To accurately predict how a sci-fi show will do, you'd need either a time machine or a bathtub full of precogs. Sometimes you get Star Trek: The Next Generation; sometimes you get Star Trek: Enterprise. It's confusing.
This season, seven sci-fi series are being canceled or have already received a pink slip. Fox's underrated Fringe will finish its run with a half-season slated for the fall while that same broadcaster's Terra Nova has gotten the shove and will be shopped around to other networks. Eureka is finishing up its run over the next few weeks on Syfy, and Syfy has also announced that Sanctuary is not coming back. Then there are the series that didn't show up on the schedule for this coming season: ABC's misbegotten The River, NBC's meandering Awake* and Fox's midseason replacement Alcatraz.
Some of these shows were good tries that fell flat; some of them were interesting enough to skate the edge of cancelation until their luck ran out; and some of them are respected success stories whose time has come for one reason or another. Looking back (and forward), here are a few things we've learned about how to send your speculative fiction show into its final orbit.
*I understand that Awake is perhaps more a psychological drama, but I'm still going to call it sci-fi because it relies on the conventional science fiction understanding of parallel universes—and nobody knows what goes on in someone's head during a psychotic break, so it's speculative fiction about biology, which is science.
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Rule #1: Know when to fold 'em.
J.J. Abrams' Fringe been in a precipitous ratings decline for several seasons, and that has made it about a hundred times more unified, interesting and weird than most anything else on broadcast, including Abrams' other shows. "We see it as having certain chapters that would enrich the overall story but aren’t necessary to tell the overall story," said Jeff Pinkner, co-showrunner with J.H. Wyman. "God willing, the network allows us the time to tell our complete story." And it looks like it will but not at the desired length.
A pretty reliable way to improve a good story is to cut the fat, and that's just what's happened here. Is it sad that Fringe won't continue to bring the crazy for another 10 years? Sure. Is it sad that it won't turn into Smallville and recycle endless interpersonal drama through progressively more ridiculous scenarios that feel ever more predictable even as they beggar credibility?
No. That is not sad. To put it another way: If your show is merely about zombies, awesome. But if your show is dead and threatens to continue on as a gruesome, shambling husk of its former self, hungry for brains, we insist that you kill it with fire.
Rule #2: If the series gets most of its juice from a central mystery, throw the viewers a bone at the end.
Awake is sort of a depressing example, because, like Fringe, it offered an interesting twist on the procedural formula. A police officer wakes up in one time line where his wife's dead and his son's alive, goes to bed and finds himself in another time line where his son's dead and his wife's alive (a friend of a friend calls it Sleepy Cop). But it never quite hit, and even at one-and-a-half seasons, it felt like it had gone on too long. That said, this was actually not a show that benefited from deep exploration of its cosmology. It was about deep exploration of its character, and you wanted to know exactly what had happened (caution: potentially spoilery link) to him so he could move on with his life.
Ultimately, the show did what it was supposed to do in its final moments, which was give the viewer (and Jason Isaacs' lead character, who'd suffered enough) some catharsis and also enough ambiguity to fuel fan discussion for some time to come. There are people who hate the series finale of The Sopranos, but I'm not among them—overexplanation is much worse. Remember when The X-Files just would not shut up about the secret conspiracy that pretty much everyone on the show knew about by the end? Still, nothing is as bad as no explanation at all. I'm looking at you, Sliders (still, a show has to be worth watching for the resolution to mean something, and if you're like Sliders, you've already broken rule #1 so hard that rule #2 doesn't even apply).
Awake gets bonus points for a Stephen Hawking reference in the title of its ambiguous finale, Turtles All the Way Down. From Hawking's A Brief History of Time, which you should probably read if you're going to write science fiction:
A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said, "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!"
Photo by: Eike Schroter/Syfy
Rule #3: A show's last few episodes will always be better if the writers know they're getting the pink slip.
Syfy has been particularly good about this over the years. Now that Eureka, which is basically network programming head Mark Stern's child, is headed into its last few episodes, the network's final 13 shows are more or less a 21-gun salute to what has gone before. Here's a not-so-secret secret: Nerds love this. There's a reason the third Lord of the Rings movie ended a dozen times. The genre fiction market really likes long, complicated stories, and the only thing they like more than long, complicated stories are long goodbyes at the ends of long stories, preferably with heroic sacrifices and some really good hopeful speechifying. Your reward for stretching your brain to contain something mold-breaking and huge is the comfort that everything resolves perfectly at the end; if it's possible to do this in a really incredible, mind-bending way, so much the better. The fantastic flash-forward finale of Dollhouse really nailed this one, although it would have been nice to see the episode that set it all up actually broadcast on television (it was an extra in the Season 1 DVD box set. Thanks, Fox!).
The current and final season of Eureka is as good as the series has ever been—again, it's bittersweet, especially since the call to the cancel the high-rated show appears to have come from Comcast, according to one of the producers. “We are the network’s golden child in every way, except profit margins. Fact is, #Eureka is an expensive show to make," tweeted executive producer Amy Berg. "And we could not maintain the quality of our show with the cuts it would take to make us profitable for Syfy’s new parent company.” But again, see rule #1.
4. The River
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Rule #4: There is such thing as a mercy killing.
You know what's hard to pull off? An ongoing horror series on broadcast television. That's because the two things you have to have to make horror effective are the threat of death and atmosphere. A television series, by nature, will need to interrupt your carefully modulated tone with commercials, and there's only so much gore you can put on a major network, to say nothing of having to regularly replace cast members when they're killed off just so you can prove you're not kidding about the whole threat-of-death thing. On the surface, The River looked like an ideal solution to both of these problems. Oren Peli's debut film Paranormal Activity was filmed on a shoestring with a cheap digital camera, and it didn't just scare the hell out of audiences, but it became one of the most profitable films in history. And it was rated PG-13, because the spooky premise made gore unnecessary. Plus, it had Stephen Spielberg behind it. What could go wrong?
Well, with The River, quite a bit, actually. To start with, turns out the "found footage" thing—you know, where the entire movie is made of static shots from hidden cameras the filmmakers stumbled across—gets really, really old over the course of a full TV show, and even though it helps out with verisimilitude, there's only so far you can push clumsy writing. The acting was not always up to snuff, either. "I know you're looking for more than just magic out here—what is it?" begs one of the characters. "Tell me!" Let me help: He's looking for a cue card.
None of this is to say that The River wasn't worth trying, merely that ABC was right: It's not worth continuing to try. For instance, would you green-light a show by X-Files mastermind Chris Carter and Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan? You sure would, and you'd end up with The Lone Gunmen, one of the worst sci-fi shows ever euthanized. You can play the if-I-were-in-charge game all you want, but eventually everyone's going to pick a few rotten eggs.
Photo by: Chris Helcermanas-Benge/Syfy
Rule #5: No cop-outs.
"God did it," "Adam and Eve," "It Was All a Dream"—These are some of the names that SF writers use as shorthand for unacceptable endings. It's not as simple as staying away from deus ex machina—sci-fi and fantasy fiction is full of overused tropes and it's up to writers and producers to red-pen them out of existence. Maybe the hero dies. Maybe the earth explodes. Irony is your friend. Syfy's Sanctuary does a reasonably good job of writing a happy ending that comes at the end of several major plot twists; it also gives us a good idea of what will happen to the characters after the series is over. It's true that this was intended to be the end of the fourth season and not necessarily the series finale, but it's open-ended without leaving too much unresolved.
It's perfectly fine to hedge your bets and go for the happy/room for more ending, especially if that's what the tone of your show calls for. Or you can go for the Samuel-Beckett-does-acid ending like The Prisoner (not to be confused with The Prisoner), and really watch the sparks fly.
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Rule #6: You can have too much of a good thing.
J.J. Abrams is a talented producer and writer with a real gift for storyline. It doesn't always pay off (the last two seasons of Alias, the we-are-all-in-Purgatory end of Lost, the amazingly ridiculous time travel stuff at the end of Felicity), but sometimes the ride is worth it (high hopes for Fringe over here). Sometimes, though, there's just more than enough J.J. Abrams to go around and all the crazy conspiracies in the world can't save a show like Alcatraz from an early grave. His late, lamented, low-rated Undercovers had a better chance.
It's hard to blame Abrams for this—when you're hot, you're hot and you've got to keep the work coming so people don't forget about you. But it's a little baffling that Fox, a network that was already airing a well-liked show from Abrams, would try to sneak another one onto the schedule before its current show had run its course. Less surprisingly, ratings plummeted. It's not like buying a bunch of animated comedies from Seth MacFarlane; if you're going to do two similar sci-fi shows from the same creator, they've got to be extremely, obviously distinct from one another or they'll get confusing.
7. Terra Nova
Rule #7: if you're not appreciated, take your business elsewhere.
Fox's Terra Nova is one of the most expensive television shows currently in production...and it is potentially still in production, despite having been canceled. Studio 20th Century Fox Television is shopping the series around to other networks for a second season—a tactic that got the Fox show (and 20th Century project) Futurama a new lease on life at Comedy Central after the quirky Matt Groening sci-fi comedy was canceled.
As attested to by The River, Stephen Spielberg's recent career in television (the Minority Report director also produces Terra Nova with fellow heavy hitter Peter Chernin) has not been a flawless one, but Terra Nova isn't necessarily dead yet, especially not if it can find enough room to cut some of its more expensive special effects. Granted, that will be a difficult task for a show whose calling card is ultra-realistic dinosaurs, but stranger things have happened.
There's more and more room on cable for big, ambitious projects like Terra Nova, and though it's got some competition from its own creators—TNT has Spielberg's Fallen Skies—it would be nice to think that the success of projects like Battlestar Galactica and Lost have generated enough confidence to sustain another series as ambitious (well, visually ambitious, anyway) as this one.
It looked for a while like low-fi sci-fi stories like Person of Interest were going to be the norm on broadcast, but there's some strained weirdness in the pipeline with 666 Park Avenue and The Neighbors coming up. Still nothing as silly, gross and weird as Fringe or as personal and ambitious as The River, but we're hopeful. Cable, meanwhile, is getting progressively more daring with series like American Horror Story, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. Hopefully, as those shows log bigger and bigger numbers, they'll encourage more and stranger experimentation.