This feature contains spoilers.
According to the folklore of the Internet, the term ‘bottle episode’ comes from Star Trek. Every now and again, to save money, an episode would be produced which required minimal special effects and guest stars and no sets other than the ship, so they called these ‘Ship in a Bottle’ episodes (or so goes the story).
Since then the term ‘bottle episode’ has come to mean an episode using minimal locations, guest stars and special effects. There are two reasons to do a bottle episode. One is for dramatic effect, putting your characters into a confined space and letting your actors and scriptwriters play. The other, usually more pressing, reason is to save money by not paying for numerous guest stars, location shoots or sets.
The ‘bottle episode’ as a concept is really an American thing; British television works so differently that it doesn’t really apply, with shows written in advance and filmed all at once. (Deep apologies to the rest of the world – I know you’re all out there, but I really only know about British and American TV). The concept is also less relevant to many cheaply produced British shows like Blackadder II, which is an entire bottle series, with no location shooting, a few small indoor sets and one or two guest actors per episode.
Exactly what constitutes a ‘bottle episode’ can vary according to the nature of the show. The fantastic episode Ice might be considered a bottle episode of The X-Files, for example, because it requires only one new set and a handful of actors; The X-Files regular cast and standing sets are so small that a true bottle episode would be nothing but Mulder and Scully talking in Mulder’s office (although actually, that sounds awesome). But technically, to be a bottle episode, excluding necessary framing devices or tags, the episode should feature regulars and recurring characters with no more than one guest actor, on standing sets only.
Of course, what really matters in a great bottle episode is the strength of the writing and the acting. The name could almost refer to the tendency for bottled up emotions to become un-bottled, secrets to be revealed, and generally for everyone to start shouting at each other around four fifths of the way through these episodes. In dramas, we expect to see emotional breakthroughs and revelations that will affect the characters for a long time to come (essentially, we want a teeny tiny Greek tragedy). In comedy – well, in comedy we really just want to laugh till we snort juice out of our collective noses, but it won’t hold together without some kind of emotional, character-based undercurrent.
All this pent-up emotion and necessary artistic creativity can make bottle episodes the best episodes of all – these ten are particularly successful.
10. ER, ‘Secrets and Lies’
The ship in the bottle: Four key characters plus new boy Gallant are stuck in a lecture theatre waiting for a seminar on sexual harassment.
Bottled up emotions? The sexual harassment seminar isn’t just a plot device for keeping these five in one room, coupled with an amusing way to start the episode – it’s also the biggest theme of the story, in which Gallant finds himself stuck on the edge of a complicated love quadrangle between Susan, Carter, Abby and Luka.
Do they cheat? The first quarter or so of the episode proceeds as normal, with some eccentric patients brought into the ER while the staff gossip about Corday having left Greene, in case anyone missed last week’s episode. But once the five are shut in that room together, the whole of the rest of the episode plays out in there, up until the last few minutes when they go out into the street. ER did many, many episodes that took place entirely (or very nearly) within the hospital and several that had other ‘bottle’-like features, notably season eleven’s Time of Death, which followed the last forty-four minutes of one guest character’s life in real time. But Secrets and Lies stands out because it breaks the ER mould by dropping the patients in favour of exploring the relationships between the doctors, something the show usually did in the context of medical treatments. Whether or not that’s a positive development may be debateable, but this is a fun episode and provides a nice break from the usual routine, especially given the downbeat major story arc of season eight.
What’s great about it? Carter and Luka have a sword fight, and then they quote Hamlet (Luka does so in Croatian). There is nothing about that sentence that is not awesome. At the end of the episode, Susan breaks it off with Carter because they have no chemistry, stopping just shy of hitting the fourth wall, but providing probably one of the most convincing-because-true TV break-ups in history.
Quotable: ‘How did I make a fool of myself?’ (Carter)
‘Well, you participated in a duel for one thing’ (Susan)
9. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, ‘Duet’
The ship in the bottle: The episode doesn’t leave Deep Space Nine, and a lot of its run-time is devoted to conversations between Major Kira and a mysterious Cardassian.
Bottled up emotions? Kira doesn’t exactly keep her emotions bottled up here, though she does try, but her Cardassian prisoner plays his cards pretty close to his chest.
Do they cheat? There are a fair few extras and bit-part players around, and they make use of all the standing sets, but the episode takes place entirely on Deep Space Nine, making it a bottle episode in the classic Star Trek sense.
What’s great about it? Duet is a fairly basic Holocaust metaphor, but it’s well done and it adds some nice layers to Kira’s character at a fairly early stage in the show. The final revelation concerning her Cardassian prisoner is intriguing, and it’s interesting to see her attitude towards him soften to a perhaps surprising degree.
Quotable: ‘Enough good people have already died. I won’t help kill another’ (Kira)
8. Breaking Bad, ‘Fly’
The ship in the bottle: Walt refuses to get on with the job in the lab until he’s vanquished a fly.
Bottled up emotions? And how! Walt has something of a breakthrough concerning his feelings about the direction his life has taken, but when he tries to tell Jesse the truth about Jane’s death, in the end he can’t quite manage it.
What’s great about it? This episode does something that plot-heavy, high-death-count shows often forget to do; it takes some time to let the characters process the things that have happened to them and the things they’ve done since the show started. It also does so in a consistently interesting and entertaining way, using fly-point-of-view camera angles to shake up the style and direction, as well as emphasising the metaphorical significance of the fly itself (which could be read any number of ways; I like to see it as symbolic of Walt’s guilty conscience).
Quotable: ‘We make poison for people who don’t care. We probably have the most un-picky customers in the world’ (Jesse)
(I was also very grateful for the possum/opossum conversation, because I’ve been wondering why Americans say ‘opossum’ for years).
7. Doctor Who, ‘Midnight’
The ship in the bottle: The Doctor, a few tourists and their hostess are trapped on a small craft on a deadly planet with a mysterious creature that seems able to control their speech and movement.
Bottled up emotions? There are lots of bottled up emotions here, the most powerful being the Doctor’s unusually deep fear and his guilt following the Hostess’ sacrifice (a theme which would continue to be prominent throughout the rest of Russell T Davis’ tenure as producer and on into the Moffat era).
Do they cheat? Technically, Midnight isn’t a bottle episode, because Doctor Who doesn’t really do bottle episodes – like The X-Files, it has two or three regular characters and one standing set, so they’d have to be pretty extreme. But what it does do is ‘Doctor-lite’ episodes, which feature much less of the Doctor than usual, in order to fit in all thirteen episodes plus a Christmas special into the filming schedule. In 2008, the ‘Doctor-lite’ episode was companion-heavy, location-heavy, special effects-heavy all-round-brilliant episode Turn Left. It was preceded by this ‘Companion-lite’ episode, set within a single one-roomed location featuring a small guest cast plus the Doctor, talking. Which required two weeks to film and ended up costing more than usual due to the actors’ time and the special requirements of the set.
What’s great about it? The more traditional Turn Left is a classic, with its high emotion and fabulous ending, but Midnight is Russell T Davies’ masterpiece. The dark counterpart to the (considerably less successful) Christmas special Voyage of the Damned, Midnight is an exploration of the nasty side of the human psyche. There’s nothing new about that, but the genius of Midnight is that it achieves its effect by relying entirely on script and performance, using human emotion and (not quite) human speech to reveal the seedy underbelly of human character. It also undercuts the Doctor’s usual (occasionally annoying) sense of superiority and unpacks just how maddening that can be for everyone around him…
Quotable: ‘The Hostess. What was her name?’ (Doctor)
‘I don’t know’ (Hobbes)
6. Red Dwarf, ‘Marooned’
The ship in the bottle: Lister and Rimmer are marooned in a crashed Starbug with nothing to eat but dog’s food (or Pot Noodle) and nothing to burn but Rimmer’s model soldiers or Lister’s guitar…
Bottled up emotions? Neither Lister nor Rimmer is ever particularly bottled up, and this is no exception. It’s also the second episode on this list to feature a conversation about when everyone lost their virginity, the first being ER’s Secrets and Lies. Red Dwarf’s is more fun to watch, because at least Lister’s declaration that he lost his virginity at twelve is played for laughs and one assumes that his partner was also young, whereas Carter’s story in Secrets and Lies (he was eleven) sounds like child abuse and is intensely uncomfortable.
Do they cheat? Like the Blackadder example, the idea of a ‘bottle episode’ doesn’t really apply toRed Dwarf, as it would cover most of the first two series. But British telly does have an artistic equivalent to the bottle episode, designed partly to save money but mainly to spice things up a bit and provide an artistic challenge on long running soap operas – the two-hander, in which two regular characters sit and talk for an episode. Marooned was designed as a comedy version of this particular trope, putting Red Dwarf’s strongest and best developed characters together to stew for an episode. The other three regulars have a few lines at the beginning and at the end, but otherwise this episode is indeed held up by just these two, with minimal action and lots of talking.
What’s great about it? Although the episode doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know about Rimmer and Lister, it does succeed in highlighting those aspects of their characters that we’ve come to know so well. The whole series is about putting these two in a confined situation and watching them antagonise each other, but somehow in this episode Grant and Naylor managed to dial the tension up even further and make it work – and, more importantly, make it funny as well.
Quotable: ‘Abandon sh – oh, God. Now the siren’s bust. Awooga! Awooga! Abandon ship!’ (Holly)
‘Mayday, Mayday! I wonder why they call it “Mayday” ? It’s only a bank holiday. Why not “Shrove Tuesday”, or “Ascension Sunday”? Ascension Sunday, Ascension Sunday! 5th Wednesday after Pentecost!’ (Rimmer)
(The really funny thing about that one is that Lister actually knows the answer…)
5. Community, ‘Co-operative Calligraphy’
The ship in the bottle: Annie will not allow anyone to leave the study room until she finds out who stole her pen.
Bottled up emotions? Poor Shirley has her private life laid open to all when they find a pregnancy test in her bag. Opening up on a more physical level, everyone gets their clothes off, symbolising their current emotional nakedness (with the guys on display to the world and the girls covered up, which makes a nice change).
Do they cheat? The tag shows the puppy parade the Dean has been torturing our heroes with throughout the episode; otherwise it takes place in one room and features the regulars (except Chang) plus two recurring characters (the Dean and Annie’s Boobs the monkey).
What’s great about it? As a matter of fact, Co-operative Calligraphy isn’t Community’s best bottle episode – that would be either Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (the gang plus one recurring character play Dungeons and Dragons in the study room and just maybe save someone’s life) orRemedial Chaos Theory (the course of everyone’s lives depends on which of the group is sent to get the pizza at Abed and Troy’s apartment).
But Co-operative Calligraphy is the bottle episode about bottle episodes. ‘They’re wall-to-wall facial expressions and emotional nuance’ says Abed, and here he’s got to the heart of what a bottle episode really is, and why Midnight (not technically an episode on standing sets with only regular actors) is on this list and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Conundrum,’ fun as it is (and set entirely on the ship with one guest actor and one recurring character plus the regulars) is not.
Quotable: ‘Attention students, the Puppy Parade is starting on the quad. Better come quick, with every passing moment these puppies grow older and less deserving of our attention’ (the Dean)
4. Star Trek, ‘The Tholian Web’
The ship in the bottle: Investigating mysterious events on the Defiant, the Enterprise first loses Captain Kirk, then becomes trapped in a web by some Tholians, all in a region of space that causes people to become violently angry.
Bottled up emotions? The region of space they’ve become trapped in is somewhere between releasing pent-up emotions and creating new ones from nowhere (unless Chekov has been harbouring a secret desire to go on a killing spree all along, which is entirely possible). But the most significant antagonistic relationship is of course that between Spock and Bones, which is the same as usual, but more so.
Do they cheat? The Defiant is the Enterprise’s sister ship, which means it’s the same set with darker lighting. There are a fair few extras running around, and a Tholian voiceover, but speaking parts for anyone beyond the main six cast members plus recurring regular Nurse Chapel are minimal.
What’s great about it? This episode is a wonderfully creepy fifty-minute horror story, complete with dead bodies, nonsensical violent attacks and even a ghost. The disorienting shots from the point of view of those about to become ill and the dark lighting in the Defiant scenes may be designed to distract from the lack of any other sets, but that makes them no less effective, and stories about the violence within threatening to break out will always be darkly compelling. And Bones and Spock at loggerheads with each other is always entertaining.
Quotable: ‘Bones, Spock. Since you are playing this tape, we will assume that I am dead and the tactical situation is critical and both of you are locked in mortal combat’ (Kirk’s last message, recorded long before they entered a region of space that would make them want to kill each other).
The best moment is silent: Bones produces a drink that should counteract the effect of the region of space, and Spock refuses to drink it until he sees Bones drink first.
3. Friends, The One Where No One’s Ready
The ship in the bottle: Everyone is gathered at Rachel and Monica’s, running late for an important event at the museum.
Bottled up emotions? Monica finds dealing with an answerphone message from her ex-boyfriend… difficult. Joey and Chandler allow their emotions to run free in a manner wildly disproportionate to the actual problem.
Do they cheat? There are a couple of voice-overs on the phone and the tag is set at the museum function with a guest actor, but otherwise the whole episode takes place in Monica and Rachel’s living room and features only the six regular cast members.
What’s great about it? It’s hilarious. ‘Going commando’ has been absorbed into the popular vocabulary, and it’s hard to wash out a frying pan without hearing Jennifer Aniston’s squeaky cry of ‘You were gonna drink the fat!’ This episode is built on well-established character traits and feeds in small ways into on-going storylines (Monica is still having difficulty moving on from Richard; Rachel feels that Ross doesn’t show her enough respect) but mostly it’s just very, very funny.
Quotable: ‘Look at me – I’m Chandler! Could I be wearing any more clothes?’ (Joey)
2. The West Wing, ‘17 People’
The ship in the bottle: Bartlet tells Toby he has MS. Meanwhile, Sam, Josh, Donna, Ainsley, Ed and Larry try to write better jokes for the President’s speech at the correspondents’ dinner.
Bottled up emotions? Toby’s reaction to Bartlet’s confession makes Monica Gellar look like an oasis of zen-like calm. Elsewhere, Josh and Donna sort of mention the fact that they’re quite important to each other (and he’s better than her ex-boyfriend).
Do they cheat? The episode features three recurring characters (and is minus one regular) and takes place entirely on standing sets.
What’s great about it? The President refusing to apologise to Toby, repeatedly telling him, ‘I feel fine by the way, thanks for asking.’ Josh and Donna. Toby accusing Leo of carrying out a coup d’état. Ainsley explaining her objections to the Equal Rights Amendment. The President finally caving and apologising to Toby. The meaning of the title. And this episode is the start of an intense and uninterrupted run of episodes focusing on Bartlet coming out of the MS closet and culminating in the mighty Two Cathedrals.
Quotable: ‘I could have countered that, but I’d moved on to other things in my head’ (Sam, refusing to admit defeat)
1. Men Behaving Badly, ‘Watching TV’
The ship in the bottle: The gang wait for pizza and watch classic Star Trek episode The City on the Edge of Forever.
Bottled up emotions? Tony’s new-found happiness now that he finally has Deborah is annoying everybody, including Deborah.
Do they cheat? Another British example, but this is unusually restrained in terms of set and guest starts, even for British television. There’s a voice off-screen telling them the pizza has arrived, and a very cheap special effect at the end; otherwise, the four regulars sit on the sofa. Tony’s tennis racket (part of his Braveheart costume) might have cost a few quid. (The thirty-minute episode also takes place in real time – it starts a little way into The City on the Edge of Forever).
What’s great about it? Before Brit-com The Royale Family created an entire show from the concept, the idea of an episode based entirely around four people watching television sounded ridiculous, but this is funny and consistently entertaining from start to finish. The real stroke of genius was choosing The City on the Edge of Forever as the viewing material (without actually showing the screen). Every viewer knows what Star Trek is, whether they sympathise with Deborah (who has no idea what’s going on), Dorothy (who has been forced to watch it for years) or Gary (who loves it). The episode itself is sufficiently memorable that all viewers with a reasonable knowledge of Star Trek will know exactly what’s going on. That gives the audience the sense that we’re watching the episode with the characters, participating in a chat in which we, the viewers, are just being a bit quiet. There is some character development on the go for Tony (it’s quite nice to see him happy, though even better to see his usual brilliant sad-sack act come out as everyone is meaner and meaner to him) but mostly this is just a very well-scripted half hour of comedy. (Maybe I’m just biased because I grew up thinking a Captain’s Log was an actual log just like Gary did…).
Tony: How far have we got?
Deborah: Well, the one who over-acts has just jumped through this big doughnut-thing, and it’s all gone dark, so the chubby one and the one with a face like a sad donkey have jumped through the doughnut as well.
Gary: (rolling his eyes) Bones has crossed through the Guardian of Forever’s time portal and interfered with the course of history thereby eradicating the Enterprise, so Jim and Spock have gone back into history to un-freeze time.
Deborah: That’s what I said.
(As a female Trekkie, I object mildly to the episode’s implication that men like Star Trek and women don’t, but just this once I’ll let it go).
Bubbling under: Yeah, I left out Firefly‘s Out of Gas. Wanna make something of it?