...And this was the survivor.
"Harry, your odds of catastrophic failure in this situation is... 120%? That, that can't be right. Oh, wait, I see. It's says 'Complete certainty Harry will die in the stasis unit, plus another one in five chance it'll decapitate him while he tries to climb inside.'"
— SF Debris
lampshades this trope, which the Voyager
episode surprisingly averts.
For such an advanced technology, cryonics
is subject to a surprisingly high failure rate. Whenever our far-future heroes discover some long-forgotten set of Human Popsicles
, at least one of them is inevitably dead or otherwise can't be revived. (Mainly so they can give a good skeleton scare
In some cases, this is practically a "cherry popsicle" in that a great number of the unrecoverables are insignificant
to the story.
This might be an example of Truth in Television
, though, given the real-life uncertainty of the process. For the situation when someone is frozen and then deliberately smashed to pieces, see Literally Shattered Lives
As a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.
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Anime & Manga
- Three members of the Winter Team in 7 Seeds were mummified alive during the thousands of years they were supposed to be in cold sleep.
- In the far-future chapter of Osamu Tezuka's Phoenix epic, the main character who has survived a nuclear apocalypse and granted immortality by a god stumbles upon a stasis chamber that is slated to open 10,000 years hence, and waits for it to open so that he will have someone to talk to. When the chamber finally opens, he finds... dust.
- In Saint Seiya, Frog Zelos barely survives being turned into a Human Popsicle by Hyoga, but as he tries to move his frozen feet break and his body falls to the floor, completely shattering.
- In one Fairy Tail arc, the Big Bad, a former training partner of Gray, was trying to Unseal the Sealed Evil in a Can their master sacrificed herself to freeze, in order to surpass her by destroying it. He succeeds in thawing the monster, only to find that over a decade as a Human Popsicle isn't conducive to Demon health either.
- In one of the many side-stories of Legend of Galactic Heroes, a defecting Imperial nobleman and his family attempt to escape into Alliance territory through an escape stasis raft. Unfortunately, nearly everyone was found by Kircheis to have died mid-procedure, with only the nobleman's daughter left alive.
- In the Worlds of Aldebaran comics, all but two of the population of the Copernicus died while in cryo-stasis. This was because of a biological computer virus, however.
- Orolin in ElfQuest, the Guider of the High Ones' Palace-ship, was in stasis inside Preserver webbing when it crash-landed on the World of Two Moons. When his sole surviving crewmate Timmain returns to the Palace 10,000 years later she discovers that the webbing was torn during the crash and Orolin never woke up.
- In the EC Comics story "50 Girls 50," people on a long space voyage are kept in Human Popsicle condition through a process nobody can survive twice.
Films — Live-Action
- The first Planet of the Apes movie. The astronauts awaken to find that their fourth companion and only female, Stewart (who wasn't in the book anyway), has died (Stuffed Out of the Fridge?). This one they can't blame on those "damn dirty apes".
- The Alien series.
- In Aliens, this was as an intentional part of Burke's plan to ensure that there'd be no Marines to tattle on him bringing Ripley back Alien-infected.
Riplay: He figured he could get an alien back through quarantine if one of us was... impregnated, of whatever you call it... then frozen for the trip home. Nobody would know about the embryos we were carrying; me and Newt.
Hicks: No, wait a minute, we'd all know.
Ripley: Yes, the only way he'd be able to do it is if he sabotaged certain freezers on the way home, namely yours. Then he could jettison the bodies and make up any story he liked.
Hudson: You're dead... you're dog meat, pal!
- In the first few minutes of Alien³, an alien egg hatches, and the facehugger that comes out of it attacks the cryogenic pods that Ripley and the others are hybernating in. The ship transports the pods to an escape pod, which then crashes on the planet below.
- Presumably, a lot of the occupants of the cryo-prison destroyed in the final battle of the movie Demolition Man had their sentences extended permanently, with no hope of parole. It's certainly what happened to Simon Phoenix, courtesy of John Spartan's boot.
- In the first minutes of Pitch Black, a lot of people die in their universe's version of cryo-sleep because some small meteorites crash through the ship and puncture the devices.
- Pandorum's plot features this plus numerous fates worse than splat, even those who survive come out with partial amnesia and in many cases psychosis. Horrifically averted in the case of the Eden disaster, where the hibernation capsules worked perfectly and awoke their occupants with no problems whatsoever... at least, until the occupants discovered that a psychotic crewmember had ejected them all into deep space.
- Supernova does this to its captain. Note that they're not frozen during the jump — they are put into separate chambers and get naked in order to prevent their flesh from being fused with foreign objects. Unfortunately, it's not perfect, and the captain is fused with the glass from the chamber itself. At the end, due to the Big Bad smashing all but one of the chambers, the two protagonists end up jumping in the same chamber to escape the title event. Some genetic material ends up being exchanged, and they end up with mismatched eyes; oh, and the chick is pregnant.
- In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the astronauts other than Poole and Bowman were intentionally killed by HAL forcing a malfunction in the coldsleep system, when trying to follow conflicting orders.
- Two-thirds of the Mayflower passengers died during the trip in Remnants. The technology was incredibly experimental; Jobs' immediate response to being told they would be going into hibernation was to point out that most of the subjects died during its most recent testing on monkeys. It explains how they died in graphic detail. Some of them were wiped out by micrometeorite punctures, some devoured from within by parasitic worms, some, the machinery just failed over the 500-year cryosleep, so they died of old age in their sleep. They refer to the micrometeor one as being "cheesed". And that's not even counting what happened to the woman who was pregnant, or the boy who remained conscious.
- Used in an especially horrific example in the Red Dwarf book Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers, where every stasis tube on a ship has been broken, killing their inhabitants, except one. This half broken tube causes the bottom half of a man's body to decompose over thousands of years, while his top half remains alive. Upon being revived, he screams for two minutes straight then dies of shock.
- Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn novel Xenos opens with a large-scale one. A villain caused the problem to massacre large portions of the upper-class of the planet by having them revive without the medical assistance they needed.
- A magical version of this occurs in the later Black Company novels, when some of the characters are trapped in magical stasis. Disturbing the magic killed some of them, and the first efforts at revivification were fatal for a few of the Mauve Shirts.
- In a Young Adult novel called The Starlight Crystal, the heroine's spacecraft comes across another satellite orbiting the Earth, filled with people in cold sleep. Only two of the frozen people are long dead, one of which is the heroine's boyfriend. The other is the heroine's future self, who deliberately caused both cold sleep chambers to malfunction.
- In The Eyes of Light and Darkness, some frozen people remain conscious during the journeys (which can result in them being conscious but frozen for hundreds of years). Needless to say, many humans ended up losing their minds. The colonization project went awry because of that. Fortunately, the humans found some intelligent aliens at their destination, but those aliens were also nuts. Being frozen long enough also causes death.
- In Harry Turtledove's Homeward Bound, one of the humans doesn't survive the roughly 10-lightyear journey to the aliens' home planet. This makes things interesting for about 5 minutes since he was the head diplomat (also because he was Henry Kissinger, even though the text doesn't outright say it).
- In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Slartibartfast complains that the cleaning staff didn't freeze so well... leaving nobody to clean up the bodies.
- Andre Norton uses "cold sleep" in The Stars Are Ours as a way for a remnant of fugitive scientists and their families to flee a dystopic Earth for what they hope will be a fresh start on another planet. Some of them don't make it.
- A non-lethal but still devastating Cryonics Failure takes place in Philip K. Dick's short story "I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon". An off-world colonist is woken up from cryonic slumber, but is still immobile. The sentient ship tries to keep him sane by putting him back in happy memories. Trouble is, he carries so much guilt and anxiety, no memory will stay happy. By the time he gets there, his mind is still pretty much shot.
- In Oryx and Crake, Snowman is living After the End. At one point, he walks by an old cryogenics facility and comments that everyone who was frozen died when the power went out. Assuming they were alive to begin with; it's strongly implied earlier in the book that the entire company was a scam preying on desperate rich people.
- Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga:
- Cryogenics is a pretty mature technology, but when people are frozen under emergency conditions in the field, there is a high risk of them suffering some brain damage, or memory loss. People frozen under controlled circumstances in hospitals have a much better chance of making a full recovery.
- In the novel Cryoburn it turns out that a particular brand of cryo-fluid — used to replace the frozen person's blood — used several decades earlier was not stable for more than about 30 years, and anyone who was frozen using it is now Deader than Dead, leading to billions of dollars in liabilities for the cryogenics companies who had been using it, so they're covering it up.
- In Andrey Livadny's The Third Race, a female astronaut awakens from cryo-sleep on a deep space sublight ship to find the rest of the pods empty, which is strange since the ship has two crews, one of which is usually frozen while the other works until they change shifts. She soon finds that the entire crew has been replaced with droids by the ship's AI, whose negligence allowed a meteorite to hit the ship, killing all on-board but her. It can be assumed that the rest of the pods were damaged, but the bodies were cleaned up to maintain the ruse.
- In Across the Universe, a murderer starts pulling the plug on cryogenic pods aboard the spaceship Godspeed. Main character Amy survives, though she wakes up many decades before she was supposed to; several other human popsicles aren't so lucky.
- In one of S.P. Somtow's Inquestor novels, there's mention of some human colonists who were travelling in time stasis. Unfortunately the device malfunctioned, causing some of them to become irreversibly frozen, so they're now used as ornaments.
- Beyond The Aquila Rift by Alastair Reynolds has the cryogenic pods of the crew fail during a two hundred year long Blind Jump because they had decorated the interior of the pods with paint; the pods filtration system became clogged and jammed, killing the occupants.
- The Depths of Time by Roger MacBride Allen - A small amount of cryogenically preserved passengers die when coming out of stasis; the longer the voyage, the more likely they die when coming out.
- Greg Bear's Hull Zero Three - all but one of the Destination Guidance team were dead and decomposed in their cryonics pods. It is also heavily implied that the 'biogenerators' [Teacher/Sanjay invents this term to describe the birthing systems] are not supposed to be functioning - they are supposed to create Factors on arrival to prepare the target planet, or in the event that the sleeping crew were killed, birth a new one. Even if there was still part of the original crew in the Hulls, they are dead after Destination Guidance shut off fuel transfer to the Hulls' engines, and for Hull Zero Two it was practically guaranteed when it was gutted by meteorites.
- Zig-zagged and discussed in the same scene in Richard Morgan's Black Man. The investigation of a spacecraft's crash-landing that apparently was indirectly caused by cryonic shenanigans brings the characters to discuss the current state of cryonics and the various malfunctions that could happen to people in suspension due to them. The playing straight? Someone did mess with the cryosleep pods on the ship. The aversion? They didn't do it to kill the inhabitants, just to use them as a refrigerator for snacks.
- In Orson Scott Card's Worthing Saga, the title character Jason Worthing is a space pilot in a society that uses cryonics for colonization. He is attacked as he approaches his target, and not only are some of the colonists killed, but the remainder all have their personalities, which have to be stored on hard disk prior to cryo, wiped—leaving Jason the task of singlehandedly raising 99 adult-sized kids. (Oh, and the one guy whose personality did survive? Jason's Arch-Enemy.)
- In William Barton and Michael Capobianco's Alpha Centauri one of the expedition, Sheba Zvi, died in stasis. When it turns out that Mies Cochrane is intentionally infecting the women on board with a sexually transmitted Sterility Plague and that he infected Sheba before they left the others suspect his autoviroids were responsible.
- The Blake's 7 episode "Time Squad": of four programmed guardians in a capsule carrying them and genetic stock, three survived stasis.
- Star Trek adores this trope:
- The Deep Space Nine episode "Empok Nor", where one of the popsicles would have survived, had part of the station not collapsed through his pod.
- The Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Space Seed". The Enterprise finds a ship with a cargo of 84 humans, 72 of whom are still alive, in suspended animation.
- Repeated in Star Trek: The Next Generation's "The Neutral Zone", complete with skeleton scare. (There were dozens on board... only three lived, and that was in the sense of being revivable by mid-24th century Federation medical science. It is noted they would have been regarded as dead by the medical science at the time of their freezing)
- Star Trek: Voyager, never being one to let a good trope pass them by, had two:
- "Dragon's Teeth". An ancient race of warriors went into suspended animation to avoid destruction when every nearby race showed up and carpetbombed their planet from orbit (they deserved it).
- "The Thaw". Some aliens went into suspended animation deep inside their planet to avoid the radiation created by solar flare. When Voyager showed up, two of them were splatted, despite all evidence showing that the pod they were in was in perfect order. It turns out that the occupants were being held hostage by a computer program that manifested from their subconscious fear of being frozen and was now preventing them from leaving, killing any dissenters by scaring them to death.
- The Babylon 5 episode "The Long Dark". In this case the tech worked, but an alien showed up and ate one of the two.
- Showed up in an episode of The Twilight Zone where four people put themselves in suspended animation with a special gas — three of them made it, one didn't, due to a falling rock breaking his apparatus. Rod Serling, who wrote the episode, also co-wrote The first Planet of the Apes movie in which something very similar happens (no falling rock, but the glass is cracked). See the Films folder above.
- Parodied in the NewsRadio episode Space, where the entire station (save Matthew and Bill) have to go into cryogenics to avoid a disaster. Then Matthew trips over the power cord...
- In an episode of The X-Files, a man's brain is put on ice and he dies anyway when an enemy of his sabotages his cryo-thing so that the temperature rises too high.
- Davros turned Human Popsicles he deemed worthy into Daleks in the Doctor Who serial Revelation of the Daleks. The rest he turned into Human Resources.
- Parodied in a Mitchell and Webb sketch: In the future, a popular edition of Big Brother or a similar Reality Show features only contestants who chose to be cryogenically frozen after death and have been brought back... only because they were all dead, they're just gray-skinned reanimated corpses clumsily staggering around trying to perform simple tasks with their stiff limbs.
- Stargate SG-1 has an example where the team finds a crashed sleeper ship where one of the crew had downloaded the consciousnesses of six others who didn't make it into his brain. He put six more in Daniel before the rest of the team caught him and offered him a naquahdah reactor to wake up the survivors in exchange for transferring Daniel's extra personalities to himself.
- In the pilot of Better Off Ted Phil was cryogenically frozen, initially planned for a year but while moving his tube to the basement he thawed out. He survived but started randomly shrieking in the same pose he was frozen in. As he was freezing his co-workers started betting on whether his eyeballs would explode.
- The BBC's interstellar drama Earthsearch mainly takes place aboard a starship, with a depleted human crew of four versus two psychopathic computers. In one episode a scheming warlord tries to blackmail the computers into letting him join the crew: he hides a military robot on board that's programmed to activate if his life signs fail. He thinks this is perfect insurance against the computers killing him by sabotaging his cryosleep pod. He's wrong.
- In the Traveller RPG, cold-sleep tubes, common on most ships for "Low Passage", have a certain chance of failure. Passengers in low passage often place bets on how many of them will survive the trip. The captain gets the winnings if the winner was one of the deceased.
- Mega Man Zero: Almost happened to Zero, despite being a robot. Damaged nearly beyond repair by prolonged exposure to the elements after the lab he was being stored in caved in due to a century or so of neglect & only brought back to life with the power of a semi-mystical electrical fairy. In a later game in the series we see a similar facility with some others who weren't so lucky.
- In one area in Fallout 2 you can actually stumble upon, and unfreeze, a soldier put into hibernation shortly before the nukes fell. He thanks you, tells you his story and melts into a pile of goo. The game tells you he "suffers from post-cryogenic syndrome".
- In the Fallout 3 add-on "Mothership Zeta", you unfreeze a group of people from various eras because one of them has a space suit and someone needs to go outside the ship. Unfortunately, the astronaut died at some point and so you have to take his spacesuit for yourself.
- There are also two soldiers who die shortly after being defrosted, possibly due to being experimented on.
- Mass Effect
- Done deliberately: the Protheans on Ilos froze themselves until the Reapers disappeared. While waiting, as the power became insufficient to keep the entire team alive, the overseeing computer starting disabling life support, starting with the least essential personnel, and working its way up the ranks until all but the most critical scientists were dead. Even they were in danger of being splatted when it finally became safe for the computer to wake them up. Unfortunately, by that point there were too few of them to repopulate the species.
- A similar fate befell the Prothean division on Eden Prime, as shown in Mass Effect 3: From Ashes. In this case, there was only one survivor, who is eventually revived by Shepard.
- In BlazBlue, Jin is said to have frozen Bang's master to death. In gameplay, his various ice powers culminate in his Astral Heat, where a successful use results in the enemy being frozen in a giant block of ice that shatters to let their corpse fall out.
- Space Quest 5 features a two-part puzzle where you had to freeze a character in a cryonic chamber and later unfreeze her. Failure to read the instructions fully before doing so could result in under/over-freezing her in the first part and under/over-thawing her in the second. Any of these alternatives would lead to Game Over due to a Stable Time Loop (she is to become the mother of Roger's son who will go back in time to save Roger). Opening the chamber before thawing her makes the game unwinnable, as the game does not allow the chamber to be closed after that. Clicking on it results in Roger picking up the frozen Beatrice, at which point she breaks into ice cubes.
- In Darkstar (the game with all the MST3K alumni), this happens to one of the crew members. Even worse, someone cut off his hand.
- Portal 2
- The game opens with a scene in which the protagonist wakes up after an unusually long period of hibernation in the Aperture Science Extended Relaxation Vault. During the escape, your AI companion explains that you are the sole survivor of ten thousand test subjects, the rest of whom all died when the hibernation systems ran out of power, or became gibbering vegetables due to brain damage; he's not very clear on the subject.
Wheatley: The reserve power ran out, so of course the whole Relaxation Center stops waking up the bloody test subjects. [...] And of course, nobody tells me anything. Nooooooo, why should they tell me anything? [...] And who's fault do you think it's going to be when the management comes down here and finds ten thousand flippin' vegetables. [...] We should get our stories straight. If anyone asks — and no-one's going to ask, don't worry — but if anyone asks, tell them as far as you know, the last time you checked, everyone looked pretty much alive. Alright? Not dead.
- The finale of the co-op campaign sees Atlus and P-Body discover tens of thousands of other subjects still in storage, so GlaDOS can continue her tests, who luckily for her, probably aren't as dangerous as that "mute lunatic".
- Wheatley suggests that Chell may have suffered some form of brain damage, since she jumps instead of saying "apple", theorising this is the reason for her Heroic Mime behaviour. Word of God however states that the reason she refuses to speak and jumped in response, was simply because she enjoys screwing with the computers, since her lack of response really infuriates them!
- The Vahnatai in Exile / Avernum periodically put their entire civilization to sleep with Alien Phlebotinum to conserve subterranean resources. They always expect a high attrition rate, which players get to witness themselves.
- In Rage, the protagonist is the only one from his "Ark" to survive the cryostasis.
- One chapter in Live A Live, which coincidentally plays out like a collage of various famous movies such as 2001 and Aliens.
- A possibility in Alien Legacy if you're too slow in building habitats for the crew, who get awoken as space becomes available. A random event warns you of an impending power failure in the cryonic system.
- In Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (actually, in the lead writer Michael Ely's novelization), Pravin Lal's wife's pod is damaged by Santiago's people. In the second novel, a Spartan artillery barrage collapses the ceiling on the already-damaged pod.
- It's mentioned in passing that the cryogenics tech in Homeworld has a non-zero failure rate, although they aren't terribly worried about it. Beats the alternative, at least. Far worse from their perspective are the ones who survive, and are revived, only to discover that everyone they know back on Kharak is dead. On the more extreme end of the trope, the six "cryo-trays" holding the majority of the crew are simply hanging in space when the Mothership returns from its shakedown cruise to find pirate ships bombarding the planet from orbit. Only four are strictly necessary to complete the mission, meaning that if the player is slow or especially heartless, up to two hundred million pods can be lost.
- Clade Stevens in Orion's Arm got started as a result of one of these. All but six people on an early colony ship perished in suspension, concerned about inbreeding the survivors and their children eventually decided to reproduce solely by cloning.
- Gerry Anderson's New Captain Scarlet: In "Homecoming", an escape capsule from an ill-fated Jupiter mission lands in the Arctic. Two crew members in stasis are dead (one frozen mid-scream), only one has survived. It later turns out he died too — the "survivor" was a Mysteron replica.
- In Superman: The Animated Series, Supergirl was the only one of her family to survive cryostasis.
- Ugly Americans had one of these, where a scientist, expecting civilization to be destroyed in the "Dirigible Wars" which he predicted, froze himself in a capsule in his underground laboratory (underneath the UN building, apparently), leaving behind a robot tasked with impregnating surviving women with his semen. When the main characters find him, he seems very much well-preserved, but upon his capsule being opened, he ages and decomposes within seconds.
- Referenced in Futurama with the Cryonics Lab having an X Days Since sign, but never actually occurs. While the staff is clearly incompetent, the closest thing to a "failure" was them dumping tubes containing the wrong people in the desert, where they woke up just fine.
- Many early cryonics patients have already died from various causes, particularly unfreezing. Which is probably why this is now only legal to do to people who aren't going to become more dead.