I was four years old the first time I saw a grown man die.
‘Man’ might be pushing it a bit. You might say ‘Young man’, perhaps, at a stretch. ‘Impetuous teenager’ would be closer. When you’re still at nursery you don’t really learn to make such distinctions. My memory is of him being shot by a Cyberman. The reality, of course, is that the Cyberman destroys the control deck, thus rendering the ship inoperable and destined to crash.
The fact that this is not only my first memory of Doctor Who but also my first memory of pretty much anything should tell you that it struck a deep chord. The image of that shattered badge – although it looks, in my head, bizarrely like a fractured and broken Button Moon, presumably covered in spiders and hiding a winged monster – is etched into my brain, like a screen burn.
In Doctor Who history, Adric’s death is significant. It’s final, unless you’re a Big Finish fan. It’s comparatively sudden. It’s only mildly pre-ordained, the farewell between Davison and Waterhouse the single clue that this will not end happily. It contains – through the young man’s fingering of the belt – a nice little throwback to Full Circle, Adric’s very first story, thus closing the narrative loop. It’s the death of a companion.
And strictly speaking, it’s the last time it happens.
Killing a companion is risky. Do it too often and it becomes a gimmick. My wife and I were big fans of 24 back in the day: we constructed a how-to-survive-24-hours-in-the-company-of-Jack-Bauer rulebook, and rule #3 is never, ever sleep with him. Doctor Who is at its heart a family show and audience sensitivities need to be taken into account. Conversely, to resurrect the dead – or the apparent dead – as often as it seems to happen these days has the unfortunate side effect of cheapening the value of life. Doctor Who has evolved from being a show that happened to feature time travel to a show that is actively about time travel, rendering the concepts of life and death largely redundant. Death becomes a pothole in the road that can be avoided by a narrative sidestep – an additional word, a data pattern in a sonic screwdriver, or the wheezing, groaning sound of the TARDIS.
This wouldn’t in itself be a problem were it not for a sense of expectation. It’s not that companions don’t really die in contemporary Who. It’s that we’re told they will – both on and off the screen. Death is foreshadowed in stories and dangled like a carrot at convention appearances. I have lost count of the number of times I was assured that I would be shocked, upset, and emotionally drained by the end of Series 9. Instead we had a character who got spiked by a raven in a shady London side street after a six-minute monologue and an eternity of travelling round the universe with an immortal teenager. It’s The Birds meets Harry Potter meets American Beauty meets Highlander. It’s ridiculous. And if you think I’m being unreasonable, consider: the body count for that closing episode is minus one.
You can’t blame Moffat for this. It’s a trend that starts with Rose – no, belay that last remark; it starts with Peri, who appears shining and married to Brian Blessed in the closing minutes of The Ultimate Foe. The notion of the false death was bad enough in 1986, but it sets something of a precedent, paving the way for the assured deaths of Rose, Donna, Amy, Rory, and Clara. It’s as if Russell T Davies sat down to watch Trial of a Time Lord (itself the most metaphysical of all the Doctor’s adventures, given that it’s a Doctor Who story about a bunch of people sitting in a room watching Doctor Who stories) and thought “Ooh, that back-from-the-dead thing is a winner. I’m using that. In fact I think I’ll use it more than once.”
There is an experiment involving monkeys in a cage. It goes like this: you drop a banana in the cage, but every time a monkey goes for the banana, you spray the lot of them with water. Eventually the monkeys are trained not to go for the banana for fear of getting soaked. At this point, you remove a monkey and replace it with a new one, whose first instinct is to go for the banana. Every other monkey automatically leaps on him to stop him, and it happens again and again until the poor monkey has learned not to go for the banana, even though he probably has no idea why. Whereupon you replace another monkey with a new monkey, who also goes for the banana, and who is hindered by every other monkey – including (and this is the crucial point) the monkey who doesn’t know why he’s gone on the attack. You gradually replace every monkey in the cage until you have ten monkeys who all know, without question, that they must not pick up the banana, but who do not know why: only that “it’s the way it’s always been done around here”.
This sort of thing is usually used to illustrate the formulation of company policy, but I wonder if we can apply it to the way that Doctor Who gets written. It’s as if death can be teased to saturation point, but cannot actually happen because no one remembers how to kill someone and let them stay dead. This is what happens when you grow up reading Marvel comics, in which Scott Summers or Charles Xavier die every other issue; or Transformers, in which Optimus Prime has been unexpectedly rebooted so many times he surely risks hard drive corruption. Why kill someone permanently when you don’t have to?
You might argue – and I wouldn’t contradict you – that in many respects, Classic Who wasn’t so different. Every other cliffhanger saw the Doctor or his companion face mortal danger or apparent death (what Terrance Dicks would call “the circular saw approach”). It became a running joke, just as the resolutions were often ill-thought out and inconsistent with whatever had happened the previous week (I’m looking at you, The Sun Makers). Sarah Jane falls twenty feet at the end of episode two of Genesis of the Daleks and three feet at the beginning of episode three. I’m exaggerating, but only a little.
But where New Who differs is the expectation of death, both on the screen and off it. It began with Rose, who stood on a beach – heaven? hell? Norway? – and told us the story of how she died, in a disappointingly legal sense. Donna’s much prophesied demise – as assured by
Johnny the Nice Painter Dalek Caan – is nothing more than a memory wipe, just before she wins the lottery. Rory came back from the dead so often that for a couple of years you could gaze in at the windows of people watching Doctor Who and those of people watching South Park, unable to tell the difference between them. In 2012, amidst the build-up to Series 7, Moffat assured us that enough was enough. “Not everyone gets out alive,” he said. “And I mean it this time.” And true to form, “I mean it this time” turned out to mean “Amy and Rory live to a ripe old age in New York, tragically never seeing the Doctor again even though that narrative loophole is so easy to bypass a primary school child could have managed it”.
Peter, my old history teacher – a dead ringer for Clive Sinclair and also one of the wisest men I ever knew – once offered this little gem of wisdom in the middle of a discourse on Victorian poverty. “Imagine,” he said, not moving from his spot by the desk – Peter had the ability to command a room without having to pace it – “that I’d told you all at the beginning of the lesson that you could go home twenty minutes early today. You’d all be thrilled, right? Next, imagine that five or ten minutes later I’d suddenly rescinded that offer and said no, actually you’ll have to stay. Now, you’re no worse off than you were before, but you’d still complain, because the offer was there and then it was removed.”
You see what I mean. As much as anything, it’s the relentless teasing that annoys me the most. I understand the principle of courting the press. I know it helps with trending and ratings. I know how to turn a convention soundbite into a three-hundred word article. It’s all part of the territory. My gripe with being overfed hyperbole may be justified, but the situation I find myself in stems from career choices and, as such, is entirely of my own making. It’s the content of the press releases that I object to. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t complain about the food.
If I come across as grumpy, let’s try a little compare-and-contrast. Torchwood’s very first episode concludes with the death of one of the main players. Suzie Costello is a monkey who is dispatched so that Gwen can take her place – whereupon she spends a series and a half reaching for metaphorical bananas – but the turncoat’s demise is sudden, shocking, and (for the most part) unalterably final. When Davies brings her back halfway through the series (They Keep Killing Suzie) it is specifically so he can kill her again, and then again, and then leave her dead for keeps. The following series concludes with the permadeaths of Owen and Toshiko – she from a gunshot wound, he in a strangely zen-like nuclear explosion.
That Owen’s death follows a period of grotesque undeath is deliberate. He becomes the yin to Jack’s yang: a permanently decaying half-life, caught between worlds. His eventual death is as much a release as Ianto’s is a tragedy – Ianto meeting his maker in the most upsetting (and astounding) Torchwood story in the show’s history. Davies extended the metaphor further in Miracle Day, featuring a planet of zombies and a Big Pharma conspiracy that gave the anti-vaxxers a field day. By and large, it doesn’t work. On the other hand it has a mesmerising performance from Bill Pullman and Gwen fires a rocket launcher at a helicopter on a Welsh beach. From the top, there is nowhere to go but down.
But it’s the attitude towards life itself that’s curious. Jack is granted effective immortality that puts him on a level playing field with the Doctor – although said immortality manifests in an entirely different manner – but, as Spider-Man would have said, it is a curse as well as a gift. (I suspect theirs would have been a fruitful partnership, given that the two of them also share a fondness for rooftops.) Jack witnesses the deaths of everyone he loves and his overall humanity – something the Doctor does not have – lends it an emotional resonance that we don’t see in Doctor Who. When the Tenth Doctor complains about the inevitability of ageing in School Reunion it sounds like whiny nitpicking; when he muses (in The End Of Time) about “Some new man… sauntering away”, it sounds like resentment. It’s a generalisation, but the message of Doctor Who, it seems, is to preserve life, whatever the cost: conversely, Torchwood welcomes the embrace of death, greeting it like an old friend.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the two. Torchwood is violent and gritty (if your definition of ‘gritty’ peaks at a bit of anal and a couple of four-letter-words). Its post-watershed scheduling allowed it a sense of bleakness (the show is uncompromisingly nihilistic when it comes to perceptions about the afterlife) that Doctor Who, even in its grimmest moments, can probably never possess. But even at its low points – and there were plenty – it retained a sense of consistency that was oddly reassuring. People who die on Torchwood stay dead. You may encounter them in earlier adventures, but this doesn’t alter their ultimate fate. Occasionally, they come back as ghosts, but such visits are transient and fleeting, and the dead sleep while the living remain.
And perhaps I simply have a mean streak, but I wonder how much Doctor Who might be improved by killing a companion properly, permanently and indelibly and unambiguously. They managed it (just about) with Danny Pink. It would have been better still if we’d never seen him again (on the other hand, I’ve always thought it would have been better if Death in Heaven didn’t exist at all, so perhaps I’m not the person to ask). The obsession with resurrection and reprieve cheapens the value of life, and the resolution to Series 9 smacks of a writer who cannot bring himself to do the unthinkable and destroy his creation, which really seems extraordinarily vain. What we’re left with is a show that languishes in a mass of contradictions, lukewarm and tedious, where everything bad can be undone purely because someone wills it so.
In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (a series that has never shied away from killing its leads), during a memorable confrontation with Lord Voldemort, Albus Dumbledore calmly reflects that “There are things much worse than death”. Someone really should tell Steven Moffat.
Doctor Who Could Learn A Lot From Torchwood About Death
I was four years old the first time I saw a grown man die.