You can’t kill the Doctor. Because he’ll just regenerate. So by extension, there’s no use threatening to kill him. The audience knows he’ll be back next episode. Threatening the Doctor is inherently undramatic. Might as well not even bother.
Companions though, are a different story. They are fair game. And the death of a companion can have great impact. Although the merits of Earthshock are much debated, it showed how killing off a companion could pack an emotional punch and shake up this otherwise cozy series. Its influence on new Who is palpable. Even now, the death of a companion is something the new show flirts with regularly.
Except that new Who is more Mindwarp than Earthshock. It is yet to have the guts to definitively kill off a companion. It prefers the faux death of companions. Just as Peri’s death turned out to be a convoluted lie, so nearly every 21st century companion has had some “get out of death free” card. Rose didn’t die at Canary Wharf, but escaped to a parallel world. Jack died and was resurrected, many times over. Donna didn’t die but had her memory erased. Amy died but was brought back to life by a big box. Clara died but her death was stalled by the Time Lords and now she rides again.
And Rory. Sweet deathless Rory. As the Silence says, he’s the man who dies and dies again. When he’s thinking of jumping off the side of a building in The Angels Take Manhattan, he’s even self aware enough to joke about it. The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood is only his third story as a companion, but he’s already died twice (a dream version of him fell to dust in Amy’s Choice). Another dream version of him will die in The Doctor’s Wife and he nearly carks it in The Curse of the Black Spot. He’s king of the faux death.
New Who has adopted the faux death as a recurring motif. This should really be no surprise in a series which, at its heart, has a lead character who cheats death over and over again through regeneration. Rory, Clara et al are echoes of that major theme.
The faux death differs between the RTD and Moffat eras, though. In Davies’ time as showrunner there were two ways to not really die. The first, a la Rose and Donna, was for the death to be explained off as a technicality (you’re officially dead on our Earth, but not on a parallel world. Your memory’s wiped, so that version of you is dead). It’s a narrative sleight of hand; lead your audience to draw a conclusion and then subvert their expectations. The second was the Jack Harkness model; to be granted Doctor-like powers of reincarnation to become the man who cannot die (series regulars becoming super beings being another Davies motif).
The Moffat way of death is to more blatantly disregard its finality. In Moffat’s Who death is temporary. People frequently come back from death. Amy died in The Pandorica Opens, but in the very next episode it’s explained that she’s only “mostly dead” (in a line so outrageous it can only be forgiven because it’s obviously cribbed from The Princess Bride, in which Billy Crystal’s character Miracle Max says, “It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive”). Put her back in the Pandorica and she comes back to life.
Often people come back as digital copies of themselves, like River and Danny Pink. And then of course there’s the multiversions of Rory and the resurrected Clara. Osgood appears to die but that was a Zygon (I think) and even the Brigadier comes back as a Cyberman. Nardole’s resurrection from within a big robot is still to be fully explained.
So RTD pretends he’s going to kill someone, then doesn’t. The Moff kills them and then brings them back anyway. Moff’s approach can be summed up in Amy’s line from The Big Bang, “if you can remember someone, they can come back”. And it’s that message which bothers me the most.
Sorry to get all, “won’t somebody think of the children?” for a moment but should Doctor Who be telling the younger members of its audience the death of a loved one is temporary? The fact is that you can remember someone you’ve lost all you like, but they cannot come back.
Not that I think Doctor Who has the power to delude children into thinking the dead can be resurrected. But how inexpressibly sad for a child who has lost a friend or family member – perhaps one in the middle of the grieving process – to turn to their favourite show and be presented with the glib, almost crass, suggestion that if you remember someone, they can come back from the dead. I think that might sour a young viewer’s opinion of the show forever.
How to fix this? It’s back to the Earthshock model. When you kill someone, they stay dead. As painful as it is. There may not be much to recommend Time-Flight, but when Tegan and Nyssa plead with the Doctor to change events and save Adric’s life, he says no, that’s not possible. And when the two women meet a phantom of the dead boy later in the story, they rightly walk through it for the illusion that it is. It hurts, but it’s the right message. Dead is dead.
So while The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood may once have packed a punch, it’s now difficult to take its best moment, Rory’s demise, seriously. Just as it was difficult to take Clara’s death in Face the Raven (about which more NEXT TIME) seriously. Because we know that in new Who, death doesn’t stop a companion’s story.
But it should. It really should.
LINK TO Inside the Spaceship. The TARDIS in trouble, again.
Great piece. Agree with you, the show needs a death, and a permanent, impactful one.