Fallen Heroes (Mania.com)
Date: Thursday, September 28, 2000
Warning: This article has spoilers. After all, it's impossible to write about great deaths in sci-fi/fantasy without giving away plot points. In recent weeks, we've been privy to one such (seeming) spoiler for the final season of Star Trek: Voyager, with a trailer voice-over intoning 'Some heroes...die young.' (At present, the betting's on Janeway, following oddly-worded comments made by Kate Mulgrew on Craig Kilborn's Late, Late Show.) As for other recent cases... well, here's the lowdown on that death in the new Harry Potter, for those two people who haven't read it. Drum roll, please...
It's not, repeat not, Harry who bites the dust.
And isn't it sad that we knew that? Not only that he wouldn't die this time, but that the bespectacled do-gooder will still be there at the end of book seven, an end already written and squirreled away by Rowling in a bank vault? It's not that we can't envision the series throwing us the ultimate twist. Just imagine: Harry perishing midway, the shock revelation that after all we've been through, Lord Voldemort's nemesis is in fact someone else, someone we've met and liked, perhaps, but never thought hero material. (My vote's for wimpish Neville.)
Such a move would be interesting. Indeed, given Harry's profile, it'd be sensational. It would also be--here's the catch--risky. Would the readers redirect their sympathies? Would they forgive the stunt? Would the series be strengthened, or broken-backed? The answer, almost certainly, is that we'll never know. Writers and directors are notoriously wary of bumping off sci-fi/fantasy stars. It gets talked about often enough: for instance, it was suggested Indiana Jones should die in his third movie, while both Han Solo and Lando Calrissian were considered for the chop in Return of the Jedi. But prudence prevailed, which is also the reason why two of the best remembered 'Great Sci-fi Deaths'--Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Superman in the The Death of Superman storyline--had 'reverse' clauses built in from the start. (Writer Judy Burns, who advised on the Khan script, went as far as specifying to producer Harve Bennett, 'You mustn't kill Spock in such a fashion that he can't be brought back!')
It's not that writers are frightened of the Misery scenario, of irate fans abducting them and breaking their ankles (or worse--reading the book). The situation is better summed up in a tale by Robert J. Sawyer, 'You See But You Do Not Observe,' in the sci-fi/detective anthology Sherlock Holmes in Orbit. As Holmesians know, Arthur Conan Doyle killed his hero at Reichenbach Falls, only to be forced into resurrecting him. Sawyer floats the notion that it all came down to quantum physics. As Holmes says to Watson: 'You had seen clear evidence of my death, and had faithfully if floridly recorded it. But what if thousands--nay, millions!--refuse to believe the account of the original observer? Through the sheer stubbornness of their will, they reshape reality, Watson!' Very inconvenient, if you're trying to bump off a well-liked fictional character.
Which isn't to say it hasn't been done...
By nature, these are the most memorable. For one model, think of Hitchcock's Psycho and its fake first act, killing the character we assume is the heroine. Variants figure in Vertigo and early De Palma, but also in more supernatural pics. The first Amicus horror, City of the Dead (a.k.a. Horror Hotel), sets up Venetia Stevenson as the protagonist in a tale of satanic sabbaths, then takes her out midway in a manner close to Psycho's Janet Leigh. ( City was released in 1960, the same year as Psycho.) Imagine doing that to Neve Campbell in Scream 3...nah, they wouldn't dare.
Another great 'shock' moment: Night of the Living Dead. Having been reduced to quivering in the basement, sole survivor Ben (Duane Jones) cautiously ascends, peers through a window into the morning sunshine--and a redneck vigilante shoots him in the head. 'Good shot!' compliments a Sheriff. The film ends with our hero on the bonfire.
As for TV fantasy, remember Linda Hamilton's Cathy in the 1980s Beauty and the Beast? After those endless affirmations of undying love (heh!), pregnant Cathy is kidnapped by evil crime boss Gabriel, kept alive to deliver her child and put down like an animal. Then there's the last part of Blake's 7. Gareth Thomas' Blake, who had disappeared some seasons ago, returns to be graphically killed by rival commander Avon (Paul Darrow). For good measure, the other regulars are gunned down by Federation guards--in slow-motion--and the screen blanks as a smiling Avon raises his gun for the last shoot-out. (Or does he? The writers left ambiguities in case the series came back, and fans argue to this day.)
Another vintage British 'shock' death claimed Toby Wren. Toby was the most popular member of the 1970s Doomwatch eco-threat team, played by future Messiah Robert Powell. In the first season climax, Wren removes detonators from a warhead lodged in a seaside pier. He thinks he's succeeded--then 'There's another wire!' The episode ends with the detonator going off in Wren's face. Also unlucky were the heroes of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy franchise, created by Douglas Adams. Bored after umpteen radio, TV and book incarnations, Adams rid himself of the hikers in the novel Mostly Harmless. The characters find themselves on a parallel Earth, just as the Vogons begin demolition. Afterward, the Vogon captain puts a satisfied tick on his job report.
Interestingly, second-rank characters can have first-rank deaths. One of the more melodramatic was for Adric, a boy who traveled in the TARDIS for two years of Doctor Who. Adric was often voted the 'most hated' companion in the Whoniverse, but his passing was still memorable, trapped on a spaceship as it strikes prehistoric earth (the asteroid, see?) while the Doctor watches in horror. Even the credit music was muted into silence.
Similarly, poor Tasha Yar is struck down without warning in 'Skin of Evil' on Star Trek: Next Generation. Similar fates overtake regular characters Elias Taylor, arbitrarily disintegrated midway through the weekly V series, and the good Professor Arturo (John Rhys-Davies), shot by villainous dimension-hopper Colonel Rickman in Sliders. Yet the biggest shock was in Babylon 5, when gentle telepath Talia Winters (Andrea Thompson) has her personality erased--essentially killed--by a malign, implanted alter-ego. We last see her turned into a laughing psychopath.
PASSING THE FLAME
A common fantasy theme is of death-and-rebirth, frequently played out with a dying character passing his/her essence to a successor. One classic example is the very fantastical Robin of Sherwood series from the 1980s. At the end of season two, the impossible happens: Robin (Michael Praed) is cornered by the Sheriff's men. He breaks his bow over his knee--so cool!--as the soldiers close in. The next season starts with another hooded man finding shadowy Herne the Hunter, who pronounces, 'Herne's son lives again in you.' Sure enough the new Robin, played by Jason Connery, is soon giving the Normans fresh grief.
There's a more science-fictional spin on this idea in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, where the dying Jadzia Dax passes on her sluglike symbiant, Dax, to another Trill, Ezri. Of course, it's old news in Doctor Who, where the Time Lord hero regularly regenerates into a quite different new self. The best such handover is the passing of Tom Baker's Doctor, lying broken and crumpled under a radio tower, intoning 'It's the end...but the moment has been prepared for...'
There's also the superhero variant. In comic books, the character may die, but the costume and persona are immortal. An obvious example is Supergirl, where the Man of Steel's dead, continuity-erased cousin (killed in Crisis on Infinite Earths) is 'replaced' in the new continuity by a look-alike alien. Then there's Robin, a 'character' with at least three incumbents playing the role. The least popular of these, a lad called Jason Todd, is blown up by the Joker in Batman: A Death in the Family, amid acres of misplaced hype.
These days, heroes can die more than once. In the new Star Trek series, for example, it's an attention-getting cliché to kill off the whole crew umpteen times via cloning, 'fake' timelines and the like. As long as one version of the cast survives, there's no problem. Two good examples are the Star Trek: Voyager episodes 'Deadlock' and 'Course: Oblivion.' The Star Trek: The Next Generation story 'Cause and Effect' holds the record for the most times everyone dies in one story. In 'Yesterday's Enterprise,' Tasha Yar (see above) comes back to life via an altered timeline, only to sacrifice herself again. In comic books, the so-called 'possible future' and 'alternate world' stories serve the same function, allowing stars to die over and over.
The existence of cross-media franchises offers more literal multi-choice deaths. The first Space Battleship Yamato anime serial (known as Star Blazers in the West) was followed by a movie sequel Farewell to Yamato, where the entire crew perish nobly to save the world. The end? Hardly. The film was remade as a second serial with a kinder conclusion, and further sequels followed. Similarly, the status of Kirk in the Star Trek universe depends on whether you go by the screen or novel canon. In screen canon, he's definitely deceased, squashed in Star Trek: Generations in a manner leading to the fan quip, 'Bridge on the Captain!' In the tie-in books, Kirk's still very much alive, resurrections being much cheaper in print than on camera.
IT WAS FATED
For many viewers, the 'ideal' character death would be surprising yet inevitable. In other words, no other end would satisfy. Alien 3 is a good example, which is why Ripley's rebirth in the fourth film is such a mistake. The fourth Quatermass serial, made in 1979 and edited into a movie, is similarly elegiac. In both cases, the once-vital heroes lose their will to survive. Ripley's fiery suicide is echoed by the fate of John Mills' Quatermass, who ends an alien threat by detonating a nuclear missile at ground zero.
Some brave writers cut the surprise and build fatalism into the story premises. The first three Dune novels portray the rise and fall of the saintly Paul Atreides, his fate foreshadowed from his earliest visions. A similar device is used in Babylon 5, where we know what happens to the principals, most notably Londo, years in advance. No 'possible future' get-outs here.
Sometimes the situation is so bleak that doom becomes all-pervasive. A fine example is Connie Willis' appropriately-named novel Doomsday Book, a time-travel tale about the Black Death. In Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys, it's a future plague that's destroyed hope, with the hero's death predicted in the opening frames. Meanwhile, Nevil Shute's post-holocaust On the Beach, in both book and film form, makes the whole prospect of survival absurd. At the end of the story, the Australian characters take suicide pills to escape the radioactive winds sweeping round the world. No bangs, only whimpers.