Going Beyond the Ending: A Wrap Up

This week, this blog has been using the debate about Smallville’s ending to raise some larger questions about how cult series ends and how producers might deal with fans who are disappointed or frustrated or enraged or betrayed or… with the outcomes. Seeking to place this debate in a larger context, I reached out to Flourish Klink,who graduated with a Masters from the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program (where I was her proud mentor) and now, alongside teaching at MIT, works as the Chief Participation Officer for the Alchemists, advising this transmedia company about fan relations and participatory culture. She always has interesting things to say about the interplay between producers and fans, so I wanted to give her a chance to weigh in on this discussion.

Cult series always seem more satisfying to fans in the middle than at the end. How do you think producers should deal with the expectations which have built up over the run of the series? Are there classic mistakes which producers make in trying to respond to fan frustration with the ending of a program?

One of the most important aspects of dealing with expectations is to be honest about the situation, the possibilities, and the fact that not everybody is happy. One of the most classic mistakes that producers make is to become very defensive about their own work, suggesting that the way the show (or book, or…) ended is the only way it could have ended. Obviously, producers and writers and actors get just as wrapped up in their own long-running projects as fans do, so sometimes they become very certain that they’re doing the right thing!

But fans also have a perspective on the series, and if the producers are too staunch that the series ended the right and correct and only way possible, it can be very insulting to fans. It is much better to frame discussion about the end of a series in a more open way. “We decided to make character X and character Y together, because that’s what everybody in the writer’s room was feeling… Character Y and character Z might have a romance in an alternate universe, for sure, but we could only tell one of a million possible stories about these people.”

An example of a writer who dealt with this very badly is J.K. Rowling (OK, she’s a writer, not a producer – but it’s a similar idea). Many fans viewed the epilogue to the final book as a slap in the face, intended to shut down any speculation about what might happen to the characters in their adult life. It would have been very easy for Rowling to mitigate some of those frustrations with a few well-placed words!

What roles can/should transmedia play in shaping the future of a cult series?

Transmedia can provide a wonderful way to explore the future of a series that ended too soon – but it can also play a wonderful role in exploring alternate universes, alternate ideas of how characters could be. That’s an old idea in fanfic, but it’s a new idea for Hollywood. (Here, we ignore the Star Wars extended universe – it’s been doing this for years, but very quietly.) On its simplest level, changing media can allow fans who liked the ending of a TV show to enjoy that ending and consider the new medium “noncanonical” – but it can allow fans who didn’t like the ending, especially an ending that centers around a romantic pairing, to continue the story until it reaches a place they find more satisfying.

What roles can/should fan fiction play in allowing fans to “repair the damage” done by the “Powers That Be” when they end a series on what some fans feel is the wrong note?

It seems silly to me to ask questions about “should” when it comes to fan works. Fan works are not really the kind of thing that “should” or “should not” exist – they do exist, and there we are. That said, I think that fan fiction is vital for this purpose. Fans are extremely invested in their shows, and fan fiction can be a way to put your money where your mouth is: instead of just saying “damn, why didn’t they do X, Y and Z,” you can write it yourself instead. By that stage of a show, fandom is often as much about frustration as it is about fascination; fan fiction gives one a way to work out both those emotions.

What franchises do you think have done the best job in resolving the competing expectations that surround the final episode of a favorite series?

Even though lots of fans disliked the final season, I think that Buffy the Vampire Slayer did a very good job – and it did a good job of using multiple shows and multiple media to let fans choose what view of the universe they wanted to take. Fans can choose to only watch Buffy – or also watch Angel – or also read the Season 8 comic books. Depending on what they chose to do, what they choose to consider their own personal “head canon,” they can enjoy their own ideas about the series. What’s more, whether you liked or disliked the final episode of BTVS, nobody was able to say that it wasn’t climactic. BTVS somehow managed to have an apocalypse every season and still raise the stakes every season. If that’s possible, no other show has an excuse for not having a climactic final episode!

For those who want to have a better understanding of how one can be a fan, even a very loyal fan, and actively seek to write around or think around disappointing elements in the original series, I’d recommend checking out my chapter on Beauty and the Beast in Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Here was a series that many, though not all, fans thought took a wrong turn which violated the genre contract the producers had made with their viewers and many chose to disavow an entire series and proceed with the fandom as though it had never existed as part of the canon.

Now, I want to share two letters I received from other fans who wanted to share their thoughts on the ending of cult series. I would be happy to see more such letters at hjenkins@usc.edu and will publish more if they come. Do let me know if you intend your letter for publication.

Dr. Jenkins,

The ending of series can certainly be a challenge for everyone involved, especially the fans. I remember well when the original Star Trek television series moved to less-favored time slots and eventually went off the air. It is probably fortunate that they did not have the inclination at the time to do a major “wrap up” episode, which left fans and professional writers alike the opportunity to continue the storyline and expand it into many other series set in the universe that Gene Roddenberry built.

I was, by the way, one of those fans who continued the series in dreadful, typed fan-fic stories that circulated in small eddies, a practice that also got me through the long dry-spells between Star Wars movies. I’d never be rival to Timothy Zahn, but my own imaginings and characters satisfied my desire to know what happened in a way that did not detract from what became the official story line. My friends and I enjoyed our now-online “alternate universe” versions, and the challenge of creating believable plots and character development arcs gave me new sympathy for professional writers.

This is not to say that I do not understand the sense of disappointment and loss when a series – or character – is terminated before I am ready. I still consider Firefly the best series that should never have ended. The movie Serenity explained many of gems Josh Wheaton had hidden in store for us, but I will always grieve that we did not see the interplay between those 9 superb characters (and actors!!) beyond the first season. But I also wonder if, in the need to turn out an episode on schedule, the cast and crew would have started moving in directions that disappointed me and the rest of its many fans. As it is, we have our memories, favorite lines, and our mental model of who these characters would have become.

Art, after all, is a cooperative enterprise – while the television presents us with episodes in our favorite characters’ lives, the audience also fills in and extrapolates for itself meaning of whom these people “are” to us. For some of us, myself included, they can be more than entertainment. If we follow them for years and invest them with importance to us personally, then they do have deeper meaning. They may be role models or exhibit a part of our personalities that we do not or cannot express in the “real world” of our socio-cultural reality. Watching them gives us an opportunity to play with identity, perhaps in ways not open to us normally. We might not have a strong, professional woman in our “real” lives, but seeing that character on the screen can help us imagine being one … and then becoming one in a case of a projected identity becoming actual.

In retrospect, considering all the series and characters I have followed, I wonder if cult series should avoid conclusive wrap up episodes. The last episode (heck, the last season) of Lost, for instance, felt like a cheat – not answering the questions that I did have while also not advancing the characters in a way that felt authentic, to me. While, at the time, a series’ sudden end (as with the very uneven Odyssey 5) leaves me with questions, it also leaves me freedom to imagine for myself what would have been if only the series had continued. And in many ways, the audience’s own imagination – as Hitchcock demonstrated – is more powerful than laying it all out on the screen in vivid, authoritative, bound-to-disappoint-someone conclusion.

Barbara Z. Johnson

From Eugenia:

WHY THE FINALE TO BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (2003) DIDN’T WORK FOR ME

POSSIBLE RESOLUTIONS TO THE SERIES

Sometime during Season 3, I had decided that there were three types of resolutions to this series. These were:

  1. Everyone dies.
  2. Most of the main characters survive.
  3. The postmodern non-ending ending.

1. Everyone dies

According to the laws of narrativium and story logic [1], this was the most likely resolution. Hints, or what other writers call “foreshadowing”, in this direction were themes such as humanity wasn’t fit to survive and children didn’t come into their own until their parents were eliminated. Minor plots centered on schisms in the population leading to violence, characters suffering fatigue both mentally and physically, and characters becoming addicted to mind-altering substances. Logically these actions would have led to depleting resources to the point the fleet would be unable to defend or sustain itself.

2. Most of the main characters survive

Given Moore and Eick’s manifesto [2] which described their “re-imagining” as “Naturalistic Science Fiction” and which stated, “Our goal is nothing less than the reinvention of the science fiction television series”, something resembling an optimistic ending was the least likely resolution. After several seasons of “gritty realism”, bleakness, and despair, the reversion to something resembling a traditional ending where the “good” guys win would be tantamount to an admission of failure of their “re-imagined” series.

Rationalizations of following the original series are mere excuses. Moore and Eick never felt obligated to follow anything in the original series beyond the title, the character names (even then demoted to “call signs” or last names), and the general design of the eponymous spaceship. It’s absurd to even bring up Galactica: 1980 to justify the ending; that series wasn’t titled Galactica: 148,000 BC.

3. The postmodern non-ending ending

In light of the “critical acclaim” of the series in the first two seasons, this conclusion to the series was possible if Moore and Eick sought to reinstate their favoured position with the critical intelligentsia.

The typical ingredients of postmodern works are evident in the series: style over substance, juxtaposition of different elements, references to past works, combination of the “lowbrow” and “highbrow”, ambiguity, nihilism, and self-awareness of the artificial contrivance involved in creating the “work”. Frequently accompanying postmodern literature or art is the author’s stated intention to make it “difficult” for the reader or viewer. Not only difficult in interpreting it, but also even reading or looking at it due to the revolting subject matter.

These traits were evident in the series with its use of documentary (cinema-verite) camera work, the “re-imaging” of a “cheesy, 1970′s TV show” into something “complex” with “layers of meaning”, the disjointed narrative which frequently shifted time frames leaving gaps in the storyline, the monotone colour scheme of the costumes and sets making it difficult to distinguish characters, and viewers constantly being referred to deleted scenes and podcasts to fill in the gaps. Adding to the difficulty in understanding the storyline was demanding the viewer to shift frames of reference in quick succession. At times it was space opera, at others it was contemporary drama, and at still other times abstract symbolism. A frequent trait in postmodern literature is the author making an appearance in the story itself, so Moore’s cameo in the final scenes was not unexpected.

What is claimed as sophisticated and erudite is merely confusing as the postmodern approach repeatedly disrupts the “suspension of disbelief” which narrative fiction relies on. The conclusions of such works are often self-referential or circular in that they return to the beginning.

WHAT DID WE GET?

Basically the conclusion was a traditional “happy” ending in which most of the main characters survive and a quick addendum of the postmodern self-referential with a few final swipes at the original series.

Moore and Eick just couldn’t resist making the “Guardians” (old-school Cylon centurions) all on the “evil” side and obliterated. They just couldn’t resist pitching the whole fleet into the sun accompanied by the original 1978 series title music played at the tempo of a dirge [3]. They just couldn’t resist one last potshot regarding the original Baltar’s beheading/non-beheading [4].

WHY IT DIDN’T WORK FOR ME

It contradicted the underlying assumption of the science fiction genre. Underneath the spaceships, lasers, funny-looking makeup, etc. is the ideal that the scientific method enables progress through a greater understanding of the physical world. As such, it allows humanity to determine its own destiny by surviving threats of extermination from disease, natural disasters, and predators.

The finale succumbed to the romantic notion of the “noble savage” living in harmony with nature by giving up material possessions, advanced technology, and accumulated knowledge. In essence, these Colonials sentenced their direct descendants to ignorance and a minimal existence. This is the antithesis of the science fiction genre’s foundation. The series conclusion reveals that the “optimism” that Moore and Eick criticized as unrealistic in Star Trek was actually a lack of understanding on their part of the values inherent in the scientific method and Western civilization.

The cyclical “what has happened before, will happen again” typifies Eastern traditions. Destiny is preordained meaning when it come right down to it, an individual or civilization having no “free will”. References to the “Head” people as angels who are acting in accordance with God’s instructions is actually in direct opposition to the original series “Beings of Light”. The “Beings of Light” represented the possibility of humanity’s evolution to a higher state yet they could not “interfere with freedom of choice [5]“, unlike the “re-imagined” series “Head” people who directly interfered and acted in the capacity of fate or destiny.

Various comments regarding comparisons of the original series to the “re-imagined” series indicate that some viewers weren’t paying attention or were not able to recognize recurring themes without a character pontificating at length. When the original series mentioned that Kobol’s [6] civilization migrated and abandoned technology, it stated: “And when they settled the Colonies, they turned on the very technology that could have saved them had they used it properly [7]“. This theme is later alluded to in dialogue referring to the Cylons as “a race of beings who allowed themselves to be overcome by their own technology [8]“. Technology wasn’t considered evil in and of itself, but that it could be misused either intentionally or through over-reliance.

The original series connected the themes of “free will” and the use of technology. These themes are intertwined in the episode “War of the Gods” and complement the surface mythic storyline. In being seduced by technology, there is the danger of losing one’s humanity or soul. To retain “free will”, and thus humanity, it was deemed necessary to maintain family, community, and knowledge through religious, educational, political, and military structures. To submit blindly to another power is to lose “free will” and the ability to determine one’s future. This point was again visited in the episode “Experiment in Terra” with the words: “I came from a world where the people believed the opposite of war was peace. We found out the hard way that the opposite of war is more often slavery. And that strength — strength alone — can support freedom [9]“.

[1] The force that holds the story together as defined by Terry Pratchett.

[2] Ron Moore, Battlestar Galactica: Naturalistic Science Fiction or Taking the Opera out of Space Opera 2002

[3] Has this series ever used the 1978 Stu Phillips title music theme at the original tempo in all of its orchestral glory? Especially the trumpet fanfare?

[4] That one was for me, wasn’t it, Ron?

[5] Being of Light, “Lost Planet of the Gods, Part II”

[6] Incidentally, the Akkadian word for planet or star is kakkabu, which doesn’t take much effort to transform into Kolob or Kobol.

[7] Adama, “Lost Planet of the Gods, Part II”

[8] Baltar, “War of the Gods, Part II”

[9] Apollo, “Experiment in Terra”

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