This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
Over an extended run, some television shows give off the impression that all life in their universe revolves around a small number of characters, but if they run long enough, writers and producers will invariably have to look elsewhere every once in a whle. Maybe on another day to every other episode, when the forces of evil rally and all seems lost, the good guys are… otherwise occupied, leaving someone else to pick up the slack.
As a dramatic convention in pop culture, foregrounding minor characters dates at least as far back as Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, which takes place “in the wings” of Shakespeare’s Hamlet as the two minor characters have little comprehension of the tragic events going on concurrently. But over the years, geek TV has given us quite a few good examples of the same.
In a production context, the rigors of a long season can sometimes make these kind of episodes necessary in order to give the regular cast a break, but they almost always help to flesh out a TV show’s pocket universe and make it feel more lived-in. This reason mostly applies to the US model, which is why the following look at some of the notable episodes of this kind includes only one British TV show, and it’s just about the only one to which these circumstances could possibly apply.
In any case, there are nuanced characters who rarely get their day in the limelight, so to speak, over the entire run of the show in which they appear, and these are the episodes in which they shone.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Lower Decks (season 7, episode 15)
What’s it all about? Four junior officers become involved in a top secret mission near the Cardassian border during a promotion evaluation process, in which two of them are in competition for the same position as Lieutenant.
Whose episode and why? Partially inspired by Upstairs Downstairs, writers Ronald Wilkerson and Jean Louise Matthias pitched a story about “the little junior officers who don’t get to go into the observation lounge and who don’t know what’s going on” to executive producer Jeri Taylor during the show’s final season.
Lower Decks mainly revolves around Ensign Sam Lavelle, conceived for this episode as a young Riker type, and Ensign Sito Jaxa, who previously appeared in season 5’s The First Duty, but also gives us a young Vulcan engineer called Taurik and brings Nurse Alyssa Ogawa, one of the sick bay nurses, to the fore.
It’s not just the view from Ten Forward – the regular cast are very much involved, but crucially, the episode comes wholly from the perspective of the junior officers. The ensigns are not like the expendable redshirts of old- you get to know them properly over the span of the episode, but when it comes to a tragic end for one of the two friends, you feel that the effect on the other will go on off-screen longer than it does for the main TNG crew.
See also: As the earliest and most acclaimed example of this kind of episode, it’s a very influential hour of television. Voyager and Deep Space Nine would each echo this episode numerous times, it could also be said to have influenced various other episodes on this list.
A View From The Gallery (season 5, episode 4)
What’s it all about? As the station comes under attack from aliens searching for vulnerable worlds, two maintenance workers called Bo and Mack go about their everyday routine.
Whose episode and why? This is a completely standalone episode of the series- Bo and Mack are one-off characters and even the aliens attacking the station are never seen before or after the episode. Though it could have been influenced by Lower Decks, it revels completely in the civilian view of the military, medical, and diplomatic personnel that make up the regular cast.
Aside from making stops with most of the regulars and engaging them in conversations that probably wouldn’t be happening between them in any other episode, Bo and Mack serve a pivotal role in fighting off the attackers, whether repairing weapons or medical equipment, but mostly come back around Raymond O’Connor and Lawrence LeJohn’s patter about the function of their equipment and the price of spoo.
J. Michael Straczynski apparently wrote the script for this one in a day, but despite its isolation from the main story of the series, it’s a deceptively insightful pause for thought.
See also: Also outside of Star Trek, Stargate SG-1 had a number of lower deck episodes, including season 6’s The Other Guys and season 7’s Avenger 2.0, which explored Dr. Jay Felger, one of the background scientists at SG-1.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer
The Zeppo (season 3, episode 13)
What’s it all about? Feeling emasculated by his lack of superpowers, Xander winds up going off on his own and runs afoul of psychotic fellow student Jack O’Toole. Meanwhile, the rest of the Scoobies stop the apocalypse.
Whose episode and why? Xander is hardly a minor character on the same scale as Lower Decks‘ Ensigns – Nicholas Brendon is second-billed in the opening credits and appeared in 143 out of 144 episodes. However, this one does start to address his perceived uselessness in the fight against evil. Next to a Slayer, a witch, a vampire, a werewolf and a Watcher, what does he bring to the table?
That’s what Cordelia asks at the beginning of The Zeppo (comparing him to the Marx brothers’ straight man) and Dan Vedder’s episode basically puts all of the super-powered stakes in the background for a story in which he is still out of his depth, but proves his mettle against the more immediate threat of Jack and his gang of undead buddies trying to blow up the school. In fact, the apocalyptic stuff in the background deliberately borders on self-parody, complete with overwrought Buffy/Angel scenes and a memorable returning monster, while in the main, Xander just does Xander and nobody but the viewer notices his efforts.
See also: Coming a couple of years after TNG‘s effort, The Zeppo is of a pair with Lower Decks in terms of its influence on later TV shows and is regularly listed among the best ever episodes of the series. Buffy would pull off a more darkly comedic variation on the same in the following season with Superstar, which takes place in a parallel reality in which minor dweeb and future Big Bad Jonathan is the inventor of the internet, the star of The Matrix, and an awesome vampire hunter that everyone loves.
Exposé (season 3, episode 14)
What’s it all about? Hurley and Sawyer see one of the survivors, Nikki, drop dead and then discover $8 million worth of diamonds while investigating her final words- “Paulo lies.” In flashbacks, we find out the truth about Nikki and Paulo.
Whose episode and why? Every episode of Lost takes place from a different cast member’s perspective, with flashbacks (and later flash forwards and sideways flashes) filling out their character history and unique point of view amongst the massive ensemble. Upon deciding to explore the lives of the other, non-regular survivors, the producers introduced Nikki and Paulo, a couple whose arc was definitively cut short by paralysing spider venom in season 3’s Exposé, after negative reactions from viewers.
As it turns out, they were con artists before they arrived on the island, who stole the diamonds from a TV producer on the titular show before boarding Oceanic Flight 815. In flashback, we chart how they fell out over the course of their first eighty days on the island, leading up to a darkly hilarious ending (“paralysed” sounds an awful lot like “Paulo lies”) as they are buried alive by the nonplussed regulars.
See also: Any number of characters only got one character-centric episode- memorably, season 2’s S.O.S focused on Rose and Bernard and season 6’s Ab Aeterno was about the mysterious Richard Alpert- but in a show with continuity so dense and convoluted as Lost‘s, Exposé is the most qualified as a Zeppo episode because, uniquely, Nikki and Paulo have no impact on the overall arc of the show whatsoever.
Love & Monsters (series 2, episode 10)
What’s it all about? An ordinary man called Elton Pope relates the extraordinary story of his complicated relationship with the Doctor, the friends he made in search of the truth and the terrible fate that befell them.
Whose episode and why? During the second series of the revived Doctor Who, the production team had to make 14 episodes in the time it took to make 13 in the previous year, leading to the creation of what has become known as the “Doctor-lite” episode in fan circles. In his column for Doctor Who Magazine, Russell T. Davies drew a direct line between Lower Decks and The Zeppo and the story of an ordinary man who had been affected by the Doctor’s adventures.
It’s a more comedic episode than most, but also a darker and more emotional one, but also one that features the Abzorbaloff, a monster created by a 10-year-old Blue Peter competition winner. It’s a cocktail that fans are still spitting about to this day, probably not least because the exploits of L.I.N.D.A are in many ways a sideways glance at the different types of people who are obsessed with the Doctor. Abzorbaloff actor Peter Kay described this episode as the greatest regret of his career in a 2012 interview, but you can still count us amongst its fans.
See also: In keeping with the Doctor-lite model, Blink and Turn Left also focus on the antics of characters other than the Doctor, but the former involves the Doctor more and the latter has more in common with Buffy‘s darkest timeline episode The Wish. Spin-off series Torchwood had Random Shoes in its first series, from the perspective of a man who has died in a hit and run accident. The next Doctor Who story to play with perspective as Love & Monsters did was last year’s Sleep No More, another one that’s instantly been taken to the collective fan bosom.
Weekend At Bobby’s (season 6, episode 4)
What’s it all about? A year ago, Bobby temporarily sold his soul to Crowley and he’s not best pleased that the demon has reneged on the deal for its return. While Sam and Dean are preoccupied elsewhere, Bobby takes matters into his own hands.
Whose episode and why? At this point in Supernatural‘s run, there was a lot going on. Series creator Eric Kripke had concluded his five season arc in the previous year and stepped down as showrunner after the CW renewed the still-popular show for a sixth season. Weekend At Bobby’s was filmed first (so that director and star Jensen Ackles could prepare) and while it doesn’t offer any significant answers in terms of the legwork that the show had to do to move on after its intended climactic story, it gives the limelight over to a regular ally of the Winchester brothers.
Aside from his own mission to retrieve his soul, Bobby is recruited by fellow hunter Rufus to help bury a demon while the FBI are after him and also to help out Sam and Dean over the phone with their own stuff. He also ruins a burgeoning relationship with a neighbor by putting the aforementioned demon through her wood-chipper when it pops out of the grave. It’s a fitting showcase of Jim Beaver’s Bobby, that could as easily have been a back door pilot about an older gentleman fighting evil and having to deal with the good-looking whippersnappers who bug him for help all the time.
See also: Season 7’s Death’s Door would take place mostly in Bobby’s subconscious after a very unfortunate event, but this is intercut with Sam and Dean in the real world. Another lower deck episode of note is Season 3’s Ghostfacers, which is slightly more in the Love & Monsters mould, as Sam and Dean become trapped in a house with a group of amateur ghost hunting videographers.
Agents of SHIELD
Turn, Turn, Turn (season 1, episode 17)
What’s it all about? During and after the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Agent Coulson and his team have no one they can trust and discover that there’s a HYDRA traitor in their midst.
Whose episode and why? Joss Whedon has described Agents of SHIELD is a Zeppo series, focusing on the day-to-day business of putting out fires in the Marvel universe. It’s a series that has been far quicker to drop names than any of the other televisual tie-ins, especially the Netflix shows Daredevil and Jessica Jones and as the series has gone on, it’s become more about separate (but still relatively minor next to the movies) super-powered intrigue.
However, the upper deck of Turn, Turn, Turn is the massive upheaval of S.H.I.E.L.D covered in The Winter Soldier and it sets the tone for the rest of the first season to cover its fallout. A number of sleeper agents who have been activated during and after Cap’s latest escapade and as the title suggests, one of them is also a traitor. The regular cast are all at the forefront of this one, but as the series has developed its own thus far separate mythology, it’s inarguably the most significant of the tie-ins with the cinematic outings, propelling it out of what had been a mixed first season.
See also: Earlier that season, The Well saw the agents cleaning up after Thor: The Dark World‘s London-based dust-up, and Captain America: Civil War‘s Sokovia Accords will affect the upcoming season 3 finale. But just like Xander in The Zeppo, the movies have yet to acknowledge the series.