Let’s face it: death in all its myriad and repulsive forms is an inseparable part of life. It’s the yin to the yang, the other side of the coin. Nere the twain shall meet, yet one cannot exist without the other. But the problem is that death is liable to be treated in popular media in a way that might skew its place in people’s lives. Sure, there are plenty of ways in comics, movies, television, books and games that treat death with the respect and gravity it deserves, but there are just as many who treat death as an almost-trivial means of advancing the story. In this post, I’ll be looking at how death is portrayed in a variety of television series.
Oh, and since we’re delving into character deaths, I’ll say this for the sake of formality. MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD, READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.
Mystery stories are too numerous to name in a single article without it turning into a list, and they all have something in common; a death provides the catalyst for the story’s action and central mystery. While the most noteworthy are adaptations of the most famous works of mystery writers – whether faithful to the text or replete with creative alterations – there are several original productions of note. Silent Witness focuses on the forensic side of the crime, the surreal Collision shows more of the investigatory side a massive car crash, Colombo flips things on their head by showing the entire murder before showing how the titular detective solves the crime, Person of Interest puts a science fiction twist on investigation, and NCIS mixes the crime-solving with a strong focus on personality to prevent the show from going stale. In such long-running series, it is more shocking to see characters die – more often it is the character “retiring” or “moving on” that is used to explain the actor or actress moving on to new roles. Notable deaths in long-running series include Warrick Brown from the original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Kaitlyn Todd and Ziva David from NCIS, and John Reese from Person of Interest.
In Doctor Who, the very long-running television series, death is actually cheated multiple times. Due to the format of the show and the creative decisions made over the years, they solved the necessity of the lead actor moving on – have each character’s “death” be a transitional phase through a pseudo-magical-scientific mechanism unique to his race. Despite the main character cheating death, many supporting characters have met their ends over the course of the story, sometimes in quite unpleasant ways – the many character deaths in series as varied as The Seeds of Death back to Tomb of the Cybermen and forward to Warrior’s Gate, the tragic massacres of The Curse of Fenric and Logopolis, the basic premise of The Talons of Weng Chiang, and the unexpectedly mature narratives of Inferno and The Deadly Assassin. I could go on. The thing lacking from the series is companion deaths; the first and one of the most shocking is the death of Adric in the 1982 serial Earthshock. Take into account that this was before the near-pessimistic attitude growing into the revives series of 2005 onward, when the series was still aimed squarely at a younger audience.
Death as an artistic and stylistic expression is nearly unheard of in any non-interactive medium, at least in the sense that the death of a key character forms a recurring concept. I mean, death is final. Isn’t it? Well, not in the universe of Aeon Flux. The black-haired, leather-clad, acrobat assassin has been lingering in the public imagination since the 1990s, following a successful series of animated shorts on MTV, culminating in ten half-hour episodes which moved into more conventional territory. A recurring feature of the shorts was that the titular heroine would end up dying in some way. Whether shot, garroted by a cable, killed by a lethal fall, or attacked by an inhuman monster, she met an often grisly end at each short episode’s climax. This makes the series stand out from the crowd – what other universe kills its titular protagonist in every single entry? Well, barring the half-hour episodes and later movie adaptation. The movie’s tie-in video game did something to rectify that, as a recurring element was each story sequence or mission ending with Aeon’s death. This use of death falls within the series’ bold experimental style, and helps Aeon stand out as not only one of the most enduring, but one of the clumsiest heroines in science fiction.
Now obviously there are too many television series or one-off specials in existence to count, and those listed above are a very general selection from my own limited experience. But there is a recurring theme I’ve seen as a writer examining stories. The episodic format of many a television series turns death into something with more impact than often possible in movies; unless it’s end of series, the rest of the cast need to move on without that character. In movies, you normally have around two hours with the likelihood of another death down the line. In television, you can have as long as sensibly or even idiotically possible. Of course the quality of that death, as with all things, relies on the quality of the show. For example, character deaths in Primeval resonate far less than those in Sons of Anarchy. This is a rule that applies to all forms of storytelling, but people can be especially critical for television series.
Next week, we dive into the realm of video games. Sharing stories with other mediums, video games have the advantage of being an interactive medium. This enables games with stories of incredible complexity, in addition to turning death into a whole mechanic, and even an element of player choice narrative.