Gateway Episodes

When there’s a non-sci-fi person in your life, all the favorite go-to shows become a bit of a chore on a rainy day. It becomes all about the “gateway episode.” Get someone interested in the characters, then, maybe, they’ll get interested in the overall series. Get them hooked with a shiny little nugget and hope that they want more, and are willing to put up with the doldrums that so many sci-fi shows experience.

Some shows are simply unapproachable. I’ve decided that this is because they lack a cohesive storyline, or appropriate character development, or are simply done in a format that can’t be swallowed in small bites. Space: 1999 is one. That classic journeyman 70s sci-fi that only makes sense if you start from the beginning and muscle through. It’s the sort of show where all the explanations, character roles, and exposition took place in the pilot episode and you’re sort of expected to know everything for the subsequent episodes.

If I had to pick a gateway episode, it would be the “Rules of Luton,” which you can watch in its entirety right here:

From the second season (which I ranted about in this now-broken-linked article from 2005), “The Rules of Luton” sets our fearless leader, Commander Koenig, and our attractive metamorph, Maya (at that point in the show, the two main leads), on a paradise planet. Strangely, there are no animals, but tra-la-la, it’s pretty. Then one of them picks a flower and all the Oak trees freak out.

The rulers of Luton are the plants, who have become sentient and hate all animals. For the crime of picking flowers and — gasp! — eating berries, Koenig and Maya are condemned to fight to the death against three random alien prisoners. All very Star Trek-y.

We get some cool scenes — such as when Koenig and Maya stumble across the last stand for the indigenous animals of Luton, an epic-sized and very creepy boneyard where every animal was strangled to death by vines. We get everything that made Space: 1999 great — Koenig is in top form, Maya’s stretch-pants look great in natural light, aliens get killed, Koenig shows his merciful and human side, and reason wins the day only after everyone has been bloodied a bit. We also get everything that made Space: 1999 bad — Maya can shift into any shape, from a tiny fly to a giant monster gorilla, and yet she can’t get out of a homemade cage because she was trapped in it while in the form of a falcon, and Koenig’s proto-Picard/Data relationship with Maya is always infinitely creepy.

But, overall, “The Rules of Luton” is so campy and strange that it just slightly fails to be the gateway episode you need. After all, most of the time everyone is running around the hallways of Moonbase Alpha. Perhaps the only reason I think of this episode in this context is because it’s a throwback to season one episodes. Perhaps the similar episode “All That Glisters” is the more appropriate gateway episode.

Unfortunately, it’s so classic Doctor Who that it seems like a cheat.

Classic Doctor Who is a major problem. The show spent most of its life in a serialized form, so any given episode may be two (or more!) hours long. With few exceptions, you can’t just sit down and watch a short episode. The episodes that are short are usually tough to swallow. The Seventh Doctor’s era is not a good place to look for gateway episodes, nor is the Sixth Doctor’s era. The Fifth Doctor had a couple of short episodes, such as “The Black Orchid,” but these are beyond unwatchable and will make the neophyte want to claw out their eyes. The Fourth Doctor has tons of great episodes, but you’re back to the two hour commitment, with the exception of “The Sontaran Experiment,” which is actually linked to all the other episodes in that season and, again, sort of expects that you know that.

Most people will say “Genesis of the Daleks,” and, okay, but then it takes 110 minutes to get to the iconic scene:

The Third Doctor’s era is weirdly insular and experimental. The Second Doctor’s era is all but lost. So then we find ourselves back in the early 60s, with the bottle episode “The Edge of Destruction,” which is short, interesting, and has probably informed much of the genre since… But is still not a gateway for the strange, huge world that is Doctor Who.

New-Who, however, is easy. Say it with me: “Blink.”

It’s one of the very few examples of a “Doctorless” episode. We follow one-hit-wonder yet fan favorite Sally Sparrow on her adventure against the (at the time) new and very scary monsters, the Weeping Angels. The Doctor helps her out, somewhat indirectly, through an Easter egg on every DVD in the world where he says the same lines over and over again, none of which really make sense until we hit the second act and the second part of the dialogue (Sparrow’s) is filled in.

We see the Doctor a couple of times throughout, more or less to establish that he’s stuck in time beyond what his message on the DVD says. At the end, the Doctor that Sparrow runs into is a past version of himself and has no clue about the events that transpired in the episode.

“Blink” stands tall as a straight-up horror episode. We get the Angels, we get a haunted house, and we get a plucky Last Girl Standing type. It’s a brilliantly crafted episode that takes you out of the Doctor Who universe and drops you into a one-off story with a one-off character yet still acts as an introduction to what Doctor Who (or, at least, new-Who) is all about.

In retrospect, that may have been a bad thing. “Blink” is responsible for the attitude that the show would eventually adopt — how the Doctor, as a lonely god and mysterious wanderer, is simply passing through the story and destroying the lives of the people he encounters. Now, two new Doctors later, the story is more about the companions than the Doctor.

Sci-fi has seen an interesting evolution. From the journeyman shows of the 70s where the characters wander aimlessly, in search of cure/home/whatever, to the speculative shiny spaceship Utopian 80s, to the backlash against shiny spaceships in the 90s: The birth of gritty sci-fi, which, arguably, started with Deep Space Nine, and continues to inform the genre today. The white walls in the corridors are gone, the bridges that look like your dentist’s waiting room are ripped up, and everything is replaced with dirty, brutal, industrial sets.

Initially, the forefathers of gritty sci-fi didn’t know how to tell a story, though. When you take the sci-fi out of sci-fi and focus on the characters, it sort of demands that you also introduce a story arc, a dilemma, a Big Bad that does more than appear once a season to kick over the chamberpot. This shift in storytelling led to two interesting avenues. In Babylon 5, they decided to go with the soap opera method. You were asked to sit down (as you are today) and watch a connected story for multiple seasons. Deep Space Nine pulled their punches. They slowly merged into the ongoing story — the war with the Dominion — after several seasons and, even then, they were almost overly cautious about having too many episodes deal with the war in each season. There would be long stretches of bottle episodes and diversionary episodes with secondary characters in between momentous Dominion war themed episodes.

By season six, this started to change. The war developed into something that not even the writers could avoid — the seventh season would see a finale that’s actually a linked, complicated ten-episode arc. Not even something that modern day shows would attempt.

After much consideration, I think the best gateway episode for DS9 is from the sixth season. And it’s a weird episode — “In the Pale Moonlight.”

The episode, set late in the sixth season, finds the Federation on the ropes in the Dominion War. Their only hope is to bring the neutral Romulans into the battle on their side. This has been plaguing Sisko, who is our main general in the war, for some time, so he finally decides to manufacture a reason to bring them in.

His plan involves the show’s antihero and former spy Garak. The two of them set up a fake incident where the Romulans are led to believe that the Dominion is planning a surprise attack on Romulus. This is, of course, a ruse within a ruse and, all along, Garak’s plan was far more brutal (and effective).

The episode is notable because Sisko decides to follow the darker path, and there are no real repercussions from it. He gets away with what is, essentially, a horrific war crime.

The entire episode is told — with Avery Brooks staring into the camera — as a log entry, with flashbacks to the important scenes. It opens with a monologue, features frequent expository monologues throughout, and ends with a particularly strong monologue where Sisko takes credit, blame, and says that he can live with it, though the monologue deliciously turns into him trying to convince himself that he can actually live with it.

You don’t really need to be privy to the larger story arc here. The episode is watchable, enjoyable, and understandable as a standalone piece, which is saying something when you’re six seasons into an ensemble show and it’s the turning point episode for the entire series. And Avery Brooks…man, that guy can deliver some lines:

Series with deeply involved, linked storylines are the greatest challenge for any sci-fi geek trying to find a gateway episode for the neophyte. The least approachable sci-fi series ever made is probably also one of the best sci-fi series ever made: Farscape. But to call it the best only makes sense to those of us who started watching it when it premiered and stuck with it, and those who were open-minded when they discovered it later on DVD and streaming. The non-sci-fi fan? To them, it’s Muppets in Space. But there is a gateway episode. It’s hiding so well, that I couldn’t find a good Youtube clip of it. The episode is called “Kansas,” where Crichton and crew make it back to Earth…except it’s 1985. Crichton has a side-story here to deal with. He’s accidentally catapulted everyone into the past, sure, but he knows the future. He must figure out how to stop his dad — a big time astronaut — from being a part of the 1986 Challenger mission without fucking up too much of the timeline. To do this, he decides to manipulate his younger self.

It’s a very emotional episode — future Crichton knows that his mom is soon to be diagnosed (and die) of cancer, and he’s not sure if he can set things right and get everyone back to where and when they belong.

Meanwhile, his fellow fugitive (and very alien) crewmates get to try on their comic chops as they explore Earth on Halloween. In the process, what’s made us love every one of the cast for the last four seasons gets to shine. This is, essentially, a “slow-down episode” in the midst of a hot, heavy, action-packed, and super complicated final season. It’s the last bit of comedy we’ll see from the show. After this episode, we enter into a long finale arc that was grim, desperate, and unresolved until we got the tie-up movie a few years later.

For the fans, in the middle of a very heavy season, and what had become a very heavy show, “Kansas” was a breath of fresh air. For the newcomer, as a gateway episode, “Kansas” is a brief glimpse not only into each of the characters, but also how they interact. Like “The Rules of Luton.” it’s not a very traditional episode for the series, but it still manages to tell the newbie everything they need to know.

This is a choppy clip that’s a medley of some of the best moments:

So… What are your thoughts on gateway episodes?

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