There’s a popular joke I’ve seen floating around on Tumblr for a while now. It goes like this: “Joss Whedon, Steven Moffat and George R.R. Martin walk into a bar and everyone you’ve ever loved dies…
I haven’t seen this going around yet, so I’m gonna start the ball rolling. I’m also going to add my epic length take on it because someone on facebook (deliberately) missed the point and I felt the need to spell it out for them.
Now, before I begin, let me ask you, have you ever lost someone? Family, friend, distant relative? Maybe even just a celebrity or political figure you really looked up to? Most of us have, although that last one is not really the kind of death I’m talking about.
Death is as important to life as birth. You cannot have one without the other two. And when someone you’re close to dies, they leave. They’re there one minute, and the next… gone. There’s no reset button, there’s no paradox time loop to bring them back, no shortcuts. They are really gone. They have left you.
And it’s painful, EXTREMELY painful. You blame yourself and then you blame them and then you blame the world and you go through all the stages of grief because… you have to. There’s really no way around it, at least not for us humans, not for anyone or anything mortal. You can spend a long time in denial, sure, but eventually we all learn to accept it and keep going.
But that person stays with you. Their death, departure, still lingers. You never forget. And that is why death is such an important part of life because it teaches us. It teaches us about ourselves, what we really care about, and makes us face the consequences. A consequence you can never outrun, it will always catch up with you because of a decision that wasn’t even yours to make. You didn’t choose to be born. But because you were born, you must die. And in the space between birth and death, we all have to come to terms with that in some way and seeing people around us die helps us.
So, now, what about fictional deaths? What purpose does that serve?
It forces a character to grow. It can be a collision with reality and coming to terms with it, the end of a dream. It can be a chance at a new start, the end of an old life and the beginning of a new one, new choices. It can be a lesson in itself, to not do whatever that person did to end up like this. But above all it is a reminder that nothing lasts forever, even the things we hold most precious, and when a character is faced with that reminder, they will either cling to those precious things tighter and try to stave off the inevitable or… they will come to the realization that death is a part of life and eventually we all have to move on. This is a fact of life that is just as true in fiction, even science fiction and fantasy, as it is in reality.
And without that factor, suddenly everything becomes meaningless. Actions become purposeless because in the end there’s always a way around it, to outwit the consequences, to never have to deal with something you don’t like. And that makes for a stagnating, stale, and ultimately completely unrelatable character.
Oh, it’s fun to do it for awhile, but ultimately, the cost catches up with everyone. And what we’ve lost, what we regret, and what we remember, are what shape us as characters and as people. Those decisions and those consequences mark us, haunt us, and inform us for the next decision we have to make.
Death in fiction should never be taken lightly and the best writers will show you all the rippling consequences that come from one death, needless to say what thousands upon thousands would do to a character (which was the original point of the Time War, to shape the Doctor into a new character, a darker, angstier, more careworn person who had had to make a decision he wasn’t happy with and deal with the consequences. The point was to force him to come to terms with it, to go through the grief and guilt and come out someone new, to be redeemed. And by denying that consequence Moffat has destroyed all of the growth and change the Doctor has gone through since then. He has made the redemption arc Nine and Ten went though pointless and redundant. He has in fact devolved the Doctor, he’s reverted this old, wise, heartbroken man to an impulsive child who cannot deal with his toys being taken away from him. That is not better, that is disgusting and insulting to the process of grief we all go through and to all the hard work that was put in to reshaping the Doctor to the point when Moffat took over and erased it all). Death is not a cheap parlor trick, which is how Moffat treats it, the bunny doesn’t come back out of the hat, that’s not how it works. Painful as it is, you will never see that bunny again and that. is. the point. You learn, you grow, you cherish the memory of that bunny, and you keep moving forward.
Yes it’s painful, but the Doctor would be the first to defend, and he has many times in the past, that this is the way it has to be. You cannot let time stagnate, you cannot let death become meaningless because if it is… then what is the point of anything? What is the point of saving anyone, of doing the right thing, if in the end there are no consequences? They wouldn’t die even if you did nothing.
That is the real problem with Moffat’s constant avoidance of the consequences. He is killing any meaning left in Doctor Who.
I agree with a lot of what’s said above, but with one caveat (which sort of sticks in my craw because…ugh. Moffat.). I don’t think Moffat’s little “Everybody Lives” Redux made the painful journey of Nine and Ten “pointless.” The Doctor grew. He changed. Some core part of him became essentially different. He can’t just start fresh just because Moffat’s hit the reset button on the fate of Gallifrey. Maybe 11 played into the joyous “you are not alone” moment a bit too naively, but it was a gut reaction. Without putting too much faith in Moffat, I think it’s entirely possible that, in the clear light of day, the Doctor will remember his intensely problematic relationship with his home planet and the majority of Time Lords in positions of power, and maybe he’ll take what he learned from his experience of grieving and apply it to his interactions with his people, should he ever find them.
Do I think it’s sloppy storytelling? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean death, or even the perception of death, and grief mean NOTHING in this storyline. Robbed of their memories about the possibility of saving Gallifrey, the War Doctor, Nine, Ten, and Eleven (‘til this moment) all have to live with the fact that Gallifrey is gone, and that the Doctor had a hand in its disappearance. How they get through that knowledge, day by day, is an experience that can’t be erased, even if the impetus is.
Beyond that, people react to last-minute reprieves in different, and often complex, ways, and it’s possible that the Doctor will, too (if given the chance by writers). It’s just too early to tell whether this really is another “let’s avoid the consequences” moment or if it’s a turn of the tide.
Let me give you a somewhat related example. Imagine a loved one is diagnosed with cancer. For over a year, you struggle with the fear that this person is going to die, and you struggle watching him suffer through pain and his own fears. Then, he goes into remission. You don’t forget all that pain and fear you went through. The remission doesn’t automatically turn you into a happy shiny person spouting nonsense about miracles and platitudes about appreciating your loved ones while you have the chance. Maybe you feel that way, occasionally, but for the most part, you’re angry that you all had to go through that and terrified that you’ll have to go through it again. And that’s not an attitude you had before. And then a few years later, the cancer comes back, and your loved one suffers even more for even longer, and dies, and maybe part of you wishes that you could just erase those years of remission because they seem pointless and pointlessly cruel. But how you grew and changed during those remission years also wasn’t redundant.
Anyway. I’m not a Moffat apologist, and I do wish Peter Capaldi could start his tenure as the Doctor with a new show runner / head writer. Still, I think it’s too reductive to say that saving Gallifrey makes anything Nine and Ten went through “pointless.”