Television is a vast and varied format, and it’s often the episodes that break the norm of their shows that often end up being the most acclaimed. By stripping the show down to its base elements, some of the most beloved episodes in television history are “bottle episodes”. These episodes take place in a single location and only feature the core characters, or even less. These episodes are devised to save budgets and reduce the need for vast locations or guest stars, although sometimes it’s due to a desire to try something different. These five episodes from television shows I love prove that sometimes less is more, and have been responsible for some of the finest outings for their respective shows.
- Doctor Who- Midnight
From the very beginning Doctor Who has been forced to employ the bottle episode narrative in order to accommodate the budget. Think The Edge of Destruction from 1964 or The Sontaran Experiment from 1975. In the revival, two Doctor-only episodes have been met with acclaim, and whilst Heaven Sent is a magnificent piece of television it is part of a wider arc which ends up disappointing. Midnight, from the tail-end of David Tennant’s finest season as the Doctor is a complete standalone which strips the often vain and arrogant Tenth Doctor of all his power and places him in a situation where he almost dies. Alone on a tourist ship on an alien planet full of complete strangers, Russell T Davies masterfully examines the morality of people through the simple but brilliant premise of an unknown entity seizing control first of Sky Sylvestery then the Doctor himself. David Tennant carries the episode with his tour-de-force performance and the sharp writing, theatrical stylings, immaculate sound design and forboding tone make this an absolute classic episode of Doctor Who.
- Brooklyn Nine-Nine- The Box
One detective, one suspect, one captain and a ticking clock to get a confession. This magnificent bottle episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine features standout performances from Andy Samberg, Andre Braugher and guest star Sterling K Brown as the entire episode is focused entirely within the interrogation room as Detective Jake Peralta and Captain Raymond Holt must figure out a crime. Whilst the show had tackled the bottle episode before- 48 Hours and Lockdown are both great- The Box is superior due to its minimalist nature (the rest of the outstanding ensemble cast does not appear barring some cameos) and its darker, more intense tone than the average Nine-Nine episode, with a genuinely dramatic and tension filled confession scene. The focus of the episode is the now fully developed relationship between Peralta and Holt that fuels the entire show and the episode balances comedy with excellent commentary on justice and truth. This is one of those episodes that shows Brooklyn Nine-Nine is far more than just a comedy show and it serves as one of the best episodes of one of my all-time favourite shows.
- Firefly- Out of Gas
I’ve mentioned this episode before in my retrospective on Joss Whedon’s criminally short lived sci-fi masterpiece but I’ll mention it again. Told in three strands, the majority of the episode focuses on a superb Nathan Fillion as Mal Reynolds, injured and left for dead on Serenity. How he ended up in this situation is told in flashback as an engine failure forces the rest of the crew to flee, but Mal stays on as the captain, determined to protect his ship from pirates that arrive to try and hijack it. The third strand shows how Serenity’s crew were assembled and Mal’s attachment to the vast Firefly-class ship is made clear in Tim Minear’s expertly crafted script. Through outstanding editing and production the three story elements all blend together masterfully to create one of my favourite episodes of television ever. It’s the clear standout in the short but sweet run of Firefly with Nathan Fillion proving why he is one of my favourite actors in this fantastic performance which showcases his skills as a dramatic performer. The rest of the crew get great moments too and the episode just connects in a way very few episodes of television do. Whedon himself has claimed this is one of his proudest achievements as a creator and I agree.
- Rick and Morty- Total Rickall
One of my favourite episodes from the ingenious Rick and Morty, Total Rickall is a multi-faceted examination of how relationships are formed and the idea of memories. Parasites have infected the Smith household and the family’s resident genius/nihilist Rick Sanchez is having none of it, putting the house on lockdown and placing the house into quarantine as the parasites attempt to escape by infiltrating the memories of the characters. What follows is more ideas in 20 minutes than most shows manage in whole seasons, with hilarious designs such as Reverse Giraffe and Photography Raptor and the hilarious use of fabricated flashbacks that results in a clever parody of sitcom formula. The only way to combat the invaders is for Rick to force his family to confront their own negative memories of each other and defeat the parasites, who can only create positive memories. This episode also demonstrates Justin Roiland’s skills as a versatile voice actor as Morty is portrayed incredibly negatively whilst Rick runs the whole gammont of emotions from scepticism to acceptance to anger- all without losing what makes him such a great character. Relationships are changed and the show gets one of its greatest and most beloved episodes all without leaving the house. A masterpiece.
- Red Dwarf- Marooned
Red Dwarf is in many ways a two way character piece between Lister and Rimmer regardless of series, and no other episode proves this more than Marooned. Widely regarded as one of the best episodes of the whole show, Marooned sees Lister and Rimmer stuck on Starbug in the aftermath of a collision course with meteors and whilst they await rescue they try to live with each other. These two characters are polar opposites and yet their friendship still exists despite all their differences. Craig Charles and Chris Barrie are outstanding in this episode, as they expertly balance the traditional Red Dwarf humour with character introspection and depth that the show does not always tackle in its more outlandish plots. It plays like a theatre piece between two conflicting forces and as the characters are forced together for survival a bond is formed that is far more than just reluctant crewmates. Not only is the episode a fine example of the show on a budget but it is an example of how good the show can be and how it is not just a silly sci-fi sitcom. A staple of the British comedy scene, Red Dwarf’s status as one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time is cemented with Marooned.
And those were five examples of outstanding bottle episodes from shows I love. With minimal budgets and small casts television shows have excelled in creating compelling narratives with outstanding control of the bottle episode format to create original yet brilliant pieces of televison. It’s one of my favourite styles of storytelling.