "Mr Worf, fire" but from a storytelling standpoint, it left the field wide open for the fallout from season two in season three.

It's this episode that cemented me as a Joss Whedon fan-boy for life. Damn, the man can write and direct.

Others that didn't make the list.

Babylon Five, season three: Z'hadhum - Sheridan goes to the planet of his enemies and dives to his apparent death. We're left at a crossroads in the Shadow War. The show even had enough guts to make us think Sheridan was dead for an entire episode as season four started. (Interestingly while the audience finds out that he's alive in episode two, the rest of the characters don't find out until the fourth episode of the season when Sheridan makes a dramatic return and we find out the consequences of what happened and the choices Sheridan made).

Alias, season two - Say what you will about how they've dropped the ball on this since it aired but the whole concept of Syd losing two years and Vaughn being married was pretty darn good.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, season five: A Call To Arms - "The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1" started a trend for Trek of ending the season on a cliffhanger. But whereas TNG, Voyager and Enterprise would all end on a story that had to be picked up and resolved within the first episode of next season, DS9 went for a broader storytelling perspective. Yes, huge things would happen in season finales, but they were huge things that had an impact beyond the first hour of the next season and might take a couple of episodes or the entire year to resolve. Case in point: season five of DS9 when the Dominion takes the station and Sisko and Starfleet are forced to leave it. Sisko leaves his baseball as a message to Gul Dukat that he intends to return and then takes the Defiant to join a fleet of ships that will fight the war and eventually take the station back. The images of a fleet of ships flying toward the camera and then the screen fading to black....it was great. And the thing with this one was--DS9 took six episodes to get Sisko and company back to the station in season six. There was no easy out for the crew on this one.

Battlestar Galactica, season 1: Kobol's Last Gleaming, Part 2 - It'd be easy to use the cliffhanger from season two becuase it was quite the mind blower. But the image of Adama shot by Boomer was great. It left me wanting more BSG right then...it made the wait of three months seem enternal but damn was it worth it.

Farscape, season two - Die Me Dichotomy - Or as I call it, the hero loses everything. The entire second season of Farscape is one massive arc, if you know to look for it. The thing is David Kemper and company don't reveal the cards of the arc until 2/3s of the way through the season, making you re-examine certain actions and episodes in a new light. And in the second season cliffhanger, our hero John Cricthon loses it all. He is responsible for the death of the woman he loves, the bad guy catches up to him and gets what he wants, all while condemning Crichton not to death but to live with what he's done and what's happened. The final scene of Crichton on the operating table, his skull opened up for surgery to remove Scorpius's nuero chip that has plagued him all season and sent him into madness , unable to speak cohrently and screaming in rage at Scorpius ranks up there with as one of the best and most memorable. Yes, some things were resolved a bit too easily to start season three (Aeryn's death anyone?) but you have to admit this was one hell of a cliffhanger...

The X-Files, season two: "Anasazi" - The first in a long line of great X-Files cliffhangers. Mulder trapped in a box car on fire, just as he got close to finding out the truth. Man, it was good stuff.

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