Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Finding Elseworlds on the small screen

Note: this post will have nothing to do with the various CW superhero crossover shows that are branded as Elseworlds – simply because I’ve never seen them.

I should preface this by saying that I’m a big fan of Elseworlds comics…

Oh, yeah!

…and their predecessors, the ‘imaginary stories’ of the Silver Age…

Often quite goofy, but sometimes poignant and moving

There’s just something I find really enjoyable and appealing about taking familiar, serialized characters and putting them into completely, or sometimes just slightly, different settings and situations (the past, future, etc.).

And I find that I enjoy this concept when it’s applied to other media, as well. Something I to do, in fact, is look for Elseworlds-type stories in TV shows.

In some cases, it’s not hard to find. This storytelling device was often used in sitcoms, going back to the 1960s at least. Indeed, a whole sub-genre of Gilligan’s Island episodes involved one of the characters having a dream that put the castaways in various situations and settings, like the Old West (twice), the Stone Age, a Latin American banana republic, a soap opera, fairy tales (Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella), a Bondesque spy thriller or horror spoofs (Dracula, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde).

Some of these were pretty funny – especially the ‘secret agent’ one in the middle

More typical were holiday episodes in which one character told a story and then the scene switches to the entire cast acting it out. Two of these that I recall involved Christmas and Thanksgiving, respectively: a Partridge Family Christmas episode featured Mrs. Partridge telling a Christmas tale set in the Old West, while, similarly, a Happy Days Thanksgiving episode had the whole gang cast as Pilgrims when Marion Cunningham told the story of the first Thanksgiving. (For those of you who need the specifics, these are Partridge Family, season 2, ep 13, “Don’t Bring Your Guns To Town, Santa”; and Happy Days, season 6, ep 12, “The First Thanksgiving”).

Keith Partridge should have worn that all-blue ensemble more often, and damned if Howard Cunningham doesn’t look spiffy with that early Beatles mop on his head

These aren’t necessarily what I’m thinking about, though – all of them basically played for laughs, and of course the Gilligan’s Island dream sequences are just a small part of their respective episodes.

Personally, I like it more when it’s played seriously – like it is in most of the Elseworlds comics.

To some extent, the famous Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror” comes close to the Elseworlds concept, although it wasn’t an ‘imaginary story,’ but was rather an interaction with a very Elseworldy alternate universe in which all of our favorite characters are evil.

Betchya everyone was expecting a pic of bearded Spock

As an aside, I have to say I really didn’t like it when this alternate reality was revisited in DS9 or Enterprise. But speaking of DS9, another Trek episode in this vein that I really liked is “Far Beyond the Stars” (season 6, ep. 13), in which Sisko has vivid visions of himself as a staff writer working for a science fiction magazine in the 1950s, with all of the other cast members playing various characters who are mostly quite different from their regular roles. I was particularly fond of the fiery old-school leftist writer portrayed by Armin Shimerman, in stark contrast to the uber-capitalist Quark.

“All right, I need a story about a rocket launched by Croatia. Or Purina…”

Another personal favorite is the ‘wild west’ episode of The Prisoner (ep. 14, “Living in Harmony”). In this case, No. 6 is being – yet again – psychologically manipulated by the powers that be in the Village, so he finds himself in the American West in the 1900s, but still experiencing a similar nightmare: this time he’s a sheriff who handed in his badge and gun, and is then accosted and beaten unconscious by a gang of toughs as he leaves town. When he wakes up, he’s a eerie town called Harmony, forced to act out an all-too familiar scenario. An additionally cool aspect of that episode is that they were so fully committed to the idea that they even changed the opening sequence to conform to the story:

One of the first non-sitcom examples of this I recall seeing, back in the early 1980s, is an episode of Magnum P.I. set in the 1930s (season 3, ep. 7: “Flashback”). This one involves Magnum having a dream (shades of Gilligan!) that he’s living in 1936 – still working as a P.I., and trying to solve a case involving a labor union leader apparently framed for killing a wealthy construction mogul. As I recall, after waking up, the dream helped him solve a case he was actually working on in real life. The flashback sequence that dominated the entire episode is done really well, though, with gorgeous costumes.

And that car is actually way cooler than the Ferrari he normally drove

The most recent one I’ve seen is an episode of Castle from season four (episode 14), called “The Blue Butterfly.” In it, Castle gets a hold of a diary from the 1940s that he tries to use to solve a modern crime. Every time he reads it, the scene flashes back to the 1940s, with all of the regular cast appearing as various characters in the events recounted in the diary.

Speaking of cool cars…

So, that’s all I can recall at this point. Are there any I’m missing? Let me know in the comments…


  1. Jeff Nettleton

    One slight correction (that’s what the internet’s for!); it’s Dean Jagger telling the Christmas story, in the Partridge Family. They are stuck in the town, trying to get the bus running and he tells the story to entertain them.

    In his book, Russell Johnson said the cast of Gilligan’s Island loved doing the dream episodes because they were different from the normal plots. The Jack & the Beanstalk one even uses Bob Denver’s son to be Little Gilligan, when the giant (Skipper) tries to catch him.

    The tv series Day by Day had a fun dream crossover, where the older son falls asleep by the tv and finds himself living with the Bradys, with much poking of fun at the conventions of the show (permed hair, always fixing their bikes but not riding them, etc).

    You could argue a bit about some of Quantum Leap, whether you are dealing with time travel or alternate reality, especially “The Leap Home,” where Sam leaps into his younger self and tries to change the path of his family, to keep his brother alive, in Vietnam.

    1. Le Messor

      Your Day By Day thing reminds me of the end of The X-Files, where they meet a character who’s managed to recreate The Brady Bunch.
      But that’s not an Elseworlds.

      1. Jeff Nettleton

        Wasn’t there an X-Files or one of the spin-offs, with Charles nelson Riley, where he has a dream of himself as Hoodoo, the magician, from Liddsville?

        1. Le Messor

          I don’t remember that, so I’m gonna guess it was one of the spin-offs, or one of my memory-holes. Maybe it’s the Mengele effect? 🙂

          (I know The X-Files pretty well, but the only spin-off I’ve watched all the way through is The Lone Gunmen, and that not in years.)

    2. Edo Bosnar

      On that Partridge Family episode, yeah – once you mentioned it, I remembered that it was someone else who told the story. He was an old prospector or something like that,right?
      Otherwise, I mainly went from memory when writing this, and only used online sources to get the episode titles and numbers.

      1. Jeff Nettleton

        Jagger is a resident of the town, the only one left. My memory of when they meet is a little fuzzy; but, he might have been doing a bit of prospecting.

        Jim Backus did the prospector in the one Gilligan’s Island, where he found gold. ” I haven’t had a bath in 40 years!” “I know!”

  2. Le Messor

    There’s just something I find really enjoyable and appealing about taking familiar, serialized characters and putting them into completely, or sometimes just slightly, different settings and situations (the past, future, etc.).

    Yeah, me too! I always say I’m a sucker for an alternate reality.

    Gilligan’s Island did a secret agent episode?
    Wouldn’t that just be Get Smart?

    Far Beyond The Stars is definitely a stand-out episode.

    Buffy has Normal Again (where the entire series to this point has been a dream by a psychotic Buffy – probably its own subgenre of the Elseworlds genre) and The Wish (where Buffy never came to Sunnydale), and Superstar (where Jonathan cast a spell to make everyone think he’s cool. That is so cool!)

    1. Edo Bosnar

      Yep, Gilligan dreamed that he was a secret agent. Haven’t seen it in years, but I remember always liking that episode because it was quite funny – both a good spoof of the Bond-type spy movies and also sort of a hat-tip to, yes, Get Smart, which I believe had its premiere season that same year.

      1. Jeff Nettleton

        That was a great one, with Thurston and Lovey as the enemy masterminds. Dawn Wells was also great, in her scenes, within that. Loved her in the Jeckyll & Hyde one, doing Eliza Doolittle.

        Russell Johnson and Alan Hale, as Holmes and Watson (n the style of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce) were also a ton of fun, in the vampire episode.

  3. Mark.Rouleau

    There was a wonderful Moonlighting episode where they did The Taming of the Shrew. I don’t remember there being a framing device for the episode; it was just Bruce Willis and Cybill Sheppard & supporting cast in Elizabethan costumes mangling Shakespeare.

    1. Mark.Rouleau

      And of course, one internet search later: the framing device was a kid who had to study “The Taming of the Shrew” instead of watching his favorite TV show: “Moonlighting.”

    2. Edo Bosnar

      Yes! I remember that episode – it was particularly amusing to me at the time because we were covering Shakespeare in English lit. in school right about the time it first aired. I think our teacher even mentioned it in class, also making a similar observation about the ‘mangling’ of the source material.

  4. A variation of this is when the story is actually about the ancestors of the main cast (or one of the main cast, as we saw in a Star Trek Voyager episode). I also remember iterations of this on Smallville and Northern Exposure. Plus there was that Flash / Supergirl crossover where they were all in a musical.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      This is great, you guys are really reminding me of a bunch of these that I’d overlooked; the Northern Exposure episode is a perfect example of what I’m talking about: the story of the town’s establishment is told by an elderly former resident, and in the flashback scenes most of the characters in the story (including Franz Kafka!) are played by regular cast members.

      There was a similar episode a few seasons later, taking place some time in the 1920s, which involved the Russian Princess Anastasia meeting with communist officials in Cicely.

  5. Peter

    Another example from a more recent “prestige” drama is The Leftovers. I liked the first season of the show fine enough, but when the second season had a (seemingly) one-off episode where Justin Theroux’s character woke up in an alternate reality where he was an international assassin, it became one of my favorite shows on TV.

  6. “The tv series Day by Day had a fun dream crossover, where the older son falls asleep by the tv and finds himself living with the Bradys, with much poking of fun at the conventions of the show (permed hair, always fixing their bikes but not riding them, etc).”
    And having Florence Henderson resolve every issue with platitudes like “When you live in a big family, sometimes you won’t all want the same thing” followed by “I’m glad we had this little talk.”
    “Buffy has Normal Again (where the entire series to this point has been a dream by a psychotic Buffy – probably its own subgenre of the Elseworlds genre) ”
    Yes, it’s been done on multiple other shows. Annoyingly (to me at least) there’s always someone in subsequent online discussion who thinks it would be AWESOME if the show ended that way.
    Another subgenre is the “It’s a Wonderful Life” episode where protagonist learns what would have happened if he hadn’t been there. A good episode of That Seventies Show, set after Eric and Donna broke up, has Eric learn everything would worse for everyone, including himself, if they’d never hooked up, but it doesn’t make him feel any better (“I still hurt because she’s gone!”).
    The DCAU Superman episode with the Black Mercy gave Superman an Elseworlds, of course.
    And there’s a NewsRadio episode set in the Star Wars universe (“Today, terrorists attacked the Empire, blowing up the Peace Star” or something of the sort was a news bulletin), presented completely deadpan and with no explanation.
    Laverne and Shirley did a fairly bad one, but I don’t remember any details.
    Misfits of Science did an episode “Against All Oz” in which the team are all perfectly normal with different personalities.
    There’s also the Next Gen episode where Picard learns what his life would be like if he hadn’t been knifed in a particular bar brawl in his younger years.
    Love the Gilligan’s Island ones.

    1. Le Messor

      “Annoyingly (to me at least)”
      It’s not just you.

      “There’s also the Next Gen episode where Picard learns what his life would be like if he hadn’t been knifed in a particular bar brawl in his younger years.”

      That’s Tapestry, one of the better-loved episodes. It probably fits the It’s A Wonderful Life formula you’ve mentioned. (And I just the other day read an old Howard The Duck story that was a straight-up parody of that movie.)

  7. humanbelly

    Fellas, I am as of-two-minds-ey on this topic as one can get— ‘though there’s no question you had me reeled in at “Gilligan’s Island”– Ha! I could probably rattle off a lot of the dialog of most of those dream sequences! They were always the favorite episodes for my sisters and I for the zillion years it re-ran in the 5:30 slot on weekdays. . .

    And my other possible contribution to the list of TV series examples: Aren’t the Simpsons Tree House of Horror Halloween episodes all sort of Alternate Dimension-ish as well? Naturally it’s kinda hard to tell on a show with such a malleable sense of reality in the first place . . .

    Honestly, I never, ever cared for DC’s Silver Age forays into imaginary stories– even in my earliest comic-reading years (mid/late 60’s). That sense of “they don’t really count” always took the oomph out of them– and the already-shallow characterizations became even less grounded. Hmmm– there was also a kinda creepy Jimmy Olsen story where he and. . . Lana Lang?. . . fell in love, but the machinations of the plot had them as first cousins (not as a plot point, just clearly a bi-product of fast, careless writing), and it was quickly dismissed as being fine, because that was “legal in our state”. Ew.

    And– gosh, no mention of Marvel’s What-If ? titles! Just about as legitimized as the convention could get!


    1. Edo Bosnar

      Hey, HB – last things first: yes, maybe I should have mentioned What If? (a series I also loved) as well, but since I was using ‘Elseworlds’ as my key word and since the main topic is TV rather than comics, I decided to only mention DC, which seemed to pioneer the concept with its ‘imaginary stories.’
      And speaking of the latter, I first encountered them in the digests DC began churning out in the late ’70s, and – as I noted above – I found them rather enjoyable in a goofy sort of way. The fact that they “didn’t count” never bothered me that much. And some of them, like the ‘Death of Superman’ story, were really quite good.
      As for that story you mentioned with the creepy ‘cousins can marry here’ scenario – unless there was another one I never read in which it’s Jimmy and Lana that marry, the story I recall involves a near future in which Superman and Lois Lane are married and Jimmy is married to the other Lane sister, Lucy, and their respective children, i.e. Lois and Superman’s super-powered daughter and Lucy and Jimmy’s son – i.e., first cousins – fall in love and eventually marry. In fact, if you look at the cover to the issue in which it originally appeared, only Superman is expressing any misgivings, but only because Jimmy’s son doesn’t know that his true love has superpowers (like that would be a deal-breaker), and not because they’re FRIGGIN’ COUSINS!

    2. Le Messor

      “Aren’t the Simpsons Tree House of Horror Halloween episodes all sort of Alternate Dimension-ish as well?”

      That reminds me of their ‘folk tales’ and ‘Bible stories’ episodes, too.

    3. humanbelly

      Holy cats– that is THE VERY STORY, edo! You are a champ! It was reprinted, I think, in a later GIANT Jimmy Olsen special (“The Many Strange Transformations”– or something like that–), and I only read it the one time in, like, 1969. In a fevered, chicken-pox haze. . . This particular story, IIRC, had the added disadvantage of being a completely boring (to an 8 year old) romance-based tale, with obviously convoluted relationships– and yet aspects of it stuck with me forever after. Hunh.

  8. humanbelly

    Hey, hey, hey– perhaps a Star Trek-based (well, at least w/ NG, DS9, and Voyager) 2nd or 3rd cousin to the Elseworlds type story was just barely touched on up above– but an almost comically recurring trope was the “Holodeck Malfunction” convention, which often could include crew members with or without memories intact, and so on. A sort in-continuity, contained Elseworld scenario. . .

    1. Edo Bosnar

      To some extent you have a point about the holodeck, HB, but personally I think that – as post-TOS fixture and, frankly, story-telling crutch – it’s kind of a separate category. And now you’ve got my mental wheels spinning on possible follow-up post…

      1. Le Messor

        I’d call it not so much a separate category, but a sub-category. It’s how you get stories like the Nazis fighting Voyager‘s crew as members of the French Underground, and Seven is a lounge singer, and the Nazis interrogate her and ask what she even expects to do if they win. Seven, of course, replies ‘we will set up a system of serfs and vassals’.
        Because, of course, The Resistance is feudal.
        … I’ll show myself out.

  9. John King

    The Moonlighting episode mentioned was Atomic Shakepeare
    But I prefer the episode “The Dream Sequence always rings twice” in which Dave and Maddie imagined themselves in the 1940s

    Highlander often featured characters in alternative time periods but as flashbacks. The two-part finale was a variant of “Its a Wonderful Life” showing how different people whould have been without Duncan.

    Hercules-the Legendary Journeys had 2 episodes (Yes, Virginia there is a Hercules and For those of you just joining us) in which the cast portrayed the writers, producers, etc of the show.
    Xena had a 1940s episode the Xena scroll and the modern day Send in the Clones

    from UK TV
    Sherlock (the recent show set in the modern day) had one a christmas special (The abominable bride) set in the 19th century

    UFO – the episode Mindbender had straker imagining everyone was just an actor in a TV series

    Red Dwarf -Dimension jump had the cast playing alternative versions of the character (most of them just in the opening)
    Paralel Universe had theme meeting alternative versions of themselves that different actresses played them.
    Bact to Reality – had them discoving all their adventures have just been a video game and discovered who they really were.

    1. Le Messor

      I was starting to wonder about Hercules and Xena (I’ve heard about those Xena eps).

      Like UFO, Growing Pains had an episode where Mike dreams everyone’s an actor on a TV show. They call each other by the actors’ names. (Only he and the younger brother are characters from the show brought into the TV studio.)

  10. John King

    The TV series Sliders had a lot of alternative worlds and the cast would occasionally meet versions of themselves as big stars or fake magicians…

    Doctor Who has occasionally featured parallel Worlds – most notably in the 1970 story Inferno featuring alternative versions of the supporting cast.

    In Japan, anime series have occasionally done thing liike this.
    Kimagure Orange Road, normally a school-based romantic comedy with psychic powers, had a dream episode based on the second Godzilla movie with the cat as the monster and the cast as pilots in T.A.P. Gun
    The series ended with a story in which the protagonist was in an alternative world meeting alternative versions of the characters.

    The extra made-for-video episodes for Doki-Doki School hours included one in an alternative reality where all the class were brothers and sisters in the same family. Another re-imagined characters as ghost hunters. And one where the teacher woke up to find herself in an apocalyptic alternative world.

    1. Le Messor

      Though it isn’t alternate worlds per se, the entire premise of Dollhouse, like Sliders, has the cast as different characters every episode. (Mostly just Eliza Dushku.)

  11. Jeff,

    I believe the episode with Charles Nelson Riley was an episode of Millennium where he reprised his Jose Chung character and helped Frank Black catch a serial killer. At the beginning of the episode he is recounting the dream where he is the magician from Lidsville in full costume.

    On a related note, the Triangle, episode three of the sixth season of X-files sort of falls into this category. Mulder finds himself in 1939 aboard a Nazi ship and many of the show’s characters are playing different people from the era, including the Smoking Man as an SS officer. The Nazi’s are after something they refer to as Thor’s Hammer.

    1. While I don’t know if it fits the X-Files story, the Nazis did actually invest some money and time trying to duplicate the ancient Aryan electrical superweapon that had been remembered in myth as “the hammer of Thor.” Heather Pringle’s “The Master Plan” is a great look at weird but true Nazi science of this sort.

      1. Fraser,

        I will have to watch the episode again to see if that is what they’re referring too…the haze of time has fogged up some of my memory of the details of the episode. Thanks for the information!

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