I’m oficially sick of immortals. Really. They’re all over TV science fiction, and frankly it’s getting a bit stale.
Now, in literary science fiction, immortality has a proud and dignified history. My favourite contender in this sub-genre is This Immortal by Roger Zelazny. But in the medium of television, it’s all quite too much.
The most famous case, of course, is that of the Highlander and its various spin-offs (Highlander: The Raven, The Methos Chronicles, and even the freakin’ Animated Series.) A pale imitator and contemporary that was even worse than the worst of the Highlander offerings was Lorenzo Lamas’s The Immortal.
Currently, we have BBC’s big hit Torchwood, which features as its main character the mysterious Captain Jack Harkness, who ages but who cannot die. (This fact was strangely forgotten by the writers in the season 2 finale, in which Jack is buried alive for 2000 years, but emerges unscathed and un-aged, both mentally and physically.) We also have New Amsterdam, about a (sigh) immortal detective living in New York.
As I explored earlier, I believe the source of literary fascination with immortality transcends that of our intrinsic fear of death. For a storyteller, the lure of the undying is not in the immortal’s ability to bypass that which awaits us all, but rather, firstly, as a plot device to ensure several lifetimes of conflict and characters; and secondly, as a recapitulation of the original motivations underlying all of Western fiction, the Greek myths.
The Greeks presented their gods has shallow, jealous and scheming immortals who nonetheless envy us weak and vulnerable humans, because we can be hurt and can die, and can therefore risk. And with risk comes heroism, and with heroism crisis and conflict.
The genius of this literary style is that the immortals must play in the background. It is the mortal men and women who become the centres of the tales. Perseus slew the Gorgon. Jason retrieved the Golden Fleece. Theseus mastered the labrynth and defeated the Minotaur. And even Hercules (Herakles), greatest of all the heroes of Greco-Roman lore, could not be allowed to be a full god; his human half provided his mortality, which was eventually literally burned away by fire, till all that remained was the divine bits.
Indeed, the tale of Hercules is a parable for all storytelling involving immortals. There is divinity and an immortal spark within each of us, which pushes us to great and heroic feats. Upon death, it is the mortal that dies, while the divine is granted a seat by the throne of Zeus. As hero to all heroes, Hercules showed that physical risk and sacrifice are dreadfully painful, but eventually drives us to oneness with the immortals.
But to be an immortal without the experience of risk and vulnerability is to be devoid of that drive, that spark. The gods are dot draped across the heavens in the form of constellations. No, only mortal heroes were granted that status: Orion, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, etc. For it is they, not the gods, who are heroes.
And this is the bit that has somehow been missed by modern tellers of the immortals’ tales. For reasons of marketing, modern TV shows cast the immortal in the role of hero. But where is the heroism in not risking one’s life? The various protagonists of Highlander toyed with the idea of their tragedy being that they must witness the passing of their mortal loved ones. At least those particular overacting swordsmen ran the risk of literally losing their heads, so there is some heroism implicit in their risk-taking.
The vampires are a less defensible lot. Much has been written of the innate romanticism of an undead creature of the night who must suck blood to survive. This strikes me as a great perversion of even the most earnest stereotypes of the male ideal within the eye of the naive teenage girl. But it certainly explains why pale, emaciated, unsmiling rock stars are still seen as sex symbols.
Beyond obvious marketing concerns, there’s a reason that Captain Kirk, and not Mr Spock, was the star of Star Trek. Spock was smarter, stronger, had extreme longevity and mysterious powers. But Kirk was human and vulnerable, short-lived and short-tempered. In today’s lore, Kirk is dead and Spock lives on. But Kirk remains immortally heroic, for he bled and fought and risked, while his godlike first officer pontificated in divine recline.
Bring back the days of heroic vulnerability, and leave these immortals be.