In many ways the conception of Valentine’s Day feels a bit like a science fiction thing, or at the very least, an urban legend. Unlike Saint Patrick, who totally, for real, drove snakes out of Ireland (maybe), details about exactly what Saint Valentine did are dubiously muddled and/or non-existent. The essential fact is this: at some point there was a Saint Valentine who was certainly a martyr, so it might as well be for love!
But when you stop to reflect on it, science fiction and fantasy is lousy with martyrs, and we probably know much more about them than we’ll ever know about Saint Valentine. Here are seven martyrs who keep sci-fi and fantasy going, mostly because they seem to always come back after they’ve died!
The Doctor (Doctor Who)
The Doctor is interesting because he performs martyr-like actions but has to live through, and with, the consequences in the next Regeneration. It’s such a great sci-fi trick, especially coupled with the show’s wibbley-wobbly timey-wimey shenanigans: we live through the trauma of the Ninth Doctor’s martyr complex / amnesiac survivor’s guilt long before ever meeting his predecessor, the War Doctor. But whether he’s absorbing the time vortex, or shielding a friend from a massive dose of radiation, or simply saving Christmas, the nu-Who Doctors carried on a tradition of martyrdom with a sci-fi resurrection twist.
Gandalf (The Lord of the Rings)
The most prominent fantasy martyr also gets to return with a shiny new upgrade, although unlike the Doctor, the grey wizard doesn’t expect a second chance to rejoin his friends in Middle-earth. So it’s a good thing he ends on a high note with one of the best parting lines of all time: “Fly, you fools!” Gandalf is so badass that he insults you while he’s saving you from the Balrog. It’s hard to be a cooler martyr than Gandalf, though some have tried.
John Sheridan (Babylon 5)
Speaking of people who return from the dead slightly weirder than before, Sheridan from Babylon 5 martyrs himself to take down the Shadows, but is able to return thanks to the power of his love for Delenn. Anyway, if he hadn’t blown himself up, the other alien races probably wouldn’t have gotten on board with the whole fighting the darkness thing. Good work, Sheridan!
Spock (Star Trek)
In many ways, Spock is a career martyr. He’s always trying to sacrifice and/or punish himself for stuff in the original TV show. In “Operation: Annihilate!” he nearly blinds himself in order to kill the creepy parasite/flying pancake things. In “Amok Time” he promptly decides to turn himself into the space cops after he thinks he’s killed Kirk, and of course there’s that whole radiation poisoning/fixing the warp drive stunt he pulled in The Wrath of Khan. Though Bones “liked him better before he died,” Spock actually doesn’t become an asshole when he gets resurrected, and his martyr-like behavior (whether he actually dies or not) usually is truly selfless. One of the reasons we like Spock so much is precisely because of this quality: if Spock were a celebrity pop star, he’d probably ONLY do charity concerts. And he’d mean it.
Buffy Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
Buffy has been shuffled off this mortal coil only to be resurrected more than once, and she might have been a whole lot happier staying dead. When Buffy comes back from some heaven-like place following her second major life sacrifice in season five, she tries to keep the truth from her friends—being done with the whole slaying thing had been awesome. But she gets it together once more, becomes a counselor at school, then a Slayer grand dame, and keeps saving the world over and over. It’s not just the fact that Buffy has sacrificed herself, it’s that she will never stop doing it—maybe not always by physically giving up her life, but by repeatedly sacrificing her love life, her friends and associates, and her personal happiness. Heck, it turns out that dying was the easy part.
Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock)
Though the martyrdom of Sherlock Holmes is not technically science fiction or fantasy (though I truly believe you can make a case for it being in the genre!) it has become significant recently, perhaps more than ever before. Yes, readers famously wore black armbands after Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Holmes in “The Final Problem,” but that swell of devotion may have been eclipsed recently by the “I Believe in Sherlock” fan phenomenon which popped up on the Internet after the airing of “The Reichenbach Fall.” As many have pointed out before, any adaptation of “The Final Problem” is poised to be better than the original, because Conan Doyle clearly didn’t give a shit about that story making sense. BBC’s Sherlock crafted perhaps the best possible version of this story by having Sherlock’s martyrdom not only be accomplished by his death, but also the complete loss of his precious reputation. His phone call to John might just be the most heartbreaking Sherlock Holmes-related moment of all time.
Valentine Michael Smith (Stranger in a Strange Land)
Did you think we’d get through a Valentine’s Day martyr post without mentioning the guy who has “Valentine” in his name? Way to be subtle, Robert A. Heinlein! We know there are an infinite number of opinions about Stranger in a Strange Land, but beyond having an awesome title (and premise) the final scenes of Valentine Michael Smith’s life easily qualify him for best genre martyr ever. Not only did this character introduce the word “grok” into the pop cultural lexicon, he also inverted all the mores of the future world in which he lived. And how did society repay him? Mob violence takes him down! Luckily, he gets to talk to his pal Jubal from the afterlife, and the book about his life is still in print and readily available. Now, we know this might be an inappropriate time to bring this up, but where’s our damn Stranger in a Strange Land movie already? And why is Michael Fassbender not playing Valentine Michael Smith?
In any case, Happy Martyr Day, everyone!
Originally published in February 2013