Cliffhanger Endings.

Posted: April 26, 2008 in Entertainment

   They’ve become all the rage in television season enders. Some are worth it, some ain’t. Some have you leaping at the TV when the “to be continued” line appears on a black screen and screaming at the injustice of making you wait however long for the resolution while others have a habit of making you just scratch your head and wonder if they writer(s) just ran out of good ideas and decided that some strange twist at the end would make people tune in next season.

   And, of course, we all have our different opinions on them. Some people hate them all, some people love them all and others like them only when used sparingly. Me? I only like them when they’re done right and the payoff was worth it.

   This has been rolling around the great, empty wasteland I call a head for some days now. Basically it was kicked off by having to listen to two people argue the merits of Battlestar Galactica’s and Lost’s season/every freaking show enders. I won’t get into BG’s final four revelation until it plays out a little longer and I won’t touch Lost’s habit of show enders and season enders for fear that I may track the writers down and kick the snot out of them. So, minus those two examples but including every medium I can think of, I give you:

   My picks, in no real order, for the best and worste cliffhangers ever:

The Best:

5 – The X-Files: Anasazi

   The best of the X-Files’ season ending cliffhangers partly because it was in the shows prime and partly because it felt like a good idea rather than the cliched, tired device it became later on in the show’s run. It left you hanging as to the fate of the show’s characters and it created tantalizing questions about Mulder’s quest and the answers that he might find. Its resolution also did what I think good resolutions should do. It closed out that chapter of the story and acted as a springboard for other storylines.

4 – Doctor Who: Neverland

   “I am he who sits inside your head, he who lives among the dead, he who sees you in your bed and eats you when you’re sleeping.”

   Big Finish was making quite a name for itself by doing new Doctor Who stories with the old casts for audio dramas. But they had one tiny problem. They were stuck with just how far they could push things. Each of their stories were slotted between the original television episodes and were therefore restricted in how much they could do without violating established continuity. They were new adventures, but the were new old adventures.

   They got a mixed blessing of a gift for Who fans though. Fox’s Who telefilm bombed in the US and was junked by the studio. This created a new Doctor in the form of Paul McGann who had no history to violate. The second that Big Finish got the character and got McGann on-board they went to work at creating new Who adventures meant to be new adventures. And that let them create a “season” long story arc that ran under the main stories of the McGann series as well as popping up in little one-off lines in other Doctors’ stories from that year. The build up was slow but progressively larger and more noticeable with each story until Neverland.

   With Neverland the arc became the story and, after approximately 140 minutes of good, solid story, the bomb is dropped. With three words, Big Finish not only created one of my favorite cliffhanger endings, but also my favorite ever Doctor Who cliffhanger. What were those three words?

————“I am Zagreus!”————

3 – Babylon-5: Z’ha’dum:

“Holy $&!^!!!! Holy F’N $&!^!!!!!!!”

   I think that’s about how I worded it. Season Three’s last episode just about did everything that you should have expected JMS to do but didn’t think he would actually do. Once I scraped my jaw off of the floor, I set about going insane waiting for the start of the next season. JMS did a lot of things right and a few things horribly wrong with B-5, but that was, for me, a major check in the “right” column. Even if I did hate his guts for the entire summer.

2 – WCW Monday Nitro, 1996 – Leading up to Bash at the Beach

   Yeah, no one thinks wrestling when they think of great cliffhangers, but sometimes they happen. In 1996, WCW was building one of the few, truly great story lines that it ever did (and then overdid) in the history of post-NWA existence. The n.W.o. invasion was a fantastic hook and brought new viewers into the WCW fold week after week. And then they did the tease. Three WCW wrestlers would face the two known members of the n.W.o. and their third, as yet unknown member. Fans went nuts trying to figure out who the third man would be. Names were tossed about like mad. Everyone expected another WWF star to show up at Bash and be the third member of the invasion and chomped at the bit to see which one would come to WCW.

   The leading theory was The British Bulldog. Long believed to be unhappy at WWF, he instead signed a new contract with them and killed the theory dead just before Bash. Now, people went even more nuts and the fledgling IWC came close to crashing several sites. The last Nitro before Bash just teased the storyline even more and made you want to see Bash sooooooo bad.

   And of course the payoff was one of the biggest turning point moments in modern wrestling history. Hulk Hogan, the biggest baby face in wrestling at the time, came striding down to the ring to save WCW from the rule breaking n.W.o. and, with one poorly performed leg drop on Randy Savage’s prone body, became one of the biggest heels of the 90’s.

1 – Dallas: Who Shot JR

   Let me say upfront that I was never a fan of Dallas, didn’t watch it and couldn’t care less about it in most ways. But this was beyond a cliffhanger. It was a cultural phenomena. It was and is likely still the single greatest cliffhanger of all time.

   I was 9 at the time, and even the kids I went to school with, kids who also didn’t watch the show, were getting in on the guessing game. TV news shows, radio hosts, DJs, magazines and everything in between were getting in on the game of trying to crack the mystery. You couldn’t turn around that summer without running into something related to those three little words:

   “Who shot JR?”

   It’s been 28 years since Dallas rolled its credits after the sound of a gunshot and the sight of a slumping Larry Hagman and that cliffhanger is still mimicked, spoofed and played with by even people who weren’t alive to see it. It’s been kept alive by nostalgia shows and by spoofs in things like The Simpsons.

   Not my show, not type of show and never high on my must see list was Dallas. Still, they hit the right cord at the right time and created something that will likely outlive the memory of just about every other aspect of that show.

And now, a few of the worst:

5 – Nightmare City (1980):

   Yeah, you get used to bad films when you’re a zombie and/or vampire fan, but some things just abuse the priviledge. Nightmare City, in any of its seven or eight names, turned itself into a prime example of a bad ending and of a writer writing himself into a corner.

   Our hero goes to cover the landing of a plane that’s full of people exposed to radiation. Out of the plane storms a mob of fast, smart and almost indestructible “zombies” that use knives, guns and teeth to get at the blood of humans. Their numbers grow a bit and the quickly start to over run the country.

   After much blood, gunfire and destruction, our hero and his lady are being chased through an amusement park by the gun wielding monsters of the film. First the hero’s lady dies a nice, quick death and then the hero takes a nasty, fatal fall. Then, mid-fall, the hero wakes up safe in his bed.

   A few moments later the hero is being told to go cover an emergency plane landing. As the scenes from the beginning of the film begin to replay… The image freezes on the scene of the steps dropping from the plane and the words “And so the Nightmare begins!” pop up on the screen before the credits roll.

   And that’s it. That’s the end. You end on a cliffhanger that loops you back to the beginning of the film and goes nowhere. It still amazes me that the film is as loved as it is. It doesn’t even have the excuse that City of the Living Dead has for a poor ending.

4 – Lost: Season 1:

   Yeah, I said I was going to ignore Lost, but…

   No answers, more questions and NAMBLA pirates. If there was no other great and shining clue that the Lost writers didn’t quite really know where they were taking things then that should have been it. At least they’ve sort of gotten back on a solid track even if it doesn’t quite work with the mysteries of the first two seasons.

3 – The Matrix: Reloaded:

   What a jumbled mess. One of the most enjoyable movies in a long time turns into one of the biggest cinematic disappointments in ages. I don’t even remember the details of the cliffhanger ending leading into Revolutions and I really don’t want to try to remember. The Matrix was a stand alone movie in my collection.

2 – (Tie) Blake’s 7 and Red Dwarf:

   I love both shows dearly and one would have to be insane to dislike them, but they share one great failing. Both shows ended their, inadvertently, final seasons on a cliffhanger. They fall under the category of “worst” because we will never, eeeeeeeever see the resolutions of their cliffhangers. As a maniacal fan of both shows, that sucks.

1 – John Byrne:

   John, I love your work, but you’ve got a horrible history of starting stories, shredding a book and then, before putting things back together again, walking off in a huff after “creative disputes” with editors and companies. It got so bad there for a while that I wouldn’t touch a John Byrne comic unless a) it was creator owned by Byrne or b) it was a one shot comic.

   I could care less about John’s famous personality conflicts and feuds in the industry, but the effect it had on his work sucked. You were very often left with a good story arc finished by someone else that, while enjoyable at times, still left you with a nagging bit of disappointment as to what might have been.

  1. Sean says:

    The big problem with shows that do cliffhangers is once you’ve done it, the producers think the audience wants it every season. Best of Both Worlds was the ultimate Trek cliffhanger in more ways than one. I wore out the tape I had it on waiting for it. I can’t think of any cliffhanger on any series that I’ve anticipated more.

    As inevitable as the Matrix sequels seemed to be, I was really hoping they’d leave it a one-shot movie.

  2. Micha says:

    I kinda like Matrix 2 and 3. I felt the first Matrix was a OK comics movie pretending to be much more clever and philosophic than it really was, but was actually a patchwork of pop philosophy, pop-Buddhism, Kong-Fu and special effects. The 2nd and 3rd movies were not trying as hard to pretend to be intellectual, were fun comics movies, and in so doing were also a little more interesting intellectually.

    I had mixed feelings about the Jesus ending, but I liked the fact that it didn’t end with a clear victory but a compromise. That was unique in fantasy.

    I was never big on the X-Files. Maybe if I stayed long enough things started to make sense. But while I was watching it it felt as if there were always people going around saying someting like:
    “I know secrets that you can’t even imagine, things that will astound you.”

    “OK, what are they,”

    “Well, they are shocking and unimaginable, the truth is out there.”

    “Fine what is it?”


    Lost has a similar problem, but I’m more hooked on it, and I like the characters. It seems that every time they reveal something it is just a facade hiding something else, and it is still not clear where it’s all going. First there was the monster than the Dharma & Greg organization, then the others who killed the people from the organization, then the people who are against the others. But we still don’t really know anything about anybody, so flashback.

    Another problem with lost is how chauvinistic it is. All the females seem to get shafted as characters.

  3. Sean says:

    The biggest problem with X-Files was(is?) that everyone wanted the mysteries of the mythology explained. They got too bogged down in the Conspiracy and keeping that consistent. Not EVERYTHING has to point back to Roswell and abductions. The biggest problem for me personally was trying to work with insurance agents and hearing several times a day, “Is that like Scully from the X-Files?” Many people are lucky I couldn’t reach through the phone to throttle them.

  4. jjchandler says:

    My bug with the X-Files was something like that as well. The series really started going downhill for me around season 4 when it became pretty much all about the alien invasion angle.

    I loved the alien stories of the first few seasons, but I loved even more some of the other stories. When they became less and less; my enjoyment of the show became less and less.

    They also blew it when they started undoing whatever they laid down about the alien invasion to replace it with something new over and over again because they didn’t want to end the story line but couldn’t run what they set up past a certain point. It became a mess and just went *poof*.

  5. jjchandler says:


    It took some few years, but Red Dwarf got scratched off the list. They finally did a not-quite-but-as-close-as-we’ll-get resolution for the Red Dwarf cliffhanger with “Back to Earth.”

    Now they’re even talking about a 2012 series.

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