Are We Worrying Too Much About Doctor Who Spoilers?

I still remember the Sun headline. It was a Thursday, and I never could get the hang of Thursdays. The news page listed an indexed article entitled “ROSE TO BE KILLED OFF”, or words to that effect. It wasn’t even a link to a story that contained a spoiler warning – which I could have thus avoided (thus having only myself to blame if I subsequently read it). This was a feature title visible from their main news page (weeks before the story was due to air, I might add) that ostensibly gave away the ending of Doomsday without you even having to look at it.

She didn’t die, of course, but that was hardly the point. I vividly recall that sense of outrage (an appropriate post-2010 response is “I WAS NOT EXPECTING THIS!”) and it’s funny how things have changed. These days my reaction is far more ambivalent – and that’s because I wonder whether the Whoniverse as a whole (the writers, the fandom, the general approach) has cultivated an unhealthy obsession with spoilers. I wonder whether, in the quest to provide the shock of the new, we’ve wound up with a programme that’s become more about surprise than it has about story.

Spoilers do count; it would be foolish to say otherwise. I went to great lengths to keep the ending of The Stolen Earth – and its abhorrent, anti-climactic denouement – from all of my children, simply because I knew there would be a period when they’d obsess over the resolution of that cliffhanger in much the same way that their father once did. I have embarked upon a media blackout for Game of Thrones, because I anticipate watching it all one day and I’d like to know as little as possible. Sometimes the best way to squeeze the maximum amount of pleasure from something is to go into it as cold as possible: the less you know, the lower your expectations and the happier you’ll be.

10th Tenth Doctor Donna Noble The Stolen Earth

But it’s not as black and white as all that. For instance, I watched the early series of 24 slightly out of order, and thus went through the very first armed with the foreknowledge that a certain person – whom we’d previously deemed more or less untouchable – would turn out to be dodgy. Conversely, when the mastermind of series five was revealed some years later, their identity came as a complete surprise. But did the knowledge that the CTU mole was <spoiler> mean that I enjoyed that first series less than the one in which I didn’t know that <spoiler> was responsible for the murder of <spoiler>? Honestly, the answer has to be no. It just makes for a different viewing experience, particularly when you don’t tell your wife. You get to grin like a satisfied idiot while she’s pacing around the room after that penultimate episode, shouting “I can’t believe it was <spoiler>!”.

Besides, the issue here isn’t about the twist itself, or even knowing about it – it’s when the twist is inserted as a substitute for anything we might ordinarily refer to as ‘substance’. For example, The Wedding of River Song is an episode that solves a puzzle. That is its function: to get the Doctor out of the desert, and to get Alex Kingston out of that spacesuit (stop sniggering at the back there, or I’ll make you stay behind). Once you have resolved that particular enigma, there’s nothing left. Aside from the two major revelations (the Doctor’s hiding in the robot / The First Question is mind-numbingly inane) it serves absolutely no purpose. It has no real story, nothing important to say, and the dialogue is shockingly poor. It is forty-five minutes of inconsequential drivel, surpassed only by Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS in the queue of Stories I Wish I Could Unsee.

I went to great lengths to keep the ending of The Stolen Earth – and its abhorrent, anti-climactic denouement – from all of my children.

This is a series finale. This is supposed to be the big finish (excuse pun). Other tales fare equally badly: see, for example, A Good Man Goes To War and Let’s Kill Hitler (both of which get away with it, by the skin of their teeth, simply by being utterly outrageous), and also Utopia (minimally redeemed by the presence of Derek Jacobi). The Name of the Doctor cocks so many things up during its run time that by the time the New Doctor shows his bearded, weathered face I’m already wondering why I still care. This is event television at its worst: plot twists stretched to three quarters of an hour, padded out by nonsense. Doctor Who is not the only contemporary show guilty of this, but it’s a shame it’s apparently had to follow the herd in order to adapt to the supposed demands of a twenty-first century audience.

I read a comment on a neighbouring article the other day that suggested – I’m paraphrasing – that the wibbly-wobbliness is subsiding under the reign of the Twelfth Doctor. That’s all well and good, but the arcs in themselves remain, and they have not improved. The series eight antagonist only became interesting the moment we learned her identity; the rest was a tedious riddle.

How would the creative team have coped if it had leaked – unambiguously and irrevocably – that Missy was the Master? Would the finale have been reshot, scenes where she talks about being the Rani hastily scribbled / reinserted?  To what extent does the integrity of the spoiler usurp the credibility of the script? Is it more important that a thing remains secret than the content of the secret itself? Perhaps not. Perhaps you’re laughing at such a notion. Or perhaps it’s the glimpse of the future, in which mobile technology improves to the extent that showrunners decide to use whatever ending hasn’t already leaked, and just make the best of that.

Earthshock 2

Rewind thirty-three years, and consider this: it is possible to watch Earthshock knowing that the Cybermen are about to turn up and still enjoy it, because their presence – while a surprise for the uninitiated – is not in itself a game-changer. Conversely, it is much harder to enjoy Army of Ghosts once you know that the silly glowing Watcher wannabes are actually Cybermen, or that the thing in the basement contains four Daleks, because the story has nothing else going for it. That’s the sort of comparison that makes me sound like a nostalgia freak, but I don’t want to turn this into an Old / NuWho thing if I can help it. There were plenty of mistakes when the sets still wobbled. By way of example, it’s difficult to enjoy Time-Flight whether or not you know the eccentric alien mystic in the cave is actually Anthony Ainley, underneath prosthetics. It’s still better than Arc of Infinity, anyway.

(One of the most catastrophically silly reveals occurs at the end of the first episode of a Pertwee story. The Doctor removes the cloak of invisibility from a thing that is obviously a Dalek, having already encountered a race who are universally associated with the Daleks, and having had a conversation in which Daleks are mentioned, in a story called Planet of the Daleks. And then he cries out “Daleks!”)

Perhaps certain things are untouchable. I’m still not speaking to Eddie Izzard, for example, over his revelation about The Mousetrap. The Sixth Sense is never the same again on a repeat viewing, as once you know about The Twist, you spend the entire running time looking for clues. (I was going to suggest that perhaps M Night Shyamalan could have improved The Last Airbender by introducing a final reel twist, but having reflected, I suspect the best way to improve The Last Airbender is to erase all copies from existence.)

Sherlock features heavily at Cult Britannia

But Moffat himself has described his approach to writing both Who and Sherlock as (more paraphrasing from yours truly) ‘television you’re supposed to watch more than once’. We’re the generation that doesn’t watch Doctor Who live: that is why God invented iPlayer. Digital drama that can be scrutinised and analysed – frame by frame – has opened up a world of possibilities, but it’s come at a price, and that price is occasionally manifest in excruciatingly bad television. (I’m aware, throughout the process of articles like this one, that I come across as something of a Moffat-hater, but the way I approach the situation is this: the man’s getting paid a reasonable sum of money by the BBC to oversee and write one of their flagship programmes, and while I’ve never subscribed to the notion held by many that paying an annual license fee grants you the same democratic rights as a majority shareholder, if I can see an obvious way for him to be doing his job better, I’m damn well going to say so.

I am probably risking bad karma if I quote Lawrence Miles, but he it was that suggested the most promising solution I’ve ever heard to this particular problem. “Possibly,” he says, “just possibly, the best way to deal with ‘spoilers’ is to make stories that remain watchable even if you know what’s going to happen. Rather than, say, stories that depend on relentless story-arc twists and idiotic clues as to what’s going to be at the end of the season. Y’know. Just a thought. From someone who knew the ending of Genesis of the Daleks several years before he actually saw it.”

As is customary, Miles overstates his case, but in essence he’s absolutely right. Perhaps, on some levels, that’s why Moffat gets so cross about spoilers. Divulging them exposes the vacuum, like exposing the head of Omega or peeling back the faces of the Whisper Men, and reveals absolutely nothing of any substance. And why watch then? Once you know what’s coming, what else is there?

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17 Responses

  1. Rick714 says:

    Example of a spoiler: last series, the Beeb leaked the Cyberman pics well in advance of the finale. This was very foolish because A) the Cybermen have not really acquitted themselves well in nuWho, so why think ruin any element of surprise that might be in their favor? And B) the reveal when those “eye” doors shut would have been SO much more powerful had they not blown the surprise.

    Sometimes, story and surprise work better hand in hand to elevate the experience. Some folks say spoilers have no effect on their viewing pleasure–seems like they’re either deluding themselves or they’re on their phone and computer while their shows and they really just don’t care.

    Some of the worst offenders though, yes, are papers and websites who feel the need to put the spoiler IN the article title, thus ensuring to ruin something for someone.

    • alyzu says:

      Although that one would have been difficult to keep under wraps, since they filmed a big scene with the Cybermen outside of St. Paul’s Cathedral on a Saturday in August, and everyone has a camera on their phone now. It was probably a decision on the part of the producers to release photos themselves, rather than have them leaked.
      Unfortunately, it seems the only way to avoid spoilers these days is to stay off social media and the internet altogether.

    • Dr. Moo says:

      Even worse than that is when the spoiler in the headline is wrong; that’s less unpleasant but just plain annoying. It’s clearly a case of when the writer is just trying to get hits on their site, consequences be damned! I genuinely saw one such headline reading “Captain Jack to return in Season Eight” which we all know was totally and utterly wrong. Earlier this year we had claims of Missy becoming the next companion. It’s just so annoying when journalists feel the need to do that sort of thing.

    • Planet of the Deaf says:

      It’s the nature of tabloids. If you have a sex scandal involving a famous person, then his name and photo will be splashed across the front page
      The more generic “Famous person in vice den shocker” has less impact

  2. Dr. Moo says:

    Spoilers do bother me if you get them in the headline. Otherwise I’m okay with it because by then I’ve already followed the link and see it by my deliberate choice.
    It is fun later when I see the scene in question as I’m the only one of my family to actually look at the sites where such things get spoiled. (I don’t just mean in Who either. Take the recent movie Terminator Genisys which ruined a huge twist in its trailer; I saw the movie with my family but none of them had seen the trailer so I simply watched their reactions at that bit.) The reactions given by my family are always priceless in those scenarios.

    • John McJohnson says:

      That’s how it is for me as well. I don’t like being spoilt but if I am then I can be smug about the build up to the ‘reveal’ and enjoy it that way. I had that with The Stolen Earth recently when I rewatched it. I’m taking my sister through nuWho so she can join the fun in series nine and suffice to say that cliffhanger shocked her. I can’t wait to see how she responds to John Hurt’s introduction.

  3. FrancoPabloDiablo says:

    I think the production team should, instead of trying to prevent spoilers, just leak and put as much false and contradictory information out there as is humanly possible and lie through their teeth to media or whatever so that whenever we read ‘spoiler alert’ we never know if it is reliable at all. Lie to us! Lead us astray! Lure us down the wrong path! I want to be surprised. I don’t want to know what is coming. And I want everyone involved in making the show to have their efforts for us to view the show as intended to be respected.

    • Dr. Moo says:

      No. False spoilers are even worse than actual spoilers. A zero press release policy combined with hyping up the less important stuff is how it should be done. Look at Asylum of the Daleks where they hyped up having every Dalek in it so as to avoid Jenna Coleman’s early debut.

  4. BrittlePacker says:

    In fairness, it was rumoured months in advance that The Master was returning: had the character played by Michelle Gomez been played by a man the whole mystery of the identity would have lasted all of two seconds…

    In general I don’t have an issue with mild spoilers. In the modern world, where even a technophobe like me has a camera on my mobile phone, they are inevitable: others have mentioned the Cybermen last series, but really – what were the BBC meant to do, shut down part of London to prevent the secret getting out?

    If spoilers really bug you, ignoring the internet is unfortunately the best starting point. Then there’s not reading the rags (not much of a hardship for me). Most likely you’ll not escape entirely, because friends who know your love for the show will want to tell you what they’ve heard, but… welcome to the 21st century! There are no secrets in the Twitterverse – unfortunately!

  5. Planet of the Deaf says:

    Some interesting thoughts, even if I disagree strongly on many of the Moff era episodes that you hate! The name of the Doctor is an excellent episode, full of powerful scenes which neatly closes the S7 arc and sets up the 50th special.
    With camera phones, any outside filming in public places will be leaked, so I assume that the show accepts this and uses these filming photos which flood the Internet as a form of publicity for the show, keeping it in the public eye.

    • Dr. Moo says:

      Right with you on The Name of the Doctor. It felt like the fiftieth special had come early! That final reveal totally blew my mind, it still does now actually.

  6. The Earl Fleabag of Turdshire says:

    An interesting read (and I agree with your view of Moff’s stories, save perhaps for Name of the Doctor).

    Spoilers are interesting. For me it depends on how much interest or fandom I have in the property. For DW and, in years past, Star Trek, I always thrived on spoilers. For me it’s part of fandom and I love learning things in advance and seeing how they then realise it on screen. But equally, when it’s a fandom I am not so immersed in, like Games of Thrones, then I have done what you have done and generally avoid all spoilers. I did this with Breaking Bad, which I watched all the way through in one go, and so far I have only watched the first season of Game of Thrones so I avoid all spoilers and articles on the show like the plague. So I guess it boils down to the extent to which the spoiler will impact my enjoyment upon viewing. I know that with DW I will still switch on and I will generally either like or dislike an episode inspite of being pre-spoiled, not because of it.

  7. Joe Siegler says:

    I’m not even reading the article. I’m answering based solely on the title.

    OH HELL YES.

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