Spoilers for Doctor Who, but only things that are now years out of date.
Trigger warnings for personality and memory erasing, and hopefully that's about it.
The last episode of Doctor Who I ever saw featured the utter destruction of Donna Noble. Part of me wants to pull out an Ancient Greek word that means “utterly destroyed” because that is a single word in Ancient Greek and it would serve as a nice contrast to the completely different word that means killed. The problem is that when used of people the utterly destroyed word means “killed” and if Donna had been killed I wouldn't be writing this post. As such, it would probably confuse the issue.
Anyway, once upon a time there was an episode of Doctor Who in which the character Donna Noble was utterly destroyed, though her body and a select few parts of her brain went on living in a way that vaguely resembles what happens to those bitten in zombie fiction but was about a million times more disturbing. (One million, seventy five thousand, three hundred twenty, and eleven sixteenths times more disturbing, to be exact.)
You see what happened is they erased her personality. Memories too, which I find truly disturbing in itself, but that is as nothing compared to what was done to her personality. It was necessary, you see, if she ever slips into her old personality, even a little, her brain will fry.
One might say that Donna was returned to the person she was before she met the Doctor, but that person was someone capable of becoming who she was with the Doctor, and if Donna even approaches being such a person again, her brain will fry. She is not the person she had been because the person she had been was one who had it within her to be the person that she was, and she doesn't have that in her anymore expect, perhaps, as a path to a truly messy form of accidental suicide.
One might say that she's the person she would have been if she'd never met the Doctor, but that isn't true because we met that person as well (she saved the universe) and if present Donna even approaches that person, her brain will fry.
We know that it isn't just about memory, if it were her personality would not have ripped out of her skull and discarded like ... like something you discard. What would one discard? Rotten fish perhaps? No, they'd be used for fertilizer I suppose. What is treated with even less respect than rotten fish? Whatever it is, like that.
People can lose memories while maintaining broad strokes of their personalities, but that isn't what we see with Donna, her personality is yanked out and the warning is given that if she flashes back to even part of what she was even once, boom. Brain is fried.
So we're left with the question of Donna, what did happen to her, and how should we feel about it. She grew more in a few years than some people will in a lifetime. She went from someone completely wasting her potential, apparently unaware that that potential even existed, to someone who surpassed it. Someone who did the impossible and saved not just one universe in the process, but all universes.
But the problem with the impossible, apparently, is that it bites back hard. Which is odd, because the first season finale actually involved Rose completely escaping the effects of said biting, the Doctor simply took them on himself and regenerated.
So she was left in an interesting state. Memories and personality erased. Reset. With the rule being that if she ever grew or changed or improved, her brain would explode.
We can introduce some exceptions in there. I don't think there's anything preventing her from becoming a great chess player as long as she isn't brave or compassionate or ambitious or curious, or anything like that. What she can't do is recapture any of the things that made Donna Donna. So imagine a list of all the things that make you exceptional. Not even all of the things that do right now, all of the things that could if you were given the chance to thrive. Now imagine that your brain, and soul should you have one, were reset to how they were back when most of your present personality didn't exist. This is going to have to be more extreme than just the time Donna is losing because she's grown more in that time than most people do in a decade or two. Our best bet for comparison is probably just to take you as when you were a child. So say when you were twelve. Or five.
Everything about you is reset to the way it was when you were five. Your memories since then are gone. Any growth you've had since then is undone. At first this might not sound that horrific, given some of the things that are faced in Doctor Who, but remember the catch. You're never allowed to so much as approach the person you are today. Which is where we return to the list you made above of everything exceptional about you. The defining characteristics of youness. If personality-stripped you ever starts going near those things, boom, he or she is dead.
If you're courageous, then being Donnaed would mean having that stripped away and the laws of biology determining that if you're ever courageous again, boom you're dead. If you're ambitious then being Donnaed would mean having that stripped away and the laws of biology determining that if you're ever ambitious again: boom, you're dead. If you're interested in learning then being Donnaed would mean having that stripped away and the laws of biology determining that if you're ever curious again, Boom. You are dead. And if you're Hufflepuff then you're pretty well screwed, because that means that if you ever approach self improvement again you're as dead as a demonstration spider.
And that's probably the most Harry Potter you will ever see me put here.
So, that's the last Doctor Who I ever saw. Donna was Donnaed. An amazing and impressive character had all of her growth and strength ripped from her very psyche, along with her memories, and was left on earth as an incurious vapid individual while her family was warned that if she ever grew into even a hint of a shadow of her former self that growth would kill her. And do it in a hurry.
And then the channel I watched Doctor Who on stopped carrying it. I haven't seen anything since Donna was destroyed.
I agree with Will about something. He writes, “it hurt more than if she had really died,” and he's right about that. If Donna had simply been killed, instead of being Donnaed, I very much doubt that you'd be seeing anything remotely resembling this. I did hurt more. She was robbed of the chance to even be herself.
Imagine a story where it was just some totalitarian government trying to drag Donna and others off to the mind control center (where the exact same thing would have happened to her) while the Doctor and others tried to stop it and then in the end she died in the attempted getaway. It would have been heartbreaking, and she'd probably have had some silly last line like, “At least I die as me,” but it would have been so much better in terms of not feeling like you have to curl up into a ball and be depressed about it for the next six months.
Where I disagree with Will is in the next clause of his sentence, and the explanation offered for that clause in the sentence after that, “which is why I have no patience for people who complain about what happened to her. It was supposed to hurt.”
Plenty of things are supposed to hurt. Remember the woman on the satellite in the first season finale, the one that the Doctor promised to save. The one who died a pointless death when the Doctor failed to keep his word? That was supposed to hurt, and it did hurt, and it left a lasting impression. Remember the destruction of Pompeii? Remember watching as the earth was exterminated, or as an entire universe was wiped from existence just so Donna could get back to the original timeline and save the Doctor like she was supposed to? Remember the fish-likething who Martha helped only to have him die on the planet's surface in the episode with Jenny only for us to discover that the entire bloody conflict was the result of a days old dispute about who should be making managerial decisions? Remember any episode other than, “Just this once, everybody lives!”
Or, for that matter, return to Will's own point. If Donna had simply died, that would have been something that was supposed to hurt. It would have succeeded in hurting.
There's plenty of space for things that are supposed to hurt, and plenty of range of hurt available. The way in and quantity with which things hurt is a valid place for criticism. There would have been all kinds of things that could have been done to Donna that I'm pretty sure even Will would agree went too far. Those things will go unmentioned partly because I don't want to load the post with trigger warnings, but mostly because I don't want to think about them.
If any of those unspoken things had been done, criticism would have been valid even though it was supposed to hurt. Criticism is valid now, even though it was supposed to hurt.
Writers sometimes want to hit the audience with a blow to the gut so hard as to leave the audience weeping on the floor, that intent doesn't mean that those who don't like the way it was executed are wrong.
It was supposed to hurt. It did. That's not the end of the discussion. It's more complicated than that.
[And then, just like that, it occured to me that I should probably link to Will's blog and the post that contained the two sentences I'm responding to, which is actually almost entirely unrelated to what I say here.]