What to Learn From 7 Dematerializing Sci-Fi Shows

Here are the proper ways to end your high-concept TV series

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. 

1. Fringe

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

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.

2. Awake

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!"

3. Eureka