Please note, ‘five great’, not ‘top five’ – feel free to add your own choices in the comments below!
Flashback episodes are one of the richest sources of not-quite-fresh material for a long-running TV series. For one thing, as TV series change over time, inevitably many viewers start expressing a preference for the earlier version of the series, the one they fell in love with. A flashback episode is a great way of giving them what they want, at least temporarily. Through flashback episodes we can be reunited with characters who’ve been properly, definitively killed off, we can re-live old conflicts and once again crack old jokes, and we can enjoy laughing at the hairstyles of days gone by, rendered even more dubious than they were in the first place through the use of dodgy wigs.
There are lots of different varieties of flashback episode. There’s the clip show, the old money-saving tool beloved of cash-strapped TV producers everywhere. There’s the fake clip show using the same format but with newly filmed clips, rather touchingly done in Frasier’s Crock Tales and recently popularised by Community’s sublime Paradigms of Human Memory and its follow-up, Curriculum Unavailable. For genre television, there’s always the time travel option, and a combination of this and some technical wizardry can even allow you to flashback to an older show, as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine did in Trials and Tribbleations. That’s without even considering the shorter flashback sequences that are an essential part of Lost, Highlander: The Series and any show featuring vampires ever, and I’m not even going near Doctor Who’s complicated relationship with its own past.
Perhaps the most emotional, character-building variant, though, is the simple whole episode flashback. This episode type is distinct from the fake clip show in that it tells a single story; that story may be told through short references to incidents spread over a long time-span, but they will all add up to a coherent plot, unlike the disparate clips of the fake clip show. They also tend to tell a story that takes place before the series started. Whereas the fake clip show is about playing with the show as the audience remember it, the simple whole episode flashback is about revealing where the main characters came from and what they were like before we joined them in the pilot episode. These are five of the best.
Heroes, Company Man
Are You Sitting Comfortably? Unlike the other entries on this list, major events are taking place in between the flashbacks, in the form of a tense and tightly plotted hostage situation (during which, of course, no one is comfortable). But since this is by far the most coherent episode of Heroes and one of very few to focus on a single storyline, it counts. The flashbacks are highlights from Mr Bennet’s memory.
Getting To Know You: The flashbacks finally reveal the core of Bennet’s motivation and internal conflict; he’s a company man (TV Tropes’ Punch-Clock Villain) but has come to genuinely love Claire as his daughter, and is willing to break the rules for her.
The Past Is A Foreign Country… everything is in black and white there.
How We Got Here: The scene in which Claire helps Horn-Rimmed Glasses choose the item that was initially his only distinguishing feature and tells him he looks ‘like her Dad’ ties things together very nicely.
Is All This Going Anywhere? This is probably the best episode Heroes ever did. Seventeen episodes into the first season is a bit early for this sort of episode, but HRG had been such a fascinating character that a proper, in-depth exploration of what makes him tick was immensely satisfying. The fact that the whole thing is tied in with a classic hostage situation and an emotional (and explosive) finale is the icing on the cake. It was all downhill from here.
The Big Bang Theory, The Staircase Implementation
Are You Sitting Comfortably? During an argument with Sheldon, Leonard tells Penny, over nail polish, about their first few weeks living together. Leonard and Penny have recently broken up at this point, but seem remarkably comfortable with each other despite that.
Getting To Know You: Although Sheldon has become a little more sociable since Leonard first moved in, the major character revelation of this episode is how impressively brave he is, walking calmly into the elevator holding something that’s about to explode.
The Past Is A Foreign Country… everyone has bigger hair there.
How We Got Here: The best whole flashback episodes explain something that’s at the core of the series, but has always been slightly mysterious up to this point. In this case, we discover that the broken elevator isn’t just a sign of the run-down state of our heroes’ apartment building, but the result of a particularly foolish move on Leonard’s part. We also get to meet Joyce Kim and the transvestite who used to live in Penny’s apartment.
Is All This Going Anywhere? Sitcoms are a great format for the whole episode flashback, as we get to see how characters who knew each other already in the pilot met and there’s plenty of comedy to be mined from the audience’s hindsight and sense of dramatic irony. This is a funny and satisfying episode that fully explains just why Leonard is willing to put up with so much grief from Sheldon.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Fool For Love
Are You Sitting Comfortably? Buffy is recovering from a recent stab wound when she asks Spike to tell her about the two previous Slayers he killed so she’s probably not comfortable, no. Buffy and Angel both included lots of thematically appropriate flashbacks to their resident vampires’ pasts, but Fool For Love and its partner, Angel’s Darla, are the only two that devote a whole episode to a vampire’s story.
Getting To Know You: We thought we knew Spike pretty well before this episode and Spike the vampire largely fulfils those expectations, but I don’t think anyone would have predicted that when he was human, he was a socially awkward nerd known for his bloody awful poetry.
The Past Is A Foreign Country… these are vampire flashbacks, so it’s gorgeous period costumes all round.
How We Got Here: We knew that Spike killed two Slayers and we knew that he was madly in love with Drusilla, but we didn’t know quite how much romantic love and sexual attraction had motivated him over the years, or the extent to which his Slayer victims had given up as he killed them (making his exasperation at a Slayer with friends and family after Buffy’s mother hits him over the head with an axe in his very first episode that much more telling). Also, we get to see the Chaos Demon, slime, antlers and all.
Is All This Going Anywhere? This is a fantastic example of some of the things Buffy does best – comedy, tragedy, a bit with a Chaos Demon. It sets up the season 5 finale (without her family, Buffy might give up on life) and it demonstrates how much, in his own twisted way, Spike really does love Buffy, as in the episode’s final moments he gives up on trying to shoot her and comforts her instead. Great stuff.
Farscape, The Way We Weren’t
Are You Sitting Comfortably? Chiana finds an old security tape of Aeryn killing Moya’s first Pilot, and both Aeryn and Pilot are forced to share some painful memories. No one is comfortable at all.
Getting To Know You: We knew Aeryn must have done some nasty things as a Peacekeeper, but knowing she did them to Moya (and possibly to D’Argo, Zhaan and Rygel) makes them that much worse. The revelation that Pilot made some dubious decisions himself is perhaps more surprising.
The Past Is A Foreign Country… some of it is viewed via grainy security tape footage. These people have spaceships, but not HD-quality security tapes.
How We Got Here: This episode reveals that Crichton is not the first person to think Aeryn might be better off not being a dedicated Peacekeeper. It also fills in some more of the backstory on Crais’s plans regarding Talyn.
Is All This Going Anywhere? This episode is especially impressive in the way the revelation of Aeryn’s past and her memories actually put everyone in danger, so that there is a solid plot with potentially dire consequences attached to the flashbacks. Pilot, becoming more and more agitated, first attacks Aeryn, then sets them adrift in space, and then cuts off everyone’s life support by severing his connection with Moya. Only by talking themselves into a calmer state can the situation be resolved, and it’s implied that the natural joining of Pilot and Moya will have consequences for everyone for up to a year. This is a compelling, well-told story that greatly enriches the characters, alongside providing some obligatory romantic moments between Crichton and Aeryn. It’s a bit depressing in places, but it’s a great hour of story-telling.
Are You Sitting Comfortably? Walter tells Olivia Peter’s history over drinks. They both look pretty comfortable. There may or may not be tea.
Getting To Know You: This is the first time we get to see extended footage of non-crazy Walter (following a few minutes in Grey Matters). He’s kind of like Denethor with an American accent. It’s also our first proper look at the alternate universe (where Eric Stoltz stars in Back to the Future) and we see Peter as a child, mostly lying around suffering from what TV Tropes would call the Incurable Cough of Death.
The Past Is A Foreign Country… it has an 80s style opening credit sequence! Even if this weren’t one of the all-time best episodes of Fringe, it would be commendable just for those opening credits.
How We Got Here: This episode is one of the most satisfying whole episode flashbacks you’re likely to see because it manages to explain the premise of the entire series in a manner that is both plausible and emotionally satisfying. The audience has known for a while that Walter’s Peter died and he somehow ended up with the Peter from the alternate universe, where G.I. Joe’s scar is on the other side of his face. But the revelation that Walter caused the breach between the universes in an attempt to save Alt-Peter (and caused Nina to lose her hand) is a doozy, and gives Walter some serious guilt to play with for the rest of the series, not to mention the building tension leading to Peter finally cottoning on in The Man From the Other Side.
Is All This Going Anywhere? It’s the turning point for the series, the moment when Fringe went from good to great. OK, we never have found out why Peter lost his memories of the whole incident, but that’s relatively easy to explain away via trauma/the aftereffects of the Incurable Cough of Death. The episode is also heart-breaking, featuring a compelling performance from John Noble and dealing with the decidedly depressing theme of the loss of a child with sensitivity and care.
Bubbling under: The X-Files, Unusual Suspects, which explains how the Lone Gunmen came together and how they met Mulder, throwing in a little bit of doubt in everything they believe in for good measure. This list is restricted to appropriately geeky shows, but the whole flashback episode works perfectly well for just about any long-running series and mention should be made of Friends, The One With the Flashback, which introduced us to the idea of Chandler and Monica as a couple, and The West Wing, In the Shadow of Two Gunmen (how everyone met everyone) and Bartlet for America (dealing with Leo’s alcoholism and his relationship with Bartlet).
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