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by David Carroll

First Appeared in Burnt Toast#6, 1990

So, now you're going to kill me. What a finely tuned response to the situation.
The Doctor

Death permeates Doctor Who. The universe in which the show is set -- the Whoniverse, as it is often known -- is not the most pleasant of places and violent death strikes suddenly and often. In this article I'm going to look at death from a fictional point of view, its uses as a script-writing tool, and the implications of same. But first, some facts to whet your appetite.

The first death of a Doctor Who character was the Old Mother in episode 3 of Unearthly child, killed by Kal for her supposed betrayal of the tribe by the release of the time travellers. The last (for the time being and foreseeable future) was Karra, killed by the Master after saving Ace's life. In between there is only one story I am aware of that contains no deaths, 1964's The Edge of Destruction, a story without any cast members besides the regular travellers. Kinda comes close with only the natural death of Panna, the Wise-Women of Deva Loka, to account for, and that was bodily and not spiritual death anyway. Being a member of the regular crew certainly doesn't exclude you from a violent end, as Katarina, Adric and Peri discovered, though Peri's death became a wimp-out, later revealed to be a fictional incident created by the Matrix. Interestingly enough, while the two latter incidents were both very emotional events, they occurred to two of the least popular companions. The story with the most fatalities is easily Logopolis, with something like a third of a galaxy destroyed by galloping entropy, but it is the stories like Horror of Fang Rock, the Robots of Death, and Resurrection of the Daleks that have the bloodiest reputations, only containing relatively few cast members, everyone besides the Doctor and companions are killed off [1]. The story within which the concept is most entwined is Revelation of the Daleks a black comedy where each of the characters is involved in the industry of death (see BT#2's BoJ).

Does all this signify anything? After all, we're talking about an adventure show where the bad guys aren't about to tie people to train-lines for the Doctor to rescue. They are going to kill people, and some of them do it for fun, and sometimes the Doctor has to kill them in return, if it is the only way of stopping them (and shows like this love the baddies to get their just desserts). But fiction, to me anyway, is far more then simple (or indeed, convoluted) plot-lines, it is about characters, their defeats and victories, and their handling of situations outside the norm. The best of fiction creates an emotive bond between viewer (or reader) and character, and if one dies (preferably the character) the other should care about it.

It is for this reason that I believe horror is one of the most ideologically sound genres when it comes to this sort of thing. The detective mystery reduces death to a puzzle, a polite affair overcome with the application of logic, while the overly action orientated story personified by Rambo or, a more recent example, RoboCop II (not a good movie (but with some great moments), despite the brilliance of the original, though an inferior sequel is hardly surprising) treat death in their own 'comic-book violence' way; something either exciting or gross to occupy a few seconds of screen-time (it is interesting that few comic-books, at least of those I've read, contain comic-book violence. Again, that's hardly surprising with today's comic market being orientated more towards characterisation and horror). Horror may have a larger fatality count, and indeed can kill off its characters in some incredibly nasty ways, but it seems to care about its characters in ways others genres don't. Note that here I'm talking about true horror, not excuses for blood-letting such as the Friday the 13th series. Admittedly I might be wrong on this point, as I've never actually seen one of them, and don't really want to. Mind you, I always thought that the Halloween films were in the same category until a recent viewing of I and IV proved otherwise. And while I usually like my evil a little more coherent then Michael Myers, Halloween IV especially was a great movie, with a brilliant ending, but I digress. More on this next issue.

Why do characters die in fiction? Lots of reasons: for plot purposes (for example the milk-man in Survival, who dies to provoke the Cheetah people into attacking the Doctor's party), to demonstrate how nasty the bad guys are (Inspector Mackenzie's death shows us both how far Light can and will go, and Josiah's capacity for really bad jokes), to provide a motivation for the good guys (Harold V died in Happiness Patrol for the purpose of getting Ace emotionally involved in proceedings), to make a story more exciting (any battle scene you care to mention, ie Battlefield), to receive their just desserts for the satisfaction of the audience (Gavrok in Delta and the Bannermen), to provide a heroic ending (Pex in Paradise Towers), to highlight the danger to our heroes (Daphne S's demise in the Happiness Patrol auditions), or simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time (guards are really good at this, for example Delta's body-guard) and undoubtedly others I've missed.

I'm trying to give the impression that any of this is necessarily bad, and in there are a lot of the reasons why people watch the show in the first place. Where a possible cause for contention arises in the use of characters whose only purpose within the plot is to die, usually horribly. FEAR magazine refers to these characters as Shreddies and says of them that 'shredding characters for the sake of plot can be an enriching technique ... but all too often becomes transparently a means of writing material to fill a book and schlock the reader out' [2]. A more familiar term for these characters, at least among people I have talked to, is Red-Coats.

FEAR uses Shakespeare's Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern as its prime examples, but my own personal favourite comes from Alan Dean Foster's novelisation of the movie Krull. The first three pages of the book concern themselves with a young shepherd, giving details of his family, his life at home, his cousin in Banbreak, his father's approval of the unification of towns into kingdoms, his expectations for the coming year. At the end of the third page the Fortress of the Beast lands on top of him and obliterates both him and his flock entirely.

Sometimes they're not that obvious. Take the hiker at the beginning of Image of the Fendahl for example. Walking in the woods he grows steadily uneasier until he suddenly finds he cannot move his legs, and is killed by some as yet nameless horror. A Red-coat? No, because later on in the story his body becomes a vital clue for the Doctor, its disposal increases the tension among the scientists at Fetch Priory and the scene provides extra tension when the Doctor is attacked in a similar manner later on. He might not have enjoyed the experience too much, but out unnamed hiker was an essential ingredient in the story.

Well, what about the two guards in the prologue of Slipback? Checking the ducting of their ship after the computer has detected an intruder, Bates and Wilson soon get involved in 'a great deal of unpleasantness' -- they get eaten by said intruder. Red-Coats? You better believe it. Never mentioned again, they simply provide an effective hook into the opening credits. Indeed Eric Saward, who penned the tale and is a very good writer (though not as good a script-editor), is notorious for high body counts and Red-coats, his variety usually found in pairs.

What about these days? Season 26 is justifiably notorious for a very nasty content, with people dying left, right and centre. Are there any Red-coats among the ranks of its fallen. I'm tempted to say no, though a friend of mine disagrees, pointing especially to some of the teenagers in Survival.

The last two seasons have had a mature attitude towards matters of death and destruction. Characters die, and the effects of their death are fully felt by both the audience, through good direction and writing, and the TARDIS crew. Indeed, it is my theory that much of the Doctor's current 'darkness' can be attributed to his finally becoming sick and tired of the amount of death he meets on his travels. Where ever he has gone innocent people have been killed at the hands (metaphorically speaking, in some cases) of the Daleks, the Cybermen and many, many others. He has finally decided to do something about it, take an active role rather then simply reacting. In Happiness Patrol he has heard nasty rumours about Terra Alpha, and decides to take a look, finding the list of Helen A's victims running into the tens of thousands, perhaps millions with her irradication of entire towns. Does he single-handedly save the planet? No. But he does act as a witness to the atrocities, and guides the course of the rebellion that would of happened anyway into less bloody-thirsty paths. And finally he brings Helen A to justice, showing her the emptiness of her ambition and the weight of her crimes. Is the Doctor's actions in this story,and in Remembrance, and in Curse of Fenric and in many of the others, immoral? A very difficult question, and one made almost impossible because of lack of information. What ever is happening (and of course, the fact that he seems to have recognised Ace as a Wolf of Fenric somewhere between Dragonfire and Remembrance certainly helps) the Doctor is angry, and it is far from unlikely that innocent death makes a significant contribution to this anger.

This mature attitude was, by no means, always the case. In the general silliness of Delta and the Bannermen one of the things that really bugged me was that an entire bus-load of Navarino tourists was slaughtered by Gavrok and his band of merry men, yet not one of the good guys, save Mel for a couple of seconds, seemed to care in the slightest. A far cry from Ace's almost suicidal reaction to Harold V's execution a year later. Indeed it is her presence, her questioning, that overcomes any problems created by our lack of information concerning the Doctor, as mentioned above.

Drama does not rely on death, a good example being that the first two Poltergeist movies were made without casualties (in front of the cameras, at least), but fiction these days is about high stakes, and any sustained absence of bodies would become unbelievable and uninteresting. Death happens for many reasons and sometimes, just sometimes, death happens for no reason at all. From memory Guy Gavriel Kay's wonderful fantasy trilogy The Fionavar Tapestry is a good example. In it people die, not just to satisfy the dictates of plot or characterisation, but because that is simply what happens to them. Just like what happens to us non-fictional characters, in the real world.


[1] Actually, Lytton and his two guards do survive Resurrection (if you forgive the expression) only to die later, in Attack of the Cybermen. Davros also survives, but you knew that, didn't you.

[2] Midnight Shreddies, by Roger Kean, FEAR#17.


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