This feature contains spoilers.
In reality, amnesia in its wide variety of different forms is a serious condition that can ruin lives. On TV, it’s an opportunity for romance, wacky hi-jinks and/or some serious angsting, depending on the cause of the amnesia and what the amnesiac gets up to while memory-less. Amnesia on television is nearly always retrograde amnesia (where the person forgets things that happened before the onset of amnesia) rather than anterograde amnesia (loss of short-term memory, a debilitating condition) and the amnesiac will always remember useful things like how to boil an egg, drive a car and speak English, but not specifics concerning their names, their family, their personal history, or, most importantly, who they were in love with.
Amnesia is a favourite plot device of soap operas, and a very cheesy one. It’s usually used to mess with romantic relationships, or in extreme cases, to bring people back from the dead and explain where they’ve been for the past several years (Harold Bishop on Neighbours, for example, whose family were even more unlucky than their Fringe relatives, fell off a cliff and reappeared five years later calling himself Ted). In genre television, there are many more ways to lose your memory beyond the classic getting-hit-on-the-head, but ultimately you’re still aiming for the same goal: maximum angst. Philosophical musings on what makes us the people we are, are available as an optional extra.
The chief danger with amnesia storylines is that they’re especially prone to the reset button. Character has amnesia, they fall in love with the wrong person, completely change personality, etc., but eventually they get their memory back and everything goes back to how it was before. It is possible, however, to do an amnesia storyline that affects the characters on a more permanent level and creates some kind of permanent change even after their memories have returned. For maximum impact, the moment the character’s memory returns should not be so much ‘Hooray! I remember all our years of happy marriage!’ as ‘Oh s**t…’ The five cases outlined below all stand out partly because the memory loss shifted the direction of these characters’ stories in a permanent way.
There is a whole sub-category of genre amnesia which involves stealing a character’s memories and implanting new ones for various nefarious purposes, usually to use them as manual labour (quite why the aliens who do this don’t just use brute force like everyone else is a mystery). For simplicity’s sake, this list is solely for characters whose memories are wiped and they’re left with partial memories or a blank slate. Implanted false memories are another list for another day.
5. Eric Northman, True Blood
Who? A witch’s spell renders Eric the Viking completely amnesiac. It’s never clear how much of his life he remembers, if anything, but luckily he knows what a car is and how to speak English, though he does lapse into Swedish even more often than usual. He also remembers all the True Blood-verse (Sookieverse?) vampire rules. He just doesn’t remember Sookie or Pam. Or table manners when eating your host’s fairy godmother.
Gorgonzola rating: You know the moon that’s made of cheese in Wallace and Gromit’s Grand Day Out? This is cheesier.
Relationship drama? Naturally, this is the sole purpose for Eric’s amnesia. For some reason Eric without his memories has the personality of a lively puppy – he might get overexcited and eat your fairy godmother, but underneath he’s a big old softy. And therefore shaggable.
Philosophical musings? Not really. Eric expresses a desire not to get his memories back and a regret for some of his past actions, but that has more to do with knowing that Regular Eric has more trouble getting into Sookie’s pants.
All change: On a purely physical level, Eric has now joined the ranks of Sookie’s ex-lovers. Although she breaks off their relationship after he gets his memories back (among other things), her feelings towards him have irrevocably changed and, unlike the book on which season four was based, so have his for her. Well, his feelings haven’t changed so much as got even soppier, but still.
Enjoy because: ‘Diet Eric,’ the puppyish lovelorn guy with hair that made him look like he’d escaped a nineties boy-band, was not everyone’s favourite character. Somehow, the various directors achieved the impossible and made us tired of looking at Alexander Skarsgård’s naked backside, and seeing ‘Real’ Eric just in a dream sequence became reason to cheer out loud. But the storyline was not entirely without merit. True Blood is, after all, a cheesy vampire-romance soap opera, and as such, the amnesia plot fits it perfectly. It allows Sookie to jump into bed with Eric mere days after breaking up with Bill because suddenly the softer side of his personality that had previously been hinted at was the only part of his personality on view. It also allowed Sookie to rescue him instead of Eric or Bill rescuing her and gave her the upper hand in a vampire-human relationship for the first time. Plus, the puppy-dog eyes were really quite adorable.
4. The entire Scooby gang, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ‘Tabula Rasa’
Who? Everyone in the magic shop at the time Willow casts a particularly unwise spell.
Gorgonzola rating: Very mild cream cheese. The B-stories that run the greatest risk of dipping into fondue, Giles and Anya’s belief that they’re married and Buffy and Spike discovering they still work well together even without memories, are too hilarious to be cheesy, while the ending and full consequences of the incident are far too sad.
Relationship drama? Lots. Come for the funny stuff, but leave crying because poor Tara can only take so much. Willow’s attempt to violate her mind and make her forget their fight, which was itself caused by a previous forgetting spell to make them forget a previous fight (you have to wonder how often Willow could, theoretically, have done this), is the last straw and she leaves (as does Giles, for murkier and less solid reasons).
Philosophical musings? Everyone’s a bit too busy having wacky hi-jinks to get philosophical, though it’s interesting that soul-less Spike leaps to the conclusion that he must have a soul while fighting alongside Buffy for no other reason than that he woke up in a room with these people and assumes he’s their friend or relative (he doesn’t try to attack them, so he doesn’t know about the chip).
All change: Tara leaves Willow, Giles leaves Sunnydale and Buffy and Dawn spiral ever deeper into destructive depression.
Enjoy because: Joan the Vampire Slayer! ‘A vampire with a soul – how lame is that?’ Giles and Anya engaged (they have surprisingly good chemistry)! Randy Giles! The relationship drama is important and well-handled but really, the reason to keep coming back to this episode is that it’s simply hilarious.
3. The Doctor, Star Trek: Voyager, ‘Latent Image’
Who? The Doctor, who finds a scar on Harry Kim from an operation he doesn’t remember performing.
Gorgonzola rating: Barely a sprinkling of parmesan – the Doctor’s crisis is serious and fully justified. (Season six’s Riddles, in which Tuvok loses all his memories including his Vulcan training and becomes BFFs with Neelix, is also very good, but much, much cheesier).
Relationship drama? None (unless perhaps you have a burning desire to write Doctor/Harry Kim fan fiction).
Philosophical musings: Deep and prolonged, though mostly relating to the central dilemma that kicked off the amnesia – a triage situation in which two patients have an equal chance of living but there’s only time to save one of them, so the Doctor saves his friend. The episode makes brilliant use of the Doctor’s status as an Artificial Intelligence to explore a breakdown that would be just as understandable in a human being, but can be explained in snappily clinical terms when applied to the Doctor, who is literally programmed not to be affected by things like friendship. Ultimately, the episode eventually becomes a treatise on the personhood of an A.I., a subject Star Trek has treated many, many times before, but this is one of the good ones.
All change: Although the Doctor thought he’d won this battle long before, it turns out Captain Janeway was still treating him as a machine. By the end of the episode, she allows him to experience a psychological crisis as a living being instead, and helps him as a friend.
Enjoy because: This is an engaging and thoughtful episode on a familiar topic, but the amnesia angle results in a stand-out moment partway through when the Doctor finds out who has been erasing parts of his memory. The idea that people can fiddle with your memory and personality at will is creepy enough in itself, and the sense of betrayal when it’s revealed to the Doctor and Seven that Janeway is the person who’s been deleting his memories is palpable. It’s also another instance where Janeway does something morally questionable and her whole crew just go with it – Seven being the exception, partly because she feels half-A.I. herself. It’s lucky for the Voyager crew that Janeway wasn’t a total psycho (though an argument could be made) as they’d have gone along with her on just about anything.
2. The Bishops, Fringe
Who? Just about everyone at one time or another, but primarily Walter and Peter Bishop (Olivia also gets the false-memories version in season three). Walter has a Swiss-cheesed brain to rival Sam Beckett’s most of the time anyway, and is the character most strongly affected by the sudden loss of Peter in season four. Peter, meanwhile, somehow managed to repress his memories of being kidnapped by his father’s look-a-like, taken to another universe and nearly drowning in a frozen lake. This was easily enough explained at the time by the fact he was dying of the Incurable Cough of Death, plus he was fairly young and had already established he remembered nothing about the ‘car accident.’ Until, that is, season three’s Subject 13, in which he’s apparently spent a good six months complaining that he’s in the wrong universe and clearly remembers the whole thing. That whole episode, as well as being a continuity black hole, also implied that both Peter and Olivia were old enough and healthy enough to remember all sorts of things involving other universes, airships and, indeed, each other.
Gorgonzola rating: Mostly mild, apart from the afore-mentioned Subject 13, which goes very string-cheesy though in a way not really related to the amnesia, and Olivia’s magic memory in season four, which is very mature cheddar.
Relationship drama? Olivia re-gaining her memories of Peter’s timeline in season four due to the Power of Love is pretty dramatic, but more interesting is the reversal in the father-son relationship between Peter and Walter. Having pushed Walter away for three seasons due to a bad relationship, probably exacerbated by the repressed kidnapping memories and then made worse by the revelation of what Walter had done, Peter is forced to realise how much he loves his father when Walter turns on him, due to remembering nothing about him except his untimely death in a frozen lake.
Philosophical musings: Lots, especially in season five. Walter’s brain is finally put back together (and almost immediately damaged again) and he panics that he will become the man he was before, a man he doesn’t like very much. His dilemma is eventually solved by the restoration of his lost memories of Peter’s timeline, the Power of Love this time enabling him to reconcile the different parts of his personality into a more stable whole.
All change: Every time someone’s memories get messed about with, it shifts their character, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes through major upheaval. John Noble’s performance as a still-damaged Walter slowly coming to terms with his regained memories in season five, culminating in a shift into a man much more comfortable in his skin when Michael restores his memories of Peter, is a work of genius.
Enjoy because: All the performances are brilliant, as the actors show you how their characters are affected by their memories in different ways throughout the show, John Noble’s especially. And because there’s a certain wicked pleasure in working out just how messed up poor Peter must be, if he managed to repress all his memories of every single event from Subject 13 (while still remembering that G.I. Joe’s scar was on the other side of his face).
1. Linea/Ke’ra, Stargate SG-1, ‘Past and Present’
Who? Linea the DESTROYER OF WORLDS! reappears in the younger and prettier form of Ke’ra, a friendly scientist with severe retrograde amnesia.
Gorgonzola rating: Medium Cheddar. Her romance with Daniel – one episode after his wife died – is a bit cheesy, but the story overall is interesting.
Relationship drama? Daniel rebounds from Sha’re’s death with the DESTROYER OF WORLDS! Even given the fact he essentially lost Sha’re three years earlier, and the fact he got a whole extra few weeks in hallucination-time with her, it still seems awfully quick. It’s easy to spend half the episode wishing Teal’c would point out that his wife just died, but since Teal’c killed her, he probably doesn’t want to bring it up.
Philosophical musings? The episode hinges around the question of whether or not amnesiac Ke’ra is the same (dangerous) person as Linea. The script cleverly drops little hints of the personality that had originally made her the DESTROYER OF WORLDS throughout the story, showing her as a character who takes control, who takes risks in the name of science and so on, but in Ke’ra these traits are put to work for good things instead of, well, world-destroying.
All change: The conclusion reached by the characters within the show is that our memories do indeed make us who we are. Linea’s memories are taken away from her again on the assumption that without them, she is no longer dangerous (though her companions know everything, so I guess they can keep an eye on her). It’s worth noting, though, that when Linea recovers her memories, she doesn’t set out to destroy any worlds, but to kill herself. Clearly her experiences on the planet and with Daniel have changed her as well – more memories that have driven her personality in a slightly different direction again.
Enjoy because: Aside from the fact that Ke’ra’s planet is rather cool (very steampunk, all airships and chimneys) and the fact that this episode clearly demonstrates that poor Sha’re had to die because the writers needed to be able to use Daniel in romantic plots, this is a simplistic but fun exploration of the idea that it’s our memories that form our personality. The DETROYER OF WORLDS! is no more, replaced by an earnest if slightly over-zealous leader and healer. Real life is unlikely to be so simple, but it’s a neat little science fiction fable.
Honourable mentions: Quantum Leap’s Sam Beckett and the original Swiss-cheesed brain; everyone on Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes except Sam and Alex; Sydney Bristow in season three of Alias; the crew of the Red Dwarf in Thanks for the Memory.
Dishonourable mentions: Jamie, Zoe and Donna in Doctor Who. Permanent amnesia is the least satisfying way to write out a character ever (with the notable exception of Conner in Angel, but a) it did him a favour and we hated him anyway and b) he got his memories back in the end).
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