In Defense of Stephen Moffat: Character Death and Fan Feedback in Doctor Who

Note: This essay a contains spoilers for the most recent series of Doctor Who. It is also probably very hard to follow if you aren’t up-to-date on your viewing.

 

I’m gonna be completely honest. When the Master killed Osgood at the end of Series 8 Doctor Who, I was extremely upset.

Like other fans, I had recognized Osgood as a fan-insert from the moment she appeared—swathed in a thirteen-foot-long scarf—in the 50th Anniversary Special. Her charming exuberance in the face of her hero endeared her to me immediately, and I was excited to see her return. And then I realized she was marked for death. You see, I knew Osgood was going to be killed well before she actually was. From the moment the Doctor offered her the chance to see the whole of time and space, I knew that her number was up, and I was furious.

It was a gratuitous death. It was a woman in the refrigerator. It was a brutal removal of the fan-insert character, and I felt singled out. I felt that the death of Osgood, the fan who presumed to be part of the narrative, was a commentary on fans in general (and female fans in particular). For me, it tarnished what was an otherwise excellent series, and I was extremely disappointed. And then, in one of the best serials of Series 9, Osgood was brought back. And she was brought back in one of the most imaginative ways I’ve ever seen a character death overturned—in a way that raised intriguing questions about the nature of identity, of individuality, of the human soul.

Osgood wasn’t the only character who triumphed over death in Series 9, though. Like her, both Ashildr and Clara came back from death, thereby inverting the cursed ‘women in refrigerators’ trope, and they came back from those deaths because their companions refused to accept such an end for them. Moreover, in each case the resurrections at the heart of their character arcs belied the idea that ‘character death’ is the only way to propel a plot or to prove one’s literary seriousness. Character death is often used for what I consider to be the wrong reasons: to punish (or redeem) a character for doing something “bad,” to move another—”more important”—character’s story forward (often when the author’s hit a wall), to establish that a villain is “serious,” or to demonstrate that there are “real life” stakes in the fictional world. This isn’t to say that character death cannot be done in a meaningful fashion, but character death often obscures one of the most important lessons that we all must learn: that in the real world dying is easy and staying alive is hard.

In bringing Osgood, Ashildr, and Clara back from the dead, Moffat’s story arcs for these characters show us that how we deal with life says far more about who we are than how we deal with death.

One of the things that I love about Stephen Moffat is that he listens to critical feedback, and you can tell that by the way his era of Doctor Who has evolved over time. The show had some problems in the first few series. There were very few people of color and some sexist narratives (pregnancy-horror story arc in Series 6, I’m looking at you). In other words, there were the typical missteps that you find in any media product because no fave is unproblematic. Moffat made mistakes, the fans complained, and then he made changes. Series 8 and 9 saw increased representation of minority characters, and these increases were not just in background roles but in prominent, plot-driving positions. It saw game-changing additions to the Doctor Who mythos—introducing the canonical idea that Time Lords can, and do, shift gender and race during regeneration. And I believe that many of these changes were a direct result of viewer feedback. The fans presumed to be part of the narrative, and rather than being punished were rewarded.

In responding to the constructive criticism of his viewers, Stephen Moffat has radically expanded the possibilities for the show—and for everyone who watches it—and I can’t wait to see where he takes the story next.

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