One of the annoying things about real life is, you can only gain experience by getting older. You can't just luck into a trove of experience points and level up painlessly. Except on a lot of science fiction TV shows, there's a loophole. Here are seven episodes where someone lives for years, while no time passes.
This sort of episode is actually known as an "Inner Light episode," after the best known example, on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Sometimes, these episodes provide great insight into how a character would have been if they'd only been able to live a more ordinary life, and sometimes they provide an opportunity to rack up twenty or thirty years of trauma in a neat 42-minute time slot. (Which leads to a pet peeve: when some poor character spends an episode experiencing a few decades of imprisonment or abuse and then, in the next episode, they're mysteriously totally fine...)
In general, these episodes are very emotional, and they tend to be either big hits, or big misses.
"The Inner Light," Star Trek: The Next Generation
In this much-lauded episode (which was apparently named after a George Harrison song), Picard gets zapped by an alien probe and ends up living happily to old age on a planet called Kataan, having some kids and learning to play the flute along the way. It turns out that the planet, which was facing destruction, has already been gone for a thousand years, and the probe was filled with information about this lost civilization. Picard never left the Enterprise, and was only unconscious for about 25 minutes. It's an incredibly poignant episode, and fully deserves the Hugo that it won.
The writer of the episode, Morgan Gendel, went on to create a webcomic following up on the episode. In an interview about the comic, he said that the reason he went back to the story was because he felt that Picard had never had closure about his experience on Kataan: "When you think about it, Picard is like a Holocaust survivor, in the sense that he lived in entire lifetime and everyone he loved in it was killed. But in the show, in the next episode, it was like nothing had happened."
"Hard Time," Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Miles O'Brien is convicted of espionage during a mission, and sentenced to twenty years in prison. But in this alien society, that sentence is fulfilled via a treatment that allows you to experience a prison sentence in your head while only a few hours pass externally. Miles returns to Deep Space Nine a broken man, haunted by memories of the cell mate that he "killed" during imprisonment. Most of the episode revolves around his inability to re-acclimate, and it gets so untenable that he decides to kill himself, before Bashir comes along to talk him out of it.
There's a sort of resolution at the end of the episode: Bashir prescribes an antidepressant that will also ward off hallucinations, and convinces Miles to return to therapy. Unfortunately that seems to be the end of the story — he just magically recovers, I guess, and we never hear about it again, which makes this episode ultimately somewhat frustrating.
"The Locket," Farscape
Due to a "spatial phenomenon," Aeryn and John end up stranded on a planet (well, Aeryn first, for a long time, and then John) where dozens of years pass for every day that the folks up on Moya experience. Aeryn and John have some nice moments as they grow old together, but at the end the events of the episode are reset, and only Zhaan and Stark remember what happened. John says that he feels like something happened between him and Aeryn — but otherwise, the time is lost for them.
"Roads Taken," Sliders
After a weird slide, Quinn and Maggie appear to be dying of old age, although they still look young on the outside. A middle-aged man claiming to be their son from another world shows up, and it turns out that during the slide they split, and their halves created a bubble world (because wishes...insert technobabble here). In that world, they were college sweethearts, got married, had a kid, and were basically very happy. Now they're dying, and in order to save the Quinn and Maggie in this world, the bubble world has to be extinguished.
In the end, they both remember everything, and since those memories are all very positive, it's probably one of the nicer outcomes on this list... well, except for the people who lived in that bubble world.
"The Girl Who Waited," Doctor Who
Really this list could probably be populated entirely by Doctor Who episodes, so the two that do appear should really be taken as representatives. In this one, 36 years pass for poor Amy Pond as time moves faster for her than for the Doctor and Rory (not that 36 years is a patch on how long Rory waited...) When they finally do appear, Amy is pissed — a situation that is not improved by the discovery that she'll have to sacrifice herself in order to bring the younger Amy back. The Doctor promises to save both of them, which is a complete lie, and it's all just very upsetting. Not a very nice outcome at all.
"The Time of the Doctor," Doctor Who
In this rather weepy send-off for Matt Smith, he gets stuck defending a planet for several hundred years while Clara attends a family Christmas party. She manages to get back to him once, after three hundred years, and then, after he sends her away, to return to him again when he is extremely old and dying. The contrast between how little time has passed for Clara and how much has passed for the Doctor is startling, and makes the moment at the end, when she returns, particularly poignant.
There's also a sad bit with a Christmas cracker.
"Exit Wounds," Torchwood
I'm not even going to pretend that I understand the complicated timeline of Captain Jack Harkness, but this episode... makes it a lot worse. This is the one where Captain Jack is buried alive for slightly less than 2000 years (although fortunately, he's put into cryogenic storage for the last hundred or so,) while almost no time at all passes for his team. Basically the bad guy takes him back to 27 A.D., pops him in the ground, and then Torchwood digs him up around the turn of the last century and puts him in storage, where he stays until slightly after the bad guy took him away in the present.
The whole 2000 years of being buried alive thing gets overshadowed by the death of some major characters, but... I mean, two thousand years. Is he just, like, dying over and over again? Does he have to pee? Is it like in some vampire stories where he can just hibernate? This episode aired almost seven years ago. I'm still not over it.
Thanks to Toby for the story idea!