In defence of 'monster of the week' episodes

Feature Juliette Harrisson 6 Jan 2014 - 07:00

While TV shows nowadays tend to concentrate on building complex mythologies, what's wrong with the odd one-off monster?

There was a time when the Monster of the Week was the standard format for genre television. There might be some character development across the series, but from week to week each plot stood alone and the audience didn’t need to have seen the previous week’s episode to understand a new story. There were exceptions and special cases of course. Classic Doctor Who was serialised, and some shows like The Prisoner, while largely following a distinct narrative each week, also incorporated ongoing plot progression, an ongoing story arc. But for the most part, you could tune in to a show a month after you last saw it and still know what was going on.

Due to a variety of factors including the increasing popularity of video recorders throughout the 1980s, things started to change. The name ‘Monster of the Week’ comes from writing relating to The X-Files, as the phrase was used to distinguish between one-shot stories and episodes relating to the alien conspiracy myth arc. Several 1990s shows, such as Stargate SG-1, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Farscape, followed this model and combined ongoing story arcs with monster of the week episodes. While The X-Files floundered a bit when its myth arc became rather convoluted, many of these shows produced strong, compelling story arcs that culminated in dramatic, emotionally resonant season finales.

This continuing trend has produced some fantastic television over the years, but I believe it has had one rather unfortunate side effect, namely, the de-valuing of the monster of the week episode. From the late 1990s onwards, these episodes have frequently been referred to as ‘filler’ episodes, implying that they are somehow worth less than story arc episodes. Good ones may be praised as being surprisingly good for a filler episode, while bad ones are criticised partly for being a filler episode. Shows that don’t use this format can be criticised on that basis alone, and if characters fail to mention the events of the previous week’s episode in the following episode, they can be accused of pressing the dreaded reset button.

In extreme cases, show-runners have started to produce more and more episodes based around ongoing plot arcs relating to the main characters, on the grounds that episodes about the main characters are always the most popular with the fans. It’s true that episodes whose plots revolve around something deeply significant to a main character will always be the most popular – but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can get the fans to love every single episode by making them all about the main characters. Take Quantum Leap, for example. Fan favourites episodes of that show often include those revolving around Sam or Al; M.I.A., The Leap Home, A Leap for Lisa. But Quantum Leap simply couldn’t work as a series if every episode was about something deeply personal to Al or Sam. Just because fans like episodes focused on personal crises for the main characters doesn’t mean they want to see that every week.

Of course, every show has to find the format that works best for that particular series. Some shows combine story arcs with monsters of the week very effectively. Other shows tell an ongoing story in which every episode builds on the last and it is necessary to watch every week. This form of long-form story-telling has been around for a long time, chiefly in mini-series and book adaptations, a tradition continued today through hit series like Game of Thrones, which uses shorter, more tightly scripted and focused seasons to tell a story adapted from a specific book (or half a book). The format has also become popular in non-literary-based longer US-format seasons following the (initial) popularity of Lost, Heroes and 24. There’s nothing wrong with any of these formats and they are clearly the best option for some shows. However, I believe some shows could benefit from more monster of the week episodes and less of an emphasis on story arcs, and that no episode should be criticised on the basis of being a monster of the week episode alone.

Artistically, monster of the week episodes allow a show to tell a contained, focused story with a clear beginning, middle and end. Viewers can sit down to enjoy an episode of their favourite show knowing that they will get some resolution by the end of the episode (or by next week if it’s a two-parter). The show can also embrace a wider variety of styles and stories, so that if a viewer doesn’t like a particular episode because it’s not to their taste, they know there’s a good chance they’ll enjoy next week’s more. This is especially true of series with particularly broad-ranging concepts, like Doctor Who or Quantum Leap, but it is also true of series that stay more closely within one genre, as The X-Files might follow up a mutant serial killer story with a ghost story, or the various incarnations of Star Trek might follow up a technology-gone-wrong story with an alien-planet-based story.

There are also practical advantages to this form of story-telling. Most of us who spend time on the internet talking about science fiction shows are probably pretty tech-savvy and knowledgeable about the various options for following complex plots over a period of time, including catch-up services, Netflix subscriptions and so on. But there’s a whole world of people out there who haven’t the time or inclination to hook up their computer to their television (or arrange their furniture so they can sit and watch things on the computer together), who don’t pay for the services required to get catch-up services on their television or who simply haven’t got around to finding out about these things. Even when catch-up services are easily available, not everyone wants to have to work on squeezing in two hours of catch-up viewing before watching this week’s episode. Sometimes, it’s nice to be able to sit down and watch a show you haven’t seen in a while without wondering what on earth is going on.

Ultimately, like most things, it all comes down to personal preference. Some people will always prefer complex, long-form story-telling, some will always prefer more self-contained episodes, some will prefer one for one show but a different form for another show. So I suppose my point is that whatever your preference, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a monster of the week episode or an anthology show. Criticise episodes for being boring, criticise them for being stupid, criticise the plot for not making any sense, the acting for being terrible, the direction for making you feel sick, but maybe think twice before criticising something purely on the basis that it’s a ‘filler’ episode. They’re not completely without merit.

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The whole reason I stopped watching The X-Files after season 2 was because of its shift to the character story arcs. That executive mentality of "people like this, let's do it more" really needs to get revised. Or at least more nuanced.

Or there's the approach of "let's use what's already in the props department", which gives us the returning (and in some cases overused) monsters of Doctor Who, and the arcs that come with it. But episodes like "Midnight" really highlight how good writing can keep shows like this innovative without putting a strain on the budget.

Fringe managed to find the middle ground nicely, presenting what appeared to be 'monster of the week' episodes that were later brought back as part of the shows broader mythology. It was innovative and largely successful.

Can we get some props for Star Trek's 'forehead of the week' legacy, too? A dreadful black hole of fundamental creativity or originality.

Fringe didn't manage that at all.
Fringe started out with the intention to have a running time close to X-Files (7-10 seasons), and wanted to ease the audience into the strange world. It did this through monster of the week episodes, mixed in with a little arc building.

This model was highly critisized, specially considering the people behind it were adding stuff that was overarcing (such as the glyphs's between the segments).

Unfortunately the audiences patience ran out and by season 2 fringe had to kick it into high gear with the arc. After season 1 it is nigh-impossible to watch it as a non-serialized show. Much quicker than intended, and as a consequence each season has a very distinct feel and setting to it.

I personally think that Fringe would have been better had the opportunity to progress slower, comparable to shows such as DS9, Buffy or even comedies such as Friends or How I Met Your Mother.

(On that note: it is very annoying to find that both Friends and HIMYM turn to an overall story arc for their final seasons, where the jokes are season based, rather than episode based - case-in-point: the "thank-you-linus" drinks joke.)

Season 2 had about as much arc-based episodes as seasons 3-7?

With the Matt Smith era Doctor Who I've found that most of the best episodes where the stand alone "monster of the week" style episodes and thought it was a shame that we didn't get a few more

I prefer it when Moffat focuses on one individual monster only once; he's really overused monsters like the Weeping Angels and the Daleks (he's completely misused the Daleks in the past few years) and I think it's completely devalued their original effect.

As with most things in life, season 2 of Buffy is the answer. The main thrust of the season expertly woven throughout both arc episodes and standalones, with a highlight being "I Only Have Eyes for You."

I know. I hung in there hoping that they'd stop, but after a whole season I lost interest.

That's a shame. The myth-arc ones are pretty easy to skip and only comprise the minority of the episodes. The peak of the series is probably seasons 3-5 (for both standalone and arc-based episodes)

Completely agree with this, and you mentioned my favourite episode so +1 for you

Also, just remembered the end of the episode as well with Spike kicking his wheelchair. Boy, that's such a good episode.

Have to agree. I have the feeling Moffat makes up a story like Time of the Doctor and than thinks "There should be some Daleks in it. It's a regeneration episode!" Apart from Asylum of the Daleks they are nothing more than suporting characters it seems.

Sometimes filler episodes can be the best and include some nice character moments. Take 'Window of Opportunity' or 'Grace Under Pressure' from SG1 and SGA. Both amazing episodes. Of course, Stargate was very much an 'Alien of the Week' type show but you can also take the early seasons of Supernatural too. That was totally a 'Monster of the Week' show, but quite frankly, some of the stand-alone episodes were so much better then the myth-arc ones.

It depresses me a little that Monster of the Week has become an inherent criticism. The same thing has happened to sentimentality. Where once sentimentality was a device that could be used, it is now an obstacle that has to be overcome. "Yeah, it was sentimental, but..."

Interesting article. I think it all gets down to the writing, i.e. a good MotW episode is like a solid short story that takes place in the space between the chapters of a novel.

My first pass is to say that part of the reason the MotW episodes get a bad rap is because often it seems as though - from a writing perspective - the question asked really is "okay, what monster can we throw at'em this week?" rather than (like a short story) beginning with an interesting, cool idea that then gets mixed in with the existing characters and world to create an engaging, self-contained story.

He keeps on gratuitously including characters and monsters that he's got good feedback for - the Weeping Angels, River Song, the Paternoster Gang... He's completely moving away from what RTD did when it came to limiting episodes that monsters appeared in. It's no longer a big event when the Daleks or Cybermen come along, it's just another episode.

He needs to change that, he needs to limit appearances of fan favourites, stop all these ridiculous 2 minute appearances from various monsters in episodes simply for effect, and start creating some more original monsters that can be recurring such as the Silents.

Sorry but I absolutely totally disagree with that. In the Moffat era we've had the Daleks returned to being a proper threat that don't have to be wiped out down to the last pepper pot except for that one hiding in the corner after they'd been reduced to a joke at the end of RTD's time. They've actually been used sparingly when you think about it, only two full-blown Dalek episodes. They turn up as supporting cast in Pandorica / Big Bang as well as the Time of the Doctor and that's it. Oh, and Day of the Doctor but that's kinda unavoidable when dealing with the time war.

In every instance they've been treated well by the show, shown to be a threat and utterly determined to achieve their goals. Top of my head sees them win in Victory, basically win in Pandorica (they just misread the TARDIS exploding but the plan works!), win in Asylum (capture the Doctor and he does just what they wanted) and should have won in Time if it wasn't for a curve ball that they were genre-savvy enough to expect (albeit wrong-genre savvy as it turned out).

Same for the Angels, they've shown up in just two stories (albeit one is a two parter) and both have had them doing something different. They've had... I want to say two other brief appearances and have been treated as Very Bad News each time. And let's not forget they got the pretty rare distinction of taking out companions.

Surely such a small amount of episodes / screen time doesn't count as overusing them compared to the 44 episodes we've had so far? For comparison the Daleks got 11 episodes as the main villains in RTD's run of 60 episodes (18%) versus 6 out of 44 (13%) in Moffat's. And all of RTD's are Dalek-focused, up to four of Moffat's episodes can be argued as minor roles.

Barely on subject, I just noticed Bryan Cranston and Nathan Fillion on Saving Private Ryan last night. Who knew!!! Probably everyone but me

Coincidentally, both those Stargate episodes also involve the main characters' infatuation with a certain Samantha Carter... perhaps there's a link here...

"He's completely moving away from what RTD did when it came to limiting episodes that monsters appeared in." - please tell me you're kidding? Go back through RTD's 60 episodes and you get:

Daleks - 11
Cybermen - 5
Master - 5
Ood - 3
Slithen - 3
Cassandra - 2

Total - 29 episodes (48%!) shared between just those 6 villains, and those are as the main creature as well, not guest appearances. Of the remaining 31 episodes 5 are two part stories so we get 26 unique villains. And here's a question... how many were really memorable? Frankly once you drop Moffat's stories from the equation it doesn't look too good. The family of blood, the Krillitanes and maybe the Beast?

Oh yes, and if you think RTD didn't do background characters go read The Writer's Tale. They wanted to do a huge 'every creature under the sun' scene in The Stolen Earth but didn't have the money. Same with the alien bar Jack's in at The End of Time. Daleks were meant to be in the End of Time as well but got cut for time (and because RTD forget than Moffat was using them early in S5). Seem to remember there's a couple more instances I'm forgetting as well.

This is most definitely NOT a criticism of RTD by the way but this revisionist history is bordering on silly at this point, especially considering it's only a few years back!

Interesting article, you might like a debate with your colleague that reviews Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, who seems to hate anything that does not contribute to the all-powerful arc.

I grew up with TV like Buck Rogers, Knight Rider and Streethawk... the nearest you got to an arc then was a rare two-parter. Good times.

I totally love how the Daleks were treated in Asylum. Totally unstoppable for much of the running time, only to be completely blown away at the end. That episode improves on second viewings, for sure.

"It’s nice to be able to sit down and watch a show you haven’t seen in a while without wondering what on earth is going on" - If you're not watching the show enough to keep up to date with it, should you really get a say in what kind of episodes are aired?
Much as I loved growing up with TNG's and SG1's MotW episodes, I'm thrilled that we have moved t.v. to a more arc-based story telling medium. If (as with Voyager, pretty much) you can watch the pilot episode, and then the series finalé, and almost nothing has changed, then there seems to be little point in watching anything that happens in between. I'm thrilled by character growth. I hate the 'reset' button. However, this may all be down to the quality of MotW episodes, which seemed to be in serious decline. Some stand alone episodes were fantastic (SG1's "1969", TNG's "The Inner Light"), but I like having something to invest in.

And even then they were only really beaten by their own arrogance from both converting Clara and letting her inside their networks. Sure the Doctor does a lot to sort the situation out but without her he'd it could have gone very differently.

Related note: really think people have missed their strength in Time of the Doctor. They outlast *the entire universe*! By the end of the episode they're the only enemy race still fighting and have beaten back everything the Doctor can throw at them. They storm the Papal Mainframe and set a trap that works. Granted they then get beaten by something they didn't foresee but the plan basically worked. They're also given a really nasty moment with the "she'd have died before lowering the shield" "several times" exchange too.

Honestly, the Daleks under Moffat are a bigger threat than they have been in decades. They're rarely defeated, usually have very solid plans (no pigmen here!), always seem to be just as determined as the Doctor and even manage to win from time to time! What more could we ask for?

Interesting that Quantum Leap was mentioned. I've just started re-watching them, after being a casual viewer back in the day.

Not only is the lack of arc refreshing, there's also a few other things that make 90s TV a nice change from today's TV.

Not everything is a mystery that has to be poked all the time.
Science, possibly God and ... stuff are behind the leaping, who cares... hey look at that weird suit Al's wearing... cool...

There's a proper theme tune, you can hum it and everything!
(... and that goes with ...)
Proper opening titles, exactly where you would expect them!
A recent episode of Sleepy Hollow waited 17 minutes (of 41) to bother with the opening titles.

The show's nearly 50 minutes long!
Back before adverts appeared every 12 seconds, there was an extra 10 minutes of show per hour!

The producers etc don't have such huge egos that their names are plastered over the first five minutes of the show!

You're allowed to concentrate on the opening scene without knowing who ordered the muffins on set each day.
Why do movie & TV makers have this obsession? You never buy a car and get to read who fitted the gear stick. I've never eaten an Eccles cake and found out on the wrapper that the currants were pushed in by Elsie Bainbridge of Harrogate.

Not everyone's gorgeous!
Even the good looking people are only as good looking like real people. Teri Hatcher, guest starring in an early QL episode, only looks pretty and normal, not airbrushed and made up to perfection.

They have to use plots as there wasn't much CGI back then.
Al walking thru the wing of a plane has been the effects-highlioght of the show so far. Even that was pretty badly done. Due to this they have to use secondary things such as plot and narrative to keep our attention.

I miss 90's TV, before it all got metaphysical and it was OK to prick tease an audience of millions for years and then fail to follow through with an explanation.

Stephen I think you are mistaking what Moffat said with the crappy episodes he produced. He said I'm going to make Daleks scary again (big insult to some of the finest episodes ever) and he produced Daleks wearing pinnys holding cups of tea!!! colourful plastic power ranger Daleks and villain-team Daleks who totally out of character join up with all the other baddies in a camp-tv-batman manner. Oh and the awful people with Dalek stalk d*ckheads they are so lame! Sorry but you are so wrong.

I actually can't help but disagree. (no surprise there) I believe by it's nature arc based storytelling is better than MotW storytelling. Because it makes for a deeper and more complex story. If that's not your thing I kinda get why someone'd be long ing for the good old days of MotW episodes but arc based storytelling makes for better tv, What seperates tv from movies is that with movies you have 90 - 180 minutes to tell your story (240 if you're Peter Jackson) whereas with tv you have dozens of episodes to tell your story. So why not take that great oppurtunity and really tell a deep and meaningful story full of character development and great twists? I strongly believe tv shows were meant to be told in a serialised format. I myself have watched standalone episodicals for years but let's face it: tv has moved on and so should we. As for that group of people not willing to keep up with a show week after week. They don't watch geek shows in any case. They watch things like CSI and such. Do we really want geek tv to turn into that? Now as a little peace offering I would like to say that it's not my intention to say that Procedurals are lousy. I love your 90 mins - 2 hour crime procedurals like Sherlock or Silent Witness. But they simply can't manage to reach the same level of quality as serials. I mean compare the above two shows with the absolute gem that is Broadchurch and you see how much more potential you can get out of a tv show if you turn it into a serial. And yes not all serials are incredibly awesome either. I gave up on Vikings after 6 episodes and that's about as serialised as they come. But overall I'd say as a genre the serial trumps the procedural big time.

Wow +1

I watch a lot of TV, and always a season or more at a time unless it's something particularly important like Breaking Bad in which case I'll watch it on a week by week basis. Now that I think about it, other than comedies there really aren't a lot of shows with self contained episodes. I haven't seen anything mentioned in the article but Fringe and Supernatural both come to mind for pulling off a mixture of both self-contained and story based episodes.

That's good to know. Maybe I should revisit it some time.

But why should you have to be completely devoted to a show to be able to enjoy it? What about people with small children, or who are working half a dozen part-time jobs to make ends meet? Not everyone is able to keep up with TV shows every week.

I understand that a lot of people prefer long form storytelling, that's fine. But as I mentioned above, it seems a shame that all genre TV should be that way - as I mentioned in a reply above, what about people with small children or a lot of part-time jobs? Should they just resign themselves to watching nothing but CSI? Some people might love SFF, but just not have enough time to keep up with long form narrative arcs.

Also, in Voyager's defence, if you only watched the pilot and the finale, you would wonder who Seven of Nine was, what happened to Kes, what happened to Neelix, how the Doctor evolved from a limited computer programme to a beloved member of the crew, when and how Paris and Torres got married and had a baby... it was slow burn (and Tuvok and Kim didn't change much, it's true) but the show did do some character development over the years.

Hmmm...I don;t know. I would have to see stats to really comment on this. I do see your point. However in my experience if people wish to invest in something they will regardless. I know a couple of people with small children and a full time/part time job (to my great regret and frustration it's always the female half of the couple with a part time job) who still watch Game of Thrones. In fact on that subject: the casual viewer crowd seems to have really embraced that show. When i started watching GoT almost three years ago now I couldn't talk about it with anyone. Not even my geeky friends. Then a year later I could talk about with pretty much all of my geeky friends. Since season three aired I can talk about it with pretty much anyone. I was at a birthday party a couple of months back with like 50 people present most of which i didn't know very well and I talked about GoT with at least half of them. It's really staggering just how many people watch this obvious genre show. I mean I can't imagine how you can watch something like Strictly Come Dancing and then tune in to watch Game of Thrones but apparantly they do. And though this is the most obvious example it's actually not limited to this show. My dad and his girlfriend (who happen to have a five yo) who used to watch nothing but shows like The Voice and X Factor are now watching Breaking Bad and last time I saw him he asked me if he could borrow my Boardwalk Empire boxsets. So yes the casual viewership preferences are changing as well. In my experience that is.

I guess it really is a matter of personal preference. Personally I do prefer show that have a story to tell and continue to do so each episode. I find myself quickly losing interest or just caring less about shows that have the monster/planet/murder of the week. It's the reason why I really don't care much about so many of the detective shows around. They're good... but they just feel very repetitive after a while. All in all, I think it's down to good writing. Buffy is a perfect example of how it can be done right with monster of the week episodes while touching upon the season's story now and then.

Proper opening titles, exactly where you would expect them!
A recent episode of Sleepy Hollow waited 17 minutes (of 41) to bother with the opening titles.

Hah! Chuck got notorious for that, especially later on in its run. It got so I made a game out of seeing how long it would take them to get around to "starting" the show.

Fringe could sometimes do it, but they were generally pretty quick with the titles — with good reason, namely their practice of varying the opening to match on whatever "world" that week's episode occupied. I still feel that was storytelling genius. (The show suffered from a thousand other "modern TV" problems, of course, most of which you covered.)

There's a proper theme tune, you can hum it and everything!

Mmm, I'd be careful with this one. It's as true for Enterprise (EUUUGH!) as it is for Star Trek: TNG (claaaasic!); as true for Stargate Atlantis (*snore*) as it is for Stargate SG-1 (still hear that one in my head).

I think it's important to strike a good balance between perfunctory and self-indulgent. It's nice to have a well-defined opening sequence, but there's no reason it has to be sixty seconds long like the first two Stargate series' were. And when it's as forgettable as the Stargate Atlantis theme, well... hell, I was glad to see it go, when they dumped the long-form opening in favor of a quick titlecard-and-done approach.

Not to belabor the Fringe thing, but their opening was just about perfect. Beyond the utilitarian aspects I mentioned, it was long enough to notice, yet brief enough to not get tedious. And while the theme music maybe wasn't hummable per se, it was distinctive. Plus, Abrams composed it himself, which... I won't lie, is a little bit awesome.

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