Death in popular culture is meaningless. There’s too much death and not enough. More than ever, TV shows and films are obsessed with the omnipresence of death, but blind to death having any meaning. “Why is no-one allowed die?” (e.g. the Marvel films) or “Why must everyone be killed off for shock value?” (e.g. Game of Thrones) seem like not only distinct but contradictory problems, but they’re two sides of the same coin: anybody might die – but probably not anybody you care about, and if it is, they’ll come back to life in the end.
The first show to really break my heart was Doctor Who. The Doctor Who I loved was made under Russell T. Davies’s reign as showrunner, when Christopher Eccleston and then David Tennant played the Doctor, when the show was very silly and often flat-out bad (the aliens that were just lumps of fat come to mind), but it could make me cry at the drop of a hat. Sometimes I convince myself that I just grew out of Doctor Who and wouldn’t like any of it now, but there are moments from that era of the show that I still think about regularly – that still make my heart clench to think about: from the Doctor saying goodbye to Rose, to the expression on Christopher Eccleston’s face when the “last” Dalek says, “You would make a good Dalek.”
The showrunner who took over from Davies was Steven Moffat, who also made BBC’s Sherlock. I had a lot of problems with Moffat’s tenure in Doctor Who – he’s a great episode writer and a terrible showrunner, because he seems to think running a show is about going to stupid lengths to maintain continuity and look clever rather than developing characters – although I’m not angry about it anymore. But Moffat’s Doctor Who was the first place I recognised a problem that I see more and more in film and TV: an intense, unexamined anxiety around death.
In an episode Moffat wrote while Davies was showrunner, River Song, a woman the Doctor will meet in the future, dies. The Doctor saves her consciousness on a computer, so she never has to die, and damning her to this cursed half-life is triumphant. At the start of season five, Moffat’s first season as showrunner, Amy Pond’s parents died when she was a child. In the finale, they’re not only brought back to life, but the timeline is altered so they never died, but we never see them again. Amy’s husband, Rory, is the man who dies and dies again. Another companion, Clara, appears to live and die in multiple eras before she’s revealed to exist in incarnations across time periods to save the Doctor over and over. The first episode of Doctor Who Moffat wrote ends with the Doctor triumphantly declaring that just this once, everybody lives, as deaths are undone around him, and it’s moving precisely because at that point it was just this once. Moffat’s most famous creation, the Weeping Angel, doesn’t actually kill its victims – it sends them back in time, and they’re allowed die of old age having lived a full life, just not in the era they were born into.
In the fiftieth anniversary special, we go back to the moment that the Doctor committed genocide, against the Daleks and his own people, the Time Lords. It’s an important moment, one that will define the rest of the Doctor’s life. There was a horrible, brutal war, and to end it, the Doctor killed the Daleks – an alien race whose only emotion is hatred, whose only goal is extermination – and the Time Lords, making him the only one left. It’s the undercurrent of everything he does afterwards: Eccleston’s Doctor tries to be tough and protect himself from caring about others, because he did something so awful, something which he can never know whether it was worth it, and so maybe he deserves to be alone. The Doctor is a time traveller, but there are some points that are fixed, that he cannot change. The genocide is one of them. It’s the most fraught decision of his life, and it’s the one he has no choice but to live with.
But in the fiftieth anniversary special, he gets to change it. He doesn’t do it; he’s too clever for that. He traps the Time Lords in a painting, and it plays like a triumph.
I used to think the problem was that nobody was dying, not for real. But it’s not like I’d grown accustomed to a blood-soaked Doctor Who: other than the off-screen genocide, not many characters died in the previous era. There was even the kind of temporary deaths that Moffat is so fond of: Rose Tyler’s father was alive in an alternate universe, the Master will keep coming back forever, and there are just an absurd number of Daleks considering the Doctor supposedly killed them all. The show’s premise literally has the protagonist be reborn whenever they recast. Doctor Who is (supposed to be) for children, not a show where people get murdered constantly. The problem is about weight.
In one of the first episodes of Davies’s Doctor Who, long before Rose Tyler met her father again in the parallel universe, she tries to save him from dying in the first place. She pushes him out of the way of the car that is meant to kill him, and the rupture in time threatens to destroy all of history. Her father has to sacrifice himself, and Rose holds his hand as he dies. For now, at least, his death is given meaning and context, and Rose is given space to mourn. The Doctor doesn’t save the day with his cleverness.
Moffat’s Doctor Who is saturated with death, but none of it matters. Rory Williams dies so often it becomes a running gag. The Doctor forces all of humanity to commit genocide against the Silence and triumphant music plays in the background. There’s an entire season about how the Doctor will die, but then he gets out of it with his cleverness. Fear of death is as central to Moffat’s Doctor Who as taking joy in humanity’s capacity for goodness was to Davies’s, but with nothing to say about it.
I’ve often said that nobody dies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s a lie. Lots of people get murdered in the MCU: an endless supply of faceless henchmen exists to be killed by the heroes, even if our brain doesn’t register it because of the lack of blood. Almost a decade in, the MCU is just starting to recognise collateral deaths, but murdering the bad guys is par for the course. Why else would Marvel think it was a good idea to “team up” with a weapons manufacturer?
When I say nobody dies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I mean that nobody the films tell us to care about are allowed die. The events of The Avengers hinge on the death of Agent Coulson, but then he came out of the grave to star in a TV spin-off. In Captain America: Civil War, War Machine gets blasted out of the sky and falls a lethal distance, and for half a second, I felt something, because one of our heroes had inadvertently killed a friend. It made sense, I thought, to kill him off, because he’s a pretty minor character and Don Cheadle looks a hundred years old, and it would create emotional arcs for the other characters.
But he wasn’t dead. He got paralysed, except Tony Stark gave him robot legs so even that’s fine.
Civil War is a film about the lives lost due to superheroics, but it has to keep those losses at a distance. A statistic, or a weak villain. Death is everywhere, but it isn’t allowed to matter. Allowed touch someone we care about.
It isn’t that I wanted War Machine to die. I would much rather watch a superhero film about saving people, where nobody dies if our heroes can help it. The problem is that Civil War put death right at the centre of its narrative but never has the guts to pull the trigger.
Two superhero films took death seriously this year: Logan and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. They both made me cry. They both felt like real movies. There are two antidotes to the problem of meaningless death, and Logan and Guardians (surprisingly) both fall into the same category: they both freely admit that their characters kill people, admit to happening in such a dangerous, messed up world that characters who kill people can still be the good guys. They don’t seal their main characters in a bubble of safety: it’s a dangerous world, and that means people we care about are in danger, too. Lots of people die, including people we love, and we mourn their deaths.
The other antidote is something nobody has the guts to do, not in 2017: make death rare.
“It’s much easier to create stakes that pertain to a character’s physical body,” Todd VanDerWerff writes in Vox, “Creating stakes that pertain to someone’s mind or soul is inestimably harder, because it requires digging deep, creating great characters whose lives you care about so much that even if, say, they lose their job or a lover, you find yourself distraught.”
A common refrain – in defense of everything from Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel to Rogue One – is that in these dark times, we need films and TV to be dark. This is maybe the craziest misunderstanding of art to be trotted out as an accepted truth. If there was any correlation between the political climate and what people “need” from art, it would be the opposite: that in dark times, we need art that gives us hope, and in good times, we need art to make us sceptical. “Comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” But even if we buy into the idea that art should reflect the darkness of the times, gritty retellings of stories built on hope don’t deliver on that promise. Reflecting the darkness of these times shouldn’t be hard. There’s a lot to work with: The Big Short is a comedy but it still made me so angry about the state of the world that I almost threw up, whereas Rogue One: A Star Wars Story kills off every single character, but first made sure they were all thinly-written enough that I wouldn’t care. It doesn’t tap into the darkness of the times, it’s just lazy.
The run-up to Star Trek: Discovery airing had a lot of moments of that made me apprehensive, but maybe none repulsed me more than the Vanity Fair article “How Game of Thrones Inspired Star Trek Discovery: It’s not just the redshirts who should watch their backs.” “Game of Thrones changed television. They almost made it difficult to fall in love with people because you didn’t know if they were going to be taken away from you,” Gretchen J. Berg said.
How did we get to this point, where it’s a point of praise for a show to prevent you falling in love with its characters? Where characters are thin enough that death is the only thing that can act as a meaningful threat? “It’s not just redshirts who should watch their backs,” Vanity Fair writes, in reference to nameless characters on Star Trek who would be killed off on their first appearance just to establish a threat. The idea is that that won’t be the case in Discovery, that characters we care about will die instead. But in the pilot, eight thousand Starfleet officers die pointlessly, including on-screen deaths of characters we’ve just met, and there’s no emotional resonance. There’s nothing.
Death isn’t meaningless. Death is profound. Death is an ending. Death is either the moment you cease to exist or the most drastic leap into the unknown possible. Death is the fact that our time on earth is finite, and not to be wasted. Our pop culture is clouded over with the stain of death but never asks us to think about what death means. It tricks us into believing we deal with the pain and confusion and fear and sadness tied to death, with the profound effect that the inevitability of our own deaths has on our lives, without having to do any of the work. There’s no need, since, after all, it only happens at arm’s length.
The only thing more profound than death is life itself. But they’re defined in opposition to one another: a show or film that doesn’t take death seriously can’t take life seriously. It can’t imagine stakes within a person’s internal life. It makes you afraid to fall in love, as if love is worthless if its recipient dies. It makes you afraid to mourn, because what would be the point if the character comes back in the season premiere?
A TV show with guts today would let people live. It would imagine stakes that aren’t life or death, but feel as important. It would allow us fall in love. A TV show with guts would treat death as something weighty and serious, not gratuitous shock value or a gotcha moment followed by immediate resurrection. It would allow us to mourn.