Five great bodyswap geek TV episodes

Juliette takes us through five great bodyswap episodes in geek TV, with help from Fringe, Buffy, Red Dwarf, Quantum Leap and more...

This feature contains spoilers.

Please note, ‘five great,’ not ‘Top Five’ – feel free to add your own below.

Acting in a long-running TV series, can, it seems become a frustrating process for an actor. Many of them move swiftly into producing and even more develop a sudden urge to direct, possibly because they want to have a turn ordering everyone else around. If your lead actors get really bored, and you haven’t locked them into a sufficiently tight contract, there’s even a risk they might leave the show all together. But worry not, for help is at hand! Curb that actorly restlessness by giving them a challenge – get them to play an entirely different character for an episode. 

There are many different forms of the bodyswap (or, in some cases, body-possession) but the one thing they all have in common is that regular series actors are suddenly called upon to play each other. Hilarity (hopefully) ensues.

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5. Fringe, Stowaway 

Tonight, the role of Leonard Nimoy will be played by Anna Torv: William Bell, determined not to let a little thing like death (or the retirement of his actor) get in his way, possesses Olivia.

Funny-ha-ha or funny-strange? That depends on how you feel about Anna Torv’s Leonard Nimoy impression. For some, it’s hilarious in a good way, for others, a cringeworthy disaster. Either way, it’s an impressively memorable performance.

Don’t they know each other at all? Everyone can instantly tell what has happened, and Bell has no desire to hide what he’s done. Which is lucky for Peter, who has only just got over being tricked by Fauxlivia and might have a complete breakdown if he ended up accidentally romantically involved with Leonard Nimoy.

This will all end in tears: At some point, William Bell is going to have to accept that he’s dead. Until the next time the universe reboots, anyway.

Well that was fun, but it’s a relief to get back to normal: However you feel about Torv’s Nimoy impression, you can only listen to it for so long before you want her back to being herself, so it’s something of a relief when the next Bellivia episode involves animation and, therefore everyone is in their correct, if two-dimensional, bodies.

4. True Blood, Let’s Get Out Of Here 

Tonight, the role of Marshall Allman will be played by Sam Trammell: Tommy takes on Sam’s physical form. In an unrelated storyline, Lafayette is possessed by the ghost of a woman called Mavis.

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Funny-ha-ha or funny-strange? Strange rather than amusing, and more tragic than either. As this story concludes at the beginning of the next episode, Tommy proves himself to be the Dobby the House-elf of the True Blood world, a character who annoyed everybody until suddenly he died a noble and selfless death and out came the hankies. Meanwhile, Nelsan Ellis somehow manages to make a man in a feminine-style outfit being possessed by a woman look a) convincing and b) not ridiculous.

Don’t they know each other at all? Tommy’s trick is intended for people who have never met Sam, so no problem there. Arlene and Terry can be forgiven for being too distracted by the kidnapping of their baby to work out there’s something wrong with Lafayette.

This will all end in tears: A few episodes earlier, Tommy had crossed the line and zoomed way out the other side by having sex with Sam’s new girlfriend while in Sam’s form (which is a form of sexual assault, given that it involves tricking someone into having sex with a person they would not otherwise have sex with – but bodyswap episodes rarely bother to address that particular issue). Here, he uses the same trick to finally make it up to Sam by getting beaten to death in his place. Lafayette’s story ends rather more peacefully, but still involves infanticide.

Well that was fun, but it’s a relief to get back to normal: Tommy’s character had more or less run its course, so it’s something of a relief that this is the end of him, and an impressively touching ending at that. It’s always a relief to have Lafayette being his awesome self.

3. Star Trek Voyager, Body and Soul 

Tonight, the role of Robert Picardo will be played by Jeri Ryan: Hiding from an unpleasant bunch of aliens who kill holograms on sight, Seven of Nine allows the Doctor to take control of her body, and instantly regrets it.

Funny-ha-ha or funny-strange? Definitely funny-ha-ha. Seven’s pleas for the Doctor to treat her tightly corseted body with more respect fall largely on deaf ears.

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Don’t they know each other at all? Seven and the Doctor are only trying to trick the aliens of the week, not Harry Kim, so this isn’t an issue. The alien doctor really should notice the Doctor flirting with her, though.

This will all end in tears: You have to feel for the poor Doctor, as he is forced to return to his holographic state and give up cheesecake, alcohol and sex with actual hormones. He has a point about how Seven refuses herself pleasures other people would give anything for a chance at having, and she does start to loosen up a bit after this.

Well that was fun, but it’s a relief to get back to normal: Jeri Ryan’s performance is fantastic and absolutely hilarious, but it wouldn’t be so funny if she wasn’t normally so controlled. Robert Picardo is beautifully melancholy as the Doctor is forced back into himself.

2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Who Are You 

Tonight, the role of Eliza Dushku will be played by Sarah Michelle Geller (and vice versa): Faith steals Buffy’s body and puts Buffy in hers.

Funny-ha-ha or funny-strange? A lot of the episode is funny-ha-ha, but underlying it is a fairly tragic character arc for Faith, as she finally learns to say the phrase ‘because it’s wrong’ sincerely.

Don’t they know each other at all? Bizarrely, Tara, who has never met Buffy, is the one who realises that there’s something wrong. Spike can be forgiven for taking Buffy’s flirting seriously on the grounds of wishful-thinking (many have observed that he never does find out the truth) but you have to sympathise with the real Buffy’s frustration that Giles can’t seem to just look into her eyes and be all intuitive.

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This will all end in tears: Faith savagely beats herself up, screaming abuse clearly meant for herself more than for Buffy. She might have held back if she’d realised Buffy had found a way to switch them back again.

Well that was fun, but it’s a relief to get back to normal: Both actresses do a great job playing each other (though both struggle a bit with each other’s accents and Dushku doesn’t have as much to work with – she just has to look upset and/or annoyed most of the time) but in the end, it’s a relief to see Buffy be Buffy again.

1. Red Dwarf, Bodyswap 

Tonight, everyone will be very confused: Lister lends his body to a female officer to save everyone from a foolishly ordered milkshake and toffee crisp. Rimmer then persuades him to swap bodies for a week, and slowly but surely proceeds to go off the deep end.

Funny-ha-ha or funny-strange? Hilarious, of course. More characters should react with a horrified cry of ‘Why have I got male sexual organs?!’ (True Blood, being True Blood, did nod towards that issue). The unusual decision to have the actors voice their own parts while physically playing the other character works rather well (as well as saving Craig Charles from having to do an RP accent) – the sight of a completely different voice coming out of the wrong mouth adds to the humour.

Don’t they know each other at all? Everyone knows what’s going on, of course – but the Cat really should have seen Rimmer coming at the end, and locked his door.

This will all end in tears: Lister is on a strict health and fitness routine to undo Rimmer’s damage, the Cat is minus one body and everyone is presumably suffering the aftereffects of repeated chloroforming. At least Lister still has both arms (for now).

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Well that was fun, but it’s a relief to get back to normal: Eventually, everyone’s voices being swapped around would just get too confusing, and they look odd in each other’s costumes. This is a brilliant episode, though. The lesson is, if you’re going to lend your body to a hologram, make sure it’s a hologram like Voyager’s Doctor, with excellent ethical subroutines, not a mean-spirited under-achiever with a Napoleon complex.

Special shout-out: Quantum Leap, Shock Theater 

Quantum Leap’s whole premise was based on a bodyswap, but since we only usually saw Sam, not the physical appearance of the person he’d leaped into, Scott Bakula usually only played the one character. Not so in Shock Therapy, in which some horrific-looking electric ‘therapy’ completely messes with the leaping process, and Sam starts to think he is previous leapees (is he accessing their memories from previous leaps? Are they temporarily leaping into him? Is he just going crazy? It’s a mystery). Bakula puts in a terrific performance, really selling the confusion of a host of impressively recognisable characters which tends more towards the tragic than the hilarious for the most part, especially when he becomes the vulnerable Jimmy. If bodyswap episodes are designed to give the actor something to get their teeth into, this one – along with Star Trek Voyager’s similar Infinite Regress – might be king of the trope.

Bubbling under: The X-Files, Dreamland’ (though it features a guest star rather than a regular-character-swap) Stargate SG-1, ‘Holiday,’ Farscape, ‘Unrealized Reality,’ Doctor Who, ‘New Earth.’

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