We all love a good identity crises episode. Maybe we like the drama, or maybe we like to see our favorite actors stretch their legs. Here are my top five favorite identity crises in British television.
Life on Mars: Sam Williams
In the season 2 finale of time traveling psychological cop drama Life on Mars, shady Frank Morgan (Ralph Brown), who may or may not also be Jim Keats, convinces protagonist Sam Tyler (John Simm) that he is not from the future after all and is in fact a local to 1972. Morgan’s web of lies has Sam believing that he has amnesia, that his brain fabricated the 2005 world he thinks he’s from, and that his real name is Sam Williams. Sam Tyler is just a name he’d seen on a gravestone and adopted as his own. Although this identity crisis doesn’t have Sam behaving any differently (except with an extra splash of emo), both Sam and the viewers begin to believe Morgan’s logical explanation of why Sam thinks he’s traveled in time. But Frank Morgan turns out to be evil, so it’s okay. We should have guessed, considering he’d borrowed his name from the actor who plays the wizard in The Wizard of Oz, a running reference in the show.
Sherlock: Richard Brook
In the season 2 finale of Sherlock, “The Reichenbach Fall,” Sherlock’s arch-nemesis Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott) creates a new persona, claiming to the press that he’s an actor named Richard Brook who was hired by Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) to take the fall for Sherlock’s crimes. Moriarty explains to journalist Kitty Riley (Katherine Parkinson) that Sherlock wants to appear brilliant before the police as she pretends to solve his own crimes. Moriarty’s embodiment of this Richard Brook is so convincing, the viewer’s faith in Sherlock’s innocent wavers for a moment. Sherlock watches Richard Brook’s eyes with almost admiration at his stunt, and looking for signs of Moriarty peeping backk.
Red Dwarf: Despair Squid
In the episode “Back to Reality,” the crew of the mining spaceship Red Dwarf wake up to find that they have been playing a virtual reality game for the last few years and are not, in fact, the people they believed they were. While they wait for their real memories to return, they use clues found in their possessions to put together their real identities: moral-driven Lister (Craig Charles) is a political criminal and murderer, OCD Rimmer (Chris Barry) smells of yak urine, mechanoid Kryten (Robert Llewellyn) is a half-human traffic cop, and stylish Cat (Danny John-Jules) is a thermos-toting, sandal-wearing dweeb called Dwayne Dibbly (a character who is so popular, he comes back in a couple episodes later on). In the end, they decide they’d rather die than get their memories back and return to embodying these hideous characters. Luckily, before they can commit suicide, their shipboard computer Holly (Hattie Hayridge) breaks the spell, and they discover the whole thing had been an illusion caused by the toxic ink of a space squid.
Doctor Who: John Smith
In the heart-breaking double episode “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood,” the Doctor (David Tennant) must hide from his enemies by becoming human and wiping his memory. Using a Timelord watch, he takes on the guise of John Smith, a school teacher in 1913 who falls for the school nurse (Jessica Hynes) right under the nose of his companion, Martha (Freema Agyman), who, memories in tact, is still pining away for the Doctor while in disguise as a servant in the school. Toward the end, John Smith remembers what the Doctor is like, and we get to see the Doctor in a new light, how broken and wrong and destructive he is and how John Smith doesn’t want to become him again. The return of the Doctor’s memories is almost literally the death of John Smith.
In what I perceive as the best identity crisis episode out there, the members of secret alien-fighting group Torchwood get their memories tampered with by an alien called Adam who squeezes his way into their club, as well as their memories. This results in accidental personality shifts. Owen (Burn Gorman) and Toshiko (Naoko Mori) swap personalities. Where Tosh is usually the meek one with a secret crush on asshole doctor Owen, the roles are reversed. With Adam’s meddling, Tosh is a confident woman who’s madly in love with Adam, and Owen is meek and has a puppyish adoration of Tosh. He brings her sandwiches, is shy about drinking beer on the job, and fumbles over his eventual declaration of affection. There is something about having the tables turned on unrequited love that is so much more heart-breaking than the death of John Smith, especially when Tosh dismisses Owen’s confession of love.