Nostalgia corner: John Doe (2002-3)

What if you knew everything except who you were?

Imagine you knew everything. I mean literally everything. Okay, maybe not the answer to questions about things that haven’t happened yet – although with all that knowledge about everything, you’d certainly do well on the stock market and horse racing, for example – but whatever question anyone ever asked you, you could answer it, provided it was part of the sum of all human knowledge, whether it was a question about an obscure 19th century French law, how to make an explosive or how many dimples there are on a golfball.

Everything, that is, except your own name or indeed anything else about yourself. Are you a god in human form? An alien? A scientific experiment?

That was the set up and central mystery of Fox’s John Doe, a 2002 series that saw Prison Break‘s Dominic Purcell wake up naked on a deserted island off the coast of Seattle, with no memory of who he was, brain chock full of answers, a mysteriously shaped scar on his chest and even more mysteriously only able to see in black and white – apart from a few, very important things that show up in red.

It’s a fascinating idea, and one that requires a fascinating answer. Unfortunately, the show was also a salutary example to serial shows based around a central mystery – whatever you do, you better have some good answers at the end of it all. Here’s the series-explaining title sequence:

John Doe – Sherlock Holmes

Following that quite simple series set-up, the show itself went on to tread a somewhat familiar path. Doe, wanting answers about himself, naturally goes to the police. Since he not only knows so much but can also connect everything together, he’s a veritable Sherlock Holmes, able to piece together clues and obscure facts to solve mysteries. So in return for his help in clearing up crime, the police help him to try to figure out who he is.

Tied into that was a series long, conspiracy-theory arc, this being the post-X-Files, post-Millennium time when such things were still popular. Here, a mysterious group of people called the Phoenix Organization are watching Doe’s every move.

Episode by episode, Doe and his various friends and almost-friends (John Marshall Jones, Jayne Brook, Sprague Grayden and William Forsythe) would get clues, most of them red herrings, to Doe’s identity, sometimes ruling out possibile explanations at the end of each episode. Along the way, Doe would meet psychics, begin to question whether his friends were really working for Phoenix, and learn more about the shadowy organisation.

Who was John Doe?

Unfortunately for John Doe, the real world wasn’t that interested in his problem so the show only lasted a season, at the end of which it was revealed that Forsythe had indeed been a member of Phoenix. But that was it. The show never revealed the true answer to Doe’s identity.

Naturally, of course, the creators had been planning to keep the full explanation of Doe’s identity, his mysterious memory loss, his mysterious knowledge gain, the nature of the Phoenix Organization and their interest in Doe, and the significance of his unusual scar until the final season or even final episode. So assuming the show had lasted for five or even seven episodes, at the end of it all, had you watched every episode and puzzled through every teaser, what would have been your reward? What marvellous answers were there to such marvellous questions?

Well, Entertainment Weekly interviewed the show’s creators Brandon Camp and Mike Thompson after it was cancelled and this is what they revealed:

Where we left off
Doe was helping the police solve crimes and being tracked by a seemingly nefarious organization called the Phoenix. He finally unmasked the big bad, a villain nicknamed Stocking Cap – revealing his friend Digger (William Forsythe)!

What would have happened
Make that someone who looked like Digger. It was just a Phoenix member with some fancy facial reconstruction. Turns out, the Phoenix believed Doe was the Messiah and its members were actually protecting Doe from a second group, which wanted him dead.

The truth
Doe was injured in a boating accident. That mark on his chest? Metal from the explosion. His Überbrain? A by-product of transcending his body during a near-death experience, traveling to a spiritual place where all the universe’s questions are answered, and returning . . . naked!

So who is John Doe?
“You’d think we would have actually come up with his name,” Thompson says.

”We have no idea,” admits Camp, before adding ”Fred.”

And if you want to know why mystery-serial shows like Alcatraz flounder and die in the ratings, that explanation is why: no one’s willing to put in the viewing time when they’ve been burnt by stupid answers like that before.

All the same, if you do want to watch a few episodes of the show, you can watch all the episodes below:


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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