Phlebotinum Analogy

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Egon: I'm worried. It's getting crowded in there and all my data points to something big on the horizon.
Winston What do you mean, big?
Egon: Well, let's say this twinkie represents the normal amount of psychokinetic energy in the New York area. Based on this morning's sample, it would be a twinkie... thirty-five feet long, weighing approximately six hundred pounds.
Winston: That's a big twinkie.

With as much Applied Phlebotinum flying around, there's just as much Techno Babble around to explain it. However, when even Techno Babble piles on too much, it too needs to be explained away. Thus, we have the Phlebotinum Analogy. It consists of using a simple simile to explain away something that is seemingly complex to the audience. Really, the only reason that it would be confusing to us is because nine-tenths of the time, whatever the character is explaining has been completely made up, anyway.

Expect Lies to Children to show up in the examples a lot.

Examples of Phlebotinum Analogy include:


  • There was such an analogy in Apollo 13, spoken in Mission Control. In this case what it referred to wasn't totally made up. (That part of the script was written by John Sayles, to raise money for his own projects.)
  • Event Horizon (1997): The eponymous ship features a prototype graviton drive, a kind of jump drive, which bends space to eliminate the distance between two points anywhere in the universe, thus enabling instant travel from a to b (jumping). Dr. William Weir visualizes this by folding a sheet of paper, creating the synonymous term fold drive.
    • Nearly the same analogy (using the edge of a skirt rather than a sheet of paper) is used to describe tessering in Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time.
    • Subverted in Stargate SG-1. A member of a super advanced humans planet tries to explain a piece of their technology to Daniel, and Daniel thinks he's talking about the "folding the universe to jump anywhere" theory, so he finishes the other guy's sentence to show that he understands. And the other guy looks at him deeply disapointed and says "no, absolutely not".
      • Well, to be fair, Omoc is doing the exact same analogy as the previous examples but with a twig. Sam might have understood, but Daniel's only an archaeologist.
    • The analogy was also used by William Shatner on "How Star Trek Changed the World", but using pizza dough to illustrate the concept.


  • Parodied in the Discworld book Night Watch, where Lu Tze's explanation of why it's easier to get Vimes back to the present than it was to make sure the time loop that has been formed by Carcer killing his mentor before he met him was stabilized, (It's like climbing up, and then jumping off, a mountain) is satisfactory to Vimes. Then Qu starts to point out that that's not how it works at all and Lu Tze tells him to shut up because it'll prevent too many further questions.
    • There's also the scene in Making Money in which Adora Belle Dearheart calls the Cabinet of Curiosities "like a sliding puzzle, but with lots more directions to slide." Ponder Stibbons responds "That is a very graphic analogy which aids understanding wonderfully while being, strictly speaking, wrong in every possible way."
    • And in Thief of Time, Lobsang explains how he's putting time back by comparing it to a jigsaw (in which the peices are scattered across the universe, moving, and mixed up with other jigsaws), before adding "Everything I have just said is nonsense. It bears no resemblence to the truth of the matter in any way at all." Sir Pterry, who co-created the phrase "Lies to Children", is fond of this gag.
  • In Michael Crichton's Sphere, a physicist character explains gravity and black holes to some of the other characters using fruit on a table.

Live-Action TV

  • The quintessential example is, to no one's surprise, Star Trek
    • One of the few times it fit was in a Next Generation episode, where a larva space creature is feeding on the Enterprise, both because the ship's energy is compatible, and because it thinks the Enterprise is its mother. So they change the form of the energy to something incompatible, which they call, "sour the milk".
      • Later, when LaForge is retelling this incident to Scotty, Scotty uses the exact that phrase, despite LaForge (presumably) using only Techno Babble in his explanation.
  • Doctor Who is also riddled with this trope. A fine example occurs when the Fourth Doctor attempts to explain the transdimensional TARDIS to Leela by showing her two boxes and explaining that if the bigger box (which has been placed farther away and looks smaller than the actual smaller box) could be kept where it was and yet located where the small box is, it would fit inside the small box.
    • This was subverted in the Doctor Who episodes "The Runaway Bride", in which the explainee resolutely fails to understand what The Doctor's talking about ("I'm a pencil inside a mug?"), and "Blink", where The Doctor's inability to explain the way time works led to the Trope Namer example for Timey-Wimey Ball.
    • The novel The Pirate Loop includes a great one of these (paraphrased):

Martha: So, it's like a stone skipping across the surface of a lake?
The Doctor: Good analogy! I wish I'd said it. Can we just pretend I did?

    • In recent years, especially, the Doctor has developed a tendency of telling his companions that their attempts at this trope are, in fact, completely inaccurate, but that they should keep up that line of thinking if it's what helps them understand.
  • Happens often enough in Numb3rs that in "Brutus", when Charlie explains his analysis of a directed graph then fails to explain, one of the FBI agents listening prompts him by saying "Which is just like..."
    • An example of one of the times it's used: Internet Relay Chat, as used by hackers, is like a sea full of boats passing each other leaving nothing but water wakes passing cargo between them. Uh?
  • Constantly used in Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis. "It's like a miniature universe in a bottle," says McKay, talking about a ZPM.
    • For that matter, almost any abnormality of the Stargate system is explained in terms of telephones; dialing your own gate gives you a "busy signal", etc.
      • At one point Jackson starts to make one of these telephone analogies, realizes he's talking to Teal'c, and turns to General Hammond.
        • That would be the "busy signal" one.

Daniel excitedly turns to Teal'c: What do you get when you dial your own phone number?
*Teal'c stares blankly at him*
Daniel: Wrong person.

  • Turn to Gen. Hammond and repeat the question*
    • Also in Stargate Atlantis, a scientist back at SGC explains his intent to relay a transmission with an analogy to 101 Dalmatians (specifically the "twilight bark" scene), as his kids love that movie. The audience completely fails to understand, so he falls back to the Gondor Calls for Aid sequence of The Lord of the Rings instead.
    • Fantastically toyed with in one conversation between Zelenka and Sheppard. Zelenka is trying to track a device so they can find kidnapped Daniel and Rodney.

Zelenka: No offense, but the math I'm using is so complicated I don't know if I can dumb it down enough for it to make sense.
Sheppard: Try.
When Zelenka does come up with an analogy, Sheppard proudly says "I understand that" only to be told that the analogy isn't at all an accurate depiction of what he's doing.

    • Fails in the episode that introduced the Tollan. When Daniel takes Omoc outside to send a FTL transmission to the Nox, he asks Omoc to explain how his message can cross interstellar distances in an instant. At first reluctant (due to the Tollan rule about not giving technology to younger races), Omoc takes a branch and bends it, so that the ends touch, explaining that the distances seem to be far away, until you merge the points together (paraphrasing). Daniel assumes he's talking about space folding, causing Omoc to shake his head in disappointment and shut up on the subject.
  • In Red Dwarf there's a famous example that goes as follows:

Cat: What is it?
Rimmer: It's a rent in the space-time continuum.
Cat: So what is it?
Lister: The stasis room freezes time, you know, makes time stand still. So whenever you have a leak, it must preserve whatever it's leaked into, and it's leaked into this room.
Cat: So what is it??
Rimmer: It's singularity, a point in the universe where the normal laws of time and space don't apply.
Cat: So what is it?!?
Lister: It's a hole back into the past.
Cat: Oh, a magic door! Well why didn't you say?

  • Despite being pretty realistic in terms of medical jargon, House uses this about Once an Episode; apparently it's part of House's process.

House: We think you have a tumour, easily removed surgically. We're going to poke it with a stick.

  • Babylon 5 has fallen back on this one a few times. Not to anywhere near Star Trek's level, of course.
  • Farscape does this on occasion, hindered (sometimes hilariously) by mutual cross-cultural ignorance.
  • In Lost, Ben tells Locke that there is a "box on this island that can contain anything you want." And when Locke takes it a little too literally, Ben states outright "the box is a metaphor, John." Hilariously, later we do see something that can be described as a magic box. Locke asks Ben "Is that the box?" Ben is confused for a moment, but quickly answers "no."


  • Happens regularly in Nebulous, where the eponymous professor's analogies get twisted beyond the point of Metaphorgotten.
  • In the Torchwood radio play "The Dead Line", using an EMP to dislodge an alien presence in the phone system (which, in the scenario presented, makes sense) is described as "just like a computer uses an EM pulse to repel viruses" (which is total nonsense).

Web Comics

Drecker: We gave the ball of death a giant cavity and now it's past the enamel! There! Fine! Okay?
Drecker: Oh, like I'm the only one who took a correspondence course in apt metaphors. Sheesh.

High Agent Blank: Put another way: the future as we know it was chiseled over billions of years from a stone block. We know what the finished statue looks like. So let's make a mold of that and pour the universe into it. Then we don't have to worry about whether or not it gets chiseled right.

  • In Digger, the statue eventually explains how Digger came to the story's setting by saying that Digger's home and the temple she emerged from were like two pieces of fabric, sewn together by the fossil she brought through with her, aka the "bones of the sea".
  • Drive: The first emperor of La Familia uses this to explain how he thinks the Ring Drive works in a letter to his grandson.
  • Schlock Mercenary has it now and then, ending with something along the line "...also, X usually is not on fire. Okay, so Y is not like X."

Western Animation

Fry: Usually on Star Trek, they came up with a complicated plan and explained it with a simple analogy.
Leela: Hmm, if we can re-route engine power through the primary weapons and configure them to Melllvar's frequency, that should overload his electro-quantum structure.
Bender: Like putting too much air into a balloon!
Fry: Of course! It's all so simple!
Leela: It's not working! He's gaining strength from our weapons!
Fry: Like a balloon and...something bad happens!

  • Extreme Ghostbusters ("It's gonna blow up real good")
    • And the original Ghostbusters movie, as seen above. ("Tell him about the twinkie.")
      • What about the twinkie?