Sep 06 2013
Let it be said: the art of producing a sure-fire two-part cliffhanger in science fiction television is an absolute thing of beauty. And, despite what you might think, it definitely ain’t easy.
The truth is as long as there have been television shows, producers have been wise to utilize every trick up their sleeves in order to not only maintain but also increase the Nielsen ratings of their respective programs. Factor in the added dimension that goes hand-in-hand with sci-fi shows – that they tend to be relatively more expensive than the average hour of television – and is it any wonder that audiences aren’t treated to truly legendary two-part stories as often as we would like?
I’m quickly reminded of the story Patrick Stewart shared with audiences at this past April’s Fathom Event for STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION fans. (I recounted it here at the time, but allow me to refresh everyone’s memories.) Not long after production wrapped on “The Best of Both Worlds” and the episode had aired in syndication, Stewart was tooling around Hollywood in his convertible. He pulled up to a stoplight, and, after a brief delay, another car eased in next to him. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the occupants of that car glancing over, studying him, just then realizing that he was caught in traffic with a veritable carload of obvious Trekkers. Politely, he glanced over, only to be surprised by the dour expression of the older female in the passenger seat.
“You ruined our summer!” she cried over at him.
Obviously, Stewart knew she was referring to the slam-bang cliffhanger ending that was the highlight of “Both Worlds, Part 1.” Our beloved captain Jean-Luc Picard had been handily Borgified, and here he was hell-bent on eradicating all of Starfleet. All that stood between his Borg Cube and the path to Sector 001 (aka Earth’s Sol System) was his former first officer, Commander William Riker. Picard – now Locutus – issued his ultimatum; and what did Riker have to say to that?
“Mr. Worf … fire.”
It wasn’t just the stellar writing that brought TNG fans to the edge of their seat and left them there for months; it was the personal stakes of the characters and their entire world screenwriter Michael Piller happened to work into his brilliant, labyrinthine plot. Here was our hero – Captain Picard – now turned into the perfect villain. Here was his first officer and friend – Riker – caught between a rock and a hard place but finally – once and for all – willing to rise up, take the center seat, and make a truly unimaginable decision: unleash a secret weapon on the Borg and sacrifice his mentor.
However, focusing only on the cliff audiences were brought to the edge of really dismisses all of the great smaller moments that first 45-48 minutes had packed into it. And there really are dozens. If you haven’t watched it lately, then I encourage you to do so. I’ll bet you find yourself pleasantly surprised with how well its dynamics still hold up today.
I won’t even address the controversial letdown many fans felt Part 2 delivered because, for my tastes, I thought it was just fine. Besides, nothing was ever going to overcome that blockbuster first hour despite what you may think today. Great television remains great television in spite of whatever fan-fiction rewrites the web will offer up.
“The Best of Both Worlds” remains the highwater mark all of TV Trek needed to live up to, and, as hard as the writers of TNG, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and even the lackluster Enterprise tried, nothing really comes close in all of Trekdom. I could go on for hours about the good, the bad, and the ugly of the other attempts, but I’d rather branch out a wee bit to point out a few other two-parters from other franchises I believe give “Both Worlds” a run for its money.
In its original airing, I was never much a fan of Ronald Moore’s Battlestar Galactica. (I think it plays vastly better on DVD than it does in episodic TV.) Oh, the production quality was stellar, and most of the characters were pretty interesting. I guess it’s just that at some point fairly early on I tired of the idea of the final incarnation of the Cylons being the same as humans. Granted, this was a plot device that didn’t get a lot of lip service in the show’s early adventures; still, it was something that kept creeping up in the back of my mind as the trials of the last tribe of humans became more ‘operatic’ in nature.
“Kobol’s Last Gleaming” is an oddity of sorts so far as TV sci-fi goes mostly because it’s a two-parter finale that still sets up a massive cliffhanger, one with arguably as much emotional punch and polish as Trek’s “Both Worlds” scenario. The fleet is on the precipice of a discovery that could point them toward salvation – toward Earth – when suddenly everything begins to unravel culturally instead of socially. The government is toppled by a virtual military coup (maybe that’s a bit harsh, but it’s certainly an apt description of the dynamic); and into this chaos audiences learn definitively that a beloved character – Boomer – is indeed a Cylon.
Then – in the most surprising turn of events – she shoots Adama.
On his own bridge!
And audiences were left hanging throughout the recess for months!
I can remember, at the time, how a small group of die-hard Internet fans were mildly disappointed with the big finish of “Last Gleaming,” implying that Galactica had merely shamelessly borrowed the whole “Who shot JR?” canard of the popular night-time soap, Dallas, decades earlier. I don’t think those fans were watching all that closely because, if Adama was JR in their analogy, we knew who shot him. It was the fact that he had been shot – him, the anchor of all things battlestarry-eyed – that delivered a punch to our guts.
It was nothing short of fantastic.
Or is that fraktastic?
The only other time I’ve personally felt sci-fi TV rose to the challenge in delivering the kind of emotional investment that propels a program to greatness was with the season 2 finale for SyFy’s incredible redheaded stepchild of a show – Farscape.
“Die Me, Dichotomy” is the kind of episode that requires established viewing (or, at least, understanding) of what came before; otherwise, there’s no impact to its events. In short, astronaut John Crichton’s sanity has been slowly draining away due to a deadly neural chip implanted in him previous by the dastardly Scorpius. All this time, Crichton and the lovely Aeryn Sun have been growing closer and closer emotionally to one another, a reality that’s been equally difficult for them given the fact that he’s mostly a fish-out-of-water in a new universe and she’s been raised since birth (basically) to be only passionate about soldiering. Finding one another – much less romantically ‘investing’ in one another – has been an uphill battle.
The premise of “Dichotomy” is that all of these various threads involving the passengers aboard Moya – a living spaceship – are intersecting in ways entirely beyond their control. When Crichton finally learns that there’s a physician on a nearby ice planet who can remove the neural chip and, thus, free him of some very dark, murderous impulses, he’s quick to act. The only problem is that the chip acts first, forcing the man to steal a ship and flee. Aeryn goes after him, an act that brings the two into inevitable aerial combat against one another, and the female Peacekeeper pays the ultimate price: she dies trying to save the man she’s only just learned how to love.
Emotionally eviscerated, Crichton demands an immediate operation to have the chip removed, no matter of the consequences to him, his brain, or his body. However, before he can be stabilized by the doctor, Scorpius appears, retrieves the chip, and leaves the screaming astronaut without all of his faculties on the operating table.
Fade to black …
Like “Both Worlds,” “Dichotomy” only raised the stakes to the point of total combustion. Its follow-up – Part 2 is called “Season of Death” – stylistically resolves the cliffhanger, but the significant difference in the Farscape universe from the galaxy of Trek is that nothing comes without consequence. There are happy endings, but they come at a price – a huge price – and that’s only going to force characters to think twice before wishing what comes next.
Those of my top three sci-fi cliffhangers. Given the emotional investment, I think it’s easy to see why they’re not only great hours of television but also they’re just damn good writing: they take our beloved characters to Hell and back again, encouraging them to drag the audience along for the ride.
What are yours?
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