Good Cliffhangers; Bad Cliffhangers

I was fairly impressed with last night’s season finale of Battlestar Galactica. Spoilers after the fold.

So Starbuck came back: yeah, like anyone couldn’t see that coming. The only real surprise would have been if she stayed dead. At least they didn’t make the Doctor Who mistake of crediting the actress in the opening credits.

And surprise, surprise: four more assorted colonials are Cylons. No surprises there. There’s still one missing. But despite the lack of surprise at any of this, it still made for pretty damn good television.

The real surprise, though, came at about minute 40, when Lee actually convinced me that Baltar was in fact innocent, or at least not guilty. That was a shocker. And he did it without any surprise witnesses or retcons or traditional TV courtroom gimmicks. I had expected Baltar to be convicted, spend some time in jail, and then escape; but the real surprise wasn’t that he was acquitted. The surprise was that I agreed with the verdict.

They should have ended the episode shortly after that, and before the next jump. However the need for a big cliffhanger in dramas, especially SF dramas, is so de rigeur that it gets grafted onto series after series whether it makes any sense or not. The rule for a good cliffhanger is that it actually has to be part of the episode’s plot. However if it’s just a five minute teaser for the next season taped on to a completed story, it doesn’t work.

Examples of Cliffhangers Done Right

  • Star Trek TNG, Season 3, Best of Both Worlds, Part 1 (best ever)
  • Star Trek TNG, Season 4, The Neutral Zone
  • Star Trek TNG, Season 5, Time’s Arrow, Part I
  • Star Trek TNG, Season 6, Descent, Part I
  • The Simpsons, Season 6, Who Shot Mister Burns
  • Hex, Season 1, The Release

Examples of Cliffhangers Done Wrong

  • Star Trek Enterprise, Season 3, Zero Hour
  • Alias, Season 2, The Telling
  • Alias Season 4, Before the Flood

In all the wrong cases, the story is neatly wrapped up and concluded about five minutes before the end of the episode. Then, in effect, you watch five minutes from the beginning of next season’s first episode. In the good examples, the show builds up to the cliffhanger; it’s the climax of the episode. When Riker says “Mr. Worf… fire.” at the end of Season 3 of TNG, that still gives me chills. By contrast when Sydney wakes up two years later at the end of Season 2 of Alias? It has little to nothing to do with what’s gone before. I have no emotional connection to it whatsoever. It’s like a movie trailer, nothing more. It isn’t even a very good one.

The only difference with last night’s Battlestar Galactica was that after wrapping up the real season finale in forty minutes, they took 20 minutes for the next season preview instead of five. The real cliffhanger would have been if they had ended after the panel retired and left the verdict till next season.

6 Responses to “Good Cliffhangers; Bad Cliffhangers”

  1. Brian Ruff Says:

    I just got done searching for lyrics to All Along the Watchtower for hints! 2008 to know more, hope it is worth the wait!

  2. Bas Says:

    Maybe I’m reading too much into it, or maybe I just don’t “get it”… but I was disappointed by last nights episode.

    Other than the trial wrap up, did we really learn anything new? I guess this is cynical, but I’m just expecting next season to drag on with the 4 wondering if they’re cylons, and in the end finding out that they’re not (or not all). Lets assume they’re all cylons, will there be a good reason for how Saul managed to fight in the wars with Adama, and is a cylon? Perhaps they captured him and used him as the basis for a cylon model? How did they get all his memories?

    Is Lee a Cylon? Is Kara a cylon reborn and flying next to him? Is Kara projecting into Lee’s head (ala Six)?

    I saw someone post a message about some episode in season 1 or 2, where the cylon who messed with Kara on New Caprica said “Adama is a cylon”… and everyone assumed it was “Admiral Adama” when in fact it could be Lee, and he’s telling the truth.

  3. Erich Says:

    GACK!!! Your “after the fold” material was included in your RSS feed and it BURNED INTO MY EYES!!!

    Ahem. Any way to make sure your uber spoilers don’t get sent out over RSS next time? :-( Yeah, yeah, you include the whole article in your RSS feeds, but still, for posting spoilers, that has a big downside… Hm hm hm.


  4. sian Says:

    I have to write a 4 paragraph piece of writing as school but I have to leave it on a cliffhanger and I can’t think of one. Can you help?

  5. hackerman700 Says:

    star trek is for geeks

  6. Kala Snater Says:

    Hello, superb blog.

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