Click to viewCall it the year of mindwipe chic. Coming up on TV in midseason, we've got Joss Whedon's new show Dollhouse, about "actives" whose personalities are wiped and replaced for each job they do. And in the fall we've got the debut of My Own Worst Enemy, where Christian Slater plays a nice guy who finds out he has a secret alternate personality: a turbo assassin he's been brainwashed to forget about. Plus, we'll be treated to the continuing adventures of Summer Glau, who plays a Terminator who has been reprogrammed in Sarah Connor Chronicles; and we'll still be following the adventures of the taciturn Haitian mind-wiper on Heroes. What's the allure of the mindwipe, and why has it invaded the small screen? We've got three answers for you.
One of the brilliant things about mindwipey plots, at least in a television show, is that they allow writers to transform a character without any of those messy "gradually changing over time" transitions. So there's an immediate lure for television creators who need to come up with new stuff every week, and for actors who want to step outside their usual characters.
Despite the fact that mindwipe stories mean lots of changes, there are really just three basic ways to construct them, all of which you've seen before and are about to see again (that is, if we don't force you to forget about them).
You've Been Reprogrammed
One of the most popular mindwipe plots involves some kind of deleting and reprogramming of our character's personality, whether that character is Eliza Dushku's Echo in Dollhouse or Summer Glau's Cameron in Sarah Connor Chronicles. When a character is reprogrammed, you might say she experiences a series of sequential personalities — she sheds an old identity and gains a new one. This is a quick way to turn an evil character good, and that's why the good guys in Sarah Connor have a Terminator on their side.
But it's also an easy way to symbolize the weirdness of all human identity, where we often put on different roles throughout the day and shed them as necessary. In one day, a person might be a parent, an underling at work, a nervous lover on a second date, and (in the case of a show like Dollhouse) a super-assassin and sex doll. You've seen the drama of the reprogrammed person before, of course: the movie Johnny Mnemonic was all about a guy who deletes his personality so he can have more room in his brain when he works as a data mule. And in the Matrix, people can reprogram their brains (though there's no hint that they have to delete old identities to do it).
Oddly, the one non-scifi place on TV where you can find a lot of "reprogrammed" characters is soap operas, where characters have to constantly change all the time or your daily audience gets bored. I don't mean to say that soap writers literally reprogram or brainwash their characters (thought that does happen sometimes). I just mean that the idea of sequential personalities is common on soaps, where people flip-flop between the extremes of good and bad all the time.
Perhaps the most often-used mindwipe plot involves people who forget chunks of their past. This is a central premise in Heroes, where the Haitian's special power is to make people forget things they've seen. It's also used to comedic effect in the movie Men in Black, where the agents all have devices that make people forget that they've seen aliens.
Often, a missing time mindwipe allows a character to reboot and become a new person, the way superspy Sydney did during the amnesia season of Alias. Or it can simply reduce our character to a terrified weirdo, desperately trying to remember what has happened to him by tattooing information all over his body like the main character does in Memento.
Missing time is also, for some reason, an incredibly popular plot twist in romantic comedies: Everything from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to 50 First Dates involve characters who fall in love despite (or because of) the fact that they can't remember each other clearly.
A Secret Sharer
Probably the darkest way to spin the mindwipe plot is to create a character who has two personalities, one of whom is working against the other. Usually the story is spun the way My Own Worst Enemy is, where a main character who seems fairly innocuous discovers that he has an alter-ego who secretly shares his body and is doing all kinds of dastardly and/or dangerous things. Usually the alter-ego knows all about the main character, while the main character has no memory of his darker half. This setup goes all the way back to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where the doctor can't remember what he does as Hyde, but Hyde knows all about the doctor and hates his guts — oh, and by the way, the two sharers in Worst Enemy are named Henry and Edward, after Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde.
The classic "secret sharer" plot that My Own Worst Enemy is clearly referencing is Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly, where a druggie realizes that the cop who has him under surveillance is actually the other half of his own personality.
This kind of "secret identity" story lends itself well to spy thrillers, which is why you see less mindwipey versions of it showing up in crappy 1990s flick True Lies (where Jamie Lee Curtis discovers her dorky husband Arnie Schwarzenegger is secretly a superspy) and inexplicable hit Mr. and Mrs. Smith, where a very domestic couple turn out to be mega-assassins at each other's throats. This is basically the drama of discovering a secret self: The plot goes all scifi when the secret self turns out to live in your own head.
Why Mindwipes Now?
Essentially, the mindwipe is a way of making a standard reality-based plot into something scifi. Soaps, romances, and spy thrillers can all be remolded into cool scifi stories if you just add a little brainwashing. Or reprogramming. Or weird drugs that give you a split personality. So it's possible the mindwipe craze is just an epiphenomenon in the more general scifi craze.
It's also likely that, as I mentioned earlier, the mindwipe is an easy way to talk about how our daily lives make us feel that our personalities have become fragmented. In a world where people switch jobs every few years, where families can be scattered across great distances, and the internet creates communities that have no geographical location at all, everyone starts to feel a little bit like they they are leading triple and quadruple lives.
And when you try to juggle multiple selves, it often leads to an uncanny sense of missing time. And who knows? Maybe you saved the world during that missing time. Or released a Big Bad from some other dimension. That's the really potent fantasy at the heart of all this. The idea that you didn't lose time to some dumb traffic jam or distracting blog, but instead were doing something more important than you ever realized.