Timeless, Sense8, and Firefly: The Case Against Two-Hour Wrap-Ups

It is with great sorrow and frustration that I say another potentially promising TV show bites the dust. Mere hours before drafting this essay in bed while flipping through TV news, I learned that NBC has cancelled the sci-fi adventure series Timeless. Again. It’s almost as if, for a show about going back in time to repair and safeguard history, this show just couldn’t change its own fate, no matter how vocal and obsessed the fan base (among whom I count myself as a member).

The death knell hasn’t totally rung out just yet—there are talks of one final salvo in order to bring closure to the entire story. Especially considering the big, dramatic cliffhanger of the season two finale—the death of one major character, and the appearance of the badass future versions of two others—as well as all of the season’s still-unanswered mysteries, a lot of people are hoping for more of the story to emerge.

But according to Shawn Ryan, the word is to give the show a finale two-hour movie special.

I say what I’m about to say as a fan, as someone who loves the characters and worldbuilding of Timeless a whole lot, and would do anything to see even more of them next year—

Please, for the love of all that is wholesome and noble on this pale blue dot, can folks just cut it out with the two-hour movie specials to wrap up canceled television plots? First Sense8, which I also loved and hated to lose, and now this?

I don’t mean to be cruel, but does anyone remember Serenity?

Okay, I think I can guess what you’re about to say. “What’s wrong with Serenity? That was a good movie!” And it was. I’m not saying it’s bad—it provably wasn’t. It was good! It was shiny, even! I enjoyed it a hell of a lot!

But… and I don’t know how to broach this topic to fellow Browncoats without a lot of frustration… Serenity isn’t Firefly. Not by a long shot. I’d even go so far as to say that if you put them beside each other, they’d only superficially resemble. Captain Malcolm Reynolds shifts almost suddenly from a snarky, charming rogue to a bitter, churlish old man who hangs up on the film’s call to action as often as the call is made, but somehow still finds himself moving forward within it based solely on reaction, taking the crew of his ship into unnecessary risks on barely any justification, all the while insisting he doesn’t like or want any of it. Why does he take the fugitive brainwashed assassin River Tam on a mission? Why does he seem not adequately bothered by the fact that a kill command can play on any television that can turn River into an unrestrained agent of mass murder? No matter how valuable the information is in theory, why does Mal decide to travel to Miranda if he knows it’s swimming with Reavers and he doesn’t even know what he’ll learn there? Why is this how we learn about the Reavers at all? Why is this the first we’re hearing of a soldier as good as The Operative? Why is his confrontation with The Operative the first we’re even learning about this war injury that renders him immune to pressure-point paralysis when even the earlier points of the film don’t properly establish the wound at all?

Serenity works in large part if you don’t think very much about how much more convenient it would have been to let each individual element of it breathe within a whole season: to let us see what makes Mal so bitter and expose us more to his personal consequences of the war, to step slowly toward the Reaver revelation and more secrets of the Alliance, and to tell a better story about how the access to information undoes despotism.

A movie isn’t that room. In fact, I’d dare say a movie can often do more harm to closure than just leaving a canceled show unresolved.

This goes especially for a show like Firefly, which it seemed was struggling on the production end to win the faith of execs as much as it had the hearts of viewers. Even a cursory read of the history of the show tells the story of execs who thought it wasn’t compelling enough, stripping it of the chance to even tell the full story of its first season, even if literally every episode was a winner in Browncoats’ eyes (yea, verily, even the finale, which I still have… a lot of harsh words for). A closure movie in circumstances like these seems to be the best of both worlds—more story for the people hungry to continue in that world, and less commitment for the folks who don’t want to pay for it any more.

Let’s look more closely at Sense8, for instance. Again, another show I loved, and didn’t want to go away, cut down by production struggles. Allegedly, Netflix figured the high expense required to make such an arresting, aggressively thematic globe-trotting series wasn’t breaking even with the viewership numbers, so they weren’t eager for a season three. Fans rioted on Twitter, and almost immediately a two-hour special was put on the table to tie up loose ends. Season Two, after all, also had a big cliffhanger—just when the entire world of sensates was beginning to be overturned, Wolfgang had been kidnapped, and the cluster had just resolved to bust him out by any means necessary.

What we got, though, was… a good movie. It’s good! I enjoyed it!

Except… what did it do to Capheus, and why did it just conveniently gloss over the fact that he was running for a major election in his home country of Kenya while all of this is happening, and hasn’t been seen by his constituents in days? Why does Lito contribute so little to the film except intense anxiety? While I love that the film gives so much room to develop the relationships between Kala and Wolfgang, and Nomi and Neets respectively, why are those the only ones it seems to value? Why does it attempt to rush through what should be the disturbing realization that so much of Wolfgang’s conflicts within his family are borne from his discovery that he is the offspring of an incestuous sexual assault, only to immediately drop the whole thing and give Wolf no further emotional catharsis? Why does the final confrontation feel so… lackluster?

The answer to all of these questions is, “because the fans deserved a final season”.

I get if the powers that be don’t want to commit any further to a show they have lost faith in. I get that they want to just put the thing out of its misery without losing the trust of audiences. But at least to me, it would always just be worth more to give a show another smaller season, even if it’s eight episodes, even if it’s six, than to strain the answers into two hours and hope for the best. A television season is a marathon—trying to close it out in one breathless sprint does the story less favors than just killing it. Or, to offer another analogy: if fans came for a full course meal and you tell us you don’t have the ingredients or the hands to prepare it, it’s much better for you to guide us away than to give us a burger and a shake to appease us.

The worldbuilding and character development of Timeless is too big, especially now, to just close with a film. Rufus was murdered, only for future versions of his comrades Lucy and Wyatt to come back to their time and volunteer to bring him back—their very presence breaking a temporal law the team had sworn by for months. The mystery of Garcia Flynn’s secret book containing all the plots and plans of the big bad organization Rittenhouse has yet to be solved, and further, what it implies about Flynn’s relationship with Lucy was barely explored this season in favor of shipping #Lyatt—and I want to be sure, I have no judgments about the ship one way or the other, but story is story, and especially considering that Lucy’s future, battle-worn badass self was staring her in the eye in the season finale, the idea of her actually going back in time just to guide Flynn on this path seems worthy of showing now. Also, Jiya can control her visions now, apparently, which is a big damn deal, especially considering that apparently she also taught herself how to fight?!? And not to mention all of the character potential we were just beginning to plumb the truest depths of regarding Connor Mason, Agent Denise Christopher, and even Rittenhouse agents Emma Whitmore and Jessica Logan the latter of which was Wyatt’s temporally resurrected wife.

Count all of those beats. Just imagine each of them being explored at their very fullest. If you commit even just twenty minutes to breathlessly giving each individual element space to breathe, you’d be wildly over the two-hour mark.

Why tease fans with the idea of telling a good story anxiously when you can just give it room to be told well—or, alternatively, not at all?

A lot of TV seems to be a struggle to balance fans with funds, and it plays out like the behind-the-scenes staff responsible for making these shows happen at all are experimenting with ways to produce the barest minimum viable product and not lose consumer trust. If the two-hour special is that new minimum viable product, I’m not sure that I’m for it. Stories don’t get to grow and flower in such small pots. The small portion of extra effort required to truly fulfill those stories to their best would have been worth it in my mind, not merely to give fans the story at its summit, but to hopefully give them faith that no matter your challenges producing those stories, you can be trusted by them to at least do them justice to the end. Without that, you’re not letting those shows pass on gracefully, you’re leaving them to bleed out in misery.

I want to be wrong. I want to be able to say that if Timeless got a movie special it would be grand and interesting and engaging just like each episode of its first two beautiful seasons. But I can’t lie. I suspect that no matter how enjoyable such a potential movie may be, it would pale in comparison to even six more proper episodes, even four. And I wish I could borrow their Lifeboat and travel back to the very first TV boardroom where the very first person ever thought up the two-hour-movie-special cop-out, and somehow bring them to their senses.

Brandon O’Brien is a performance poet and writer from Trinidad. His work is published or upcoming in Uncanny MagazineStrange HorizonsSunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-SpeculationArsenika, and New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean, among others. He is also the poetry editor of FIYAH Magazine. You can find his blog at therisingtithes.tumblr.com or on Twitter @therisingtithes.


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