Spoilers ahead if you’ve not seen the episodes!
Please note, ‘Five Great’, not ‘Top Five’ – feel free to add your own favourites below!
Dream episodes can be many things: weird, wonderful, scary, silly, funny. They can embrace a completely different mood or even a different medium from the series’ norm and they can be a breath of fresh air in a long-running show. So what makes a great dream episode? A sense of threat and some level of logic to keep us grounded in some conception of reality help, but the most important thing is great character development. If you’re going to spend an hour inside your character’s heads, you’d better be doing something interesting in there.
Our psychoanalytic analysis of five good dreams takes in four categories. Two of these should speak for themselves. ‘Let’s consider who it was that dreamed it all’ is a quote from Alice Through the Looking Glass, as Alice ponders whether she dreamed the Red King or the Red King dreamed her. The category ‘That’s a giant floating banana’ is named for an episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch called The Sandman, in which Freud helps Sabrina to analyse Harvey’s dreams, but notes that sometimes a banana is just a banana (cigars being banned from children’s television). It’s for recording the totally random elements that are not symbolic of anything and are just there because dreams are crazy. Though I have to tell you, I don’t believe Freud ever said anything of the sort – his ideas about either cigars or bananas would also not be suitable for children’s television.
5. Doctor Who, Amy’s Choice
Let’s consider who it was that dreamed it all: The Doctor, Amy and Rory.
Will our heroes die in their sleep? Possibly. The jury’s still out on how much danger they were in, I think.
That is a giant floating banana: The jumper Mrs Poggit makes the Doctor wear.
Is it worth staying up for? As well as being thoroughly entertaining, there’s some majorly satisfying character development in this episode. Amy realises she really does love Rory and the Doctor is reminded of his dark side, and the fact that said dark side doesn’t like the rest of him very much. It’s not perfect; when pregnant Amy decides to risk death for Rory, it’s all very sweet, but you’d expect her to at least mention the possibility that she’s killing her nearly-due unborn baby. But it does feature all the regulars in ponchos, so what’s not to love?
4. Star Trek Voyager, Waking Moments
Let’s consider who it was that dreamed it all: The entire crew and a whole planet of bumpy-headed aliens.
Will our heroes die in their sleep? Yep, everyone except the Doctor is in mortal danger.
That is a giant floating banana: Naked Tuvok! So even Vulcans have the naked dream.
Is it worth staying up for? I repeat: naked Tuvok! On a more serious note – OK, there’s nothing overly special about this episode. We see glimpses of character traits we were already very familiar with (Janeway feels guilty about numerous dead crewmembers, Kim fancies Seven of Nine) but overall it’s mainly the basis for Chakotay’s annual Native American mystical powers episode. It’s just really nicely done and put together. There’s plenty of humour (naked Tuvok! this never gets old), decent drama, a sense of threat, the Doc being the only crewmember unaffected by a nasty organic problem as he is every other week and that lovely recurring image of Earth’s moon to tell Chakotay he’s still dreaming. It’s just a really nicely put together episode of Voyager.
3. Red Dwarf, Gunmen of the Apocalypse
Let’s consider who it was that dreamed it all: Kryten, and the other three come and join in.
Will our heroes die in their sleep? If Kryten doesn’t beat the computer virus he’s infected himself with, Starbug will crash into a lava moon, so yes.
That is a giant floating banana: Pretty much everything is a logical component of either Kryten’s subconscious or the Western computer game the others are using to access it – he’s an android, he doesn’t have random thought patterns about bananas or cheese.
Is it worth staying up for? So much so, it won an Emmy. The combination of Western themes and a high gag rate (“That groinal attachment’s supposed to have a lifetime guarantee, you’ve worn it out in nearly three weeks;” “Twice in one lifetime? When you’re hot, you’re hot!”) is irresistible, the production values are great and the triumphant ending is the icing on the liquor-flavoured cake.
2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Restless
Let’s consider who it was that dreamed it all: Our core four, Buffy, Willow, Xander and Giles.
Will our heroes die in their sleep? That’s supposed to be the threat but Willow, Xander and Giles are all apparently fatally injured during the course of the thing and then at the end Buffy just… decides to stop paying the First Slayer any attention. For all that the spirit of the First Slayer is apparently trying to kill them, it doesn’t really seem that they were ever in actual danger, to be honest.
That is a giant floating banana: ‘I wear the cheese. It does not wear me.’
Is it worth staying up for? Despite the slightly underwhelming ending (see above) Restless is an absolutely brilliant episode of Buffy. A surprise season finale after the Big Bad was defeated an episode early, the episode explores the four core characters and how much they’ve developed since the beginning of the show, while dropping tantalising hints about the year ahead (which are clearer in hindsight, as these things always are). It’s also completely hilarious, and one of the only dream episodes to be truly surreal and dream-like.
1. Farscape, Revenging Angel
Let’s consider who it was that dreamed it all: Crichton, who is in a coma after D’Argo accidentally knocked a pile of boxes on his head.
Will our heroes die in their sleep? Crichton will if he can’t summon the willpower to pull himself out of the coma. Everyone else will die if they don’t find D’Argo’s qualta blade, but that’s not got anything to do with the dream sequences.
That is a giant floating banana: Crichton’s dreams take the form of Looney Tunes cartoons. Which is the whole point of the episode, really.
Is it worth staying up for? The amazing thing about this episode is that the writers randomly decided they wanted to do a Looney Tunes episode and then absolutely made it work. The episode falls between the death of Black T Crichton in Icarus Abides and The Choice, which focuses on Aeryn mourning him, so this burst of light relief is both welcome and very necessary. The reason for the cartoons seems completely logical, since we’re used to seeing Crichton and Harvey have conversations in Earth-popular-culture settings. Although there’s no external enemy, Crichton’s danger is real and since the only thing that can save him is himself, the decisions he makes in the dream-world have a real weight and consequence no matter how daft they appear on the outside.
The episode is very funny, especially when it shifts to live action but keeps up the Looney Tunes aesthetic, and it’s all capped off with a wonderful exchange between Crichton and D’Argo. D’Argo asks what death was like and assumes the answer, that Crichton couldn’t possibly explain it to him, is a deep metaphysical statement. In fact, Crichton simply has no way to explain Looney Tunes to D’Argo. Perfect.
Bubbling under: Doctor Who, The Mind Robber, which doesn’t really qualify but is brilliant and certainly dream-like; Fringe, Bad Dreams, which opens with an nice inversion of the dream-threat as it appears our heroine is the one killing people through their dreams (the same series’ Lysergic Acid Diethylamide is decent enough, but the only reason for the animation is Leonard Nimoy’s reluctance to appear in person – though it did give us a nice sequence in a zeppelin without breaking the budget); Xena, Dreamworker, which has some nice character development but is a bit too early in the show’s run for us to be properly invested in it; The X-Files, One Breath, which has some lovely dream sequences as Scully lies in hospital but not really enough of them to be considered a ‘dream episode’. Inception stretches the concept across a feature film, which is pretty impressive.
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