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April 12 2011

The growing problem with death in science fiction movies and TV shows. Showrunner troubles for BtVS and AtS feature prominently in the discussion.

I'm not sure I agree with the author.
No, I don't think that's right at all. I mean they killed Doyle really early on. Killing Joyce and Tara. None of them came back. All those deaths served the characters growth as well. It wasn't so much of a "well I'm sure they'll be back", but more of a "oh god, oh god, they're not coming back".
But i do get the point about it not working in films and just waiting for the hero to get back up. Although Trinity did die for good at the end of the Matrix. And I'm not ashamed to say I actually shed a tear. Her death, if anything, improved the film. Suddenly everything was more costly. No cheapening at all.
I get what the author is saying - main characters on TV just aren't allowed to die anymore unless it's in a way that can be undone. Usually it's undone without consequences (Stargate, anyone? ;), but I loved the way Buffy was brought back in S6: major depression, black cynicism, a little bit of demonhood - it fit in perfectly with the Buffyverse.
The author seems to forget that soaps have been doing such things far longer than sci-fi.

I remember when Buffy took that dive. I was devastated, and I didn't know the show had merely transferred networks. That "Five great years. We thank you" message seemed pretty final to me. I was so shocked that I didn't even watch the next seasons until they came out on DVD.
It's been going on in superhero comic books since there were superhero comic books. Although usually it was the villains who came back from certain death.
Yep, "In sci-fi, no-one dies forever" has been an adage for about as long as I can remember so this is far from new. Some of their examples are also pretty silly IMO. Did anyone genuinely believe Wolverine had died in 'X-Men 2' ? Or even that we were meant to ? I mean his whole thing is that he basically doesn't die. As to NFA, sure, they could've come back if there were a season 6 because news-flash, we don't actually see most of them die, narratively it functions as a great series finale and a decent cliff-hanger (if necessary). Gandalf is a powerful wizard, Rory travels with one (and again, did anyone think when we heard the museum narration about the Blitz that that was the end of the Lone Centurion, that he'd died offscreen ?).

Also smacks slightly of cherry picking - for every cheap resurrection i'd bet there's a powerful emotionally resonant and permanent death (Rory and Amy come back but 10 and - effectively - Donna don't for instance. And of the major cast deaths in 'Torchwood' only Jack has come back and he's, y'know, immortal).

And it probably could have, but never would have continued without Sarah Michelle Gellar.

I don't think so mate.

Also I can't help myself, I wish Rory had stayed dead. I hate Rory. Sorry.

And with the cylons dying? Well those deaths weren't meant to be meaningful, the deaths of the actual humans on the show were the shocking things despite all the cylon 'deaths'.

I have to admit i don't see the problem here. The author says:

In each of these cases, the writing was brilliant. It was tense and heart-wrenching.

Which is surely an indicator of a successful story. If you're not sure whether a character will come back from the dead why do you need to do an internet search to find out, why not just wait for the story to unfold and judge a comeback on whether it is as emotionally involved as the death was.

I for one think there's a great deal of difference between the death of Buffy in s5 and the pseudo deaths of Wolverin in X2 or Neo and Trinity in the Matrix trilogy that the author cites.
You can't count Gandalf as recent. That's just silly.

I am admittedly less well-educated in early science fiction than I could be, but I get the feeling that apparent character death, even if it is more common these days, is just another type of cliffhanger. Instead of "will this character manage to not fall off this cliff?" or whatever, it's "will this character manage to cheat death once again?" Like any storytelling device, it can be used well or poorly. It can be overused, and sometimes it is, but personally I don't feel like it is in Joss's work.

And finally, if you're counting up real deaths versus temporary deaths, no two analyses are going to come up with the same ratio, because there's no clear-cut line between major and minor characters, and minor characters die way more often. Your results will depend on who you count.
Comparable titles for this article:

The growing problem of stock in soup dishes.
NuVanessa- my wife, who is a chef, will tell you that this is indeed a growing problem...
It is only a problem if they fall into the "things will never be the same again" cliche, with everything exactly the same after the commercial break. (I'm thinking of Babylon5, an excellent series, but the pilot episode had me groaning.)

Either the death should be "real", and have the characters deal with it (short *and* long-term), or make it clear that resurrection is part of the show's rulebook. Mixing the two can be less satisfying. (Enough heated discussion here about Buffy vs. Joyce, Tara, Fred, etc.)

Edit: Talking about problem of death in sci-fi, not stock in soup.

[ edited by OneTeV on 2011-04-13 17:02 ]
Although 'Babylon 5' handled that pretty badly too.
I didn't finish the article; its points don't stand up well. Lord of the Rings was written 3 generations ago, it's hard to call that a "growing" problem.

And of all resurrections, Gandalf's was possibly the coolest. Come on: he was sent back to the world because his job wasn't done yet. How badass is that? He's not even allowed to die. "Nope, sorry G. No heaven for you. Git back in there. Naked, on a mountain-top. We know that you just single-handedly defeated one of the greatest evils in Middle Earth, but your contract clearly says you don't get to die until you stop all of them."
I do know one series where the lead character died, though he may not stay dead: the British series PRIMEVAL. Well, he is dead, but there are some strange loopholes in the show, where it wouldn't feel like a violation. BTW, for those looking for a new SF series to watch, it isn't at all a bad show. Starts off slow but gets much better as it goes along. Season Five starts this fall.
I do agree with the essential point the author is trying to make. I think death and resurrection is one of the most overused plot devices in a lot of modern storytelling. I think it depends on the individual case whether it works or not, but it does seem like too often writers reach for death scenes as an easy plot device and then bring the character back anyway so it does chepaen the initial death (and of course the method of bringing the character back or explaining how they didn't actually die can vary greatly in plausibility).

I think Buffy is an example of a show where death works quite well, because the vast majority of characters are significantly changed if they do return from the dead - either as vampires, ghosts, in dreams or as manifestations of The First, does not diminish their deaths as either their physical body is gone or their soul is and they haven't defied death.

On the balance, most of the major Buffyverse characters who die actually stay dead - Jenny, Joyce, Tara, Anya, Doyle, Cordelia, Fred and Wesley. I would argue that Buffy's first death wasn't a cheap trick because it only lasted a scene or two before she was resusitated and it was plausible that someone could technically die from drowning before being revived with CPR. The second death was more permanent but redemeed by the fact that it was so significant for the character and the show, producing severe consequences.

Angel and Spike's deaths are the only two major ones in the Buffyverse that I feel were pushing towards cheap since both were reversed with little overall consequence, and that can't help but cheapen the original death scene. I think fantasy and sci-fi shows certainly have more license to resurrect characters since it can only fit in with the rules and mythology of the genres, but I personally do prefer if they're kept to a minimum.

In contrast, there are some shows that did lose a lot of credibility because of the continual death/resurrection scenarios. Alias is a really good example, because although it wasn't realistic by any stretch of the imagination it was grounded in some sort of reality resembling ours. But any viewer would lose track of how many characters who had "died" and been brought back. The writers seemed to kill characters off only to decide they needed them again or that the shock of their return was valuable, to the extent that even when you saw someone fatally shot at point blank range and their dead body several days later, it would be a safe bet that it was actually a clone of them killed, or someone administered a magical life restoring drug, or whatever ridiculous explanation you would care to give. It just got to the point where the concept of death would lose any meaning and it was hard to fear for the characters since they seemed to recover from everything.

Don't get me wrong, the occasional surprise resurrection or faked death or whatever can have an impact, but whenever a plot is so heavily dependent upon them then the audience loses all trust in the integrity of the story and the world it's based in.
Angel didn't die did he ? He was just stabbed and sent to Hell (or "Hell" anyway) unless i'm forgetting one. And Spike had a several episode arc where he almost faded away (again to "Hell", what is it with these guys, is somebody trying to tell them something ? ;) before coming all the way back. Not on the scale of Buffy S6 for sure but not totally without consequence either.

And the continued appeal of 'Primeval' continues to baffle me but there you go, it's a subjective thing (and in fairness, I stopped watching after series 2).
I don`t think Gandalf counts, him not really being human and all. More of an angel (not an Angel.)
It is only a problem if they fall into the "things will never be the same again" cliche....Talking about problem of death in sci-fi, not stock in soup.

To be fair it's also a problem if they fall into the soup, because dead scifi/fantasy characters in soup is not such a good thing either,
unless maybe it's Howard the Duck, in which case, yum (but without the clothes and cigar).

[ edited by barboo on 2011-04-13 23:46 ]
"I wouldn't want to be in any soup that would have me as an ingredient" - Howard the Duck (attributed).
"Angel didn't die did he ? He was just stabbed and sent to Hell (or "Hell" anyway) unless i'm forgetting one. And Spike had a several episode arc where he almost faded away (again to "Hell", what is it with these guys, is somebody trying to tell them something ? ;) before coming all the way back. Not on the scale of Buffy S6 for sure but not totally without consequence either."

Maybe not totally without consequence, but considering the lack of real long-term impact upon the characters I just wonder if sometimes death really is the answer. You're right that Angel was technically sucked into a hell dimension, I suppose I tend to think along the lines that getting permanently sent into a heaven or hell-like dimension has essentially the same effect as actually dying, especially when the portal into that dimension is supposedly one way and completely irreversible.

A good example of what I mean is that recently I was talking to one of my friends who watched Buffy but didn't like Angel, who was quite disappointed to find out Spike didn't die permanently in Chosen, although I did point out that his death seemed more obviously reversible to me since it did come about because of the talisman which Angel brought to Sunnydale. Even without the added knowledge Angel viewers would have that it originated from Wolfram and Hart, Buffy viewers probably would think something was suspicous that Angel just shows up with this great weapon, but again wouldn't it have been a much more interesting weapon that required the sacrifice of one person in order to kill many of their enemies? Before Spike's resurrection, it still fell into a sort of "deus ex machina MacGuffin" category (much like the scythe) in that it shows up out of nowhere and has this amazing power to solve problems we would have preferred our characters to deal with, but at least it came with a price. It seems cheap that there essentially was no sacrifice to using it.

This article actually reminded me of another trend my friends and I have noticed, where a lot of films and shows constantly raise the stakes so that every major villain is incrementally more powerful than the last, and that the destruction or conquering of the world is nearly always the villain's aim, and that can get boring, if not illogical. Buffy is slightly guilty on both these counts, in that the Big Bads do always get slightly more powerful and usually overpower Buffy early in the season, only for her to somehow get stronger and learn to defeat them. At least effort was made to explain this sometimes, like the spell used again Adam, the hammer and orb used against Glory, and the scythe again Caleb, but it doesn't always make a lot of sense.

The trend towards the stakes having to be apocalpytically huge was successfully parodied in The Zeppo, and by using the Trio as the villains in season six so at least there was a smart self-awareness about it. I have to admit that although I love Doctor Who it is definitely a show that suffers from this syndrome, especially because it isn't even resolved for season finales but often every episode the villain's aim is just to destroy or enslave a particular planet or species. As Spike explains so wonderfully in Becoming, sometimes the world as it is suits the villain just perfectly.

It becomes a lot more interesting when the stakes are different, or more personal. And the same goes for deaths (and often the subsequent resurrection!). Sometimes putting the characters through other scenarios can force the writers to be creative and it can be fresher for the audience. Again, focusing on Doctor Who, the weeping angels in Blink made brilliant villains because they weren't just trying to destroy humanity, but if they touched a person, that person is sent randomly back in time to live out their days in a totally different time period. I thought that was an extraordinary bittersweet concept, that the characters weren't actually killed and so would live normal lives, but would be cast adrift in the past and never able to see their family and friends again.

Rose being (again, supposedly) stuck in a parallel world unable to see the Doctor again and Donna having to have her memories of him wiped for her own survival, were great ideas that were paradoxically more frustrating (because of the pain they would cause to the characters) and a relief (because they weren't killed off). One major advantage is also that it would certainly feel more belivable to bring the character back and explain it in a more satisfying way trying to do that when the character has explicitly been killed off.
Personally, as a fan i'd rather Donna had died than undergone the kind of character dissolution she went through (except for the idea that "In sci-fi, no-one dies forever" i.e. I still, in some corner of my mind, have hope that we'll see another resolution to her resolution but not because she didn't actually die, in truth it's more because that's what i'd rather happened).

...I suppose I tend to think along the lines that getting permanently sent into a heaven or hell-like dimension has essentially the same effect as actually dying, especially when the portal into that dimension is supposedly one way and completely irreversible.

"In sci-fi[&Fantasy], no-one dies forever" and especially, "In sci-fi[&Fantasy] those who haven't actually died really haven't died forever" ;).

(i.e. if death - the ultimate permanence - isn't permanent then permanence isn't permanent)

As Spike explains so wonderfully in Becoming, sometimes the world as it is suits the villain just perfectly.

And sometimes it doesn't. Who is always doddering along at the edge of armageddon, that small/hugeness is part of what makes it Who.
Razor; Dreams and manifetsations of the First *aren't* coming back no matter how many jokes the writers amke in itnerivews about "nobody dies and stays gone."

OneTeV: I agree; either it is or it isn't part of the mythos. And so often, unforutnately, it's both.

Honestly, I'm not sure, if I'd started writing Buffyverse fanfic in summer 2004 instead of January 2002, if I'd have bunch of resurrection fics to reunite all the couples I originally was writing about.

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