Greatest Flashbacks

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What makes a great flashback episode? That’s what we were wondering in the SFX office the other day. As we recalled our favourites, we looked misty-eyed into the camera and dissolved in a wibbly wash of wavy lines, re-emerging as younger versions of ourselves (either in bad wigs or played by someone who looks nothing like us).

It might seem like a simple task to whip up a list of the best flashbacks, but you have to ask – what exactly is a flashback episode? They come in different shapes and sizes, so some ground rules had to be drawn up.

• We’re not including clips shows. You know, those cheap ones where the episode is made up of clips from previous episodes. This may seem harsh, but to be honest, even if we were including them, it’s doubtful any would have made the cut, because, frankly, they’re usually dire, and whiff of desperation. Only Stargate SG-1 ever put any effort and imagination into them, and more usually we get complete plop like Star Trek: The Next Generation ’s “Shades Of Gray” (Riker’s brain is infested with the cost-cutting bug).

• The flashback has to be a significant part of the episode. So, sorry, Doctor Who ’s “The Unicorn And The Wasp” – those brief vignettes (complete with wibbly lines) in the Agatha Christie story may have been great fun, but they don’t cut the Colonel Mustard.

• Episodes which start with a teasing scene followed by a caption saying something like “Six hours previously” are generally out, as that’s more of a framing device than a true flashback. We’re thinking Firefly ’s “Trash” (Mal wakes up naked in the desert) or Star Trek: Voyager ’s “Thirty Days” (Tom Paris is in prison). However, if the episode does something more creative with the device ( Farscape ’s “Scratch ’N’ Sniff”, which plays with the conventions of flashbacks) then it’s valid for consideration.

• Shows which habitually use flashbacks as part of their storytelling ( Lost , Highlander , Forever Knight ) are also inadmissible, simply for having too many bites of the cherry. Which is a shame, because Lost ’s “Ab Aeterno” (the life story of Richard Alpert) is bloody brilliant (we did think of bending the rules because it came in a season which was more about flashsidewayses rather than flashbacks, but decided that was probably stretching things too far).

And that’s about it. Apart from some honorable (and not so honorable) mentions:

Star Trek Deep Space Nine ’s “In The Pale Moonlight” narrowly missed out on a placing after much debate. It is a great ( really great) episode, and it does feature a flashback, but it’s too near to the “few hours previously” format. The idea of Sisko relating the tale of his darkest hour as a Captain’s log is little more than a framing device. So sorry, close, but no cigar.

• If we were compiling a worst flashback episodes list, Enterprise ’s “These Are The Voyages…” would be the winner by far. Apart from the fact that it’s generally pretty dire, it’s also insulting that a show should end with an episode that feels like it belongs to another show. The gimmick of Riker using the holodeck to do research on Captain Archer (and pretending to be the Enterprise’s chef for some bizarre reason) comes across more like a naff episode of Next Gen than a rousing send off for Enterprise . And Riker look insufferably smug throughout.

• This is SFX, so of course we'd love to have included Doctor Who in here. But the sad fact is there have only ever been two stories which count by the rules above: the first two parts of “The Trial Of A Time Lord” in which evidence is presented as adventures from the Doctor’s past. And both – “The Mysterious Planet” and “Mindwarp” – were pretty hopeless. For once, clips episodes may have been preferable.

• And thanks to various members of the SFX forum for their suggestions.

And now, to the list. Remember to go out of focus or wobble as you click on through…

16 Heroes

“Company Man”

Type of flashback: Lost -style unmotivated flashback that sheds new light on the current story
Flashback to: Noah Bennet’s recruitment by and early days at Primatech

Heroes gets so much stick these days it’s difficult to recall the days when it was actually pretty good, and it didn’t come much better than “Company Man”. To be fair, even without the flashback it would be a great episode. It’s the one where porky Matt and nuclear man Ted break into Bennet’s house and hold Claire, her brother, her mom and Mr Muggles hostage, in order to get Bennet to reveal Primatech’s secrets. An exercise in claustrophobic tension, it also had a memorably explosive ending.

If that weren’t enough we also get the flashbacks to Noah’s early days as a Primatech agent (complete with a floppy-fringed Christopher Eccleston as a partner), learning how he became Claire’s guardian and how his love for her made him a traitor. All of it is shot is beautiful black and white cinematography and really helps bring a new dimension to old horn-rims.

Earlier in the season we had also had “Six Months Ago” – a kind of a prequel episode, which was fun… but a bit disjointed and gimmicky. A taste of things to come, really.

15 Farscape

“Scratch ’N’ Sniff”

Type of flashback: Crichton and D’Argo have to tell Pilot why they’re not welcome on the planet HoMo anymore
Flashback to: A drunken, drug-fuelled spree they’d really rather try and forget

As you’d expect from Farscape , this is utterly bonkers. In essence, it is just one of those “a few hours earlier” affairs, but with a Farscape spin, that kicks off with Crichton waking up in a window display wearing stockings and suspenders.

Crichton and D’Argo have been banned from the ship by Pilot for arguing. Pilot tells them to stay away for 10 solar days, but they make an early return. When Pilot demands to know why, they say they can’t return to the planet, but their stories why are conflicting, confusing and full of holes and gaps.

The episode looks like it's been edited by someone high on something or other. Linear storytelling this isn’t. It’s often out of sequence, uses many repeated images and wantonly avoids making any sense much of the time. And in a strange way, it’s also totally hypnotic.

14 Firefly

“Out Of Gas”

Type of flashback: Fevered reminiscences of a dying man
Flashback to: How the crew of Serenity came together

This is fairly unique flashback episode, in that it features a two-tiered flashback. There’s the “a few hours ago” shtick that we already ruled as inadmissible in our ground rules (the episode starts with Serenity hanging lifeless in space with only Mal aboard, then we learn about the explosion that lead to this situation). But then there are also flashbacks to a much earlier time, when Mal assembled his crew.

It’s great fun, as you’d expect: Jayne comes aboard when he shoots one of his previous cohorts on the promise of getting his own room; Inara (the whore) promises to give the ship some respectability; Wash has a very dodgy moustache; and Kaylee shags the previous engineer before outing him as a hopeless slacker. But most of all, it’s a love letter to the ship. And it’s kinda sweet.

13 Futurama

“Jurassic Bark”

Type of flashback: Fry and his dog Seymour remembering
Flashback to: c2000, Fry discovers a stray dog called Seymour

Ask any Futurama fan to list their favourite episode and we can guarantee “Jurassic Bark” will be soaring near the top, but we challenge you to find anyone who dares to watch the tragic tale of one man and his dog more than once. It doesn’t do anything particularly innovative or clever with the flashback structure but the payoff for it all is so heartbreaking we can forgive this. It’s the ending that truly destroys, leaving all but the soulless a blubbering mess of salty tears and nose drippings. The sight of loyal Seymour, stood steadfast outside Panucci’s Pizza, evokes the kind of gut reaction only a death in the family even comes close to. Also scores bonus points for retroactively correcting a continuity error by inserting Nibbler into the 1999 cryo chamber scene.

12 Star Trek

“The Menagerie”

Type of flashback: Video evidence given at a court martial
Flashback to: One of the Enterprise’s first missions with Captain Christopher Pike and Spock

When Spock hijacks the Enterprise and attempts to take it to a planet quarantined by the Federation, he’s captured and a court martial is called. By way of explanation, Spock plays a recording of one of his old missions with the Enterprise’s original Captain, who is now badly injured and confined to a wheelchair. By episode’s end we discover he simply wanted to take Pike back to the planet to live out his days in happiness... and all’s well that ends well.

“The Menagerie”’s flashbacks were actually clips from Star Trek ’s now-infamous first pilot episode, “The Cage”, edited together with the court martial as a framing device. Which explains why Spock laughs at one point – he had emotions in Pilot #1, but not by Pilot #2 – and it’s also a rather clever way of saving money across two episodes of season one by re-using footage from the rather expensive pilot. It works quite well, but serves to highlight the subtle differences between that first, slightly awkward attempt at Trek and the (then) current version starring one James T Kirk (Jeffrey Hunter’s Pike has the charisma of a Ceti Eel by comparison).

For many years the bits of “The Cage” chopped up and utilised in “The Menagerie” were the only bit of the pilot available in colour; the rest of the original pilot was in black-and-white after the master colour print was lost. Thankfully it was found in 1987 and the full version was finally released, Spock-chuckle and all.

11 Futurama

“The Luck Of The Fryrish”

Type of flashback: Fry and his brother reminiscing
Flashback to: c2000, Fry’s childhood and the life of his brother Yancy

Another Futurama tear-jerker, so double-bill with “Jurassic Bark” if you’re in the mood for a triple-Kleenex experience. In this one Fry’s misguided sibling rivalry leads him to believe his brother (Yancy) not only stole his lucky four leaf clover, but his name as well upon discovering a statue bearing the moniker Philip Fry. Turns out, however, Yancy named his own son Philip in honour of Fry after his brother’s disappearance. Not quite as upsetting as “Jurassic Bark”, partly because there are no cute pooches in this one and the fact Fry comes to learn his brother did love him, but a fine example of Futurama at its very best.

10 Torchwood

“Fragments”

Type of flashback: A series of reminiscences from the various main characters
Flashback to: Each member of the team’s induction into Torchwood

When Captain John returns and sets off a bomb that leaves the members of Torchwood team lying under tons of rubble, each of the team deliriously recalls their induction into the alien-hunting organisation. Quite why isn’t clear; in the same situation would you recall your job interview?

Who cares? It’s a great excuse for a series of fun and emotional flashbacks that flesh out these characters just in time for most of them to die in the next few stories. And the episode is worth a place in the list for the caption, “1,392 deaths earlier” alone. That’s how we’re introduced to Captain Jack’s flashback to Victorian Torchwood, a concept so cool it’s a shame it couldn’t become a spin-off series. The fish-headed man in Victorian garb is a wonderfully silly image

There’s lots of humour here, but also some really touching tales, especially Owen’s story, in which he loses his fiancée to a brain-eating alien (no, really).

9 Being Human

“Season Two, Episode Five”

Type of flashback: Unmotivated Lost -style flashback to events that compliment current story
Flashback to: Mitchell at his most bad-ass during the ’60s, meeting a girl who brings out his human side

This stunning episode from Being Human ’s second series feels like one of the very best from Lost ’s earlier seasons (not the one where we discover the origins of Jack’s tattoos, then). The flashback is a clever mirror of what’s happening in the present-day storyline. In the ’60s we see vampire Mitchell at his darkest, finding redemption in a woman who refuses to let him give in to his bestial vampire tendencies. In the present we see the situation conspire to send Mitchell on a downward spiral to his old killer self. It’s a highly emotive juxtaposition, and makes Mitchell’s descent even more harrowing

The flashbacks also benefit from the reappearance of Herrick, Mitchell’s vampire mentor, as evil and disarmingly witty as ever, a demonic Jiminy Cricket reminding Mitchell why it’s great to be a vampire. Y’know, they ought to bring him back.

Quite why anyone thought that all the ’60s scenes should be shot with an orange filter over the camera is a mystery (orange is more ’70s surely?) but it certainly means you know immediately when there’s been a time shift, and gives the scenes a curiously dark fairytale feel.

8 Buffy The Vampire Slayer

“Selfless”

Type of flashback: A mixed bag of weirdness
Flashback to: Anya's life, from being the wife of a troll, to becoming a Vengeance Demon, to her relationship with Xander

You want gimmicks? “Selfless” has them. And they all work. From the scratchy, subtitled, part-faux European arthouse cinema, part-silent comedy opening flashbacks, to the song and dance number that takes place back at the time of “Once More, With Feeling”, this potted history of the 1,000-year life of Vengeance Demon Anya is a beguiling oddity. But because this is Whedon, it’s not all frothy fun, and the silliness is offset by some gutwrenching moments… almost literally when there’s a jarring jump cut from the climax of the flashback song to a shot of an impaled Anya in the present day. The whole thing may seem a bit silly at times, but the eclectic bunch of bizarre flashbacks seems to suit the seemingly dizzy Anya, a character it was all too easy to assume didn't have many deep thoughts going on in her head, but who actually felt very deeply indeed. The juxtaposition of the ridiculous with the harsh realities of the present (in which she has just murdered a room full of frat boys) only serves to heighten the angst she's experiencing.

7 Angel

“Darla”

Type of flashback: A series of set-pieces instigated by the fact that the newly-resurrected (and now human) Darla can “remember everything”
Flashback to: Darla through the ages, from the time she was sired in 1609

“Darla” was aired immediately after Buffy ’s “Fool For Love” and is pretty much a sequel; it even features scenes from the Buffy episode (the Boxer revolution, Dru siring Spike) though seen from Darla’s point of view this time. It’s cleverly plotted, and the dovetailing is seamless, but it’s also, you assume, a brilliant example of cost-sharing.

It’s another epic, detailing the 150-year courtship of Angelus and Darla as they cut a bloody swathe through the world. Darla, originally turned by The Master and his doting acolyte, is tempted away by the dashing Angel, when he asks her if she’d rather spend eternity in a sewer looking at the Master’s ugly mug, or with him. But the romance is over when gypsies curse Angel with a soul, and Darla is disgusted that he can’t bring himself to feed on a baby.

And here’s one for fact fans: this is the only episode in the history of Buffy and Angel in which Angel, Darla, Drusilla, Spike, and The Master all appear in one episode, although we never see them all together in one scene.

6 Supernatural

“A Very Supernatural Christmas”

Type of flashback: Sam and Dean reminiscing
Flashback to: Christmas 1991, young Sam and Dean are stuck in a motel while their dad is off Demon hunting

Over the past five years Supernatural has whipped up some of our favourite holiday-themed episodes ever and “A Very Supernatural Christmas” might be our favourite. The bulk of the episode – Pagan gods posing as Santa Claus (or the Anti-Claus) and abducting people from their houses up the chimney – is great fun but the flashback is where the heart of the episode lies. This being Dean’s “last” Christmas (he was on the highway to Hell remember) he reminisces about the year he told his brother all about the trade while their father was on the road. We also discover the origin of Dean’s necklace, handmade by Sam for their father, which may still be important this season, but most importantly we learn that Dean really has been caring for his brother all his life, even if Sam doesn’t always remember it that way. Excuse us, we think there’s something in our eye…

5 Angel

“Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?”

Type of flashback: Parallel story in the past
Flashback to: 1952, when Angel used to live in the Hyperion hotel

“Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been” has one distinct advantage over other flashbacks featuring Angel – we don’t have to put up with David Boreanaz’s dodgy Irish accent or his even dodgier shaggy wig. Instead, Boreanaz is much more at home as a BrylCreemed ’50s vampire, mooching around in the grandiose art deco hotel which will one day become the base of Angel Investigations.

This is a very elegant flashback episode with more than a touch of Stephen King about it, as the supernatural storyline is a peg on which to explore racism and McCarthyism, with the ghosts of evils past stretching into the present. The camerawork is part film noir part Kubrick, with slow panning shots down corridors reminiscent of The Shining . The hotel is populated with intriguing, shady characters. The sense of impending doom – just waiting to be ignited with the merest spark – is almost cloying. In a way, it almost serves as a pilot for phase two of the show.

4 The X-Files

“Bad Blood”

Type of flashback: Agents Mulder and Scully recount their latest case to their boss.
Flashback to: The comic series of events leading up to Agent Mulder staking a “fake” vampire through the heart.

Forever known as “The episode which spoofed Rashomon ” – which hopefully sent a few fans scurrying to their local DVD emporium to rent the classic Japanese movie (it’s great, do it!) – “Bad Blood” had a lot of fun with The X-Files ’ usually po-faced formula and also gave us insight into the heads of those two usually enigmatic FBI investigators.

As they explain to Assistant Director Skinner exactly how Mulder ended up skewering a “vampire” (the guy was wearing false fangs), Scully’s POV paints Mulder as a childish idiot who doesn’t take the case seriously, while Mulder’s testimony detailing the same scenes show his partner to be bored, disinterested and flirty (Luke Wilson guest-starred as a handsome Sheriff, although in Mulder’s version of events he has huge buck teeth – jealous, Fox?).

The episode, penned by Vince Gilligan, also had a lot of fun with the format in subtle ways – such as when the Agents disagree on the name of their motel and the caption on the bottom of the screen rewrites itself. Brilliant.

3 Battlestar Galactica

“Razor”

Type of flashback: Seeing the BSG story from a different point of view
Flashback to: What happened on the Battlestar Pegasus while we were following the Galactica

The Pegasus story arc was one of the highlights of BSG ’s magnificent second season, and using this TV movie to home in on the other surviving Battlestar proves a masterstroke. Despite originally airing after season three had wrapped up, the majority of “Razor” is based in the latter half of series two just after (a pre-fat suit) Lee Adama has taken command of the ship.

The story slots seamlessly into the series arc. It’s like a brilliantly realised set of footnotes, enhancing the BSG experience without being essential to your understanding of the show (though there’s no way a die-hard Galactica fan would ever want to miss it). The focus is on Kendra Shaw, an ambitious officer whose no-nonsense attitude rubs pretty much everyone she meets up the wrong way. Because she doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Battlestar canon, her fate is always a mystery (essential for maintaining the drama), yet you never feel that her existence is at odds with anything that’s come before.

Luckily she’s a fantastic creation, the protégé of the ridiculously hard Admiral Cain and a character capable of going toe-to-toe with Kara Thrace. Through Shaw’s eyes we see (via flashbacks within flashbacks) what was happening on the Pegasus while Galactica was shepherding its ragtag fleet: the Pegasus’s original “blind jump” escape from the Cylons, Cain’s relationship unfolding with Cylon agent Gina, the admiral shooting her first officer in the head for querying an order and the Pegasus coldly raiding civilian ships for parts and personnel – a brilliant counterpoint to Adama Sr’s more humanitarian approach on the Galactica.

With further flashbacks to Adama’s exploits as a pilot in the first Cylon war throwing a bit of extra light on the series’ overall mythology (events that only really make sense when you’ve learned about the relevance of the Final Five), “Razor” is BSG fan nirvana. If only the producers could have recaptured the magic for the disappointing, Cylon-centric “The Plan” (out on UK DVD on Monday 10 May).

2 Buffy The Vampire Slayer

“Fool For Love”

Type of flashback: Spike bragging about past antics
Flashback to: Spike pre-siring, Spike immediately post-siring, Spike killing a Slayer during the Boxer revolution, Spike killing a Slayer in a subway train in the’70s

This is about as epic as TV flashbacks get, as we learn about key moments in Spike’s life, from his days as a lovestruck wannabe poet spurned by the object of his affection, through his siring by Drusilla to his two successful attempts at Slayer-slaying. Such reminiscing kicks off when Buffy is stabbed by a common-or-garden vampire. Worried she’s losing her edge, she grills Spike for info about his Slayer-killing antics in the hopes it may give her a clue about how to regain her mojo.

The episode mines the flashback formula for as much fun as it can have. Pre-Spike William is hilariously wet, and we learn that he gained his nickname “William The Bloody” not – as we thought – from his vampire antics, but because his poetry was bloody awful. Spike is also seen embellishing his tales to big himself up at times, while the flashback reveals the true story. And during the final flashback, thanks to some ingenious editing, Spike from the past actually starts talking out of the flashback directly to Buffy in the present.

All this, and we get a brilliantly brutal slugfest between Spike and the ’70s Slayer too… at the end of which he nicks her leather coat for himself.

The same day that “Fool For Love” aired, Angel showed the episode “Darla” which is a direct sequel (see number seven).

The kind-of sequel, “Lies My Parents Told Me” from season seven is excellent as well. We’d have probably included it in this list if it weren’t so Whedon-heavy already. And, to be honest, the flashback is a lot less ambitious. In this one, we learn that Spike, having just been sired by Dru, returned home to turn his ailing mother into a vampire (in a vampire’s kiss sequence that would have given Freud kittens). The episode is worth watching for the look on Dru’s face when Spike tells her he wants to bring his mum along on a killing spree. Unfortunately dear old mum proves a ungrateful bint, so Spike stakes her instead.

1 Fringe

“Peter”

Type of flashback: Walter reveals a deep, dark secret from his past to Olivia
Flashback to: When Walter failed to save the life of his son Peter, so saved the life of the Peter in the alternate universe instead, and then brought him back to our universe

An episode so stunningly good it inspired this feature. The fact that it manages to be so gloriously gimmicky (the title sequence is redone ’80s style, the captions in the flashbacks use an ’80s font, Walter gets to wear a youthful wig) and yet so damned emotionally draining at the same time is a balancing act its pulls off in style.

While it’s an important arc plot episode, casual viewers tuning into the show for the first time can’t help but be hypnotised by its enthralling, heartrending story either. It’s just a wonderful tale of a man’s obsession driving him to make a decision that would colour his life forever more.

The flashback scenes themselves largely eschew the obvious clichés of drowning the soundtrack with “Like A Virgin” and having everybody in espadrilles and legwarmers… thank God – Walter would have made a rubbish New Romantic.

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