Greatest Flashbacks

The Top SF&F flashback episodes ever – Buffy, Torchwood, Trek, Futurama and more

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.