When Good Characters Feel Bad

Last week I wrote a post in which I said I wasn’t a fan of terrible things happening to characters I love. I suppose that sounds like a bit of a silly thing. Of course I don’t like it when bad things happen to a beloved character. Duh. But what I meant specifically is I’m dismayed when it’s something truly horrific and it only happens because the script says it needs to.

Crappy things often need to happen to main characters (and also not-so-main characters sometimes). That’s part of the hero’s journey. I’m all for seeing characters overcome adversity in order to grow and create a good story. But in my mind growth means a continuation of the same basic character. The change is a natural progression, based on the external (or sometimes internal) pressures and events they experience.

What I’m less fond of is when it doesn’t feel like a natural growth. Sometimes it feels like the creators decide a character should fundamentally change in a rather drastic way. And what’s the easiest way to make a great big change in a character’s personality? Why, have them experience something awful. Something so awful it’s scarring to their very being.

This can be tempting especially when a character has been gone for a good long time. Simply bringing back the character exactly as they were before might not feel right if it’s years later and the world has moved on. I can understand the impulse to have the character move on as well. I just don’t usually like it when creators bow to that impulse. No, that’s not quite right. When creators give a little bow to that impulse, it’s fine. When they prostrate themselves on the ground before it, that’s when I have trouble.

And here’s where I dip back into spoilery territory for Romana in the Big Finish audios. So jump ship now if you don’t want to know!

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The Romana I’ve heard in Big Finish doesn’t feel to me like the Romana I loved on television. My emotional reaction is that that character is gone and has been replaced with a completely new version. If she’d regenerated, I’d be much more comfortable with this. Regeneration is itself a fairly intense trauma, but it’s built into the fabric of the life of a Time Lord. Romana 2 didn’t regenerate. Instead she was put through a terrible experience and came out the other side acting very different. That’s what makes me sad.

I understand they wanted to make her tougher, but I thought Romana was plenty tough already—when she needed to be. When she didn’t need to be tough, she was delightful—smiling, witty, friendly, funny, charming. And yet you always knew that hard edge was there below the surface. I would have liked to see her a few (hundred) years down the road, more world weary, perhaps. Certainly wiser (which would be saying a lot). But not fundamentally different. I do feel that she’s now fundamentally different.*

That said, this is what they decided to do with her, and I’ve (mostly) come to terms with it. As I said, I really enjoyed the stories I listened to, and I look forward to hearing more. I’m not going to hold this decision against Big Finish forever (probably). I’ll make my peace and move forward. Not every creative decision needs to bow to my taste. That would be kind of awful. And probably boring–if not for me then certainly for the rest of the world.

Still, somewhere in my heart, there’s a universe where Romana was given the chance to grow into whomever she was going to become without needing quite such a harrowing, scarring experience to shape her. I see her in my mind’s eye.

And she’s smiling.

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*Reminder: I’ve only heard a few stories. I’m perfectly willing to revise my opinion as I fill out my Big Finish listening, something I quite look forward to doing as soon as I find the time and money.

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6 thoughts on “When Good Characters Feel Bad

  1. graemeburk says:

    Back when the New Adventures novels were the only game in town for Doctor Who, I used to actually read the last couple of pages first. Not because I wanted to know how the story ended but because in an era when it seemed at times practically every book ended with the Doctor and companions in a place that makes the argument in Kill The Moon seem cheerful, I just wanted to know that everyone was okay. So I totally understanding wanting the characters you love to be all right. :)

    I think the misstep made with the BF Romana is two-fold. First of all, she’s just too damn smart for that kind of a fate to befall her, and having that happen to her weakens the character. Second of all, because it’s backstory, you now have the oppressive idea of what the character went through being defeated lingering in your head. The BF audio Jubilee is brilliant but it becomes very dark by (trying not to be too spoilery) by presenting us an alternative timeline with the Doctor where the character is badly damaged and it’s the implication of what happened to him, left to the imagination of the listener, that’s so disturbing. It’s something similar here.

    • Erika Ensign says:

      I love that you read the last page first. That’s a tactic I wouldn’t have even thought of!

      And I hadn’t even thought of the fact that her capture weakens her, but it totally does. For me, she’s a hero as much as the Doctor, and the Doctor never gets nabbed for that length of time. Or he doesn’t on TV anyway.

      I’m sure I’ll get to Jubilee eventually, but I’m glad of the warning that it’s dark. If I go in forewarned, I’ll probably have less trouble with it!

  2. tansyrr says:

    For a more lighthearted Big Finish Romana, I recommend their take on Shada in which the Eighth Doctor poaches President Romana to fulfil that mission they meant to do that time when he was Tom Baker and they got caught up in the Five Doctors instead… and then after that it’s basically Lalla Ward and Paul McGann doing the original Shada script.

  3. I had the same reaction to President Romana, whom I first encountered in the “Gallifrey” Big Finish audios. She seemed so cold and calculating that it was difficult to reconcile this character with the warmer, adventurous companion we saw on television. (I refer, of course, to the Prime Computer ads!) Listening later to the “Zagreus” stories and learning about Romana’s treatment at the hands of the Daleks gives some explanation for the change in her character, but the change seems too drastic to be believable.

    I agree that having a regenerated Romana would have smoothed over the transition – we all know how the Doctor’s character changes from regeneration to regeneration! – but then, of course, we wouldn’t have had Lalla Ward back.

  4. The_Lex says:

    Dang! Now I’m curious. I’ll admit, I’m more of a fan of Romana 1. That’s mostly because she was more the Doctor’s equal than a companion. Romana 2 always felt a little too much put in her place on the TARDIS than Romana 1.

  5. zath says:

    Romana is still my Doctor. :)

    I think part of Romana’s character seeming a little different is also due to the fact that she has a huge responsibility on her shoulders (President of the folks who keep the Universe from turning into a big paradoxical mess).

    Romana II seemed a little more at home with the Doctor when they were traveling together than Romana I, (even though they certainly grew to be friendlier over time). Their chummy behavior and the situations they came across brought out an adventurous streak in her. But she was still a highly educated and well-regarded member of Time Lord society, rather than an iconoclast like the Doctor.

    When she returned to Gallifrey, I have the feeling that she needed to fit in with its structures, so tucked away that sparkle in order to save it for a special occasion. She was apparently the president for a reasonable period before what went on in The Apocalypse Element, too. So while I agree that being put through a really tough situation could leave a scar, it seems like the way she acts is informed from a lot of angles and not *just* her trials and tribulations.

    Given her history with Daleks, I could understand her holding a grudge against the specifically… Not to mention that less than 30 minutes after picking her 2nd body, she was banjaxed by the Daleks bursting out of a wall. How rude.

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