It is perhaps a limitation of episodic television that characters fail to evolve and at the end end of each instalment, return to their default state. Even if they’ve experienced something profound or traumatic, they’re back to normal at the start of the next episode, ready to enjoy new adventures. But what if they experienced more than just an adventure? What if through memory implants, wormholes and strange time phenomena, they actually experienced a lifetime? Surely that wouldn’t just be dismissed. That would change an entire world view, surely. Imagine if after 20 years of work, you had to resume your old life at school. You think you’d just fall back into the habit? As the Doctor once said, we’re all different people all through our lives and that’s okay; well in TV Doc, it’s just not okay. You can’t possibly let this kind of thing impact you, you’ve got to go and be the version of yourself that audience recognises. That probably explains all these forgotten lifetimes.
Jean Luc Picard – Star Trek: The Next Generation
“The Inner Light” is a near perfect piece of television and easily among TNG‘s best. Following the discovery of a probe, Picard awakens on an alien planet and told that he is not the Captain of a starship but Kamin, a humanoid scientist living on a world threatened by extinction due to the sun going Nova. Although at first he resists the notion, he comes to love and accept his wife and friends and has children, living a fulfilling life for the next 40 years and connecting with the world in a way he never could as a distanced Captain. In the end, it is revealed that the probe came from the now destroyed planet and this was a time capsule so someone would remember those who lived there. This deeply profound experience should have changed Jean Luc’s entire outlook on life, perhaps even making him re-evaluate everything, but it was not to be.
As Star Trek writer Ron Moore later commented: “I’ve always felt that the experience in “Inner Light” would’ve been the most profound experience in Picard’s life and changed him irrevocably. However, that wasn’t our intention when we were creating the episode. We were after a good hour of TV, and the larger implications of how this would really screw somebody up didn’t hit home with us until later.”
By the next week, the Captain was apparently unaffected and off on a time travel adventure. Still, he did learn to play the Ressikan flute and that helped him find love in season 7 episode “Lessons”.
Angel – Buffy the Vampire Slayer
For never was a story of more woe, that this of Buffy and her Angel. Just when Buffy has made peace with the fact that her one-time love had turned evil, his soul is restored but because his alter-ego was in the middle of bringing back Hell on Earth, she has to kill him anyway, or at least send him through a portal to a Hell dimension. Time passes differently there and while he was gone for just a few months from the point of view of our world, he experienced 100 years of torment. This is actually played out better than in most shows, with episodes actually acknowledging the passage of time but luckily this hell dimension still had some lovely hair stylists. Before long Angel was back on patrol, wearing lovely shirts and breaking Buffy’s heart. This return from Hell did have a huge impact on the fate of the character, with an exploration of the higher purpose of his return explored in spinoff series Angel. His son eventually suffered a similar fate, ageing from a cute baby to a miserable and annoying teenager within a tiny window of time. But it’s the hair that’s the most bothersome element. It was just so styled and shiny.
The Doctor – Doctor Who
We need to talk about Trenzalore. The Doctor spent 900 years defending this planet to prevent the return of the Time Lords and all out war in the galaxy. What’s 900 years to a Timelord you ask? Well it’s a bloody long time. If we take the ages described in the “The Day of the Doctor” to be canon (other canon’s are available) then the 10th Doctor was 904, going on to regenerate at approximately aged 906. During events of this episode, the 11th Doctor was approximately 1200, unless he was lying, meaning he had spent a quarter of his 12/13 lives in this incarnation. That sort of makes sense if it’s his last life and he had a better sense of self preservation. But then another 900 years on Trenzalore? That’s basically half his total lives again. So instead of galloping around the galaxy in a Tardis, half of what the Doctor did up to this point was spent defending a miserable little planet. Shouldn’t that have more impact really? Shouldn’t it be explored deeper? Even at the end of that episode, the 11th Doctor was no longer an old man with the “reset” of his new set of regenerations. It works fine in the episode but dramatically speaking, it’s feels way too long. Either that or the Doctor should be older.
Rimmer – Red Dwarf
What do you do when you find yourself in an escape pod and heading towards a planet through wormhole meaning it will take 600 years before your shipmates can rescue you? Well it’s not really a problem if you’re a hard light hologram with enough power to last indefinitely. Best course of action is to settle down and start terraforming with a side order of cloning. If you’re Rimmer, then it’s likely that your clones will turn on you and lock you in a cell for 557 years. This does have quite the impact on Rimmer, as he fails to correctly recall the names of Lister, Cat and Kryten. However, a slight time jump at the end of the episode shows how little impact the centuries had on the character as he simply declares “Rimmerworld was weeks ago.” Those weeks surely can’t compare to the centuries spend in isolation. Still, maybe he was reprogrammed after to forget. Or perhaps it’s best not to think a sci-fi sitcom.
Teal’c – Stargate SG-1
While “Unending”, the final regular episode of SG-1 might not have been quite as good as some of the other finales in the show’s run, it’s none the less a very enjoyable episode. Stargate Command’s finest find themselves trapped in deep space on board the Odyssey with their ship stuck in a pocket of time as a defence against the impending attack of the Ori. It takes 50 years for Colonel Doctor Sam Carter to figure out how to fix the problem during which time General Landry dies, Daniel and Vala finally resolve their sexual tension, Sam learns to play the Cello while Mitchell does a whole lot of jogging. The only problem is that to reverse time within the bubble, someone has to stay in a separate field to reverse the process and ensure the events are not repeated. Teal’c volunteers having done nothing of significance for the whole episode and because as a Jaffa he has a far longer lifespan. He refuses to tell the others what happened once this possible future is eradicated but in the next two TV movies and his guest appearance on Stargate Atlantis, he does sport a lovely grey stripe on his head. It’s this sort of impact that makes a franchise worth sticking with.
Chief O’Brien – Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Star Trek is a bright and optimistic look at the future; unless of course it’s Deep Space Nine which is reassuringly bleak. Perhaps never more so than during the episode “Hard Time”, which is probably the antidote to “The Inner Light”. Chief O’Brien accused of espionage by the Agrathi and imprisoned for 20 years in horrific conditions with only his cellmate Ee’char for company. This was no ordinary prison but implanted memories which meant O’Brien experienced the sentence in just a few hours. Upon returning to life on the station, he is violent with other crew members, can only sleep on the hard comfort of the ground and even comes close to hitting his daughter Molly. Unable to adapt to his old life, he tries to kill himself with a phaser over the guilt of killing his cellmate before being talked down by Doctor Bashir.
This episode questions Roddenberry’s version of humanity as portrayed in the later Star Trek series with O’Brien perfectly summing it up: “When we were growing up, they used to tell us humanity had evolved, that mankind had outgrown hate and rage. But when it came down to it, when I had the chance to show, that no matter what anybody did to me, that I was still an evolved human being… I failed. I repaid kindness with blood.”
Although Deep Space Nine generally played the long game with characters and stories, O’Brien never mentioned this again. Still, totally worth it for a single great hour of television.