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The Bottle Episode

3 min read

In light of the current state of events, where everyone and especially their dogs are (hopefully) staying at home and pretending the rest of the world doesn’t exist, let’s talk about a sci-fi staple in TV: the bottle episode.

For those of you already going to Google to find out what I’m talking about, the bottle episode is when a TV series with an ensemble cast produces an episode where everyone is confined to a small space, usually a single room, and shenanigans ensue. Said shenanigans can involve drama, silliness, character development, all kinds of weirdness, but the basic premise is this: everyone is stuck here, and there’s no getting out until the end of the episode and the status quo is resumed.

deep space nine station
Is this just a giant bottle, do you think?

You may ask: why would any self-respecting TV producer settle on this kind of thing? The answer is utterly mundane. It’s because bottle episodes cost almost nothing to produce, especially in a sci-fi series where the production budget has to cover all manner of exotic props, shooting locations, special effects, costumes, and makeup. A bottle episode, which usually involves only the main cast or a subset thereof and is set in a single small space, gives the accountants a nice breather.

The idea of the bottle episode has been around since the 1960s at the very least, and it was first used by Leslie Stevens (he of The Outer Limits fame) to refer to an episode made cheaply and quickly. Funnily enough, Seinfeld was one of the first TV shows to make what we think of as a classic bottle episode, but the ones that are most well known come from sci-fi. The X-Files, Star Trek in all its incarnations, and Dr Who have all made such episodes or variants of them.

Bottle episodes have become a kind of evolving meme, such that parody-style shows like Community even do their own kind of meta-satire take on them, but for me, the interesting thing about them is how they’re an example of art from restriction. It’s a huge creative limitation, to tell a writer they must set the scene in this one area, and the story must work only within it. It’s difficult to tell a group of actors that they have this one space to move through, that the camera crew has to get creative to get the shots, but ultimately the fact that they have to improvise can push artists towards new techniques and new kinds of expression. Just as necessity may be the mother of invention, limitation may be the mother of art, and many bottle episodes are considered some of the best for their respective series. Here’s a few that I can recommend:

  • “The Box” from Brooklyn Nine-Nine; this isn’t a sci-fi series, but it’s still one of the best bottle episodes ever and I would be absolutely remiss in not mentioning it.
  • “Ice” from The X-Files is my personal favourite, but be warned that it is VERY creepy.
  • “Duet” from Star Trek: Deep Space Nice is just some of the finest writing that Star Trek can be, on the level of “Darmok” from Next Generation.
  • “Out of Gas” from Firefly is simply so good that it’s likely the first one you thought of when you started reading.
  • Of course, “Comparative Calligraphy” from Community; again not a sci-fi series (though they do devolve into what I would call weird speculative fiction sometimes!), this is simply the best send-up of bottle episodes you could ever watch, and it’s wonderfully funny.
  • For an entire TV show that could be described as nothing but bottle episodes, look no further than Red Dwarf – a ridiculous low-budget sci-fi series from the UK made in the 90s that still holds up today as some of the most hilarious TV ever produced.

That’s all from me, friends – let us know in the comments what your favourite bottle episodes are. (If one of you doesn’t mention that one from Dr Who, I will be VERY disappointed.)

1 thought on “The Bottle Episode

  1. “Out of Gas” is my favorite Firefly episode! I love the troupe in all types of fiction and the level of character development that usually comes from these situations!

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