Today, cliffhangers are a dime a dozen—look at “Alias” or “Friends,” for example. Ending the season in the middle of a climax simply makes people want to come back for more. The tradition isn’t new; “Dallas” did it back in the ‘80s by letting viewers ask the question all summer “Who Shot J.R?” And then there was the infamous shower scene, which aired in the fall to explain why Patrick Duffy’s currently dead character Bobby Ewing suddenly showed up alive and well in the season finale (in case you were not alive then, or living in a cave, it turned out the whole season was J.R.’s dream). But the modern cliffhanger got a huge popularity boost back when “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was breaking records on syndicated TV in the late '80s and early '90s. And today, cliffhangers are everywhere. Let’s take a look at some of the best and the baddest from scifi TV history.
The Best Scifi Cliffhanger of All Time
Hands down, this award goes to “Star Trek: The Next Generation”’s “The Best of Both Worlds” double-parter. Wow. Even after all these years, watching this particular episode reminds you of how great that show could be, and why “Star Trek” was the powerhouse franchise that it was—and is. “Best of Both Worlds” is about as brilliant as it could be: the antagonism between Shelby and William Ryker, the revelation that Locutus is actually Captain Picard, the sinister Borg plot—these are all elements that went into what some still call the best science fiction story ever. And who can forget that image of all the Starfleet ships, arrayed for battle? It was “TNG”’s first cliffhanger, and a milestone for the rest of the scifi TV universe to attempt to match. So far, no one has.
Best Modern Cliffhanger
It was the season two finale to the SciFi Channel series "Battlestar Galactica" that inspired this particular article. It remains to be seen if the resolution to this cliffhanger is as satisfying as it promises to be. Nevertheless, many of us who saw the season ender left the show with our jaws hanging open. One minute President Roslyn and Commander Adama are discussing why she felt it necessary to cheat during the presidential election—the next minute, it’s a year later and everyone’s living in tents on New Caprica, forming unions and having babies. Baltar’s president and the Galactica and Pegasus are completely unready for a Cylon invasion of any kind. What? Who didn’t think this was a dream sequence when they first saw it? Can you believe the show’s not coming back till October?
Best Consistent Use of Cliffhangers
“The X-Files,” naturally. In the first season, “The Erlenmeyer Flask” saw the death of Deep Throat and the closing of the X-Files. In the second season’s “The Anasazi”, Krycek kills Mulder’s father, Mulder gets psychotic from poisoned water, then goes to New Mexico and disappears after finding more evidence that the government has been hiding proof of aliens. The follow-up, “The Blessing Way,” introduced the Well-Manicured Man and revealed that Scully had been implanted with a microchip. In the season three finale, we learned that Cigarette-Smoking Man has cancer, that Mulder has a secret, that there is a plan for colonization, and we come tantalizingly to learning the truth. In “Herrenvolk,” the follow-up from season four, Samantha Mulder reenters Mulder’s life. The season four cliffhanger, “Gethsemane,” ends with the possibility that Mulder has been manipulated this whole time, and at the end of the episode he’s apparently dead. And then the end of season five preceded “The X-Files” movie, so of course they had to shut the X-Files down. We’ll skip the last few seasons, during which the show went downhill—“jumped the shark,” you might say, at least in this editor’s opinion—but you get the point. Every season this show left you hanging. Heck, most of the regular episodes did too.
The Silliest Resolution to a Cliffhanger
How can you give this award to any show but “Red Dwarf?” At the end of Series 2, Lister takes a pregnancy test and discovers he’s pregnant. And expecting twins, as we know from a previous episode called “Future Echoes.” So, as we all waited with bated breath to watch the resolution, the series producers took the easy way out. At the beginning of Series 3, they ran a text blurb at the beginning of the show that explained 1) what happened to Lister’s kids, 2) how a new character (Kryten) joined the crew and 3) that the computer decided to give himself a sex change. This text scrolled by so quickly that only viewers recording the episode on their VCRs could read the text—if they rewound and paused. As fans know, another cliffhanger ended the sixth season. By then, no one was surprised when the seventh season began with a similar cop-out.
Most Ridiculous Conclusion to a Cliffhanger-Even Worse than “Dallas”
All right, this one isn’t a scifi TV show, but its cliffhanger resolution was so bad it beats everything we’ve ever seen or heard of. At the end of season one of 1998-2000 action/adventure series “Martial Law,” Sammo Law (played by Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan’s movie partner and friend) was falling out of a helicopter. At the beginning of season two, there’s only a bit explanation of that scene and you never even see the helicopter again. Two new people have been added to the cast (which featured Hung, Arsenio Hall and Kelly Hu) for no apparent reason and the police chief has disappeared. Also gone, suddenly: Sammo Hung’s archnemesis and any continuing storyline there might have been. From what we understand, new producers took over and made so many changes that only lip service was paid to the previous plotlines and even to characterization. The first season of this Hong Kong martial arts movie-inspired series was fun, in the vein of Jackie Chan films. And in some ways it was even groundbreaking—after the departure of actress Tammy Lauren mid-season, none of the top four actors on the show were Caucasian. The second series was not even mediocre, as you could tell from the first minute of the season’s first episode—and the cliffhanger non-ending was an insult to viewers. “Martial Law” was cancelled after this season. At least when “Red Dwarf” skipped over the cliffhanger resolution, it was funny. I have to admit, I’m still bitter about this one.
Of course, there are pretty spectacular cliffhangers all over the TV these days. Wanna share some of your favorites? Go to the forum and let me know what you liked!