The ‘body-swap’ episode has long been a staple of science-fiction and fantasy television. Whether the swap happens completely by accident, or is the result of a wish or a curse, and whether it is set in motion by advanced scientific method or by some kind of magic, you can be (almost) sure that the body-swappers will have learnt a valuable lesson by the time that they are reunited with their own flesh. We asked our writers to pick their favourite body-swap episodes, and these are what they came up with.
Doctor Who – ‘New Earth’
When it comes to body swap episodes in TV shows, they tend to be played either deadly serious and straight, or camp and humorous (unless you happen to be Star Trek‘s ‘Turnabout Intruder’, in which Captain Kirk gets taken over by a woman, and it ends up straddling both categories). Doctor Who‘s ‘New Earth’ definitely falls firmly into the latter, giving both David Tennant and Billie Piper a chance to show off their comedy chops.
The Doctor and Rose take a trip into the far flung future of humanity (the year 5,000,000,023, to be precise) and visit New Earth. However, an old adversary lurks beneath a hospital in New New York – the Lady Cassandra O’Brien.Δ17 – who has designs on Rose’s body, and tricks her into a psychograft, which enables Cassandra to take her over. Once the Doctor rumbles what has happened, Cassandra jumps bodies from Rose, switching back and forth, as well as possessing the body of a plague victim, and her manservant Chip.
Tennant and Piper both do a magnificent job in putting by their own spins on Zoë Wanamaker’s performance as Cassandra, taking on her haughty, aloof aristocratic demeanour, but managing to wring out every last laugh, with the humour coming from the ‘fish out of water’ scenarios. Piper’s horrified cry at Cassandra calling herself a ‘Chav’ when she takes over Rose is a highlight, as is Tennant’s massively campy turn when Cassandra leaps into the Doctor for a time. However, the episode also manages to do a perfect gear change, and use the body swapping for moments of pure pathos at the story’s climax, involving a trip back into Lady Cassandra’s past. – Lee Thacker
The X-Files – ‘Dreamland’
We waited six seasons for The X-Files to make the trip to Area 51, and when it did, it ended up being a comedy in the shape of ‘Dreamland’. Fitting in brilliantly with the series’ more light-hearted tone in its sixth season, not only did Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully’s (Gillian Anderson) trip to Nevada come with jokes, it did so with added Michael McKean as Morris Fletcher, who ends up swapping bodies with Mulder.
The jokes come thick and fast throughout this two-parter, with the particular highlights being a tribute to Duck Soup’s mirror gag, involving Duchovny on one side and McKean on the other, along with some lovely comedy of exasperation from Gillian Anderson, as Scully struggles to come to terms with Fletcher as Mulder taking over her partner’s life and becoming AD Kersh’s golden agent. The ending taking back time and the characters’ life lessons does threaten to lose it some points, but when the jokes are this funny it’s hard to complain too much. – Eamon Hennedy
Supernatural – ‘Swap Meat’
Despite being on the air since 2005, and now in its fourteenth season, Supernatural has never done the body swap episode that a lot of fans would like to see – one that would have Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles) swap bodies. The closest they got to such an event was in the season five episode ‘Swap Meat’, in which they meet teenage witch Gary (Colton James).
Gary was a very much stereotypical nerd, complete with allergies, who decided to dabble in witchcraft along with his friends Trevor (Alex Arsenault) and Nora (Sarah Drew). After finding out that demons had put a hefty reward price on Dean’s head, Gary enacted a plan to cash in on this which is how the body swap came about. There is lots of humour in this episode as the inexperienced Gary navigates pretending to be Sam Winchester, and it’s no surprise that Dean works out that something’s up fairly quickly. We also have to see Sam enduring Gary’s crappy life, at home and at school. The young witches learn the hard way that demons can’t be trusted, with Trevor dying in the process, and after a death threat from Dean, Gary gives up witchcraft for good. – Helen Balls
Community – ‘Basic Human Anatomy’
Troy and Abed in the mo..vie parody! The ever-meta Community, which often manages to twist several parodies into a single episode, goes full-on Freaky Friday by having Troy (Donald Glover) gift best-bud Abed (Danny Pudi) a stack of body-switching movies and then wish to swap bodies just for the day… which obviously doesn’t work, because body-switching isn’t a real thing. But then Troy wakes up the next morning and realises that he’s actually Abed and things get a little weird.
The complex friendship between trying to be too-cool-for-school Troy and possibly autistic Abed is one of the joys of Community, and the pair are often engaged in child-like games of make-believe together. It’s usually Abed who initiates these fantasies, often as a coping mechanism when he is having trouble processing his emotions. But this time it’s Troy, unable to handle the pressure of his relationship with Britta (Gillian Jacobs) who starts the ‘bit’, drawing Abed in and leaving him to deal with what should have been an anniversary dinner with Britta. There’s also a secondary body-swapping plot with the Dean (Jim Rash) deciding that Jeff (Joel McHale) is inside him…
‘Basic Human Anatomy’ manages to pack almost constant laughs into its 21 minutes, as well as more than a few ‘Aaw!’ moments, because Troy and Abed are just freaking adorable together. – Wendy Attwell
The Prisoner – ‘Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling’
Borne out of a need to free up its leading man temporarily for another job, ‘Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling’ uses the ‘body swap’ concept to break with the standard format of The Prisoner, and give us more of an insight into the life of Number Six before he resigned and was brought to The Village.
Patrick McGoohan had committed to go to America and feature in Ice Station Zebra, alongside Rock Hudson and Ernest Borgnine, so the production team on The Prisoner needed to find a way to still carry on with the production of the series while the leading man was off working overseas. As the show had already dealt with a number of different science fiction ideas and concepts, using a mind transfer was a logical step, meaning that Number Six could be played by a different actor for most of the episode.
The unnamed powers behind The Village are looking for a Professor Seltzman, who developed a device to transfer a person’s mind into the body of another, but he has gone to ground. Knowing that Number Six knew Seltzman before he resigned, they use the device on him and send him back to his old stamping ground, so that he can track Seltzman down and bring him back to The Village to reverse the process, and they can then use him to their own ends.
The episode still avoids revealing Number Six’s real name or identity, although it is made clear he works in espionage, and we get to see not only his old employer, but also the fiancée he was about to marry before he was abducted. McGoohan is still in evidence throughout the episode by the use of voiceovers, but it is an interesting exercise to see another actor – Nigel Stock – try to capture the unique mannerisms and style of McGoohan, without aping him or doing an impersonation. All in all, it was an interesting diversion while the series built towards its controversial finale. – Lee Thacker
Do you have a favourite body-swap episode of TV? Let us know in the comments.