If you are or ever have been part of a fandom, you are well aware of shippers. We are simultaneously the most passionate fans and the most terrifying. Shippers love their fandoms. They are invested. They love the characters and the stories and can probably whip out their encyclopedic knowledge of their fandom at a moment's notice, even when you didn't necessarily ask, and they are at the core of fan communities online: stoking conversations, creating fan art and fiction, and all for the sake of their "ships" — the relationships within their chosen fandom that means the most to them.
Because shippers are so dedicated and so much a part of the fandoms themselves, they are also often the most vocal and demanding. They tune into their favorite shows every week because they are invested in the romantic relationships of their favorite characters, and when you devote so much energy to every glance and tiny comment between your OTP, you want a little something every now and then. So what are the writing Powers That Be to do when their show relies on the sexual tension from a "will they, won't they" relationship?
Obviously, the answer is to get them together… just not in this reality.
The beauty of science fiction and fantasy is that you can pretty much do anything you want. When your world is full of magic and spaceships and aliens and technology that allows you to travel through time and space, it shouldn't be too difficult to give the shippers what they want, even if it's just for a little while. Shippers are a simple people. We take what we can get and we run with it, sometimes for years. Just ask those of us who sat through nearly a decade of The X-Files, surviving off intense philosophical arguments as foreplay and that one episode where Scully pretended she didn't know how to swing a bat so she could be wrapped in Mulder's conspiracy-loving arms.
After five years of this back and forth — and a movie in which their first real kiss was interrupted by the most hated insect in the world — the writers decided to throw us a bone. Sure, they couldn't risk getting Mulder and Scully together for real, but they could give shippers a nod. So nod they did, by sending Mulder back in time to the Queen Anne in 1939. There he met alternate versions of all the players in his life, from Skinner the spy to a Nazi version of the Cigarette Smoking Man, and even a version of Scully. While their meeting was brief and confusing (at least for her) when it came time for Mulder to abandon ship back to his own time, he took the plunge and laid one on her. After all, he might never have had the chance in his reality.
This "I'm here, so I guess I might as well go for it" approach is strange, and not just because it requires you to believe in time travel and past lives. It's also a little creepy, as the (always) male character essentially allows themselves to substitute another woman for the one they'd actually like to be kissing just as a matter of convenience.
The X-Files example might seem totally innocuous. After all, it was just a kiss and one that was followed by a well-deserved punch to our hero's jaw. But what about what happens when you take it much much further than a kiss?
A few years ago, on SYFY's Haven, that's just what happened. The series' main conceit was that its heroine, Audrey Parker, was a supernatural being who returned to the sleepy hamlet of Haven, Maine every 27 years, each time with a brand new personality and set of memories. In the '80s she was Lucy, in the '50s she was Sarah, and throughout the show's five seasons we get to know each of these personalities in a handful of episodes. In the show's third season, though, Audrey's main love interest, Nathan, got to know one of them rather intimately. In the episode, Nathan and Duke, another character, are zapped back to 1955, where they run into old family … and Sarah. They aren't there for more than a day, but in that time not only does Nathan make Sarah's acquaintance, the two manage to go on a date and end up sleeping together in Nathan's borrowed car. A few episodes later and lo and behold we come to find out that, as a result of that union, Sarah gave birth to a son decades before his father was ever born.
While the episode allowed for the writers to get Nathan together with a version of his supernatural love, if only for a moment, it did so in a profoundly creepy way. After all, Nathan had information about Sarah she did not, and his pretext for their romantic encounter was not really about his feelings for her. It was about his feelings for Audrey, a woman she would not become for more than 50 years.
Of course, not every version of this trope is quite as cringe-inducing as Haven's. Sometimes it's a convenient tool the writers use to wrap up a character's story in a satisfying way without destroying the show altogether—like, for example, the end of Doctor Who's fourth season. While the decision to leave Rose with an alternate version of the Tenth Doctor has divided fans, it did close out Rose's storyline in a way that allowed the audience to have its cake and eat it too. Rose got her happy ending, exploring time and space with her Doctor, and the Doctor still got to have his own continued adventures in a separate reality.
Often times, though, it's just a fun little way to explore the show's biggest ship without destroying the dynamic between the characters. No series is more guilty of the alternate reality hookup than Stargate SG-1. Over the first eight seasons of the hit show, the writing staff nearly perfected the art form, matching up Sam and Jack in a variety of ways, none of which had any bearing on their reality whatsoever. In fact, while fans of the show could probably rattle off half a dozen kisses between the two over those years, only one of them would be remembered by both characters (S1 E4, "The Broca Divide"). Every other romantic encounter involved a time loop, an engaged alternate version of both parties, an alternate Sam, a Jack hallucination, or a newly acquainted alternate version of both of them making out in the back of an ancient time machine in the middle of a firefight in Ancient Egypt.
These are only a few of the many examples of this odd trope that pops up every so often throughout genre media (especially television). While it might not be as questionably moral as the time-traveling lover, you have to admit that the alternate reality hookup certainly has the potential to be a cute way to placate the shippers — or a profoundly creepy encounter.