Death is the simplest and most obvious threat your protagonist can face, but you generally can’t kill them. In some fantasy it’s possible to get them back with magic, but first person point of view isn’t going to work so well if your main character is taking a dirt nap. (I’m very anxious to see where the Dresden Files takes this in the next volume).
It’s easy to raise the stakes in a book or movie by killing off members of the supporting cast. I have a hard time thinking of many action movies where the hero’s girlfriend survives. Family members are usually a goner the moment they walk on screen. In television, an ensemble cast is relatively safe. Headliners don’t die unless the actors are leaving. Then you get one or two fatalities as the seasons drag on. One show where you get the sense that no one is safe is Torchwood.
By the end of the third series the cast had been whittled down to two headliners and a few second tier characters. Now Torchwood is back, in a partnering between BBC and Starz. They’re certainly giving it some solid promotion. Even Denver has billboards advertising it.
Torchwood benefits from being a British series. Its seasons, or series, are shorter, meaning we don’t get stuck with a lot of padding. Conflict can remain at the forefront. Whene an American series might stick in twenty episodes to create a season, the BBC format is fine with six to thirteen.
The first episode of the new series, Miracle Day, changes the rules of life and death on us. People cease to die, regardless of their injury. Complicating things further, the immortal Jack Harkness can suddenly be hurt, indicating that the writers aren’t afraid to sacrifice even him if the story calls for it. By offing the rest of the cast from the first two seasons, Torchwood let us know that anyone can be a target. Putting Jack’s mortality in play also helps to break up one of the problems of immortal characters in television (usually vampires): the current crisis is always related to some aspect of their past. If Jack is no longer immortal then the cycle of unfinished business always coming back to bite him can end. I’m glad Torchwood is back, but I suspect the body count is going to rise again, so I’ll be holding on to my seat.