The Kasterborous Archives, #5: Are we worrying too much about Doctor Who spoilers?

Author’s notes:

Updated header picture aside, I did this two years ago. My opinion on spoilers generally hasn’t really changed, although my contempt for Moffat has subsided quite substantially. I still think he (and the audience) worry too much about spoilers, and I still think that says more about the way Doctor Who is written than it does about anything else. But I no longer harbour any sort of grudge about it. I’ve seen enough shouts of “SPOILERS!” on the web over the past few months – and we’re talking about episodes that are two or three years old here – to make me realise that the whole thing is taken far too seriously by much of the fandom and that no one is going to change that; certainly not me.

Perhaps the most profound thing about this piece is the one thing that wasn’t actually mine – the quote from the respected DW writer that lurks in its closing paragraphs. I could tell you who it is, but I don’t want to give away the ending.

Are we worrying too much about Doctor Who spoilers?

Published: 11 July 2015

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.

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.

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.

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 MousetrapThe 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.)

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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