This story originally ran on Den of Geek UK.
Stories told backwards, or stories told in reverse chronology, are relatively rare, though more common than you might think.
There are two types of backwards episode. One belongs to science fiction and fantasy and involves times actually running backwards, or alternatively, a character experiencing events in reverse order, with time running forwards for a brief period but then skipping to an earlier point in time. This form of reverse chronology can be used to present characters with an awful event that they then have a chance to undo, or simply for the fun of watching the action run backwards.
The second type of backwards episode is not restricted to science fiction and fantasy, as it does not involve anything strange happening to time itself – the characters within the story experience events in a perfectly normal way. However, the viewer is told the story in reverse order, seeing a sequence of events from the end of the story, followed by an earlier sequence, followed by an earlier sequence, and so on. This type is usually used to reveal a mystery to the audience slowly and in unexpected ways, or to emphasise the horror of a tragedy, as unlike in the SFF versions, the events presented cannot be undone.
Inside No. 9 recently produced a humdinger of a backwards episode, and that prompted us to look back on our favorite backwards TV episodes. We’re focusing on episodes that tell stories in a reverse order or feature events running backwards; the much more common trope of starting a story with a scene from the end and then telling the rest of the story in a normal way does not count, and flashbacks only count if they run in reverse order. And as ever, these are only a few of our favourites – add your own in the comments!
Time literally running backwards
Star Trek: The Animated Series, The Counterclock Incident
The forgotten and abandoned child of the Star Trek family, cast out of canon when The Next Generation came along, The Animated Series nevertheless introduced several new elements into the Star Trek universe, which were often picked up by later series. As of yet, the universe where time runs backwards is not one of them, but with Star Trek: Discovery playing about in other universes, who knows what might happen next. Here, the Enterprise is pulled through a supernova into a universe where everything runs backwards. People speak backwards, anyone born in that universe ages backwards like Benjamin Button, and as they near a dead star, time seems to run faster as well, and the whole crew regress to childhood. It’s a fun story, and a much better final episode of Original Series Star Trek (this was The Animated Series’ last episode) than the notoriously awful and horribly sexist actual final episode, Turnabout Intruder.
If only I could turn back time… Elements of this story were re-used in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Too Short A Season,” in which Col. Jameson lacks the wisdom Commodore Robert April shows here when he declares that he feels no need to repeat a life well lived (largely because Jameson’s has been somewhat less well lived).
Extra touches: We see the Enterprise being towed backwards towards the black hole, which is rather fun.
Red Dwarf, Backwards
The crew of Red Dwarf reach a world where time runs backwards when they go through a timehole (like a wormhole but with added time travel, otherwise known as an orange whirly thing in space) and end up in the far, far, future, after the universe has finished expanding and starting contracting again instead. The purpose of this episode is, of course, broad comedy and it does it brilliantly. The show revels in watching our heroes drink beer backwards, eat backwards, drive backwards, cycle backwards and have arguments in furious backwards-speak. And as an added bonus, viewers can play the manager’s backwards tirade forwards to hear the actor reading out some lines that certainly aren’t part of the story!
If only I could turn back time… The centrepiece of the episode is the bar-room tidy, which explains all Lister’s injuries throughout the episode and is quite the set-piece, run entirely in reverse.
Extra touches: The final gag, featuring the Cat going to the bathroom in the backwards world, doesn’t bear too much thinking about.
Family Guy, Yug Ylimaf
When Brian tries to cover up the fact that he’s been using Stewie’s time machine to impress women, he accidentally starts time running backwards. And it’s a good thing he did, as Peter seems to have been going through an unusually destructive phase (even for him). Again, this is a comedy, so the reason for reversing time is to enjoy watching events unfold backwards, including another classic fight between Peter and the Chicken.
If only I could turn back time… Family Guy goes one step further than Red Dwarf, offering not just an implication of a Number 2, but a visual depiction of backwards vomiting.
Extra touches: The ending, after the extravagant comedy and slapstick violence, is really rather sweet, once again affirming Brian and Stewie’s love for each other and even crediting Brian with giving Stewie his name.
Time skipping backwards at regular intervals
The X-Files, Redrum
This episode presents a classic case of time running backwards enabling someone not just to solve a mystery, but to prevent a tragedy from happening in the first place. There’s no reason given for Martin Wells’ experience of living what would have been the last few days of his life in reverse – like the X-Files time loop episode Monday, this has to be chalked up to some kind of X-Files version of Quantum Leap’s “God, Time, Fate, Or Whatever.” But the structure of this story allows us to see a murder mystery in which the murder victim can actually be saved, benefiting from all the solid structure and intriguing mystery of a detective story along with a dose of action towards the end.
If only I could turn back time… Martin Wells is able to save both himself and his wife, as well as keeping his father-in-law out of prison, but doesn’t go back quite far enough to put right the action (supressing evidence) that kick-started events in the first place.
Extra touches: While this is a time-running-backwards episode, not a time loop episode, the circular nature of events is emphasised when Martin Wells finishes out the week in the same place he was at the start of the episode, but in very different circumstances.
Star Trek: Voyager, Before And After
When Jennifer Lien’s Kes was let go from Star Trek: Voyager to be replaced by Jeri Ryan’s Seven of Nine, the official reason given was that the writers were struggling to find ways to use her character’s nine-year lifespan. However true or not that may be, in this episode towards the end of her run, the writers made very good use of it. We open on Kes’s death and then see her live her entire short life in sections, running backwards. This allows us to see some of the possible repercussions of living with a companion with a nine-year lifespan, such as Tom Paris becoming Harry Kim’s father-in-law. Kes’s short lifespan is also the kick-starter for the plot, as the Doctor has been trying to extend her lifespan to something a little closer to her shipmates. The episode is a really effective way of showing us what could be a complete life aboard Voyager, as well as a solid spotlight episode for Kes.
If only I could turn back time… This episode’s reverse chronology is also used to present the audience with tragedies that must be averted. The moment when we get far back enough to see the initially long-dead Janeway and B’Elanna alive again is remarkably satisfying, while the disaster that killed them would eventually be addressed in season four’s “Year Of Hell” two-parter.
Extra touches: Jennifer Lien was having a reaction to her false ears, so Future Kes has long hair, and when she eventually stabilises in the ‘present’ (i.e. the point the show had reached around the end of season three) her hair remains long.
Flashbacks in reverse order
Frasier, Crock Tales
The penultimate episode of the series, “Crock Tales“ functions as a retrospective for the whole show. By slowly taking the audience back in time through a series of short flashback sketches, this episode allows everyone to relive the eleven years of Frasier in twenty minutes, before saying goodbye to it for good in the finale. The script has an important point to make as well, as we are reminded of Frasier’s long search for love when, in one flashback, he thinks he has found The One after just three years. It’s also a bottle episode, which doesn’t just serve the practical function of saving money; it highlights the close relationships between the core cast. For eleven years, give or take the brief addition of Dan Butler’s Bulldog, the five-person core cast of Frasier remained the same five people, a remarkable achievement that is celebrated here as this episode focuses on their changing characters and relationships.
If only I could turn back time… Many fans had been complaining that the show had not been the same since Niles and Daphne got together, and wished they could go back to the old seven-year-long running gag about Niles being secretly in love with Daphne. In this episode, they briefly got their wish.
Extra touches: The rather bad wigs may be often derided, but they’re quite fun and at least the passage of time wasn’t ignored. And seeing Daphne’s 1990s choker again is nice, too.
ER, Body And Soul
This is a real tear-jerker of an episode. ER was often at its best when it told contained short stories over the course of a single episode, focused on a particular patient. The focus of this episode is Dr. Nate Lennox, played by James Woods, who suffers from the chronic, degenerative illness known in the US as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and in the UK as motor neurone disease. This neurological disorder causes the muscles in the body to weaken and waste over time, including the muscles required to speak, swallow, and breathe, and is eventually fatal. It can progress very quickly, though some people (most famously Stephen Hawking) live with it for a longer time. The main plot of this episode runs in normal order, but it’s interspersed with flashbacks that run in reverse chronological order over a period of a few years.
If only I could turn back time… The reverse order of the flashbacks in this episode highlights the tragedy of ALS or any degenerative disease. In each flashback, Lennox is more and more active, until the final scenes of him in the hospital, contemplating the end of treatment, are juxtaposed with him leaping about a lecture room energetically just a few years earlier. No other technique can demonstrate the tragedy of degenerative illness quite so effectively.
Extra touches: The flashbacks in this episode also allow us to revisit Abby’s personal history, filling in some of the blanks from the early period (before her character joined the show) when she left medical school before returning to it later in the series.
Stories told in reverse order
Seinfeld, The Betrayal
Named after a Harold Pinter play about romantic betrayal which also follows a reverse chronology, this episode plays with revelations surrounding relationships, both sexual and between friends. The real advantage of the reverse chronology is that scenes that would normally be a fairly dull set-up for a joke become the pay-off. For example, when Elaine wonders if Pinter Ranawat is a relation of the Peter Ranawat she once dated, if the episode had run in chronological order, a savvy viewer might have guessed they were the same person and been amused, but because the episode runs in reverse order, this statement becomes a joke in itself. Like the Frasier episode, this also comes in the final season of a long-running show, so the final step backwards goes further than the rest, to explain away one of the show’s core concepts (why Kramer feels comfortable wandering into Jerry’s apartment all the time).
If only I could turn back time… Towards the end of the episode, Elaine laughs at the idea of going to India. She should really have left it there.
Extra touches: The reversal of the credits is a particularly nice touch, with the end credits appearing at the beginning and the main cast credits at the end.
It probably seems odd to have ER appear on this list twice when so many excellent shows, including CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Malcolm In The Middle and Sliders have done great backwards episodes that have been left off. But ER, a show that ran for 15 years with an enormous, diverse, and constantly changing cast, produced two really great backwards episodes of different types, both of which are worth celebrating. The purpose of the reverse chronology in this case is to highlight just how poor the choices made by Dr. Luka Kovac during the episode are. Choices that might seem like a mildly bad idea if seen in normal order, with their full consequences unveiled later, are highlighted as utterly disastrous when their terrible consequences are seen first.
If only I could turn back time… This episode was part of a season-long story arc in which Luka’s life went increasingly downhill, starting with his ex-girlfriend (and later wife) Abby getting together with his nemesis Carter, and culminating in both Luka and Carter leaving for a dangerous trip to Africa.
Extra touches: Not only does this episode run in reverse, it’s also a Christmas episode, so we get a drunk angel of Bethlehem and feuding Santas.
Inside No. 9, Once Removed
The episode that prompted the list, this is a really nice example of the backwards episode as a mystery. If the events of this episode had played out in chronological order, it would have made a fairly exciting blackly comic story about a woman finding herself in a bad situation that’s about to get much worse and fighting for her own life. However, by playing these events in reverse, writers Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith are able to create a mystery only solved by the episode’s conclusion. The viewer is introduced to the story’s principal characters through the eyes of Spike, an innocent removal man who is shocked by the bizarre and violent events unfolding in front of him. Throughout the episode, as we go back by ten minutes in time until we see what sparked it all off, the audience is encouraged to think first one, then another character is guilty, before the final reveal.
If only I could turn back time… Spike the removal man might not have been less traumatised if he’d turned up half an hour earlier, but he perhaps would have had a better idea what was going on.
Extra touches: Time is not the only thing reversed – this episode does not, in fact, take place in No. 9 after all.
Honorable Mention: The story of the Doctor and River Song
Rather than an individual episode playing backwards, the love story between the Doctor and River Song initially played out backwards from her point of view, across multiple episodes. It opened with the first time the Doctor met River, which was also the last time she met him, and worked backwards through their relationship; the next time, she knew him very well while he barely knew her, the time after that, he knew her a little better, and so on. When they kissed and he revealed it was the first time he had kissed her, she realised what was happening and thought it might be the last time she kissed him. This was rather hard to sustain, though, and since River’s heritage was revealed in “Let’s Kill Hitler,” their meetings have been more haphazard, culminating in a meeting in which the Doctor finally had the upper hand, while offering them as close as they would get to a happy ending, in “The Husbands Of River Song.”