Same Plot, But Who Did It Best?

I was highly amused by this list of The 10 Most Insane, Child-Warping Moments of ’80s Cartoons, which I found through the Jem mailing list I’m on (shut up). It’s weird because some of the stuff at the “bottom” is far more traumatizing than the stuff at the top. I think they have the numbering backwards.

I’d forgotten about that episode of GI-JOE with Shipwreck’s fake family and the androids that melted and ahhhh that was so messed up! Though I have to say not as creepy as the part in the GI-JOE movie where Cobra Commander was turned into asnake-human beast and kept repeating “I used to be a man…. I used to be a man…” The black GI-JOE nearly punched him out.

Anyway, the Shipwreck episode got me thinking about reused plots because I just watched a Star Trek: TNG episode with a similar story. The one where Riker wakes up 10 years in the future, he’s the captain of the Enterprise, has a son, and is all WTF I don’t remember any of this! And at first he thinks it’s a Romulan plot but then it’s not. I’m pretty sure the GI-JOE ep came first, but I can’t be sure.

Not that this is some major thing, TV shows often recycle plots, and often there are plots that you always see in certain genres of shows. Sitcoms have their own, dramas have their own, and SF shows have their own.

Just off the top of my head, there’s the your life was actually a crazy hallucination plot. Like that episode of TNG where Riker (why is it always Riker?) thinks he’s going crazy and an alien psychiatrist tries to convince him that his whole life on the Enterprise was made up in his head. Someone once informed me that this happened on Buffy, too, while we were watching a Stargate: Atlantis episode where Wier was the one who thought she was crazy.

There’s the time loop plot, where characters keep experiencing the same slice of time over and over, sometimes without realizing it for a while. This happened on TNG, but my favorite one was the Stargate: SG1 episode where Teal’c and Jack were the only ones who saw that the day kept repeating itself, to hilarious results.

The evil counterpart plot, the most famous probably being the classic Star Trek episode where Kirk goes to the evil universe with a bearded Spock. This was later revisited on Deep Space Nine, though less successfully, IMO. There was a good TNG book about it, though. One of the only good episodes of Stargate: SG1‘s ninth season was of this stripe.

The out of phase plot, where characters are invisible and can’t be heard, but they aren’t dead, just shifted slightly off to the side. TNG again (Geordi & Ro), SG-1 again (Daniel), and at least two episodes of Strange Days at Blake Holsey High.

The who the hell is this person we’ve never seen before but was supposedly here the whole time? plot. From what I understand, Buffy’s sister’s entire storyline is this. Same goes for Cam on SG-1. That show also had an episode in the 4th or 5th season where an alien had a pheromone or something that implanted false memories in people to make them think they’d known him all along. Recently, Torchwood had something similar in the ep. “Adam”, though the alien in this case was much more sinister. More sinisterness in an episode of TNG where the whole crew lost their memories and suddenly there was some dude we’d never seen before pretending to be part of the bridge crew.

The bringing people back from the dead in messed up ways plot is usually about fan service. Like the time TNG brought back Tasha Yar as the Enterprise slipped into an alternate dimension, Callisto’s many appearances on Xena after she died, Kira’s boyfriend coming in from the evil dimension on DS9, and Janet & Martouf similarly coming over from another universe on SG-1. Torchwood‘s “They Keep Killing Suzie” isn’t really fan service, though.

Oh, and Character X meets her/his double! I like it best when the double is some random person not related to the character in question but who just happens to look exactly like them. There were several hilarious Xena episodes wherein we discovered two or maybe even three women who were mirror images of Xena (her dad got around a bit, methinks). Jem & the Holograms once met a princess who looked like Kimber (I think a lot of these plots have The Prince & the Pauper as their base). And that awful TNG episode where Riker (again, why always him??) meets himself, a dude who is actually his exact genetic double because of some transporter splicing (they blamed the transporter for every damn thing). I still hate that episode.

ETA:  Veejane and Deedop both pointed out variants of the Body Switching plot, the secret/surprise switch and the known switch. Classic Trek has the Kirk swaps with Janice Lester episode, SG-1 had an absolutely hilarious one where, eventually, Teal’c and Jack switched, and Chris Judge showed the real range of his amazing acting. Stargate: Atlantis also had an episode, as well as a very funny episode of Farscape.

Charlie brought up “the living-someone-else’s-life-in-your-head plotTNG did it with Picard to commemorate a civilisation and Voyager did it for a similar reason with most of the crew who thought they’d been involved in a war that was over centuries before they arrived. I suspect SG-1 have also done that one, experiencing false memories of some kind.”

There are more I can’t think of right now, help me out! Which plots that are mainly the province of SF shows do you see recycled all the time? And, of the different episodes that you’ve seen, which are the best exemplars?

13 thoughts on “Same Plot, But Who Did It Best?

  1. Umm, what about Farscape? Did the best double (half a season arc- I mean, come on- no mention?) I think they did the best for all the archetypes…

  2. I remember a battle of the “Planets Episode” where the G-Force’s Leader was supposedly thrown forward in time, but it turned out it was an Evil Spectre (Spectra, the bad guys) plot.

  3. I have a few:

    There’s always a cautionary tale about changing history that leads to the “destiny changed, now change it back” plot device.

    One variant is shown in episodes like the Doctor Who Ep where Donna Noble gets the giant bug on her back and never meets the doctor and the Eureka episode (at end of season 1) where Carter and Allison are married. The main character has to pick up clues that show why he/she needs to change that destiny back.”

    An even more popular variant on this theme is the “inevitablility” show where a character is sent back in time for some other reason, but tries to stop the death of a family member and either fails or pays a heavy price for doing so. I’m thinking about the Doctor Who where Rose saves her Dad (temporarily) or the Quantum Leap where Sam tries to save his brother or the recent Supernatural where Dean tries to save his mom.

    Two exceptions to this rule I’ve seen are in low-rent films: Time Cop and Frequency, where someone actually is able to go back in time and save a loved-one without negative consequences.

  4. Ah someone already mentioned: The “out of phase” story was also on Star Trek TOS, where Kirk was selected by the speedy princess to father her children or whatnot. Wasn’t this the one where it shows him and her in his bedroom, him pulling on his boot? Quite risque at the time.

    I would be very surprised if Twilight Zone never did that plot. *g*

    Buffy’s bring-back-the-dead best was their Mom — hearing her footsteps coming to the front door, then Dawn decides it was a bad idea and destroys the spell without showing just what ghastly thing would have been wrong with her.

  5. It’s always Riker for the same reason it’s always Kirk: for some strange reason, the writers think Kirk and Riker are the sexiest characters in their respective shows.

  6. Wow, there’s a Buffy plot for almost all of these. Besides the ones you mention, there was a time loop (in season 6), an evil counterpart (Willow’s), bringing back the dead in messed-up ways (pretty much the plot of season 7), meeting a double(Xander’s), and body switching (Buffy-Faith).

  7. “The point of view character despairs of ever knowing what the truth is”

    ha! I love the way you put that.

  8. Excellent article.

    TNG’s Matter of Perspective handled the Rashomon plot, and you can add Smallville to the list of “my life is a crazy hallucination plot’ perpetrators. As I write this, I think Smallville’s handled the Double/Evil Counterpart situation as well (as did Voyager’s ‘Living Witness’).

  9. All kinds of shows do what a friend of mine calls “the obligatory Rashomon episode”; the same event or series of events are recalled by many characters in flashbacks and every version disagrees with the rest. The point of view character despairs of ever knowing what the truth is and credits roll. X-Files did a hilarious episode in this vein.

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