The Memory Cheats?


One of my Dalek drawings, aged 14

Can we trust what we remember? Can we be sure that what we saw is what really happened, or does ‘reality’ not really exist unless we remember it?

Perhaps there is no truth, and no real shared reality. How can we really ever be so sure if there can only ever be our interpretation of it…

There’s a joke amongst fans of the television series Doctor Who that if you want to wind them up all you have to do is say, ‘the memory cheats’.

It’s a phrase that came from the producer of the programme throughout the 1980s, John Nathan Turner, who had the arduous task of updating the programme for the new decade. Some say he made too many changes too fast which gave fandom the idea, for the first time, that the programme ‘wasn’t as good as it used to be’.

Fans cited that the stories were more gripping, the production values higher and the acting better. They claimed the programme in days gone by was grittier, more meaningful, more realistic and more adventurous.

Nathan-Turner’s response to this was that the ‘fans’ who were now a few years older than when they were watching in the mid-seventies as children, were remembering the older episodes as better that they actually were. This was of course very possible and since the old episodes from the 1960s and 70s were never repeated, there was no way to check either way.

What Nathan-Turner had underestimated was that home video revolution was about to begin and shortly after his words were spoken he would find himself having to eat them.

Episodes of Doctor Who from what was now being referred to as its ‘Golden Age’ were fast becoming available for all to see. It was then pretty obvious to all that 1975’s ‘Pyramids of Mars’ with Tom Baker was indeed a better televisual experience all round than 1988’s ‘Silver Nemesis’ with Sylvester McCoy.  By 1989 more people bought the videos of the old stuff than were watching the new stuff on tv and the programme was cancelled by the BBC after 26 years.

John Nathan-Turner died in 2002 and never got to see the massively successful re-launch of the programme in 2005. However the successes and failures of his 10 years as producer were key to making the reborn version a success. Russell T Davis knew that you can’t go back and pander to what we thought was good 30 years ago; the new Doctor Who could not be overly nostalgic or self-consciously retro, it had to appeal to a new audience. But at the same time, with, by 2005 all the existing previous 25 years of the programme out on video, the audience would be able to make a direct comparison with the high water marks of the programme’s past. Davis got the balance right and with an average of nearly 10 million views tuning in each week, Doctor Who continues to be the BBCs most profitable programme and has lasted seven years so far.

But there’s still something about John Nathan-Turner comment, back in the mid eighties that niggles…

When we view the best of the episodes from the 1960s, 70s or 80s, there isn’t really a lot different between them, the production values are fairly consistent across the 26 years. There are a lot of good monsters and a lot of very, very poor monsters in every era of the old show (although there were never wobbly sets as is often insinuated). The main difference between the episodes is that some stories are better than others (and it does appear that there were a larger number of more consistent compelling, gripping stories in certain earlier eras of the programme than the late 1980s.) But it’s only when we compare an episode from the new series with, let’s say the best of the old series that something else, something new becomes apparent. There are notable differences.

Firstly there’s the quality of the picture. Before 2000, most BBC programmes were recorded in an aspect ratio of 4:3, the shape of your old television. Since then all recording has been filmed in widescreen, 16:9, giving a bigger, wider picture. Old programmes look odd sat in a square on a new tv, or get stretched to fill it. Since 2010, the BBCs flagship programmes have been filmed in HD, a higher resolution than the standard broadcast quality used since 1970 when colour was introduced.

The old series was recorded on film (for exterior location scenes) or video (for studio scenes) with multiple cameras. This means that the programmes was effectively filmed in the studio as if it was a play. The actors acted out the story and the director and the vision mixer sat up in the gallery and switched between the many cameras filming the action in the studio below. The old series (as all television drama of the period) has the feel of a live play, it is often slow, the actors voices sound echoey, there are mistakes made and lines fluffed but there are kept in as it would often be too time consuming to reshoot the entire scene.

In the 1960s it was so expensive and time consuming to rewind and re-record video that many mistakes were left in such as Daleks zooming into the set, unable to stop and crashing into the opposite wall of the set. The first Doctor, WIlliam Hartnell played the character as a cantankerous old man, but some of his characteristics weren’t acting as he struggled sometimes to remember lines, most famously saying that the Daleks would destroy a planet leaving it “like a burnt cinder, hanging in Spain….. in space”.

The new series by comparison is filmed just like a cinema motion picture, with one film camera, one shot at a time, with each shot perfected before the next angle is filmed. This gives a very different look to the finished programme.

But perhaps the most obvious and startling difference between the old and new series is the fact that the new series takes advantage of being processed digitally allowing computer effects to be added later. In the old series, almost all effects had to happen right there, live in the studio. It wasn’t until the mid 70s when we actually saw laser beams from Dalek guns or from K9’s nose.

And this is the point where we see how ‘the memory cheats’. So many Doctor Who fans of the programme from the 60s and 70s would swear that they’s seen laser beams from Dalek guns as far back as 1964, but they’d be wrong. The story implied a better reality than was actually there.

On New Years Day, 1972, the Daleks appeared on television for the first time in colour, in a new Doctor Who adventure, The Day of the Daleks. This story was recently used as an example by physiologists looking into to concept of memory and how it works.

Dalek drawing

One of my Dalek drawings, aged 13

At the climax of the story, the Daleks invade Earth, coming out of a railway tunnel, flanked by their ogre-like warriors the Ogrons. They march slowly forward, firing their weapons at the UNIT solders who are defending a large country house, protecting a politician the Daleks have come to exterminate.

What’s obvious to us now, watching 40 years later is that there are only three Daleks in this ‘assault’. There are flashes and bangs of live explosives, but no laser beams. And yet the memory of those that watched, aged 5 to 10 distinctly remember seeing the most exciting invasion force they could possibly imagine.

What this highlights is a number of interesting insights into how memory works and how it, in some ways does ‘cheat’.

When we see events, we don’t record them in memory. What we remember is snapshots of images and emotions where those images and emotions have meaning and significance to us. So a child watching in 1972 would remember the exciting bits with the Daleks but not the boring bits with the politicians at UNIT HQ.

But since the programme consisted of four 25 minute episodes broadcast over four weeks and never seen again, the child’s re-imagining of what they thought they’d remembered becomes part of the memory. At that time, there were few books and magazines about Doctor Who so any reference such as in the Radio Times (Day of the Daleks was heralded with an exciting illustration on the front cover) would have been memorable and that would have been incorporated into the memory of the events. As too would be the novelisation of the story, published a few years later which differed in many respects to the broadcast story (it could afford to many more than just three Daleks in the final scene). This is known as ‘blended memory’ where various sources are mixed together to form what appears to be a single memory.

So was John Nathan-Turner was right all along? The memory does ‘cheat’ in a way. What it shows it that a compelling story can act as a trigger or seed for the imagination which will them embellishes it to form a more exciting and memorable memory worth remembering.

Most people today tend to live ‘literal’ lives, hell bent on thinking that there is one ‘truth’ and that there is only one all-encompassing meaning to everything. Most people are reductionist and anti-paradoxical, searching for and expecting cold facts, thinking that bare logic is better than personal meaning and experiential significance. I believe they are wrong.

I’ve used Doctor Who as an example here, because it’s a clear example for me to explain, but I could have used anything that creates memory and fires imagination such as football, religion or music, all of which are enveloped in magic, myth and paradox.

Is Doctor Who and the Day of the Daleks an irrelevant, old-fashioned, poorly produced an conceived children’s programme that is as corny and unbelievable as it is boring? Or is it an exiting adventure about the dangers of time travel, the nature of terrorism and freedom fighters, and the fear of totalitarianism?

It is of course both and neither depending on its personal connection to your imagination (as with everything). The memory doesn’t ‘cheat’ at all – it creates our reality from the meaning and significance of the events that happen to us.

We need to face the fact that there is no truth, and no real shared reality except the ones we create which are always slightly different from each other. How can anyone of us every be so sure that we’ve got it right when there can only ever be our own interpretation of reality. Perhaps if we realised this and accepted it, just maybe we’d all get along just a bit better.

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

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3 comments on “The Memory Cheats?

  1. That’s on big truism. The debate on what’s reality rages on. In fact, reality is an illusion, we have only perception which, as you point out has little to do with so called reality. If you fancy going along to any debates on the subject count me in!

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  2. Given that we can now see anything we want again and again, is this ever going to be the case again? I have memories of events from my own life that couldn’t possibly have happened. For example, I distinctly remember someone running into a shed at school where we wereainting sets, to tell us that the Prime Minister had drowned. I remember it! Yet it couldn’t have happened. By the time Harold Holt drowned I was on summer holidays.

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  3. There have been interesting experiments – Lynda may be better placed to comment – in memory. Psychologists have Photoshopped images of people so that it looks as though they are visiting, say, Blackpool, only in fact they’ve never been. Presented with the pictures the subjects started ‘remembering’ going there, even details like who they’d been with. Early theories to explain this include the notion that people will fill in the blanks and rationalise like mad – ‘I can see I was in Blackpool’ becomes more important to the brain than ‘I know I haven’t been to Blackpool’.

    So, about this thousand quid everyone owes me, come on, you remember…

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