In a recent episode of Mythbusters, the TV show that attempts to prove/debunk popular misconceptions, the presenters took on a singularly contentious task. They were to ascertain whether Rose and Jack could both have fitted on that floating door at the end of Titanic. The subject has been something of a running joke on the internet for years, with many opining that both could easily have fitted, but it also seems to be a point of irritation for the film’s director, James Cameron, who recently muttered that it was a question of buoyancy, not space, and of keeping enough of the body out of the water (80%) to avoid hypothermia.
The Mythbusters team found that indeed, buoyancy was an issue; that is, until they had the bright idea to slide Rose’s lifejacket under the door. Hey presto, extra buoyancy; they could have both survived. Unfortunately, James Cameron’s response to this wasn’t an indulgent chuckle; nor did he allow for any change in the interpretation of the film’s ending. Instead, he said (to paraphrase),“Well, maybe we screwed up on that; we should have made the door smaller. But the fact is, the script says he’s gonna die. He was a goner.”
Some of the connotations of Cameron’s statements are a little troubling. He could have noted the unlikelihood of Rose coming up with such an ingenious solution in the middle of a freezing ocean; perhaps even acknowledging that the possibility of Jack’s survival heightens the tragedy of his demise. But for Cameron, it is enough to say that it happened because it had to happen; because that’s what the script demanded. For me, this has a negative impact on my exprerience of the film: rather than the writing justifying the events that happen, they just happen and the audience is left to try and justify them in their own heads, or, rather, as James Cameron seems to suggest, forgo becoming engaged at all and accept things as they come.
It’s similar to problems I had with the recent run of Doctor Who, particularly the last episode. At the end of ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’, long-time companions Amy and Rory were banished to 1938, with only the explanation that the titular hero couldn’t travel back in time to reach them due to a paradox previously created. Sure, that seems implausible but it’s a science-fiction show; you have to try and embrace these ridiculous rules. However, viewers were quick to point out a gaping problem with this ending: if the Doctor couldn’t return to 1938 New York, couldn’t he go and visit, say, five years later? Or could he not even visit another country in the same year? Presumably there is some sci-fi timey-wimey reason that this couldn’t happen, but it isn’t made clear.
As it is, if Doctor Who ever returns to a World War II setting (pretty likely), the emotional impact of the episode will be completely undermined. As it stands, it was hard to feel sorrow for the departure of the Ponds, except in the immediate void caused by their absence. If anything, though, this was more frustrating than upsetting; there wasn’t a good enough reason for their departure in the writing, so it seemed unnecessary. With some more explanation, or a different ending, it wouldn’t have – if, for example, the script actually had the cojones to kill them off there’d be little issue at all. Instead, in its increasingly desperate bids to exit characters conclusively without frightening the horses by actually killing anybody (we’ve had alternate reality and magic alien memory wipe of death previously), Doctor Who sabotages its own efficacy.
The issue with both Doctor Who’s finale and Jack’s death in Titanic is that they threaten the suspension of disbelief needed to enjoy these films. In these and the many other narratively challenged productions, it’s possible to become very aware that things are happening because they have to, rather than because the plot up to that point means that these events have been justified. It’s a jolting realisation, seeing behind the curtain like this, and in my mind it really undermines the potency of both endings. It’s more explicit in Doctor Who – even in genre productions, we as the audience need to understand and accept why things had to happen the way that they did; that characters reason in a way we might in the same situation.
The really annoying thing about the Titanic door debacle is that even with the Mythbusters findings, it would be possible to justify Jack’s death. It’s just that James Cameron’s pig-headed response implies that doing so is pointless; that blind acceptance is preferable to any degree of critical engagement. And that’s a terrible attitude in any creative medium.