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Top 10 mindf*** TV episodes


Here are the moments when the often-predictable Box turned the tables on us...

Top 10 TV mindfucks

Fare such as Smallville's 'Labyrinth' episode and pretty much anything in either the UK or US version of Life On Mars - even 'Life Is A Rock', the outrageous 'space finale' of ABC's 2008 remake of the original UK BBC series - is not admissable here. We knew that Smallville would continue after Labyrinth's attempts to persuade Clark that his Kryptonian heritage was invented, and since we knew ABC's Life On Mars was heading for the trash anyway, the final episode had no parameters left to respect. Also excluded are episodes of anthologies such as The Twilight Zone, which set out on a weekly basis to mess with our minds. And sorry, Lost definitely also falls into that category.

Here, instead, are the season episodes which 'got us' fair and square without committing canonical suicide...

This is chock-full of spoilers, so be warned...

10: The Prisoner - 'The Chimes Of Big Ben'

Patrick McGoohan in 'The Chimes Of Big Ben' from 'The Prisoner' TV seriesFirst broadcast 6 October 1967

Patrick McGoohan's inimitable (as AMC found, to their cost) SF/thriller series was to end up messing with our minds every week, with episodes wherein the central character was replaced by a different actor ("Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling") and even duplicated with an identical clone that supplants his place in governmental luxury prison The Village ("The Schizoid Man"), all culminating with the weirdest and most controversial last episode in the history of SF TV, the mind-blowing "Fall Out".

But at this point, we had only seen the pilot episode that sets up the core premise of Number Six (McGoohan) being imprisoned in The Village after resigning from the British government; the pilot is basically an 'orientation' episode where we first meet inflatable guard-dog 'Rover', discover that No.2 is an interchangeable role, and explore the narrow world of The Village along with No.6 (in a series of disorienting and frequently comic vignettes that seem to have inspired parts of the original The Wicker Man).

So when 'The Chimes Of Big Ben' came along, we didn't yet know if we were dealing with The Great Escape as a TV series, or what. And writer Vincent Tilsley toys mercilessly with that presumption on the part of the viewer, since the show won't get a second chance to do so. In 'Chimes', Number Six makes a successful and elaborate escape from his idyllic prison back to London, and ends up in the office of a senior government minister, who wants to know - much as the evil Number Two did - why Number Six resigned. And our hero is just about to tell him when...well, see for yourself, about seven minutes into the following clip.

9: Maybury - "Eddie"

Patrick Stewart in the BBC's 'Maybury' (1981 and 1983)First broadcast 28th July 1981

Five years before he helmed the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation, acclaimed British thesp Patrick Stewart was guiding lost souls to redemption as Doctor Edward Roebuck, the head of Maybury's eponymous psychiatric clinic. A serious attempt to deal with the often mistreated theme of mental illness, Maybury was no soap, with one 13-episode series airing in 1981 and final second season of seven episodes in 1983. Those who saw it remember it as some of the BBC's most ground-breaking TV and continue to be mystified not only that the show has never been repeated, but that it has never been released on videotape or DVD. You were either there when it broadcast, or you missed it.

By the time 'Eddie' comes round towards the finale of season 1, we have taken on board Patrick Stewart's character as the rock around which the damaged inmates and guests at the Maybury clinic circle in their efforts to be cured, and Roebuck himself has become the embodiment of sanity and light. It's therefore a tremendous shock - and something of a mindfuck - to watch Roebuck slowly realise that he is experiencing a severe and sudden mental illness himself, and one which he cannot think, reason or rationalise his way out of.

The only video of any kind that I can find for this extraordinary show is this clip (unrelated to 'Eddie') from the season two finale.

8: The X-Files - 'Field Trip'

The X-Files 'Field Trip'First broadcast May 9, 1999

When I finally got round to my long-delayed complete viewing of The X-Files, the stamped return-date on my DVD rentals topped a long list going back years, right up to and including season six. When I rented season seven, I was told that I was the first person who had ever done so, and I wonder if any further date-stamps will ever be added to mine. Season six is admittedly a stinker, but those renters who gave up on it in disgust half-way through not only missed a return to form in season 7 (that doesn't have any date-stamps besides mine either), but one of the best X-Files episodes ever, tucked away at the close of this disastrous season.

The mysterious appearance of decomposed remains, which seem to have been regurgitated from a North Carolina field, lead Mulder and Scully into an investigation into the nearby caves, which contain a strange and hallucinogenic fungus. The fungus slowly digests humans that fall into its matrix, but keeps them happy by feeding them alternate versions of their reality. It's hard to fight through the fake-reality of the deadly spore, but the moment one penetrates it, the fake people around melt into blobs of amorphous goo. Mulder and Scully find that they have actually been trapped by the carnivorous mushroom for far longer than they realise, but finally effect an escape. Or did they...?

The genius of 'Field Trip' is how Frank Spotnitz, John Shiban and Vince Gilligan dick around with our familiarity with 'it was all a hallucination' episodes, and also have the cheek to draw on X-Files' occasional history of plot-holes to convince us - more than once - that we're seeing the real world instead of the 'mushroom world'. This episode is truly one of the eeriest ever in the series, and the effects of the fake people dissolving into spore-goo really add to our feeling that we are on some kind of trip ourselves.

7: Dexter - 'The Getaway'

Dexter - 'The Getaway'First broadcast on December 13, 2009

Admittedly there were adequate clues in season 4's finale to tell us that John Lithgow's ruthless and bath-obsessed serial killer had successfully added Dexter Morgan's new wife to his long list of kills. Dexter, brilliant as it is, is not a show that is willing to let a plot-point be lost for lack of recap, both at the start of each episode and in an almost continuous narrative mantra from Michael C. Hall. In a way, we have got used to this rather dumbed-down approach to making sure we don't miss any important plot-points. And that's why throwing away the rulebook for the end of 'The Getaway' was so effective.

What made this episode a 'gotcha' was not necessarily that Rita (Julie Benz) bought it, but just how late in the episode the event came. A lot of people, like myself, sensing the end-credits, were almost heading for the fridge when Dexter suddenly heard the sound of his son screaming in the bathroom. There's usually some kind of inter-season stinger in a Dexter finale, but it has never been so well-placed, well-edited, or quite so game-changing for the show.

6: Diagnosis Murder - 'The Bela Lugosi Blues'

Diagnosis Murder - 'The Bela Lugosi Blues'First broadcast January 6th 1995

There's nothing mind-fucking about a TV show jumping the shark, even if season two of any show is a bit early to be casting around for off-genre ideas. But there are two things that make the infamous 'vampire episode' of Dick Van Dyke's medical detective show a genuine mind-fuck. Firstly, the odd context: 'Bela Lugosi Blues' was supposed to air as a Halloween-related episode in October of 1994, but got shunted up to the rather more sober climes of the new year. Secondly, though Diagnosis Murder was to get more and more outlandish (most particularly in its season finales) over its eight seasons, it never jumped this particular shark again, sticking largely to thriller-related themes and staying away from the supernatural.

To cut a long and very silly story short, Dick Van Dyke and young apprentice Scott Baio find themselves in the midst of what appears to be a plague of vampiric murders, and in the final showdown with the serial killer, discover that their nemesis was a genuine, Dracula-style vampire. Like two drunks who make a secret pact to never talk about those pink elephants again, the pair vow to keep this one to themselves. But hereafter, viewers figured that all bets were off for the show, waiting in vain for the zombies and the telepathic murderers to show up. 'Bela Lugosi Blues' was a lot of fun, but at the expense of what remote credibility the premise of Diagnosis Murder had enjoyed up to that point.

5: Treme - 'Wish Someone Would Care'

John Goodman in 'Wish Someone Would Care' - TremeFirst broadcast June 13th 2010

Like #2 below, this TV mindfuck makes use of subverting the viewers' expectations about 'unkillable' cast members, in combination with what they read - or don't read - in the press about what's coming up on the show.

Show creator David Simon's love-letter to post-Katrina New Orleans is a much lower-temperature affair than his acclaimed The Wire, driven almost entirely by the impulses of its varied characters rather than the narrative impetus of events. Treme is definitely low on major plot turning-points. It's against this sedentary background that the suicide of arguably its headline star in the penultimate episode of season one is so shocking - the more so as it apparently had nothing to do with contractual problems, or with John Goodman not wanting to continue with the show, but rather had been built into his character's arc from the moment it was proposed to the actor.

There were clues that Goodman's cantankerous college professor might not be as locked-in to Treme as the rest of the cast (many of which are stalwarts from The Wire and The Corner), but they were subliminal and ambiguous. For instance, Goodman's credit on each episode headed up the end credits, rather than joining the majority of the cast in the opening titles. Did this mean that he was a 'guest star' every week, even though a series regular? Or was it a 'special requirement' because Goodman was the most prestigious and bankable name among the cast of Treme?

Either way, it was brave and unexpected for the show to jettison its strongest link to a mainstream audience, when eccentric middle-class Prof. Creighton throws himself from the prow of a ferry. We don't even get to see the event - just the perplexity of the bystander that Creighton bummed a last cigarette from, as he realises that the Big Guy couldn't have walked back past him, and yet he's not on the ferry anymore.

4: Columbo - 'Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo'

Peter Falk in 'Rest In Peace, Mrs. Columbo'First broadcast March 31st 1990

There comes a certain point in the maturity of a show where one expects that it might begin to play with ideas more, and to engagingly wrong-foot viewers by subverting their expectations. This, even of a show as totally predicated on formula as Columbo. After all, the formula (wherein we witness an elaborate murder which Lt. Columbo must solve when he joins the episode about 15 minutes in) devised by William Link and Richard Levinson in the late 1960s was as much the star of the show as Peter Falk.

Yet when the shabby detective returned for an eighth season after an 11-year hiatus, who's to say that some smart-alec somewhere might not have it in mind to do something really radical in a Columbo episode one of these days? Such as killing off arguably TV's most famous unseen character, the legendary 'Mrs. Columbo'..? In 'Rest In Peace', Helen Shaver is the widow of one of Columbo's previous victories - who died in prison - and she's now out for revenge by taking Columbo's mysterious spouse from him before also poisoning the down-at-heel 'tec. And she does actually succeed in killing Mrs. Columbo.

This mind-fuck works for a number of reasons. Firstly, Peter Falk's famously amiable character would show some new and strange wrinkle in Columbo once in a blue moon; on the few occasions when the diminutive lieutenant dropped the 'dope'-act and really got angry, banging his fist on tables, it was notable. He didn't make such deviations often, but often enough that you couldn't be entirely cosy about how his character would react in future episodes. Secondly, we've never met Columbo's wife anyway (though we've heard a hell of a lot about her in the last thirty years), and if she mysteriously disappears for part of the plot, there's nothing to set alarm bells ringing in that respect. Thirdly, Falk is a truly great actor whose range was rarely challenged by the Columbo phenomenon, and his anger and grief at the loss of his beloved wife in 'Rest In Peace' sells us entirely on her death.

Which, incidentally, was all stage-managed by Lt. Columbo and his wife, as it turns out. I was just fucking with you.

3: UFO - 'Mindbender'

Ed Bishop getting his mind bent in 'UFO' (1971)First broadcast January 13th, 1971

As mentioned in the intro, a number of shows have played about with decimating their own internal reality, such as the 'Labyrinth' episode in Smallville, where all established canon within the show is dismissed as mere fiction. In this episode of Gerry Anderson's off-beat precursor to Men In Black, a diamond with hallucinogenic properties is infiltrated into the SHADO organisation by the aliens who wish to undermine our heroes. This leads to predictable if unlikely scenes, such as Mexican bandits on moonbase and a bogus alien invasion at SHADO HQ, sending those with these delusions into psychosis.

But it's what happens to series lead Ed Bishop that's the most interesting. Halfway through a heated conversation with his uncompromising boss Henderson (played by Grant Taylor), a director yells 'Cut!' out of nowhere, and Cmdr. Straker finds that he is actually just an actor filming a sci-fi series called UFO.

What's so audacious about this particular take on the 'fake-dream' scenario is how brave the real producers of UFO are in not just breaking the fourth wall, but utterly wrecking it. The cameras pull back, and we get to see the spit-and-sawdust sets of Moonbase and Skydiver in the context of run-down old Pinewood studios, with a bored production crew looking on as the director sets up the next shot.

UFO already played with reality in that it set SHADO's HQ under the real film studio that the makers shot the series in, and lead character Cmdr. Straker held a duplicate identity as a movie producer at these semi-fictionalised studios. Additionally a large number of the cast used their own names for their characters. There isn't many a show that would be willing to raise its skirts this high just to mess with your head.

2: Doctor Who - 'The Next Doctor'

'The Next Doctor'. Not.First broadcast 25th December 2008

As with #5 above, the mindfuck-power of 'The Next Doctor' was almost entirely generated because of viewer expectations regarding the show itself, in this case about what would happen with Doctor Who in general, and the casting of the central role in particular. It was known already that David Tennant was departing the role of The Doctor after three well-received seasons, and British bookmakers were cashing in on hot tips as to who would succeed him.

Ex-Who assistant Catherine Tate was a relative long-shot, whereas Robert Carlyle, Alan Davies and James Nesbitt were neck and neck (and considerably ahead of Jason Statham). But the odds-on favourite was actor David Morrissey, once it was revealed that the 2008 Christmas special was a) called 'The Next Doctor' and b) featured an engagingly eccentric alternate Doctor, played by Morrissey, getting into all kinds of mischief in Victorian England with his assistant Rosita Farisi. It was all very plausible, and all utter nonsense; Morrissey's character turned out to be a native Victorian suffering from an induced delusion, and the BBC announced Matt Smith as the new Doctor a week later. Sadly, 'The Next Doctor' is generally thought to be a poor Doctor Who outing apart from this admittedly well-orchestrated mindfuck.

1: Dallas - 'Blast From the Past'

Bobby Ewing washes away a whole season of Dallas in 'Blast From The Past'First broadcast May 16th 1986

There's no point me trying to be a clever-dick about it. A predictable choice or not, nothing in the history of TV can challenge the audacity of the Dallas producers in deciding to press the 'hard-reset' button on the entire 1985-86 season by having it all be Victoria Principal's dream. They needed Bobby Ewing back, and short of voodoo, this was the only way to accomplish it. The show survived the shock and went on to five more seasons, comfortably trumping the rival Dynasty franchise (whose 'Alien abduction' scenario in The Colbys was as nothing compared to 'shower-power') for outrageous cheek.



Top 10 movie mindfucks

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#1 Number 4 is kinda in error Carl 2010-11-10 18:45
Although we might not have seen Columbo's mysterious Mrs on screen in his series, she was far from hidden when she appeared in her own spin-off series, 'Mrs. Columbo', portrayed by Kate Mulgrew.
#2 Not official Martin - author 2010-11-11 20:03
Quoting Carl:
Although we might not have seen Columbo's mysterious Mrs on screen in his series, she was far from hidden when she appeared in her own spin-off series, 'Mrs. Columbo', portrayed by Kate Mulgrew.

Peter Falk and the Columbo producers objected to this series, which had its name changed several times, to the point where Kate Mulgrew's character was surnamed Callahan. That's about as non-canon as it could possibly be.
#3 RE: Top 10 mindf*** TV episodes Tomas 2010-12-21 10:59
WKRP in Cincinatti: Turkeys Away was a [email protected] did this but in a comedic way.
#4 Missed on of the best.. Quantum Leap. Blakwing 2011-01-16 19:56
The hands down best TV mindf**k was the Lee Harvey Oswald 2 part story in Quantum Leap.

No TV moment will ever hit as hard as the end comments by Al to a recently displaced Sam after the shooting.. "Originally he got Jackie too"..
#5 RE: Top 10 mindf*** TV episodes Mike Delicious 2011-02-08 03:55
Buffy The Vampire's 4th season finale 'Restless' should have made the list.
#6 No Space Bees? Kevin 2011-02-26 15:55
I would add Futurama's episode, The Sting, to this list. The constant slipping in and out of reality, and its conclusion left me quite unsettled.

I still have trouble sleeping whenever I watch this one.
#7 Star Trek's best MFs Carl 2011-03-30 14:26
The original Star Trek's pilot episode "The Cage" depicted nothing short of literal mindf*cking when aliens used a form of mind control to manipulate perception and memories in the crew. Sometimes they knew, sometimes they didn't, but nothing would portend the twist ending.

Star Trek: The Next Generation's episode "The Inner Light", while not really a mindf*ck for the audience, was quite an adjustment for Captain Picard. Plus, it is a fan favorite for the series.
#8 RE: Top 10 mindf*** TV episodes David Bofinger 2011-04-13 02:31
"Back to Reality" in "Red Dwarf". "You played the prat version of Rimmer for two years?! No wonder you only scored twelve points."
#9 Richard ADS 2011-05-05 11:21
Got to agree 'The Cage' should be on this list.

Also, I reckon at least one of Farscape's eps, A Human Reaction and Wont Get Fooled Again ought to be on there.
#10 Oh, come *on* Felicity Price 2011-05-13 16:44
Let's be honest - this list could have been filled by picking any ten episodes of "The Prisoner". That series was quite possibly the weirdest show ever created, unless you count Shadoe Stevens' one-off "Shadoevision".
#11 RE: Top 10 mindf*** TV episodes Martin Anderson 2011-05-13 16:47
Quoting Felicity Price:
Let's be honest - this list could have been filled by picking any ten episodes of "The Prisoner". That series was quite possibly the weirdest show ever created, unless you count Shadoe Stevens' one-off "Shadoevision".

Yes, but no individual TV show can mindf*** more than once or twice before it gets 'predictable' in that respect - which is the antithesis of the situation that a mindf*** requires.
#12 RE: Top 10 mindf*** TV episodes DreamRose311 2011-06-25 04:16
Angel - Awakening Season 4 ep 10. January 29, 2003. Even though the whole time you feel something isn't quite right, it still totally blows your mind. And that evil laugh at the end....
#13 RE: Top 10 mindf*** TV episodes Alex 2012-06-28 13:37
I would have also included the finale episode of Newhart which upped the ante on Dallas by making the whole series the dream of a character in another TV series. Also, the finale of St Elsewhere which suggested not only was the entire series the fantasy of a boy, but thanks to crossovers it's possible to link dozens if not hundreds of other productions to this one fantasy (google "Tommy Westfall Universe"). I love seeing the obscure UFO referenced, and I remember this episode, and years later Alan Thicke's sitcom Growing Pains did the same thing except while Ed Bishop was not referred to as Ed Bishop in the UFO episode, in the "Meet the Seavers" episode of Growing Pains the actual actors used their real names throughout.
#14 RE: Top 10 mindf*** TV episodes Ana arias 2015-01-24 11:20
Rains of castamere ( AKA the red wedding episode) - game of thrones

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