Most shows are lucky if they get one finale. So many series are abruptly cancelled before they can make any preparations at all, it’s the lucky few that are given a chance to finish off their story arcs and say goodbye to their characters. And then there are the very few shows that, having managed this impressive feat, are unexpectedly renewed and find that their finale isn’t a finale after all.
Here, we celebrate five episodes that would have been excellent series finales, but for the minor point that they aren’t, in fact, the series finale.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Gift
The finale: Buffy’s 100th episode and fifth season finale sees the culmination of a story arc planned since at least the third season finale and one which fairly definitively closes off the series’ arc with the death of its heroine.
But then… The show was picked up by a new network, UPN, and renewed for a sixth season.
And so: No changes were made to The Gift, which ends with a shot of Buffy’s gravestone. Outside the show, viewers were reassured that Buffy would return in season six, but that her return would be difficult, with all the details left until the new season began.
Does it work as a series finale? Yes. From the Previously On, which shows brief clips of all 99 episodes so far including references to departed characters Angel and Cordelia, through the intimate conversations Buffy has with Giles, Dawn and Spike, the recovery of Tara’s mind and Xander and Anya’s engagement, this episode hits all the emotional beats you might expect from a series finale. Plus, as we said, the heroine dies. That’s pretty final. Usually. Sometimes.
So I could just stop watching there, right? You could. Season six of Buffy was divisive and season seven, while less controversial, had its low moments and never quite reached the highs of previous seasons. But if you stopped watching at The Gift, you’d never get to see the show’s triumphant musical episode, Once More, With Feeling, which is the seventh episode of season six. Besides, you’ll never know whether you’ll be in the camp that hate season six, or one of its fans, unless you watch it.
Supernatural, Swan Song
The finale: With its small but loyal audience, Supernatural has been constantly on the verge of cancellation throughout its run (making its recent addition to the very small pantheon of genre shows to have reached 200 episodes truly impressive). Nevertheless, creator Eric Kripke had a general plan for a five-season show that, particularly following the writers’-strike-shortened season three, was ramped up particularly from the opening of season four. Fans were delighted when the show made it to season five, to the magic one hundred episodes and, just a few episodes later, to a finale that rounded off a story that had been developing since the Pilot.
But then… Unbelievably, the show was renewed for a sixth season. Kripke was ready to move on and play more of a background role, but most of the cast and crew stayed with the show through another year. And another. And another, and another, and another…
And so: The renewal came through in time for minor amendments to be made to the season five finale. We don’t know exactly how much was changed (would Castiel and Bobby have survived if it had all ended there?) but we know it wasn’t much – the final shot revealing a mysteriously not-in-Hell Sam being the most obvious nod towards the upcoming season.
Does it work as a series finale? The clue is in the title, really. This finale resolves some long-running conflict between Sam and Dean, puts a stop to the Apocalypse, locks Lucifer away… perhaps the only downside to this episode as a series finale is that, discounting the cliff-hanger ending and taking it as it was presumably originally intended, while Dean can go and live a life with his girlfriend and step-son, Sam is trapped in a cage in Hell. With Lucifer, a very ticked off archangel and his estranged brother Adam. Being tortured. Forever. It’s not that we particularly expect the show to end (if it ever does) without one or both of our guys dying, but poor Sam, all he wanted was to be saved. Giving him such a horrific fate is a bit of a downer. And then there’s that final shot providing the cliff-hanger which almost demands that you watch another season to find out just how he got out.
So I could just stop watching there, right? There’s no doubt that the Kripke seasons, especially seasons two through five, are the strongest of the show. Whenever a creator leaves or takes a backseat, whether it’s The West Wing, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Community, the show cannot be quite the same after they’ve gone. However, there’s plenty of good stuff in seasons six-ten of Supernatural, and you wouldn’t want to miss out on the show literally breaking the fourth wall in The French Mistake (season six), or the joyful celebration of the 200th episode in Fan Fiction (season ten).
Scrubs, My Finale
The finale: Even more than Supernatural, the title says it all. There’d been talk of season seven being Scrubs’ final season, but when the writers’ strike cut that season short, ABC picked the show up for a valedictory season eight. Over the course of that year, Elliot and JD got back together, Turk and Carla decided to have a second child, Ted got a girlfriend and the Janitor got married. Finally, at the end of the season, JD left Sacred Heart to be closer to his son and the story that was begun with the pilot episode, My First Day, was brought to a natural conclusion.
But then… The show was renewed for a ninth season with a mostly new cast and a new setting in a medical school.
And so: Unwilling to put anyone who wanted to be involved out of work, Bill Lawrence continued to run what was now a very different show, with guest appearances from both JD and Elliot over the course of the season. My Finale itself, however, was unaffected and left to stand as written, as a finale, since it represented the end of JD’s voiceover narration and the end of the series set in Sacred Heart itself.
Does it work as a series finale? Very much so. JD’s send-off is rather beautiful, featuring validation from Dr Cox, a glimpse at significant characters past and present, dead and alive, and a vision of a possible – probable? – future set perfectly to Peter Gabriel’s The Book Of Love.
So I could just stop watching there, right? Yes. Season nine wasn’t a total loss – it had its moments – but yes. Stop there.
Doctor Who, The War Games
The finale: There are so many points where Doctor Who nearly came to an end. We could easily have chosen to talk about Survival, the final episode in the run of Classic Who, or even The End Of Time, technically never intended to be any kind of series finale but putting a firm full stop on Russell T Davis’ era as showrunner. But we wanted to highlight the final episode of the serial The War Games as an episode written specifically to serve as a possible finale and put an end to the Doctor’s adventures, a story which not only deposits Companions Jamie and Zoe back in their own times without any memory of their adventures, but forces a regeneration on the Doctor and exiles him in an attempt to stop him meddling in other civilizations.
But then… Doctor Who was given another season, albeit with a lot of changes – new lead, new Companions (one a former guest star, one new), new set-up, and in colour.
And so: The War Games leaves the Doctor forced to regenerate and exiled to Earth, providing a fresh new set-up for the new season and the new Doctor.
Does it work as a series finale? Yes and no. It provides closure for Jamie and Zoe, with their memory wipes ensuring that Jamie isn’t going to start trying to explain motor cars or spaceships to seventeenth century Highlanders, and it closes off the Second Doctor’s story. However, viewers must have been left wondering what the new regeneration of the Doctor would be like, and how he would deal with being exiled on Earth. There’s also the matter of a mysterious Gallifreyan called the War Lord who knows the Doctor and who may or may not be identifiable (depending on your personal head-canon) as a character that appears again..
So I could just stop watching there, right? No. Definitely not. The First and Second Doctors are great; so are the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth (debatably), Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth, Eighth-and-a-half…
Stargate SG-1, Moebius
The finale: No one was sure if SG-1 would be renewed at the end of its sixth season, or its seventh, or its eighth, so all had season finales designed to double up as series finales if necessary. However, it’s the eighth season finale, and Richard Dean Anderson’s final episode as a regular, that’s especially clearly designed to round off not just that season, but the series as a whole. Having apparently finally defeated both the Replicators and the Goa’uld, this final two-parter offers a fun alternate-timeline story that revisits elements, not only of the pilot, but also the original movie.
But then… The show was renewed and ran for another two seasons and two made-for-TV movies.
And so: The eighth season finale itself remains unaffected, with the show starting afresh with new storylines, a new regular character and a new recurring enemy in season nine.
Does it work as a series finale? Moebius works as a rather lovely tribute to the show and its fans. General Hammond appears and Kawalsky is raised from the dead and immediately killed yet again, Teal’c repeats his early character arc, Carter makes fun of her famously awkward introduction and the series revisits Ra, Apophis, and Daniel Jackson’s Egyptian language skills. The story opens with the death of Catherine Langford, closing off another story from the movie and pilot, and it includes treats for long-term fans such as killing Daniel Jackson yet again (a character who died and came back to life so many times they started to include jokes about it in the script) and most importantly, there’s an alternate-timeline version of O’Neill and Carter living out a happy ending together sometime around 3000 BC.
So I could just stop watching there, right? You could, especially if you’re a Richard Dean Anderson fan (though he does make occasional guest appearances later). This is probably a better series finale than the one the show actually got, not counting the TV movies – although some of us are rather fond of the lyrical Unending, it doesn’t round off the series quite as nicely as this one does. On the other hand, Ben Browder and Claudia Black make great late additions to the team and you don’t want to miss the gloriously hilarious 200th episode in season ten, which somehow manages to do just as good a job of celebrating the show all over again.