“What’s a Bottle Episode?”. Top notch question. It refers to an episode of any given television series that is limited in budget and so doesn’t feature masses of locations, special effects, cast-members, and so on so forth.
The origins of its name come from way back in the 1960s…
On the set of the original Star Trek series, cast-members referred to such slim budget stories as ‘Ship-in-a-bottle’ Episodes. Fast forward to modern times when Star Trek is about to have another summer blockbuster and there are tonnes of interesting examples.
If anyone watches Community (I can never tell whether this show is popular or not; there are plenty of memes but its hard to find a physical person who’s familiar with it and… ah… I think I just defined what a cult classic is).
Okay, well, members of the Community Cult (we meet on Tuesdays) will be familiar with the term ‘Bottle’ Episode because Abed, and later Jeff, literally declare it to be happening in ‘Cooperative Calligraphy’ — much in the show’s typical meta style.
Fun fact: it is impossible to mention Community without also uttering the word “meta”. A phenomenon Charlie Kaufman knows all too well.
Continuing on with Community, up into its proposed dark year (otherwise known as Season 4) where the most memorable episode for me was ‘Intro to Knots’. At a point when the series had lost its creator, it never really stopped being creative and bottom-line still funny — you have to hand those who tried to fill Dan Harmon’s shoes that.
‘Intro to Knots’ maximises the use of a single setting by often making it seem as though it was shot in a single take — some say that this Christmas Special of the Cult TV Show inspired Alejandro G. Inarritu and Emmanuel Lubezki to make Birdman. Others say that is utter B.S. what with Lubezki already having a track-record of seamless takes, most notably in Children of Men (which I hope can be considered a cult classic also).
The latter group are undoubtedly correct but don’t be surprised if you get called to stand on the jury for what the press will call “the most flimsy and ridiculous trial of the century”.
Above: The car rigged up ready to film one of ‘Children of Men’s’ awesome single take scenes.
‘Into to Knots’ succeeds because, at the end of the day, it features characters we already know and love; all squeezed into a room and bouncing off one another. Not to mention the fact that it guest stars the brilliant Malcolm McDowell.
Bottle Episodes are largely character and performance driven. This leads me to example the second: Doctor Who — a rare case of a British series featuring this concept. It’s rare because our programmes run for shorter spells than their American counterparts (great news in terms of keeping things fresh, but terrible if you’re a fan of binge-watching or Sherlock.)
Although these days Doctor Who isn’t particularly episodic, as it features story arcs that spread across multiple episodes and even seasons; an individual episode is generally driven by the antagonistic forces the Doctor and co. must face. Yet in what was perhaps my favourite episode of all time — 2014’s ‘Listen’ — the focus is more on the protagonist(s) and the very concept of fear itself. At no point during ‘Listen’ did I feel I was watching a necessary low budget episode — it never seemed claustrophobic (although, to be fair, can probably credit that to having multiple scenery changes). The money was saved on a lack of special effects and made up for with some truly masterful sound and video editing.
Above: The ‘Monster’ from Listen. If you’re looking for a cheap Halloween costume this year, I can vouch for it.
‘Listen’ shone a new light on the familiarity of the programme and its protagonist — a neat little episode to place around the middle of the season. This brings me to what I feel is the king of all Bottle Episodes in perhaps what was the king of all TV Shows.
Breaking Bad, Season 3, Episode 10: ‘Fly’.
Some good news for anyone hoping that Star Wars Episode 8 will be as good as 7, is that Rian Johnson directed ‘Fly’. Therefore, don’t be surprised if you find out Luke Skywalker’s been making meth on that island all this time.
‘Fly’ is damn near 100% driven by its complex characters & their equally complex dynamic and it does a superb job of connecting events that have preceded and still developing through the eyes and emotions of protagonist Walter White. The episode is best discussed by Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in this video.
So… that was me professing a little love for this concept called the Bottle Episode — of course there are loads more examples out there, although as technology and storytelling have developed they’re a little harder to spot now.
A fun game to play when watching an episode set in a single location is to take your television into a different room in your house every 10 minutes in order to totally flip the situation. Does it mean that Walter White would be the one watching you sat on the toilet? Well, that’s an interesting theory — to which the answer is yes. Yes it would.