Distress Call

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Dallas: As most of you may know, we're not home yet. We're only halfway there. Mother's interrupted our journey for she's programed to do so unless things change. Things have changed. It seems that she has... intercepted a transmission of unknown origin. She got us up to check it out.
Ripley: A transmission? Out here in remote space?
Lambert: What kind of a transmission?
Dallas: Acoustical beacon. It, uh... repeats at intervals of 12 seconds.
Kane: S.O.S.?
Dallas: I don't know.
Ripley: Human?

Dallas: Unknown.

This is a common opening found in Sci-Fi, Horror and Scifi-Horror. This refers to the plot structure wherein the heroes are summoned to respond to a distress call, or occasionally, a non-emergency yet still foreboding request for assistance from an expedition. Equally often, the heroes are investigating the abrupt stoppage of all communications from the site.

The most common response? Send in the Search Team.

Of course, when our plucky heroes get there, Late to the Party, they find a Ghost Ship or Derelict Graveyard either devoid of any signs of life at first, or brimful of horrifically mangled dead bodies. Sure enough, the folks who sent out the distress call are all dead, thanks most often to the Monster of the Week, though the usual suspects often include The Corruption (and in general, The Virus) or just getting a Face Full of Alien Wingwong. Apparently, no matter how much Faster-Than-Light Travel is, answering a distress call Traveling At the Speed of Plot is never fast enough. Also, you can expect their engines to give out/a storm to hit and make leaving impossible.

While a distress call filled with screams and ominous roaring in the background can get a scifi horror story off to a nice start, a sudden stop to all communications places more emphasis on the horrific speed with which the killer alien/virus/CosmicHorror managed to off everyone. Some stories even make it a cyclical set up, with the surviving rescuers sending out their own ominous distress call. To summarize: something has Gone Horribly Wrong, and the heroes must find out what before it gets them too.

There are several variations to the Distress Call:

  • Aid Request: An outpost or other space ship requests help researching a new finding, and send a forboding message like "Come and help us check out these cool and obviously harmless alien tombs!" This may involve defending said discovery from rivals or hostile locals. Usually, said finding is Sealed Evil in a Can, and the original expedition is about to unseal it.
  • Cessation of Communications: Takes the above, but kills off the expedition before they can get word out. Better to just write them off for dead. Expect there to be at least one or more Disaster Scavengers to help the "rescuers".
  • Lost in Transmission is a variant. "Don't go in there! Wait till help arrives!" "I can't hear you, over."
  • Distress Call: The most classic of the set ups, a colony, ship, or Escape Pod asks for aid.
  • Fake Distress Call: Like the above, but there's an ulterior motive to the call. It can be an outright trap by enemies, the expedition has gone rogue and need human sacrifices or a new ship to escape in, or the menace that just killed them is both hungry and clever.
  • Warning Beacon: The little used warning beacon is often confused for a distress beacon, but is in actuality an attempt (either by Precursors or the last expedition) to be responsible and keep curious parties from coming anywhere near the certain death that awaits them. Of course, there would be no plot if they immediately decode it or heed it, now would there? Besides, they should have factored in the lure of Schmuck Bait and thought of just keeping silent.
  • Apocalyptic Log: The signal is the last gasp of a longer message intended to Fling a Light Into the Future and warn other travelers away. Naturally, they don't get to read or listen to the whole message until they arrive.

Send in the Search Team is one plot based around this. Late to the Party often begins In Medias Res.

Compare: Harbinger of Impending Doom, Doomed Expedition, Bring News Back, Action Survivor, Everybody's Dead, Dave.

Examples of Distress Call include:

Anime and Manga

  • The segment "Magnetic Rose" in the compilation Memories has a distress signal, and to sum it up quickly (and neatly, one hopes) it's actually a trap, designed by the space station's mad computer to lure male victims to fulfill the "owner"'s fantasy of a Happily Ever After opera life she never got. Of course, the owner is dead and the mad computer thinks it's her.


  • Probably the original defining examples of the trope would be the original Alien movie and its sequel Aliens. The Nostromo responded to that unidentified signal (Genre Savvy sci fi horror characters will know to leave such well enough alone) in the first movie, and Aliens is a textbook case of the "all communications from our colony have ceased" incarnation of the trope.
    • Apparently the intended original ending of Alien has the Xenomorph surviving and sending a distress call in Ripley's voice.
  • Event Horizon is pretty much the perfect example of this trope, except combined with Poor Communication Kills.
  • The Doom film also used this to get the plot rolling. When those research labs on distant planets cease communications, that should be your hint to close the portal.
  • In 28 Days Later the Warning variation is turned on its head - a radio signal is broadcast to lure only the sentient, non-Ragey humans to safety with a promised cure. In fact, it's just as much a distress signal is anything else, because, well... and there's the plot.
  • Return of the Living Dead has one of the brain-hungry zombies using the Fake Distress Call variant to order in some food: "Send more paramedics."
    • The living characters also use this to a degree, as they don't admit they're under attack by zombies when they call for help, but by people who've gone murderously insane "like rabies, only it's a lot faster". They're not trying to lure in victims, they just know the emergency responders will never believe the truth.
  • The Kobayashi Maru scenario from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (and subsequent incarnations of Star Trek) kicks off with Enterprise receiving a distress call from the ship of that name (which may be a Fake Distress Call—at least in the original movie it's not clear if the simulated mission is a response to a real (simulated) ship or a (simulated) Klingon ploy).
    • As well as featuring the Kobayashi Maru, the new Star Trek movie has the plot kicked off by a distress call to Starfleet from the planet Vulcan.
  • Sunshine (2007). A distress signal from the original Icarus causes the Icarus II to go off the mission.
  • Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope: "Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope."
  • The 2011 prequel to The Thing opens with the Norwegians in a snocat following an alien distress signal across the ice which opens up beneath them to reveal the Flying Saucer.


  • In Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October the "Alfa" submarine that Ramius rams is unable to fire its distress beacon, thus allowing the US to claim the Red October had sunk.
  • Stephen King's teleplay Sorry, Right Number adds a Karmic Twist Ending to this trope.
  • Stanislaw Lem's short story The Albatross epitomizes the cyclical version. After the spaceship Albatross's nuclear drive overheats, rendering it helpless and its crew's lives in danger, nearby ships rush to the rescue with such urgency that their own drives overheat. We see the viewpoint character as his own ship prepares to join half the fleet in a mad dash to rescue the rescuers...
  • In Charles Sheffield's short story With McAndrew, Out of Focus, the title character's fellow physicists are busy making observations of a supernova at one solar focus. They also detect a distress call from a Generation Ship, but can't locate the source of the signal and thus identify which Generation Ship sent the message (the signal quality is very poor). McAndrew works out that the Generation Ship's signal is coming from the other solar focus, which is displacing the signal, and leads a scouting / possible rescue mission. He and his partner, the narrator and The Captain, have narrowed the candidates for the Generation Ship down to a couple of possibilities by the time they reach it. Just before it's too late, The Captain identifies the Generation Ship as the CyberArk, which learned too late that A.I. Is a Crapshoot.
  • Henders Isle is brought to the world's attention after a distress beacon lures a passing research vessel to investigate. Plays with the trope in that while the being that activated the beacon ( a member of a sapient species later dubbed "Hendropods") did want to attract people, it simply did so out of a benign curiousity (it's the rest of the island that'll get you!).
  • The Fourth Imperium in Empire From the Ashes littered the galaxy with warning beacons designed to detect incoming Achuultani ships, broadcast a warning to anyone in range, lure the ships in, then self-destruct in massive explosions. Dahak's communications were sabotaged during the mutiny so that the Imperium would assume the ship lost, the last communication having been a damage report.
  • In Wraith Squadron, the heroes set up one of these after recovering from an enemy trap. They station a damaged X-Wing in orbit with a distress call recorded by the squadron's actor, begging for help. When the enemy shows up and tractors it, they shoot a jerry-rigged tiny ship into its hangar bay, and the pilot inside, equipped with one of the X-Wing's laser cannons, captures their ship. Crazy Awesome? Oh yes.
  • Last Legionary: When Moros is attacked, all of the Legionaries who're away on missions or whatever are summoned back by Central Command. Once Command realised what was happening, they set up a warning beacon to try and keep those who were arrived later from trying to land.
  • An interesting example with Dragonsdawn by Anne McCaffrey. The colonists could've sent a distress beacon into space after thee Threadfall, but this would most likely have brought scavengers down on them, who would pick over the bones of the colony regardless of whether there was anyone still alive or not. Since there's no Faster-Than-Light Travel, they'll have a new generation by the time anyone can receive their call, and a few by the time when (and if) a ship reaches them - and if the colony survived this long, it probably alreay managed to deal with the problem on its own. They decided not call for help.A rogue group of colonists fire it off anyway, which caused interesting things several generations down the road.

Live Action TV

  • A staple of Doctor Who.
    • To the point where Russell T. Davies acknowledges that he had to tell other writers to not start their episodes this way.
  • Every once in a while, the plot of an episode of Farscape was kicked off by this.
  • Firefly: "They're hurting us...get me out"
    • Let's not forget the episode "Bushwhacked". The entire episode is classic example.
      • The "Crybaby" is Serenity's very own invocation of this trope - a disposable can of junk designed to send out a fake distress call if the crew need to create a diversion.
    • And "Out of Gas", though the heroes were the ones sending the signal.
  • Varied in the pilot episode of Lost: while it does not draw the Losties to the island, the distress call alerts them that another group has landed on the island and met with a terrible fate, not to mention that the call has been playing for sixteen years, but no one seems to have responded to it.
  • Used in the first two seasons of Red Dwarf as a combination Couch Gag and recap.
  • About 1 in 4 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation begins with the Enterprise answering a distress call.
  • An episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had the Defiant crew answering a Distress Call at the beginning of the episode, and getting to know the stranded woman over the long distance radio as they sped towards her. They arrive at the end, and discover she's been dead for years, they were only able to talk to her through some temporal-weirdness.
  • Subverted in Star Trek: Voyager. The subversion? It was their distress call. (Time Travel Quantum Physics was involved)
  • Babylon 5: In The Beginning features a distress call that is both genuine and a trap: they call for help from Earth and lure a Minbari Cruiser into a trap. This is justified as the cruiser wasn't going to help, it returned to finish them off.
  • Used in the reimagined Battlestar Galactica where an emergency locator signal from Starbuck's Viper leads the Fleet to "Earth".
  • "The Rescue Mission" in Power Rangers Lost Galaxy.
  • Both Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis have used each of the different types at least once.
  • Episode three of season one of Terra Nova has some of our heroes setting out to investigate why a scientific outpost has suddenly gone dark. Naturally, they go blundering in, ignoring all safety and medical protocols and end up infected with the same virus which caused the original outpost team to lose a chunk of their memories and forget why they were there


  • This song by Ben Newman, for an example of a fake distress call.

Tabletop Games

  • Used in multiple editions of Traveller, and its advertising, the distress call, "This is Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone... Mayday, Mayday..." has become iconic.
  • For a low-tech variant, player characters in the original D&D adventure I6: Ravenloft find two versions of a letter from the burgomaster of Barovia: a genuine Warning Beacon urging everyone to stay away from the vampire-besieged town, and a Fake Distress Call forged by Strahd von Zarovich to attract adventurers he can use in a Xanatos Gambit.
  • Used in Warhammer 40,000, and a number of the spin-off games. One particular example from one of the novels: in Desert Warriors, a regiment of Imperial Guard is sent to a far-flung world to investigate the "mortis-cry" of an astropath, which amounted to "Help, I'm dying!". Because Hyperspace Is a Scary Place, where weird things happen, they arrive before the signal is sent. The book's epilogue makes it clear that the distress signal they were sent to investigate is their own

Video Games

  • Dead Space. And what a distressed call it is.
    • Cessation of Communications explains why the troubleshooting crew is going out there. The distress call that the player received (and doesn't see the end of until late in the game) explains why he signed up for the mission.
      • That the player doesn't see until the end. Isaac watches it again and again on the way there. Kendra even asks how many more times he'll watch it. It's just the marker making him forget in order to use him. That's how Kendra knows what's at the end when you're planetside.
  • In Escape Velocity, the fake distress call is a trap used by Space Pirates.
  • The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past opens with a telepathic Distress Call from Princess Zelda to a sleeping Link. She also sends him another one later in the game, when she's captured a second time.
  • About half of the star systems in Mass Effect greet you with beeping distress beacons, one of the more prominent is a fake and is a lure for a Geth ambush. Only a few are received on time to provide any aid.
    • Also crops up in Jacob's loyalty mission in Mass Effect 2. The strange thing is, the beacon activated 10 years after the ship disappeared...
  • One of the mission objectives in the first Medal of Honor is sending a fake SOS from a German bunker, in order to divert the forces from a guarded pass.
  • Metroid is full of this:
    • Super Metroid starts with a distress signal from the research station she just delivered the MacGuffin to.
    • Metroid Prime: Oddly enough, Space Pirates send a distress beacon that Samus picks up.
    • Metroid Prime 2: A Galactic Federation warship crash lands and is under attack by a mysterious foe. They send a final SOS before they are wiped out. Said Federation hires Samus to check it out.
    • Metroid Fusion: Samus is infected with The Virus and a research lab treats her before sending her to the Galactic Federation for a cure. While getting a new suit and ship, The Virus breaks out and the research lab sends an SOS for help.
    • Metroid: Other M: The "Baby's Cry".
  • One of the possible endings of Notrium is to successfully send a distress call.
  • The first Resident Evil game's plot opens this way. For a squad with the word "Rescue" in its name, the STARS members were awfully unsuccessful at saving their buddies all things considered.
  • On the horror front, Silent Hill 2 has a "distress letter" from the hero's dead wife!
  • Star Fox Assault had two Distress Calls, an ordinary one from Katina (naturally, a trap) and a telepathic one from Sauria (which is pretty much overrun by the time the team gets there, but there are still survivors).
    • Likewise in Star Fox Adventures, the story kicks off with Krystal answering a similar distress call from Sauria.
  • Zone of the Enders has optional rescue missions that open up after you received a request for aid. Its sequel uses request for aid in a different way: during a fight in which you are severely outnumbered, your allies call for help if they take too much damage.
  • The Backstory for X-COM: Terror from the Deep features plenty of Distress Calls: one is sent by the aliens when their Martian base is overrun by vengeful humans, another one is sent by an X-COM submarine pilot whose sub is sunk by aquatic aliens and is not detected until two months later ("I think they're back!"), and many more are sent out by civilian ships and aircraft that disappear before the game commences and the aliens decide to stop hiding.
  • In one of the first Order missions in Ground Control, your acting commanding officer tells you he's lost contact with a friendly base and that this could only mean it's under attack from Crayven Corporation forces. Genre Savvy?

Web Comics

Web Original

Western Animation

  • Jonny Quest TOS. In episodes "The Invisible Monster" and "Pursuit of the Po-Ho" Dr. Benton Quest gets a radio call for help and springs into action.
  • Cartoon Network's Toonami block started their second story arc, Lockdown, with a warning beacon. TOM and SARA didn't know it was a warning until it was too late to avoid the danger because the encryption was too old for SARA to crack.

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