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Distress Call

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Garrus, are you sure the signal receiver is calibrated properly?

Rick: The first rule of space travel, kids, is always check out distress beacons. Nine out of ten times, it's a ship full of dead aliens and a bunch of free shit!
Summer and Morty: Whoa!
Rick: One out of ten times, it's a deadly trap, but I'm ready to roll those dice!

This is a common opening found in Sci-Fi, Horror and Sci-Fi Horror. This refers to the plot structure wherein the heroes are summoned to respond to a distress call, or occasionally, a non-emergency yet still foreboding request for assistance from an expedition. Equally often, the heroes are investigating the abrupt stoppage of all communications from the site.

The most common response? Send in the Search Team.

Of course, when our plucky heroes get there, Late to the Tragedy, they find a Ghost Ship or Derelict Graveyard either devoid of any signs of life at first, or filled to the brim with horrifically mangled dead bodies, splattered blood, and signs of a desperate Last Stand. Further invesigation reveals an Apocalyptic Log, the last entry scrawled in blood. Sure enough, the folks who sent out the distress call are all dead, thanks most often to the Monster of the Week, though the usual suspects often include The Corruption (and in general, The Virus) or just getting a Face Full of Alien Wing-Wong. Apparently, no matter how much Faster-Than-Light Travel is, answering a distress call Traveling at the Speed of Plot is never fast enough. Also, you can expect the rescuing ship's engines to give out/a storm to hit and make leaving impossible. Cue the mission becoming a Deadly Road Trip as whatever killed the original people starts picking the rescue team off.

While a distress call filled with screams, a cryptic, garbled message and ominous roaring in the background, followed by static, can get a sci-fi horror story off to a chilling start, a sudden stop to all communications places more emphasis on the horrific speed with which the killer alien/virus/whatever managed to kill everyone. Some stories even make it a cyclical set-up, with the surviving rescuers (perhaps under mind control from the virus) sending out their own ominous distress call to lure in a new rescue team. To summarize: something has Gone Horribly Wrong, and the heroes must find out what before it gets them too.

There are several variations to the Distress Call:

  • Research Aid Request: A Bleak Border Base, remote outpost or ship in a far-off location requests help researching a new find, and send a message like "Come help us excavate another set of these astonishing ancient alien tombs!" This may involve defending said discovery from rivals or hostile locals. Usually, said finding is Sealed Evil in a Can, and the original expedition is about to unseal it. Despite the relaxed tone of the message, at least one rescuer will know that opening the tomb was bad news.
  • Cessation of Communications: Takes the above, but kills off the expedition before they can get word out. When rescuers radio in, all they get is static. Better to just write them off for dead. Expect there to be at least one or more Disaster Scavengers in addition to the rescuers, but their goal is hauling off booty, not rendering aid.
  • Lost in Transmission is a variant. "Don't go in there! Wait till help arrives!"... "I can't hear you, over."
  • Distress Call: The most classic of the set-ups, people in a Lost Colony, wrecked ship, or Escape Pod call urgently for aid.
  • Homing beacon: Rescuers see that a homing beacon or emergency beacon has been triggered. It transmits no message other than its coordinates. The rescuers know it is an emergency beacon due to the frequency or some other codified procedure. The rescuers may be able to determine if it's a military or civilian signal. Bonus points if they determine that the beacon isn't from a human source. The rescuers may be required by maritime or spacefaring law to respond.
  • Fake Distress Call: Like the above, but there's an ulterior motive to the call. It can be a trap or ambush by enemies, the expedition has gone rogue and need human sacrifices (or people for dinner) or they need a new ship to escape in and fresh supplies, or the menace that just killed them is both hungry, intelligent, and clever enough to fake a distress call or trigger an emergency beacon. Note that in real life, sending a false distress signal is considered a war crime under the Geneva Convention.
  • Non-Distress Call: The call is made, the Big Damn Heroes arrive... and there's nothing serious going on. The distress call was just a selfish request to rapid help with something mundane. Guaranteed to piss off the responders and the caller may face charges for wasting first responders' time.
  • Warning Beacon: The little-used warning beacon is often confused for a distress beacon, but is in actuality an attempt (either by Precursors or the last expedition) to be responsible and keep curious parties from coming anywhere near the certain death that awaits them. Of course, there would be no plot if they immediately decode it or heed it, now would there? Besides, they should have factored in the lure of Schmuck Bait and thought of just keeping silent.
  • Apocalyptic Log: The signal is the last gasp of a longer message intended to Fling a Light into the Future and warn other travelers away. Naturally, they don't get to read or listen to the whole message until they arrive.
  • Repeating Message: One of the above that is broadcast on a loop in some way. Adds more mystery to the whole thing, you usually won't know how long the broadcast has been uselessly repeating its message, and if you do expect it to be for a long period of time. Also creates an atmosphere of loneliness and isolation, the beacon replaying throughout the ages again and again in the hopes that someone will hear it, however no one else usually has. It adds more mystery and menace, since iou can't ask questions. It may be a trap.
  • "Help! Help! Trapped in Title Factory!": Frequently Played for Laughs, this is when someone who is trapped or otherwise enslaved and forced to create something hides a message for help in the outgoing products in the hope that someone will respond and help them.

Send in the Search Team is one plot based around this. Late to the Tragedy often begins In Medias Res, dropping the audience right into the middle of the frantic distress call (and/or slaughter).

Compare: Harbinger of Impending Doom, Doomed Expedition, Bring News Back, Action Survivor, Everybody's Dead, Dave.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Nurse Angel Ririka SOS: The Title Sequence begins with a distress call. S.O.S. is right there in the title, after all.
  • One Piece: A distress call intercepted by the Straw Hats is what starts the "Punk Hazard" arc. In a variation, it turns out that the caller was one of the Arc Villain's Mooks, who was attacked by a samurai trying to save his kidnapped son.
  • Rebuild World: These are common missions which Akira accepts from the Hunter's Office. They pay well because it helps the Hunter's Office's reputation. These typically result in a Chase Scene, and more often than not, the rescuers need rescuing themselves.

    Audio Plays 
  • In the Big Finish Doctor Who story "Destination: Nerva", an alien distress signal is what lures the Doctor and Leela into the events of the story. It turns out to be more of a desperate warning when, long story short, all of humanity is at risk of being eradicated by aliens.

    Comic Books 
  • The Avengers: A distress call is responsible for the birth of the team. Rick Jones had been hoping to send a call out to the Fantastic Four, but Loki intervened, and instead the founding members heard it instead.
  • Mickey Mouse Comic Universe: At times, the beginning of a plot or a major point in it. Mickey's also been suckered in by fake distress calls more than once.
  • Rork begins when the main character is sent out from another universe to help the world against some kind of great danger.
  • Superman:
    • The Killers of Krypton: As poking around a destroyed Kryptonian outpost, Z'ndr Kol finds a recording of a settler sending a distress call to ask help because the colony was under attack.
    • The plot in The Immortal Superman is kicked off when Superman gets a distress call from the year 101,970.
    • Supergirl's Greatest Challenge: The real plot begins when Kara receives a call of the Legion of Super-heroes summoning her to the 30th century.
    • The Great Darkness Saga starts when the Legion of Super-Heroes receives a distress call from the Californian Museum of the Mystic Arts, which has been leveled by some unknown, superpowerful burglar.
  • Wonder Woman (1987) sees the hero sending out a looped distress call as Diana and a cosmonaut are sent careening into deep space by a sabotaged bit of repurposed Apocalyptian Tech. Diana figures that since they're traveling so quickly in a unsteerable mess hoping their signal gets picked up by some of the many extraterrestrials in the DCU is their best hope. Those who respond right when they're about to run out of breathable air are less than friendly.

    Fan Works 
  • Bait and Switch (STO):
    • The main conflict of the original story starts when Deep Space 9 receives a distress call from a Bajoran colony under attack by the Orion Syndicate and Eleya is sent to investigate. It later turns out the same attack has been repeated all over the sector.
    • Frostbite sees USS Bajor called away from an archaeological dig to respond to a distress signal from a freighter being attacked by the True Way.
    • In A Voice in the Wilderness, Eleya initially holds off on sending one after accidentally waking up the original Borg Queen, One of One, so as not to give away her position, but goes ahead and sends it after they come under attack. The Vaadwaur answer it.
  • Hellsister Trilogy begins with the Legion of Super-Heroes receiving a distress signal from a starship under attack by a woman who looks disturbingly similar to one Legionnaire.
    Her course was set to intercept that of a massive United Planets patrol ship.
    A message was shortly received at the headquarters of the United Planets. It was the last one they would get from that particular starship.
    The message stated that their craft was being destroyed by an unarmed woman. It was cut off before the end.
  • Rainbow Rivalries:
    • Raven Reyes sends one out to the Pantheon, informing the surviving gods about Team Rainbow Rocket's plan to create Shadow Pokemon and hinting at a captured "dragon." said dragon is revealed to be Shadow Lugia.
    • Balthier sends one to the Magical Girls Sisterhood courtesy of Tron, and they send Sayaka Miki and her familiars to aid him.

    Films — Animated 
  • The segment "Magnetic Rose" from Memories has a distress signal — to sum it up quickly (and neatly, one hopes), it's actually a trap, designed by the space station's mad computer to lure male victims to fulfill "the owner's" fantasy of a Happily Ever After opera life she never got. Of course, the owner is dead, and the mad computer thinks that it's her.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Alien, the Nostromo responds to that unidentified signal on Death World LV-426. On further analyzing the signal, Ripley suggests that it's not a distress call but a warning. Unfortunately, by this time the Away Team is out of radio contact due to interference from storms and the hull of the alien ship they've just entered. This is the "Warning Beacon" version of the trope. The intended original ending of Alien had the xenomorph surviving and sending a distress call in Ripley's voice, but the whole ending was deemed too depressing and was scrapped, leading to the ending where normal Ripley sends out the distress signal.
    • Aliens is a textbook case of the "all communications from our colony have ceased" incarnation of the trope.
  • Avengers: Infinity War:
    • The movie opens with the Asgardian ship calling for help when they are attacked by Thanos. The Guardians of the Galaxy pick up the message but by the time they arrive, Thor is the only survivor.
    • The Stinger of the movie shows Nick Fury calling Captain Marvel for help via pager before he disappears along with half of the population of the universe.
  • The Doom film also used this to get the plot rolling. When those research labs on distant planets cease communications, that should be your hint to close the portal.
  • In Event Horizon, the titular ship sends a garbled one when it suddenly returns seven years after it went missing on its maiden voyage. As it turns out, it was a warning from the insane and dying crew for people to stay the hell away from the now-possessed Eldritch Starship.
  • A Night to Remember depicts the tragic example of the RMS Titanic, and how their distress calls were misinterpreted. The only ship to receive their radio call was the Carpathia, who was a long distance away.
    • The Titanic fires distress rockets, hoping to alert a nearby ship, the Californian, who wonders why the Titanic is firing rockets, and believes they may be signalling to another ship.
    • In a lifeboat, a man sets fire to a piece of paper, and a hat, to alert their presence to a nearby ship. This is foreshadowed by a lady haughtily berating a man for smoking at a time like this.
  • The Return of the Living Dead has one of the brain-hungry zombies using the Fake Distress Call variant to order in some food: "Send more paramedics."
    • The living characters also use this to a degree, as they don't admit they're under attack by zombies when they call for help, but by people who've gone murderously insane "like rabies, only it's a lot faster". They're not trying to lure in victims, they just know the emergency responders will never believe the truth.
  • Screamers: The Hunting has an Action Prologue when some human survivors from the Robot War make it to a distress beacon, but strangely we never find out what happened to them. The rescue team sent in makes contact with a different group of survivors. The first movie had a different take on this trope; the protagonist receives a request from the enemy commander to send an envoy for urgent peace negotiations. Naturally they assume the enemy has decided to surrender, but it turns out to be far more serious.
  • Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. As a horde of giant robots is attacking New York City, a radio signal is sent to Sky Captain asking for his help.
    Radioman: Emergency protocol 90206. Calling Sky Captain. Come in, Sky Captain. Repeat. Calling Sky Captain. Come in, Sky Captain. This is an emergency protocol, 90206. Calling Sky Captain. Sky Captain, do you read? Repeat. Calling Sky Captain. Come in, Sky Captain.
    Sky Captain: This is Sky Captain. I'm on my way.
  • Twice in Spaced Invaders:
    • The first one is sent out by the Martian battle group at the end of its Curb-Stomp Battle directed to all ships throughout the galaxy trying to get help before the Arcturans finish them off. One ship that receives it is Bipto's asteroid patrol ship, which subsequently loses the signal without even being sure who or where it came from.
    • The second one occurs when the patrol ship tries to get the signal back and accidentally locks onto Orson Wells' War of the Worlds playing on the radio. The crew thinks that the radio show is a human distress signal and decides to assist the battle group with enslaving Earth rather than render aid to the humans.
  • Star Trek
    • The Kobayashi Maru scenario from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (and subsequent incarnations of Star Trek) kicks off with the Enterprise receiving a distress call from the ship of that name (which may be a Fake Distress Call — at least in the original movie it's not clear if the simulated mission is a response to a real (simulated) ship or a (simulated) Klingon ploy).
    • As well as featuring the Kobayashi Maru, Star Trek (2009) has the plot kicked off by a distress call to Starfleet from the planet Vulcan.
    • An unsettling example appears in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country after the Klingon power plant on Praxis explodes (the film being an allegory for the end of the Cold War, this is a analogue for the Chernobyl disaster), the starship Excelsior intercepts a distress call from someone at the facility: A lone Klingon male surrounded by flames, shouting in panicked, unintelligible Klingon. The message abruptly cuts out, and is soon replaced by a message from a Klingon government official who confirms that there has been an incident on Praxis, that they do not require Excelsior's assistance, and ordering them to stay on the Federation side of the Neutral Zone.
    • Star Trek: Generations
      • The Enterprise B receives a distress call from two starships caught in an "energy ribbon". When it responds, it is caught too, and a famous Star Trek figure Captain James T. Kirk performs a Heroic Sacrifice to save the ship.
      • 78 years later, the Enterprise-D responds to a distress signal from the Amaragosa Observatory space station after it is attacked.
    • Early in Star Trek: First Contact, Enterprise receives transmissions from the assembled Starfleet ships as they engage The Borg. Given how that battle proceeds, the frantic reports serve this purpose for Captain Picard and his crew, who decide to immediately join in to help.
  • Star Wars:
    • A New Hope:
      • Princess Leia used R2-D2 to get a distress message to Obi-Wan. "Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope."
      • Earlier, Vader covers up ISD Devastator's attack on the Tantive IV by having his minions send a distress signal, then reporting that everyone aboard was already dead when help arrived.
    • Also used in Revenge of the Sith. In the movie, it's implied that Obi-Wan merely reversed the Jedi Temple's "come home" code into a "stay away" code after Order 66 went out, but Star Wars Rebels revealed he also sent out a hologram transmission for any suriving padawans who might not understand necessity of the simplified signal.
    • The climax of The Last Jedi has the Resistance holding out on an old Rebel base with the First Order high on their tail. They attempt to send a message to their many allies located in the Outer Regions to help them while their remaining forces take on the First Order. In the end, all is in vain as while their message has been received, there are no replies at all.
  • Sunshine (2007) plays with this. A distress signal from the original Icarus is picked up by the Icarus II, but the crew originally decides to pass it by since their own mission is higher priority. They're forced to do so anyways when their ship takes damage and the possibility of the bomb on their ship not being enough to complete their mission is raised.
  • The prequel to The Thing (2011) opens with the Norwegians in a snocat following an alien distress signal across the ice which opens up beneath them to reveal the Flying Saucer.
  • In 28 Days Later, the Warning variation is turned on its head - a radio signal is broadcast to lure only the sentient, non-Ragey humans to safety with a promised cure. In fact, it's just as much a distress signal is anything else, because, well... and there's the plot.

  • Stanisław Lem's "The Albatross": This short story epitomizes a cycle of distress and help. After the spaceship Albatross' nuclear drive overheats, rendering it helpless and its crew's lives in danger, nearby ships rush to the rescue with such urgency that their own drives overheat. We see the viewpoint character as his own ship prepares to join half the fleet in a mad dash to rescue the rescuers...
  • Animorphs: The book introducing Ax has him send a telepathic distress call to anyone else who might have survived the dome ship crash. Cassie and Tobias intercepted it, probably because of Cassie's special nature that was revealed later and Tobias being Ax's nephew.
  • H. P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness uses the "break in communications" variant. An expedition team finds a cave and uncovers a bunch of unknown creatures. There's great excitement as they talk about them over the radio and then suddenly it ceases. When the protagonist arrives, he finds the aftermath of a horrific massacre.
  • S. A. Barnes Dead Silence kicks off with the signal from the luxury space liner "Aurora", disappeared 20 years ago and found just beyond human space.
  • Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsdawn: The colonists could've sent a distress beacon into space after the Threadfall, but this would most likely have brought scavengers down on them, who would pick over the bones of the colony regardless of whether there was anyone still alive or not. They decided not to call for help. A rogue group of colonists fire it off anyway, which caused interesting things several generations down the road.
  • Empire from the Ashes:
    • Dahak's communications were sabotaged during the mutiny so that the Imperium would assume the ship lost, the last communication having been a damage report.
    • The Fourth Imperium littered the galaxy with warning beacons designed to detect incoming Achuultani ships, broadcast a warning to anyone in range, lure the ships in, then self-destruct in massive explosions.
  • The Famous Five: In Five go to Demon's Rocks, the Five stay in a disused lighthouse, and the villain locks them in to stop them finding hidden treasure. To alert the village that they need help, they manage to light the lighthouse itself, and they discover the lighthouse bell; they are rescued soon after this.
  • In Fragment, Henders Isle is brought to the world's attention after a distress beacon lures a passing research vessel to investigate. Plays with the trope in that while the being that activated the beacon( a member of a sapient species later dubbed "Hendropods") did want to attract people, it simply did so out of a benign curiosity (it's the rest of the island that'll get you!).
  • Hungry as a Wolf: The Cessation of Communication version kicks off the plot as the crew of a mine goes missing after the spring thaw... and then there is a Fake Distress Call about halfway through the book, transmitted by the Wendigo-possessed ghouls the crew turned into.
  • In Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October the "Alfa" submarine that Ramius rams is unable to fire its distress beacon, thus allowing the US to claim the Red October had sunk.
  • In The Land God Gave To Cain, the plot is sparked by a shortwave radio picking up a fragmentary transmission which may be from a lost Arctic explorer. Everyone doubts that the signal (brief and not repeated) was really from him except his daughter, who organizes an expedition to find him even though it didn't provide much of a clue to his whereabouts. When they find him, he's lying murdered next to a smashed radio transmitter.
  • Last Legionary: When Moros is attacked, all of the Legionaries who're away on missions or whatever are summoned back by Central Command. Once Command realised what was happening, they set up a warning beacon to try and keep those who were arrived later from trying to land.
  • Stephen King's teleplay Sorry, Right Number adds a Karmic Twist Ending to this trope.
  • Isaac Asimov and Janet Asimov's Norby Finds a Villain: At the end of chapter eleven, Jeff has picked up an S.O.S. signal in standard Federation code, indicating that Ing must be nearby and in danger. He takes Hopeful over and investigates.
  • In Red Storm Rising, during the escape after Operation Doolittle the captain of the USS Chicago realizes that the Soviet submarines he had been sinking were releasing buoys that sent a distress signal, indirectly guiding Soviet anti-submarine forces to their location.
  • Star Wars Legends: In Wraith Squadron, the heroes set up one of these after recovering from an enemy trap. They station a damaged X-Wing in orbit with a distress call recorded by the squadron's actor, begging for help. When the enemy shows up and tractors it, they shoot a jerry-rigged tiny ship into its hangar bay, and the pilot inside, equipped with one of the X-Wing's laser cannons, captures their ship.
  • In Charles Sheffield's short story "With McAndrew, Out of Focus", the title character's fellow physicists are busy making observations of a supernova at one solar focus. They also detect a distress call from a Generation Ship, but can't locate the source of the signal and thus identify which Generation Ship sent the message (the signal quality is very poor). McAndrew works out that the Generation Ship's signal is coming from the other solar focus, which is displacing the signal, and leads a scouting / possible rescue mission. He and his partner, the narrator and The Captain, have narrowed the candidates for the Generation Ship down to a couple of possibilities by the time they reach it. Just before it's too late, The Captain identifies the Generation Ship as the CyberArk, which learned too late that A.I. Is a Crapshoot.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Babylon 5
    • In the Beginning features a distress call that is both genuine and a trap: they call for help from Earth and lure a Minbari Cruiser into a trap. This is justified as the cruiser wasn't going to help, it returned to finish them off.
    • "The Fall of Night" has a Narn cruiser that escaped the Narn-Centauri War arrive at the station seeking aid. After destroying a Centauri cruiser that attacked it, damaging relations between the neofascist Clark Administration and Centauri Prime, Sheridan justifies himself with Earthforce regulations on response to distress signals: under military law he is required to provide aid and sanctuary to ships of any organization not engaged in hostilities against the Earth Alliance.
    • Another episode involves the eponymous space station receiving a distress call from themselves, from the Bad Future Alternate Timeline, due to a rift in space/time previously introduced and recently featured on the show.
  • Used in Battlestar Galactica (2003) where an emergency locator signal from Starbuck's Viper leads the Fleet to "Earth".
  • Blake's 7:
  • Doctor Who: A staple of the show, to the point where Russell T Davies acknowledges that he had to tell other writers to not start their episodes this way. One problem was that writers were reluctant to accept the Contrived Coincidence (inherent in the series) of the TARDIS always turning up at the right time and place for the Doctor to help people.
    • The Doctor's former companions have this option, as they've Seen It All during their adventures with the Doctor, so know when a situation has arisen that requires their unique talents. People who've been shown to have the TARDIS phone number or some other means of contacting the Doctor include the Brigadier, Winston Churchill, Martha Jones, and the Pond family.
      Rory Williams: The light's stopped flashing... does this mean he's coming or do I need to change the bulb?
    • Episodes starting with the TARDIS responding to a distress call include "42" (ship falling into a sun), "The Doctor's Wife" (it's a fake sent by the villain) and "Oxygen".
    • "Silence in the Library": River Song and company are responding to one sent by the Library's central computer a century before. The planet's automated defenses are so good that they were only just cracked.
    • "The Curse of the Black Spot" plays this unusually: The Doctor tells Captain Avery that they picked up a distress signal, but, as the ship in question is a 17th-century pirate ship, he has a hard time getting his point across. What actually happened was that the TARDIS sensed the ship's distress herself.
    • River Song and Amy send one in The Wedding of River Song when the Doctor is dying. So many people respond there are false reports of sunspots and solar flares.
    • "World Enough and Time": The Twelfth Doctor tests whether Missy is sincere about turning good by giving her a supervised adventure. Naturally, this starts with finding a promising-looking distress call (a "usual Saturday" for him and his companions).
    • "The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos" involves the TARDIS crew picking up no less than nine separate distress calls from the same planet.
  • The Opening Narration of Farscape takes the form of a distress call by the human protagonist John Crichton. On several occasions answering such a call sets off the Crisis of the Week, because the people they save are inevitably involved in something dodgy.
  • This sets off the plot in The Expanse when a distress call is picked up from the freighter Scopuli. The captain of the Canterbury pretends he hasn't heard it, fearing an ambush by Space Pirates, but Holden tips off the authorities who order the Canterbury to respond. Turns out it really is an ambush and the few survivors go on to become the main protagonists of the series.
  • Firefly:
    • The entire episode "Bushwhacked" is classic example of a distress call plot, except with no distress call of any kind. Serenity just happens across the other ship in the vast emptiness of space.
    • The "Crybaby" is Serenity's very own invocation of this trope — a disposable can of junk designed to send out a fake distress call if the crew need to create a diversion.
    • "Out of Gas" features the heroes themselves sending the signal.
  • In Helix, isolated research base Arctic Biosystems sends one that's intercepted by a military listening post, reporting an outbreak of The Virus and specifically requesting the aid of the CDC's Dr. Julia Walker, which kicks off the plot as a CDC rapid response team and an army liaison are dispatched.
  • Varied in the pilot episode of Lost: while it does not draw the Losties to the island, the distress call alerts them that another group has landed on the island and met with a terrible fate, not to mention that the call has been playing for sixteen years, but no one seems to have responded to it.
  • The Outer Limits (1995): In "The Message", Jennifer Winter, who is deaf, begins to hear strange noises after having a revolutionary cochlear implant installed. Although many other people including her husband Sam believe that they are nothing more than hallucinations, she and the hospital janitor/former NASA scientist Robert Vitale eventually determine that she is receiving an alien message in binary. More specifically, it is a distress call featuring instructions on how to build a high energy laser beam which can redirect the aliens' ship, which is hurtling towards The Sun.
  • "The Rescue Mission" in Power Rangers Lost Galaxy. The heroes investigate a distress signal from an alien spaceship, only to find it's a Ghost Ship containing a spider monster, its mummified victims, and a book that turns out to be a Tome of Eldritch Lore. The whole thing is an Out-of-Genre Experience with no stock footage or giant robots - and hardly even any spandex.
  • Used in the first two seasons of Red Dwarf as a combination Couch Gag and recap.
  • Both Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis have used each of the different types at least once.
  • Star Trek
  • Episode three of season one of Terra Nova has some of our heroes setting out to investigate why a scientific outpost has suddenly gone dark. Naturally, they go blundering in, ignoring all safety and medical protocols and end up infected with the same virus which caused the original outpost team to lose a chunk of their memories and forget why they were there

  • This song by Ben Newman, for an example of a fake distress call.

    Tabletop Games 
  • For a low-tech variant, player characters in the original D&D adventure I6: Ravenloft find two versions of a letter from the burgomaster of Barovia: a genuine Warning Beacon urging everyone to stay away from the vampire-besieged town, and a Fake Distress Call forged by Strahd von Zarovich to attract adventurers.
  • Used in multiple editions of Traveller, and its advertising, the distress call, "This is Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone... Mayday, Mayday..." has become iconic.
    • And 20 years later in GURPS Traveller, those poor sods on Free Trader Beowulf finally got a response:
      Free Trader Beowulf... come in, Free Trader Beowulf... can you hear me? Come in, Free Trader Beowulf... ... hang in there, Beowulf, help is on the way!
  • Used in Warhammer 40,000, and a number of the spin-off games. One particular example from one of the novels: in Desert Warriors, a regiment of Imperial Guard is sent to a far-flung world to investigate the "mortis-cry" of an astropath, which amounted to "Help, I'm dying!". Because Hyperspace Is a Scary Place, where weird things happen, they arrive before the signal is sent. The book's epilogue makes it clear that the distress signal they were sent to investigate is their own

    Theme Parks 
  • In the queue line for E.T. Adventure at Universal Studios, E.T.'s teacher appears in a projection, where he pleads for the guests to return E.T. to the Green Planet so that he can heal his friends along with the rest of the planet.

    Video Games 
  • At the beginning of The Crystal Key, the people of planet Evany stumble upon such a signal from the Arkonians who warn that the evil Ozgar has almost literally sunk their capital, and that all Arkonians must return to their home planet immediately. Just days later, Ozgar himself arrives in his mothership and deploys satellites that do the same thing to Evany. Naturally, you have to track that signal to its source.
  • Dead Space. And what a distressed call it is.
    • Cessation of Communications explains why the troubleshooting crew is going out there. The distress call that the player received (and doesn't see the end of until late in the game) explains why he signed up for the mission.
      • That the player doesn't see until the end. Isaac watches it again and again on the way there. Kendra even asks how many more times he'll watch it. It's just the marker making him forget in order to use him. That's how Kendra knows what's at the end when you're planetside.
  • EarthBound (1994) has Paula give a telepathic distress call to a sleeping Jeff when she and Ness get captured in Threed. She also gives these to a sleeping Ness shortly after he enters Twoson.
  • In Escape Velocity, the fake distress call is a trap used by Space Pirates. NPC ships may also send distress calls when under attack.
  • Each campaign match in Evolve has one of these before it begins.
  • EXTRAPOWER: Star Resistance: The game begins this way for Sharkungo and Forcestar. As they return from their tag-team wrestling victory at Star Lore, they receive a distress signal from Daitoku Igor - the Shakun Star is being invaded - byu the very team they just triumphed over in the wrestling ring! Except now they've brought an army of robots and spy flies to subjugate Sharkungo's home planet. After Daitoku's urgent call, they are compelled to abandon the spaceship and fly directly to Shakun on their own power, starting the game.
  • The modern Fallout games feature these in the form of radio signals you can pick up on your Pip-Boy while wandering the wastes, then follow to their source. Sometimes the distress call might be plot-related, such as the one in Fallout 4 that can lead you to play Big Damn Heroes to a Brotherhood of Steel expedition, setting you on the path to join the group. Other times, following the signal will lead you to little hidden bunkers that might contain some loot and either environmental storytelling or a handy holotape explaining why there's a skeleton slumped in front of a ham radio that's been repeating an SOS for two centuries.
    Signal Oscar Zulu: If anyone can hear this, this is Bob Anderstein. My family and I have taken refuge in a drainage chamber not too far from a radio relay tower outside of D.C. My boy is very sick, needs medical assistance. Please help if you can. We're listening for your response. 3950 kilohertz.
    Greenbriar Radio Signal: Please, anyone - help us! We're stuck in an old bunker next to the river. Those things are crawling around up there... we're trapped! If you can hear this just... kill those things and get us out of here. Please, we're running out of food. I'll give you whatever you want.
  • Cruelly subverted in Farpoint. The two main characters, Dr. Eva and Dr. Grant, are astronauts stranded on an alien world after accidentally entering a portal. They spend most of the game trying to rebuild a beacon to send a distress call to space, only for Dr. Grant to deduce, two-thirds through the game, that the planet they're stranded on is some three billion years] away from earth. Whatever beacon they build, it's pointless.
  • The counselors in Friday the 13th: The Game can repair the phone box and call the police, which can give them an alternative means of escape. In addition, they can call Tommy Jarvis (one of Jason's killers) over the CB radio, who acts more or less as a one-up for the first survivor to escape or die.
  • FTL: Faster Than Light has distress beacons which are sometimes genuine and sometimes a trap. Either way, they're usually worth investigating if your ship is ready for battle, and a ship with a lot of augments is useful in non-violent distress situations. If your ship runs out of fuel, you can send out your own distress call and hope that a friendly ship will answer.
  • In one of the first Order missions in Ground Control, your acting commanding officer tells you he's lost contact with a friendly base and that this could only mean it's under attack from Crayven Corporation forces. Genre Savvy?
  • The Legend of Zelda:
  • Mass Effect:
    • About half of the star systems series greet you with beeping distress beacons, one of the more prominent is a fake and is a lure for a geth ambush. Only a few are received on time to provide any aid.
    • Also crops up in Jacob's loyalty mission in Mass Effect 2. The strange thing is, the beacon activated 10 years after the ship disappeared...
    • Spoofed in one mission. The distress call is actually a message from an aggravated prospector.
      Repeat. There's a piece of crap mech on this planet's surface. If you think you can get it to work, you're freakin' welcome to it *static* -welcome to it.
    • The notoriously haunting part of Mass Effect 3 soundtrack, "Leaving Earth" (which plays as the Normandy escapes the planet as it is being overrun by the Reapers), incorporates a sequence of droning, high-pitched eighths in the background, which can easily be interpreted as a distress signal sent out by the planet — which plays almost uninterrupted all the way to the end of the track, because there is no help coming this time.
    • Spoofed again at one point in Mass Effect: Andromeda, when Ryder catches a distress call from... two very high stoners, who've broken one of their UV lamps.
  • MechAssault. A transmission is received from a resistance group fighting against the Word of Blake. It's garbled when you first hear it, but Natalia orders you to go out anyway since they could use the help. By the time you reach the destination, Foster sends you the full transmission, without static:
    Transmission: We have risen against the Word of Blake and have made our last stand at the regional palace. They have taken and killed or enslaved all who resist. It is too late for us. Save yourself and flee this pla-*static*
    Natalia: Damn... Too late...
  • The opening cinimatic for MechWarrior 2 has a Mad Cat being ordered to investigate a distress call from a nearby damaged friendly mech. It's a trap and the Mad Cat gets destroyed. There's a mission in the game itself that's similar, but of course you end up surviving.
  • One of the mission objectives in the first Medal of Honor is sending a fake SOS from a German bunker, in order to divert the forces from a guarded pass.
  • Metroid is full of this:
    • Super Metroid starts with a distress signal from the research station to which Samus just delivered the MacGuffin.
    • Metroid Prime. A Space Pirate frigate sends out a distress beacon that Samus picks up, which was likely intended for their Ground Control - Samus intercepts it because she was hunting for them after the first game, and the Pirates didn't know she was still in the area.
    • Metroid Prime 2: Echoes: A Galactic Federation warship crash lands and is under attack by a mysterious foe. They send a final SOS before they are wiped out, which doesn't actually get through the atmospheric distortions. The Federation hires Samus to find out why they've gone dark, and she finds the SOS at their crash site, detailing what happened to them.
    • Metroid Fusion: Samus is infected with The Virus and a research lab treats her before sending her to the Galactic Federation HQ for a cure. While getting a new suit and ship, The Virus breaks out and the research lab sends an SOS for help.
    • Metroid: Other M: The "Baby's Cry", a signal meant specifically to attract attention.
  • Subverted in Morpheus. The luxury liner Herculania has a distress canister, containing an audio log left by the ship's owner, J.C. Pharris, including coordinates to its icebound location in Greenland, and info on how to get inside; but the canister was never launched until your character Matthew Holmes found it, 30 years after the fact.
  • One of the possible endings of Notrium is to successfully send a distress call.
  • Outer Wilds: The Nomai sent out distress beacons near their escape pods, which they used to locate each other after escaping from the crashed Vessel. The player can tune into the distress frequency to more easily find these pods.
  • The story of Overload begins with distress signals being received from various facilities on the moons of Saturn about automated mining operators going hostile and attacking humans working inside.
  • Resident Evil:
    • The first Resident Evil game's plot opens this way. For a squad with the word "Rescue" in its name, the STARS members were awfully unsuccessful at saving their buddies all things considered.
    • Not long after boarding the Queen Zenobia in Resident Evil: Revelations, you actually can overhear the Communications Officer repeatedly sending a distress call from inside a sealed room. When you open it up though, he's not exactly human anymore...
      Communications Officer: Mayday... mayday... this is the Queen Zenobia... Don't kill me... I'm... human...
  • On the horror front, Silent Hill 2 has a "distress letter" from the hero's dead wife!
  • Parodied in Space Quest 6 after Roger steals a shuttle and goes through the anti-anomaly. However, instead of a signal, Roger unfolds a large "HELP" sign and puts it on the shuttle, then spends hours waiting. Given the kind of game this is, someone shows up.
    • This can also count as inverted, as the whole reason Roger did this was because Corpsman Stellar Santiago sent a distress call herself, and Roger's trying to track it to its source.
  • Spec Ops: The Line:
    • The game starts out with a distress call set by colonel John Konrad, which prompts the Army to Send in the Search Team.
      "This is colonel John Konrad, United States Army. Attempted evacuation of Dubai ended in complete... failure. Death toll... too many."
    • In the one ending branch where Walker doesn't kill himself, he sends out a different call:
      "This is Captain Martin Walker, requesting immediate evacuation of Dubai. Survivors... one too many."
  • Star Fox:
    • Star Fox Adventures: The story kicks off with Krystal answering a distress call from Sauria.
    • Star Fox: Assault: There are two distress calls, an ordinary one from Katina (naturally, a trap) and a telepathic one from Sauria (which is overrun by the time the team gets there, but there are still survivors).
  • While you're exploring in Starsector you might come across these. Standard behaviour is to fire one off and wait at the innermost jump point of the system you're in, since the beacons are nondirectional. Most of the time it's actually pirates trying to lure in a mark. Sometimes it's a genuine fleet in need of fuel. Sometimes you're too late for the ship, which is empty and drifting. On occasion, especially in systems with warning beacons, it's the local Remnants trying to lure in victims.
  • The Backstory for XCOM Terror From The Deep features plenty of Distress Calls in the backstory: one is sent by the aliens when their Martian base is overrun by vengeful humans, another one is sent by an X-COM submarine pilot whose sub is sunk by aquatic aliens and is not detected until two months later ("I think they're back!"), and many more are sent out by civilian ships and aircraft that disappear before the game commences and the aliens decide to stop hiding. In the game proper, aliens attack coastal cities, islands, and occasionally transport ships, all of which send out distress calls for XCOM assistance.
  • Zone of the Enders has optional rescue missions that open up after you received a request for aid. Its sequel uses request for aid in a different way: during a fight in which you are severely outnumbered, your allies call for help if they take too much damage.

  • In one segment on Derelict, Deng follows a visible SOS signal to an enormous beached ship called the Goya.
  • A nearly unintelligible phone call motivates Vanessa in Silent Hill: Promise.

    Web Original 
  • Minilife TV: In "Snowball's Late Night Adventure", Zoey calls Archie in the middle of the night to warn him about the X-Team's plan to stop the 28th Legondo World Martial Arts Tournament, but their communications get disrupted when a member of the X-Team kills Zoey.
  • Parodied in Red vs. Blue, in which the distress call basically consists of a funny voice exclaiming the word "Distress!" over and over.
    • In Season 15, the Blood Gulch crew come out of a well-earned retirement after getting fragments of a garbled distress call from Church, who they thought they'd never see again. Later they hear the full recording and... learn that the desperate plea for help was spliced by the bad guys from a message Church sent to Command years ago, complaining about a toilet Tucker and Caboose destroyed by trying to flush a grenade.
  • Thanks to a little Genre Savvy, the warning version gets subverted in The Time of Vontus (TMV).

    Western Animation 
  • Occurs at the beginning of many The Galaxy Trio episodes.
    • "TITAN, the Titanium Man". The Galaxy Trio receives a distress signal from Titanorous, the metal planet. It turns out to be a Fake Distress Call sent by the title villain to lure them into a trap so he can dispose of them.
    • "Gralik of Gravitas". Our heroes get a distress call from King Gramor of the planet Gravitas, Gravity Girl's father. The exiled science minister Gralik has developed an Artificial Gravity ray and threatens to use it on the planet's inhabitants unless the king bows to his demands.
  • Jonny Quest TOS. In "The Invisible Monster" and "Pursuit of the Po-Ho" Dr. Benton Quest gets a radio call for help from an old friend and springs into action.
  • Rick and Morty: Rick loves these. See the quote above.
    Summer: Looks like something terrible happened here.
    Rick: Yep. Cha-ching!
  • Space Ghost. At the end of the episode "Clutches of Creature King", Moltar sends a fake distress signal from his planet to lure Space Ghost into a trap.
  • Star Wars: The Clone Wars: "Overlords" kicks off with Obi-Wan, Anakin and Ahsoka sent to a remote system in Wild Space, investigating a mysterious distress call — one made using a Jedi code that's been out of date for over 2,000 years. It turns out the signal was sent by the Father, leader of a trio of reclusive Physical Gods, because he wanted to see if Anakin was really The Chosen One.
  • Star Wars Resistance:
    • The "Signal from Sector Six" kicks off the plot as Kaz and Poe discover a damaged freighter recently attacked by pirates when they respond.
    • "The Engineer": The Colossus' repaired long-range scanners pick up a distress call from a stranded woman whose ship is out of fuel and close to running out of oxygen. She turns out to have been hired by the First Order so they could track the station down.
    • "The Missing Agent" starts with Kaz picking up a distress call in a Resistance code, leading him, Yeager, CB-23 and Synara to visit the planet it's coming from to investigate.
  • Cartoon Network's Toonami block started their second story arc, Lockdown, with a warning beacon. TOM and SARA didn't know it was a warning until it was too late to avoid the danger because the encryption was too old for SARA to crack.

    Real Life 
  • The classic "S.O.S" morse code. While people may tell you it stands for "Save Our Souls" (or equally commonly “Save Our Ship”), this is actually a Backronym. The code (...- - -...) is really easy to remember in a crisis situation.
  • This is more or less what pain is. Something irritates your body's tissues, and the nerves send a signal that the brain interprets as discomfort. It's supposed to make you stop doing something, or tell you to fetch help.
  • In Real Life, there are three international transponder codes on aircraft that are used to indicate an absolute emergency.
    • Squawk 7500 is used to indicate a hijacking.
    • Squawk 7600 indicates loss of all radio contact.
    • Squawk 7700 is the general Mayday call.
  • A lot of countries have a short phone number you can dial to summon emergency services in case of a crime, accident, or fire. In the US it’s 911, in the UK it’s 999.
    • Some Smart Phones have an emergency setting that causes them to speed-dial Emergency Services if the user presses the power/screen-off button 3 times.
  • Ringing village bells as an alarm that invaders are coming is likely Older Than Feudalism, as the first metal bells date to 2000 BC. We don't know if these bells were used for warnings, but it seems likey that if you're in the bell tower and you see an incoming enemy horde, you'd want to wake your fellow villagers.

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Alternative Title(s): Distress Signal