John Doe debuted in 2002, airing on Friday nights at 9pm on Fox, a timeslot that is apparently where perfectly good sci-fi shows go to die.
The show opens with a square-jawed, naked man (Dominic Purcell, more recently of Prison Break, and so much cuter with hair) stumbling confusedly around an island. A few quick cuts and horror movie-style sound clips later, he is plucked out of the ocean by a fishing vessel off the coast of Seattle. Despite speaking Khmer and being able to tell the date and time, down to the second, by the position of the sun, he doesn’t know who he is or how he wound up in the water. As the audience, we’re as lost as the character.
Walking aimlessly down the street, Mr. Square Jaw notices a scar or a brand of some sort on his neck (which, although this show came first, reminds me of those marks the characters on Heroes used to find on themselves in Season 1.) It’s sort of a C-shaped thing with a couple of slashed through it. For reasons not yet explained, he sees only in black and white.
The nameless man quickly discovers, as do we, that he is a genius, or a human encyclopedia, or both. He puts his uncanny smarts to work in short order, first dazzling a crowd at a library by answering any question they can imagine. And, I may be over-thinking this, but there is an overhead shot of the library desk and the crowd around it that vaguely resembles the scar.
He gets himself a social security number and names himself John Doe. Before long, John is on his way to financial largesse, putting his brain to work on horse races and foreign currency. But wait, there’s more! Not only is he a brainiac, he’s musically talented, and soon stumbles into a gig playing piano in a bar. So we’re thinking he’s going to land on his feet.
At last through the set-up, we’re vaulted into action when John sees a missing little girl on TV, and her photo is the only thing he sees in color. Figuring that must mean something, he offers his services to the local police. The cop in charge of the missing person’s case lets him help pretty much right off the bat, while maintaining the requisite skepticism.
The mystery unfolds, with John seeing key people and items in color. The question that propels us through is, will John find the girl, or will the girl help him find himself?
With the forensics skills of Temperence Brennan, the learning ability of Chuck Bartowski, and the looks of – wow, I don’t know who – John has it all, as a character. The supporting characters come off as superficial, like the head-scratching cop and the really annoying-yet artistic-young woman who works at the bar with John. Everyone else introduced in this episode is a throw-away.
This isn’t the official pilot of John Doe. There was an unaired version with a different cast. But this one finds the balance needed for an action/sci-fi pilot between giving us enough to be intrigued but not enough to know what the hell is going on. Other shows have done this successfully, only to nosedive (Dollhouse, Journeyman, Defying Gravity) and this show’s fate was no better. Perhaps it was ahead of its time, predating themore successful shows referenced above. Or perhaps it got sucked into the great black hole of cop show stereotypes. I haven’t watched beyond this episode, but if it ended up being just another mystery-of-the-week show, the originality of the premise may not have held up.