GUEST POST – Whoniverse, Bring Out Your Dead: Death, resurrection, and the obligations of Doctor Who – Part 4: On the obligations of Who as a family show

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. There are a lot of assumptions implicit in the argument against resurrection, so in this article series, I’ll analyze what I think are the five key assumptions.

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 fourth part evaluates the death-resurrection sequence in the context of Doctor Who as a family show that seeks to impart edifying lessons.

Assumption 5: That showing children permanent deaths will teach them a necessary lesson that adventuring is dangerous/good doesn’t always win/life isn’t fair…

When asked why he chose not to permanently kill Bill, Steven Moffat explained that it was because Who is an optimistic show at heart:

“It’s wrong! […] I don’t think that’s the story. I’m sorry, it’s a children’s programme.

[…] It’s not the mean-spirited kind of story where you’ve proved the ‘grittiness’ of real life. It’s not real life — it’s Doctor Who. […]

[O]bviously, there is a lot of death and screaming people, for an optimistic show. But there’s a joyousness at its heart. And although you get into trouble for saying this, at its heart it is a children’s programme. It has a very special relationship with them, and you can’t spoil their story like that. I would never have done it.”

In response, this Redditor wrote:

“[P]igeonholing Doctor Who as a children’s show is not a good excuse to address death so stupidly. Children old enough to understand that this is not how death really works are also old enough to handle characters staying dead when they die.

If one is young enough for this excuse to be relevant, they may well not understand how death really works. That’s all I’m really getting at. It seems ill-advised to tweak reality to your intended audience when the audience is either not what you intended or would get the wrong idea because of the tweaking (regarding death, specifically).

I guess what I’m really saying is that the audience is smarter than they are given credit for, and can handle being treated as such. The dead should stay dead, because when they don’t, emotional investment and impact is lost. People old enough miss out on this impact, and people too young won’t get it anyway.”

I’ve talked about a lot of things this Redditor brings up—the emotional impact of death; whether Bill or Clara’s resurrections are legitimate, narratively satisfying, thematically appropriate endings or just “tweaking reality to the intended audience”; and the sacrosanctity of fictional death. What I haven’t addressed is the fact that Who isn’t just fiction, it’s also a family show. It could easily have chosen to pursue good storytelling purely for the sake of good storytelling, like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or any other canonically great TV show. However, by calling itself a family show, Who also takes on an obligation to teach children proper morals and show them how life works. Killing off characters and resurrecting them, goes the argument, teaches children poor morals and ill-prepares them emotionally for real-life death, which is indeed permanent, inevitable, and often unfair.

There’s an implication here that watching a character die and come back to life is morally adulterating. However, if we accept, again, that death in fiction does not have to be sacrosanct, then I don’t see why that in itself is more morally adulterating than watching a character die and never come back to life. One might argue that it sends the message that death isn’t serious, but I would say permanently killing a character could also send that message if they’re killed simply for narrative tension. Wouldn’t that imply that a life is worth destroying just to get some people hyped? One might respond that that depends entirely on how the death is portrayed, and I agree. I’d add that therefore, whether a death-resurrection sequence sends an adulterating or edifying message also depends on how it’s portrayed. It could potentially send a message that death is serious because resurrection doesn’t restore life forever, or that death is serious because it is a defining, worldview-changing experience for a resurrected person, or even that life is valuable because it turns out you can only do the things that matter while you’re alive! It all depends on the (ha) execution.

I’d also like to address the allegation that the writers are afraid children can’t “handle” permanent death. Just in case you thought “The Doctor Falls” was rainbow sparkly unicorn puppies because Bill was resurrected: Nardole is stuck evacuating Mondasians for the rest of his probably not long life, and Missy got killed because she tried to turn good. Before you tell me Missy doesn’t count because “the Master doesn’t stay dead,” the fact remains that her death is a personification of one’s past catching up with and destroying oneself. So: the writers think children can handle the idea that doing good can be futile, and that no matter how hard you try to turn good, your past will screw you over. What important life lesson does that sound like? Good doesn’t always triumph. Huh.

Let’s look at “Hell Bent”. While we were all up in arms about Clara’s new TARDIS, the Doctor was trying to reconcile the fact that he cast aside his values to rescue his friend, and not only did she not want to be rescued, he got his memories wiped of her. And the fact that she’s matured means that she’s not likely to seek him out again. So he has to come to terms with his indefinite if not permanent loss of her, even if she’s not dead, and learn to move on…that almost sounds like a lesson about grief. Maybe even one that could help teach children how to deal with real-life death (!). Add to the list of things the writers believe children can handle: a grief storyline.

It’s clear from the many ways these lessons are taught that permanently killing a beloved character is not the only way to teach children life lessons along the lines of “life isn’t fair,” or even how to cope with grief. These other ways are just as effective, and resurrections do not negate other unrelated incidents where that lesson is taught. Besides, if the writers trust children to stomach the futility of good and a grief storyline, clearly they’re not babying their audience. So I strongly doubt they’re resurrecting people because they think children can’t handle permanent death. I personally think they’re resurrecting people mainly because they think it makes a good story—why else do good fiction writers do anything. But they certainly also have something else in mind: the ethos of Who, which Moffat alluded to in the article.

Although I can’t read Moffat’s mind, I don’t think he means Doctor Who is a children’s show in the sense that it is obligated to teach children how to navigate the real world (though I’m sure he’d agree it should strive for that). He means Doctor Who is a children’s show in the sense that it is fundamentally optimistic. I have not seen Avatar: The Last Airbender, but I know it’s basically a political drama, and I’m pretty sure they don’t nihilistically screw each other over like the folks in House of Cards do. I get the sense that in Avatar, teamwork, empathy, and compromise save the day and allow the factions to live in peace. Yes, in real life the Israel-Palestine conflict has been going on for generations with casualties on both sides and neither side wanting to stand down. Yes, in real life Russians liking American food and Americans liking Russian books won’t convince two stubborn governments from hating each other. And yes, even in Avatar (I assume), teamwork, empathy, and compromise don’t always save the day. But that doesn’t stop Avatar from believing that one day, at the end of the tunnel of political strife, if everything goes right, there will be a peace that isn’t nuclear winter. That’s a children’s show that is fundamentally optimistic, and I think Moffat is saying Who shares that ethos of optimism.

Life (or rather death) may not be fair, but Who stands firm that those whose growth was unfairly cut short deserve a chance to resume it. That is the optimism of Who. That is why Moffat uses the sequence of death plus resurrection: it concisely symbolizes one’s progress being cut short and one’s being granted an extension. The death-resurrection sequence may be controversial, but Moffat will be damned if he can’t teach children this one lesson: The accomplishments and maturity one attains in life are sacrosanct, and one deserves to be recognized for them. I said earlier that seeing a character die and come back to life isn’t inherently depraved, and I’ll add that it surely can’t be adulterating if it’s being used to teach this uplifting lesson. It’s no coincidence that Bill of all people—the bright, adventurous, and curious young person who did nothing wrong to die—gets the happiest ending in “The Doctor Falls”. Clara died from horrible luck, but her new TARDIS acknowledges and rewards her personal growth. Looking back even to RTD, Rose got a second Doctor. Donna was dealt the indisputably worst outcome of the modern companions, yet the Ood memorialized her in their song, and the Doctor foresaw the eternal gratitude of many others. Given the circumstances, that’s pretty optimistic. How many people in real life get their accomplishments wiped away with nobody knowing or caring? There’s a reason we call her ending bittersweet, not just bitter: it’s still got that sliver of a silver lining.

Being optimistic with this one life lesson does not invalidate the unhappier ones, like life is short and risky and death isn’t fair. Two companions’ resurrections will not change the fact that Nardole and the people he tried to save will probably die, or that Missy got stabbed in the back for being good, or that Ashildr can’t remember her children, or that the Doctor can never see River Song again. But between the hard lessons, this show still wants to inculcate in children an attitude of wonderment at life, curiosity about the universe, and determination to be good, and is that such a bad thing to teach? Even if it were, I’m sure the show would much rather err on the side of raising overly idealistic romantics than jaded nihilists. As the Eleventh Doctor said:

“DOCTOR: What’s the point in them being happy now if they’re going to be sad later? The answer is, of course, because they are going to be sad later.”

In the real world, life may be short, nasty, and brutish, and lots of promising people who’ve done nothing wrong meet barriers that end their growth forever. But Who dreams of a world where everyone who deserves a second chance gets one. It’s an optimism that may jar with the darker tone and themes it sometimes tackles, but the show’ll be darned if it has to concede this one point. You can like it or hate it for it. Doctor Who isn’t stopping anytime soon, though, and personally, I prefer the approach that allows me to enjoy one more TV show.


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