The Persistence Of Amnesia


Catching a rerun of a Wild Wild West episode, “The Night Of The Amnesiac” on my favorite local channel for old TV reruns the other night reminded me of how ubiquitous a plot device amnesia is. This past summer we had the third of the Bourne movies, and coming up on the fall schedule is a sitcom called Samantha Who? featuring Christina Applegate as someone who wakes up with memory loss, Regarding Henry-style, and discovers how much she dislikes the person she had been…. with hilarious consequences!!! Well, they hope….

So after all that blather I wrote about identity & City Lights, it struck me how amnesia-as-plot-device can serve very different purposes in television as opposed to film.

On older TV, at least, the characters were static. James West was basically the same guy no matter what episode you caught – he’d be suave and smooth with the ladies, and inevitably beat the crap out of a bunch of bad guys played by his off-screen stuntmen drinking buddies before employing gadgets and teaming with Artemus Gordon (wearing his disguise of the week) to finish off the guest villain. And it worked every time! This is a great show that holds up beautifully after (gasp!) 40 years, by the way.

So when James West gets knocked on the head and loses his memory, it’s only a plot device where we wait for him to regain his memory in order to stop that week’s baddie (wonderfully played by Ed Asner in this particular episode, channeling his evil-western-guy role out of El Dorado, it seems). When West doesn’t know who he is, he still acts like James West – he comes to a lady’s rescue via a fistfight (one can’t help but think of Daffy Duck promising Nasty Canasta “a fist beating…FRONTIER STYLE!!” when watching any given episode of this show), he charms said lady with a kiss, he’s lightning fast on the draw, etc. He never thinks about any of these seemingly automatic actions, he just does them – West is never given any dialogue or moments when he wonders just what sort of a person he is for doing these things, or more importantly, wonders why he does them. The closest he gets is wondering what sort of job he must have held if people are trying to kill him.

Even though we know these characters well after umpteen episodes or whatever, we’re basically waiting for the final segment to see them regain their memory, and thereby regain their identity, to wrap up the plot. We’re not given any sort of growth or change from that character, change coming from their experience of identity loss.

Sci-fi shows, much like sci-fi movies, break this pattern sometimes when they play with the very notion of our identities being the sum of our memories, as in my favorite Arnold movie Total Recall, and most recently on an episode of Dr. Who, “Human Nature/The Family Of Blood” where the Doctor stores his entire being into a pocket watch while on the run and basically becomes someone else – someone human and normal. It turns out the human doesn’t think much of his true alien self once he hears more about him, either. One of the best episodes of Star Trek:TNG called “The Inner Light” did this with a different take, where Picard gets zapped by an alien probe and, totally within his own mind, becomes a different person on an alien world, and then lives out the rest of their life eventually forgetting the identity of Picard as if it was the dream instead. As “Kamin,” Picard gets to do the main thing the actual Picard had always sacrified – raise a family. When the probe shuts down and Picard awakens, he remembers everything – though in later episodes of the series, Picard is still the same Picard we’ve always known. The Ronald Moore comment on the link sums it up – an experience that in reality would be life-changing becomes one on television that only teaches someone how to play an alien flute.

Funny how one of the best episodes of TNG was a quasi-update of an episode of the original series, “The Paradise Syndrome,” which I can never take seriously once I see Shatner yelling “I AM KUROK!!!!”

It’s almost as good as this.

Film works differently. Unless the film is part of a series where we see the same character either develop or offer us the familiar across films, when we watch the typical Hollywood movie our experience is one of meeting a character at the beginning and then watching that character develop over the next two hours or so. So if the plot of the film concerns a character who has lost their memory, most often the entire plot revolves around their discovery of who they really are.

We can follow along with them in their search, and hopefully the little clues to their identity are compelling enough for us to continue watching. A movie like Mr. Buddwing does this, as we follow James Garner from his amnesiac awakening with merely a phone number in his pocket through his slow Christmas-Carol-esque reconstruction of his life, where three different women he meets (Katherine Ross, Suzanne Pleshette and Jean Simmons) take the role of his real wife in his memory flashbacks – one of idealistic young love (Ross), one of a marriage turning bad (Pleshette) and one of a marriage in shambles (Simmons) leading up to the cause of the memory loss. I caught this one on TCM some time back and while I found the storyline somewhat interesting, I grew more and more fascinated by just how absolutely HORRIBLE the majority of the dialogue was. Totally unrealistic and overly ornate speechifying (a la my complaint on parts of Harlan Ellison’s “The Departed”) which may have read better in Evan Hunter’s original novel than they played on screen. And this isn’t entertainingly-bad dialogue like Stephen Boyd spouting “I’ve had it up to here with your bringdown” in The Oscar. It’s just painful. The offbeat jazz soundtrack may have saved this one, actually.

I think the most interesting innovation applied to the conventions of audience identification with the amnesiac was successfully accomplished by Memento, where Guy Pearce’s loss of long term memory makes him constantly forget what he’s just done. So, to put us in the same position, the story is told backwards – we only see what he’s forgotten after he’s forgotten it. It’s a great story structure trick, and a great movie.

When much of dramatic fiction concerns character establishment & development, and while episodic television demands a level of character stasis, amnesia plots will always be around.

Good God, did I give you enough links to follow? Enough stuff to go off and watch? It’s time to go pour myself a tall one.


One thought on “The Persistence Of Amnesia

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  1. Thanks for the article. I was thinking you could follow this with a related tome of being whacked on the head and going into an alternate reality. Notable examples that come to mind include “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (and the Bugs Bunny spoof on it), and the episode where Dudley Do-Right from Rocky and Bullwinkle starts seeing visions after a brain injury.

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