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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Roussel

Alternative Timeline Episodes Are a Waste of Time

Well, I haven't had a rant in a while, so let's try this. What does Lucifer, The Umbrella Academy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek, Bones, Red Dwarf and Stargate SG-1 have in common? Every one of these series has a completely pointless episode.

One where we're either thrown into an alternative timeline or a big reset button is pushed. And inevitably, no one remembers the events of the episode.

There are two different tropes I'm talking about here. The Alternative Timeline can be seen in Bones were suddenly the characters are married and own a nightclub, and Lucifer - more on that later.

Bones "The End in the Beginning"

The Reset Button usually owes itself to a timeline shift. Your classic time travel story. Now your favourite characters are the bad guys, or perhaps they finally, finally declare their love for one another when, whoops, turns out this day never happened. Next episode, no one remembers it happing.

This is different to shows like Eureka and Fringe, both of which went through massive resets which had a dramatic and importantly permanent effect on the story. Call me a cynic, but usually, this is used when a series has gone dry. It's effectively a soft-reboot.

Timeline hijinks

What links these two stupid tropes is their relation to a third well-known trope - it was all just a dream... Dallas, I'm looking at you.

The Umbrella Academy 'The Day That Wasn't'

These episodes are entirely and completely inconsequential. Any character or story development is thrown out the window by the end of the third act. At best, it's a way for the writers to stretch their creative muscles and show us a different side to our known characters. At worse, it's a torturous form of dramatic irony. Look at everything we now know that the characters don't.

Maybe our beloved characters are unexpectedly killed. Or maybe they finally realise Mr Evil-Laugh was the bad guy all this time. They milk all the emotion out of the audience before hitting the big reset button. We're left pining for what might have been. It's a big old reset button which effectively buys the series a free episode.

Or, even worse. When Bones's alternative timeline aired, the series had gone stale. It had me wishing for more of the nightclub Bones and Booth rather than the science and FBI agent version. When your episodic vignette is more exciting than your actual series, you've got trouble.

Lucifer's Vignette

Lucifer "Once Upon a Time"

The alternative episode in Lucifer, "Once Upon a Time", is literally God dicking around with time to see if Lucifer and Chloe would still end up together if he pushed them onto two divergent paths. Shocker, they do.

In fairness, the writers believed the series had been cancelled. I suppose this is what they considered a suitable send-off. In retrospect, it's more of a bump in the road between series 3 and 4.

In fact, I didn't watch this episode for a year - until I found out it was narrated by Neil Gaiman. But I still couldn't stand it - what was the point? Would Chloe and Lucifer still care for each other if they hadn't met exactly the way they did before? It would be a bit of a rotten story if they didn't. The ending is a foregone conclusion. The tension is non-existent and the events - as they never happened - don't affect character or plot in the slightest.

The Orville & Supernatural

The Orville "The Road Not Taken"

Of all the series I've seen do this recently, The Orville stands out as a decent way of using the alternative timeline trope. By the way, this Orville episode is called "The Road Not Taken" - a nod to the Robert Forst poem. Because all of these alternative timeline episodes need to be signposted.

All this despite the fact "The Road Not Taken" did so many of the things I usually roll my eyes. Including the characters having no knowledge of the time shift (except for Kelly Greyson) and the potent, dramatic (and not at all permanent) deaths.

After some thought, I settled on three key reasons why Orville's use of the trope didn't annoy me as much as some others have:

  1. There's no pretence - the incorrect timeline is immediately acknowledged. The goal is to restore the original timeline, led by a character who is aware of the time shift.

  2. The main plot isn't advanced (and immediately undone). The characters didn't learn anything that they would need to re-learn. However, it wasn't a pointless episode, because...

  3. The story develops the background of Kelly and Mercer's relationship giving the audience information the characters already knew, but the audience didn't.

There are ways of doing this trope without being cheap. One memorable episode of Supernatural has Sam and Dean, suddenly strangers, working in a hi-tech company. It's an elaborate alternative life which is an illusion. There is a purpose to this episode. Sam and Dean realise that despite living a normal life and a 9-5 job, they'll still gravitate to each other and demon hunting.

Supernatural "It's a Terrible Life"

The writers immerse us into a new world, a new Sam and Dean, but still, make it both plot and character significant, as well as introducing the series antagonist, the angel Zachariah. "It's a Terrible Life", of course, being a homage to the 1946 movie It's A Wonderful Life. Perhaps the father of this overused trope.

Don't waste my time

I don't have the ability to reset my day. Spending an hour on an episode which does nothing to advance plot or character is going to annoy me. Spending an hour elated that the two 'will-they-won't-they's finally do only for time to reset or for one of them to wake up is libel to have me screaming at the TV. What was the point of that?

I'm honestly looking for people to change my mind on this. As I've given in to the idea that every series I love will have one of these episodes. Can anyone recommend their favourite?

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