As with most anime series, filler episodes are the bane of every Dragon Ball Z fan’s viewing experience. And while some series are definitely guiltier than others in this regard, (looking at you Naruto) all filler is generally considered to be inferior to regular programming. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, ‘filler’ defines material that isn’t considered canon to the overall narrative and that cannot be found in the original manga or the creator’s original vision.
Whilst many filler episodes are considered worthless, there are some instances where their inclusion goes largely unnoticed either because they contain salient pieces of information, depict key moments of character development or simply because the episode is well-known among fans. This list looks at some installments in the Dragon Ball franchise that feel canon but are actually pesky filler episodes in disguise. Here are 15 Dragon Ball Z episodes you didn’t know were filler.
‘Pilaf and the Mysterious Force’ is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a Dragon Ball filler venture. Returning, yet irrelevant villain? Check. Fake Dragon Balls? Check. Pointless background characters? Check. The episode is as close to archetypal filler as you can possibly get and is an entirely forgettable chapter in the original Dragon Ball. With the exception of a few scenes.
‘Pilaf and the Mysterious Force’ marks an early appearance by the next primary villains in the series: The Red Ribbon Army. Like Goku, the group is on the hunt for the Dragon Balls but become angered at a shopkeeper selling fake ones. They subsequently kill the con man and give viewers a perfect display of the Red Ribbon Army's brutality in the process. A close up shot of the gang’s leader, Commander Red, is also shown at the beginning of the episode. Such key scenes may fool viewers into believing this offering to be canon and whilst the Red Ribbon Army themselves certainly are, they are introduced very differently in the manga.
Even casual Dragon Ball Z fans know that the creator of the Androids was the Red Ribbon Army’s Dr. Gero and this revelation is generally accepted despite the fact that Gero didn’t make an appearance in Dragon Ball’s Red Ribbon saga. However, filler episode ‘The Secret of Dr. Flappe’ muddles this continuity somewhat by adding another android-building scientist in the form of the titular Dr. Flappe and the episode goes on to reveal this figure as the creator of Goku’s new robotic friend, Android 8.
Although Dragon Ball Z’s Android Saga was but a twinkle in Toriyama’s eye at this point, the existence of Dr. Flappe is contradicted by the introduction of Dr. Gero much later in the series. Supplementary Dragon Ball media has remedied this plot hole by claiming Flappe and Gero worked together on the early Androids before the former eventually quit the Red Ribbon Army. However as a filler character, Dr. Flappe is non-canon and the credit for the Androids can be claimed solely by Dr. Gero.
One of the most annoying things about filler episodes is when they’re clumsily tacked on to the very end of a series. This dilutes the actual ending of the story and also gives viewers who don't know which material is filler and which is canon completely the wrong impression as to how the series concluded.
This very habit is present at the end of the original Dragon Ball series leading into Dragon Ball Z and after Goku beats Piccolo at the World Martial Arts Tournament, he and Chi Chi go on a filler mini-arc that harks back to when the two first met. The story further develops the relationship between the couple and adds some romance to the now grown-up Goku’s life but the fact that this plot rounds off the Dragon Ball series may mean that not every fan realizes the episodes are actually filler. Although not completely without merit, the stories were designed to just play for time until Dragon Ball Z was ready for airing.
Goku’s trip down Snake Way certainly felt like classic filler material at times but fans may be surprised to know the extent of this section’s non-canon status. In the Dragon Ball manga, Goku is only seen running on Snake Way, meaning that all of the stops he makes in the anime series are entirely filler and most notably, this includes his meeting with Princess Snake.
The ultimate Catfish, Princess Snake is a grotesque monster disguised as an attractive woman that attempts to seduce Goku into staying with her, rather than continuing on his journey. The beast fails, of course, and one of the episode’s most memorable moments sees the Princess look into Goku’s dreams and find only Chi Chi and Gohan on his mind. Considering how often the heroic Saiyan abandons his family to train, this is one of the more touching moments in the character’s history. Although Princess Snake represents perhaps the most entertaining distraction along Snake Way, it’s still only filler.
In many ways, this duo of episodes chronicling Gohan’s adventures after being left alone to toughen up by Piccolo is packed with typical filler tropes. The story depicts Gohan attempting to escape the island he’s been stranded on before getting caught up in a violent storm. The young half-Saiyan finds himself at an orphanage and after a while, he eventually he succeeds in heading back home to his mother, Chi Chi. So far, so fillery.
Looking a little deeper however, both ‘Dueling Piccolos’ and ‘Plight of the Children’ feature key moments of character development for Gohan and Piccolo. Piccolo’s attempts to locate Gohan and ensure his safety are early indications of the close relationship that the pair would eventually develop later in the series. As for Gohan, his decision to willingly continue training rather than go home at the end of ‘Plight of the Children’ is a significant coming of age moment for the character.
When King Kai gives some much needed exposition regarding the background of the Saiyan race in ‘Goku’s Ancestors’, it’s seems unlikely that such important plot details could possibly be filler material. Certainly on first viewing, the episode seems crucial to the narrative. However the power of hindsight proves both of those assumptions incorrect.
The episode sees King Kai explain Goku's Saiyan heritage and he concludes by stating that the majority of the Saiyans were wiped out by Kami due to their violent tendencies. As everybody knows, the planet Vegeta was actually destroyed by alien tyrant Frieza, retconning the claims made by King Kai in this episode. There are several explanations to account for the Kai’s mistake - the front-runners being that he was either misinformed or drunk – but whatever the reason, ‘Goku’s Ancestors’ goes from being a crucial plot-centric episode to a filler offering that over-stepped its boundaries and must be forgotten in order for Dragon Ball Z to make sense.
Nothing screams "filler" more than an ‘it was all an illusion’ plot twist and with hindsight, ‘Look Out Below’ is one of the most stereotypical examples of non-canon time wasting in the franchise. However, until the illusion is revealed, first-time viewers would be forgiven for thinking that they’re watching entirely legitimate material.
This short arc sees Bulma, Krillin and Gohan finally land on a planet they believe to be Namek and begin collecting the Dragon Balls. On the surface, you’d assume such significant events couldn’t possibly be filler material and yet, a few episodes later, it’s revealed that the entire adventure has been an illusion and the trio still haven’t reached Namek, fooling both the protagonists and the fan base in one fell swoop. There are several clues to suggest that the fake Namek isn’t the real deal but if viewers don’t pick up on these, it’s easy to get tricked into believing the episode isn’t filler.
In the Dragon Ball manga, Captain Ginyu exits stage left after his initial defeat to Goku, never to be seen again, however things don’t quite play out the same way in the anime adaptation. Instead of bowing out gracefully, frog-Ginyu makes Bulma the next target for his Body Switch technique, inhabiting her and putting Bulma’s spirit inside of the Namekian frog and this short filler plot comes to a head in ‘Embodiment of Fire’.
Strangely, this comedy-based material runs side by side with the epic final battle between Goku and Frieza and the episode switches between visceral inter-species violence featuring two of the universe’s best warriors and Bulma trapped inside a frog. The difference between the canon Frieza fight and the extension of Captain Ginyu’s arc makes for quite a jarring juxtaposition and is yet another example of the Dragon Ball Z anime stretching the length of the Goku vs. Frieza clash past an acceptable level.
It’s an ongoing joke within the Dragon Ball Z fandom that the final battle between Goku and Frieza took an obscenely long time and so it isn’t exactly a surprise that some of those episodes were entirely comprised of filler in order to elongate the epic scrap. One episode fans may be surprised to learn falls into this category, however, is ‘Duel on a Vanishing Planet’.
The episode features plenty of action from the climax of Goku and Frieza’s fight with both warriors near full power and the characters pull off some big attacks, including Frieza’s impressive Death Ball. But by far the most significant part of the episode comes in the form of some serious character development for Vegeta. Upon being informed that Goku would die in the explosion of Namek, Vegeta shows some respect for his kinsman’s decision to stay behind. Of course, he’s also pleased to be rid of the man who stood in his way of intergalactic domination but nevertheless, this moment is one of the first examples of the duo’s future friendship.
Watching Dragon Ball Z’s Garlic Jr. material for the first time and with no knowledge of the manga, it certainly doesn’t come across like the standard filler episode dross. In fact, Garlic Jr. and his spice-based henchmen appear in an extended run within the series as well as the Dead Zone movie and therefore have a lot more screen time than most stand-in villains manage.
The Garlic Jr. saga has critical merit too, primarily because it’s one of the rare instances where the Z Warriors battle without the help of their leader Goku. This allows supporting figures such as Krillin, Piccolo and Gohan to shine which is vital considering how much their roles diminish later in the series. Although never likely to trouble the Saiyan and Frieza sagas in terms of popularity, Garlic Jr’s stint on Dragon Ball Z is certainly one of the more watchable filler arcs in the franchise.
Placing filler episodes in training segments is nothing new, after all, where better to squeeze in a bit of extra material than when all the characters are leveling up to beat a new bad guy and the narrative is at a natural lull. And that was certainly the case in ‘Z Warriors Prepare’ which sees the protagonists in training for the forthcoming battle against the Androids. Despite being a filler episode however, several moments in the story feel genuinely canon.
Although the manga does depict Vegeta training in a 300x gravity room at Capsule Corps, the anime goes further, showing him struggling with such high-intensity conditions. ‘Z Warriors Prepare’ sees the Saiyan Prince strengthen his resolve to challenge Goku’s new Super Saiyan power and he eventually begins training under 400x gravity – thus giving the character a significant chunk of growth, despite being a filler segment. Furthermore, the episode includes an early example of Bulma caring for her future husband, hinting at their incoming romance.
In many ways, Goku’s Ordeal – better known as ‘the driving license episode’ – is the most infamous, notorious and recognizable filler episode in the Dragon Ball franchise. For a series usually concerned with super-strong aliens hurling beams of energy at each other and straining until yellow light comes out of them, the sheer ridiculousness of an episode in which Goku undergoes his driving test puts this offering firmly in the ‘so bad it’s good’ category. That Piccolo took the exam too only adds to the comedic genius of the episode, showing the once proud and brutal ruler of Earth driving a comedic, undersized car.
Whilst the madcap concept may give away this episode's filler status, it’s surely redeemed by the fact that ‘Goku’s Ordeal’ is arguably the funniest installment in the entirety of Dragon Ball Z. This alone may well be enough for some viewers to doubt whether the episode really is non-canon, after all how could such an insanely humorous episode be just another filler adventure?
Given Pikkon’s popularity among Dragon Ball Z fans, the fact he’s actually an entirely non-canon filler character will no doubt surprise many. Indeed, the bulk of Goku’s adventures in the Other World are filler stories and whilst this is sometimes obvious – having to fight a bunch of previous antagonists, for instance – the Other World Martial Arts Tournament feels considerably more integrated within the overall story.
Although the titular battle in ‘Goku vs. Pikkon’ is exciting enough to be considered higher quality than most filler fights in the series, the character never returns in any meaningful sense, disappointing fans who would’ve liked to see him become a bona fide Z Warrior. Pikkon does, however, manage to notch up a further appearance in the non-canon world of Dragon Ball Z as part of the Fusion Reborn movie, helping Goku battle the evil Janemba. With current series Dragon Ball Super recently introducing a female version of Broly – another popular and non-canon character – there remains hope that Pikkon will feature once again in the franchise.
For many fans, Gohan’s exploits in high school and his Great Saiyaman alter ego heralded a dark period in Dragon Ball history but although it may be hard to believe, this isn’t another Garlic Jr. style filler saga and in truth, only some of this era’s episodes are considered filler. Whilst the Great Saiyaman’s non-canon crime-busting feels absolutely like filler material, it is less well known that some of Gohan's early interactions with Videl are too.
Both ‘Gohan’s First Date’ and ‘Rescue Videl’ are anime-original offerings but they arguably lay the foundations for one of the franchise’s most important couples. Videl becomes a regular supporting character later in the series - even into Dragon Ball Super - and her relationship with Gohan yields the show’s first quarter-Saiyan, Pan. That all begins in this light-hearted double feature, even if it is entirely comprised of filler. ‘Rescue Videl’ also sees Mr. Satan’s daughter vowing to unmask the Great Saiyaman one day, not then knowing just how true that statement would prove.
The canon status of Dragon Ball GT is hotly contested by fans even to this day and the introduction of Dragon Ball Super has placed GT’s credentials into even further doubt, although the new series does stop short of contradicting its predecessor completely. Some will no doubt argue that an entire series can’t be all filler but the term is usually defined by two things: faithfulness to the original creator’s vision and the material being designed to elongate the run-time, rather than further the narrative.
With this in mind, a case can certainly be made for Dragon Ball GT being a filler series. It had minimal involvement from series author Akira Toriyama and wasn’t based on any of his manga content. And whilst GT wasn’t conceived in order to drag out a saga or fight scene like most filler, it was designed to drag out the popularity of the Dragon Ball franchise as a whole when Toriyama would've ended it. The fact that many fans consider GT to be consistently lacking in quality doesn’t help its case.
Dragon Ball Super continues February 25th on Adult Swim.