I am fairly sure those reading this article will have seen The Magician’s Apprentice so I am writing under the assumption that this is indeed the case. If not, then this is your last opportunity to avoid some serious spoilers about Series 9’s first episode.
Duty to forewarn exercised, my theme tonight is death and Doctor Who. The first episode of the new season concludes with Missy and Clara apparently exterminated, the TARDIS supposedly destroyed, and the Doctor alone. This is of course the latest episode in a recurring trend in modern day Doctor Who – a person being not quite as dead as you imagine.
Let’s consider the evidence
- Micky supposedly dying in Rose (and to a lesser extent in The Age of Steel)
- Captain Jack actually dying – but being resurrected
- Rose ‘dying’ by vanishing into an alternative universe
- The Doctor ‘dying’ in Turn Left
- Donna’s ‘death’ being forecast, but turning out to be loss of her memories
- The Master being resurrected from death in The End of Time
- The repeated death and resurrection of Rory (on occasions too numerous to count)
- The Doctor apparently ‘dying’ in The Impossible Astronaut
- Clara (in her various forms) dying at least twice before we meet her properly
- We know that Osgood is somehow coming back from the dead this series
The recurring theme, as you have observed, is that very few people stay dead or actually die, the one exception so far being Astrid Peth in Voyage of the Damned. And there’s rather a problem with that – it cheapens death. This was most evident when Rory was in the TARDIS – any time he appeared to have died we knew it couldn’t possibly be true. The series has in fact built up a narrative that is not companions narrowly evading death despite improbable odds – but characters not staying dead.
In that regard, death in Doctor Who is getting dangerously close to resembling South Park. All we need is the Doctor to cry “OMG … they killed Clara! B******s!!!”
Death is not meant to be something that we can wish or magic away. It is very final, very hard, and it changes everything. In storytelling terms, it has to mean something – I remember the shock running through my system when Cedric Diggory was killed in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It meant something because it was final and irretrievable. The same was true when Adric was killed in Earthshock (though to my everlasting shame I attempted to come up with stories that had him rescued by the Master for nefarious purposes …) When characters routinely do not stay dead, death loses all meaning as a narrative, and it desensitises the viewer to the finality and enormity of that loss.
Even more frustrating is the lack of reasonable explanation for when characters evade death. Fans of BBC’s other flagship drama Sherlock will recognise the same Steven Moffat induced frustration. Just as there was no meaningful explanation for how Holmes survived leaping off the building at the end of Series 2 (and I am prepared to bet my underpants there will be no explanation how Moriarty survived shooting himself in the head) there was no effort to explain how Missy survived supposedly being shot dead by Cyber-Brig in Death in Heaven. it’s lazy storytelling of the worst kind – even if the explanation of evading death is completely implausible, we at least want to be treated with the respect of being given an explanation to judge.
I think a lot of fans have come to the same conclusion as myself – if the BBC want to kill a character, they need to stop arsing about and finally kill them off. We don’t mind the kind of ‘final ends’ that leave the possibility of survival (think of the Master in Planet of Fire; or the Daleks in Evil of the Daleks) – but if someone dies, they need to stay dead. And if they escape, we expect to know how.