Cliffhangers. The bane of modern television and the province of hack writers.
Oh sure, cliffhangers have been around for a long time, they go back at least as far as the Saturday-afternoon movie series of the 30s. Cleverly designed stories intended to get the kids back each week to spend their hard-earned cash.
Did it go back further? Did cliffhanger vaudeville shows exist? What about live theatre? DId Shakespeare ever write a cliffhanger?
When is a cliffhanger an important plot device rather than a cheat to the audience that forces them to return to get the rest of the story?
Even if you didn’t pay money, you’ve invested your time. At what point were you cheated out of your time by the writer stopping in the middle of a story and saying, “See ya’ later!”?
Rarely did this used to happen in “real” movies. The first I can recall, The Empire Strikes Back, was a horrible cheat. The story had no resolution at all and was nothing more than a setup for the third and final movie. Given the choice, I would have preferred to wait and watch both at the same time, rather than waiting years between them.
TV series began this sort of thing sometime back in the 80’s (As I recall, anyway). Presumably as a means to get viewers to write the networks and demand their show be renewed. Cliffhanger? Artistic statement or cynical attempt to manipulate the public?
As you may have ascertained, I’m of dual-mind on the subject. When I know, in advance and with my own agreement that a story is a cliffhanger, I have no problem with it. When there’s a four-part Doctor Who, I know parts one, two and three are going to end of a (sometimes horribly lame) cliffhanger, but I also know the story will completed and the end of part four and that my investment of time will be rewarded. (Horns of Nimon, notwithstanding.)
So, let’s look at Primeval. I gather that Primeval is taking a week off and next week will be back with the series’ finale. I also gather that DVDs of the third series are already “in the wild” and you only need do a few minutes research on the net and you’ll know what happens next week. For the sake of disclosure, I might through this discourse reveal spoilers about the finale, as it’s been spoiled for me.
Let’s start at the beginning with series one.
Anomalies started forming, strange creatures were getting through. Paleontologist Nick Cutter accidentally (or through the intervention of his missing wife) gets drawn into the story. Also, Stephen his assistant, Conner a student and Abby a zoo worker are drawn in. They get bound up by the Official Secrets act and start working with Lester and Claudia Brown. In the first episode, with an anomaly open to the Permian, Cutter goes through and finds a dead human skeleton and a camera. When the pictures are developed, they are of his missing wife, Helen.
We have a mystery – several actually. What are the anomalies? Who is the dead person? What does Helen know?
Through the series, we learn nothing about the anomalies. They are, as best we can tell, freak natural events with no rhyme or pattern. We do learn, slowly, that Helen knows something about them and that she has some connection with Stephen.
We learn that there are “junction points” of anomalies, where multiple anomalies exist, which Helen seems to be able to navigate.
Finally, a terrifying future predator comes through the Permian anomaly (apparently another anomaly exists in the Permian which leads to the future.) Cutter, along with Helen and military backup take some orphaned (Cutter thinks) baby future predators through the anomaly in an attempt to find the future anomaly, but they escape in the Permian.
Cutter realizes, too late, that this second Permian anomaly isn’t exactly the same as before. It now leads to an earlier point in the Permian. One of the team is killed (leaving the human skeleton that Cutter found previously (in the past’s future) and Cutter also takes the photos of Helen that they retrieved from the camera.
Escaping with lives, Helen and Cutter return to the present, not realizing that baby predators were left behind.
In the present, Helen reveals that she plans to continue exploring the anomalies and drops the bombshell on Cutter that she had an affair with his trusted friend and confidant, Stephen, then escapes into the closing anomaly.
Only then does Cutter learn that Claudia Brown has ceased to exist and no one remembers her except himself. End of series one.
Let’s look at that cliffhanger a little in regards to the context of the series.
There were really two mysteries in the first series. One was the anomalies themselves and nothing really was learned about them at all. They started for no apparent reason, appeared with no apparent pattern, and had no apparent one-to-one relationship between time and space. They were presented as almost a force of nature – one that is not understood, but cannot be avoided. It’s the mystery that is not to be solved. Perhaps it has no solution.
But there was a mystery or two that could be solved: Who was the dead body, and what was Helen doing having her picture taken in the Permian? These mysteries were cleared up. The writers gave us the answers that they had been promising. The cliffhanger, with Claudia Brown being going and time being changed was new, unexpected and a teaser. I can’t say I liked it, but it was a surprise new mystery.
In the second series, once again, we’re presented with a series of mysteries. The anomalies continue in pretty much the same fashion, albeit with the added factor of Conner’s anomaly detector telling them where they are.
In the second series, we wonder who is the traitor at the ARC? When we learn it is Leak, we wonder what’s he up to? Will Stephen be fooled by Helen? Will he betray his friends? How dumb can Conner be about his girlfriend? Who is the mysterious “Cleaner” who dies in the first episode but shows up again and again?
By the end of the series, all these questions have been answered, with the possible exception of the identity of the Cleaner. At least we are informed at the end that he is not one indestructible person, but an army of identical individuals. There’s not much of a cliffhanger in series two. It’s more Helen pointing out that time can be changed and that, perhaps, she’ll be bringing Stephen back. No cliffhanger is really needed, because after the first series started airing, Primeval was guaranteed two more series production.
Now we come to the third series. Ratings have been steadily declining, but the series is still popular. Ad revenue is down, but the cost of the show is high. The fate of Primeval is uncertain.
This year we start to learn something about the anomalies. They’re been around forever. (Well, obvious really, since know they go back at least as far as the Silurian.) More than that, they’ve been around throughout human history, undetected. They can be predicted, first by Cutter’s model, then by the mysterious future ARC artifact. They can be controlled with a proper (again future ARC) device. There is another government conspiracy aiming to use the anomalies for purpose or purposes unknown. They can be captured and moved using magnetism. They can be locked down. They have something to do with a mysterious government project from before the second world war. Finally, at last, the mystery of the anomalies is beginning to unravel.
Helen’s back, and she’s got a new mystery. She has seen the future. Mankind has been destroyed by the future predators. For some reason, she blames the ARC and Nick Cutter for unleashing the predators on the world. She has a crusade to save the world and she is so fanatical she kills Cutter to prevent the future she has seen. It doesn’t work. The mysterious artifact from the future has some purpose, but what?
So how do we fare by the end of the third series? In, we learn nothing about the cause of the anomalies. Do the mysterious future devices create them or simply open and close existing one. Looking at episodes 9 and 10, it seems in episode 9 they can open one anywhere, but in 10 you have to seek them out – and they clearly can’t be opened to just any point in time and space. We learn nothing about the pre-war project, in fact, the team ignore it completely. We know nothing of Christine Johnson’s military project. They do nothing with the ability to move anomalies. We learn that, in the future, the ARC has the technology to map and to open and close anomalies, nothing more. From episode 9 to episode 10, Helen’s plan to save mankind from destruction at the hands of the future predators suddenly becomes a plan to save the big, beautiful Earth from mean old mankind instead. All she had to do was look at the future without man to realize that the world didn’t need saving, it took care of it itself. Her madness dies with her at the end of the series. So, with the exception of Helen attempting to stop… something, all the mysteries in series three are left unanswered. On top to that, they strand Danny in the Pliocene, and Abby and Conner up a tree in the Cretaceous.
This is a series’ ending designed nothing more than to irritate people into demanding another series of Primeval, but perhaps they’ve forgotten the most important thing. If you shit on your audience too often, they don’t always come back.