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November 27 2009

The 14 greatest format-breaking SF & Fantasy TV episodes ever. Fun list over at the SFX website. Joss' shows did very well out it too. Dollhouse's Epitaph One took 10th place, Angel's Smile Time came eighth and, last but not least, Buffy's Superstar was first.

Very fun list! That's one of my favorite X-Files episodes (Scully's "Because the FBI has nothing to hide" is possibly one of the funniest moments of the show) and I LOVED the "Ghostfacers" episode of Supernatural. Some Farscape love too ("Revenging Angel" is fantastically weird, but as they said, it's hard to say what is weird in Farscape. "John Quixote" is another of my favorites).

3 out of 4 Whedon shows...it does make you wonder how weird Firefly might have gotten! "Superstar" is funny, of course, but didn't have the what-the-hell-just-happened impact for me of Dawn's. Or "Normal Again", which I think is one of the most chilling episodes of the series. Of course, you have to give "Superstar" nods for changing the title sequence! Which, come to think of it, so did the Dollhouse, X-Files and Supernatural episodes mentioned here.
I wish Firefly had an episode like this, Out of Gas probably gets closest.
I wish Firefly had an episode like this,


You could make a case for Objects in Space due to the very nature of Joss' commentary for that episode.
I do like Superstar, but it isn't one of my top episodes. It felt just a little too silly for me. Having said that, it probably was the most format-breaking of the series. Normal Again was not a new idea (was the TNG episode the first?) and neither was Once More With Feeling; they may have been great episodes, but they had been attempted before.

The other Whedon choices are perfect though.
It's an interesting subject. I have always had a huge appreciation for these types of "format-breaking" episodes in any show and consider almost all of my favourite Whedon episodes among them.

I don't share their appreciation for their picks though.

I was never a huge fan of "Smile Time" (though I do of course think puppet Angel is quite awesome and there's that wonderfull last scene) and I'm part of the tiny minorty that likes Dollhouse but thinks "Epitaph One" is one of its least appealing episodes (and that's coming from a huge Felicia Day fan).

Most of "Superstar" (wonder why they suddenly call it "Hero" at some point) is absolute genius (mostly the Jonathan props and stories), but the resolution always ruins the experience for me. It's too convenient and arbitrary, like the Dexter episode where the psychiater for no good reason happens to record damning evidence of all his "murders" and conventienly stores this extremely easily accessible on his computer.

This while the article fails to even mention truely ground-breaking episodes like Hush, Restless or The Body.

It's fun though that they mention "Living Witness", one of my favourite Voyager episodes, but one that, like most Voyager episodes, I had entirely forgotten.

Also appreciate their mention of "Blink" (Docter Who S3) By far my favourite episode of the new Docter Who. Here's hoping Moffat as head writer will mean more of this quality to the show.

[ edited by the Groosalugg on 2009-11-27 22:16 ]
Firefly in it's entirety was "format breaking", in terms of what it was and what it was trying to do. I would agree that OoG and OiS come closest to what the article was looking for. Some great examples given.
Good idea for an article though I can't really tell if by "format breaking" they mean breaking the fourth wall or transcending the show's reality or the more pedestrian in some ways "formula breaking" which basically boils down to "quite an original idea for an episode" ('Hush', 'The Body' and 'Restless' are all "just" formula breaking - brilliant TV but still taking place within the show's reality, as does 'Superstar'. Only 'Normal Again' actually transcends the show). In fact, I have to question whether SF&F TV is particularly worthy of special praise for doing this (as opposed to just because many of these were great episodes). Seems like it's an everyday occurrence on sci-fi shows, it's almost expected in fact - SF&F is the freest "sandbox" any creator can play in, a genre where anything is possible so it's arguably only mainstream TV that deserves plaudits for doing what good sci-fi does as a matter of course (s'one of the reasons I love sci-fi).

Still, of their picks the X-Files, Xena, Farscape and Stargate episodes stand out as great TV ('Living Witness' was also good - albeit a variant on the common "point of view" episode type - though ST:Voyager as a whole was lacking IMO).

... Normal Again was not a new idea (was the TNG episode the first?)...

Maybe if we strictly stick to "waking up in an asylum" stories but not if we broaden it out even slightly to "the reality is actually a dream/fantasy" because that trope is a lot more than 16 years old. The classic Trek example IMO is 'Far Beyond the Stars' from DS9 where it's suggested that the show as we know it is actually being imagined by a black sci-fi writer in 1950s America as he struggles within the racist society of the time.

First example I remember is hospital drama "St Elsewhere" where in the final episode we discover that the whole show (which had been running for years) has taken place in the mind of a young autistic boy (not sci-fi though obviously). UK sci-fi comedy 'Red Dwarf' also did an episode where the crew "wakes up" to discover the reality they thought they were in was actually a game they'd been playing for years (i.e. since the show started).

And the more general "it's all a dream" variant probably most famously turned up on 'Dallas' wherein an entire season (including at least one death of a major character) turned out to be a dream someone was having.
I was talking about the "waking up in an asylum" story specifically. Obviously, the dream or fractured reality story is much older than that.

The Red Dwarf episode is really fantastic and should have been included on this list. Unfortunately, the more recent special episodes attempted to do something similar but ended up as merely a knock off of The League of Gentleman film (as well as just not being as funny as the original series.)

And that mention of DS9 makes me more convinced that I really need to see it again from the beginning. Always enjoyed Star Trek, but remember so little of DS9, which went through a long period of never being repeated in the UK. One day I will get the complete boxset and watch it from start to finish. The episode you mention definitely sounds as if it could have made this list. Having said that, I do remember the Voyager episode they do include as being very good.

Hadn't heard of St. Elsewhere before, but sounds really interesting (although that spoiler probably gives away a little too much. :))

As for Buffy, I agree with most comments that The Body, Hush or Restless would have been better episodes to include, in that they do break conventions but also stand up as better episodes in their own right. The Body through its direction and lack of music, Hush through its lack of dialogue (although, in reality, the silence is far from the whole episode), and Restless not just for its use of each character dreaming but through its heavy use of symbolism, which is required to really understand what is happening in the episode. I would personally pick Restless from those, but I can certainly see it argued for the other two too.

Another episode that could have been included on this list was the third (fourth if you include the pilot) episode of Twin Peaks. This was when the madness of the show really came to the fore. Prior to this it had had its odd moments, but these were merely the odd eccentric character (the silent drapes woman) or slightly jarring moment (the flicking light in the hospital.) With the third episode it went full on David Lynch batshit crazy with the FBI agent that attempts to solve the crime by throwing stones at a bottle when suspects names are called out, and a dream involving a red room and a backwards talking dancing midget.
Yeah, I immediately thought of "Far Beyond the Stars" too Saje. I don't know what I'd think of it if I watched it again - when I tried to start rewatching DS9 a few months ago, I quickly came to the conclussion it might be one of those childhood memories better left untouched - but it's one of the DS9 eps that made a huge impression on me, when I watched them as a kid.
Also agree Voyager on the whole wasn't very good. Though for a format-breaking episode to work having an anoyingly strict format and general repetitiveness actually can be sort of a good thing, and both these things are areas where Voyager "excelled" at.

And god I love special agent Cooper and especially that rock throwing scene. Thanks for reminding me of that, Vandelay.
Nice list! I was going to punch someone if Farscape wasn't on it, and, luckily, no punching was required. I do enjoy format-breaking episodes, for sure. For The Prisoner, though, I would have chosen "Living in Harmony," which is far more bizarre as it turns the show into a Western for no apparent reason. And, like "The Girl Who Was Death," doesn't explain itself until the end.
good list ^^ i would have written something stupid if there was no ghost facers they are just awesome ^^
I was talking about the "waking up in an asylum" story specifically. Obviously, the dream or fractured reality story is much older than that.

Made me curious (because it felt like that idea must be older too) so via the excellent TV tropes site (careful if you haven't been before, it WILL devour hours of your life ;) we have 'The Cabinet of Dr Caligari' - think we're unlikely to get much further back than 1920 ;).

And sorry about spoiling "St Elsewhere" Vandelay ;). It's probably dated a lot anyway (though it's interesting to see a young Denzel Washington in probably his break out role) but it was a great show, one that really made you care about the characters - so much so that i'd kind of assumed its ending had entered the broader popular culture just because at the time it made a lot of people pretty angry (imagine if 'Normal Again' was Buffy's final episode and not only that but that there was absolutely no choice about what you believed, she just was in an asylum, none of it was real and that was that). Guess that might be an age thing though (since it ended in the 80s) ?

...when I tried to start rewatching DS9 a few months ago, I quickly came to the conclussion it might be one of those childhood memories better left untouched - but it's one of the DS9 eps that made a huge impression on me, when I watched them as a kid.

Well, I didn't watch DS9 as a kid (I was, at least on paper, all grown up ;) and so might've been more aware of its faults at the time but I still think it's technically the best Trek show by which I mean, the most ambitious in its themes, ideas and execution - first Trek with a proper arc for instance, first Trek to question the apparently totally liberal underpinnings of the Federation, first Trek with truly grey good guys etc. It's sometimes quite hokey though and Avery Brooks though probably a fine stage actor sometimes chewed the scenery as Sisko (and like all the modern Treks, the early episodes are very patchy) but it's well worth watching the entire run IMO.


ETR some minor DS9 spoilers - normally I wouldn't bother for a show that finished years ago but given the context of not watched it yet or re-watching with a fresh eye...

[ edited by Saje on 2009-11-28 10:16 ]
I've never been a big fan of Smile Time or Epitaph One either Groosalugg.
There is nothing wrong with the episodes but I've just never understood their overwhelming praise, Smile Time especially. . It was a cute and fun episode on first watch but didn't have much going for it after that, not for me anyway.

Epitaph One was a decent episode but It would be really hard for me to include it in my top 5 Dollhouse episodes.

But I can certainly see why they fit nicely on a list such as this.
I didn't mean to imply DS9 was a kids-show or that it was bad, which reading back my previous post I actually did both end up doing. (If I had not been the one who wrote it, I think I would actually have been offended reading it myself.) DS9 certainly is my favourite Trek-series and I also still consider myself a fan and have only respect for everyone that also does so. I just happened to watch it as a kid and then I rewatched the first 2/3 episodes in the summer and then I was surprised to see the "hockeyness" (as Saje puts it), since I previously mostly remembered all the good things about the series (and there certainly are a great many of them, like all the ones Saje listed above.)

But if the first few episodes were remarkably "patchy", maybe aside from difference in my own age there actually is a large quality difference between these first few eps and the last 3/4 seasons I mostly remember the show for.

ETA:

And TangoDH you manage to describe exactly how I feel about "Smile Time" and "Epitaph One". Nice to hear there are more of us out there!

[ edited by the Groosalugg on 2009-11-28 15:44 ]
lol I had JUST kicked the T.V. Tropes habit and you had to go and mention it again! (Just kidding... sort of)

Great list, I was glad to see some love for Xena, Herc and Farscape as well as for Angel, Buffy and Dollhouse.
I have been watching through DS9 lately, and am currently in the sixth season. The quality difference is huge. Season 1 has only a mere handful of good episodes. Season 2 picks up the quality, but is still very shaky. Season 3 is where the show hits its stride, then season 4 it becomes amazing. The story arc really starts to come together, and by now the show has completely stopped using the Trekkian 'reset button' and is even more serialized. It's powerful stuff. So I highly recommend rushing through those early episodes and getting at the good stuff. :-)

Interesting list, I always love it when a show does something unique for an episode. :-) (Also, that Red Dwarf episode was brilliant, and poked fun at the idea of the characters waking up and realizing the whole show was a dream/simulation.)
Are you watching DS9 for the first time, AnotherFireflyfan? In any case, it's nice to hear those later seasons have withstood the test of time.
I've been toying with watching DS9... so far I haven't, though, as my Netflix is busy bringing in "Veronica Mars," and I have a feeling Babylon 5 did everything DS9 did earlier and better.
DS9 actually started before Babylon 5 but that aside, the shows offer a fairly different viewing experience IMO (they do bear some similarities though). At the time of course DS9 vs Babylon 5 was the "big rivalry" but to me it was artificial and as is often the case when fandoms take it upon themselves to dislike one or another show on a superficial or irrational basis, I personally watched and enjoyed both and didn't see what all the pro/anti fuss was about.

I didn't mean to imply DS9 was a kids-show or that it was bad, which reading back my previous post I actually did both end up doing. (If I had not been the one who wrote it, I think I would actually have been offended reading it myself.)

Oh, I was genuinely in no way offended the Groosalugg (sorry if I gave that impression, didn't intend to) and I didn't take you to be saying it was a kids show at all. I just assumed you'd watched it as a youngster and then when you went back to it were disappointed by the quality not matching your memories of it. Happens all the time unfortunately - if we enjoyed something we tend to mentally gloss over its faults over time and likewise if we disliked something we often mentally magnify its faults (and added to that I guess most of us are looking for different things in a TV show at 30 than we were at 15 - brilliant TV for a kid isn't brilliant TV for an adult and vice versa).
Fun list. I love episodes that break format, it takes a really brave and creative writing/production staff to even try to pull it off, let alone do it well. It's much easier to just pump out another normal show, I imagine.

Though I'd have to say, The Zeppo was my favorite of Buffy, and Joe Chung's From Outer Space was my favorite from X-Files, if those count.
I am indeed watching DS9 for the first time. (When I was a kid I watched TNG and Voy, but gave DS9 a pass. Now that I'm older DS9 is probably my favorite of them.) The first season and a bunch of the second season don't hold up too well, and most of the Ferengi episodes are pretty horrid, but overall the later seasons are holding up incredibly well and I am really enjoying it. It's too bad it took so long to get this good, but even the earlier seasons had some good episodes to appreciate.

Btw, Babylon 5 was pitched to Paramount (and they were given the full series bible) before DS9 started. But the shows really did take different courses, and the similarities are only superficial (both are on a space station. Both have big wars in them. And.... that's pretty much it.) Babylon 5 was much more serialized (a book in tv form), whereas DS9 was still Trek-episodic, but with fewer resets (but still a lot of them, especially in earlier seasons). They did do a several episode continuing arc at the beginning of season 6, and I hear there is more of that in the last season (haven't watched that far yet). I do think that if you enjoy one of the shows, you will likely enjoy the other if you give it a fair shot. I'm thankful for all the long lived quality science fiction shows we got. :-) Too bad we don't seem to get shows like those very often anymore. Amazing to think that they were both on air at the same time!
Btw, Babylon 5 was pitched to Paramount (and they were given the full series bible) before DS9 started. But the shows really did take different courses ...

Yep, back in the day JMS was pretty vocal about it on Usenet (where he used to post quite regularly, they're probably still around to a determined searcher) and fair play, if he felt wronged he's going to be angry, possibly with good reason. But the shows always felt different to me (early DS9 is quite standard "glossy" Trek whereas B5 was grimier and, from the beginning, more realistic SF in some ways - it's an O'Neill colony for instance) and quite quickly diverged plot-wise too IMO (though it still had e.g. a commander who's a religious figure to some and the subject of prophecy) but I wouldn't be a bit surprised if Paramount took some of his ideas as a starting point.

And yep, the Dominion arc had a lot of great stuff. Not only was it the first non-reset Trek arc ever AFAIK but it also featured the crew on a "war footing" and acting very unTrek like in some instances. One case I half remember shows them . The other thing I loved about DS9 was the O'Brian/Bashir relationship and how it developed over time.

[ edited by Saje on 2009-12-03 17:55 ]

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