Television series are designed, pretty much, with the hope that they last forever.
No one involved with the production of a TV series wants to ponder too much or too deeply about how a given program might end because the name of the game in Hollywood is to run for years and years….or at least 100 episodes, for syndication purposes.
And yet, across the long years, cult television has nonetheless provided the audience some utterly remarkable endings, or final episodes. Some of these goodbyes have made dedicated viewers weep; other endings have proven terrifying…and inescapably dark.
Not that long ago, cult TV series usually shuffled off the air without any kind of definitive ending or closing punctuation whatsoever.
We never saw the Robinsons get home in Lost in Space. We don’t know how the five year mission of The Enterprise finally ended, on Star Trek. We never found Sanctuary with Logan, or Evoland with Varian and his friends in the Bermuda Triangle. The Alphans never discovered that elusive new planet to call home on Space:1999, and we don’t know if Buck Rogers ever found those “lost tribes” of Earth.
Still, in some senses, those older programs that ended without any narrative closure are really the lucky ones. Lately, the series finales of popular serialized programs such as Battlestar Galactica, Alias, and Lost have only ended up polarizing viewers and creating schisms, at least to to some degree, in fan affection.
When there’s the promise of a “plan” at the beginning of a journey and that promise is repeated week-in and week-out for years, audiences do expect a pay off; and they expect it to be one that plays fair, and make sense. I think expectations are pretty high for serialized programs, and they are generally difficult to meet.
After gazing across some fifty years of cult television initiatives, the titles listed below are my choices for the “ten greatest series endings” in history. Some of these selections were not meant to be final chapters at all; they were but cliff-hangers to be resolved…but the resolution never came.
Contrarily, some of my choices were indeed designed as last chapters, and function ably (and emotionally) as such. Closure comes, and it satisfies.
Another selection below is merely ambiguous. That doesn’t make it a hedge; it just makes it delightfully opaque, in the tradition of the preceding series.
My ten choices are based on several criteria: how well the endings represent the nature of the series; whether they challenge perceptions, if they are inventive (but consistent), and how artfully they are executed.
Now, given that this is a list involving endings of TV series, many, many spoilers are discussed below. Please be aware of that fact going forward…and read accordingly.
10. V: The Series: “The Return” (1985)
In 1985, the NBC series V battled the CBS powerhouse Dallas in the ratings on Friday nights. It was a losing proposition, and the sci-fi series about reptilian alien visitors invading Earth faced an uncertain future (and eventual cancellation).
But for the season’s final — and series-ending — nineteenth episode, writers David Abramowitz and Donald R. Boyle threw what amounted to a remarkable Hail Mary Pass. The Leader (of the Visitors) came to Earth to declare an abrupt end to inter species hostilities and to marry the Star Child, Elizabeth.
So “The Return’s” final scene witnessed a mesmerized Elizabeth — in wedding gown — stepping aboard the unseen Leader’s shuttle, while the evil Diana (Jane Badler) informed Lt. James (Judson Scott) that she had secretly placed a time bomb aboard.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s human lover, Kyle (Jeff Yagher) stowed away on the self-same shuttle, hoping to be reunited with Elizabeth, the love of his life.
“The Return” and V: The Series ended on that crazy, cliffhanging note, with the camera majestically retracting, up, up and away — forever — from the series leads.
What did the Leader really look like behind that glowing light on the shuttle? What were his true motives in coming to Earth? Would Diana’s violent plan succeed (killing the Leader, Elizabeth and Kyle?) And what about true love? Would it triumph over the desperate need for interplanetary peace?
You can’t get much more epic than that.
To this day, the breathless cliffhanger ending of V has never been resolved. Yet “The Return” understood something vital about V that other installments of the one-season wonder failed to capitalize on: it was a soap opera played out on a grand level, with only modest sci-fi trappings. The best episodes all played on soap opera plotting and characterization, not on hard science concepts.
And by ending the program on that exaggerated, over-dramatic, gut-busting soap opera note, V reached an apex of storytelling audacity and drama that — for most of its run — eluded it.
9. Surface: “Episode 15” (2006)
“It’s a new world,” a stunned scientist, Laura Daughtery (Lake Bell) declared during the explosive denouement of NBC’s one-season cult-TV show, Surface in 2006.
This pronouncement was voiced from atop a church steeple as a dramatic CGI pullback revealed that Wilmington, North Carolina — and indeed the whole South East sea board — had been devastated and flooded in a “tele”-tsunami caused by the series’ giant, man-created sea monsters.
It was a portentous moment. The Earth had changed…forever (and yes, this change was clearly meant as a metaphor for global climate change).
By culminating on a catastrophic and apocalyptic note, Surface ultimately proved to have the courage of its nutty convictions. It would have been tempting to end on an easier, less-expensive note, one that wouldn’t turn the Earth’s surface upside down.
But instead, the writers and creators of this inventive short-lived series (The Pate brothers) chose the hard way, and followed-through with a narrative about the price of continuing damage to our environment.
Thus the series — in the grand tradition of the best science fiction — serves as a precautionary tale about ambitious scientists, corporate interests, and government agendas pushing ahead of personal responsibility.
The big loser, suggests Surface‘s ending…is the Earth herself.
And after the BP Oil Spill last year, who can really doubt that’s a true observation?
8. Mystery Science Theater 3000: “Diabolik” (1999)
In the final scene of Mystery Science Theater 3000’s last episode, Mike Nelson takes his place between ‘bots Crow and Servo…on a couch, in a tiny apartment.
Though finally free of the Forresters (Clayton and Pearl) forever — not to mention TV’s Frank, Bobo and Brain Guy — these former-denizens of the Satellite of Love nonetheless find themselves taking up old habits, namely skewering an old movie. They wanted to escape this fate for so long and yet, here they are. Doing the same thing; just in a new way.
In this case, that old movie being skewered is The Crawling Eye, the first movie that Joel, Crow and Servo riffed on when the series transitioned to Comedy Central a decade earlier. So the ending in “Diabolik” is both full-circle — back to the beginning — and also an acknowledgment that the experience of riffing on bad movies is universal.
You don’t need to be part of some mad scientist’s experiment to do it. You just need a sofa, two buddies, and a TV set.
This ending is funny because also — at least subtly — it playfully acknowledges there are better uses for your time. Mike and the Bots seem to be living on the edge of poverty here, barely scraping by. By comparison, the bot Gypsy — who ran the Satellite of Love and took care of everyone there — has become a multi-millionaire founder of a company, ConGypsCo. Sometimes actually making something, actually building something, is better than mocking the efforts of others.
So you have everything here — in these final moments — that made Mystery Science Theater 3000 special to so many people. There’s a tribute to how it all started; an ending that suggests the task of calling out bad movies is universal and will thus continue unabated, and even an embedded critique of the very process through which the show achieved such cult popularity.
7. Millennium: “Goodbye to All That” (1999)
Back in 1999, you probably couldn’t find many Millennium fans who were entirely satisfied with the way the series ended after three fantastic seasons.
And, at face value, the conclusion of the 67th episode is, in a sense, maddening. The Millennium Group has not been stopped or even outed, and Emma Hollis (Klea Scott) betrays her beloved mentor, Frank Black (Lance Henriksen).
Given this situation — plus the apparent murder of Peter Watts (Terry O’Quinn) — Frank takes his gifted and imperiled young daughter, Jordan (Brittany Tiplady) and hits the road…not to be seen again until an appearance on The X-Files.
And yet “Goodbye to All That” indisputably culminates with one of the most beautiful, expressive and artistic compositions I’ve ever seen on television.
It’s a picturesque view (pictured above) of Frank and Jordan fleeing for hopefully greener pastures. In Frank’s SUV, they are on a long road which symbolizes the road to the future. There are storm clouds roiling overhead, representing the terror of the approaching Millennium (and Y2K!), but also — importantly — sunlight is starting to break through one patch of clouds.
The sunlight, naturally, is representative of hope; the hope that people like Jordan (“we’re all shepherds,”) can construct a better world than the conspirators of the Millennium Group did.
Are all your questions about the Millennium Group and its nefarious plans answered here, in “Goodbye to all That?” Not in the slightest.
But this beautiful image, of a man and his daughter facing the open road, and a future of sunlight or storms (or likely both), is evocative of something telling about the human condition. We don’t always get all the answers we seek. Sometimes, we just have to look forward to better days; sometimes we just have to hope for sunshine.
By ending in vague, but visually gorgeous fashion, Millennium once again shares that important idea with its audience. We can’t tell you what’s going to happen folks; or even why things are like this. We’re just going to go out with this message; that tomorrow brings new possibilities. Good or bad. It’s up to you, and children like Jordan to determine the specifics.
6. Twin Peaks: “Episode 29”
David Lynch’s TV masterpiece Twin Peaks ends in the most horrifying, nihilistic fashion imaginable. I still get goosebumps thinking about it, actually. That bright beacon of goodness and integrity, Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) enters the sinister Black Lodge…and loses himself to Bob, the murderous spirit who killed Laura Palmer.
Much like the Millennium ending, Twin Peaks ends without much narrative closure and opts instead for a powerful, resonant image; though in this case it is one devoid of hope. After losing himself in the labyrinth of the Black Lodge, Bob-as-Cooper comes back to our world and bloodies his head against a mirror.
The mirror is seen cracked in spider-web formation; and the Bob Spirit form is seen in the twisted, broken reflection. This is order overturned; Evil triumphant. Bob-as-Cooper snickers and laughs, undiscovered. The Evil is loose in the world once more.
This is nightmare fodder, pure and simple, and it reflects one of Twin Peaks’ dark central themes. The program is all about a descent into total chaos and madness from which there is no escape and no reprieve. This evil — this chaos — gets inside of you (like it did Laura’s father; like it does Cooper) and it changes you. It destroys you from within and exposes you to madness, paralysis, loss of reason, stabilitiy and everything else that makes you human.
Knowing David Lynch’s thematic predilections, we could rightly expect nothing else but a dark ending for Twin Peaks. But this — Cooper lost, replaced by a monster — is just about the darkest ending conceivable.
5. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Chosen” (2003)
In Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s final episode, Spike (James Marsters) sacrifices his life to save the world, the “First” Evil and his army of super-vampires are defeated, the Hellmouth is destroyed, and the mystical powers of the Slayer are passed from one individual — Buffy — to hundreds of young women the globe around.
For the moment, forget about Spike’s long-deserved redemption and tragic goodbye (an achievement soon undone by Angel, Season Five), “Chosen” is a deeply affirmative message of individual and collective “girl power,” always a strong subtext of the series anyway, but a magnificent note to go out on.
It isn’t just Buffy who has the power to defeat Evil…but all womanhood too, or so this episode informs us. When a woman somewhere is beaten or teased, the episode reveals in emotional montage, she may summon that “Slayer” strength within…and fight back.
This is also an appropriate place to end the personal and heroic journey of Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar). For seven seasons, she has carried the “weight of the world” on her shoulders as The Slayer, and longed to lead a normal life. Now, finally, she has the opportunity to…live. “Just get to be like a person. How does that feel?” Faith asks her.
To Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s everlasting credit — since words would never do — Buffy doesn’t answer in dialogue. Instead, the camera pushes in for a lovely close-up of this iconic hero, and her forehead uncreases…the pressure finally slipping away, finally receding. Her lips curve upwards into the smallest, most gorgeous, most innocent smile.
Cut to black and it’s all over.
This hero has completed her journey, and Buffy’s reward is that she gets to finally rejoin the human race…and “Chosen” reminds us how precious that gift is.
4. The X-Files: “The Truth” (2002)
Those who endlessly repeat the myth that The X-Files somehow got tired and old in its last two seasons, obviously weren’t watching it during that spell to speak truthfully about it.
Case in point, the final episode of the series: “The Truth.” It not only featured a terrific demise for the most iconic villain of 1990s television, The Cigarette-Smoking Man, the episode also brilliantly summarized a decade’s worth of conspiracy clues into one relatively concise and clear-cut “courtroom” trial, as Mulder was prosecuted by the F.B.I..
But if you take away the brilliant narrative structure, what really makes “The Truth” sparkle so much is the final, intimate scene between partners and friends Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson).
Importantly, it takes place in a motel room, which Mulder notes is the same locale where he first tried to convince his new, inexperienced partner, about he world of aliens and government conspiracies. So, much like the MST3K denouement, there’s a “we’ve come full circle” aspect to this final episode. The end brings us back to the beginning.
But the importance of the final scene, finally, comes in what Mulder “wants to believe.” He speaks to Scully in earnest, beautiful, thoroughly human terms:
“I want to believe that the dead are not lost to us,” he says. “That they speak to us as part of something greater than us; greater than any alien force. And if you and I are powerless now, I want to believe that if we listen to what’s speaking, it can give us the power to save ourselves.”
This beautifully-worded, passionately-delivered monologue is the heart and soul of The X-Files: the universal human yearning to believe in something greater than what we see and hear around us everyday.
The truth is not out there, it’s in here…in the hearts of Mulder and Scully, and in the love they share for each other. That too tells us something important.
When you can’t believe for sure in Ultimate Knowledge; it helps to have someone you love very much who believes in you, and vice-versa. That’s the note that we leave this wonderful series on: that if Scully and Mulder can’t believe in UFOs, aliens, or even God, they can take solace that they believe in each other.
3. Sapphire and Steel: “Episode VI” (1981)
Sapphire & Steel shares with audiences another dark ending, and truly, those are the ones that often seem to resonate the most deeply. When a movie features an unhappy ending, it’s sad, of course, but there’s not truly the same level of investment involved (unless, it’s a series of movies, I would qualify).
But a TV series is something you live with week-in and week-out — that you invite into your very living room — and when it takes all of your built-up affection, admiration and enjoyment and then goes dark…
…well, the results can be incredibly powerful.
Sapphire and Steel is surely an example of that. This series concerns two alien investigators, Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) and Steel (David McCallum) as they attempt to repair breaches in the fabric of time and space. Dark, monstrous things seem to dwell outside this fabric, always trying to break in. Our titular characters, these enigmatic, human-appearing “Elements,” are reality’s last line of defense.
In the final serial, Sapphire and Steel arrive at a small cafe and gas station isolated in what seems to be a pocket universe; in outer space itself. They attempt to help the strange denizens trapped there, only slowly learning that unseen “Transient Beings” are operating against them.
Using her skills, Sapphire sees into the future and can see only desolate outer space. “Hours will become days and months. And years will become thousands of years. There is nothing but space.”
Later, Sapphire realizes she was seeing her own future with Steel. This strange “box” is their eternal prison. “This is the trap. This place is nowhere, and forever” explains an enemy.
The last shot of the episode — and thus the series — finds Steel and Sapphire gazing out a window onto infinity…their view forever here after. When the eerie theme music kicks in — and you realize this is the end — you’ll get a terminal case of the shivers.
Sapphire and Steel were so concerned with accomplishing their mission, with helping others, they could not see that they had walked into a trap…an eternal trap. They were someone else’s mission all along. And that is amazingly creepy.
2. The Prisoner: “Fall Out” (1968)
This final installment of The Prisoner is one of the strangest hours of science fiction television ever produced, and also one of the finest.
Our hero, Number Six (Patrick McGoohan) has been held in a mysterious Village for months, unable to escape. He has been interrogated, tortured and prodded by a series of men — always tagged “Number Two,” — but without success. He never breaks, and every one of his nemeses wants to know the reason behind his resignation from the British secret service. He…will…not…tell.
In “Fall Out,” The Prisoner ingeniously moves from the realm of the literal-minded to the metaphorical. The Prisoner survives an ordeal and finally meets Number One. Who is Number One? Himself, only wearing a monkey mask! The Prisoner then escapes from the Village and returns to London, a free man. Or so it appears.
Instead, however, the finale of The Prisoner visually suggests that Number Six remains imprisoned — as we all are — in a much larger “village:” the 20th century technological society of social security numbers, credit cards numbers and advanced data-gathering.
To get across this point, the word “Prisoner” even appears over an aerial image of London, as Number Six returns to his home, in his car. Make no mistake, this is not a simple title card. This is a “label.” The people who live here, like Number Six, are prisoners of the incipient Information Age.
In the closing shots of The Prisoner’s final episode, Number Six is depicted again in a familiar pose, racing his sporty car down an endless road. This is the self-same image that started the program some seventeen episodes earlier. The inference is that though he now sees himself as free, he is still a prisoner in a society that makes him a number in a computer, rather than a man.
The opening interrogation of The Prisoner, played each and every week during the opening credits becomes clear and newly meaningful with the advent of this finale, “Fall Out,” as well. When Number Six angrily asks “Who is Number One?” a voice responds “You are Number Six.”
This was thought by viewers to be an evasion, an establishment of McGoohan’s identity as Number Six.
To the contrary, after “Fall Out,” the answer to Number Six’s Question “Who is Number One,” is, simply, “You Are, Number Six.” Number Six is Number One. He’s imprisoning himself. He is both master and slave; both prisoner and jailer.
This is a perfect ending to a quirky series, and one that asks those of us who are supposedly “free” to question the level and depth of that freedom. Are we just numbers? If we aren’t free, who are our jailers?
1. Blake’s 7: “Blake” (1981)
The final episode of Blake’s 7 begins with Avon (Paul Darrow) and his group of space-age rebels on the run. Their only base has been destroyed, and so they take their ship, The Scorpio, in search of their lost leader, Blake to the lawless world of Gauda Prime.
The Scorpio is badly damaged in a space battle and it crashes on the frontier world, leaving Avon’s avengers without even modest transportation. They find Blake – scarred and battle-weary – but Avon fears that his old friend has sold him out to the Federation Security forces. Blake and Avon endure a final confrontation, and only one man survives.
Then, the Federation troops arrive to put down the insurrection once and for all, and there is a devastating shoot-out between Federation shocktroopers and the survivors of Avon’s squad
This fiery, violent finale takes the conclusion of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid one step further. There’s no polite freeze-frame here. No sir; not in this unsentimental, caustic (and brilliant) series. Instead, there’s a slow-motion shoot-out and the dramatis-personae you have grown to care for over the course of four years….go down hard.
And that’s after the stunning confrontation between Avon and Blake.
Basically, this is the Blake’s 7 episode where your hopes come crashing down. All throughout the series, audiences have followed Blake on his “impossible” dream to topple a space-spanning Federation. At times, you might have actually believed that Blake – the idealist and hero – can accomplish this. Even though it seems an impossible task.
The final episode “Blake,” makes you right your expectations. You were deluded, buddy. There’s no way this thing is going to have a happy ending.
In fact, the strange smile that forms on Avon’s face just before the end of the episode may well be his final understanding of this fact. His bemused recognition that he too — the ultimate cynic — bought into a futile dream. You don’t fight City Hall and win. You might disrupt it for a while, but you’re just not going to beat a Galactic Federation.
Blake’s 7 remains true to its story line by expressing this idea with “Blake,” a ballsy, gut-wrenching, truly apocalyptic finale. The series was always unromantic, and so the final episode lives up to that tradition. It is cosmically unromantic.
Some fans hate the ending of Blake’s 7, and I can understand why.
As fans, we always want to believe that “the adventure continues.” We want to believe that our heroes survive to fight another day. But that’s really — if you examine the program closely — not ever what this program was really about.
Blake’s 7 concerns desperate men fighting a desperate battle, and on this day – and in their last adventure – the law catches up with them.
Again, a perfect ending to a brilliant series. With all due deference to Shakespeare, sometimes all’s well that doesn’t end well (for the characters, that is.)