Best Sci-fi Stand-alone TV Episodes
September 5, 2017 5:14 PM   Subscribe

There is a lot of good TV on at the moment. I don't have the time and don't really want to commit to watching the full run of most TV series. Please recommend great stand-alone sci-fi episodes that don't require me to view previous episodes to "get" them.

The stuff I have in mind probably fits in most with anthology series but I don't mind answers from series that have overarching plots provided that the episode in question doesn't overly rely on drama generated from previous plots in that series.

I'm planning on checking out the classic Twilight Zone episodes that I've seen homaged repeatedly. I understand The X-Files had some good ones but I've only seen a few episodes so feel free to chime in here.

Examples of stuff I liked:
Black Mirror: San Junipero
Doctor Who: Blink
Deep Space Nine: The Visitor
posted by Start with Dessert to Media & Arts (36 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
Star Trek, The Inner Light

one of the best things I've ever watched, period
posted by Caxton1476 at 5:18 PM on September 5, 2017 [17 favorites]

Star Trek: The Next Generation... The Inner Light.
posted by Huck500 at 5:19 PM on September 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

posted by Huck500 at 5:19 PM on September 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Hush." The X-Files, "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose." I was going to suggest "Blink."
posted by Aquifer at 5:27 PM on September 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Doctor Who: Midnight. Fucking terrifying bottle episode.

(Googling "doctor-light" or "companion-light" episodes of Doctor Who often yields these types of episodes.)

Pretty much any X-Files monster-of-the-week episode works, though sometimes they get meta in such a way as you do have to understand the show tropes being subverted in order to get the joke. Jose Chung's From Outer Space, Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose and Bad Blood are classics of this particular X-Files genre. A less jokey motw is Beyond the Sea, which features Brad Dourif of Grima Wormtongue fame. (My favorite X Files episode is Milagro, which is monster of the week, but it's sooooooper shippy and that's why I lurves it, don't judge)
posted by soren_lorensen at 5:33 PM on September 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Farscape: Crackers Don't Matter
Lexx: I Worship His Shadow
Star Trek The Next Generation: Lower Deck
Odyssey 5: Pilot episode
posted by gudrun at 6:04 PM on September 5, 2017

Are old school Doctor Who-type serials acceptable? In that they are longer than a single episode but are still self-contained and shorter than a typical season of tv?

If that kind of thing would work for you, then I will recommend:

Doctor Who: City of Death
Sapphire and Steel: The Railway Station
posted by darchildre at 6:11 PM on September 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Rick & Morty: Rick Potion No. 9.

Really almost any episode of Rick & Morty.
posted by ejs at 6:18 PM on September 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Futurama: Roswell That Ends Well
posted by ejs at 6:22 PM on September 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Babylon 5: Passing Through Gethsemane (S3E4)
1990s Outer Limits: Inconstant Moon (S2E12)
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:28 PM on September 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Battlestar Galactica - "33". So good.
posted by merocet at 6:32 PM on September 5, 2017 [19 favorites]

ANY of the Black Mirror episodes stand on their own. Such a great show.

I actually thought San Junipero was the weakest, but it seems to be the most well known for some reason.
posted by intermod at 6:36 PM on September 5, 2017

Firefly: Out of Gas is one of my favorite episodes from the series and since the whole thing was only one season long none of them REALLY need back story. Also, Out of Gas is an episode that is kind of all about establishing back story.
posted by Inkoate at 6:40 PM on September 5, 2017 [8 favorites]

I have stuff like this in my "Misc" folder, and the TNGs in there are Inner Light, The Last Outpost, and Tapestry.
posted by rhizome at 6:58 PM on September 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

On the lighter side, the Get A Life episode "1977 2000" has a time machine and was written by Charlie Kaufman.
posted by rhizome at 7:09 PM on September 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you like Rod Serling's classic Twilight Zone series, then you could also explore Rod Serling's later Night Gallery series. They are short stand-alone playlets with a haunting atmosphere, based on classic sci-fi/horror tales. 'The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes' and 'Little Girl Lost' come to mind. These are some of the most interesting things that I've ever seen on Television.
posted by ovvl at 8:18 PM on September 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Middleman, "The Flying Fish Zombification." (Most Middleman episodes are pretty much stand-alone.)
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:43 PM on September 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Star Trek: The Next Generation -- The Measure of a Man. A Starfleet scientist wants to disassemble Data to study him; there is a lawsuit to determine whether Data is a person or not, and the bulk of the episode is the arguments in court. It's very good. I had my philosophy classes watch it as part of our discussion of what personhood meant; it needs no outside Trek knowledge, nor any series continuity. (Pairs well with Plato's Apology of Socrates, since it's all about arguing philosophy and philosophy's implications for everyday life in a court of law!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:15 PM on September 5, 2017 [6 favorites]

I have to second Out of Gas. It's a genuinely moving piece of TV, perhaps more powerful if you've watched the rest of the series, but certainly doesn't require that.
posted by Alensin at 10:36 PM on September 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Star Trek:TNG had a number of great done-in-ones. Some of my favorites; The Most Toys, Darmok, The Offspring.
posted by Eikonaut at 11:28 PM on September 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Deep Space Nine: Far Beyond the Stars
X-Files: Jose Chung's From Outer Space
posted by xyzzy at 1:31 AM on September 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Meeseeks & Destroy was the episode that got me hooked on Rick & Morty. M. Night Sha-mayliens! was also full of great sci-fi plot twists.

Futurama had a lot of great stand-alone episodes, with Luck of the Fryish and Jurassic Bark being the classic tearjerkers (without needing any background knowledge). The original series finale, the musical episode The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings, was a fantastic closer. If you don't want something so heavy, Three Hundred Big Boys is my personal favorite non-arc/ensemble episode, weaving in and out of what each character does with a $300 check from the government (a parody of Bush's tax refund).

The pilot to Lost is still one of the all-time greats (and one of the most expensive ever filmed).
posted by Rhaomi at 1:31 AM on September 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

TNG: "Darmok".
posted by kevinbelt at 4:48 AM on September 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Despite most of the series being "hoo-ra special forces" and increasingly dumb and implausible, the dark of the moon was an extremely satisfying episode of The Unit....david mamet was a co-writer for much of this stuff.
posted by lalochezia at 8:42 AM on September 6, 2017

Legion: "Chapter 1". A mind bender, both for the viewer and the lead character. David thinks he might be schizophrenic, so he resists others intervening because they think he might be a mutant. The story, direction, and effects put us into David's 'WTF is happening!' world with him. It's a bumpy trip.
posted by Homer42 at 9:07 AM on September 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

For Blakes 7, "Seek-Locate-Destroy" would work. Though the special effects are, uh, era-appropriate.

Smallville's "Jitters" also works.
posted by praemunire at 9:56 AM on September 6, 2017

Just for some variety, I suggest the Space: Above and Beyond episode "Ray Butts"
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 12:36 PM on September 6, 2017

Response by poster: Heaps of stuff for me to check out - thank you everyone.

Does anyone have any more non-trek suggestions?
posted by Start with Dessert at 1:01 AM on September 7, 2017

Supernatural is...not the greatest show but I enjoyed the first two seasons immensely. They lean more to horror tropes but "Something Wicked" from season one and "Bloodlust" and "Night Shifter" from season two are pretty good and mostly stand alone from the series long mythology. The Joan of Arcadia episodes "Jump" and "Death Be Not Whatever" are AMAZING.
posted by Aquifer at 6:28 AM on September 7, 2017

Unfinished Business in Battlestar Galactica is a really good episode and is flashback heavy enough that I think it's probably okay to watch as a standalone.

If you're cool with being punched in the heart and don't mind spoiling a now-more-than-a-decade-old twist, The Body in season 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is probably one of the most incredible episodes of any TV show EVER. (Although, admittedly, that one is light on sci-fi/fantasy elements.) If you do not want to weep openly for a solid hour, Hush is probably a better choice. Earshot or Conversations with Dead People might also be okay as standalone episodes, but honestly, it's hard to me to be able to tell objectively because I'm so deep into that show.

Smile Time is a fun episode of Angel if you want a laugh! Also, I am not a huge Doctor Who fan, but I heartily second Midnight. That was a TERRIFYING episode.

Kind of more fantasy/alt-history than sci-fi, but Zuko Alone and The Storm are both really great episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
posted by helloimjennsco at 7:56 AM on September 7, 2017

Have you ever seen any of The Outer Limits? This "15 best of" list of episodes seems like it hits the high points.

Also, I always liked the episode "The Dark Boy" from the old anthology series The Night Gallery, which is a poignant one. The more classic creepy ones from that series would be episodes like "The Cemetery" or "The Caterpiller".
posted by gudrun at 4:19 PM on September 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Battlestar Galactica -- 1979 -- "War of the Gods", Season 01, Episodes 15 & 16
posted by GatorDavid at 5:41 PM on September 9, 2017

posted by athirstforsalt at 7:38 PM on September 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

What about something like Kolchak: The Night Stalker? Bounces around between sci-fi and supernatural, it's a precursor to X-Files. It's on Netflix.
posted by rhizome at 7:55 PM on September 9, 2017

Does anyone have any more non-trek suggestions?

I realize I'm coming to this a little late but here are a few from Doctor Who (2005) - "Girl in the Fireplace", "Vincent and the Doctor", "Blink", "Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit", "The Shakespeare Code", "The Fires of Pompeii", "Planet of the Dead"
posted by Moxx of Balhoon at 5:17 PM on September 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

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