The Writers' Room

That Guy Just Turned Into a Puppet!


I finished the last season Angel yesterday, concluding my marathon run of the entire series. I haven’t finished forming my opinion on the series, but it did provide me some excellent mulling fodder. In season five, there was an episode called “Smile Time,” in which David Boreanaz’s Angel is turned into an off-brand Muppet. Obviously, many scenes are played for laughs, but this is the first time I’ve seen the “turned-into-a-puppet” trope used to extort anything other than mere chuckles. Today, I want to examine this trope, see how three very different series used it for varied effects, and gauge how those effects stack up against one another. People being turned into puppets isn’t as overused a television trope as, say, someone becoming invisible, or everyone getting amnesia, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth our attention. Besides, I’ll get to invisibility and amnesia later on down the road, so don’t you fret.

These are, obviously, not the only three examples of humans seen or trapped in puppet form. Ventriloquist dummies are often used in this ilk; the best examples of this stem from Buffy The Vampire Slayer (“The Puppet Show,”) and The Twilight Zone (“The Dummy”). I do see a difference between people becoming puppets and people imbuing dummies, and it’s because dummies are terrifying. This is thanks to the afore-mentioned Twilight Zone episode, which has forever colored dummies in a liable-to-possess light. While puppets and dummies are both toys moved and voiced by humans, it’s much simpler to ignore the human component of a Muppet or marionette. Dummies are irrecoverably tied to their ventriloquist. The three puppet episodes that follow all benefit from taking the human controller out of the equation, considering them as little as possible to let the innate puppet-ness take center stage.

Stargate, “200”

“200” is not an episode to be taken seriously. The SG-1 team is ostensibly helping Martin Lloyd enhance the verisimilitude of his Wormhole X-Treme movie script, but the plot is just a vehicle for forty-five minutes’ worth of self-parodying, meta vignettes. The lighthearted, celebratory tone stems from the episode’s stance as Stargate SG-1‘s 200th.

The puppets are used in “200” as a joke, a preposterous suggestion of how a filmed version of Stargate could be realized with marionettes. This sequence is one of the longest vignettes in the episode, and retells the origins of the Stargate franchise. The dialogue is thick with self-referential jokes, acknowledging logical flaws in the series’ storytelling and plotlines.

Puppets are not here used to further the storyline, as the storyline in “200” is not one to really be furthered. This sequence is fun and funny, and exists just for that purpose. There is no real greater message here, unless one wants to extrapolate how we’re all really puppets, or actors are merely puppets, or what have you. I don’t want to do that, I just want to laugh richly, like the little Teal’c puppet, and enjoy science fiction poking fun at itself.

30 Rock, “Apollo, Apollo”

I know. 30 Rock is not a sci-fi or fantasy show. If Star Wars-loving Liz Lemon had her way, though, it probably would be, so I’m rolling with it.

The puppets here are genuine Muppets, which is frankly part of what makes it exciting. The use of puppetry in this scene is not integral to the plot, but is rather used to supplement a running joke in the episode reflecting how everyone sees the world differently. This is a much more creative use of puppetry than featured in Stargate, as the Muppets are used to expand upon our understanding of a character, however humorously that expansion is treated. There are dozens of ways to show the audience that Kenneth sees the world through such innocent eyes; the one 30 Rock uses is inventive in the extreme.

The greater relevance of this scene is arguable. I’m for character development wherever I can get it, and consider this one of the most creative methods of revealing a character foible I’ve ever seen. I also recognize that it’s twenty seconds worth of puppetry not exactly furthering the plot, and so understand its unnecessary nature. Still, I did a genuine spit take when this aired, and would gladly clean Diet Coke off my coffee table every day if television could keep surprising me this much.

Angel, “Smile Time”

This is it, the episode-long oddly twisted puppet alchemy that made me realize that person-to-puppet might very well be a television trope. Every scene involving a puppet is obviously meant to be funny, but when you take a mental step back to survey the entire picture, those puppets become as creepy as ventriloquists’ dummies.

The puppets themselves are the Big Bad in this episode, using their prominent children’s television show Smile Time to drain the lifeforce out of their juvenile audience. In the course of his investigations, Angel himself is transformed into a puppet. Turns out, he’s not the only human-as-puppet: Smile Time‘s creator, Gregor Framkin, also has a hand up his back. Far from being a little lifeless toy, though, Framkin’s puppet hole is in his still-breathing human body, carved into his torso. The parallel between the two men is consistent with Angel‘s balance of the comedic and the creepy, and is emblematic of “Smile Time” as a whole.

Angel walks an exceptionally fine line with “Smile Time,” and winds up with something pretty astonishing. It’s funny to watch Puppet Angel scowl so hard he nearly swallows his own felty face, or to watch him try to beat the tar out of Spike, despite being so tiny in comparison:

Once the initial humorous shock of seeing Puppet Angel wears off, though, his altered appearance seems to fit in the universe of Angel. With the audience in hand, the show is then able to proceed with the dark and decently-creepy plot. This may say something to the balanced tone the show has previously established, but I think it speaks to their committing to the puppetry as well. If the show were overly tongue-in-cheek about this comical development, the plot wouldn’t be able to follow the show’s established MO of dealing seriously with its darkly-intentioned antagonists. As the show takes the puppet somewhat seriously, “Smile Time” is able to hold its own against Angel‘s more realistic episodes.

The verdict: Stargate‘s puppets were the most purely comedic escape. 30 Rock‘s use of Muppets took people-as-puppets one step further, using it to inform our understanding of a central character. This use was far and away the most inventive and surprising. Angel took the trope further than it could have likely gone on any other show, to thoughtful effect. Replacing a program’s human lead with a puppet for an entire episode is a risky move, but Angel managed to make the puppet transformation seem real and, if not viable, then understandable in the universe of the show.

If it comes down to the puppets themselves, though, I’m not sure who wins: Alec Baldwin Muppet is pretty debonair, but you can’t beat the David Boreanaz puppet scowl. It’s a tough call.

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