One of the current favorite memes is how Steven Moffat loves to kill his characters. Now, I’m not talking about Sherlock here, because though I’ve watched all of it except the current season, I am not conversant enough with the show to discuss it. I’m just looking at Doctor Who. According to this article, Rory and Amy have each died eleven times (this number is arguable). Then there are other major character deaths:
- Jenny in “The Name of the Doctor”
- Strax in “A Good Man Goes to War” and “The Snowmen”
- River in “Silence in the Library” and “The Name of the Doctor”
- Clara in “The Snowmen” and “The Name of the Doctor”
I got this list from the web, and removed the Doctor from it because we always know when the Doctor will actually die, so he isn’t relevant to what I’m talking about here. So, yes, it looks like Moffat kills off the major characters quite often. And the meme goes on to compare Moffat with George R. R. Martin, who is known for killing off characters in Game of Thrones. There’s a big difference between the two, though: characters in Game of Thrones stay dead. (At least as far as I know. So far none of the characters I’ve seen die have come back.)
Moffat’s characters don’t stay dead, and thus, I don’t feel that the meme is really deserved for him. So far, we haven’t seen a major character actually die; you could argue for Amy and Rory in “The Angels Take Manhattan,” but their exit removed them permanently from the show specifically without killing them: they were pulled back in time where the Doctor could not ever encounter them (due to paradox) and lived the rest of their lives together. In all of the other cases, the deaths were erased in some way or the death was an alternate version of the character.
There are a lot reasons why you might want to kill off a character: shock value, to deal with themes of grief and love, to deal with themes of loss, for example. In many cases, the deaths in these past series were very emotional, but in others, they were cheapened by the frequency and the meta knowledge that it’s just going to be erased anyway. “Oh, no, Rory’s dead again” is a very popular meme, to the point of not taking the character seriously any more. I think the phrase is “toying with the heartstrings” – kind of a cheap way to evoke emotions. The ultimate in cheapened deaths was Clara’s in “The Name of the Doctor,” in which she made the ultimate sacrifice to save the Doctor, only to have him jump into his own timestream (major paradox?) to pull her out. What would have been a beautiful and heroic death became, well, boring.
I’m going to add one more death to Moffat’s total here, because he wrote the episode: River’s death in “Forest of the Dead.” After a wonderful episode in which we’re tantalized with hints about the Doctor’s relationship with River and an ending in which River sacrifices herself to save the Doctor, the Doctor finds a way to resurrect her within CAL. In this particular case, the resurrection adds to the beauty of the episode and River’s storyline: the Doctor, moving in the opposite time direction as River, realizes that he, in the future, gives her (and therefore him) the means to effect the resurrection, and thus he saves her. River only gets this one death, ever, and it’s fantastic.
Russell T. Davies’ time at the helm didn’t have many character deaths. There’s Captain Jack’s first death, from which he was resurrected by the Bad Wolf and made immortal – this was more of a plot point than anything else, as it set up his character for future appearances and for Torchwood. None of the other main companions die, and of minor companions, there’s Astrid Peth, who dies sacrificing herself for the Doctor, and Adelaide Brooke, who kills herself to teach the Doctor that the Time Lord Victorious is wrong. One other notable death was Jenny, who was resurrected by the Source: another beautiful death that was cheapened by a pointless resurrection.
The thing that Mr. Davies did in his era was establish tragic storylines without deaths. Let’s look at how his companions depart (other than Astrid and Adelaide, mentioned above).
- Captain Jack is left behind because the Doctor can’t bear to be with him, due to him being an anomaly.
- Sarah Jane Smith realizes that she has to move on with her life.
- Mickey realizes that Rose will never love him and that he could really make a difference by staying in Pete’s World.
- Rose is torn from the Doctor into Pete’s World. When they reunite, the Doctor gives her up because he knows he can’t keep her forever, and she departs with the Meta-Crisis Doctor. (Tragic for him, maybe not so much for her.)
- Martha realizes her love for the Doctor will never be requited and leaves him.
- Donna’s memories of the Doctor are torn from her by the Doctor so that she doesn’t die.
- Jackson Lake parts amicably with the Doctor, but he’s just lost his wife.
- Lady Christina is rejected by the Doctor because he doesn’t want to ruin another companion’s life.
- The Doctor sacrifices himself for Wilf.
So many different kinds partings, tragic on one side or the other. Death isn’t the only tragedy: there are fates that are in some ways worse than death. I’m not saying that the deaths in the Eleventh Doctor’s run are banal. I’m saying that there are other ways to tell a story, to make your point, and that having characters die over and over again makes less of an impact each time it happens.