THE TRUTH SNAKE – The Power of the Not Dead

It’s inevitable at this point, really. This week, there’s outcry over what happened to Bill in World Enough and Time.” Give it twenty-four hours, though, and we’ll hit something new: outcry over Bill still being alive.

It’s a common trope in Steven Moffat’s era of Doctor Who for characters to die temporarily, only to have their stories continue on in some manner. To put it lightly, this has attracted a fair bit of criticism. As one Tumblr post puts it, “I’m sick of all this ‘everybody lives’ bullshit. When no one dies in a story other than the villain, there is no tension, no drama, no excitement to see the Doctor prevail.” This line of criticism is quite widespread. It shouldn’t be surprising to know that Bill’s fate immediately was leapt upon not just by hurt viewers hoping she’d make it out okay but by this particular fandom mindset hoping she’d stay dead for an arbitrary sense of consequences. Even before the episode aired, reviews bemoaned it with comments like, “will any of it stick? It’s hard to get 100% invested in the things that transpire when you have that nagging suspicion at the back of your mind that it can (and likely will) be undone.”

But this fundamentally misses the point. There are shows that thrive on uncertainty of survival and high stakes drama. But that approach is not one that in any way fits Doctor Who. Our Tibère/Sam wrote a nice piece on the problems of applying that storytelling logic to Doctor Who here. The gist of the issue is, programs like that encourage a cynicism and lack of regard for character that is alien to this program. Doctor Who is a character-driven adventure story generally told through the lens of the companion. They’re the main character. And while shock death of a main character may be well and good for upping the stakes in a Hitchcock thriller, it encourages detachment from the characters that ground the show in something like Doctor Who. In this show, killing characters isn’t the way, and bringing them back typically offers far more wealth of storytelling. Killing offers less investment and less reason to invest in the hearts of the stories. Resurection offers new directions for the story to live on.

Frankly, no companion death in Doctor Who has been worth keeping permanent, or, indeed, remained permanent. Adric and Katarina died as easy ways of removing characters who weren’t working from the narrative, disposed of in cheap shock because the production crew couldn’t be bothered crafting something workable out of them. Sara Kingdom died to try and add epic stakes to a Dalek epic that frankly spent more time frolicking in camp than it did the hard sci-fi drama edge it’s known for and to dispose of a character who never was going to hang around for future stories. Peri’s death was the punchline of the sexist objectification and torture of her character, literally used for her body, and was undone by the end of the series anyway. And all of these characters come back. Sara Kingdom gets a rather lovely posthumous companion chronicles trilogy and then meets the fifth Doctor. Adric gets The Boy that Time Forgot” and A Full Life“. Peri gets Peri and the Piscon Paradox” and the Big Finish trilogy of The Widow’s Assassin“, Masters of Earthand The Rani Elite“. Even Katarina gets a post-The Dalek’s Master Plan” outing in a short story.

There’s a good reason for this. Killing a character permanently is a dead end for storytelling. And that’s fine and good in a story with a finite run, but that’s not what Doctor Who is. Doctor Who is a narrative that cannot end. As such, the act of death not only will inevitably be reversed but offers a site of in and out of universe discourse, exploration, and character growth. Killing a character wraps up a story. Putting them through death and then lifting them out again gives new directions to push them in. In general, the principle to character work is to push a character to the breaking point and find what that informs about them. And very few breaking points are as total and informative as death. A shocking, definitive culling offers one good wallop and then cuts off future story directions. A good resurrection will let you know more about the character and offer an infinity of new directions to progress from.

This is the power of a well-executed death and resurrection narrative. You get the momentary shock from the initial death, but then once the dust settles can bring back the character with the new understanding gained and move onward to new stories and to an eventual ending that is truer to the character. Rory is one of the most prominent examples. His dual deaths in series 5 both serve as powerful, emotional shocks and drive both Amy’s character arc and his own. The first, in Amy’s Choice, provides an important jolt to the system that serves as a building block for why Amy will always, in the end, choose Rory if made to. The second, in Cold Blood, establishes the threat posed by the time field, frees up the Amy/Eleven team for a few more lighter stories before the finale, and puts Rory on the path to the Last Centurion arc, one so impactful and beloved that it’s become a Funko Pop before most companions.

rory funko

Perhaps the best possible negotiation of these tensions, though, is Clara Oswald. Face the Raven” and Hell Bent” perfectly have it both ways. Clara’s death in the former is beautiful, full of agency, and a fitting tribute to everything Clara is rather than just a shock death. Hell Bent,” for its part, respects that need for an ending, given Jenna Coleman’s departure. But it also accepts that the strength of Doctor Who is in taking these narratives, turning them on their head, and expanding them infinitely into new life. And so, while Clara’s fate is set in stone, a definitive endpoint, we last see her starting a whole new series of adventures. Because new adventures are what Doctor Who will always provide, no matter how final an ending is imposed. Instead, the space for these adventures is blown wide open and celebrated as an emotional, characterful, feminist triumph.

Deaths being revealed to be never have happened at all can also capitalize on the punch and shock of a death while pushing the story and characters in new directions. Series 6 of modern Doctor Who is a particularly good example of that. In microcosm, there’s the opening sequence to Day of the Moon,” which feigns deaths as an effective hook that allows the story to cover more ground with the Silence invasion and to resolve and re-establish core dynamics between the main characters and Canton. Of course nobody was actually getting shot, but teasing that possibility provides additional strength to the episode very quickly. And on the larger scale for that run of episodes, the Doctor’s apparent death drives a multitude of character arcs. For him, for example, it works as a critique of his large-scale, bombastic approach and drives him to scale down, deleting himself from archives and stepping into the shadows. It drives him in a new direction. But it also fuels drama with Amy, Rory, and River. Amy and Rory get the tense debate over whether to tell the Doctor what they saw and to express how much they care about the Doctor by fearing for his absence. River and Amy’s past traumas get to come to the surface as linked to the Doctor and his previous approach, providing a starting point for series 6’s explorations of agency and recovery. Rather than be an end, playing with the idea of killing a character can work far more effectively as a beginning. As is spelled out in Moffat and Gatiss’ Sherlock, the more interesting question is how such an apparent event impacts the character and the people who care about them, not them dying. That’s why the cliffhanger to The Reichenbach Fall outright reveals that Sherlock is still alive. Because him still being alive but pretending to be dead offers far greater character drama.

Not that Doctor Who should always go out of its way to do fake-out deaths, reap the shock value, and move on. One of the weakest episodes of series 10 has been The Lie of the Land,” which greatest sin was doing just that. The scene of Bill shooting the Doctor is horrifically undercooked. Little motivation or emotional grounding is laid out for Bill shooting the Doctor, the actual act is immediately undercut by making it all the Doctor’s plan, and the emotional consequences for either character are never dwelt on. It’s every bit as utterly devoid of emotion, character, and storytelling richness as a cynical shock death in a show like Game of Thrones at its worst. The Lie of the Land” does not offer impactful shock, undercutting itself immediately and removing any possibility of dwelling on the beat to give it weight. It does not inform anything new about the characters. And it doesn’t particularly open up any new storytelling avenues. It is the empty, destabilizing thing better fake deaths and resurrections are accused of being.

And, of course, weak plots can be made with resurrection, just as they can with anything. It offering new directions for storytelling does not by definition mean that the writer or writers involved will take an interesting direction for the character. The problem, as always, lies in how a character is written. If, like Katarina, Adric, or Peri, there is a cynicism or apathy in their writing, neither killing nor resurrection is innately interesting. Both choices are just tools used to attempt to engage with a narrative that is at heart not working. Resurrecting a character will always open new doors to expand them in, and is particularly suited to the storytelling approaches, character lens, and immortality of the Doctor Who story, but the existence of a door does not necessitate the story will go through it. That, in the end, along with empty lack of emotional commitment in the Lie of the Land” style, are the issues with a character resurrection. Not the act of resurrection or fake death itself, which just offers more opportunities.

Thing is, though, in the case of Bill Potts, the death cannot stand on its own. Doctor Who is, as mentioned before, always through the lens of the companions. As Steven Moffat has said, “The story of Doctor Who is always the story of the companion, it’s always their story. It was Rose Tyler’s story, it’s Amy Pond’s story – the story of the time they knew the Doctor and how that began; how it developed and how it ended.” And while World Enough and Time” does a stupendous job at getting under the Cybermen’s skin using the focal center of the show in that place, it does a very poor job at actually being a tribute to anything Bill is. We don’t get remarks about sci-fi and genre savviness. We don’t get her flirting with girls. We don’t even get a reminder of her mum. In general, it is devoid of signifiers of what makes Bill uniquely her, and is fairly low on agency.  That’s the glaringly obvious reason why World Enough and Time” cannot be the endpoint of Bill’s story. It doesn’t even bother to be about her.

Furthermore, there’s the social justice aspect. Because Bill is, of course, a queer woman of color, specifically a black lesbian and thus subject to particularly negative and politically charged portrayals in media. “The black guy dies first,” “fridging,” and “bury your gays” are overwhelmingly familiar tropes, and Bill dying unceremoniously would be greatly inappropriate. Her marginalized identity creates a more prominent political reality to any unsympathetic, agency-less dooming of her character. However, there is still tremendous value in putting a central character through an experience like the one Bill has been through. It provides what is unambiguously in my mind the greatest exploration of the Cybermen in televised Doctor Who history, as well as re-grounds Bill within the world of the exploited working class, as we discussed in our regular coverage of the episode.

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So, naturally, the ideal is to have the best of both worlds. Bill should go through hell but live and fight and have agency in the end. That does not lessen the impact of such experiences, contrary to naysayers. Instead it heightens it. It becomes a part of her character growth, something integral. Neither Bill nor the Cybermen will ever be the same again, and the show is stronger for it. If Bill were to be saved by the Doctor, for example, many new narratives open up in addition to more fitting, character-based endings. If he were to die to bring her back, for example, new drama could be found in her continuing to travel with him even after warning him the trip in World Enough and Time” was a terrible idea and suffering horribly for going along with it out of a sense of misplaced guilt at his sacrifice. That’s just one example of how new emotional baggage could unfurl and be honed over time for stronger story. But even at the least, in just The Doctor Falls, Bill could round off her story with an episode that actually pays tribute to her self rather than just her suffering. Either way achieves what Doctor Who is about, being the story of how she, from her central perspective, meets and leaves the Doctor, and her experiences along the way that change her forever. That’s the power of a resurrection story. Milk the shock and horror of the fall, but then ride high on the emotional payoff of new life or the more fitting closings to the real main characters of the story. Moffat’s perfected how to have it both ways, and all sides of the narrative benefit.

Doctor Who doesn’t die. It regenerates. And that’s the case for the main characters, too. Their stories may end, even in death eventually, but they can always be reborn into something new, and that will always be the greatest strength of this show. Their stories are what we follow at heart, and there’s always new directions to spiral onward into infinity.

Or, as Steven Moffat has since put it:

“I don’t, and I’ll just say this now, I’ll get into terrible trouble with certain people, I don’t think Doctor Who is that kind of show. Doctor Who’s a big-hearted, optimistic show that believes in kindness and love, and that wisdom will triumph in the end. I don’t believe it’s the kind of show that says there are bitter, twisted, nasty endings, because it’s not. It’s not gritty. It’s aspirational. It says it can work, and wisdom and kindness will triumph, and love will always come through in the end. I think there aren’t enough people or enough shows saying that, and I’m damned if Doctor Who’s going to join in with the general chorus of despair. So she doesn’t die. She nearly dies.”

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