Reset button technique
|This article needs additional citations for verification. (December 2009)|
The reset button technique (based on the idea of status quo ante) is a plot device that interrupts continuity in works of fiction. Simply put, use of a reset button device returns all characters and situations to the status quo they held before a major change of some sort was introduced. Typically it occurs either in the middle of a program and negates a portion of it, or it occurs at the beginning, or very end, of a program to negate all that came before it. Often used in science fiction television series, animated series, soap operas, and comic books, the device allows elaborate and dramatic changes to characters and the fictional universe that might otherwise invalidate the premise of the show with respect to future episodes or issues continuity. Writers may, for example, use the technique to allow the audience to experience the death of the lead character, which traditionally would not be possible without effectively ending the work.
When this device is used in shows that do not use it regularly, its effective use depends on the audience being unaware of the continuity status until the moment when the intention to use the reset button technique is made clear. This requires the show to cause successful suspension of disbelief in the audience while introducing plot developments that would seriously alter the future of the show, without revealing that continuity is or will be interrupted. It is frequently employed as a plot twist that effectively undoes all the happenings of the episode. Common uses of this technique draw liberally from science fiction and metaphysical ideas, perhaps contributing to its widespread use in those genres.
Examples of the reset button technique include dream sequences, alternate-history flashbacks, parallel universes, "alternate realities", "alternate timelines", daydreams, time travel, and hallucinations. In one trope that uses this technique (typically in science fiction or fantasy), a character will find himself in a situation that seems familiar, but during the episode some things seem odd. Then one or more major events happen, such as a lead character having a significantly different position or dying. By the end of the episode or story arc the character learns they have been placed in a copy of their normal surroundings, usually to try to obtain information from them, and the mastermind behind the plan made a few mistakes in fashioning the copy environment.
Perhaps the most infamous example of the reset button technique is the 1986 season premiere of Dallas in which it is revealed that Bobby Ewing's death in the previous season was merely a dream in the mind of one of the characters. This was parodied in the "Y2K" episode of Family Guy. Also in the Spider-Man storyline Spider-Man: One More Day, the decision of suddenly finishing the marriage of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson was heavily criticized due to the continuity issues, some critics even comparing it to Dallas.
In many series the reset button trope is used as a standard, and frequently explicit, plot device. For instance, the CBBC television series Hounded features a literal version of the reset button technique. At the end of each episode, having been foiled by Rufus Hound, the evil Dr. Muhahahaha presses an actual "reset button" that rewinds the entire day's events back to the beginning. As such, every episode of the series is in fact the same day, only played out differently, a situation Rufus himself is aware of and repeatedly attempts to prevent.
However, more implicit usage of the technique can be seen in episodic fiction, such as when the results of episodes regularly cause irreparable harm to the continuity (such as massive destruction, death, imprisonment, or other calamity); examples of an episodic series that uses the reset button technique after almost every episode are the American series SpongeBob SquarePants and South Park, which features frequent major events that would otherwise alter the nature of the series if they were to be allowed to stand, only to have said events effectively erased in the next episode as if they had never happened.
In this manner the technique is common in American cartoons aimed at adult audiences such as Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and the majority of the episodes in The Simpsons, where it is simply understood that the events of any given show will not impact the next episode, allowing for main characters to be killed and resurrected as well as important set pieces destroyed and repaired without explanation. Live action shows also use the technique in this manner, as in the science fiction show Red Dwarf which also frequently uses this technique, often ending episodes on a major change and never addressing them again. These shows also frequently use self-referential humor in pointing out their use of the reset button technique, often by offhandedly mentioning that someone should not be alive or that something or someone should be severely different, before shrugging off the observation.
In many episodic shows sudden changes to a character's past or attributes are not actually examples of the reset button technique, but merely a lack of continuity. For instance, in early episodes of the popular Fox TV show House Dr. Wilson's character was explicitly stated to be Jewish. However, in later episodes it was implied that he was not, such as in the episode "The Social Contract" when House tells Dr. Taub that he cannot hope to compete at racquetball against Dr. Wilson because "Wilson played tennis on his college team. And you are a Jew, you're not athletic."
In many adventure oriented series, the characters are defined essentially by what they do and encounter in the course of their adventures. Character development is kept to a bare minimum in favor of action and adventure. In some long-running series, characters do not appear to age, but are instead revised to fit the times. Examples of this include cartoon characters such as Scooby Doo, series movie characters such as James Bond, anime such as Lupin III, and serial novel characters such as Mack Bolan and Nancy Drew.
Simple failure to maintain continuity is not use of the reset button technique, although in some cases such a failure can be considered a reboot. For instance, when the Superman movies came out in the 1970s, the screenwriters largely ignored the decades-long comic book storyline and frequently contradicted previous "facts". For example, in the comic books, Krypton, Superman's home planet, had a climate similar to ours, but in the movie series it had an icy climate.