6 staples of sci-fi and fantasy television

Odd List Juliette Harrisson 25 Nov 2010 - 11:27

Alternate dimensions, body swapping, and time loops are all familiar scenarios in sci-fi and fantasy TV. Here, Juliette lists six common genre staples…

Those of us who are fans of science fiction and fantasy shows on television will have noticed that certain ideas seem to get 'homaged’, if we want to be polite ('recycled’ if we want to be slightly less polite and 'copied’ if we want to be downright rude), on a regular basis. 'Copied' is really rather unfair, as the writer usually has no desire to steal others’ ideas, they are simply familiar with the genre and want to tell a similar story.

There are only so many ideas in the multiverse, and they occasionally get reused, some more than others. TV Tropes lists many hundreds of them, but this article is about the special few that provide the basis for episode after episode of television.

Some ideas are so common that just about any science fiction or fantasy television series, if it runs long enough, will end up using them at some point. These are the top six. You’ll be hard pushed to find a genre show that doesn’t use these eventually!

1. The Bodyswap

Named for the Red Dwarf episode Bodyswap, which features this trope in its purest form, as the crew literally swap bodies with each other. Usually, this episode revolves around the theft of the body of a regular cast member by an enemy, as in Stargate SG-1's Holiday, Buffy The Vampire Slayer's Who are You?, Angel's Carpe Noctem, Star Trek: Voyager's Vis-a-vis or Doctor Who's New Earth.

Ideally, the return of the right body to the right person will involve some swapping among the regular cast members, as it does in The Holiday, while Voyager’s Body And Soul, like Bodyswap, features only body swapping among regular cast members (though one could say, given Rimmer’s terrible personality and his actions in the episode, that he himself is the enemy who steals Lister’s body).

Alternate realities and fantasy or dream scenarios also occasionally make use of this trope, such as Farscape’s Unrealized Reality.

The point of the bodyswap is, essentially, to get regular cast members to play an entirely different character from their usual role. This allows the actors to flex their acting muscles a bit, the writers to write some amusing visual gags as one character takes on the mannerisms and habits of another and the show runners to shake up the characters’ relationships, especially their romantic ones.

Since one regular actor playing the character of another is a difficult concept to deliver with too much gravity, these episodes are usually comic, unless the show in question is Farscape, a show whose writers have the uncanny ability to create a serious, dramatic and often tragic situation out of almost anything.

2. The Time Loop

Used most famously and most simply in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Cause And Effect, this can be the basis for the whole episode or just a part of it, depending how much enthusiasm the writer has for writing the same scene over and over again while trying to keep it fresh.

For this reason, and because of the difficulty of getting out of it, the time loop that no one is aware of is rather rare, though it does appear briefly in Red Dwarf’s White Hole. A more useful variant is the Groundhog Day scenario, in which one person, or a small number of people, remember everything each time they loop, though those around them do not.

This one forms the basis of one of SG-1’s best and funniest episodes, Window Of Opportunity, and also appears in Buffy’s Life Serial.

The time loop is also usually exploited for its comic potential (anyone who’s seen Window Of Opportunity may never want to eat Froot Loops again). However, it can offer a splendid opportunity for the writer who enjoys playing around with structure, and the end of Cause And Effect is terribly poignant.

Surprisingly, Steven Moffat, the structure king and current showrunner for Doctor Who, has yet to use this one. I’ll be looking out for it over the next couple of seasons.

3. Ascension To A Higher Plane Of Existence

A long-running character is leaving the show and you want to give them a big, emotional farewell. However, despite the often impermanent nature of death in the world of science fiction and fantasy, you are reluctant to actually kill them off. They might want to come back later, or perhaps their character is too beloved of the audience to risk annoying them by killing their favourite.

Then you hit upon the perfect solution. Instead of dying, your character will 'ascend’ (never 'descend’) to a 'higher plane of existence’, rendering them effectively dead as far as the show is concerned, but ensuring that, regardless of religious affiliation, it is canon that their soul, or mind, or essence, or whatever, is still around, somewhere, somehow. Possibly wearing a cricket jumper, as Daniel Jackson appears to be in SG-1’s Abyss.

Because this trope tends to be used as a substitute for an actual belief in an afterlife, the more secular the show, the more likely this trope is to turn up (with the notable exception of new Doctor Who, in which eternal life inside the Matrix is used instead). On the other hand, if the show is too hard and cynical, this will be too soppy for it, so there are no Farscape examples and certainly no Red Dwarf examples.

SG-1 used it occasionally, most notably for Daniel Jackson in Meridian, but by far the most frequent user and abuser of this trope is Star Trek. Wesley Crusher, Captain Sisko and Kes have all ascended (and sometimes, like the aforementioned Dr Jackson, descended again), and even the movies have got in on the act, with two characters in The Motion(less) Picture managing to achieve glowy ascension.

A more unusual example is provided by Angel, a show where everyone bar the vampires definitely has a soul, but Cordelia ascends anyway in Tomorrow, except that’s not really what happens...

4. Alternate Dimensions

This is really more than one trope, as there are so many different varieties, but all come under the general umbrella heading of alternate universes, parallel dimensions, etc, etc, etc. There are, however, two main types.

In a Type A alternate universe, something has been changed, through time travel, magic or other messing about with the space time continuum, and the world has changed as a result, for the worse, naturally, or we wouldn’t be invested in changing it back again.

This has been the basis for some very good It’s A Wonderful Life-type episodes including Doctor Who’s Turn Left, TNG’s Yesterday’s Enterprise, Buffy’s The Wish and SG-1’s Moebius. These episodes tend to be somewhere on a sliding scale between poignant and tragic, and killing off at least one, preferably several, major characters is a must, since the episode is designed to allow the writers to go to emotional places they cannot usually go to in the daily running of the show.

Like the Bodyswap, these episodes often offer the actors a chance to play against their usual type, but for emotional rather than comic effect.

Type B parallel universes are those that exist all the time, and are visited by our heroes, usually via wormhole. Some of them are based on the same line of reasoning as the Type A variety, where one small change has altered the course of history, but the difference is that this universe will go on existing after our heroes have travelled back to their own.

Examples include SG-1's There But For The Grace Of God and Red Dwarf's Dimension Jump, in which the dimensional traveller ends up in our universe.

Then there are the broader parallel universes, where something is different but on a much bigger, high concept, scale, like Red Dwarf's Parallel Universe, Doctor Who's Rise Of The Cybermen/The Age Of Steel and any episode of Star Trek set in the Mirror Universe.

Angel featured an unusual variety in Over The Rainbow and the following two episodes, in the form of a dimension in which vampires could walk around in the sunlight and the land was apparently entirely populated by angry green Klingons ('Numfar! Do the dance of joy!’).

As you can see from these examples, although Type B universes can be just as tragic as Type A, they are much more likely to be exploited for comic effect, showing alternate versions of our regular heroes doing things our they would never normally do: wearing their hair long, perhaps (Samantha Carter, SG-1), being generally brave and admirable (Rimmer, Red Dwarf) or running around in the sunlight (Angel, Angel).

The Star Trek Mirror Universe is usually used to get all the regular cast into even more sexualised costumes, up to and including bondage gear, and have them flirt outrageously with each other. (In Captain Kirk’s case, it’s quite hard to tell the difference.)

Both types of alternate reality, whether poignant Type As or sexy-comic Type Bs, do one thing above all else. It is absolutely compulsory to bring a deceased character back in Alternate Universe form. From the Master, to Kawalsky, to Tasha Yar to Rimmer himself, someone will come back from the dead in an Alternate Universe episode. And probably die again by the end.

5. The Doppelganger/Double/Duplicate

All three of these terms are used frequently, often concurrently, often with slightly different meanings every time they are used. Just defining one of these terms could be the length of a book chapter.

What I have in mind here, however, is a bit more simple. The Doppelganger staple can refer to any episode in which the same actor plays the same character, or variants on the same character, twice.

Characters can be 'split into two’, though they somehow end up with two whole bodies (Star Trek's The Enemy Within, Buffy's The Replacement), or they can be cloned or otherwise duplicated (Farscape's Eat Me, Red Dwarf's Me², TNG's Second Chances, Doctor Who's Journey’s End), while occasionally the duplicate is the result of messing around too much with time travel (Voyager's Relativity, Red Dwarf's Stasis Leak).

The net result is that we see two versions of the same character. Variations on this theme can feature a single character from an alternate universe getting through to ours and meeting their opposite, as in SG-1’s Point Of View or Buffy’s Doppelgangland, or bad guys posing as the main characters and taking on their appearance (so the actor plays their own character plus a bad guy pretending unsuccessfully to be their own character) as in SG-1’s Foothold.

Sometimes, the trope goes super-sized. In Voyager, the entire ship is duplicated in Deadlock, while Red Dwarf gave us the quite horrific concept of hundreds of Rimmers in Rimmerworld.

The point of the Doppelganger is usually to explore different aspects of a main character’s personality, the basic trope having been set by Good Kirk and Evil Kirk in The Enemy Within. In most instances the ‘extra’ character will have been disposed of by the end of the show, through death, re-integration with their other half, or in extreme cases execution (as in Me² and in the reverse-doppelganger Voyager story Tuvix, in which the titular hybrid must be split back into two characters).

On rare occasions, the duplicate may be set free to live their own life at a safe distance from their double (Journey’s End and Second Chances). Only Farscape, which just has to be different, actually hung on to both versions of the character for quite a substantial period of time before finally succumbing to narrative imperative and killing one of them off.

6. The Dream Episode

Dream episodes, in which most of the episode is made up of dream sequences, come in a variety of flavours. The simplest and most immersive form of Dream Episode is the Nightmare On Elm Street model, in which something or someone attacks our heroes in their dreams: Voyager's Waking Moments, Buffy's Restless and Xena: Warrior Princess' Dreamworker are all good examples (and excellent episodes).

The most common variation is an episode based around hallucinations and visions experienced by one or more characters, as in Angel's Orpheus, Voyager's Projections, Farscape's Revenging Angel and Red Dwarf's Back To Reality. Sometimes the hallucinations are induced by someone or something which wants to get some kind of message to our heroes, as in SG-1's Forever In A Day and Absolute Power (where Forever In A Day is directly referenced in an attempt to cover up the fact they’ve used the same plot device twice on the same character).

Doctor Who’s Amy’s Choice plays on elements of all three types, depending on whether you consider the Dream Lord’s actions to be carrying a message of some kind, and whether our heroes are ever really threatened.

Some episodes based around computer simulations can function a bit like Dream Episodes as well, such as Voyager’s The Thaw, Red Dwarf’s Better Than Life or Farscape’s John Quixote, but simpler simulation-based stories, like Star Trek’s perennial holodeck-gone-wrong scenarios, lack the ‘weirdness’ element crucial to a good Dream Episode.

As the title of Amy’s Choice implies, the majority of Dream Episodes are designed to move one of the main characters forward emotionally (which is rather important, since usually nothing has actually happened over the course of the episode).

A Dream Episode will usually force a character to confront an emotional problem and often they will move on with renewed or changed purpose in the following episodes (so Voyager’s Doctor confirms his identity as an intelligent hologram in Projections, Daniel Jackson starts looking for the Harsesis child after Forever In A Day and stops again after Absolute Power, and in the most dramatic example, Angelus is once again replaced by Angel after Orpheus).

Sometimes, though, the Dream Episode is just an excuse to indulge in something truly outrageous or silly that can’t work outside a dream context. Red Dwarf’s Back To Reality does this to some extent, but Farscape’s Revenging Angel is the classic example, existing for no other reason than to mess around with some Looney Toons-inspired animation.

Et voila, those are the six staples of science fiction and fantasy television. We could perhaps add a seventh, The Return Of The Character Who Was Really, Really Dead, but not only does this trope, though undoubtedly universal, usually rely on one of the others listed here to function (from Alternate Universes to Doppelgangers to Dreams) it also exists outside genre television as well.

Just about any really long-running show will fall prey to this trope eventually, usually through another non-genre specific trope, the Flashback (see, for example, Heckles in Friends' TOW The Flashback, Mrs Landingham in The West Wing's Bartlett For America or Laverne in Scrubs' My Comedy Show).

For genre television, however, the six concepts listed here are central to the maintenance of a long-running show. Sometimes, they can be so central that an entire series is based on one of them, as Sliders is on the Alternate Universe or Quantum Leap on the Bodyswap.

The point of repeating these stories for writers is not, as is often assumed, laziness. Rather, by playing with a well-known theme, they can explore areas of their characters that are normally inaccessible. Their aim, we may be sure, is not to mindlessly repeat their predecessors, but to offer an exciting new twist that makes the story their own.

As you may have guessed, Farscape is probably the most successful!

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