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The Decreasing Impact of Death In Sci-fi

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  • by elrous0 (869638) * on Tuesday April 12, 2011 @02:30PM (#35797046)

    Characters dying on television and being brought back at the convenience of the show has been a staple of television for decades. This rather lame plot device has been abused most egregiously on soap operas (both daytime and nighttime), where this sort of thing has been the norm almost from the get-go. Everyone who came up in the 80's remembers the infamous Dallas "missing season" [wikipedia.org] that was dismissed as a mere amazingly-long dream sequence after Patrick Duffy decided he wanted his big Dallas paycheck after all. Evil twins, faked deaths, clones, cliffhangers where the character miraculously survives, etc. have been used by soap operas again and again as bargaining ploys against cocky cast members whose contracts are up for renewal and as ways to generate buzz for shows with flagging ratings.

    Even genre shows have been using these ploys for a long time. Forver Knight [wikipedia.org] was infamous back in the early 90's for killing off characters and bringing them back (or sometimes not). And the "Did they really kill off Fox Mulder?" cliffhanger became such a cliche on the X-files that even the most gullible fans eventually caught on to the fact that the network wasn't about to kill off the star of the series (by the time they did finally get rid of him briefly, no one even cared). And of course, replacing Dr. Who's became the norm back long before most of us were even born.

    • by PCM2 (4486)

      And of course, replacing Dr. Who's became the norm back long before most of us were even born.

      I don't think that counts. The whole point there was that they wanted to continue the series, but the actor didn't. They didn't really leave the audience hanging -- the regeneration usually happened in the last episode of the series, not the first episode of the new series. Other series have replaced actors for ongoing roles; Doctor Who just came up with a fun (if cheap) excuse for it.

      • And of course, replacing Dr. Who's became the norm back long before most of us were even born.

        I don't think that counts. The whole point there was that they wanted to continue the series, but the actor didn't. They didn't really leave the audience hanging -- the regeneration usually happened in the last episode of the series, not the first episode of the new series. Other series have replaced actors for ongoing roles; Doctor Who just came up with a fun (if cheap) excuse for it.

        I think it should be stressed that the doctor was somehow regenerated, ie the same being gets a new body. That's not quite killing the character off, its more like the masked character gets a new mask. Well, at least in the newer incarnations of the series. I don't recall exactly how things worked back in the 70s.

        • by PCM2 (4486)

          I think it should be stressed that the doctor was somehow regenerated, ie the same being gets a new body.

          And yet, while they say it's "the same being," each actor is pretty much given free reign to interpret the character as he sees fit. The character's appearance changes, his mode of dress changes, his speech patterns change, even his personality can change. Because of the nature of this particular character, though, the audience always goes along with it. It's a very lucky series in that respect.

          • by lymond01 (314120)

            You want hardware agnostic machine code? Of course he needs to be properly ported...the Dr. can't run natively on just anyone. And like any port, good or bad, there are slight differences.

            Hey. At least it wasn't a car analogy.

        • And of course, replacing Dr. Who's became the norm back long before most of us were even born.

          I don't think that counts. The whole point there was that they wanted to continue the series, but the actor didn't. They didn't really leave the audience hanging -- the regeneration usually happened in the last episode of the series, not the first episode of the new series. Other series have replaced actors for ongoing roles; Doctor Who just came up with a fun (if cheap) excuse for it.

          I think it should be stressed that the doctor was somehow regenerated, ie the same being gets a new body. That's not quite killing the character off, its more like the masked character gets a new mask. Well, at least in the newer incarnations of the series. I don't recall exactly how things worked back in the 70s.

          Plot-wise, his regenerations were always in less-than-ideal circumstances, leaving his mind altered when he got in his new body. Reality-wise, this just allowed each successive actor to bring his own unique performance to the character (silly, cynical, scheming, etc). I think that's a little bit past the "mask" metaphor, as it's largely a different character (by personality, not backstory or continuity) by a different actor each time.

    • by Moraelin (679338) on Tuesday April 12, 2011 @02:40PM (#35797218) Journal

      Hell, it's been a plot device for ever, not just in television.

      You may remember hearing about a really old character who was killed, was buried, and then to the amazing of everyone involved, *wham* they live again. You know who I'm talking about, right? Yep, Snow White and her glass coffin. Or Osiris. Or Dionysus. Or the couple dozen killed-oops-he-lives-again deities the cult of Osiris-Dionysus eventually assimilated. Read: pretty much any vegetation deity known around the Mediterranean. Or, oh, right, that dude in Jerusalem that a bunch of Romans nailed to a stick and made a scarecrow out of, circa 32 AD ;)

    • by ron_ivi (607351)

      Asclepius in Greek myths could bring people back to life.

      Practically everyone comes back from Valhalla.

      And in Buddhism isn't practically every living thing reborn?

      Seems to me returns from death have been one of the more common elements of fiction since recorded history.

    • Characters dying on television and being brought back at the convenience of the show has been a staple of television for decades. This rather lame plot device has been abused most egregiously on soap operas (both daytime and nighttime), where this sort of thing has been the norm almost from the get-go.

      Not just television... comic books/manga, cartoons/anime, etc... etc... Even Shakespeare brought back key characters are ghosts (since reincarnation was not part of his culture's worldview). Go back into th

      • by haystor (102186)

        But Shakespeare, after seeing the success of Macbeth, didn't bring back all the characters in order to have a sequel.

        • by eviloverlordx (99809) on Tuesday April 12, 2011 @03:03PM (#35797522)

          Actually, he did. Unfortunately, MacBeth II: Scottish Boogaloo was such a failure at The Globe box office that Shakespeare didn't include it in the First Folio.

          • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Tuesday April 12, 2011 @03:08PM (#35797594) Journal

            that Shakespeare didn't include it in the First Folio

            <pedant>Shakespeare didn't include anything in the First Folio. It was published after his death by some of his friends. All of his plays were sold directly to theatres for performance, which is why so many of them are lost.</pedant>

            • by jeko (179919) on Tuesday April 12, 2011 @06:34PM (#35800602)

              EXT: WOODLAND MEADOW, HAPPY FLUFFY BABY JOKES AT PLAY

                                                                      VOICEOVER
              Every year, thousands of baby jokes are clubbed to death by needless explanation
              and exposition.

              Hordes of Explanations armed with cudgels descend on the meadow, splashing blood
              among the flowers. Comically high-pitched screams echo through the forest.

                                                                      VOICEOVER
              With your help, we can help end this atrocity. With your support, even if we can save only
              one joke from senseless needless death...

              PUSH IN ON THE WET QUIVERING EYES OF A BABY JOKE HIDING UNDER A LOG.
              AUDIO BEGINS OF "WE CAN SAVE THE LAUGHTER" BY PEABO BRYSON

                                                                      VOICEOVER
              Won't you please help?

      • In comics you do have some series that go against this like The Walking Dead or Powers, where death is final. Because it is somewhat unexpected it tends to actually make it more powerful and moving when it does happen I think.

    • by Corf (145778)

      Let's go back even further. It's been happening for sixty years [wikipedia.org].

    • ... Forver Knight was infamous back in the early 90's for killing off characters and bringing them back (or sometimes not) ...

      Wasn't that a vampire show? If so then they can't really be faulted for killing characters and bringing them back. ;-)

      • by elrous0 (869638) *

        [spoilers] It wasn't just vampires. That show would kill off entire casts from season to season, humans too. By the end of the final episode, they had literally killed off every major cast member from all 3 seasons. And the only one who survived was a character who they had killed off once before and brought back half a season later. The writing staff was more blood-thirsty than the vampires.

      • by lennier1 (264730)

        Yes, one of the earlier "vampire detective" shows. A few years ago they stripped it down to the bare essentials, built a new show from it and called it Moonlight.

    • Soap operas too- my wife watches Y&R (ok I know, kill the jokes about a slashdotter having a wife, we all get older eventually) and when I can stand to watch it with her (usually for a six or eight month stretch and then I have to take a break for a couple of years) the number of characters that get killed and come back is ridiculous in the extreme.

    • Pfft whatever.... William Shakespeare was doing it long before that bring the cast members back as "spooky" ghosts... ohhhhhhhhhhhh!

      • Khaaaaaaaaaaaan !

        Sorry, I thought you mentioned William Shatner... My bad

      • by elrous0 (869638) *

        Greeks had characters escaping from Hades so often you would think it had an escalator. So yes, it's a VERY old cliche. A staple of lame storytellers since before there was written language, I suspect.

        • by DarthVain (724186)

          HA! Yes I had forgotten about that. So far as Death gods (or of the underworld) goes Hades wasn't very good at keeping people dead.

          Of course he to contend with a dozen or so meddling gods and thrice that in demi gods... poor guy!

    • by LWATCDR (28044)

      Westerns as well with the classic bible catching a bullet. It is just not that new of a trick. What I think is funny is they talk about LOTRs as an example. My goodness people that was in the orignal book!

    • by Obfuscant (592200)

      Everyone who came up in the 80's remembers the infamous Dallas "missing season" that was dismissed as a mere amazingly-long dream sequence after Patrick Duffy decided he wanted his big Dallas paycheck after all.

      That's nothing compared to the several decade dream sequence that brought us "Newhart" living in Vermont with some bimbo and a bunch of whack jobs.

      But that was a reverse-death scenario, where the writers essentially killed off an entire cast (all the fictional people in Vermont) by showing us they didn't really even fictionally exist.

      Gosh, I miss Darryl. No, not that one, the other one. But I really miss Stephanie. She was a true whack job, if you know what I mean.

    • by gfreeman (456642)

      And of course, replacing Dr. Who's became the norm back long before most of us were even born.

      Who is this "Dr. Who" character of which you speak? Shirley, you mean the Doctor.

    • by Haffner (1349071)

      I remember reading an interview with a Prison Break executive who said "So and so died in the 2nd season but we found a way to plausibly bring her back." Although I don't watch that show, if I did something like that would be a deal breaker for my continued viewership. I hate, hate HATE cheap plot toys to keep characters around.

      On the other hand, sometimes a show like Fringe comes up with a clever way of retaining a character, e.g. flashbacks or alternate reality where a character is still alive.

    • by Ihmhi (1206036)

      This is why I can't really enjoy comic books except for incredibly ludicrous stuff like Deadpool and Squirrel Girl (i.e. my need for suspension of disbelief and continuity is overridden by sheer funny).

      I'm of the belief that if you kill a character, they should stay dead. I think Batman would have been a hell of a lot more interesting if he died at some point, stayed dead, and someone else took up the mantle. Hm... The Phantom [wikipedia.org], now that I think about it, is just like this. The "current" phantom is the 21st

      • by elrous0 (869638) *

        Yeah, I forgot about comic books. Killing off the main characters and bringing them back in those has become so common that it happens at the end of almost every storyline. Every time some new writer or artist comes on board, they kill off the character and then bring him back in some reinvented form. Death has lost all meaning. I think Superman and Batman have died dozens of times in the last 20-30 years.

    • Who gives a damn if Mulder died, we just wanted to see him bang Scully!
    • Daniel Jackson much?
  • by grub (11606) <slashdot@grub.net> on Tuesday April 12, 2011 @02:31PM (#35797052) Homepage Journal

    ... at least we didn't see Greedo get up off the cantina floor.
    • by perpenso (1613749)

      ... at least we didn't see Greedo get up off the cantina floor.

      Some things should not be said in public, they might find their way to Lucas. ;-)

  • We should chart popular shows agains the Sorting Algorithm of Deadness [tvtropes.org] and plot them against time. If the average gets to 2.5 or below, there's a problem.

    • Isn't that an algorithm for determining rank, not sorting? Yes, the value it produces could be used as a key for sorting, but it is not a sorting algorithm.

      Other than that, awesome.
  • This isn't really a sci-fi problem. It's called shitty clichéd writing. Is nobody here old enough to remember "Who shot J.R."?

    Every other sci-fi thread on /. I hear a million people claiming Genre Series XYZ is the greatest literature known to man, surpassing all the known classics of history, and that anybody who doesn't eat, sleep, and breathe genre fiction is just a small-minded idiot who lacks vision and creative thinking. Can I seriously now be hearing someone on here suggest that the bulk of sc

    • Sturgeon's Law:

      Ninety percent of everything is crap.

      And he's right. You think every Opera is a beautiful work of art? Every painting and sculpture? Of course not, we just remember the good 10% so much more than the 90% that was crap. The problem is that sci-fi classics quickly and quietly get put into a different genre so that they can be safely ignored as examples of good sci-fi.

  • Ever since the death of Superman woke up an audience for DC, every couple of years they kill or maim someone iconic just for the publicity. Ho hum. Whatever the news, even if it's only a costume change, you know everything will be put back the "old way" in a year.

    Marvel sacrificed their rich continuity by getting in on the "reboot" fad with the Ultimate line, and at DC, lots of epic stuff happens, but after you read for a couple years, you realize that none of it really matters to the DC universe's history.

  • I don't think that any show abused it more than Sg-1. It got so bad, they even started making fun of it as an in-show meme towards the last few seasons.

  • by KarlIsNotMyName (1529477) on Tuesday April 12, 2011 @02:45PM (#35797296)

    Ruining death for everyone.

  • One, staying dead must not be trivial or else we'll just be expecting the characters to return through cloning, time travel or whatever Deux Ex Machina the writers are inclined to use. Two, the characters must matter to the viewers. What dramatic drive is there in seeing a character die who had little screen time or relevance to the story? A main character's death has massive influence on the story, a red shirt's has none.

    Mass Effect games are a good example of character death done right. Most gamers will p

  • Using Gandolf as an example? I might be wrong but I suspect Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings before this plot device became a cliche.

    • Also unless there's a page in the book that I don't remember where Frodo pulls catches a ride on his spaceship and shoots some orcs up with his laser cannons, I don't think I'd classify it as a Sci-Fi either.
  • Yes Yes... (Score:5, Funny)

    by nebaz (453974) on Tuesday April 12, 2011 @02:57PM (#35797444)

    This is absolutely true. The most egregious example is a character from the blockbuster Sci-Fi series "South Park", a character named Kenny seems to die almost every week. Long live Mysterion!

  • Find me a science fiction movie or science fiction TV show and I'll let you know...

    No, not an action flick, just a bunch of explosions. No, not a drama all about living in th ebig city and dating and family life. No, not a fantasy complete with knights and swordfights. No, not yet another cop movie, bumbling mismatched partners, now with extra cool ray guns! No, not another vampire and werewolf with cool, yet irrelevant to the plot, cellphones.

    Futuristic doesn't mean chrome, or shaky camera, or lack of

    • According to Issac Asimov, all good science fiction is actually detective fiction.

      As a side note, Bram Stoker's "Dracula" is Science Fiction. It's about the triumph of Victorian Science against Medieval Superstition. It's no accident that van Helsing is a medical Doctor and a professor.
    • Moon.

  • SF novels and movies almost always depict extraordinary events. Why else craft the stories in the first place? People always tend to die during extraordinary events. What would truly be shocking is if they didn't die. People are fragile often clueless little gnats on the cosmic stage; they get swatted and squished during extraordinary events and never see it coming. Extraordinary events wouldn't be extraordinary events if people weren't dying.

    • by petes_PoV (912422)
      You're so wrong. The whole point of a story is continuity: from the start of the story to the end - which you can't have if people keep dying. In fact killing off characters is a cheap literary device used to increase suspense. But it only works if it is a truly extraordinary an unexpected event, so should only used as a last resort. If the author hasn't got the imagination to think of any other ways to introduce suspense into the story - then it's an admission of failure in the craft of writing.

      Obviousl

  • Is jumping the shark really a bad thing when the shark has a fricken' laser beam on its head?

  • by PhilHibbs (4537) <snarks@gmail.com> on Tuesday April 12, 2011 @03:01PM (#35797486) Homepage Journal

    Complaining about Gandalf's resurrection is a bit thin, since it hadn't really been abused all that much when Tolkien wrote LotR.

    • by discord5 (798235) on Tuesday April 12, 2011 @04:03PM (#35798376)

      it hadn't really been abused all that much when Tolkien wrote LotR.

      Well, there was that Jesus fellow, but the story wasn't nearly as good.

    • by hey! (33014) on Tuesday April 12, 2011 @06:58PM (#35800940) Homepage Journal

      Well, the question shouldn't be how frequently *other* authors abuse a device. The question should be whether a specific *story* abuses a device.

      I think "abuse" in this case means the author undermining the logic of his own story to achieve something that takes more skill than he's displayed. Killing a character off for emotional impact then simply saying, "well death is a reversible process in this universe" throws doubt on *everything* in the story. That doesn't preclude resurrecting a character, but the resurrection has to be handled on a level above in-universe machinery if the reader is not to feel cheated.

      I've heard a lot of literary complaints about LotR over the years, and most of them are from people with an obviously superficial understanding of the story. Yet the criticism that Gandalf's resurrection is a bit of a dodge is one of the ones most worth considering. Perhaps the strongest defense that can be mounted for Tolkien is that Gandalf's resurrection was narratively *unnecessary*. We saw Gandalf fall and *assumed* he was killed, but Tolkien takes pains to show that we jumped to a premature conclusion. Gandalf actually survived the fall, and only perished (if I recall) several days later after hunting down and killing the Balrog.

      This actually shows some unusual artistic instinct on Tolkien's part. Normally resurrection would be a cheap plot device to get a killed off character back, but Tolkien actually takes the trouble of getting the character back *without recourse to resurrection*. This leaves him free to put resurrection on the table without making the reader feel cheated. Furthermore since Gandalf is already in an exempt category as an immortal (we know, for example, that *Sauron* came back after he was presumed dead), he *can* be resurrected without bringing all deaths in the story into question. Gandalf's resurrection doesn't mean that Boromir or Theoden or any of the various other mortal characters might return.

  • I do think death is being overused, especially the kind mentioned in TFA where the presumably dead character makes an inevitable return with some half backed story about how he survived. Case in point, SGU when Rush was left on the planet. SGU when the team on the planet was left behind. SGU when Telford was left behind on the alien ship. SGU when... well you get the picture.

    But more than anything I hate the sheer amount of garbage on TV these days. 5 different shows about pawn shops is 5 too many. Well,
    • True story. A friend of mine was visiting and we were watching something on TV over dinner, and the initial ad for Miami Ink came on. I started at it and said, "A show about a tattoo parlor? What's next? A show about a pawn shop?"

      I should have run with the idea. I was three or four years ahead of the industry there.

  • My dad had an uncle who woke up at his own funeral. The uncle lived several years after that. This would have been in Nova Scotia around the 1930's.
  • The Doctor Who revival, wonderful as it has been, has been suffering from small problem of threat inflation in its season finales:

    (1) Dalaks threaten a future point of Earth
    (2) Daleks/Cybermen threaten the present Earth
    (3) The Master treatens present Earth with it's future.
    (4) Davros threaten to blow up all of space
    (4b) Time Lords threaten to blow up all of time
    (5) The Tardis blows up, taking all of space and time with it

    I'm a little concerned about what happens next ...
    • by Obfuscant (592200)
      What was more interesting was the Christmas specials, which I didn't realize had a pattern until the last one where everyone was evacuating London at Christmas time because of what had been a regular pattern of Christmastime events. I think now even the Queen will be leaving.
  • Sadly I'm pretty sure Wash is dead and won't be coming back.
    • Mod parent up! This is what I was coming to say. ("Me2!!!!!")

    • by Onuma (947856)
      Nor is the series, unfortunately.

      How many times has Jack Bauer died, btw? Several, I'm sure.
    • by dwye (1127395)

      Unless he comes back the way Darla did (ignoring when Wolfram & Hart brought her back for real), as the flashback portion of an episode. Seriously, you think that Zoe will be moving on anytime soon?

  • I think the recent film Moon [imdb.com] with Sam Rockwell did an interesting take on the topic of mortality as a plot device. I don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it yet. It's not blockbuster material, but it's not a cookie-cutter sci-fi film that Hollywood seems to always spit out.

    Of course, I watched the movie while I was working abroad for 3 months and only had contact with friends and family with Skype. So my boss took great pleasure in doing quotes from the film.

  • Since the article actually includes fantasy stuff as well as sci-fi...

    People who haven't read the Game of Thrones books but watch the new series starting this Sunday are going to get a very different viewpoint on this issue. George R.R. Martin isn't afraid to fully flesh out characters then kill them shortly after. So many major characters die so often that it is almost cliche, but they rarely come back afterward.

  • by jollyreaper (513215) on Tuesday April 12, 2011 @03:31PM (#35797900)

    So let's say you've got mind backups and cloning in your setting. The conventional approach is that you have one version of you at a time and weekly backups. You die, your clone is decanted and given the most recent update. Life goes on.

    But that's thinking conventionally. Why not have multiple instances of you running in parallel? If we presume cloning and resurrection is expensive, only really important people will have it. Your best secret agent, your top scientist, sadly probably your typical reality TV bimbo.

    Then you take it one step further. What makes you you? Consider how vastly people can change based on life experiences. How long can two of you exist apart, experiencing things until you're no longer indiscernibly the same?

    Charlie Stross took this to some pretty wild extremes. It feels like a mix of disaster recovery software and mindfucking. So you have a general "you" that's what gets backed up. You can create multiple instances that you call vectors. You can live apart as real people. You might split a vector to go deep cover in an organization. Maybe you're involved in war and swap out your orthohuman body for a killing machine instead. You spawn off another dozen instances and you're a regiment of killing machines, all operating in concert. Each vector's accumulated experiences represents a delta from the original split point. Those new experiences can be merged back into the primary backup that is "you." If the experience is too painful, you may elect to excise it from your memory instead.

    Raises some interesting questions. If you don't believe in an immaterial soul, then the sense of self is just a conceit within the neural net of your own meat brain. If you make a copy of your mind and upload it to machine, which you is you? The one outside the machine will think "Gee, I'm glad I'm still here" and the one in the machine thinks "Gee, I'm glad I made it in here." Can you both be right? Now let's say that you come out of the clone vat and you have a conversation with yourself. "I'm the original," says the one meeting you. "I'm asking you to go off and do something dangerous, possibly suicidal." Do you do it? There's a backup, will you really be dead? This instance of you, yes. But how long does this instance of you last, really? Are you the same person you were as a child? As a young man? As an old man? Those parts of yourself are just as lost as if they died in the past. A parent watching a child grow up to be a drug addict killing himself one injection at a time, can he really say the child who bounced on his knee is still alive? A corpse was once the child and yet given up living perhaps, but that child is gone.

    A Strossian future gets convoluted very quickly. See Accelleando and Glasshouse.

  • Over its six seasons, Lost must have killed off over a thousand people, many implied, but a large number explicitly. Major cast members, guest stars, red shirts. They all died. Guns, smoke monsters, drownings, flaming arrows. Towards the end, they were running out of new and unique ways to off people. It's my theory that that is reason they had to end the series.

  • I was annoyed at the ending to "Source Code". They set up a poignant death at the end (the "frozen" scene), highlighting his noble but futile gesture. It should have ended there. But then they undid it all by tacking on a Hollywood, happily-ever-after ending.

  • From the X-Men comics. Haven't collected since high school, so I hope I get the history right.

    * Died in a plane wreck
    * Was resurrected by the Phoenix for a surrogate body
    * Was dumped by the Phoenix and cloned as Madeleine Pryor
    * Madeleine Pryor was dumped by Scott Summers after dead Jean Grey resurrected as the original Jean Grey.

    All had the pleasure of getting nailed by Cyclops. Much of this happened outside the narrow window of my collecting career. But, I was under the impression that the entire 3-tim

  • This is what identical twins are for.

  • by Compulawyer (318018) on Tuesday April 12, 2011 @03:48PM (#35798152)
    ... until McCoy says, "He's dead, Jim. He's dead."

The bogosity meter just pegged.

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