Click to viewIt happens to the best dashing science fiction hero: You come up with a preternaturally clever plan to stop the bad guys, involving a totally cunning bit of MacGyvering or hustle... and it totally fails. Your super-gadget blows up. Or your allies flake. The bad guys turn out not to be total idiots. Or all the random variables you totally had a handle on turn out different. It's what you do after your cunning plan fails that separates the good guys from the great guys. Here are our favorite failed plans.
Every other one of the Doctor's cunning plans, in Doctor Who. The Doctor is always hatching plans that fall completely flat. This is especially true in the original series, where stories had to last 90 minutes or longer. In "The Ark In Space," the Doctor plans to attack the Wirrn while they sleep - but they left a guard behind. And then he plots to stop them by electrifying the bulkheads - but they attack the electricity supply. In "Pyramids Of Mars," he builds a fancy anti-mummy machine, which the mummies wreck. Then he plants explosives on the mummies' spaceship, which fail to explode. In "Parting Of The Ways," he builds fancy Dalek-brain-busting machine... which he doesn't have the gumption to use. The Doctor has a clever scheme to get hold of the Master's laser screwdriver in "Last Of The Time Lords"... and it won't work for him. And so on.
The last battle against the Tripods, in The Pool Of Fire by John Christopher. The humans have a clever plan for attacking the domed cities of the alien Masters: sneak in and pour alcohol into the water supply, incapacitating the Masters so the humans can crack their protective domes. This works most places, but totally fails in the Panama Canal dome. There's a backup plan, which involves primitive airplanes and bombs. This fails too. And then there's a third backup plan, involving hot-air balloons and bombs. This almost fails as well, because the balloons just bounce off the dome - except that Henry lands his balloon on the dome and cradles his bomb against the dome's surface, sacrificing his life to make it blow up.
Pretty much every plan ever on Firefly. Let's rob a train - even though it turns out to be full of Alliance troops. Let's take on some passengers, what could go wrong? Let's crash a fancy society ball. Or better yet, let's team up with Saffron, the woman who double-crossed us last time. It'll be fine this time!
Whenever Sisko tries to get sneaky on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Captain Benjamin Sisko has many fine qualities, but subterfuge is not one of them. When he tries to trick the Romulans into joining the war against the evil Dominion by giving them a fake holo-recording of a meeting where the Dominion discusses invading the Romulans, it totally blows up in his face because Romulan senator Vreenak sees the fake for what it is. (But luckily for Sisko, Garak the "simple tailor" from Cardassia has a back-up plan, that blows up in Vreenak's face: literally. The resulting debris looks like the result of a Dominion attack, and the fake holo-recording looks much more genuine after it's been damaged in the explosion. Similarly, Janeway is always coming up with plans that fail on Star Trek: Voyager, including trying to shut down the evil clown in "The Thaw" and tricking the sentient missile into thinking they're in a minefield so they can shut it down in "Warhead."
In Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe Of Heaven, pretty much every well-intentioned attempt to use George Orr's reality-altering dreams for good purposes fails. Like when Heather tries to fix the problems George's dreams have already caused by inducing more world-warping dreams:
Heather begins to believe his story and seeks him out at his hideaway. Finding him in a state of exhaustion and desperation she says she will hypnotize him ( she learned it in college) and suggests that he dreams that the aliens are not on the moon and that Haber is really a good man who will cure George, not use him. This spontaneous plan backfires when George dreams that the aliens are no longer on the moon. You guessed it. George dreams that they came to the earth itself. Portland is nearly destroyed and civilians are killed by friendly fire as the military overreacts but it turns out that the aliens are peaceful beings without weapons, who are psychic and whose native element is the dream state itself.
Pretty much every escape attempt in The Prisoner. In the 1960s spy-village drama, the man known only as Number Six tries a whole variety of gambits to get away, from stealing a helicopter to getting elected Number Two to smuggling himself in crates to building a boat. He's the Wile E. Coyote of superspy escapees, and he meets with similar luck to Wile E.
That whole plan of sending soldiers into a nuclear reactor and not letting them fire their weapons when they're surrounded by alien monsters, in Aliens. Not to mention blocking off the bulkheads but not paying attention to the ceilings.
The whole trap-the-Predator idea in Predator 2. The feds have been tracking encounters with the Predator2 ever since the first movie, and they have a plan to capture a live specimen using a slaughterhouse that the Predator has been raiding for food. They think they can blind the Predator by blocking out the infrared spectrum of light - but the Predator just switches its helmet over to ultraviolet and wastes them all.
All of Horza's best-laid plans in Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks. Infiltrating the pirates? Abandoning one of them to die (but leaving him the detonator of a nuclear weapon)? Impersonating the pirates' leader? Assuming the injured Idiran soldier who got away won't cause any more trouble? It all works out spectacularly badly.
Altering history turns out to be a flawed plan in the 2002 movie of The Time Machine. Our hero, Alex Hartdegen, wants to save his girlfriend from getting killed by a mugger by going back in time and changing history. But after he finally builds his time machine, he goes back and can't change the past. No matter how many times he changes things, Emma still gets killed.
The dinosaur trap in Planet Of The Dinosaurs. In this fine, wonderful movie, a group of space travelers are at the mercy of a vicious Tyrranosaurus Rex. First, they try to poison the creature by leaving some Allosaur meat outside its lair, laced with poison berries. The plan goes south because the creature attacks from the rear. Their second plan, to coat wooden stakes with the poison and impale the creature on them, fails... until it finally works.
The Iluminati and friends come up with a whole host of plans to stop the Hulk when he comes back from outer space to trash everything, in the comic series World War Hulk. Iron Man comes up with some incredibly fancy battle armor that lasts about five minutes. Mr. Fantastic creates a huge machine that simulates the feeling the Hulk gets from being pacified by the all-powerful Sentry... and the Hulk smashes it right away. Dr. Strange tries to reach the Hulk's friendly alter-ego Bruce... and the Hulk smushes his hands. Oh well.
Lili's gambit on Earth: The Final Conflict: Lili Marquette is among the Taelons, who are attacking Earth, and tries to sabotage the engines on their ship. She sort of succeeds, but Zo'or deals with it by expunging the extra energy out into space.
Stargate is full of failed gambits: Sheppard tries to distract the Super-Wraith with a flare and run to a puddle-jumper in the Atlantis episode "The Defiant One," but the Super-Wraith left the puddle-jumper's shields on. When that fails, he challenges the Super-Wraith to a pointless knife fight and early gets slaughtered. In the SG-1 episode "The Serpent's Lair," the SG-1 crew plants C-4 explosives around a Goa'uld ship, but then Apophis himself shows up and captures them. Meanwhile, Colonel Samuels has a plan to attack Apophis using special warheads... which totally bounce off. Oops.
There are like three attempts to stop the comet in Deep Impact. First, the spaceship Messiah is launched to drill into the comet's surface and plant bombs, which only split it into two still-destructive comet pieces. Then Earth tries to launch a ton of missiles, which only make the comet more pissed off and splodey. The smaller piece of comet hits and creates a mega-tsunami. Just as the much larger piece of comet is about to hit, the Messiah flies into a fissure in the comet piece and blow it up.
Every Terry Gilliam hero ever pretty much makes screwy plans that don't work out that great. Like Sam Lowry in Brazil, who has a plan to erase Jill from the records so they can escape - which doesn't work out that great, because Jill gets erased for real. And James Cole in Twelve Monkeys thinks he can avert the future plague by tracking down Jeffrey Goines and the Army Of The Twelve Monkeys, but they turn out to be a total red herring.
Thanks to Lauren Davis, John Kim and Liz Henry for research help.