It’s a great time to be a fan of TV science fiction. Easily, the two finest dramas on American television are Lost and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, both so-called “genre” shows, which means that they are best enjoyed by science fiction fans.
Galactica, a preternatural philosophical powerhouse of a show is nearly done. As I write this, a mere three episodes remain, at the end of which all of the show’s intriguing questions are supposed to be answered. Lost, meanwhile, has another season or two to go, I believe, but is also well over half over.
This got me thinking about finales. In particular, what are the finest series finales in the history of televised English-language science fiction?
First, a word about terminology. In Britain, a “series” is what we in North America call a “season”. Our “series” refers to the full run of the TV show, throughout all its seasons. I am using the American terminology. By series finale, I mean the last episode of that show that was ever shown.
Here is my list of the top five best television SF series finales. Be warned that this list is ridden with spoilers:
5. Blake’s Seven
Pretty much unknown to North American viewers, Blake’s 7 was one of Britain’s finest skiffy offerings. Airing in the magnificent 1970s, it told the tale of average citizen Roj Blake, who found himself caught up in a rebellion against the evil galactic federation and falsely accused of paedophilia. Blake gathers a team of compatriots who chance upon an advanced alien spaceship, and commences a series of adventures that sees them edge closer to finding a way to bring down the federation, all the while bickering amongst themselves the way that only Brits know how to do.
Blake himself departed the show after only 2 seasons, but the adventure continued for a total of four legendary years. The brilliance of its finale saw the return of Blake in a promise of impending and unexpected triumph for the surviving team members…. all dashed in a moment of distrust that resulted in all the members murdered by the evil federation. The bad guys win, and no one saw it coming, even in this darkest of dark shows.
4. Quantum Leap
QL employed a very simple plot: Dr Samuel Beckett is “leaping” across the years of his lifespan, inhabiting or possessing the bodies of seemingly random individuals in the process. With him is a holographic projection of his friend Al Calavicci, who informs him at every leap about his mission, usually involving the “setting right” of the inhabited body’s life.
The show began as light, comedic drama with both a skiffy and quasi-religious twist. But its finale was unexpectedly a profound tear jerker. In it, Sam leaps into a paranormal bar where everyone appears to be “leaping”. The bartender is a godlike figure who informs Sam that he will never stop leaping, and that the missions will only get more difficult. It is never said outright, but I think a suggestion is made that Sam is actually an angelic figure of some sort.
In Sam’s last mission shown, he leaps back into the life of his friend Al and fixes his failed marriage. The final text shown before the credits rolled: “Dr. Samuel Beckett never returned home.” A very sad ending for an otherwise uplifting show.
3. Classic Battlestar Galactica / Galactica 1980
Including this steaming turd of a show may shock some people. Yes, the original BSG was third rate shlock at best, which nonetheless captured the imagination of a skiffy-starved generation. Its atrocious follow-up, the impoverised Galatica 1980 was an insult to anyone who gave this show a lingering chance. It really is a wonder that the series’ “re-imagining” managed to render one of the finest dramatic TV shows in history, the current BSG incarnation.
Nevertheless, the final episode of Galactica 1980 (and therefore of the original BSG) was a little something called “The Return of Starbuck.” In it, Dirk Benedict’s original version of the gun-slinging, cigar-smoking fighter pilot crashes on a desert planet and is all alone with a crashed Cylon ship filled with three broken Cylons.
A space age Robinson Crusoe, he reassembles one of the robots to be his companion, and sets out to build an escape ship to rejoin the Galactica. Then, weirdly, a mysterious pregnant woman arrives and convinces Starbuck that he must protect her and “his” child. Evil Cylons arrive, there’s a fight, Starbuck’s robot companion is seemingly destroyed, Starbuck himself appears to suffer a very serious –probably fatal– wound, and the woman escapes in his makeshift pod and manages to find the Galactica. But she is not in it when the ship is opened; only her child is. The grows to become “Dr Zee”, the creepy genius child who would lead the Galactica to Earth, and who narrates the opening segments of this episode.
2. Star Trek: The Next Generation
No one is going to argue that TNG is one of the best TV skiffy shows ever produced. Finally, Gene Roddenberry had the time and money to do Star Trek the way he’d always wanted. Its finale, “All Good Things“, is considered by some to be one of the best of a series of excellent shows. Entertainment Weekly listed it as #5 in the show’s top 10 episodes.
I almost ranked “All Good Things” as #1 in this list for one reason alone: unlike other finales, this one didn’t try too hard to be grand. It remained, at its core, a good TNG episode. We can watch it in reruns and appreciate the sadness of its finality, but also enjoy it as a stand-alone episode, something that can’t be said for the #1 entry in this list.
“All Good Things” tells of Captain Picard’s consciousness jumping across three temporal states: the present, the past (to the first episode of the series) and a couple of decades into the future. Throughout it all, his persistent omnipotent guide Q is there, this time with a seriousness we’d not come to expect. Q’s gravitas is what makes this episode important. His attitude suggests that consequences await the Enterprise’s crew as a result of any actions they may or may not take.
The show’s final moments are bittersweet, as Captain Picard joins his officers for a poker game for the very first time, and regrets not having done so before. It shows us that though we will not see the crew again on TV, they have nonetheless grown closer together, and have many more adventures to which to look forward.
1. Babylon 5
B5 is one of the most important skiffy TV shows in history. It was the first to challenge Star Trek for its TV throne, and its brazenness opened the door for a host of other science fiction offerings on the little screen. It was also the very first show in which an entire season of episodes was written by the same person, creator J. Michael Straczynski (JMS), and one of the first shows to be entirely arc-driven. That is, every episode was a chapter in a TV novel that would last 5 years, no more.
Today, arc shows are the norm. Lost, BSG and pretty much every top drama on TV eschew the standalone episode model. But B5 was the first to embrace the arc wholeheartedly.
Yes, its acting was atrocious at times, the dialogue ridiculously space-opera-ish, and some of the technobabble and special effects laughable. But the core story was intriguing, and its heart undeniable.
The final episode, the sublime “Sleeping In Light“, was written and filmed a full year before it was aired, because it was uncertain whether the show would be granted its 5th and final season; so the finale had to be ready to go, just in case.
Nominated for science fiction’s highest honour, the Hugo Award, “Sleeping In Light” takes place 20 years after the events of B5. All the battles have been fought and won, and all the characters have moved on to live new lives. But a lingering truth from the series was left unexplored: that the protagonist, John Sheridan, had agreed to reduce his remaining lifespan to 20 years in exchange for time to fight the war that served as B5‘s centrepiece.
“Sleeping In Light” is about the final day of John Sheridan’s life, of how he says goodbye to his world, and how his friends deal with his death. It’s a tearjerker, no matter how many times you watch it, made more so by the moving musical score, and the linking of Sheridan’s mysterious demise with the decommissioning of the Babylon station that gave the show its name.
It is clear that this finale was envisioned years in advance. As JMS himself stated about the episode, ” I always have the ending before I begin writing the beginning.”
Do you have other ideas of what constitutes a good finale? Please leave them in the comments below.