by A.L. Belmont
With the last two companion departures, a great deal of discussion has sprung up about whether Steven Moffat is justified in apparently killing off companions and resurrecting them within a short time frame. I’ve been following the controversy and find it interesting that the general anti-resurrection argument has shifted from “Moffat should not kill companions” to “If Moffat is going to kill a companion, they need to stay dead.” As one Redditor put it:
“People don’t care that he doesn’t want to kill his characters. People care that he keeps repeatedly killing them, and then bringing them back. Either kill them, or don’t, because what he’s doing right now is cheapening death entirely. It’s difficult to take any kind of death seriously when it’s so easily undone all the time.”
The Redditor also said that Moffat apparently doesn’t really understand these criticisms, and I’m quite sad about that because that means nobody has really mounted an effective counterargument to these (excellent and very valid) points. Not that that’s a problem, necessarily. Maybe this is all just gut feelings in the end, and I have a gut feeling that dead characters do not have to stay dead, but you have a gut feeling that dead characters have to stay dead, and we should all just take a deep breath and get off the Internet. Nonetheless, I’m going to be that person who insists there’s some deep reason behind everything. So let’s get to it.
I’ve noticed a lot of assumptions implicit in the anti-resurrection argument as represented here and elsewhere, so I’d like to dissect what I think are the five main ones. Parts 1 and 2 of this series treat the death-resurrection combination in the abstract. Part 3 examines the specific cases of Clara and Bill, and part 4 looks at death and resurrection in the context of the show’s ethos. This first part asks whether death in fiction has to work like death in real life, and whether resurrection is technologically possible in the Whoniverse.
Assumption 1: That fictional death must be permanent, inevitable, and sacrosanct
Disclaimer: I believe that death is a serious thing. (So please don’t send me death threats.) In the real world, death is absolutely not to be taken lightly, and I do not intend to trivialize such a key part of the human experience.
It doesn’t take a literary background to understand the meaning behind Shakespeare’s sixtieth sonnet:
“Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown’d,
Crooked eclipses ‘gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:
And yet to times in hope, my verse shall stand
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.”
This is how death has traditionally been represented in literature, films, and television shows: inevitable and irreversible. That’s because that’s how death works in real life. In real life, you and I will die someday, and so will this computer that I am typing on and the hard disk this file is stored on. We were in a state where we could produce new things and ideas, but eventually we will reach a point where we can’t do that anymore, and we can never go back (1) . This inevitable and permanent end is a fundamental part of the human condition.
Fictional characters, however, are not really “alive” the way you and I are. Whether fictional characters can be said to have “lives of their own” or lead independent existences is a fascinating question in aesthetic philosophy. Traditional wisdom says that characters are nothing but temporary mental images, but a good many postmodern novels postulate that they do lead independent lives that are very different from ours. Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World goes so far as to say that characters like Little Red Robin Hood and its own protagonist Sophie are alive in our world; we just can’t see them or interact with them physically. Either way, I think we can agree that while Rose Tyler may have a heartbeat and functioning brain and body, for example, it’s not the kind of heartbeat I can measure on a real stethoscope, and her brain doesn’t produce the kind of brain waves I can measure on a physical MRI. Life for her, and for any other fictional character in Who or elsewhere, is not the same as life for us. It makes sense, therefore, that death for a fictional character is not the same as death for us—even human characters. In House, one patient dies from acute renal failure and an amantadine overdose, but her kidneys are not real and neither are the amantadine pills that she took, and indeed, neither is her body.
Put it in a less trippy way: We take huge liberties representing life in fiction. Who alone depicts a person meeting their past and future selves and changing their future (“A Christmas Carol”); alien conquerors simulating human history (“Extremis”); and aliens in a pocket universe talking to a girl in this one through cracks in spacetime (“Time of the Doctor”). What stops us from taking liberties representing death? Actually, Who (and most sci-fi and fantasy fiction) already offers different conceptions of death: when a Time Lord’s body suffers extensive physical damage, their body is replaced with a new one while key personality traits are transferred from the old body to the new body. I’m sure numerous other alternate conceptions of death exist in sci-fi. Fiction is all about invention and narrative possibilities; it’s all about that which can never happen, could have happened, or maybe will happen—yes, even realistic fiction like Breaking Bad or Crime and Punishment, which we call realistic precisely because it feels real but isn’t. If we can bend the laws of physics in fiction, surely we can also bend the laws of life and death.
Actually, I can anticipate three practical reasons not to. The first is believability. We bent the laws of physics in “Kill the Moon”, and look how well audiences reacted to that one. Besides, in one Redditor’s words, resurrections
“detach the character experience from our own in a frustrating way. It starts to feel less like a drama with reflections on the human condition and more like children playing make believe.”
Believability is a legitimate concern. However, it is not an intrinsic quality of fiction, as us viewers are the ones doing the believing, and different folks are more or less likely to believe different things. That means it’s extrinsic and subjective. You may not find moon eggs gaining mass from nowhere believable, but merely by following this show you already subscribe to some bonkers ideas, like things being bigger on the inside and aliens that replace their bodies. This show has always been children playing make-believe; it just doesn’t feel like it.
I’m glad the Redditor brought up “make-believe,” by the way, because it reminds me of philosopher Kendall Walton’s theory of make-believe. In the linked article, “Fearing Fictions,” he claims (oversimplification alert) that when people engage with a fictional work, it’s like they’re playing a game of make-believe. When you see the Doctor walk into a police box bigger on the inside, really you’re seeing Peter Capaldi walking onto a set with pretty blue lights, but you are pretending that a two-hearted alien calling himself “The Doctor” is walking into his personal sentient spaceship bigger on the inside. When you see Heather appear in a puddle and rise up to revive Bill, you’re really seeing Stephanie Hyam glorifiedly standing up (probably) with the help of CGI, but you pretend it’s a dubious oil puddle with the body of a dead woman named “Heather” come to resurrect a converted Mondasian Cyberman formerly named “Bill.” Argue with Walton if you wish, but if his theory is to be believed, Doctor Who has always been a giant children’s game of make-believe where the adults can join in, too. Hell, when we say it’s a “drama with reflections on the human condition,” we are make-believing that this series of spliced video clips of Brits reciting lines and set bombs exploding imparts lofty lessons about the meaning of life and the human condition. (Okay, I made up that last one. But think about it: we spend gigabytes and gigabytes arguing and debating over video clips of Brits reciting lines and set bombs exploding. It’s ridiculous and wonderful. Life is crazy.)
Now, some stories are easier to play make-believe with (I like that term, think I might keep it) than others. I think that that’s more a reflection of the writer’s skill than anything about the idea, since ideas are not intrinsically believable or unbelievable. If you think a concept is not believable, then that’s more the writer’s fault than the concept’s. So for example, if you dislike the moon egg part of “Kill the Moon”, there’s nothing wrong with the moon egg and everything wrong with the way Harness sells it. And if you don’t find a character’s resurrection believable, then that’s more a problem with its execution than the concept of resurrection itself.
The second practical reason is related to the problem of believability. Some people don’t like resurrections, so if a show wants to retain its audience, it needs to keep its audience happy and keep characters dead. That’s a valid concern if the primary duty of some particular show is to retain an audience. Certainly some claim that Who needs to get back on track pleasing its audience or else the BBC will cancel it, and that’s certainly a legitimate argument, though something tells me that there are a lot more moving parts to audience satisfaction than whether a dead character stays dead. Still, that’s not a primary concern of fiction in the abstract. Fiction, it turns out, can still be fiction if it’s not popular, which means fiction doesn’t have to aspire to popularity by virtue of being fiction.
The third potential reason is that death is sacrosanct. In our lives, death is terrifying, it often happens in gruesome ways to the people who deserve it least, it is devastating, it is irreversible, and it is inescapable. To represent death in any other way, the argument goes, is disrespectful of human life, death, and grief itself.
Leaving aside the greater philosophical question of whether life or death have meaning, this is probably the most persuasive argument against resurrecting dead characters. It’s the one implicit in the sentiment that resurrection “cheapens” death, and this Redditor’s exhortation not to reverse character deaths:
“You want them alive? Don’t kill them.
You kill them? Keep them dead!
Don’t cheapen their deaths.”
The thing is, though, that numerous movies, books, and TV shows do represent death as permanent—and that doesn’t make it any more respectful or less cheap. How quickly is the dead scientist in Iron Man forgotten, for instance? How closely do we follow the people whose cars were flipped or exploded in the car chase in Now You See Me? How many times do patients lose consciousness, go into comas, or sustain internal bleeding just to raise the adrenaline of a few doctors in House? How harshly does Luther judge Alice for murdering Ian in Luther?
If fiction has an obligation to treat death seriously, it’s failed many times already. Of course, that shouldn’t stop Doctor Who from trying to rectify that, but I don’t think that Who, or any fiction really, ever had that obligation. We assign that obligation to fiction because we perceive death to have sacrosanctity, but that is an obligation we, society at large, impose on it, not one that it demands by virtue of being fiction.
So what are the obligations of fiction? Hell, what is fiction? For what it’s worth, people who actually study literature for a living have been arguing about these for decades, and I’m not going to pretend to have a real (aka withstanding academic scrutiny) answer (2) . I do, however, think us Who fans can agree that if a book, TV show, or whatever doesn’t tell the story it set out to tell, it’s not a book, TV show, or whatever worth consuming. For the purposes of arguing that dead characters don’t need to stay dead in Doctor Who, we can define fiction as a series of fabricated scenarios presented such that they have some kind of meaning. Nothing about this definition says we’re allowed to fabricate everything that isn’t alternate versions of real-life concepts we consider sacrosanct. On the other hand, all these fabricated scenarios have to coalesce into some kind—any kind—of meaning, or else it’s not fiction.
Some stories are about death, grief, the dangers of fast-and-furious living or the ultimate impermanence of life, and maybe treating death as sacrosanct or representing it as permanent and inevitable is appropriate there. But now we’re talking a story-by-story basis, evaluating whether a particular plot or arc would be better served with a permanent death or a resurrection. If resurrection wouldn’t help tell the intended story, then fine by me. But there is no reason inherent to fiction that a dead character has to stay dead.
Assumption 2: That only the Doctor and other Time Lords should be allowed to cheat death
From this point on, I assume that you buy (as I do) that even though death is permanent, inevitable, and sacrosanct in real life, it does not have to be represented like that in fiction. If you don’t, that’s all right, but please bear with me.
In response to a claim that Clara’s functional immortality equates to a happy ending, one Redditor writes:
“I know another guy who gets to travel around space and time in a TARDIS as a functional immortal and he never gets any happy endings…”
The Redditor who responded to them didn’t say this, but I’ve seen the sentiment on the Internet before: “The Doctor is allowed to regenerate when he dies because he’s literally the titular character. But only the Doctor has that privilege. Everyone else has equal opportunity to be picked off by Death’s eternal arrow.” I would like to respond to that sentiment.
There’s a novel entitled The Brothers Karamazov (which, by the way, does give mortality and the meaning of life the full philosophical treatment. I heartily recommend it to anyone needing something to do in the off season) starring three brothers of the Karamazov family—Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha—and an illegitimate brother, Pavel Smerdyakov. Surprisingly enough, these are not the only important people in the novel. Integral to the novel’s philosophical backbone are Alyosha’s mentor Father Zosima and mentees Kolya and Ilyusha. Crucial in the plot are Dmitri’s girlfriend Grusha and the brothers’ father Fyodor. Hell, there’s a story within the story about some Spanish dude who is still somehow so important people have written theses on him. Just because none of these people are in the title doesn’t mean they aren’t important. What makes a character important is a distinct personality developed over a substantial portion of the work and experiences that inform the narrative meaning.
Doctor Who is not The Brothers Karamazov, but the same idea applies: being the titular character does not mean the Doctor is the only star of his show. He co-stars with his companions, who come right after him in the titles and accompany him on virtually every adventure we see. The second most in-depth perspective on the show’s events comes from the companion. Entire storylines revolve around the experience of the companion, and I’m not just talking “Clara Who,” I’m also talking about Bill’s experience from “Pyramid” to “Lie of the Land”; Amy’s experience waiting for the Doctor in “The Girl who Waited”; Rose’s experience growing apart from her family in series 2; and Martha’s experience traveling the world to save the Doctor in “Last of the Time Lords”. By this logic, if only main characters deserve to cheat permanent death, then the companions absolutely share that right with the Doctor (3) .
Ah, responds the astute reader, but in-universe, only Time Lords are shown to have the ability to cheat permanent death. The Doctor’s a Time Lord and unless the companion is also of a regenerating species, there’s no reason for them to escape permanent death. There is especially no reason for them to escape permanent death if they’re human, as this Redditor argues:
“The only realistic thing about the show is humans. The rest of it is fantasy made up shit. Humans can die doing what the doctor does. If they can’t do that why don’t we just go back to gallifrey and make it about time lords?”
Well, let’s see how realistically human mortality is portrayed in-universe. In-universe, a hospital can cure almost every disease known to humanity (“New Earth”). In-universe, humans can get their heads disappeared, new heads screwed on, and their old heads screwed back on with zero side effects (“End of Time”). In-universe, a medical chip modified for humans can keep its human owner alive indefinitely (“The Girl who Died”). In-universe, humans can get their heads chopped off, planted onto robot bodies, and planted back onto living bodies and still survive (“Husbands of River Song”, basically Nardole). (Side note: my father thinks that the potential to harvest future medical developments against present medical adversities is the coolest unexplored aspect of time travel shows. You may or may not like Ashildr/Me’s immortality, but honestly, I’m surprised it took nine series for a science-fantasy show to acknowledge how close technology can come to erasing death as we know it.)
In-universe, there’s a multitude of ways for companions to arm themselves against permanent death. Even if they themselves don’t use them, it is reasonable to expect that the technology to revive them exists in-universe (4) . Of course, whether the show’s creators or writers should have this technology be used is a separate question that I think is dictated by the story being told. If the story is better off with this reviving technology used, then so much the better; if not, of course it shouldn’t be used. But in any event, I think we can safely say there’s no in-universe reason a character can’t be resurrected.
(1) It is worthwhile noting that with advances in technology, even real-world death is getting increasingly muddy. In the age of apothecaries and witch doctors, if you had no discernible pulse, you were dead. Now it turns out it’s still possible for a “dead” person to have brain activity, or for people to stay for ages in a vegetative state, or for the heart to be revived while the brain suffers uncertain damage…
(2) Those who want one anyway might start with this University of Fribourg overview, or any good book of literary theory—the one I read in school was Guerin et al’s Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature.
(3) Even if we think of the companions as secondary characters, from the companion’s point of view, the Doctor is a secondary character in their lives. From their perspective, why should he get the right to cheat death while they must die?
(4) People often say that resurrection is a cop-out. However, a cop-out implies a broken promise, and I gotta say that with all this fantastical technology floating around, any promise to keep dead characters dead has been in tenuous shape for a long time. Besides, since it’d make less sense for this technology not to exist in a science-fantasy show like Who, can this promise ever have been made?
A. L. Belmont thinks Nikolay Gogol should write an episode of Doctor Who. Her favorite Doctors are the Third and Twelfth Doctors, but she believes there’ll room enough in her heart for all of them when she’s watched/listened to them.