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 Star Trek cast and crew call this a "ship-in-a-bottle" episode, which is where the name originated.
Bottle episodes are often produced when a show has a mid-season cliffhanger or an expensive season opener/closer, serving to both allow as much of the budget as possible to go to the more expensive production, and/or to use what money remains in the budget as efficiently as possible. Scott Brazil, executive producer/director of The Shield, described bottle episodes as "the sad little step child whose allowance is docked in order to buy big brother a new pair of sneaks". Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan said that the limited scope of bottle episodes contrasts with and accentuates the dramatic impact of other episodes. 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) which has been 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".
While attempted with the episode "4 Days Out" in the second Season of Breaking Bad, the Season 3 episode "Fly" only features the leading actors Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul (plus a few extras) and takes place almost exclusively in the secret laboratory they use to cook meth. Series creator Vince Gilligan has acknowledged this as a bottle episode, but also explained 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."
- "Episode 410 "Back In The Hole"". fxnetworks.com. 2005-10-31. Archived from the original on 2005-10-31. Retrieved 2011-07-31.
- Murray, Noel (2010-06-13). "Interview with Vince Gilligan". The AV Club. Retrieved 2011-07-31. "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."
- Bright, Kevin S. (2005). Friends: Final Thoughts (DVD). New Wave DVD and Warner Home Entertainment.
- Lowry, pp.121–122
- Edwards, p.71
- Goldman, p.94
- Edwards, p.45
- "Star Trek Database". Startrek.com. Retrieved 2010-08-29.
- "Star Trek - Deep Space Nine, Episode 19: Duet". Amazon.com. Retrieved 2010-08-29.
- "News & Reviews: - Breaking Bad: "Fly" Review". Paczkowski.tumblr.com. Retrieved 2011-07-31.
- Murray, Noel (2010-06-13). "Interview with Vince Gilligan". The AV Club. Retrieved 2011-07-31.
- "10 great TV bottle episodes". Den of Geek!. 2012-11-29. Retrieved 2013-04-24.
- Edwards, Ted (1996). X-Files Confidential. Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0-316-21808-1.
- Goldman, Jane (1995). The X-Files Book of the Unexplained Volume I. HarperPrism. ISBN 0-06-168617-4.
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