10 More Episodes That Every Sci-Fi Show Must Have

A few weeks ago we posted a feature with a list of stories any self-respecting show just has to make at some point during its run. In your comments, many of you pointed out ones we’d missed – some deliberately, because we were only writing about 10 examples, or some we’d overlooked altogether.

And so, in the interest of being thorough, Jayne Nelson presents another 10 must-haves!

(Oh, and feel free to provide more examples if you’re still seeing clichés we’ve neglected. There are a lot out there.)

11 The Western Episode

With so much sci-fi channelling the old Frontier spirit (space is the final frontier, after all) and using Wild West tropes to tell a story, it’s only natural that many shows include a Western episode. Unless you’re Firefly , of course, in which case you win a special award for keeping it up for an entire season…

Good Cowboy Episode:

Star Trek: The Next Generation “A Fistful Of Datas”

Benefiting from on-location filming and the joy of seeing the cast acting out of character (Troi actually got a new costume and something to do for a change!), “A Fistful Of Datas” runs through every Western cliché you can think of with so much glee we’re amazed the actors didn’t wee themselves laughing. Brilliant.

It even ends up with a shot of the Enterprise flying off into the sunset.

Honourable mention: Red Dwarf ‘s “Gunmen Of The Apocalypse” had a whole heap of fun with a very similar concept.

Bad cowboy episode:

Star Trek “Spectre Of The Gun”

Okay, okay, don’t all tell us off at once: we know that this chunk of ’60s silliness is now deemed a classic. However, it’s only a classic because it’s bad. When it was made the budget couldn’t stretch to plonking the characters in the middle of a real-life Western town, and so a studio had to do instead – complete with unconvincing buildings, branches stuck comically into the ground to resemble trees and a backdrop of lurid red which was supposed to resemble an alien planet’s sky but was lit so badly that you could see the shadows from the sets falling onto it.

It’s a terrible Western town, and so “Spectre Of The Gun” ends up being a bad example of a Western episode. Saying that, though, Star Trek did manage to make it work by emphasising that the place was created from the characters’ memories by aliens, which explains its shoddy look. And the general weirdness of the entire affair works in its favour, making it a psychedelic treat, hence the episode’s classic status.

But still… even the fake town the citizens of Red Rock build at the end of Blazing Saddles looks better than this one.

Disappointing cowboy episode:

Doctor Who “A Town Called Mercy”

There are some great things about this episode, including Ben Browder as a sheriff, the Doctor taking over as the new sheriff, and the Doctor telling a cowboy that his horse is gay. But in a show that usually has a lot of fun reinventing TV tropes, too much of “A Town Called Mercy” feels a bit been-there, done that.

12 A Character Turns Into Another Species

Remember when Fred turned into Illyria in Angel ? That’s a good example of this particular cliché, except in her case it was permanent and didn’t get reversed by episode’s end. There are many, many occasions in which this isn’t the case. Star Trek in particular – all versions – seems obsessed with turning people into other things and then switching them back again (usually ignoring little issues such as their hair falling out and then being perfectly-coiffed by the end credits).

Good species-swap episode

Buffy The Vampire Slayer “A New Man”

Cursed by his old friend/enemy Ethan Rayne, Giles wakes up one morning to discover that he’s turned into a Fyarl demon. With make-up to die for, slapstick physical comedy (Giles isn’t used to being so huge, so he keeps trashing everything in sight) and the unexpected side-effect of him having to team up with Spike to find a cure, this is one of Buffy ’s most hilarious episodes.

We also suspect Anthony Stewart Head has never had as much fun, before or since.

Honourable mention: Star Trek: The Next Generation ‘s “The Best Of Both Worlds”. What else can we say except: “I am Locutus of Borg”?

Bad species-swap episode

Star Trek: Voyager “Threshold”

Travelling beyond Warp 10 causes a DNA mutation inside Tom Paris that slowly turns him into another life form. This new creature then kidnaps Janeway, mutates her too, and while they’re both giant alien slug-things they have sex and produce weird little mutant baby slug-things. Then they’re cured, magically, so they’re just the same as they were before it happened.

Jeez Louise.

Cheap species-swap episode

Sanctuary “Metamorphosis”

Well, apart from the fact that the writers clearly spent no mental energy coming up with a more original title, with “Metamorphosis” the ever-thrifty Sanctuary marries another trope to the species-swap gimmick to money-saving effect. When Sanctuary member Will stars changing into an Abnormal, most of the episode is shown from his point of view –through his eyes – handily cutting down on the time actor Robin Dunne needed to be in the make-up chair.

13 The Bodyswap Episode

Dr Sam Beckett did this every week on Quantum Leap , but on most shows the body swap only happens for a single episode. And oh boy, does it happen a lot . Charmed bodyswapped its characters in at least three episodes we can think of, while Stargate SG-1 did it four times. In fact, it’s hard to find a show in which it hasn’t happened…

Good swap

Farscape “Out Of Their Minds”

The crew of Moya swap bodies willy-nilly in one of the best-realised versions of this trope you’ll ever see – mainly because it doesn’t matter who swaps into who, because the performances are all absolutely spot-on. Kudos to the cast – puppet and human – for impersonating each other so well. We also love the fact they wear little pictures of themselves around their necks so they know who’s in which body!

Plus “Out Of Their Minds” features the one thing that is so often ignored in male/female bodyswap episodes: a character having a good grope of their new body. It’s gross and immoral, yes, but come on… you would, wouldn’t you?

Honourable mention: The X-Files , “Dreamland” has Mulder switching bodies with a member of Spinal Tap, who buys him a water bed. Brilliant.

Bad swap

Supernatural “Swap Meat”

It’s actually quite difficult to find a bad example of a bodyswap episode – the format naturally tends to lend itself to a lot of humour, and it’s always nice seeing characters acting in weird ways. We’ve chosen this actually rather good episode of Supernatural , which has Sam swapping with a nerdy teenager, simply because it got one big thing wrong.

And what would that be? Well, if you’re going to do a bodyswap episode in Supernatural, shouldn’t Sam swap bodies with Dean? Can’t you just imagine how many bitchfaces Sam would pull while his brother stuffed his body with burgers? Or how grossed-out Dean would be at the thought of Sam seeing his junk? What a missed opportunity. Still, it may happen one day…

Curiously-Timed Swap

Doctor Who “New Earth”

Part of the fun of a body-swap episode is seeing the regular actors hamming up the acting traits and foibles of their cast mates. The comedy effect very much relies on us, the audience, being familiar with the characters. So it was a bit odd that David Tennant’s second story as the Doctor (after having spent most of his first story in bed) was a body swap tale; we’d hardly got to know this new Doctor so it was difficult to know if Rose/Billie Piper’s impersonation of him was any cop…

14 The Doomed Romance

As SFX reader Glunark put it so succinctly in a comment on the first part of this feature: “Where the star of the show meets someone never before seen, marries/proposes to her/him, and they almost immediately die.”

Fine romance

Star Trek “The City On The Edge Of Forever”

The quintessential doomed romance in sci-fi, and the one most people think of when referring to this trope. Kirk falls in love with Joan Collins’s humanitarian Edith Keeler, but he must let her die because if she lives, she’ll accidentally help the Germans win World War II. Boy, he sure can pick ’em.

This is so affecting because (a) it’s a wonderful, tragic idea; (b) William Shatner and Collins have great on-screen chemistry; (c) her death is genuinely sad. It’s so good, in fact, that other shows have been ripping off this concept ever since.

Honorable mention: Doctor Who “The Girl In The Fireplace” in which the Doctor falls in love with Madame de Pomadour through a fireplace.

Bad romance:

Knight Rider “The Scent Of Roses”

One of the worst examples of this trope comes in the form of this cheesy episode from Knight Rider ’s final season (supposed to be the series finale, actually, until it got switched). The woman our hero falls for has been in the show a couple of times before, but Michael’s sudden decision to quit working for Knight Industries and settle down with her comes from the blue. And then, just as it seems he’ll get a happy ever after, she is shot dead just after their wedding.

Oh, the tragedy! Or, er, not. It’s hard to give a damn when someone we barely know dies. It’s even harder to give a damn when they die in a round of cliché crossfire.

15 The Jack The Ripper Episode

He killed five women in Whitechapel in 1888, was never caught and remains a mystery to this day. Perhaps it’s this mystery that makes Jack such a popular historical figure, popping up in all sorts of shows as the guest villain of the week. Or hell, sometimes he’s a regular character, as in Sanctuary.

Our favourite example of this is a TV movie rather than a TV show, so it doesn’t really count, but what the hell. In 1985’s Terror At London Bridge , David Hasselhoff investigates a series of murders centred around the imported and rebuilt London Bridge in Lake Havasu, Arizona. It seems the stones are haunted by Jack’s spirit. Well, of course they are.

( Final note: other historical figures are available. For example, Leonardo Da Vinci, Abraham Lincoln, JFK and many others.)

Good Jack:

Star Trek “Wolf In The Fold”

A mysterious alien entity known as “Redjac” is responsible for a murder spree and Scotty gets the blame. It’s formulaic and predictable but there’s something also rather ghoulishly satisfying about how the Ripper’s crimes are being recreated on a faraway planet…

Honourable mention: Kolchak: The Night Stalker episode “The Ripper” saw Kolchak hunting down a supernatural killer with Jack-ish tendencies.

Bad Jack

Babylon 5 “Comes The Inquisitor”

The premise of this episode is that Jack The Ripper was kidnapped by the Vorlons so he could become an inquisitor for them, torturing people on their behalf 400 years into the future. While the episode is pretty good, the fact that Sebastian is actually the Ripper seems a bit pointless – especially when using him as your “villain of the week” had already been done so many times on other shows by now.

Plus Jack wasn’t really one for torture, was he? He was all about the evisceration! Still, maybe the Vorlons were in a hurry when they picked him up…

16 The Evil Twin Episode

We’ve had the “Good Guy Goes Bad Episode” ( http://www.sfx.co.uk/2012/11/13/10-episodes-that-every-sci-fi-show-must-have/9/ ) but there are more variations on this formula – namely, another version of the goodie who’s actually a baddie. Can you spot the difference?

(Note: new Battlestar Galactica has been disqualified because otherwise we’d be here all day listing Cylons.)

Good twin:

Star Trek: The Next Generation “Datalore”

The crafty android Lore was created before Data and wasn’t quite as dedicated to being an all-round nice guy as our favourite yellow chap. In fact, he was working in league with a nasty creature that was attacking planets and killing people – whoops. Most of the joy in this episode comes from Data’s wide-eyed amazement at how human his brother seems, although obviously “human” also means he can be a right bastard.

You can tell Lore from Data because he can use contractions, saying “it’s” instead of “it is” and suchforth. Which explains why Data is such a bad linguist – his creator made him so because Lore had been too good at it. Nice ret-con there.*

(*Note: is a ret-con a must-have episode itself? We’ll ponder that, or tell us below if you agree…)

Honourable mention: Star Trek “The Enemy Within”, which set the bar for everything to follow.

Bad twin:

Smallville “Bizarro”

Bizarro was a wraith who escaped from the Phantom Zone before battling with Clark and taking on his appearance. You could tell he was an evil version of Clark because instead of a wearing a blue t-shirt with a red coat, he wore a red t-shirt with a blue coat.

…Oh, and he tried to kill people ‘n’ stuff.

Evil Triplet

Misfits Series 4 Episode 3

Ever since Rudy joined Misfits the show has had the good twin/bad twin shtick built-in, although bad Rudy isn’t actually evil, just a bit of a prat. So in a twist on the normal evil twin trope the show had to introduce an evil triplet . And boy, was he creepy.

17 The Creepy Kid Episode

There appear to be two types of children on sci-fi telly: adorable, mop-haired tykes who need to be protected and saved from the bad guys, or evil little gits who want to suck out your soul. There’s probably a psychological side to this trope – parenting worries; the perverting of the innocent; fear of things smaller than we are (okay, we made that last one up). But either way, kids can be really bloody scary…

Good child:

Doctor Who “The Empty Child”

Excuse us while we crap ourselves.

Honourable mention: The Twilight Zone ‘s “It’s A Good Life” features a little kid who can control the universe with his mind. He also pops up in the Twilight Zone movie with a giant rubber rabbit that still haunts our nightmares.

Bad child:

Supernatural “I Believe The Children Are Our Future”

This episode introduces young Jesse Turner (Gattlin Griffith, who went on to play young Ryan Reynolds in Green Lantern ), who can make things happen just by thinking about them – for example, turning the angel Castiel into an action figure. Clearly he’s evil. And yes, as the episode progresses, we discover that he’s actually the Antichrist himself! Dun dun daaaaaaa!

…At which point he goes on holiday to Australia and has yet to return to the show. Like, what? You write in the Antichrist and then he simply buggers off? Rubbish!

18 The “It Was All A Dream” Episode

This trope pops up so often that it’s even slipped into mainstream telly, most famously on Dallas when we discovered that an entire season had been dreamed by one of the main cast. The reasons are varied: spells, drugs, alien attacks, insanity… the list is endless. But one thing we do know for sure is that episodes like this are either hauntingly brilliant… or utterly pants.

(Note: there’s also a variation of this trope called “You’re Really A Patient In A Mental Hospital… Or Are You?” But that’s for another day.)

Good dream:

Star Trek: The Next Generation “The Inner Light”

Captain Picard lives an entire lifetime in a matter of minutes after being targeted by a probe. It’s a deeply affecting and clever story that deservedly won a Hugo Award. It also resulted in a strange Pavlovian reaction in some viewers: any time Picard played the flute from then on, a lump instantly formed in their throats…

It was so good, in fact, that a similar trope was used in Deep Space Nine with O’Brien, only he lived a lifetime in a cell. No flutes in that one.

Honourable mention: Supernatural ‘s “What Is, And What Shall Never Be…” has Dean trapped in a world in which his mum never died. There are tears before bedtime.

Bad dream:

Buffy The Vampire Slayer “Nightmares”

Characters wander around in their own bad dreams, but aside from a few interesting twists, there’s not much here to boggle the mind. It’s not often that Buffy made a miss-step, but sadly time has not been kind to this little episode. Thankfully the show revisited the “bad dreams” idea in “Restless” and promptly kicked the concept into space.

Also, Buffy as a vampire? Really doesn’t work.

19 The Reset Button Episode

You throw yourself into watching a story and are pulled along by the action, laughing and crying with the cast, willing them to win through at the end… and then by the time the credits roll it’s all returned to how it was at the start. Gah!

Good reset:

Angel “I Will Remember You”

Angel becomes human and gets to have as much sex with Buffy as he wants to without losing his soul and turning into Angelus. Hurrah! But it soon becomes clear that he’s going to have to give up his humanity in order to perform his life’s mission of redeeming himself and saving lives. And thus he asks the Powers-That-Be to rewrite the events of the last few days so he can stay a vampire – and everything goes back to normal.

What makes this episode truly, desperately tragic is the fact that Buffy discovers Angel’s plan to turn back time and, weeping with loss, swears that she won’t forget what’s happened… and then time turns back and she doesn’t remember a damn thing. Angel does, though. Sniff.

Honourable mention: Voyager took two episodes to tell an arc story called “The Year Of Hell” (the clue’s in the title – they don’t have a lot of fun). Although it was frustrating at the end when things reverted back to normal, the episodes were pleasingly gritty and a rather clever format experiment.

Bad reset

Smallville “Infamous”


Smallville absolutely loved using its reset button, endlessly showing us variations of Clark’s life if this person died, or that person found out his secret, or if this villain took over, or blah blah blah. While many of them were great fun, this one’s not so great.

In it, Tori Spelling’s devious reporter Linda Lake threatens to expose Clark’s powers and so he decides to come clean with the world, revealing himself as the vigilante superhero who’s been zipping around Smallville saving lives. Naturally this doesn’t end well, with the resultant media and government interest driving him nuts. And so he resets time using the Legion ring, because he’s clever that way.

The episode falls into the trap of adding nothing new to the show, doesn’t play events out logically and generally serves as filler: a prime “reset” trap to fall into. It might have been better if it had played out over a few episodes, or actually been real. On the plus side, though, at least they didn’t faux-kill anyone for once.

20 The “You’re Playing A Game” Episode

Characters are forced into playing a game on behalf of some powerful and ruthless foe. Taken to extremes most recently in The Hunger Games , this scenario is played out (pun intended) on a regular basis on the small screen…

Good game:

Supernatural “Changing Channels”

The Winchesters are thrown into TV-land by the Trickster (later revealed to be the naughty angel Gabriel). Their goal is to move from show to show, following the rules of each one, until they’re released. These “rules” include everything from faking laughs in a Two And A Half Men -style sitcom to straight-facedly admitting to having herpes in a medical commercial, but the best part comes in the form of a Japanese gameshow that makes the entire episode a classic…

Honourable mention: The X-Files “First Person Shooter” has our agents fighting inside a giant VR game to defeat its controller. Cool.

Bad game:

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine “Move Along Home”

An early misfire from season one has Sisko, Dax, Bashir and Kira trapped inside a game being played by some visitors from the Gamma Quadrant. They must “move along home” and follow the game’s rules or they’ll (apparently) die.

It’s an episode let down by a lack of real peril, unconvincing plotting and a general sense of “Oh, just get on with it!” Move along home, nothing to see here.

Dishonourable mention: That’s not a really badly pixilated still from Warehouse 13 ’s “Don’t Hate The Player”. That’s what the episode (in which the regular characters are sucked into a computer game) actually looks like. Which makes it damned near unwatchable.

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