Thursday, May 27, 2010

Unreliability of Eye-witnesses of Doctor Who

I posted yesterday on Doctor Who and the Jesus Tradition in response to James McGrath and Judy Redman. James now has More on TV and the Jesus Tradition and I would like to pitch in with a good example of the unreliability of eye-witness testimony in relation to Doctor Who.

Recently, Alex Kingston reappeared on the new Doctor Who, reprising her role as the mysterious River Song, a character from the doctor's future first seen a couple of year's ago in the tenth doctor story "Silence in the Library" / "Forest of the Dead".  She reappears at an earlier point in her timeline but a later point in the eleventh doctor's, in "Time of Angels" and "Flesh and Stone".  As part of the associated publicity with her return, she did several interviews about Doctor Who and in one widely quoted interview she reflected on her memories of watching the series as a child.  She has a vivid memory of one episode when the daleks appeared on the London Underground, and she explains it in this short video from BBC America:

Alex Kingston's contribution starts at the 37 second point. This is my transcription:
There was an episode many, many, many, I mean decades ago, where the daleks took over the London Underground, and I still, if I'm travelling by the Underground train system in London, I will look down that dark hole and sort of expect to see a dalek coming out of it and so it did something to my psyche.
So there we have it -- an eyewitness reminiscence of an episode watched on television from back in the day.

Except that there is no such episode. No episode of Doctor Who exists in which the daleks take over the London Underground. What Alex Kingston is remembering is probably "The Web of Fear", a second doctor story broadcast in six parts in February and March 1968. Only the first episode is now extant, from which this is taken:

The characters on the London Underground are the Yeti and not the daleks. Alex Kingston may have conflated this episode in her mind with the second Doctor Who film Daleks' Invasion Earth: 2150AD, which was often on television back in the day -- I remember it well from my childhood. The daleks appear in that film, as does the London underground, but not together.

It turns out that others also have this false memory -- a comment on the page "My Life as a Dalek" from a certain Allan Jennings reports something very similar to what Alex Kingston says:
I saw the daleks 40 years ago and I still feel uncomfortable travelling on the London Underground. Every time the wind blows ahead of the train, I expect a dalek to come out onto the platform. My children consider I am mad but how do you get rid of the feeling of fear? I went to an exhibition a few years ago and just to be in the same room as a dalek was enough to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
It is interesting to see the same false memory occurring in different witnesses; perhaps they have both heard it suggested and have found it plausible, subconsciously working it into their own vague memories of the actual episode, "The Web of Fear".


Judy Redman said...

Mark, I'm glad you put a transcript up, because the BBC does not allow me to access the clip in my country for copyright reasions (yeah,right!!) It is an interesting contemporary example of false or altered memory, though, isn't it. I don't think I'd necessarily call it false memory, as such, since there were monsters in the Underground - just not Daleks. A false memory, as I understand it, is one that has no basis in fact.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Judy. Fancy BBC America having locked that down to other users. Typical. I've looked around for a non-locked down version but haven't found one yet.

Yes, think you are right that I should not call it "false memory". It's distorted memory, or something like that.

Anonymous said...

Of course, the question remains: Can we apply this simple illustration of distorted memory to first century viewers of Doctor Who? :)

Perhaps I am too much the layman but I have no problem mapping this sort of phenomenon to the earliest Christians. My view is that we share far more fundamental facets of human nature across time and space than are clouded by cultural expectation, etc. I am open to good research that refutes my assumption.