Top 6 metafictional TV episodes

Metafiction in TV and movies is a technique or style that’s getting a lot of attention these days. Whether writers feel comfortable going meta due to audiences demanding increasingly sophisticated material, or due to the way that new forms of media and communication have encouraged ruminations on the boundaries of awareness and self-awareness, it’s difficult to say. It’s also a technique that’s well suited to science fiction and fantasy works, since such works can more easily play by different rules than other genres. Some writers use it as a gimmick, but good ones use it effectively to explore something interesting about the story or about the characters within it. The episodes of sci-fi or fantasy TV shows that I’ll be looking at here do just that, in addition to being just plain good stories.

The article continues after this advertisement...

1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer “Normal Again”

This episode takes place in season six, a particularly tumultuous season of Buffy, which had Buffy’s mentor Giles leaving town, a main character dealing with a dangerous magic addiction, and Buffy involved in a relationship that involved no small amount of self-disgust. Buffy struggles with the illusion that she’s in a mental hospital and her battles against demons and vampires are all the product of a troubled mind. There’s a “twist” ending to suggest that the illusion might not be so illusory, conjuring up similarities to the ending of St. Elsewhere. But what makes the scenario intriguing is the choice involved and which of the possibilities is more tempting: in one, Buffy is a superhero with extraordinary powers though her mother is dead and her father is gone, but in the other, her parents are around and she doesn’t have the burden of her powers or the soap opera-esque complications of her personal life at that point of the show. As in a few other episodes, the occasional absurdity of the setting, with its juxtaposition of normal high school and early adulthood life mixed with the supernatural threats she and her friends face, is used as an opportunity to present the viewer with another explanation of what’s going on, depending on what he or she believes. 

2. Star Trek: The Next Generation “Frame of Mind”

The Next Generation was firing on all cylinders from about the third through sixth season, and the sixth season had already seen its share of high concept scenarios when this one delivered on a winning premise that features Will Riker questioning his sanity and grip on reality as he finds himself in a mental institution that keeps blending with the setting of a play that he’s starring in. There are really three different settings here: the mental hospital, Riker as the character in a play, and then the setting of the ship itself. The settings continue to shift and blend throughout the story to leave you guessing, from the “what’s going on?” teaser until almost the very end. The ending explanation does take away slightly from the episode, as it’s not far off from a “just a dream” conclusion, but that can be easily forgiven. The fictional play dominates the episode, leaving one wanting to see more than just a few scenes of it, and Riker’s increasing feeling of being a part of it (“it’s as if I was in a frame of mind”) makes this a great metafictional episode. 

3 & 4. Star Trek: The Next Generation “Elementary, Dear Data” and “Ship in a Bottle”

In these episodes, through the use of the holodeck, the Enterprise crew deals with one of the best villains in fiction, Sherlock Holmes’s adversary Professor Moriarty, in a meta scenario in which Moriarty comes to discover that he’s a holographic creation of the ship’s computer. Star Trek’s use of the holodeck was usually hit and miss, leading to terrific episodes like these and “The Big Goodbye”, but also leading to lows like the Voyager episodes “Spirit Folk” and “Haven”. Even before Trek would delve deeper into absurd implications of holographic characters, early episodes featuring the holodeck would add layers of narrative possibilities. There are story flaws and contrivances here to be sure, especially in the way that Moriarty sees the computer arch being used even before his character is changed as a result of Geordi’s slip of the tongue, and the way he’s able to give orders to the computer himself, and just the absurdity of how a simple instruction to the computer could result in evolution of consciousness like this. However, the portrayal of Moriarty as a man realizing that he’s a hologram in a fictional scenario is done well enough that the plot holes to get the premise going only detract a little from the episode. What’s especially interesting is the way in which Moriarty conceives of the ship’s main computer as a personal being of great wisdom, addressing it as “Mr. Computer.” It’s a detail that shows the care that went into the writing and the conception of the character. Further, Moriarty gains self-awareness in a way that’s somewhat similar to V’Ger, in that he gets it from the combination of interaction with another machine and through the sheer accumulation of knowledge that causes him to ponder his own nature.

“Ship in a Bottle” is a worthy follow up to the story, as the staff worked out a behind-the-scenes misunderstanding with the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle to produce a sequel that, somewhat like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, deals with an antagonist forgotten and embittered by being left behind by the captain. Allowing Moriarty to “win” by giving him the freedom he wanted in an illusory way is a clever solution, allowing further meta-commentary by Picard on the illusory nature of their own setting. Most interesting to me here is having Moriarty comment on the way that his “character” was written by Conan Doyle, as he resents a connection between the current self-aware creation that he is and the fictional master criminal of reputation. It’s kind of like if Wesley Crusher criticized the way that he was portrayed as a character by writers, denying that he was in any way as annoying as they made him out to be. 

5 & 6. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine “Far Beyond the Stars” and “Shadows and Symbols”

The greater involvement of the Prophets in later seasons of Deep Space Nine allowed for episodes like these, where the plot device of a vision from them or an orb experience would allow a character to explore an interesting aspect of themselves or historical event in the Star Trek universe. Benjamin Sisko’s story becomes connected to that of Benny Russell, a 1950s sci-fi author confronting issues of race and prejudice. The latter’s struggle with injustice gives inspiration to Captain Sisko’s struggle against the Dominion, and the story of Benny continues to a lesser extent in “Shadows and Symbols”, where Sisko is given another vision in which Benny is shown in a mental institution after his breakdown in “Far Beyond the Stars”.

HONORABLE MENTION: Last Action Hero

While not a TV episode, this Arnold Schwarzenegger film deserves a mention for providing some sharp meta-commentary on action movie clichés, particularly action movies starring Schwarzenegger around that time. It was released during the period where he was trying his luck at comedy, with movies like Kindergarten Cop and Twins, and was succeeding for the most part. This one wasn’t a box office success, released as it was during the summer of Jurassic Park. It also wasn’t well received by critics, but I rather like it, and I think it’s aged well. Schwarzenegger puts in a good performance as action star Jack Slater, devastated when realizing that major events in his life are a fictional creation of movie writers. The blend of humor and action works well in this movie, and the clever moments that contrast the self-aware fictional characters with the (movie within the movie) Hollywood stars make this a good film for meta-fictional moments. 

I used “meta-fiction” in a pretty loose way here, and some of these examples may not count under a stricter definition. Still, what’s interesting about them all is the interplay between different versions of the same character/being. Each of the examples in some way involves the “regular” character confronting either a fictionalized or alternate version of himself or herself, in either an illusion, vision, or something else. Beyond just the interest in seeing an actor play someone similar but different, such episodes or stories also show that the boundaries between these identities may not be as firm as the viewer believes.

You may also like...

  • Murry Chang

    Last Action Hero is criminally underrated and not just because ‘Big Gun’ is a kickass song.

  • GrunkaLunka

    What? No Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie Show? Pfft…. now that was some meta.

    • Kali

      The Simpsons was always meta. Remember the CGI Homer 3D episode? At the end, he’s in our world about three blocks from Klasky-Csupo’s office. He stopped wondering where he was when he noticed the erotic cakes store. 🙂

  • MichaelANovelli

    I’d nominate Red Dwarf’s “Back to Reality”, both as a kick-ass meta story AND as a big fuck you to the entire culture of fan theories! 😉

  • Kali

    I remember being irritated that they waited four seasons to get back to the Moriarity storyline. I had no idea until much later that the Conan Doyle estate objected to the story and delayed its production (not surprised, mind you — the Conan Doyle estate is more mercurial than Susan Hart forever refusing to release AIP films to DVD just because she can).

    One wonders what happened to Moriarity when the ship blew up in the TNG movie….

  • Jordon Davis

    Wasn’t there an episode of Hercules that saw Herc hiding behind the secret identity of Kevin Sorbo. Oh, and also there was an episode of Boy Meets Work where they visited the set of Kid Gets Acquainted With Universe and the regular cast played the actors on that show.