The Lost Art of the Bottle Episode
There is little doubt that Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof revolutionised TV with Lost - it was a show based on a long-overarching story that allowed for a huge deep dive into themes and ideas without the need to return the show and cast to the status quo at the end of every episode. While it wasn’t the first show to feature an arc, it probably was the one that broke boundaries in a way that changed TV as a medium for storytelling forever.
While shows previously allowed characters to develop, for the most part each episode could be taken as it’s own self-contained mini story that had no massive overarching implications for what came after.
Taking Star Trek as an example, the original series was three seasons of self-contained bottle episodes - and while we knew more about the crew of the Enterprise by the time the series was cancelled, their roles changed very little between the opening minutes of Where No Man Has Gone Before right up until the end of All Our Yesterdays (or Turnabout Intruder if you’re going on production order). Any story could have been set in any season with minimal impact.
What we ended up with was both some of the very best television there ever has been (and some of the very worst) - but each and every episode (or occasional two-parter) could be taken as an individual story with a beginning, middle and end. It became a real art to condense a full narrative into 45 minutes but at its best we ended up with things like The City on the Edge of Forever which was not only something that gave us more insight into Kirk, yet had no impact whatsoever on then next episode.
Even into the eighties and nineties we had similar structures - other than event mini-series which told a story over a longer period of time, almost all TV followed the same overall ‘mini movie’ approach to storytelling. Then in 1993 it was another duo of science fiction shows that made the first noticeable steps towards how we now watch TV. While Star Trek: Deep Space Nine started out very much in the same way as its predecessors, it kicked off some plot threads that ran through the entire length of the show and by season four the ongoing storylines really came into to the front. Likewise, Babylon 5, was based on one overriding story that had been plotted out in advance.
The difference between those and what we get now is that the arcs were secondary (more so in the case of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) to the episodic nature of the series. In fact, it was headline news when Star Trek: Deep Space Nine took the creative risk of telling one arc across half a dozen episodes; something that now looks tame in comparison to eight-year long intricately woven plots. Alongside those arcs and the underlying plots that evolved over time, the show still delivered some stunning self-contained stories; some were set on the background of the larger arc, others could have been taken entirely out of the context of the wider show -take for example, The Visitor - there has been very little since that has come close to that story; a beautifully realised, entirely self contained plot with an emotional core that was apparent even without the wider context of the show. Just witness the powerhouse performance of Tony Todd - who wasn't even a show regular.
Ron Moore, moved on from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to reimagine Battlestar Galactica and that was even more plot focused; while it was uniformly brilliant, it showed the first signs of a TV series that was exclusively aimed at long-term viewers who had invested in the storyline from the opening moments. There were very few episodes, if any, that could be watched out of context; this in turn makes revisiting the show something of an investment in time.
Likewise, the series we opened this article with - Lost - doesn’t feature one episode, other than the pilot, that you can watch and understand without the wider context offered by the show. It’s impossible to jump in and pick an episode at any point in any season without watching everything that has come before. Star Trek: Discovery is the same - the first season has been an interesting experiment in modernising the format of that franchise, but could you go back and pick an episode to watch as an individual piece? Not really - events in one episode reverberate through those that come after, and you can’t start watching one episode without knowing the actual plot of the show up until that point.
One of the joys of television is going back to rewatch some of your favourite episodes - and the best shows of the past are still as watchable now as they were. Take, Buffy The Vampire Slayer - each season was an arc but there were plenty of stunning pieces of TV in each one of those larger stories that could be watched without prior knowledge - The Body was an episode that both changed the dynamic of the show but could be appreciated standalone as one of the most affecting episodes of TV ever written.
No matter how brilliant a TV series is - even Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones - it is so hard to go back to enjoy just a random 45 minutes in their universe when the story is one that spans nearly a decade in real time. Battle of the Bastardsmay be utterly enthralling, but it’s also just a smaller percentage of a much bigger story.
Thankfully, while bottle episodes are now very much a rarer thing, they haven’t been totally wiped out just yet and can still be enjoyed in some shows - we have the option of anthologies such as the recent Electric Dreams or Black Mirror, but these are very much mini movies entirely independent of each other with each episode having its own cast and the subject matter is variable both in terms of quality and in terms of plot. Then we have something like The Orville which is as close to old-school Star Trek as it’s possible to get - Seth MacFarlane’s series drops the need for an overriding arc and instead replicates the structure and feel of Star Trek: The Next Generation era Trek; Doctor Who is just about managing to keep up the UK’s end of the deal, despite the Moffatt-era complexity it still manages to turn in a decent slice of episodic storytelling while paying maybe the briefest attention to overriding arcs.
While the reset button approach to storytelling was roundly derided a decade ago, now it feels strangely fresh to be able to find a TV show that you can pick and choose which episodes to actually watch; being able to dip into or out of a show at any point adds to the rewatch value. I, for one, hope that the art of the bottle episode isn’t entirely lost in the future.
Have you got any favourite bottle episodes? Why not let us know in the comments below...