In episodic television, the term bottle episode refers to an episode produced inexpensively and restricted in scope to use as few non-regular cast members, effects, and sets as possible. Most bottle episodes are shot on sets already built for other episodes, frequently the main interior sets for a series, and consist largely of dialogue or scenes for which no special preparations are needed.
The etymology of the phrase originates with a similar term used on the set of the original 1960s-era Star Trek. Cast and crew members of the show use the phrase "ship-in-a-bottle episodes" for episodes that took place only on board the Starship Enterprise.
Bottle episodes are sometimes produced when a show has a mid-season cliffhanger or an expensive season opener/closer, serving to allow as much of the budget as possible to go to the more expensive episodes. Scott Brazil, executive producer/director of The Shield, described bottle episodes as "the sad little stepchild whose allowance is docked in order to buy big brother a new pair of sneaks". The popularity of the Friends bottle episode "The One Where No One's Ready" led the producers to create at least one bottle episode in each subsequent season. Several early episodes of The X-Files were conceived as bottle episodes, including "Space", "Darkness Falls", and the well-received "Ice", although these often ran over budget nevertheless.
Bottle episodes from the Star Trek franchise are known for occasionally becoming among the most popular with fans. Prominent examples include "The Tholian Web", "Journey To Babel", and "Balance of Terror". The phenomenon has persisted to a lesser extent in contemporary incarnations, with "Duet" (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) being celebrated by Startrek.com and Amazon.com—among other sources—as "[a]rguably one of the best episodes of Deep Space Nine and a jewel in the entire Trek canon".
On Breaking Bad, the third-season episode "Fly" features only two members of the main cast (plus a few extras) and takes place almost exclusively in the secret laboratory used to cook crystal methamphetamine. Series creator Vince Gilligan has referred to it as a bottle episode, noting that the limited setting and cast allowed for a slower pace and deeper exploration of character traits and motives:
Even if financial realities didn't enter into it, I feel as a showrunner that there should be a certain shape and pace to each season, and the really high highs that you try to get to at the end of a season — the big dramatic moments of action and violence, the big operatic moments you're striving for — I don't think would land as hard if you didn't have the moments of quiet that came before them. The quiet episodes make the tenser, more dramatic episodes pop even more than they usually would just by their contrast.
A meta-example is Community's Season 2, Episode 8 "Cooperative Calligraphy". After the opening, characters Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) and Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) both refer to the situation as a bottle episode. The entire episode takes place inside the college library with only the main cast.
- "What is a Bottle Episode?". wiseGEEK. Conjecture Corporation. Retrieved 2013-10-26. "The term originates from Star Trek, where a number of episodes took the form of bottle episodes. The crew of the show came to refer to such episodes as 'ship in a bottle' episodes, referencing the fact that they typically took place on board the Starship Enterprise, and the term 'bottle episode' caught on more widely in the television industry. These episodes are also sometimes called 'bottleneck episodes,' referencing the constricted budget available to the crew."
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