The growing problem with death in science fiction movies and TV shows

Doctor Who. Buffy. Lord Of The Rings. Torchwood. The Matrix. Being Human. Are they all contributors to the lessening impact of death in science fiction movies and TV shows?

There are spoilers for some older TV shows and movies in here. Specifically: Torchwood: Children Of Earth, Doctor Who series 5, The Matrix trilogy, Being Human (UK) series 3.

I remember as a child, watching Disney’s version of The Three Musketeers. There was a moment where Charlie Sheen (before he realised his veins ran with tiger blood) was shot. The musketeer hit the floor, lifeless. I sat there with my mum, the both of us looking a little confused. They couldn’t kill a musketeer, particularly the religious one who carried a metal-bound Bible in his upper chest pocket. Actually, he must have had that tabard made specially, because I can’t imagine King Louis XIII was too concerned with chest pockets in his men’s uniforms.

Suddenly, our boy Charlie begins to move and drags out his metal-bound Bible, bullet firmly lodged in the front. I wish I could remember exactly what he said after that, because I recall it being brilliantly cheesy.

We know that big stars don’t die in big films, especially big films with the potential of bigger sequels. Of course, there are some exceptions, but not many.

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However, science fiction and fantasy have always bent the rules slightly. Because sci-fi television shows and films normally have a smaller, dedicated cult following, the writers push the boundaries a little more, changing speeds and directions, and taking risks. They can kill characters off and then take it further.

But recently, it seems that the things that once made sci-fi exciting and unpredictable have become the norm. Killing off characters and bringing them back has become more of a cliché, happening countless times in countless television shows. You’d be more hard pushed to find a character that hasn’t died, than vice versa.

The main problem is that death in film or television is normally saved for the most crucial, loaded, heartbreaking moments. Most of the time, there’s no going back from it. And when it happens, it changes the speed of the programme dramatically, forcing the characters to slow down, take note, and grieve.

What seems to be happening a lot at the moment is that a death in a sci-fi programme serves as a cliffhanger and, before the gear can change, is undone, removing the heartbreaking moments that could define the show.

In the last series of Doctor Who, a particular theme started to occur regularly. Poor old Rory, long suffering fiancé to Amy Pond, kept on dying. He just couldn’t help himself. In the space of five episodes, he died, or appeared to die, at least three times. At least. To be honest, I lost count.

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Much of the series was handled spectacularly by Steven Moffat, and most of Rory’s crucial end scenes had a great sense of despair and heartbreak. But it became hard to not sigh every time his mouth gaped open and his eyes rolled back.

It was the first death, in Amy’s Choice, that was probably the most predictable. Stuck between two worlds, one a dream and one reality, he suffered a poisonous spray from the mouth of an old lady, falling back into Amy’s arms while his body and that ponytail quickly turned to dust. We knew it was a dream world. We knew he’d be coming back. And, watching it back, we knew it was the start of some sadistic trend.

He was then shot by a Silurian, erased from history, brought back, turned out to be a plastic replica of himself, rumoured to be killed in a fire during the Blitz, turned out not to be, was killed along with everyone else as the Doctor reset the world, and then brought back as a human. Probably. And with the confirmation of a huge cliffhanger halfway through the new series of Who, and Amy wielding a gun in the trailer, will this death-resurrection cycle continue?

A load of other cases spring to mind. When Joss Whedon’s Buffy jumped to her death all those years ago, the programme had already been renewed for a new season. And it probably could have, but never would have continued without Sarah Michelle Gellar.

In Battlestar Galactica, it seemed to be mandatory that each Cylon character was killed at least fifty times each season. Because of the whole point of the show, the audience knew these men and women would be back, taking the sting out of anyone ever dying.

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And Gandalf. Somewhere in his speech I’m sure he must explain how and why, exactly, he came back in a flashy new white robe and all, but so far I’ve yet to find an acceptable excuse.

If these killings are handled with care, and the plot revolves around these things happening, they can work wonderfully. But because it has become the norm that these characters will pop back up again, it’s when they don’t that the fans can become dismayed and, sometimes, a little aggressive.

When Russell T Davies came up with Torchwood, he envisioned the family friendly world of Doctor Who without the boundaries that constricted certain events from occurring. It’s been said before, and re-emphasised recently by Steven Moffat, that main characters in Who shouldn’t die (permanently).

The first series of Torchwood concerned itself mainly with all manners of sexes and species copping off with, well, all manner of sexes and species. But once Russell got that out of his system, he began a campaign to kill off as many main characters as he possibly could, before his door was broken down by a tribe of angered fans.

In Children Of Earth, fan favourite Ianto Jones was laid to rest, well before the finale. The first thought that crept across most minds was: he’ll be back. There’s ages before the end. But he didn’t come back. He was gone.

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The characters mourned, the story took an emotional shape around the death, and the ending was bitter and cold (but brilliant). But predicting that he would come back took the edge off the death itself, and the aftermath was more anger towards the writers doing it.

Even by the end of the series, many were still convinced he would come back. It took a statement from the Russell T Davies and Gareth David-Lloyd (the actor who portrayed Ianto) to confirm that he wasn’t returning, which then sent fans a little insane.

A problem with science fiction and fantasy shows is, while they do have a dedicated following, the viewership treads a fine line of opinions, between being a success and a failure. The fans these shows do get are loyal, and regularly take a vested interest in the programmes, as well as soaking up the DVDs and merchandise. But the shows are expensive to make, and are often cancelled as a consequence.

The last thing any writer would ever want to do is leave a story unfinished. Although the fact is that they probably wouldn’t find out their show was cancelled until after the last episode had been written, shot and edited.

Joss Whedon constantly suffered at the hands of television executives. Despite the success of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, it was a long time coming, and was never far from being chopped. Its budget put it in constant danger, and the show eventually had to jump ship, moving from The WB network to the United Paramount Network in 2001. And just as it did hit a particular success and find itself in a safe zone and achieving syndication, Whedon struggled, as its spin-off, Angel, faced the constant fear of cancellation.

The writers had to adapt, ending each season open-ended enough for the characters to return, whilst finishing as much of the story as they could, so that, when the inevitable did eventually happen, the end was satisfying.

Subsequently, a majority of the season finales ended with a death or near-death. Whedon wanted to tell the full story of the characters and, with Angel in particular, his end could only really end with his death. So, characters were killed, nearly killed or ‘suffered a fate worse than death’ (a saying quickly becoming a favourite standard in sci-fi) and so forth.

By the time it was realised that the show would return, the first few episodes of the following season of Angel had to set things back up, undo things that were done and then move forward with the storytelling.

The show was finally cancelled at the end of the fifth season, but even then there was the chance of it being picked up by another network, after much campaigning by fans. So, the final episode concerned itself with slaughtering a large majority of the main characters, and leaving the few surviving ones running into a one-sided war, heavily hinting that they were all going to die just a few minutes after the screen faded to black. But it was clear that, if it did return, everyone would be brought back. The deaths were ready to be undone. They had to be.

While TV shows have some kind of excuse, when they’re not just using a pseudo-death as a cliffhanger to another episode, the use of death in films is just baffling. If a character dies at the end of an episode, the audience reels and it sticks in the memory. So, even if shows don’t quite follow it through by putting the characters through grief and heartache, the audience feels something similar.

But if a hero is killed in a film, he or she will regularly just get up in the same scene. There’s no time for them to lay dead for half an hour. It’s their film. They have to get back up, almost immediately.

So, the characters don’t suffer from grief, the audience doesn’t suffer from a great deal of shock. It’s a twist that, as soon as it’s twisted, just straightens itself back out again.

It happened a number of times throughout the Matrix trilogy, with Neo and Trinity both being killed, only to get back up within minutes. Wolverine was shot in the head in X-Men 2, but when you make Cyclops such a drip, how could the film possibly go on without our mutton-chopped hero? So, that bullet pops back out, and up he jumps.

Just recently, a sci-fi film we won’t name, to avoid spoilers, had a scene where the lead was shot, only before it was instantly undone, without even pausing to see the rest of the cast’s ‘shocked faces’.

The new expectation is that characters will get up again. In some ways, it gives the death more impact, but this impact is only realised long after the actual event. I suppose it leaves audiences reeling more, finding it hard to believe that the characters are actually gone. Maybe it’s denial, more like in a life situation.

At the end of Being Human this year, Mitchell made an emotional exit. I managed to avoid spoilers, and so the very end was genuinely shocking. But as soon as the credits had rolled, I had convinced myself that he’d be back next season. Much like Annie the season before. They’d come back. Of course they would.

In each of these cases, the writing was brilliant. It was tense and heart-wrenching. But it still took an Internet search to realise that Mitchell probably wasn’t coming back. In the back of my mind, I still think he’ll crop back up at some point.

So, is death becoming a predictable cliffhanger, when it can be undone just as easily? Will it slow down? At the moment, it all boils down to the writing. If it’s done properly, it gives the show something it never had before, more scope, more emotion. But for every great pseudo-death scene there’s an awful one, one which is used as a cheap cliffhanger with a lazy get-out clause.

It makes me think of the Adam West’s Batman. At the end of every first two-part episode, Batman and Robin would be facing certain death. My all time favourite was when they were hanging over a vat of sulphuric acid. Batman rolled in. And then crawled out. “Lucky I was wearing my sulphuric-acid-proof suit today,” he sighed. Or something to that effect.

Don’t expect that to be the last time someone gets that lucky.

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