Audiences yearn to be shocked by a well-written or unexpected twist that can revitalize a stagnant plot or get people talking about a show again. After all, where would series like "Game of Thrones" be without a regular delivery of shocks, twists, and upsets? In science fiction — a genre based on the extraordinary — the audience is used to being presented with concepts to broaden the mind, but it’s not above a little shock content if it shakes up and serves the narrative.
Here are some of the absolute best: elegantly orchestrated twists that pulled the space rug from under viewers, leaving them awestruck. With sudden deaths, radical occurrences, unexpected plot tangents, or whip-smart story elements that make you reevaluate everything you’ve just seen, this article will explore some of sci-fi TV’s most surprising moments in detail. If you prefer not to have your twists untwisted, this isn’t the article you’re looking for.
And as you’re still here, it was Earth all along, "Rosebud" was the name of Charles Foster Kane’s sled, and Keyser Söze was Verbal Kint.
Guilty all along — Black Mirror: Shut Up and Dance
As with most anthologies, each episode of "Black Mirror" has a limited time in which to tell a tale. A common element is that the narrative builds towards a twist ending. However, some are better than others, and whereas "Black Mirror" excels at the rug pull, certain episodes stand out for their proficiency in the practice.
"Shut up and Dance" was the third episode from the third season of Charlie Brooker’s technophobic series and is one definitely set in the here and now. There’s no advanced technology at work here, just a realistically told tale of invaded privacy. Extorted for stolen webcam footage of him pleasuring himself, protagonist Kenny (Alex Lawther) is forced to carry out increasingly dangerous and illegal acts. He’s portrayed as a sympathetic character, and the audience encouraged to side with him. It’s only in the final act when the webcam footage is released to the authorities that we realize that Kenny isn’t so innocent after all, as his chosen viewing material is revealed to be children. It’s a brilliant twist that subverts everything that came before it, with the audience suddenly realizing that he got everything that was coming to him.
Reality is better left unknown — Love, Death + Robots: Beyond the Aquila Rift
Based on Alistair Reynolds’ 2005 short story of the same name, "Beyond the Aquila Rift" is the seventh episode of the first season of the popular sci-fi anthology series "Love, Death + Robots." The show’s quality control varies dramatically, but this particular episode not only has an excellent story and looks stunningly beautiful but has an awesome twist you’ll never see coming.
Waking up from cryogenic slumber, the crew of the deep space freighter Blue Goose find themselves docked in a repair station rather than their intended destination. Coincidentally, the repair station houses Greta (Madeleine Knight), an old flame of Capt. Thom (Henry Douthwaite), who explains that their ship had a navigation issue. Thom and his crew begin to find holes in Greta’s tale and suspect that reality is being hidden from them. Thom eventually demands to be shown the truth, and Greta, despite protestations, does exactly that. Thom sees reality as it is: The ship is marooned with countless others in a vast alien hive, and he’s at the edge of death. The Greta-thing, a vast alien life-form, has hidden the truth for the sake of Thom’s sanity. Horrifyingly bleak, it’s a kicker of a twist.
A surprise regeneration? Doctor Who: The Stolen Earth
The nature of modern news means that it’s now impossible to have a surprise Time Lord regeneration. Reporters religiously watch for changes in actors’ schedules and all rumors are broadcast to the world, so the BBC is forced to reveal any new Doctors before it’s done for them. This expected pomp and fanfare comes with the reveal of any new Doctor, which made the cliffhanger ending of "The Stolen Earth" so shocking.
When a long-awaited reunion between David Tennant’s Doctor and his old companion Rose is rudely interrupted by a blast from a Dalek’s gunstick, our trench-coated 10th Timelord is forced to regenerate. As his companions back away from him in the comparative safety of the TARDIS, he’s engulfed in light as the regenerative process begins — and the closing credits kick in.
With the audience screaming "What?!" at their televisions, it’d be a week until the plot would be resolved. Admittedly, it all turned out to be a bit of a red herring, but there’s no denying that even the most cynical of Doctor Who fans suspected the writers had pulled off something of a coup with a surprise regeneration completely out of the blue (box).
The Team, Betrayed — Blake’s 7
There was never going to be a happy conclusion for Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) and his band of plucky rebels, but nobody who stuck through all four series of the 1970s BBC science fiction drama would ever have suspected an ending quite so surprising and dark for the Liberator crew.
A far cry from the optimism of "Star Trek" (and writer Terry Nations’ other work on Doctor Who), the galaxy of "Blake’s 7" was a fascistic dystopia. The team had already seen their fair share of casualties in their ongoing interstellar conflicts against the Terran Federation, the tyrannical rulers of Earth and its colonies. The titular Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas) had long since departed but re-emerged in the final episode, his fate already sealed.
Suspecting that they had been betrayed by their one-time leader, Blake is shot dead by Avon. Federation officers open fire on his team, killing off all of the central characters except for Avon, who finds himself at gunpoint at the episode’s conclusion. Avon raises his gun and smiles, and the sound of gunfire erupts over the closing credits.
A harsh lesson to learn, but sometimes the bad guys win.
Boomer shoots Adama — Battlestar Galactica
The 2004 remake of the classic 1978 series "Battlestar Galactica" contained its fair share of shocking moments such as Tory (Rekha Sharma) callously killing Cally (Nicki Clyne) or the reveal of the final four Cylons. Each would be worthy of this list, but the hallowed position goes to one of the first and biggest shocks the series had to offer.
In the first season finale, Lt. Sharon "Boomer" Valerii (Grace Park) courageously destroys a Cylon Basestar, but discovers that she is a Cylon — an advanced robot who can pass as humans. As Cmdr. William Adama (Edward James Olmos) congratulates her and her co-pilot on a job well done, she pulls a pistol and shoots her commanding officer twice in the chest.
The moment comes from out of nowhere, and the footage goes into slow motion to show the following moments on the bridge — which is just as well because the audience is too busy blankly staring in confounded amazement to pay attention to what’s happening. Adama survived, but like Captain Picard at the end of the first part of "The Best of Both Worlds," his fate going into the next season was a terrifying unknown.
Kanan Jarrus sacrifices himself – Star Wars: Rebels
As any series approaches its conclusion, the risk increases exponentially for any surviving characters. Truth be told, this one still stings. Only spared from the Jedi cull accompanying Order 66 thanks to the brave sacrifice of his master, Jedi Knight Kanan Jarrus suffered further by being blinded by the Darth Maul.
With fellow rebel Hera Syndulla having only just confessed her love for the sight-impaired subversive, a blast from an Empire-targeted fuel pod threatens to engulf all our heroes. Using his Force powers to hold back the blast, his comrades are forced to retreat. In a cruel twist, Kanan’s sight returns in his final moments, giving him one last glance at his love and at his friends before he is incinerated.
Like most Jedi, his legacy would live on. Kanan proved himself as capable in death as he was in life, but it was a shocking sudden end for this particular Jedi. After all their bravery, exploits, and endeavors, Hera and Kanan deserved a peaceful end to their story, but it was not to be.
Denied his last wish — The Twilight Zone: Time Enough at Last
"The Twilight Zone" is such a cultural phenomenon and is so ingrained in the public consciousness that what may sometimes feel like overused tropes turned out to be birthed by this superlative series. As one of the mainstays of anthology television, there’s an entire article to be written solely about the best twists in "The Twilight Zone," but here we’ll concentrate on one of the best that Rod Serling had to offer.
Bookish bank clerk Henry (a pre-Penguin Burgess Meredith) loves to read but is constantly thwarted by the inconveniences of work and his wife. Accidentally trapped in the bank vault, he emerges to find that the world has been destroyed by nuclear war. Eventually succumbing to loneliness and despair, he contemplates suicide before realizing the books in the local public library remain untouched by the bomb. Free of burden, he settles down to read — before his glasses fall from his face. The lenses break, leaving him virtually sightless.
The arcane realms of the "The Twilight Zone" could occasionally dish out well-deserved justice, but it was also no stranger to terrible things happening to nice people. The particular twist here is terribly unfair, and all the more memorable for it.
Time is a Loop — Tales From the Loop
In this limited series based on the stunning sci-fi-meets-’80s nostalgia artwork of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, time (and reality itself, it seems) is fluid. Based in an alternate past of robots, bizarre technology, and astonishing phenomena, it’s a slow-paced setting that revolves around its many twists.
However, one of the most interesting and thought-provoking moments happens in the very first episode. A young girl investigates the disappearance of her house and family and stumbles across a black rock that seems to defy the laws of gravity. As she befriends a young boy, we are introduced to the Loop, a machine that exists at the heart of the town that unlocks the secrets of the universe. When she meets the boy’s mother, the twist reveals a sad reality: Young Loretta has been displaced in time, and the mother is her future self. She’s a paradox that must be resolved.
Like many of the essentially self-contained tales in "Tales from the Loop," it’s a bittersweet and poignant story of acceptance and loss. The twist perfectly defines what the themes of the remainder of the series will be.
Mankind is the product — Electric Dreams: Autofac
Based on Philip K Dick’s 1955 short story, "Autofac" was the eighth part of the 2017 anthology series "Electric Dreams". In a world devastated by war, the Autofac, an automated factory, continues to pollute and churn out products for a civilization that no longer requires them. A band of human survivors (including "Ted Lasso’s" Juno Temple as Emily) aims to strike at the heart of the Autofac bunker and, with the aid of a reprogrammed robot designed for Autofac customer support, find a way of doing just that.
Dick’s work regularly features motifs of self-identity and the evils of capitalism, and "Autofac" is a classic example of those themes. What appears on the surface to be a tale of plucky rebels fighting against an unfeeling oppressor ends up having two killer twists: The rebels are themselves manufactured products of the Autofac, forced to engineer consumers to justify its existence, and Emily is already aware that she is an artificial being modeled after the original human creator of the Autofac.
"Autofac’s" production values never quite match its ambition, but there is no denying the power of its twists.
Bernard was a host all along — Westworld
Michael Crichton’s "Westworld," first adapted for film in 1973, may seem the unlikeliest of properties for a re-imagining, but the 2016 series remains one of TV’s strongest sci-fi offerings. What it lacks in Yul Brynner, it makes up for with storylines that question the very nature of reality and consciousness.
Centered on a futuristic Wild West theme park populated by android hosts, "Westworld" shows the events in the park as well as behind the scenes. Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright from "The Batman") is the head programmer of Delos Incorporated, the corporation running the park. Reserved yet brilliant, Bernard learns at the end of the first season that he is an android modeled after a deceased colleague of Westworld’s park director.
It’s a gut-punch of a twist that requires an actor of Wright’s caliber. As an automaton, he’s forced to carry out violent actions that are an anathema to his gentle personality, and as an audience, we’re completely sympathetic to his plight.
Doctor Manhattan was always here — Watchmen
Based on the 1986 comics and not on the 2009 Zack Snyder movie, the "Watchmen" TV series is set three decades after the events of the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ saga. Set in an alternate present, it examines a world in the aftermath of the machinations of Ozymandias (Jeremy Irons).
Doctor Manhattan, the azure omniscient, has set up residence on Mars, leaving mankind to its own devices. Despite Ozymandias’ well-intentioned false flag attack from 34 years previous, the world is far from at peace. It’s a chaotic maelstrom of rogue heroes and white supremacy. Angela (Regina King), aka Sister Night, is the protagonist and becomes embroiled in investigations into a plot to kidnap ex-Minuteman Doctor Manhattan. It’s only towards the end of the story that she realizes he’s been on Earth all this time, masquerading as her husband, Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), as much to his surprise as anybody else’s. In an unpredictable show packed with shocks, it’s a doozy.
Sam returns to1973 — Life on Mars
If there’s ever a /Film article on terrible endings, it’d be a cardinal sin not to include the finale of the US version of "Life on Mars". However, we’ll be discussing the superior UK version here.
The truth is eventually revealed in the final episode of the spin-off series, "Ashes to Ashes," but TV audiences were left on tenterhooks about Detective Sam Tyler’s fate. Waking up in 1973 after a car accident, Sam finds himself working in the department of Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt. The polar opposite of Sam, Hunt is brash, abrasive, and narcissistic. Eventually realizing he was in a coma, Sam seeks a way to escape and return to 2006.
He achieves this, leaving Gene and the team in the middle of a deadly ambush. Sam finds himself alienated and struggling to readjust to modern society. As the closing credits approach, Sam returns to 1973 in the only way he can: by leaping from the roof of the police station. It is an abrupt and shocking, yet poignant, end to two seasons of cop drama. Nevertheless, the well-loved characters may well live on in another proposed spin-off.
Walter was the bad guy all along — Jupiter’s Legacy
It may not have come as a surprise to fans of the Mark Millar comic (and might not have been watched by as many people as Netflix would have liked), but the revelation that Brainwave (Ben Daniels), aka Walter Sampson) was the Machiavellian mastermind behind the plot to dismantle The Union, the Justice League analog in this short-lived TV series.
This time-hopping tale of generations of superheroes and their ongoing legacy didn’t capture audiences’ imaginations. It struggled to find its voice in a market saturated with superheroes. Still, Ben Daniels’ Walter Sampson stood out as a fascinating character, so it came as somewhat of a shock to see the lengths he would go to preserve the secrecy of his plan — even going as far as killing his daughter, Raikou (Anna Akana).
Outside of the comic books, which take a slightly different tack, we’ll more than likely never know how the story continues, but the great twist makes for an effective finale.
A scarecrow could change everything — The Outer Limits: The Architects of Fear
The entire plot of this first season episode of the superlative 1963 science fiction anthology is the rug-pull from "Watchmen." With the world under threat of nuclear destruction, a secretive cabal seek to engineer a fake threat from outer space to unite humanity.
Robert Culp’s cabal member, Allen, is randomly picked to be their scarecrow, undergoing extensive surgery to completely transform him into a convincing alien. Hoping to focus humankind’s priorities away from fighting each other, he will be the vanguard of a fake alien invasion.
Despite dated creature effects, it’s an effective body horror, elements of which were too scary for certain audiences. For a show in which twists were often heavy-handed, the one here is effective and subtle. The plan ultimately fails with alien Allen landing off course, being shot by hunters, and returning to the lab where he confronts his distraught wife, who believes him to be dead. The twist here is, was it necessary? If there are people like Allen willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, won’t there be more like him to make a better world? It’s a powerful and resonant message that remains relevant today.