Geekdom Come, Troping the Riff

Troping the Riff- Bottle Episode

An unknown contagion has been detected. The station is under quarantine until further notice. Or maybe there was an explosion and we’re stuck in this room until help arrives. Maybe we’ve been taken prisoner and are stuck sharing a cell until we can make bail. However it plays out, the main cast is stuck in a single location for an entire episode. In this Troping the Riff post we take a look at the most cost-effective of tropes: The Bottle Episode.
The phrase bottle episode originated with Star Trek: The Original Series. The crew often called these types of episodes “ship in a bottle” episodes because they took place entirely aboard the Enterprise. Eventually, the term caught on and was shortened to just ‘bottle episode’. Bottle episodes have become such a staple of episodic television that they’ve taken on a life of their own. What once was done out of practical necessity has evolved into an artistic choice. The bottle episode has become a storytelling device that allows writers to ratchet up the tension and play off the claustrophobia felt by both the characters and the audience when trapped in a single confined space.
Since the Star Trek franchise is where this trope started, let us return the favor and start with them. In the original series the season one episode “Balance of Terror” is the first and perhaps best bottle episode of the entire franchise, embodying the spirit of the submarine war films that were so popular during that era. “Drum Head” is the best bottle episode of the TNG era but pales in comparison to DS9’s “Duet” where Major Kira has an intimate face off with a Cardassian war criminal.
Star Trek does not hold a monopoly on great bottle episodes, plenty of other fandoms get in on the act. Doctor Who’s “Midnight” dabbles in psychological terror in a way few episodes from the franchise can match while Babylon 5’s “Intersections in Real Time” not only takes place entirely in one room but gives only one member of its main cast a speaking part. Of course no Troping the Riff would be complete without acknowledging the corresponding Buffy episode that superbly executed it. In this case, the episode is “Older and Far Away” which is not only a bottle episode but draws inspiration from Spanish surrealist film El Angel Exterminador (you can find a breakdown of the film in our Subtitle Subversive section).
But bottle episodes aren’t just for Sci-fi television. Some of the best examples can be found in the world of network sitcoms. Seinfeld’s “The Chinese Restaurant” and Friend’s “The One Where No One’s Ready” are bottle episodes that rank amongst the series’ best. And Mad About You’s “The Conversation” is an incredibly daring example. The entire episode was filmed in one shot from the perspective of a camera left sitting on the floor of the apartment while the main characters what outside their newborn’s room while she cries herself to sleep.
The bottle episode trope has become such a standard in television that it has become subject to more than a few meta-subversions, the best examples being Sealab 2021’s “In the Closet” and Community’s “Cooperative Calligraphy” within which the always meta Abed lampshades the whole thing by saying “Are we doing a bottle episode, I hate bottle episodes. Yep. It’s a bottle episode.”
I could go on for days listing great examples of bottle episodes from television history but I will refrain and leave you with perhaps the best bottle episode of all time which also happens to be one of the best episodes of one of the best television shows ever made Breaking Bad’s “The Fly”. It is a masterpiece of tension, paranoia, and claustrophobia. Until next time may your bottle episodes be well written and your tropes well executed.

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