The Cornelian Dilemma is one of the best and easiest ways to create drama. If you’re into the etymology, the name comes from French Renaissance playwright Pierre Corneille, whose tragedies often revolved around a character having to decide between two equally unsatisfying options. In Le Cid, his masterpiece, the main character, manly man Rodrigue, has to decide whether he wants to kill his fiancée’s father, who has committed a terrible offence against his family – if he does, he loses the woman he loves; if he doesn’t, he becomes a honorless pariah. Which, all in all, is an interesting evolution from a former model of tragedy, where the Fatal Flaw(s) of the main character leads them to an inexorable doom: putting the stakes out of the metaphysical realm and into the messy reality of human interaction; tales of Men instead of tales of Gods. Not that the choice is deprived of a moral and spiritual dimension, mind you, but the context in which it is presented, a state of flux and uncertainty, has a deeper sense of verisimilitude to it – look at the Trolley Problem, which is such a good encapsulation of humdrum moral conundrums a TV show recently used it to explain ethics to the Devil (side note: The Good Place is great, watch it).
Unsurprisingly, the sadistic choice is very much part of our current media landscape, be it only because said media landscape is deeply sadistic. Game of Thrones is the biggest show on the planet, after all – pain sells. And while Doctor Who holds itself to a higher moral standard – thank God –, choice can still very much be the coin of its realm. There’s an episode titled “Amy’s Choice”. “Fires of Pompeii”, “Waters of Mars” – should I save people or let history follow its course? “Kill the Moon” – an innocent life versus the future of all mankind, and I’m quoting the text here. And so on.