Tuesday 6 May 2014

Gratuitous Lists: Top Ten SFF Finales

Welcome to a new feature on the blog, where I list things in a list format because everyone likes lists. However, no-one (well, me) likes the incessant arguing over the placement of things on lists rather than their actual merits, so I'm not doing that.

Here is a list of what I think are the best final episodes of SFF TV series over the years, listed in no particular order but with my favourite one at the end. So, let's do this.

Blake's 7: Blake
Season 4, Episode 13, aired 21 December 1981

"Well, this doesn't look good."

An ending so unexpected that people are still talking about it thirty-three years later. In the closing moments of the final episode of the series, our long-missing idealistic hero, Blake, is revealed to have become a mercenary fighting for money and has betrayed his former comrades to the tyrannical Federation. His morally ambiguous second-in-command-turned-leader Avon guns him down...only for it to be revealed that Blake was still fighting the good fight all along and had a larger plan in mind. Cue Federation soldiers appearing and executing the entire regular cast of the show. The series ends by fading to black as Avon - apparently - is shot dead as well.

Bleak and nihilistic doesn't even begin to cover it, although it was later revealed that the show was never meant to end this way. A planned fifth season would have revealed that most of the characters would be still alive, having been stunned rather than killed. The BBC's announcement that this was final episode took the cast and crew as much by surprise as anyone, but for many years they suggested this had been the plan all along. So, not quite as ballsy as it first appeared, but still a jaw-dropping way to end the series. The rest of the episode is pretty good as well, with its famously cash-strapped effects team doing a reasonable job of depicting the crash-landing of our heroes' ship, Scorpio, on the surface of Gauda Prime.

Chuck: Chuck versus the Goodbye
Season 5, Episode 13, aired 27 January 2012

When in doubt, finish on a beach with an amnesia storyline. Actually, don't, unless your show is as good as Chuck.

For five seasons Chuck trod a careful path between out-and-out comedy, spy hijinks and a romance centred in the gradual development of lead character Chuck Bartowski from a loser working in an electrical store to a convincing secret agent able to woo his team-mate Sarah Walker. That made the decision the showrunners took in its final few episodes, with the erasing of Sarah's memories meaning she had no idea about their relationship, all the braver. Still, trope-savvy fans were expecting her memory to be restored in the final episode and All To Be Well. That didn't happen, with the series ending with Chuck apparently realising he had to win over Sarah from scratch. A surprising ending that didn't take the cop-out route and also featured some fantastic other scenes, such as the main villain being defeated to Jeff and Lester's memorable cover version of "Take on Me" by A-Ha, Morgan finally winning Casey's respect and several callbacks to the very first episode of the series.

Firefly: Objects in Space
Season 1, Episode 14, aired 13 December 2002

"Well, here I am."

Firefly was never meant to end with this episode, of course, but it makes for a surprisingly fitting denouncement and arguably its finest hour. The crew are trapped in deep space as a bounty hunter stalks their ship, trying to capture River Tam and getting embroiled in a battle of wits with her. The episode is moody and intense, tremendously well-written and directed by Joss Whedon (who later said it was the one piece of work he'd use to represent everything he's ever done) and featuring lengthy allusions to the work of Jean-Paul Sartre (the DVD commentary is worth a listen on this score) as well as knockout performances from Summer Glau and Richard Brooks as Jubal Early. The episode also features the eventual acceptance of River Tam into the ranks of the crew, ending a thematic storyline begun back in the pilot. But, yeah, this was an ending that came too soon.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: All Good Things...
Season 7, Episode 25, aired 23 May 1994

For a show about exploring deep space in the far future, ending with a poker game and gratuitous cleavage shot is an interesting stylistic choice.

After seven seasons, Star Trek: The Next Generation bowed out with a relentlessly entertaining romp that served as a greatest hits of the show's past. Q returns, keen to finish the trial he began in the pilot episode (and inadvertently hinting that maybe the whole thing was a pointless test, with humanity itself poised to evolve into the Q at some point in the distant future) and Picard has to find a way of allowing humanity to survive. The episode is rammed so full of plot holes that it doesn't even begin to make sense, but it's worth it to kick back and enjoy seeing the likes of Tasha Yar and Romulan Commander Tomalak again, as well as the futuristic, three-nacelled Enterprise cutting through Klingon warships like they're butter. A comprehensively superior way for TNG to bow out than its series of indifferent spin-off movies.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Chosen
Season 7, Episode 22, aired 20 May 2003

For the show that once blew up a high school as a form of cathartic release and commentary on growing up, going the whole hog and nuking the entire town was really the only way to top it.

When Buffy started, the title character was trying to avoid her role as the 'chosen one' whose destiny is to save the world. Seven seasons and several world-saving antics later (including at the cost of her own life, twice) the series, ironically, ends by doing exactly what Buffy wanted back in the beginning: by taking her status as the chosen one away by gifting the powers of the Slayer on hundreds of other girls all over the world. It's a surprisingly effective and clever ending given they couldn't kill her again or have her lose this final battle, this time against the very nature of evil itself.

As a finale the episode works on all sorts of other levels as well, with Willow finally moving on from her PTSD at the death of Tara and her resulting brush with evil in the previous season and Spike embracing his role as a hero. Only the death of Anya, which goes almost completely unnoticed by anyone apart from Xander, strikes a duff note. But the mistakes can be forgiven for those final shots of Sunnydale - the suburban American dream hiding the nightmare of the Hellmouth - being destroyed and the gang standing around wondering what to do next, the world their oyster. It's an ending ripe with possibilities, which the 'canon' Season 8 and 9 comics have really failed to live up to. Still, as endings go which wrap things up but leave room for more adventures, this is a very strong one.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: What You Leave Behind
Season 7, Episode 25, aired 2 June 1999

It's important for a finale to give emotional closure to the character arcs we have followed over the course of many years. But if you have 500 starships blowing the living crap out of one another, that helps too.

If TNG ended with a fun romp, its darker, superior spin-off DS9 ended with an epic tragedy. Hundreds of millions are killed as the Federation, Romulan Empire and Klingons join forces to destroy the Dominion forces in the Alpha Quadrant once and for all and the Dominion chooses to go down in a Götterdämmerung of fire and slaughter rather than surrender. Unlike the Picard-heavy TNG finale, the DS9 closer gives every character a moment to shine. Bashir and Dax finally (after seven years and numerous twists and turns, including one of them dying) get it together, O'Brien tires of the insanity of life on the frontier and gets to take his long-suffering family home and both Kira and Rom get promotions. But it's the way the show comes full circle to the events of the pilot episode, with Sisko fulfilling the role the Prophets laid out for him way back then, that satisfies the most. There's also the fact that the show doesn't sugar-coat its ending, with 'poor, simple' Garak getting the pardon he's been craving for so long, only to find his home is a blasted wasteland that will take decades to rebuild. And in the middle of everything, the producers even find time for a much-needed moment when the Klingon revelry in death and chaos repulses their Federation allies, an antidote for a franchise that has too-often depicted these sociopathic thugs as cuddly good guys.

All the more impressive is that Deep Space Nine, unlike it's near-rival Babylon 5, was not planned out ahead of time, yet the finale does a fantastic job of tying up all of the loose ends, making sure every character's fate is at least addressed and ending on the simple note of Jake looking out into space for his missing father. Its elegance makes the absolute ham-fisted butchering of the finales to Voyager and Enterprise years later look all the worse.

Babylon 5: Sleeping in Light
Season 5, Episode 22, aired 25 November 1998

Babylon 5: our last, best hope for pizza. I may have misread that.

Five years in the planning, Babylon 5's final episode is a quiet coda to everything that came before. Set twenty years after the rest of the series, it touches base with most of the characters and shows how their lives were changed by their experiences fighting the Shadows and Psi Corps, and what impact that had on them as people. Whilst the focus is on Sheridan's dying days as he knows the end foretold by Lorien has come, there's also time to touch base with the rest of the cast (including actors tragically no longer with us, such as Richard Biggs and Jeff Conaway) and see if it was indeed "all worth it". It's a brave and atypical choice to end the series this way, with showrunner and head (and, for most of its run, only) writer J. Michael Straczynski being the guy to turn the lights off ahead of the station's final demolition.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: Sozin's Comet Part 4: Avatar Aang
Season 3, Episode 21, aired 19 July 2008

Okay, he's 13 and she's 15 (there's a Weird Al Yankovic song in there somewhere), but he's just defeated Mark Hamill in epic single combat, so arguably justified.

Over the course of its three seasons, the anime-influenced animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender dedicated itself to telling just one story, one with a definitive beginning, middle and end. This final episode delivers what the previous sixty episodes had been building towards: the showdown between Aang and Fire Lord Ozai. The episode delivers on that score, with a magical battle that outclasses all the others in the show to date. Simultaneously Katara has to take down Azula in her own epic battle, and Sokka and his friends have to somehow destroy an entire Fire Nation sky armada before it can wipe out the Earth Kingdom. Cue enormous explosions and lots of destruction. But in the end it's the characters fates which are more important and the decision to end the series in Iroh's tea shop is an inspired one. It's a rich and satisfying ending that no amount of M. Night Syamalaning or inconsistent spin-offs can weaken.

Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes
Season 3, Episode 8, aired 21 May 2010

"Pub?" "The interdimensionally weird one down the road that acts as the crossroads between life and death? Okay."

From the moment Sam Tyler was hit by a car in 2006 and somehow woke up in 1973, viewers were on the edge of their seat wondering what the hell was going on. Life on Mars itself had a strange and surreal ending which was a bit too open-ended, explained when a year later we got the spin-off/sequel series Ashes to Ashes, in which Alex Drake finds herself joining Team Gene Hunt in the 1980s. Over the course of three seasons Ashes to Ashes stepped out from its predecessor's shadow to deliver a different spin on the same premise. The final season, in which the team are hounded by the devil-like Jim Keats, perhaps steps a little bit too far into the territory of the weird and surreal, but the final episode offers a logical explanation for everything that's happened. It's also a depressing, heartbreaking end for many of these characters...but it is lightened in those final moments as Gene Hunt delivers his spiel to his latest time-slipped recruit and David Bowie's "Heroes" blasts into life over the end credits.

And to my favourite:

Angel: Not Fade Away
Season 5, Episode 22, aired 19 May 2004

"Let's go to Caprica, Agents of SHIELD, Bones and Person of Interest. Sorry, work. I meant to say work."
There are several reasons why I find Buffy's spin-off to be better than its parent show: the presence of a story arc spanning the whole series (as opposed to just one season), the theme of redemption and consequence that is much more devastatingly explored and its more adult view of the world, being a show about taking responsibility for your own decisions rather than moving through adolescence and finding yourself. It's also a show with more weight, with a gradually building sense of doom really from the moment Doyle buys the farm halfway through Season 1. By the end of Season 5 our characters have been, in some cases literally, to hell and back. Some of the heroes have fallen along the way - Cordelia is dead and Fred, her body possessed by the demon Illyria, is gone and almost certainly not coming back - but the threat remains as it has done from the first episode: the demonic law firm Wolfram and Hart. In the final episode of the series Angel and his comrades take down the Circle of the Black Thorn, thereby declaring war against the Senior Partners. No longer willing to tolerate Angel's defiance, the Senior Partners unleash the armies of hell on Los Angeles. The series ends with Angel pondering that he's always wanted to kill a dragon. "Let's go to work."

It's an ending that's amusing for being simply way beyond the show's budget to deliver properly, so cutting away before the fight begins is the only way it can be done. It also thematically makes sense: Angel was always about the fight and the struggle for what is right, no matter the odds. It's a battle with casualties. Wesley falls along the way and Lorne, though still alive, has his soul irreparably damaged when he coldly executes Lindsey on Angel's orders. There is also hope. Whilst the odds may be against our heroes (several thousand versus four), it helps that two of them are undead vampires with centuries of experience in combat and one is, er, a dark goddess from beyond the dawn of time. The After the Fall comic indeed suggests they are victorious...at the cost of Gunn being turned into a vampire and Los Angeles descending into the pits of hell (but who'd notice?).

But as a way of ending a series without either being too saccharine or taking the mickey out of the audience's intelligence, Angel finds just the right balance, and is thus my favourite TV show finale of all time. This week.

Bubbling Under

The BBC's Merlin (2008-12) is never going to be winning prizes for greatest genre show of all time, but it was a moderately entertaining show throughout its run that kept up the tension over whether Merlin's magical abilities would be discovered quite well. The final episode focuses on the revelation of Merlin's abilities to the mortally wounded Arthur and the resulting fall-out from that discovery. Perhaps they should have revealed it earlier, but basing the finale around the revelation and the impact on the characters was a good choice. The final scene showing the ancient Merlin hiking around modern-day Glastonbury, not so much.

Meanwhile, the short-lived Space: Above and Beyond (1996) may have been pretty terrible for most of its run before a late-season improvement in quality, but its final episode is striking enough that it's still talked about today. Several characters are apparently killed off, others are trapped on a planet and only two of the heroes survive to get back to their bunks. It's a surprisingly bleak ending. Even if the show had returned, it would be hard to see how they'd have pulled everyone out of the fire without it being seriously unconvincing.

On a lighter note, the final episode of Spaced (1999-2001) got the gang back together after splitting them up and ended on a high. The combination of Take That's "Back For Good" and a main battle tank is particularly memorable. A scene retroactively added later on confirming that Tim and Daisy do get it on and have a family is a little too on-the-nose, but the original episode ended in a way that was just perfect.

The short-lived Ultraviolet (1998) - aka The Show That Gave Unto The World Idris Elba - was brilliance incarnate, but the fact that writing, producing and directing it almost killed the creator meant that the planned second season was never made. This was almost certainly for the best, as the show's final episode is now a note-perfect battle of wills between the leader of the Code Vs (vampires) and the main characters which gradually intensifies as the vampires' true plans to trigger nuclear armageddon to darken the skies for centuries to come - obviously to their benefit - is revealed. Amazing stuff, especially when Stephen Moyer's vampire character is resurrected and promptly flees to the set of True Blood.

Finally, and a close contender for this list, was the final episode of Quantum Leap. For a show so resolutely optimistic and hopeful to end on such a downer - Sam Beckett never returns home and never sees his friend Al again - was an unexpected, brave choice. This was controversial at the time, with the feeling that showrunner Donald Bellisario was being too cruel to the characters after five years of putting them through the wringer. But seen from twenty years down the line, this was an appropriate choice, allowing Sam to go on and help thousands more people.

The Wertzone Special Award For The Episode That Should Have Been The Last One Of Its Series

Four years of fleeing across the galaxy only to get irradiated to death in what briefly appears to be Brooklyn? Best. Ending. Ever.

Battlestar Galactica: Revelations

If the rebooted Battlestar Galactica had ended with its mid-Season 4 finale, it would probably still rank as one of the greatest SFF shows of all time (despite a seriously below-par third and fourth season). Revelations was not only the best episode of the series in more than a year, it delivered the single most gut-punching SF cliffhanger since the ending of Blake's 7. The 30,000+ survivors of humanity, chased halfway across the galaxy by marauding robotic murderers, finally reach their long-dreamt-of safe haven, the thirteenth colony of Earth, only to find it a burned-out radioactive ruin. The final tracking shot takes in our speechless characters' reactions as they gaze across the river at the obliterated remnants of their hopes and dreams and abruptly cuts to black.

Sadly, BSG came back with another half-season of increasingly bizarre and bemusing plot turns until it turns out that it was all a fake-out and there was another planet called Earth our characters finally stumble across thanks to mystical magic music pumped out across the galaxy by some disembodied super-intelligence via the resurrected ghost-thing of a regular character, resulting in the colonisation of 'our' Earth 150,000 years in the past. Except they then had to explain why the fossil record shows that humankind evolved here on Earth, resulting in some quite ridiculous hoop-jumping that feels like the writers are simply taking the piss out of the audience's intelligence. Going out on the note that Japanese robots may one day destroy us sent exactly the wrong message, whilst going to the "All Along the Watchtower" well for the fifteen hundredth time that season was just an indulgence too far.

That just goes to show that you can have too much of a good thing. But the other shows on this list show you can have an ending that is satisfying, wraps things up and remains true to the spirit of the series. Let's hope that some of our present-day big hitters, like Game of Thrones and Orphan Black, get resolutions that are as satisfying.


Wastrel said...

I'd bump Ultraviolet's ending up into the top ten. The series was all interesting, and sometimes great, but for me it was the way everything tied together in the final episode that made it all worth while - get it wrong, and the whole season would have seemed like an over-ambitious exercise that never really had a point. Get it right, and it's an all-time classic.

On episodes that should have been the end: I haven't seen the fifth season of Angel yet, for some reason, but I sort of wish it had ended with the end of the third. Now THAT's an episode makes the Blake's 7 ending seem optimistic!

- Cordelia's boyfriend leaves her
- Lorne has enough and buggers off to Vegas
- Wesley is seduced to the dark side
- Cordelia and Angel get to the point of declaring they love each other, but can't, because:
- Cordelia spontaneously "ascends into heaven" against her will
- Angel is betrayed by his own son, and locked up to spend eternity starving in a small box at the bottom of the ocean


Bob/Sally said...

ST: TNG & DS9 . . . Buffy & Angel . . . great series finales for sister shows that managed to do something completely different (and satisfying) with their conclusions.

I completely forgot about Space: Above & Beyond, but that was a great end for a sadly under-appreciated show.

I know it's still somewhat controversial, and a lot of fans hate the ambiguity, but I thought the last episode of Quantum Leap was phenomenal. Those final words (Dr. Sam Becket never returned home) are not only powerful, but fitting. Yes, it's dark, but Sam made the ultimate sacrifice, and I like the bravery in that too.

d.orin said...

what's your take on HBOs Carnivale? I admit the ending wasn't what I had hoped for, yet I'd say it was more than satisfactory for such a series.

Nobody said...

no farscape? you have no credibility, imo. :-P

Adam Whitehead said...

Never seen CARNIVALE. It's on The List. I started watching FARSCAPE but gave up six or seven episodes in. I've heard it got a lot better later on, so I'll get around to it one day.

Anonymous said...

Chiming in on Farscape. Adam, I also believed all the hype and word of mouth, but it's really quite bad. I watched the first two seasons twice (starting again, hoping to give it another chance), but nope, it's a campy, silly show with few saving graces.

Jonesy said...

Farscape gets really good in the final seven episodes of the first season (it's like a Blake's 7 that is a lot weirder and more experimental) but the final series episode is an unintentional finale and thus doesn't work as one and the telemovie subsequently made to wrap things up, while good, can be divisive to fans.

Carnivale's finale was perfect right up to the last three minutes that provided a twist to have been resolved in the third season that never happened. It is as frustrating as Twin Peaks' excellent finale in that way.

Patrick Sanders said...

Interesting. I would rate the BtVS finale as one of the all time WORST.