The 7 possible ways to end sci-fi series like Battlestar or Lost

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

These are apocalyptic times ... dark days filled with omens. Newspapers bring us tales of giant companies collapsing, jobs vaporizing, money disappearing, ice caps melting, Octomom explaining.

Even newspapers themselves are dying.

NBC's acclaimed and popular series ER, created by Michael Crichton, ended a 15-year run. CBS's insanely long-running soap The Guiding Light is dying after 57 years on the network. (Not to mention 15 earlier years as an NBC radio soap. It's possible GL was originally a narrative scrawled on the wall of a cave.)

Last week, Tor publishers announced that Robert Jordan's epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time will conclude with a trilogy authored by Brandon Sanderson, based on Jordan's notes. The first volume, number 12 in the series as a whole, is titled The Gathering Storm and will be published this November.

We are told that all good things must end. (Which makes me wonder if all bad things must go on, but then I look at the unpleasant Knowing and take heart in its termination. Sorry, this entire column should carry a spoiler warning.)

A few of you may have noticed that Battlestar Galactica aired a two-hour finale, a goodbye to Adama, Starbuck, Roslin, Baltar, Cylons, the whole crowd after four seasons.

My unscientific survey of various sites, blogs and colleagues tells me that the response to Ronald D. Moore's script is ... mixed. Many, or most, of those in my survey liked the first hour, and so did I, though it was not conclusive in any way.

But the second hour ... not so much.

This is a classic challenge for a sci-fi writer—how do you create an End Time?

For any storyteller in any genre or medium, there are several options.

First, the Happy Ending. E.T. gets to go home. The Microsoft-based aliens in Independence Day suffer terminal disk failure. This is an attractive choice for a writer, since it allows your audience to like you.

There is the Modified Happy Ending, as in Silent Running, where Earth is still paved over and the human hero is dead, but the little robots will go on, nurturing greenery ...

There's the Interrupted Ending—the best recent example for me is The Sopranos, where conflicted mobster Tony S. sits down to dinner with his family and ... well, that's it.

There is the Unhappy Ending—Thelma and Louise.

Modified Unhappy Ending. Casablanca. Deep Impact. Bad things happen, but good will come of it.

A variation on the Unhappy or Happy Ending is the Ironic or Big Surprise Ending—Planet of the Apes, both versions. Many, if not most, Twilight Zones.

There's also the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Ending—2001. The Abyss.

Most of these examples are for movies, which are usually standalones, at least in conception. (Planning for sequels begins the day the gross receipts come in.)

Television series demand more commitment. In a single season you're in for 22 hours aired over a period of seven months. A successful series runs three to seven years at least ... by the time the loyal viewer reaches the finale, she knows the world and the people in it ... and often has very firm ideas about what will happen to them after the last fadeout.

I have seen finales that were very satisfying. "Sleeping in Light," the ending of Babylon 5, a leap 20 years beyond series end, with a dying Sheridan witnessing the decommissioning of the station. Quantum Leap's last episode.

And "All Good Things" from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which magically called back to characters and events from the first episode. (The writers? Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore.)

Of course, many series never get that chance. They are simply told, sorry, you've been canceled ... usually with no advance notice. The original Star Trek had no "final" episode . . . though one could have imagined an end to its "five-year mission." The family on Lost in Space never got home.

And, given the plans for prequels and sidestream BSG events, it's entirely possible that the disappointing finale will be revealed in a whole new way—just as Joss Whedon was able to illuminate lingering questions from his series Firefly in the sequel feature film Serenity.

Yes, Michael Cassutt the viewer was disappointed in the BSG finale. I couldn't buy the rationale for discarding a fleet of starships in favor of a hunter-gatherer existence. (Where will Adama get his next bottle?) I was vastly disappointed in the conclusion to the Starbuck story. (How many types of angels is a series allowed?) And so on.

But I also ask myself—was a universally satisfying finale even possible?

The acclaimed novelist, short story and script writer George R.R. Martin maintains that sci-fi and fantasy shouldn't be required to "end." He thinks the emphasis on "a central mystery" is misplaced. "You either have some obvious secret that the audience will guess by the third episode... or you find yourself piling on mystery after mystery in order to keep it alive. After four seasons, no one is going to be satisfied.

"On NYPD Blue, the characters were cops. There was no big secret about their world, or the characters. There was no big reveal in the last episode about Andy Sipowicz—he didn't turn out to be a robot."

Which gets to the heart of the challenge confronting Ronald D. Moore:

A sci-fi or fantasy series, whether films, television or books, is not just about characters ... it's about an entire world.

And hanging an entire series on the reveal of a central mystery—or simply turning out the lights—is almost guaranteed to leave your audience grumbling.

It was Mark Twain who wrote, in ending Tom Sawyer, "When one writes a novel about grown people, he knows exactly where to stop—that is, with a marriage; but when he writes of juveniles, he must stop where best he can."

Ernest Hemingway, in Death in the Afternoon, wrote that "All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you."

Look at what we're saying about Lost and its impending finale, a year from now. How the hell will they explain that island?

That is the looming question. It's not "Will Jack and Kate find love?" "Will Sun and Jin be reunited, and if so, how will that go?" "How will Charles Widmore's empire survive the economic meltdown?" ("Sorry, love, I'm only able afford one mercenary....")

This is where sci-fi shows run into trouble. See Bryan Fuller's interview on SCI FI Wire April 1, regarding Heroes' creative missteps, which can be summarized like this:

Plot trumps character.

As long as that's what sci-fi writers do—or are forced to do—End Times will continue to be unsatisfying.

Michael Cassutt has extensive experience with interrupted and unhappy endings, mostly in his professional life. He has written numerous teleplays, books and articles, as well as short stories—his "The Last Apostle" is forthcoming in Asimov's SF Magazine (July).