Character death is a tricky subject, whether in prose, roleplaying games, or television. Sometimes a character can pass before their time, especially if an actor’s contract expires or a critical hit goes the wrong way. On the other hand, the death of a beloved character often makes a story better. Imagine how much less impactful Fellowship of The Rings would have been if Boromir had stuck around the whole time.
Unfortunately, storytellers can be unwilling to get rid of a character, even when they really should. The character might be an audience favorite or just the author’s beloved darling, but either way the story suffers. If you want proof, here are a few examples of stories where a character really needed to die (or stay dead).
Spoiler Warning: Spoilers inbound for Deep Space Nine, Babylon Five, Buffy, Heroes, and Star Trek: Into Darkness.
1. Gul Dukat, Deep Space Nine
Played by the amazingly necked Marc Alaimo, Dukat is one of the best and most complicated antagonists Star Trek ever had. He starts off as a menacing villain, just waiting for the characters to slip up so he can retake Bajor and Deep Space Nine. Through the second and third seasons he grows more complicated, displaying true patriotism and a deep love for his daughter. In several episodes he flirts with redemption, making the audience wonder what direction he will go. Finally, in seasons five and six, he returns to full villain-hood.
It’s an incredible arc because it makes Dukat a terrifying enemy and because it’s bittersweet. This is a character capable of great good and great evil. Maybe, in different circumstances, he would have been a different man.
That should have been the end of it. Dukat’s arc was over. Instead, the writers kept him around. After his fall, Dukat makes another appearance in the episode Waltz, well into season six. This time, consumed by his own hatred and a bit of twisted guilt, he completely breaks down. He literally starts talking to the voices in his head about how evil he is. The character we had known for more than five seasons is completely gone, replaced by some kind of Space Antichrist.
This didn’t work for a number of reasons. It required Dukat to link up with a new set of villains he had no connection with; it completely changed the focus of his antagonism; and it took away his motivation. Now he’s just evil for the sake of it. The worst part is that DS9 doesn’t even need him. Other bad guys could have filled the void.
2. Sylar, Heroes
Heroes is so well known for being terrible after the first season that it’s become a joke, and one reason it got so bad was Sylar. This power-devouring mutant is a fantastic villain in season one, part of the highly advertised “save the cheerleader, save the world,” arc. In a world where most of the characters have low-level abilities, Sylar accumulates a huge suite of powers. He does this by murdering characters who have powers he wants.
This combination of creepy serial killer and superpowered megalomaniac makes Sylar an excellent final boss for season one, where he’s clearly stabbed to death by the titular character Hiro. And then he somehow gets back up and is fine. Not only does this make no sense but it’s also in direct contradiction to all the foreshadowing done over the season. It had been clearly established that the only way Sylar would survive was if he absorbed the cheerleader’s healing power. The good guys stop him from doing that, and he somehow survives anyway. Talk about not following through on your promises.
Listing all the problems Heroes has after season one would take all day, but Sylar is a big part of it. The writers could not figure out what to do with the character. Zachary Quinto’s acting stayed solid, but that wasn’t enough. Sylar waffles back and forth between being a good guy or bad guy so often that it gets tiresome. The audience just wants him to make a decision and stick with it.
If he had died when Hiro stabbed him, none of that would have happened. We could have forever remembered him as that really great villain who stuck around just long enough to be absolutely terrifying.
3. Buffy Summers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Technically speaking, Buffy does die when she’s supposed to; it just doesn’t stick. Originally, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was supposed to end with the season five finale, so it made sense for the titular character to go out in a blaze of glory.* However, when another network picked the show up for two more seasons, Whedon decided that Buffy without Buffy just wouldn’t do. Instead of letting the Slayer rest in peace, she’s resurrected in the first episode of season six.
This clashed more than a little with a story just a few episodes prior. When Buffy’s mother Joyce dies, there’s an entire story about how resurrecting her is a bad idea. Willow and other characters are very clear that whatever they got back, it almost certainly wouldn’t be Joyce. Granted, when Buffy comes back she’s emotionally scarred from the experience, but it’s still her. After a season of angsty rehabilitation, she’s back on her feet and ready to go.
More than continuity errors, raising Buffy from the grave meant the show missed out on a golden opportunity. At the beginning of season six, there’s a wonderful sequence when the characters all have to work together like a well oiled machine to kill a single vampire. Not having their supernaturally strong killing machine put the other characters in unfamiliar territory, and who knows what interesting changes could have come from it?
Being a magical force for good, Buffy often overshadows the other characters. Their ability to contribute is limited because really, what can they do that she can’t? That works fine for five seasons, but in season six there was a chance for secondary characters like Anya and Xander to shine. Instead of bringing Buffy back and focusing on how sad she is to be alive again, we could have had a story of the Scooby Gang learning to get by without her. There would even have been a role for actress Sarah Michelle Gellar in the form of Buffybot,* a character whose potential was sadly wasted.
4. Benjamin Sisko, Deep Space Nine
By now you can probably tell I watch a lot of Deep Space Nine. Sisko is an unusual case because he’s sort of dead. A little dead. Maybe dead? We’re not really sure. Let me explain. Originally, DS9 was meant to end with Sisko’s heroic sacrifice in his role as Space Jesus. He would appear to his pregnant wife for a moving goodbye speech before going to live with the Prophets (read: god aliens) forever. Sounds like a reasonable ending so far.
The problem was that actor Avery Brooks wasn’t happy with it. He didn’t like the idea of Sisko leaving his pregnant wife behind, feeling it played into the stereotype of the absent African American father. Fair enough. The last thing the Star Trek creators wanted was to perpetuate a stereotype. Brooks asked for the ending to be changed, but there was a complication. The final scenes had already been shot.
Long story short, they went in and tried to alter the scene in post. As a result, most of the dialog says he is never coming back, but a tacked-on bit suggests he might. Unfortunately, this has the opposite effect to what Brooks wanted. Instead of a father who was absent because he had died a hero, Sisko is now gone because he doesn’t feel like coming back yet.
It’s easy to see why the writers thought Sisko should die in the finale of DS9. The ending and epilogue is meant to be a somber one, of victory and also loss. Many of the characters go their separate ways, and Sisko sacrificing his life is a natural endcap. Brooks’ objections are also perfectly understandable. The show could have worked either way, but this strange middle ground doesn’t serve anyone. It’s confusing and has reduced impact. Sisko needed to either live or die, but he ends up doing neither.
5. John Sheridan, Babylon Five
If you’ve read my previous articles, you may have figured out that I don’t like Sheridan much, but even I had forgotten how bad he is at the end of season three. The closest comparison I can think of is a roleplayer messing with a GM he knows won’t actually kill him.
Sheridan decides to visit the homeworld of an incredibly dangerous alien species, even though he knows it’s probably a trap. His motivation is that he was warned not to do this by someone he trusts implicitly from the future. That’s not a joke. His closest confidant breaks through the barriers of time to warn him, and he decides that’s a good reason to do the exact opposite.
He’s also warned by numerous other characters not to do this incredibly stupid thing, but he decides to do it anyway. It’s as if the writer really wanted to put Sheridan on his enemy’s homeworld, couldn’t figure out how to do it credibly, and then went ahead with it anyway. To make matters worse, this plot also depends on the evil aliens being incredibly stupid, as they don’t check Sheridan or his ship for hidden weapons. With these weapons, he’s able to pull a “gotcha” moment on the bad guys and cause a big explosion that theoretically inconveniences them in some way.*
Even so, there’s no credible way for Sheridan to survive. Naturally, he survives anyway. The justification for this is that a number of powerful alien characters go to great lengths to keep him alive, which again sounds like the excuse a desperate GM would come up with. “Oh sure, you jumped into the hell pit of incineration, but… that angel you met a while back shows up to save you for some reason. Yeah.”
It’s hard to understand why these aliens bother to save someone with so little sense of self preservation. They make some noise about how Sheridan is just that important, but never say why. He’s a capable battle commander but by no means an exceptional one. Everything he does could be done just as well by Commander Ivanova, his second-in-command. Really, the aliens should have let him die and gone with her.
Dramatically, not killing Sheridan has big problems as well. It sets the precedent that any time he’s in serious trouble, the universe will bend over backwards to save him. Episodes that put him in danger are robbed of their significance because the audience knows there’s no way anything will happen to him. The best solution would have been to not have Sheridan act so stupid in the first place, but if he was going to, let him face the consequences.
6. Kirk, Star Trek Into Darkness
While JJ Abrams’ most recent (and probably final) entry into Gene Roddenberry’s franchise isn’t the worst Trek film ever, it’s far from the best. Long-time fans were turned off by how much Into Darkness borrowed from the highly acclaimed Wrath of Khan, including the dramatic reactor death scene. The difference is that this time it’s Kirk who dies instead of Spock.
That scene relies on the strength of a friendship that doesn’t yet exist. It has Kirk fixing a reactor by kicking it. And Spock’s “KHAAAAN” scream is more comedic than dramatic. Worst of all, they bring Kirk back to life not half an hour later, with a method that makes even less sense than the Vulcan mind transfer from Star Trek III.
Like Buffy, Kirk dies and won’t stay dead, except he pulls his resurrection in the same film. You can watch the end of Buffy season five and enjoy it in a vacuum, but that’s impossible with Into Darkness. Kirk dies, and then any meaning is destroyed by a hackneyed techno-revival.
Leaving Kirk dead was a golden opportunity for JJ-Verse Trek, which is often criticized for retreading old material. Certainly it would have angered some fans, but those fans were already angry. A Kirk-less Enterprise with Spock in command would at least have been different, and the new crew could have developed on their own terms, free from the expectations put on them by the previous series.
At the very least, they could have waited until the next film to bring him back, like the old movies did with Spock. That wouldn’t have been perfect, but it would have let the characters break out of their normal roles for a while. Since the director and writers either jumped ship or were kicked out afterwards, they should have taken the risk.
Writers might see character death as a bad thing, but it can be the source of new opportunity. The story has to change when a character dies, especially if they were important. This goes double for storylines that clearly lead to a character buying the farm. When storytellers don’t follow through, they cheapen the story and miss out on some great opportunities. Don’t hold onto a character just because you like them. The benefits may surprise you.
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