Death of a Cliche

While the growth and ubiquity of the internet has allowed for audiences to become more immersed and involved with media literacy and criticism, the quick and brief nature of how we consume online media has filtered and limited some people’s understanding of many of those ideas.

Basically, fans love to say “thing = bad” because someone else said it not because they understand why.

Tropes have existed for ages and even the word itself was used in critical contexts before its rise in popularity in modern vernacular, usurping “cliche.” Much like the word “criticism,” the contemporary usage of the word “trope” has developed a negative connotation despite its actual meaning. In reality, trope means something that is used often enough to be easily recognisable by a viewer, a recurring theme or motif, something common and understood enough that it can be used as a shorthand.

A trope can indeed be overused, it can indeed be negative, or even harmful (they can often lead to unfair stereotypes, for example) but in of itself the concept of a trope is neutral.

But like so many things in popular culture, the nuance of such has been lost thanks to the need to chop up and reduce everything down into a handy soundbite bereft of context. So the way many fans critique the media they consume is often limited and incomplete.

An example, and the main purpose for this wordspew: the idea that “bringing a character back to life undermines the impact of the character’s death.”

Although “back from the dead” is a trope. The criticism about it, not so much. Yet it’s brought up so often it can almost be considered a trope in of itself. In all fairness, there are stories where this is an apt criticism, however more often than not it’s misapplied and used as a checkbox for “thing = bad” because other critics have done so rather than appropriately applied in the proper context.

Two media examples, that look to be as far apart from one another, except for both being science fiction, are two of my favourites in recent years (for what it’s worth SPOILERS FOR BOTH)…

Halo 4 & 5
I’ve been a fan of the Halo games since the very first game on the original Xbox and really enjoyed the universe Bungie created. But it wasn’t until Halo 4 that I fell in love with the story and characters.

Some background: Master Chief is a genetically altered super soldier who has known nothing else since childhood except taking orders and war. His most meaningful relationship (other than the previously missing members of his squad) is with an A.I. named Cortana.

In Halo 4, while exploring a mysterious alien installation and escaping from an ancient threat, Chief finds out that Cortana is “dying”. Smart A.I.s like her have a limited lifespan of about 7 years and she’s been operational for 8 and has slowly been descending into “rampancy” (a type of computer dementia). The Chief’s desperation to escape the installation is also about getting Cortana to someone who can “repair” her all while saving the galaxy (again) but it also means defying orders.

Toward the end of the game, Cortana sacrifices herself to save the Chief, who in turn destroys the threat and saves the Earth destroys the threat. This is followed by an emotional goodbye scene.

Just watch the few minutes of this scene (the whole video is much longer than I needed).

For a game series often lumped into the testosterone-filled first-person-shooter genre, this is surprisingly heartfelt. The majority of the story is about questioning about what is real and the relationship between Chief and Cortana and comes off an a platonic love story.

Halo 5 was released a few years later and basically resurrects Cortana. The majority of this game is about Master Chief going rogue to “save” Cortana but not all is as it seems.

Doctor Who
Peter Capaldi’s tenure at the titular time lord was most notably a course correction for Steven Moffat’s era of Doctor Who after doing the US-style “go big or go home” type of story telling with Matt Smith. Capaldi became my favourite incarnation of the Doctor but most importantly both the Doctor and Jenna Coleman’s Clara Oswald because my favourite pairing thanks to the dynamic between the two.

In the series 9 episode “Face the Raven” the Doctor and Clara help Rigsy who has falsely been accused of a murder but it was part of a trap to lure the Doctor. Clara’s attempt to find a loophole backfires and she is killed. Of course the goodbye is deliberately drawn out and emotional.

In the following episode “Heaven Sent” the Doctor is trapped in some sort of loop where he has to figure out a puzzle while pursued by a creature. He eventually escapes and finds himself back on Gallifrey, realising the Time Lords were the ones who trapped him in order to find out what he knew about “the hybrid prophecy” (urgh, long story). In the next episode “Hell Bent” he overthrows the Time Lord President in a coup, and (through some timey wimey sci-fi nonsense) plucks Clara from the moment before her death. We find out that the Doctor was trapped in that loop for… a very long time.

Both of these have been criticised for undermining the impact and emotion of the death of a character by resurrecting them later, and on first glance that might be the case, however, it misses something very important in both stories: death isn’t the point of them.

How far?
Most stories that feature a prominent death are about how the characters are impacted and deal with said death or even the concept of it, the grieving process, how to move on, even how people process the very idea in the lead up. Those elements exist in both the Halo and Doctor Who examples however as I said the focus of those stories aren’t necessarily about death per se. It could be interpreted the demise of those characters is a mere plot point instead of a theme, but instead it’s about how far will these characters go to save the person they care about?

Granted that’s probably giving too much credit to a video game and anything written by Steven Moffat and intent is not the same thing as execution so whatever a writer has in mind doesn’t necessarily mean how it’s handled on screen always works. But interpretation is to be more than just “this is bad because it was bad elsewhere.”

The long, drawn out good bye scenes are deliberate too as to elicit the correct emotions from the viewers and make the characters reactions more relatable, convincing, and of course highlight how big of a deal it is. And as far as most people knew in the moment these characters were not returning. So what the audience felt at the time was legitimate and not always invalidated by the sequels.

Cortana’s death happened in Halo 4, which was released in 2012. Halo 5 was released in 2015. So that at least gave fans ample time to process her death before being gut punched with this revelation. And not only that, she returns as the “big bad”. Chief’s race to get to Cortana is very much about trying to save her, appeal to her, because this is a chance to get his friend back. The mystery surrounding her return and her newfound ideology is also part of the mystery and story.

In a similar vein, the Doctor goes through a lot to to save Clara from her death. But at the same time, it’s important to remember that Clara’s whole deal was that she was the “impossible girl” (not my favourite nickname but that’s for another time) as we found out in series 7 where various versions of her died over and over as the Doctor encountered her. Also, in series 8 the Doctor (almost literally) goes to hell to help Clara find her dead boyfriend, Danny.

Also, it’s DOCTOR FUCKING WHO… where the lead character REGENERATES every few seasons into another actor and yet those handovers are as emotional and as dramatic as any death scene.

The problem is that people applied the “back from the dead” criticism to these and other stories more as a kneejerk regurgitation rather than a proper analysis of the story. Sure, these stories aren’t perfect but undermining the emotion of a character death isn’t the problem. There’s no nuance to the application, no context, no understanding of WHY it may be a problem. It’s like when people claim “bad writing” but are unable to elaborate on it when they really mean “I don’t like it” and instead conflate the two. Even worse, they apply the criticism because they think they are supposed to tick a box because other critics said a thing and it sounds smart.

Master Chief and Cortana. The Doctor and Clara. These are two of my favourite platonic pairings whose stories have more going for them than any of flaws they may contain.

I’ll be back
I decided to publish this over Easter because, as we all know, this is a time all about the third greatest resurrection story in the world. And yet most people aren’t about to criticise this Biblical tale for undermining Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins just because He came back from the dead.

Wait a minute… THIRD greatest? What are the first two?

That’s easy… Robocop and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, of course!

In Robocop (a movie chock-full of Jesus allegories as stated by its director), Officer Alex Murphy is killed in the line of duty in the FIRST act. He’s brought back to life by OCP as an experimental new law enforcement tool and he pretty much spends the rest of the movie dealing with his death the only way he knows how: hunting down those responsible and bringing them to justice.

Spock’s death in The Wrath of Khan is iconic. But it also came about because actor Leonard Nimoy wanted to move on from the role at the time and after the middling box office for The Motion Picture, no one was really confident that there would be any more Trek films after this one. And yet they threw in a tiny little “out” just in case (the mind meld with Doctor McCoy and uttering the word “remember”).

Star Trek II ended up being a hit and of course meant there would be a sequel. Director Nicholas Meyer turned down being involved in the third movie because he didn’t see a point in resurrecting. The entire point of The Search for Spock though was how far Kirk and company would go to rescue their friend, even to the point of defying Starfleet orders, stealing a starship, and battling Klingons on a planet on the brink of collapse.

There are plenty of examples that go either way in supporting or disproving the notion but most of the time the criticism is misapplied because people think it’s a bad thing instead of considering the context. You realise some fans (or even professional critics) have no clue what they are talking about when they start invoking “The Hero’s Journey” like it means more than it actually does.

Not liking something is perfectly fine. Not being able to articulate why is okay too. If it didn’t work for you then it simply didn’t work for you. Sometimes there isn’t a cogent reason behind it. But not liking something doesn’t instantly mean something is bad. I’m guilty of this myself every now and then but many of us confuse personal preference with objectivity and claim the media in question for being “bad” rather than acknowledging it may not be for us.

It’s easy to define the two. It just takes a little extra thought is all.

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