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Outside Context Problem / Live-Action TV

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Outside-Context Problems in live-action TV.


  • Each season of The 100 so far has ended with a new, completely unforeseeable problem for the main characters to face:
    • The 100 spent season one fighting against Grounders until the last episode revealed that the Mountain Men, previously thought to be another clan of natives, were in fact the remnant of the US government and military and by far the most technologically advanced faction in the story.
    • In season two, the main storyline dealt with the conflict with Grounders and Mountain Men the former becoming allies of the heroes, and the latter being exterminated. But the secondary plot ends up introducing A.L.I.E., an evil A.I. responsible for the nuclear apocalypse who tries to assimilate the last remains of mankind, and who comes completely out of left field compared to the more down to earth survival tone of the rest of the show.
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    • At the end of season three A.L.I.E. revealed that nuclear plants all over the globe were about to go critical after a century of lack of maintenance and threatened to send enough radiation in the atmosphere to exterminate all life on Earth, a problem so far out of reach for people who still live in scavenged pieces of trash with no means of intercontinental transportation it's not even funny.
    • The better part of season four is spent looking for ways to survive the deathwave instead of fighting a human enemy, so when a spaceship from the barely mentioned before "Eligius Corporation" lands on Earth at the end it comes as quite a surprise.
  • Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. shows that S.H.I.E.L.D. has a name for Outside Context Problems: 0-8-4, code for an object of unknown origin and utility. Thor's hammer was one, and a laser weapon found in some ancient ruins was another. Obviously, eventually sometimes context is provided; they still don't know much about Mjolnir, but they know where it came from and who it belongs to. Likewise, the laser weapon turned out to be a device commissioned from HYDRA during WWII. The code 0-8-4 had a simple explanation: the first Outside Context Problem they ever found (What ultimately turned out to be a Kree gene-splicing tool that killed anyone who touched it without first being properly prepped or descended from someone who had been prepped) was the 84th unique item that the SSR confiscated from HYDRA, and so ended up in a box with 084 stenciled on it.
    • Season 4 introduces magic, in the form of Ghost Rider and the Darkhold, which even in a world of superpowers and aliens, make no sense to the characters whatsoever.
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  • Alphas villain Marcus Ayers explicitly calls himself - and all other Alphas - an "out-of-context problem" for normal humans. He then fatalistically points out that only way humans know how to deal with such a problem is to destroy it, which they try to do to him shortly afterwards.
  • Angel had many examples of this trope. The first was Sahjan, whose presence was not even explained to the audience until his final episode. Then there was The Beast, the cast given only vague warnings about its arrival and were outclassed by it in every possible way. Then there was Jasmine, who had even less warning and was so beyond their experience the only way they acquired information of her at all was due to a visitor from her home dimension.
    • And then things really get bad when Illyria wakes up. Her two episode introduction is more or less devoted to a long realization that this really is a horrible Lovecraftian Physical God, not a poser, and that things like pointing guns or swinging swords at her are really quite quaint.
  • The Arrowverse:
    • When Barry shows up to rescue Team Arrow and Malcolm Merlyn from the League of Assassins in Nanda Parbat, it's shown that dealing with a true superhuman of the Flash's abilities is something that they are so utterly unprepared for. Curb-Stomp Battle doesn't even begin to describe how effortlessly he takes out an entire fortress of highly skilled warriors in about 10 seconds.
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    • Metahumans in general are something completely out of left field as far as most authorities of Earth-1 in the Arrowverse are concerned, and in the first season of The Flash they (and the legal system) have no way of dealing with them. By the third season there's a dedicated metahuman wing at Iron Heights prison, Central City police are getting outfitted with special gear to deal with them, and are cooperating with the local superheroes.
    • The Crisis Crossovers of the Arrowverse pretty much ride on this. In the first, "Invasion!", the heroes have to team-up against the Alien Invasion of the Dominators, who are bent on destroying all metahumans on Earth, and in the second, "Crisis on Earth-X", they have to deal with an army of Nazis from an Earth where Germany won World War II.
    • Legends of Tomorrow lives for this trope. In the first season, Rip Hunter recruits a team of crooks, assassins and d-list superheroes to serve as this to his nemesis Vandal Savage. In the second season, the team have their first encounter with magic and changes to the timeline that can't be fixed with more time travel. In the third season, historical anachronisms have started appearing everywhere, giving rise to such situations as Caesar at a toga party in Aruba and Helen of Troy upstaging Hedy Lamar's acting career. Finally, season four sees all kinds of magical creatures let loose across history, of which almost nobody on the team has any experience.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
    • Buffy had Glorificus. Best exemplified by Buffy's expression when told that Glory isn't a demon, but a god.
    • Inverted by Warren Mears. Used to dealing with vampires, demons, and gods, Buffy wasn't prepared to deal with one Ax-Crazy human Mad Scientist.
    • Even before Warren Mears, there was Ted, the titular killer robot from the episode "Ted". Buffy knew how to handle vampires and demons and things that went bump in the night, but a killer robot who pretended to just be a guy? She had no idea how to deal until she figured out his secret.
    • Also The Initiative as an organization - science intruding into a fantasy world.
  • Defiance: Season Three introduces the Omec, a race from the Votanis System that everyone assumed didn't survive the system going nova. A rapacious, predatory species, they were considered demons and boogeymen by the other Votan races, and nobody mourned their apparent extinction. When they show up in Earth orbit with an Arkship of their own, that's actually quite a bit more advanced technologically than the other Votans, nobody takes it well.
  • Doctor Who:
    • By the show's basic premise, the Doctor is an Outside Context Hero. The very first episode of the show is about two schoolteachers concerned with the home life of an odd student; they go over to her address and instead find an old-fashioned Police Box with Alien Geometries belonging to a strange old man who turns out to be "not of this Earth". The Genre Shift from a school-based drama to science fantasy is a phenomenal twist and the episode still packs quite a punch today, although anyone who watches it is already spoiled for it. In the Series 5 finale of the new series, a large group of his enemies, none known for working well with others, pool their resources and abilities to trap him in the ultimate prison — as he was known for just "dropping out of the sky and ending your world".
      • Queen Victoria, after an encounter with werewolves and the Doctor, established the Torchwood Institute, recognising the need for the Empire to have some measures in place to respond to Outside Context Problems, such as werewolves — and the Doctor.
    • The villains of "The Celestial Toymaker", "The Dæmons" and "Battlefield" have what appear to be actual magical powers, which stand out even in a science fiction series (even a Science in Genre Only show which uses a lot of Magic from Technology).
    • In "The Ice Warriors" climate change scientists are trying to hold back a glacier, in a way that is clearly business as usual in the setting. Then one of the members finds a mummified body frozen in an ice floe and brings it back for research purposes. It turns out to be a Martian warrior downed in an ancient plane crash and trying to find its allies again. They are dependent on their computer to calculate probabilities and obsessively do what it says — naturally, it has no programming to deal with alien invasions, leaving them high and dry and forcing them to rely on the Doctor, for whom these things are more normal.
    • "The War Games" is mostly a story about aliens kidnapping soldiers from various historical eras and making them fight each other, until (in the eighth episode of ten) the Doctor is forced to summon the Time Lords to imprison the War Chief, an evil Time Lord and get all of the kidnapped soldiers home. The Time Lords arrive and immediately break the plot, with irreversible consequences.
    • Sutekh from "Pyramids of Mars" has such awesome power that, as the Doctor says, that if unleashed, even the Time Lords couldn't stand against him.
    • The Beast from "The Impossible Planet"/"The Satan Pit". The Doctor is used to Doing In the Wizard, facing creatures that are just using technology or tricks to make themselves look fearsome. So when he faces something claiming to be from "before time", and the actual Devil, he has no idea what to do.
    • In an entertaining twist on this trope, the Doctor becomes such an out-of-context problem for his enemies that, between seasons 5 and 7, he becomes very much permanently in-context. The overall storyline spanning three whole seasons involves multiple convoluted plots throughout all of time to get rid of him, planned by a coalition of his worst enemies (accompanied by quite a few monsters-of-the-week as filler). Pretty much every episode, even the typical plot-of-the-week ones, features some clue towards the nature the overarching conspiracy. Every time the Doctor encounters any recurring villain (and, for that matter, quite a few new ones), they seem to have been expecting him. Until he decides he "got too big" and goes up and down time and space erasing all possible record of his existence during Season 7. By Season 8 he's almost entirely unknown again.
    • Spinoff The Sarah Jane Adventures: "Secrets of the Stars" has the cast dealing with an astrologer who can control people with astrology using something called the Ancient Lights, despite it supposedly being impossible — even their supercomputer is unable to deal with it since astrology breaks the laws of physics. Finally they theorise that the Ancient Lights come from a universe that predates ours, one where the laws of physics are different and astrology worked.
      • And then Luke, who wasn't born and therefore has no astrological sign to allow the Ancient Lights to control him, breaks the villain's plan, essentially making him an Outside Context Problem to the Outside Context Problem.
    • Other spinoff Class acquired this problem in its first (and only) season finale, "The Lost": The Governors turn out to work for the Weeping Angels, and are plotting to unleash some sort of Angel god. While Weeping Angels are previously known to Doctor Who fans, not a single one of the protagonists of this show has ever heard of them, and in fact don't yet know about the true threat, much less how to deal with it. Unfortunately, due to the show's cancellation, if this is ever resolved, it probably won't be on TV.
    • "Resolution": The police and military who wind up encountering the villain are not UNIT, and thus unaware that they are dealing with a Dalek. As a result, they either fail to realize it's a threat until too late, or suffer an utter Curb-Stomp Battle when they try to destroy it with conventional weaponry.
  • Fringe: Most of the problems the Fringe team face are out of their context, but the shapeshifters, and the improved ones in particular, come right out of the left field for them. But the crown contender is the Invaders, time-travelling cyborgs who want the present day so they can ruin it. The only person who even suspected they were coming was William Bell. And when they do arrive, they quickly curbstomp the entire planet.
  • Game of Thrones:
    • Aegon I Targaryen to the seven divided kingdoms he invaded, though not to Houses Tyrell and Tully, whom he elevated to their current ranks.
    • As in the books, the White Walkers: an almost invincible enemy from the periphery of the world, thought to be mythical until they return, who convert those who die fighting them into their own almost invincible soldiers, whose motives for their conquest are not known although they are bent on it all the same.
    • In Seasons 4—6, The High Sparrow. Neither Cersei nor Olenna are able to bend him to their will since, as an ascetic motivated purely by religion, he is blissfully immune to their blandishments of wealth and power, and not even King Tommen's interventions can persuade him to release Margaery or Cersei—mind you, his own wife and his mother—from his custody until they have repented of their sins.
    • Bran becomes this to Littlefinger in Season 7. Littlefinger may be a schemer and manipulator without peer among normal people, but it counts for naught against an omniscient boy who can see through all his lies and knows his true role in betraying Ned and instigating the entire conflict for his own gain. Bran exposes Littlefinger's treachery to Sansa and Arya and the Stark children have him summarily executed in front of all the assembled lords.
  • While occasional Grimm episodes deal with truly supernatural creatures, most episodes and seasons revolve around dealing with Wesen, beast-like creatures that live among us and can only be seen by Grimms. Then along comes the sixth and final season, where the Big Bad appears to be the Wesen devil from their version of Hell, who doesn't appear to be able to be harmed by anything, even automatic bursts at full-auto. This Zerstörer ("destroyer" in German) slaughters an entire precinct full of cops, kills Hank, Wu, Eve, Renard, Adalind, Monroe, Rosalee, and Trubel with ease. Fortunately, he can't stand up to four angry Grimms: Nick, Trubel (resurrected by Zerstörer), and the ghosts of Nick's mom and aunt, and his staff turns out to have Time Travel properties, rewinding everything back to before the creature arrived to our world.
    • In a way, Nick is this to the Wesen. Grimms are the boogeymen that all Wesen are taught to fear from birth. With some exceptions, Wesen reaction to realizing Nick is a Grimm is pants-wetting fear.
  • The last half of season 2 of Once Upon a Time is shown to be controlled, at least in part, by Peter Pan. While people on both sides of the fourth wall had probably been expecting him since Captain Hook showed up, it's doubtful they thought it'd be as a villain. The first hint we see of him is his disembodied shadow coming to take lost and forgotten boys to Neverland, and even when he is finally shown in person, he's still different from anything they've experienced before. He controls Neverland completely, he can out-gambit Rumpelstiltskin, manipulate people without trying, and even those who have faced him before are unsure how to defeat him, or even if he can be. The most startling thing about him is that he has ties to the entire main cast—he's Rumpel's father, making him Neal's grandfather and Henry's great-grandfather—and no one had any inkling of the possibility of his interference.
    • The main villains in the latter half of season 2 are two humans from The Land Without Magic and not fairy tale or literature characters (although they are allied with Peter Pan).
  • In Season 4 of Person of Interest, criminal masterminds Dominic and Elias struggle for control of organised crime in New York, only to be gunned down in the Season Finale thanks to the machinations of an Artificial Intelligence whose existence they're not even aware of.
  • Power Rangers Zeo has Rita and Zedd from the previous seasons celebrating on how they just blew up the Rangers' base, when the Machine Empire randomly comes along and decides to invade Earth, too. Though Rita and Zedd are Put on a Bus for much of the season, the Rangers' retrieval of the Zeo Crystal gives them new powers and weaponry to stop the Machine Empire's plans. Somewhat lampshaded- once they're settled in at their new base beneath the old one, the Rangers immediately start bombarding Zordon and Alpha with questions, causing Alpha to have a nervous breakdown.
  • Stargate SG-1 as well:
    • Initially, the Goa'uld themselves. The Earthers thought the one they'd killed in the movie was the Last of His Kind and that they'd eliminated any threat to Earth when they took it out. Not so much...
    • The Replicators, an extragalactic, mechanical Horde of Alien Locusts who make all kinds of trouble for SG-1 and its allies and eventually invade the Milky Way. By then SG-1 had some experience with them, but the Goa'uld still saw them as this trope.
    • Anubis, whom the System Lords thought had died eons ago after his banishment. Turns out he was Not Quite Dead. His return in Season 5 forces both the System Lords and the Earth/Tok'ra/Free Jaffa alliance to shift their priorities from each other to the new enemy.
    • The Ori in the last two seasons. For nearly a decade the heroes have been fighting the Goa'uld, whose modus operandi is to use technology to trick primitives into thinking they're gods. Now they have to fight aliens who by almost any definition are gods.
    • And, of course, Stargate Command and the Tau'ri (Earth humans) in general are this to the Goa'uld. They had a nice little system set up where they could squabble with one another, had a treaty with the Asgard to keep them off their backs, run their own little kingdoms as they wanted... and then a small group of primitives from a long-forgotten world shows up and proceeds to kick their asses so hard that a system that survived millennia goes down in under a decade.
  • Star Trek seldom has these, but when they do, they're doozies:
    • Star Trek: The Next Generation: Judging Picard - and by extension, all of Humanity - to have grown overconfident and complacent, Q engineers such a situation. He transports the Enterprise several thousand light years from home, and right in the path of the Borg. The Borg are so powerful and so alien that the crew find they can do nothing against them. Not even escape. It's only through Q's intervention that they even survive. This was retconned later into Q averting this trope; the Borg were already on their way (making use of a Schrödinger's Gun from the first season of outposts mysteriously disappearing) and this engineered encounter gave them enough of a warning to survive.
    • And from the Borg's perspective, there's Species 8472 from Star Trek: Voyager. They're the first species that the Borg can't assimilate, and one of their bioships can destroy 15 cubes.
    • Getting back to Next Generation: In season 3, there's an episode called "The Hunted" that features Roga Danar, one of numerous former soldiers from the planet Angosia, who have been enhanced with superhuman abilities in order to fight their wars. Unfortunately, they become renegades, and even prisoners, afterward, when there's no place in society for them. When the Enterprise crew are forced to deal with a rogue Danar, they find themselves completely unprepared for someone who can No-Sell phaser blasts, block their own life signs from scanners, and - get this - resist the transporter beam.
  • Supernatural:
    • Several episodes deal with crazy humans, leaving Dean bewildered. He even lampshades in the first episode with one of these villains that he can understand all sorts of supernatural things, like ghosts, vampires, demons, etc. It's humans he has trouble dealing with. "Demons I get. Humans are just crazy."
    • Ironically, the first time Sam and Dean actually fought a demon in "Phantom Traveler", it was portrayed in this manner, being vastly more powerful than anything they'd faced until that point.
    • Angels, especially Archangels, also qualify as this when first introduced. Angels hadn't been on Earth for millennia at the start of the series, so almost no human knew how to fight them when they tried to bring about the Apocalypse. As more and more angel-killing weapons are introduced, and the Archangels are all killed off, they lose this status. Lucifer and Michael in particular, being immune to typical angel-killing weapons like angel blades, the Colt, and holy fire, take this to the next level.
    • Alphas, similarly, were thought by many hunters to be myths before they appeared. They're hard to fight as they are immune to the typical weaknesses of their species. Crowley, however, quickly discovers that iridium can hurt them.
    • Eve, the mother of all monsters, appears as a Disc-One Final Boss in S6. Not only is she herself an example, again not having been on Earth for millennia, but she is made even more so by the fact that she has the ability to make new Outside-Context Villains, meaning that the season has a lot of them.
    • The end of the season has yet another one, with Castiel, having become a Physical God after absorbing the souls of Purgatory. The Winchesters are forced to bind Death himself in order to have a chance against him.
    • S7 has yet another with the Leviathans, beings locked in Purgatory by God at the beginning of time to stop them from killing everything else. They can't be killed by anything except other Leviathans and "the bone of a righteous mortal cloaked in the three bloods of the fallen" (the blood of a fallen angel, the blood of the king of demons, and the blood of an Alpha).
    • Season 11 introduces Amara, who is ultimately revealed to be God's sister. Given her age and power level, it's a while before anyone really has any idea of how to deal with her.
  • Short-lived series Threshold was premised on the US government turning to the plans of the one person for whom alien invasion was not an Outside Context Problem. Many of the complications with her plans come from either the aliens being more insidious than she'd anticipated, or resistance and disbelief from everyone else for whom the aliens are completely outside their context.
  • In Ultraseven X, most aliens seem considerably outclassed by the title hero. It turns out Ultraseven is the Showa timeline Ultraseven who learned of the Big Bad aliens when they attempted to invade his universe and crossed over. Ultras don't exist in that universe whereas in his original timeline an Ultra showing up to stop an Alien Invasion amounts to 'oh no! It's the cops!' So even the main villains have little ability to deal with him at his full power.
  • In The Walking Dead, Ezekiel, the leader of the Kingdom, keeps a pet tiger named Shiva; he was a former zookeeper and rescued her when she was injured in her exhibit. Said pet tiger is understandably rather out-of-place in a zombie apocalypse, and every survivor who meets her doesn't quite know what to make of her. This comes in very handy when the Kingdom fights back against the Saviors at the end of Season Seven; she's the first one to jump in, and her presence distracts everyone long enough for the Kingdom's forces to come in.


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