I’ve been watching the entire run of Sapphire & Steel recently and just watched the final story, which is weird even for this show, with an ending that is pretty mindblowing and a definitive way to end the series.
(If you’re not familiar with Sapphire & Steel, it’s a British SF show that ran from 1979-1982 and starred David McCallum and Joanna Lumley. It’s pretty much like classic Doctor Who with 90% fewer special effects and 90% less explanation of what the fuck is going on. If David Lynch did Doctor Who, you’d have Sapphire & Steel.)
Aaaaaanyway, the end of the final story remind me of a thought I had after getting to the end of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, which was, “What if ongoing comic book and TV series were written like novels, with specific beginnings and endings?” What if Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had written Superman comics as if they were an adaptation of an epic SF series of novels, and after five or ten years of stories in Action Comics and his own solo title, the stories built up to a dramatic conclusion that tied everything (or most things, at least) up. And then it was over. Same with Batman, Captain Marvel, Captain America, the Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, the Spirit, and so on. There could be sequels and spin-offs, but it would also leave room for new characters and stories, while also leaving behind seminal “graphic novels” that could stand with Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as classics that inspired later generations of stories. (John Byrne’s Superman & Batman: Generations trilogy of limited series is a terrific example of an epic superhero series where time passes normally, instead of legacy characters barely aging from decade to decade, and the stories build to definitive endings.)
I’m not knocking ongoing, never-ending, legacy characters. Besides Dr. Seuss books, the earliest things I read that made a big impression on me were ongoing legacy superhero comics. (Coming in on long-running series like superhero comics and Doctor Who is, I think, a big reason why I love in medias res and am frequently bored by origin stories. Throw me into the middle of a story and let me figure out who the characters are and what’s going on. Let me be confused at first. It’s all good.) But the longer a series goes on, a series with no long-term plan and no ending in sight, the more you have stories repeat themselves and the more protective companies are of the financially-secure status quo, so any changes to a character (Lois Lane finally figures out that Clark Kent is Superman and they get married) are almost always changed back to the status quo (or the changes are made irrelevant to the overall series, still protecting the status quo). There’s also the problem of the difficulty level for new readers to jump into a series with so much backstory (unless they’re like me and enjoy coming in at the middle point). Reboots are an attempt to solve this problem, but so far, that hasn’t shown to be much of a solution.
On the television front, Babylon 5 was the first SF show to be plotted and executed as a five-year series with a beginning, middle, and end, and while it wasn’t always consistently great, having a story that was constructed like a novel on TV worked in its favor. The various Star Trek series, starting with Star Trek: The Next Generation, haven’t always had the kind of “there is no status quo to protect” that Babylon 5 had, but they’ve all had definitive endings that, while variable in quality, worked to tie up the series and put a cap on them, which I think ultimately made them stronger. On the other hand, I started watching The Simpsons when it first premiered–over 25 years ago. I was a big fan for a long time, but I eventually lost interest because the show has just kept going but I wasn’t seeing anything new to keep me interested. I’m a massive Doctor Who fan, but after 26 years of the classic series and nine of the new show, I’m starting to feel fatigue setting in (and as much as I’d like to, I can’t blame it all on current showrunner Steven Moffat). When the original actor became too ill to continue in the role, the writers and producers came up with the imaginative idea of the character being able to regenerate his body into a new form, played by a new actor. Somewhere along the line, it was established that the Doctor could do this a total of 13 times, but when the last actor, Matt Smith, was leaving the show and it was revealed that he was technically the last regeneration, they wrote in a kind of escape clause that allowed them to change it so that the Doctor can once again regenerate any number of times, and the show never really has to end. But what if it did? What if they built everything up to an ending that finished the series for good. There wouldn’t be any new Doctor Who episodes, sure, but there would be around 36 seasons of shows to rewatch and enjoy, without the pressure of coming up with new stories that aren’t repeating the old and aren’t based in so much past continuity that it makes it difficult for new viewers to come in and understand everything that’s going on.
Like I said, I do still love reading and watching the adventures of legacy characters and franchises. But I also think stories with a definitive ending (even if the ending is “And the Adventure Continues…” or a total mind screw like the endings of The Prisoner and Sapphire & Steel) are stronger than stories that are written to never end. (Although series written towards a definite ending are not always successful. I’m looking at you, How I Met Your Mother. *) And I think the only real reason to have ongoing, neverending series is to keep the money coming in. Since I’m not a businessperson, I care far less about the money a story generates than I do about the strength of a story.
And…okay, I started this post without any idea of how I was going to finish it, so…I’m just going to stop writing and race off to my next exploit. The adventure continues…
* When the finale of How I Met Your Mother first aired, I liked the ending (unlike a lot of people), even though it completely flipped the expectation the writers had established at the beginning and maintained right up until the end. But the more I thought back on it, the more it felt like an utter betrayal of the audience and a really shitty way to end the story it was supposed to be telling.