As we await the airing of the first episode of Lost’s final season, our minds naturally drift back to other, similar experiences… other times we’ve seen the final seasons and episodes of complex, episodic shows… final episodes which often sucked. Like Battlestar Galactica.
Shows like Lost and BSG (my fingers are getting tired) have a particular challenge in finding good endings because they’re not just “arc” shows with continuing storylines, they’re also “mythology” shows: a lot of the fun of watching them is getting more and more details of the backstory, details that are most often unknown to the main characters as well as the viewer. Not all arc shows, or even all SF/Fantasy shows with arcs, are mythology shows (Buffy, for instance, flirted with being one but never really was, as the mythology was both inconsistent and mostly irrelevant to the plot), but it’s hard to think of a mythology show that isn’t SF or fantasy. (Soap operas don’t count because there has to be a sense that the mythology was created before the show started, whereas the revelations in soap operas are generally retcons.)
What makes mythology shows different from others in terms of how we watch them is that we’re not just watching for the story, the characters or the performances: we watch, in large part, because we want to better understand the world the writers have created. As wiser people than me have noted, we humans have a built-in tendency to look for patterns, and we feel a kind of pleasure when we identify one we didn’t see before. The flip side of this, though, is that if something we think is a pattern turns out not to be, we can get very annoyed. This is what happened with BSG: by the end of the series finale we had all the pieces to the puzzle, but for most fans they didn’t fit together to make anything meaningful – or at least the picture they created was so far from what we expected as to have the same effect. So here are some lessons the producers of Lost could take from the final season of Battlestar Galactica:
What have you done for me lately?
Fans are fickle creatures. No matter how much we enjoyed the first five seasons, if the final season – and the final episode – aren’t satisfying, we will quickly toss you on the Junk Heap of Forgotten Pop Culture Artifacts.
Don’t marry your ending
Ronald D. Moore has said that he had the final scene of the last episode – where Head Baltar and Head Six wander around New York and watch dancing robots – planned out from the beginning. Which is great, except that after several years of making things up as he went along, that scene no longer made a lick of sense. Honestly, after all the things that came up in the series, the last message he wanted to leave us with was “hug your robots tight”?
A good example of a show that did this right was Babylon 5. J. Michael Straczynski made a similar comment while the show was running, saying that he already knew the ending… except that when circumstances changed (the original lead actor leaving the show) he changed the ending, making it the ending of that character’s story but not the overall series. B5 had its share of problems in its last season, but marrying the ending wasn’t one of them.
Exposition does not equal drama
Sure, fans of mythology shows want to find out the answers to all your mysteries. But those answers need to come out of drama and conflict, not just be parceled out in economy-size lumps of exposition (or worse yet, explained in post-series interviews.) We wanted to know who Head Six and Head Baltar were, but having them suddenly talk about God as if they spent weekends with him was not an interesting way to do it. We wanted to know the connection between the Colonies and present-day Earth: having a newscaster explain it was not an interesting way to do it. And so on…
Some revelations are optional, some are not
The producers of Lost have said that not every mystery raised in the show will be resolved. Well, good, but it’s important to discriminate between which mysteries the fans will accept you leaving unanswered (or otherwise defusing) and which they won’t. How do you know which is which? One clue is to look at the mysteries you yourself defined as important. For instance, BSG spent much of a season teasing us by having some characters hear bits of a mysterious tune. During the season finale, in a very well-executed and dramatic sequence, we discover that they’re actually hearing “All Along the Watchtower” – at which point the camera zooms out to a view of the whole galaxy, and zooms in to what is recognizably our Earth. Wow. So what was the significance of the song – why were they hearing it, and why that song? It’s obviously related to the mystery of the connection between the Colonies and our Earth – the equation is laid out for us visually in that sequence. So when Moore says (after the series is over) that the song didn’t have a significance… that there are just tunes that somehow reverberate through human (or Cylon) consciousness throughout time and space… we may feel just. A tad. Cheated.
Don’t give up the ’shippers
Remember what I said above about exposition not replacing conflict? This goes double for relationships between the characters. As much as we love learning about the mythology, a lot of viewers are even more invested in what happens to the characters, particularly their love lives. Don’t try to elide these issues or wrap them up too tidily. Avoid having characters fall out of airlocks or have their parentage retconned so that the writers don’t have to deal with them anymore. In improve, this is a kind of blocking called cancelling: instead of resolving the conflict that’s been raised in a scene, you come up with a reason why it just isn’t an issue. (“Oh no, a bear!” “It’s okay, he got caught in a bear trap.”) Look at the relationship between Kara/Starbuck and Lee/Apollo in BSG: on the most basic level, people wanted to know Will they wind up together? Was he her one true love, or were her feelings for him just another one of her self-destructive qualities? Not to mention her whole dying-and-coming-back-to-life thing, and the question of whether or not the Kara in the final season was the real one. So with that amount of screen time and fan speculation invested in a relationship, what you don’t do is have her disappear into thin air just when all the impediments to them being together have been removed. That’s not tragedy, it’s not irony, it’s just cancelling.