In Speculative Fiction, Shape Shifters, robot duplicates and clones are exciting and can add a layer of ambiguity and suspense to a story. It will fill characters and viewers with paranoia and make for great shocking revelations. However, they can also completely derail said story and kill all drama when fans get lost in the forest of Epileptic Trees. The problem stems from the possibility that if clones, shape shifters, time travelers or body-hopping aliens can make and unmake plot points at whim, how can viewers be sure that a given story element is permanent?
The reasoning here is similar to how a setting where Death Is Cheap takes away dramatic punch from future character deaths. By allowing for the existence of these duplicates the author basically has a huge Reset Button with giant neon lettering spelling out "Wanna bet this dramatic revelation, death or plot twist is here to stay?" These fears can be confirmed if an author starts Ret Conning events or casually undoing changes using these tropes.
The ur-trope of the Nineties, not just a popular gimmick in mainstream films (see Alien: Resurrection and The 6th Day), but in comic books (The Death of Superman), television (The X-Files) and video games (Metal Gear Solid) as well. Because clones and their usage were so obligatory (and over-saturated) for over a decade, they are regarded as something of a cop-out by the mainstream public. It's not that clones in themselves are bad, but stories involving them are so formulaic that any suspense grinds to a halt: there's never just one clone but several, and a story with clones can never fully dispel rumors that the lead survivor is, in fact, a clone.
A few things that may cause this reaction:
- Death Is Cheap via Expendable Clones.
- Overuse of the First Law of Resurrection inevitably makes any death suspect.
- Poor use of the Cloning Gambit.
- Revelation that what you killed was Actually a Doombot
A few ways to avoid this reaction:
- Ambiguous Clone Ending — Here the intention is to keep the audience guessing, rather than a side effect.
- Glamour Failure — Clones can't blend in due to give-away features.
- Imposter Forgot One Detail — The clone/shape shifter can't copy the personality of the original person.
- This Was His True Form — If the shape shifter reverts to their default form, then reviving a dead character this way is impossible.
- Averted in A Certain Scientific Railgun / A Certain Magical Index. The Radio Noise Sisters are told that they are all very expendable and for a long time they are treated as such. After the hero rescues them, each individual clone starts to treat themselves as individuals who have lives worth living.
- Played with in Battle Angel Alita: Last Order, with all the Desty Nova and Gally/Alita clones. Yukito Kishiro basically runs with the Brain Uploading and turns it into as ridiculous a situation as he can manage.
- How ridiculous? Alita is an android clone. Organic Desty Nova and electronic Desty Nova are opposed by his double-brain-chipped clone.
- It gets crazier still; Nova's clones eventually become so pervasive a pest in Tiphares that the city needs a team of exterminators with flamethrowers keeping them under control
- Used to a very confusing effect in Tsubasa -RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE-. Some are aware of being one, others are not, but given all the alternate world versions of characters, cloning, and lineages, it can become very hard to follow.
- Blue Drop: The Emul Force allows the user to project his/her thoughts, creating living sculptures. It's used as a decoy countless times, and every major character death gets unsurprisingly undone this way.
- Naruto provides an example of this, which was clearly an Ass Pull in response to negative fan reaction. Several chapters after Kisame's original is seemingly killed, he is revealed to be alive, with what actually died having been a clone created by Zetsu - even though this contradicts all previously established facts about clones. Though Zetsu clones are very different from every other type.
- This happens a lot - in the short term - in Naruto overall, what with all the different ways to fool someone through Ninjutsu. Somebody gets hit hard. *poof* It was one-of-the-million-different-types-of Clone Jutsu. *poof* Substitution Jutsu.
(Imposter) Iruka: How did you know I wasn't Iruka?! *changes back*
- Or for a variant, *attacks teammate* "What are you doing?" "He's an imposter!" *poof* Transformation Jutsu.
(Imposter) Naruto: Because I am. *changes back*
- The above being one of the simpler cases. The real Naruto is watching nearby. The person pretending to be Iruka is trying to manipulate Naruto for a MacGuffin.
- It can easily get to the point of yelling, "Where the FUCK is the real ninja?!" after three waves of clones, each pretending to be the real thing, are defeated. This is often a plot point, ending in Gambit Pileup of who's real and who's not, especially when both sides start doing it.
- It got so bad that the entire first portion of the battle between Sasuke and Itachi was shown to be an illusion battle where physically both fighters were just... standing still and staring at each other. You know you've gone too far in your series where the only way the fight could be taken seriously is when Zetsu appears sticking out of a wall to observe the battle and nothing else, because at that point we needed an unrelated third party to tell the audience "This fight is really happening, one person isn't just fooling the other".
- This happens a lot - in the short term - in Naruto overall, what with all the different ways to fool someone through Ninjutsu. Somebody gets hit hard. *poof* It was one-of-the-million-different-types-of Clone Jutsu. *poof* Substitution Jutsu.
- Near literally done in the Elfen Lied manga with a squad of four Mariko clones.
- An Astro City story has a defense lawyer get a gangster acquitted for murder by invoking this trope, citing incidents involving Evil Twins from parallel universes and shapeshifting supervillains.
- From the X-Men:
- Professor X apparently dies during a battle against Grotesk. Later it's revealed that the Changeling had been masquerading as Professor X at Xavier's request.
- Phoenix (Jean Grey) apparently kills herself so she can't go Dark Phoenix again. It later turns out to have been the Phoenix Force impersonating the real Jean Grey. (Sometimes. It gets retconned back and forth all the time.)
- Marvel Comics' S.H.I.E.L.D. has something called LMDs: Life Model Decoys. Whenever Nick Fury dies don't worry, it was an LMD. Then he got Killed Off for Real; but it eventually turned out that was an LMD too. (The writer of his funeral, aware of this trope, wrote the characters responding with amused disbelief and then had Wolverine turn up specifically so his Super Senses could confirm it was the real deal...but however you may try, there's just no stopping the First Law of Resurrection.) As of Original Sin it's confirmed that none of the modern Fury examples are the real him. He's actually much older looking than most people think of him as, and didn't appear in modern continuity post-World War II until that event.
- Doctor Doom has the same deal. Any defeat - or anything else that someone wants to consider Fanon Dis Continuity - can be handwaved as Actually a Doombot. There have even been claims that the real Dr. Doom has never actually appeared in Marvel Comics!
- This also came up in Doom 2099 with a second Doom arriving in the future and starting a war with the other, both of them claiming to be the real Doom. When Warren Ellis took over the book, he wrapped up the story by having one Doom kill the other and deciding, with typical egomania, that he must have been the real Doom, since he won.
- A running joke around the time of Secret Invasion is that when a character in Marvel is out of character, it was a Skrull impersonator.
- Honestly, this has become so much the norm for comics that almost NO death is taken seriously, with fans almost immediately asking "Well, how long before they come back?" whenever someone dies. As early as 20 years ago, a number of characters in-universe in the X-Men titles would joke that "mutant heaven" didn't have pearly gates but revolving doors, and for years it was a common saying among comic fans that "No one stays dead except Bucky, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben" (and it's worth noting that two of those three are now alive again themselves...).
- Recent storylines in both major companies (Blackest Night, Secret Invasion, Necrosha) have done absolutely nothing to dispel this mentality, as dozens of formerly dead characters are now alive again. DC claims that Blackest Night has closed the door to future resurrections, but very few fans seem to be buying it, especially since the New 52 reboot brought with it a few characters unexplainedly back to life.
- Thanos, the Jim Starlin-created Big Bad in the Marvel Universe, has clones called Thanosi that Starlin can use to explain away any defeats that Thanos might suffer (which, purely coincidentally, are almost always written by writers other than Starlin). Starlin has even gone so far as to say that not even omnipotent cosmic observer the Watcher can tell the difference between a Thanosi and the real Thanos.
- Secret Invasion: Skrulls did it. To the entire Marvelverse. Lampshaded when Spidey complains that he had clones way before everyone else was getting replaced by Skrulls.
- Lampshaded in Star Wars Legends with Dark Empire. Basically every time Luke kills a Palpatine clone, he transfers his soul to another clone. Luke pretends to go over to the dark side and is ultimately on the dark side.
- Done to Spider-Man; so much, it's hard to tell where the original ends and the clones begin.
- The original Clone Saga, printed in the seventies, took place immediately after Gwen's death at the hands of the Goblin and as per writer Gerry Conway was basically mandated by Stan Lee as a possible backdoor for Gwen to return since he didn't want to deal with small kids asking him why Spidey's girlfriend had to die. Instead Conway wrote a comic-book story that showed that even if Gwen returned it wouldn't be the same, because Peter, now in a relationshp with Mary Jane was no longer the same person who fell for Gwen when she was alive. It was intended by him as an exploration of grief, loss and moving on but you know with comic books so it had a goofy villain (intended for one time use) Miles Warren who was obsessed with Gwen and (get this) began to empathize with her murderer Green Goblin, restyling himself as the green-costumed Jackal and terrorizing Spider-Man, who he blamed for Gwen's death when he discovered his identity. After making a clone of Gwen to preserve forever, he spawned a Spider-man clone to fend off the original. Everyone dies or leaves town and Peter after some Cloning Blues realizes he's the real one because unlike the clones, he's in love with MJ, a relationship he started after Gwen's death and before Warren cloned him so that meant he was the real one, and since the point of the story was Peter confirming his feelings and moving on, he refused to check the results that would have proved if he was a clone or not. At the time there was no ambiguity about the ending, since it was clear to writers and readers that the first clone saga was about Gwen and her memory, and Peter moving on.
- The nineties Clone Saga was hatched after Peter got married and after a demand for Spider-Man's own Knightfall, and was initially supposed to bring back the dead and gone clones for a proposed plot about giving Peter his own legacy character and sidekick who might replace Peter for the time being (similar to Azrael replacing Batman and Superman's death having replacements). But then things escalated quickly as marketing demanded they stretch a six-month plot for years, retcon the emotional meaning and intention of the original clone saga (i.e. don't cling to the past, stick to the present) and brought back the clone Gwen (alive), the clone Spider-Man (dead, but alive now because we say so), and the Jackal (dead, but cloned). It also added a menagerie of new clones, including two Scarlet Spiders named Ben and Kaine. This crossover event, spanning across four titles and countless mini-series, accomplished a whole lot of nothing. Most of the clones died, but two (Gwen and Jackal) came back again for Spider-Island. Kaine is still running around doing nothing of particular note.
Glenn Greenberg (editor/writer): Okay, at this point, the Spider-Man books were in danger of becoming like that old Marx Brothers movie where everyone was running around dressed like Groucho.
- Philip K. Dick loved to play with this sort of idea. Several of his stories feature duplicates that are so real that even they don't know they are duplicates. It's confusing and Paranoia Fuel and his fans wouldn't have it any other way.
- Greg Egan extensively Zig-Zags this trope in virtually all of his stories, which frequently feature future humanities where people variously are, a) robots, or b) disembodied software. Moreover, because of this, many of his characters experience what amounts to an ambiguous form of immortality in cyberspace, and variously either die, kill themselves, or fail to die for huge tracts of time without seriously derailing storylines they're part of. Additionally, many stories feature large numbers of copies of the same characters who gradually grow apart into independent people over the course of the storyline, or simply provide multiple redundancy when characters need to do many things at once, or are likely to die in the doing of something plot-related.
- A slight variation on the trope has begun to appear in A Song of Ice and Fire with the Faceless Men, an order of assassins who can perfectly imitate just about anyone. This has lead to a lot of fan speculation; the only Faceless Man we've really been able to track is Jaqen H'ghar, who seems to have become an alchemist before becoming Pate as of ADWD. Theories now abound as to who might be a Faceless Man, with contenders including Syrio Forel (who may have become Jaqen H'ghar, The Kindly Man, or Ser Meryn Trant after his alleged death), Varys (explaining his exceptional talent for disguise), the guy who was killed at the Sept of Baelor at the end of the first book (meaning Ned Stark might still be alive...), the Brienne that showed up at the end of ADWD, and many, many, many more.
- Some of those possibilities are, however, not feasible (however awesome they'd be). The Faceless Men may use something akin to glamour, but it requires a certain key ingredient: a corpse to steal the face and identity of. Also, they will look like the corpse of the person, not the person when they were alive: given how some people can radically change upon death, it's not quite as clone-like as you might think. At best, it's a form of really sophisticated Dead Person Impersonation or Kill and Replace. Even if, as in the case of Pate "the pig boy", they go for as fresh a corpse as possible of somebody they've been tailing for a while, they'll still not quite be right to look at, if you knew the person well before they died. (Faceless Men seem to target those who are foreigners, strangers, generally undervalued or who were always on the periphery of the place they're in — yet, with valid enough reasons for access. In short, people other people don't get that close to, in the main.)
- In Dune, the Tleilaxu Ghola tanks produce a variation of clones (cells harvested after death, and the ghola has the memories of the original, including that death). Over the course of the series, Duncan Idaho becomes, all by himself, a can of clones.
- The Tleilaxu Face Dancers fit this somewhat as well, being able to impersonate essentially anyone.
- During the first book of Mistborn: The Original Trilogy, one of the side characters is an imposter that Kelsier set up for his scam; and the end of the book reveals that he's a member of a race of shapeshifters skilled in impersonation. Naturally, book two, The Well of Ascension, involves an "a shapeshifter has infiltrated our ranks" plot. This was partly to tie in with the book's themes of trust, and partly because (as noted in an online set of annotations):
Brandon Sanderson: You dont just put in a race of shapeshifters then ignore the tension of people wondering if someone they know has been replaced. That would just be irresponsible.
- Alias introduced cloning in the form of "Project Helix", a process by which identical Doppelgangers of people could be produced. The first double was a one-off character, but the second double was a complete shocker: it was Sydney's best friend Francie. The double was a very unique twist . . . at first. Then, they brought back the double-switch when someone cloned Arvin Sloane - and the double was, of course, promptly nicknamed "Arvin Cloane", again later in season four when it was revealed that the woman Jack killed in Vienna wasn't Irina Derevko, it was a double of her and again in season five when Anna Espinosa became a double of Sydney. It got to the point where a common saying in regards to the show was "they're not dead even if we've seen a body - it's probably a clone".
- Battlestar Galactica got hit with this right from the bat. Even though there were only 12 Cylon models, you could never be quite sure which version of the model you were talking to. Especially the Sixes and Eights:
- Number Six: Caprica Six, Head!Six, Gina Inviere, Natalie Faust, Shelly Godfrey, the Six on the Armistice Station, LabCoat!Six, the Six who headed "The Farm", the dying Six on the basestar, Lida, Sonja, and Prostitute!Six from "The Plan".
- Number Eight: Sharon "Boomer" Valerii, Sharon "Athena" Agathon, the Eight on Ragnar, WhiteCoat!Eight that Athena kills, the many naked tai chi Eights, the dying Eight on the basestar, the unplugged!Eight Anders talks to, the dying Eight Saul Tigh forgives, the Eight who resurrects D'Anna, Cynical!Eight from "Face of the Enemy", Sweet!Eight who betrays Gaeta, and the Eight who connects Anders to the data stream so that he can become Galactica's hybrid.
- Misfits started to suffer from this in the second season, as Curtis has the ability to rewind time if he feels enough guilt towards something that has happened, giving him a chance to Set Right What Once Went Wrong. So when the Misfits Discard and Draw new powers during the Christmas Episode season finale, the show explicitly removes this power from play.
- The X-Files had a few, that due to alien involvement usually had green blood. Most notable character with plenty of clones was Mulder's sister Samantha.
- Paranoia offsets its casual lethality somewhat by the fact that characters come in "six-packs": the original and five additional clones held offstage in readiness for the PC's imminent demise. In at least one published adventure, GMs are encouraged to use this replacement feature as a need for additional replacements (since the PCs are "Outside" at this point, clone replacements must be supplied by a Ballistic Sub-Orbital Clone Replacement Mechanism). If a party member has been killed and you hear a descending whistle, duck.
- In Hitman: Codename 47, the hitman's clone origin is made evident fairly early on. The assigned targets are all men with a strong resemblance to 47, who are still in correspondence with each other, and are shown conferring over 47's body in flashbacks. The last mission packs 47 off to his old laboratory in Romania, where his "fathers" combined their DNA to create a clone of themselves for organ harvesting purposes. The twist at the end is there's a fifth father, the director of the lab, who has already mass-produced 25 superior "Mr. 48s" to spring on you once you arrive in the final basement.
- Later games featured more clones, each of them tangentially related to the 47 model. In Silent Assassin, a prototype hitman named Mr. 17 is assigned to kill his brother. In Blood Money, 47 is assigned to kill two albinos, both of them flawed attempts to recreate the original Ortmeyer blueprint. The clone plot seems to be put to rest as of Absolution.
- The King of Fighters '99 introduced the NEST saga, a secret conspiracy to clone Kyo Kusanagi and raise an unstoppable Clone Army. Basically, this is an excuse to replace Kyo with his brooding white-haired "brother", K', and introduce a pile of rejected clone caca called K9999. In the following games, Zero — one of the end-bosses and a mouthpiece for NESTS — is revealed to be a clone of the original. Again, this was necessitated by the first Zero (and his "fart" attacks) not going over well with fans, and he was replaced with a more stereotypical white-haired version. Despite rocky beginnings, the NEST saga is remembered with morbid affection by fans even as SNK seems content to sweep it under the rug for all time.
- Metal Gear Solid and Sons of Liberty had far-reaching consequences for the franchise. In an expository cutscene, Snake retcons the ending of Metal Gear 2 by revealing Big Boss was actually his father; the antagonist of the game, Liquid Snake, clarifies that Big Boss was his genetic template and that he and Liquid are both copies of him. MGS2 introduced a third clone survivor, Solidus Snake, who was considered to be the best of the lot despite suffering from rapid aging. The government mothballed the project after Liquid Snake attempted a world takeover by planting Big Boss' frozen cells into a "Genome Army" of sorts.
- Darths & Droids notes the wasted potential that the proven existence of shapeshifters has in the Star Wars saga in the commentary of one strip. And again with shapeshifters and clones in an outtake strip, though Star Wars itself averts problems with the latter by establishing that Clones Are People, Too and only physically identical to the original, not mentally.
- The comic later backs up its comments by actually taking advantage of the existence of shapeshifters: In the strips corresponding to A New Hope, the Harrison Ford character steals the "Han Solo" identity from an NPC he kills (the movie's Greedo). He's allowed to get away with it in front of Jabba - for now - because the GM establishes that the original Han was a shapeshifter, and Jabba assumes he's talking to the original in a human form.
- Later in "A new Hope", we discover a rebel pilot who was referred to as Wedge Antilles in the Star Wars movies, and played by Collin Higgins. But Higgins was later replaced by Denis Lawson, resulting in Wedge having a different face in the assault on the Death Star. 'Darths & Droids'' plays with it, arguing that Wedge is a Shapeshifter too, which serves the plot for it leads Luke to suspect that he is the traitor who revealed to the Empire the location of the rebel base during the Battle of Yavin and almost the whole The Empire Strikes Back story arc. He was not.
- The Adventures of Dr. McNinja cleverly avoids this problem by having all of the cheap clones of Doc that Franz Rayner commissions be flawed and eventually disintegrate. However, there's one original clone left over, raising the stakes on the Like You Would Really Do It cliffhangers that the author frequently employs.
- For April Fools' Day, Timothy Zahn wrote a fake epilogue for Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi revealing that Luke was actually Luuke from The Thrawn Trilogy, who had survived the Ambiguous Clone Ending at the real Luke's expense, and that Thrawn's true plan is to clone everyone across the galaxy, setting up a supposed ongoing series called The Clone Wars 2, in which this trope was the entire gimmick behind it.
- In the French Web Serie Le Visiteur du Futur, the Dr. Henry Castafolte has been duplicated many times by creatures between clones and robots. The only way for them to find out what they really are is to see The Bar Code Tattoo on their arm.
- Frequently Lampshaded in The Venture Bros. whenever it is revealed that Dr. Venture's sons Hank and Dean can be replaced with one of many clones, taken from a bank of clone storage tanks beneath the Venture Compound, whenever the boys die.
- This also explains why they give the impression of having been dropped on their heads several times as babies-Dr. Venture has to keep giving the replacements the memories from the previous pair, and whatever method he's using to do it, the effectiveness is kind of sketchy.
- Up until the finale of season 3, when the whole herd of Hank and Dean clones is wiped out.
- Gargoyles' creator Greg Weissman tells in 'Ask Greg' of how his children thought Elisa was acting bad in the episode "Protection" because it was a clone, given that an earlier episode had introduced a clone of Goliath (she was actually pretending to be a corrupt cop to fool a mob boss).
- At least in the show itself they avoid this by having clones be a Palette Swap of the originals instead of an exact physical match.
- Futurama's season opener "Rebirth" opened with the entire cast except Prof. Farnsworth being mutilated in a horrible shipwreck. Farnsworth dumps the remains into a vat of "adult stem cells harvested from perfectly normal adults whom he killed for their stem cells" and reincarnates his entire team. Later, after most of the episode was centered around Cloning Blues via a robot double of Leela, it turns out that Fry wasn't really reborn, but is actually a robot double himself.
- Danger Mouse is paired with a Penfold robot and Penfold with a D.M. robot in "Four Heads Are Better Than Two." The robots are more trouble to their peripheral partners than the real DM and Penfold are to each other.
- Professor Crumhorn plants a robot Penfold with DM in "Penfold Transformed."
- My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic:
- The show inadvertently did this with the introduction of changelings in the second season finale. Naturally, it caused an explosion of "X is secretly a changeling" type stories in the fandom.
- The season 3 episode "Too Many Pinkie Pies" was about Pinkie discovering a magical pond that allowed her to create (extremely one-dimensional) clones of herself. This time around, the implications were addressed, as the cast is shown blocking up the pool at the end of the episode so that there won't be any more clones.