On Killing (beloved) Characters in a Science-Fictional Universe

[vague spoilers for Fringe, Doctor Who, Lost, Star Trek:TNG]

I used to like The Twilight Zone growing up.  A single premise, one protagonist.  Nice, clean, one-off, storytelling.

I also used to love Star Trek: The Next Generation. Over seven seasons, how many main characters died? One.

Two different approaches to genre television, and both are outdated. In the new world of genre television we expect arcs lasting a season, plotlines to build on the previous episode, and we won’t tolerate the sit-com device of resetting the world weekly.

The question is:  haven’t we gone too far?  Both Fringe and Doctor Who advertised recent plots with promises of characters dying—“tune in as we say good-bye to a beloved character.”  It’s Clooney’s last episode of ER, Diane saying good-bye to Sam, and it’s definitely Charlie’s “Not Penny’s Boat” moment.  I tune in, kleenex in hand.

Both shows delivered, and un-delivered, and no doubt will deliver again, because both have done so through the narrative devices that sci-fi allows (glimpses of the future, changed timelines, remarkably successful CPR, impersonating androids, reincarnation, etc.), leaving such deaths no more than a TV guide blurb: [Main Character] dies, returns next week.

Here’s where I feel cheated. Speculative fiction allows for heightening of scale of the human experience. It’s impossible in other genres to take an internal conflict and raise the stakes to the jeopardy of all mankind.  That is a great power, but with it comes great responsibility. The minute that an internal conflict can destroy reality and then be undone each week, we’re much closer to South Park or The Twilight Zone than we are to a season arc. It also leads me to believe that the showrunners have little respect for either the characters or their audience.

I blame Lost.  For all of its novel story-telling devices, that whole last season was a shooting gallery…and then it wasn’t. But please, if you’re going to steal something from Lost, does it have to be the most reviled element?

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