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Phlebotinum Breakdown

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Is something making funny noises and smoking ever a good thing?note 

The Doctor: I think you'll find I'm universally recognised as a mature and responsible adult.
[shows Kazran the psychic paper]
Kazran: It's just a lot of wavy lines.
The Doctor: [looks at paper] Yeah, it's shorted out. Finally, a lie too big.

Things break. This is just a natural rule of the universe. Even the Green Rocks are going to fail to work at some point.

Of course, this is TV, so when your Applied Phlebotinum breaks down, it is always going to do so at the worst possible minute. Or, to quote Dark Helmet: "Even in the Future, nothing works!"

What's worse is this: real things that you may have encountered in your daily life often break. When they do, they either function at a reduced capacity or not at all. This can happen on TV, but it is at least as likely that, rather than simply not working, they will do something else entirely, perhaps even something more spectacular than the thing they do if you Reverse Polarity.

The thinking is this: the transporter does something really amazing and miraculous when it's working. Just imagine how amazing and miraculous a thing it could do if it were broken. Never mind that this is no more logical a line of thought than, say, "A functioning toaster makes toast, but a broken one might start suddenly making French toast! Or maybe even sausage links!!"

Fortunately, if it's Tim Taylor Technology, you can usually fix it by applying more power. Unless it's vulnerable to Phlebotinum Overload, that is... then something will Go Horribly Wrong. If you're really unlucky, it'll work fine up until when you need it most.

Holodeck Malfunction is a subtrope, as is Teleporter Accident on occasion. Compare Plot-Driven Breakdown.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Doraemon: Doraemon's gadgets always have some sort of weakness that causes them to never work as planned.
    • Subverted in the episode "Soap Bubbles". When Noby needs to use the Soap Bubble Straw on Big G, it looks like the gadget won't function when he needs it most. However, it turns out that it does work after several bubbles are blown.
  • Kurau in Kurau Phantom Memory suffers from bouts of weakness since the arrival of her "pair", Christmas — usually when being chased or having to fight. Of course, when Christmas is around it only adds to her strength.
  • The Mysterious Cities of Gold: The Golden Condor uses solar energy to fly. Which is great, except when it's nighttime or the sky is overcast.
  • In Neon Genesis Evangelion, without steady power from the extension cord in its back an Eva's internal batteries only provide five minutes of power at most. The times when this becomes an issue are usually when one of the pilots is in a life-or-death struggle with an Angel. The worst, however, is in End of Evangelion, when Asuka's Eva runs out of power just as she finishes defeating the mass-produced Evas...and then they get back up and go to town on her, and she can't synch well enough to get the Eva to fight back.
  • Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt: Notable examples are See-Through running out of gas just when Panty needs to drive away at the most important time and Stocking's swords breaking while trying to slice through Super Speedo Star.
  • Rebuild World: Due to being underground or near some kind of active jamming device, Akira sometimes loses contact with the Virtual Sidekick Alpha he communicates with via Brain/Computer Interface telepathy. Sometimes subverted as Alpha just pretends to be out of contact for Manipulative Bitch reasons, which Akira catches on to.
  • Trapped in a Dating Sim: The World of Otome Games is Tough for Mobs: The magical particles that make up the monsters left behind by the Abusive Precursors known as “New Mankind” block Robot Buddy Luxion’s radio signals when there are high concentrations of monsters. This turns the spherical Surveillance Drone that Luxion usually talks to Leon through into an Empty Shell (as his Artificial Intelligence exists on his Cool Starship.)
  • The "malfunctioning toaster would make sausage rule" also applies to magic as well as science. In Yu-Gi-Oh! GX, when Saiou's defeat-equals-mind-control spell fails on Judai, instead of just not being Brainwashed, Judai loses the ability to see monster spirits and the images on Duel Monsters cards.

    Film — Live-Action 

  • In Animorphs, it happened a couple of times with Body Horror-riffic results. Rachel suffered a case of Involuntary Shapeshifting, turning into crocodiles, ants, and elephants at inconvenient times. Marco got it even worse, turning into a series of Two Beings, One Body creatures. (Dude. Osprey-Lobster. Trout-Gorilla. Neither of which could breathe. And, of course, the mighty poo-bear! [Poodle-Polar Bear.])
  • Awake in the Night Land has the Earth Current, which can protect the humans from the Eldritch Abominations of the titular Night Land. However the exact date in which it will fail has been calculated for eons, which will eventually culminate in the extinction of mankind.
  • In the backstory of the Foreigner (1994) series, the starship Phoenix fails to drop out of hyperspace when it should. When the pilot presses the "emergency stop" button they find that they haven't merely overshot their target, they haven't merely gotten turned in the wrong direction, but they have no idea where they are. With the amount of fuel they had it shouldn't have been possible to go further than 30 light years from Earth, in which case they should easily be able to spot the Sun, but no known stars or pulsars are visible to their telescopes, so it seems they accidentally took a trip through a shortcut in hyperspace, a shortcut which hyper-physics says shouldn't exist.
  • The entire point of the Professor Branestawm series. Only one invention featured in the books works as intended throughout the story, and even that one fills his house with cake.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Pick ANY show which features ships with some FTL drive. Then get the ship in some deep shit where jumping out (then optionally coming back with reinforcements) would be the best option. If the ship has been hit, it won't work. Sometimes justified with some Technobabble about the structural integrity and the massive forces of hyperspace. Sometimes not. Notable occurrences:
    • Every incarnation of Star Trek
    • Farscape
    • Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis
    • The re-imagined Battlestar Galactica has this happen once, despite jump drives being very reliable at any other time. The ship wasn't even under attack or anything. It's just that a Cylon Basestar they managed to commandeer was also trying to jump back to the Fleet at that time. The Basestar made it, but the ship the Colonials were on accidentally jumped back to the same coordinates they were jumping from. Cue a Basestar suddenly jumping in right on top of the Fleet...
    • On Andromeda, Dylan Hunt said it best;
      You know the old saying; "Slipstream: it's not the best way to travel faster than light, it's just the only way."
  • Doctor Who:
    • The TARDIS is a particularly unreliable bit of Phlebotinium, justified by the fact that it's an obsolete piece of crap by Time Lord standards that the Doctor stole from a junkyard. Its navigation is notoriously unreliable when it works at all, its camouflage system has been stuck for the past 50 years, it has a habit of ignoring the Doctor's directions to deposit them in situations of extreme and immediate peril, and it was once blown to bits outright. Also, it once shrank its passengers to the size of fleas. In contrast to the examples above, though, rather than breaking at the worst possible moment, the TARDIS seems to work correctly only when it's absolutely vital that it does (see Million to One Chance, One Bullet Left). That said, the TARDIS is supposed to be piloted with six crewmembers, not just the Doctor. "The Doctor's Wife" revealed that the TARDIS is sentient and in love with the Doctor, and it often sends the Doctor where she thinks they need to be, sometimes malfunctioning to keep them there.
    • The Doctor also has a piece of "psychic paper" that appears to the people they show it to as whatever credentials the Doctor needs to pass as whatever they're trying to pass themself off as. One time, the Eleventh Doctor tried to use it to convince a kid that he is "universally recognised as a mature and responsible adult":
      Kazran: It's just a bunch of wavy lines.
      The Doctor: ...Yeah, it's shorted out. Finally, a lie too big.
    • "The Doctor Dances": Jack's fancy squareness gun, which can make holes in walls, has the battery die just when it's needed.
  • In 7 Days (1998), the sphere seems to malfunction more often than it functions, and can do anything from inverting the morality of the entire universe to turning its pilot into (seriously) the pope.
  • Sliders runs on this premise. In the pilot, the timer (a divice that opens a wormhole to another dimension) is accidentally reset and, instead of taking the protagonists home, they get stuck jumping to random parallel worlds every episode with little hope of returning. Oh, and the timer manages to break a few times too, such as when a whole "bubble" universe is formed based on two of the characters, or when a lightning strike at the wormhole causes Quinn to become a ghost.
  • Stargate-verse:
    • Stargate SG-1 frequently has DHDs broken or destroyed on planets where the team would not like to stay. More extravagantly, a malfunctioning Stargate trapped one of the team in a wormhole (when one Stargate was destroyed), trapped Earth in a time-loop (when working in conjunction with an alien device that was intended to do this), nearly destroyed a star (though technically the gate was not malfunctioning, just being abused), actually destroyed a star (this time on purpose), sent SG-1 backward in time, and almost sucked Earth into a black hole. The worst the gate has yet done on Stargate Atlantis was to ensnare a puddlejumper when one of its engine pods failed to retract.
    • Not mention the teleportation chips SG-1 had installed recently for purposes of whenever deus ex machina is needed. Take a wild guess what happens when the episode is 30 minutes in and one is not needed.
    • In Stargate Atlantis the Stargate managed to send Colonel John Sheppard 48000 years in the future by the same problem that sent SG-1 to the past, considerably increasing the bar for Atlantis' Stargate mishaps. To make matters worse it wasn't a proper breakdown, just poor programming.
    • Also, in one try at making a power source more powerful than the Zero Point Module (a device that draws energy from an artificially created micro-universe) in Stargate Atlantis they ended up almost destroying a parallel universe (although they knew something as such would happen, they only didn't knew the other universe would be populated, much less that it would be a parallel one). The incredible part is that the machine became an actual extra-dimensional portal.
  • Star Trek:
    • The transporter would break (in the simple "fails to work" sense) pretty much any time our heroes needed to make a hasty exit from a hostile planet. It would break (in the spectacular sense) on occasion as well. Broken transporters have created twins of at least two people (Kirk and Riker), in one case somehow separating "good" and "evil", caused people to regress in age, merged two individuals to create a viable and integrated third individual, sent people to a parallel universe, and even transformed a bunch of people into manatees trapped in the void between dimensions.
    • The holodeck is also a prime example, so much so that Holodeck Malfunction is a trope in its own right. The most common "simple" breakdown is to lock the senior officers inside and turn off the safety protocols. Why these features would always be the first to break defies explanation. However, the holodeck can give 'interesting' result without even been broken, say, by giving a simulation of Professor Moriarty full sentience and complete control of the ship's computer.
    • In fact, most Star Trek: The Next Generation plots revolved around some form of this, from malfunctioning replicators to crew members devolving to the everyday, run of the mill warp core breach. And the holodecks. And Data. Both of them should have tossed off of the 1701D at their first sign of major trouble... which happened for both of them in TNG's first season.
    • In a more down-played fashion, the communicators more than once had to be kept from working properly for the reasons mentioned in the Cell Phones Are Useless trope.note 
    • Likewise, the Everything Sensors range from being able to detect the smallest sub-atomic phenomena to being completely unable to locate Starfleet personnel or equipment depending on the needs of the plot. The same generally applies to Deanna Troi's infamously unreliable empathy.
    • Star Trek: Voyager: Borg technology is popular Applied Phlebotinum on the show, being depicted as able to grow in an organic manner, absorb nearby technology and resist attempts to deactivate or remove it. But when the most important of Seven of Nine's implants breaks down, it is perhaps the only one that is not self-repairing and ones from deceased drones likewise become useless very quickly and thus cannot be salvaged. Pity Starfleet did not know this, because a weapon specifically designed to target that one implant could kill drones easily.
  • In Voyagers!, the boy visits the time of Thomas Edison and finds to his horror that the curious inventor has disassembled his time machine, the handheld device called the Omni. The inventor insists he is confident he can reassemble it, and by the end of the story, he proves it, as he presents the boy with a fully intact Omni; the operation even repairs an intermittent malfunction in the device.
    • Also, the Omni malfunctioning is what starts off the series; it's not programmed to take Bogg past 1970, but a brief malfunction lands him in 1982, where he picks up Jeffrey...who he then can't take home again.
  • In the Wizards of Waverly Place episode "Fashion Week", the magic power plant went offline, and the wizard spent almost an entire episode without magic.

    Tabletop Games 
  • BattleTech thrives on phlebotinum unreliability. The Faster-Than-Light Travel-capable JumpShips are using 300+ year old KF-drives that nobody knows how to build; the fear of being stranded in an uninhabited system from a KF-drive malfunction ensures that exploration is slow and makes the Successor States more willing to annex each other's systems than to set up new colonies. In the BattleTech Expanded Universe's enormous Twilight Of the Clans series, finding the Clan Smoke Jaguar homeworld before their starships break down becomes a major plot point.
  • In Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, many magic items have a set pool of charges that is drained by use and incrementally restored each day. If a player gets in a tight spot and has to use the item's last charge, there's a chance that the item shorts out and loses its magic permanently.
  • This is a major plot element in Genius: The Transgression. When an ordinary mortal fiddles with or tries to use or analyze a Genius's wonders, this triggers Havoc, which in turn causes the Wonder to either malfunction in bizzare ways, break down, or temporarily go crazy and attack everything around it. This is the biggest reason why Cut Lex Luthor a Check is not a viable option for most Geniuses.
  • Paranoia likes this one, usually with things (or people) breaking or being sabotaged by Commie Mutant Traitors at just the right time to sentence lots of citizens to highly amusing death.
  • Warhammer 40,000 likes this one, usually with things (or people) breaking or being corrupted by Chaos at just the right time to sentence lots of people to horrific death.

    Theme Parks 

    Video Games 
  • At the end of Descent 2, the Pyro GX's warp core malfunctions and dumps him in the wrong place. This is revealed in Descent 3 to have been deliberate sabotage.
  • In Fallout the water chip of your home vault breaks (replacements were shipped to another vault, of course which never needed one, because Vault 13 was only sealed long enough for it to break down as a social experiment in long-term isolation), starting your quest for a new one. Although Fallout 2 reveals the cause of the water chip failure: It was your own grandchild (the sequels hero), who travelled back in time, fiddling with the controls of vault 13s main computer, thus breaking the ''water chip''.
  • In the original Japanese version of Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, if you carried over save data where Ike had beaten the Black Knight, he attributes his defeat to malfunctioning warp powder leaving behind a weak "ghost" of himself. This isn't in other versions, as the localization team deemed it ridiculous and changed it to letting Ike win.
  • At the end of Halo 3, the firing of the replacement Halo causes the slipspace field to collapse prematurely, cutting a ship in half. The front half makes it to its destination, but the back half only materializes in space only partway there, leaving Master Chief and Cortana floating near a Forerunner planet in an unknown location.
  • In Mega Man Battle Network 3, Flashman's last gasp before deletion glitches up Lan's PET, at one point making it impossible for Megaman to jack out.
  • At one point in No More Heroes, an enemy sets off the sprinklers when he sees Travis coming. The water shorts out his beam katana's battery, and a segment follows where Travis, being electrocuted, must run a gauntlet of enemies to reach the room with the sprinkler controls. Even after the sprinklers are turned off, you have to recharge the katana, though the game does give you a Full Battery power-up.
  • Scarlet Nexus: The "other particles" from the Alien Sky extinction belt getting too close to the ground (when they usually stick to the stratosphere) can cause communications failures as well as Psychic Link failures, and there are other causes as well, usually having to do with a "brain field" (when there’s a physical manifestation of a Battle in the Center of the Mind).
  • Fenix in Starcraft I is ambushed by hydralisks in a cutscene. Unfortunately for him his psi-blade emitters picked that moment to malfunction. Incredibly enough he still managed to survive whatever the hydralisks did to him, though the damage was severe enough that he had to be placed inside a Dragoon.
  • Star Wars Legends: In the PC game Empire at War –- Forces of Corruption, during the last mission, Tyber Zann captures the Eclipse-class Star Destroyer. The game then allows you to use its superlaser, capable of smashing a capital ship instantly. Predictably, it breaks down just as a Super Star Destroyer enters the area.
  • Unreal was a bit inconsistent with this, human tech either worked far better than it should or very badly. In one case a futuristic communicator didn't work on a ship about hundred metres away, sensors are mentioned as being infective but other cases have weapons working underwater and signals getting off planet. The invading aliens however, have no problems getting their stuff to work.

  • The TF Gun in El Goonish Shive sometimes seems to break after being used. One instance was a bit of a Noodle Incident, while two others led to a major story line.
  • In Impure Blood, the Watchers' timepieces fail to warn them of a devastating attack. Subverted when it's revealed that unknown to them, they're basically Magitek telegraphs, and "failed" because Mission Control wasn't able to transmit the message.

    Western Animation 
  • Ben 10 has this at least once every episode. Handy viewer shorthand: When the Omnitrix is red, Ben can't transform because it needs to recharge. Also, there was one of the "toaster makes sausage" variety, where prying off the faceplate of the Omnitrix with a screwdriver and trying to stick it back on with bubble gum results in that episode's transformations becoming Mix-and-Match Critters.
  • Codename: Kids Next Door: The origin story behind the Delightful Children From Down the Lane goes that Father's first Delightfulization Chamber malfunctioned and overloaded when he put the five of them inside, turning them into a kid-hating zombie hive-mind rather than "the perfect children".
  • Futurama
    • "Kif Gets Knocked Up a Notch" spoofed this by having a holodeck malfunction bring the greatest villains of history to life: Attila the Hun, Professor Moriarty, Mr. Hyde, and "Evil Lincoln". In an homage to Star Trek, Moriarty declares, "Righto gents, it's another simulation gone mad, murder and mayhem, standard procedure."
    • In "Roswell That Ends Well", a typical microwave turns into a time machine when Fry puts a metal container into it just as a solar flare hits the ship.
  • Parodied in a "Treehouse of Horrors" episode of The Simpsons, where Homer's toaster turned into a time machine when he attempted to repair it after smashing it trying to get his hand out of the thing.
  • Sofia the First: In "Gizmo Gwen", one missing screw caused a bowl-painting gizmo to go absolutely haywire, shooting paint and flinging bowls everywhere.
  • Either despite or because of being set in Detroit of The Future, the (nonsentient, Earth-made) robots in Transformers: Animated tend to break down quite a bit. Especially around Captain Fanzone. This would mark the Transformers as superior beings, if only the space bridge would stop exploding.