The value of character death   Leave a comment

What is it good for, anyway?

Doctor Who is a series steeped in blood. From its earliest days, side characters have died in droves. The Doctor and his companions have often been the sole survivors of rampant death and destruction – and sometimes not even that. But generally, few major characters are killed. The Doctor of course always survives, and with one exception, no traveling companion has died in his care.

No show likes to kill its major characters. Leonard Nimoy famously asked for his character to be killed, only to bring him back himself in the very next film. Comics and soap operas are famous for having the dead return – sometimes as someone else, sometimes as a result of deception, and sometimes in a ‘reboot’ version of the universe. Doctor Who has used these tricks as well, particularly with Rory.

But every once in a while, a character dies.

Joss Whedon is of course the creator most famous for killing off characters. Fans have never forgiven him the deaths of Tara and Wash. But their deaths create a new impetus for the characters left behind. Willow and Zoe unleash death and destruction on an epic scale, nearly to their own ends, only to be brought back to the land of the living by their friends. Buffy explored a lot of emotional territory for its lead, and Tara’s death gave Willow that opportunity – as well as showcasing the deep platonic love she shared with childhood friend Xander. Zoe gave everything she had to avenge Wash, and when she had no more, it was River’s time to shine. As painful as they were, these characters’ deaths had powerful positive impacts on their respective stories.

Another example that sticks with me is Colonel Henry Blake of M.A.S.H. The writers didn’t want their audience to forget that in spite of its humor their show was primarily a war story. It wasn’t enough for Blake to be discharged and sent home when the actor wanted out. During its run the show often commented on the horrors of war, and this departure was an opportunity. (Their choice had its desired impact – I’m pretty sure it’s the first time I saw my mother cry.) In addition, the death created a new character arc for Corporal Radar O’Reilly: a young man far from home losing his father figure even more permanently than he had expected, and having to cope with that additional grief as well as adapt to a new CO. In this way the death served multiple purposes, and arguably strengthened the show.

More recently, a major recurring character was just (apparently) irretrievably killed on Grimm. The writers have so far declined to kill anyone their audience cares for – though murder is an essential feature of a cops and monsters show. It remains to be seen whether this death is in fact permanent, and what its ultimate impact will be. A new emotional arc is now available for the lead, as well as a (likely) redemption-and-death arc for the instigator of the mayhem. Both are intriguing possibilities for the show.

Gotham too killed some of its major supporting cast at the end of this season. However, the long-term impact of these deaths is not likely to be large. No character on the level of Willow, Zoe, Radar or Nick is transformed by the deaths, and the resulting shakeup of the villain hierarchy would have been required soon anyway. The story value of the deaths is therefore questionable.

Character death features strongly in two of my favorite books, both by Connie Willis: Doomsday Book and Blackout/All Clear. In the first, an entire community dies of the plague while an inoculated time traveler watches helplessly – but the unexpected death of an emotionally critical supporting character takes the tale to a whole new level. In the second, a major character repeatedly risks his life for his companions, beating the odds again and again, and only when his work is done and he is nearly saved does he actually die. Both of these deaths have immense story impact.

So what about Doctor Who? Does the recurrence of Rory or Clara, or the rescue of Kate, diminish the storytelling power? Is the show weakened by the lack of major character deaths?

Personally, I don’t think so. Doctor Who has a large audience of children, and even at its darkest has never forgotten that. The Doctor is not immune to grief: from the murder of the Silurians to the death of Madame de Pompadour, he is not unaffected. He mourns the departure of his friends, from Susan and Sarah Jane to Amy and Rory. But it is the nature of the show to be uplifting. Every story ends in hope. Russell T. Davies considered killing Rose at the end of S2, and concluded that it couldn’t be done: he could not murder a character whom children loved so deeply. Moffat may have said his audience needed Osgood to die, but clearly he did not believe it himself. There is no way to kill characters so beloved of the audience as well as the other characters without changing the fundamental nature of the show.

There are stories in which the death of dearly beloved characters moves the tale along. In my opinion, Doctor Who isn’t one of them.

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Posted May 12, 2015 by Elisabeth in Themes and Ideas

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