Posts Tagged With: 24

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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The Titles of Repetition

If you’ve watched enough Doctor Who, you’ll spot patterns in everything. There’s the way stories are constructed. There’s the spacing between the in jokes. There’s the catchphrases-that-aren’t-quite-catchphrases. There’s the repetitive companion behaviour traits and obvious characters who won’t make it past the second reel. This is how drinking games are formed. Then, of course, there’s the episode titles.

Formulaic titles are the norm in many TV shows. In the late 1980s there was a sitcom over here called Watching, in which every episode title contained a present participle – ‘Pairing’, ‘Moving’, ‘Wrestling’, ‘Hiding’, ‘Shagging’ (OK, I made that last one up). The mercifully short-lived Ardl O’Hanlon vehicle Blessed featured song titles. And it seemed that about half the episodes of Bottom (‘Gas’, ‘Accident’, ”s Out’ were designed to be dropped in as a suffix to the show’s title, presumably before the writers got bored.

Across the pond, The Big Bang Theory melds scientific / mathematical terminology with something that’s discussed (however briefly) in that week’s episode: ‘The Jerusalem Duality’, ‘The Vengeance Formulation’ and ‘The Middle Earth Paradigm’ are but three of over a hundred. This sort of thing was also very popular in the 1990s with Friends, which spent years starting every episode with ‘The One With / Where / When’, or occasional variations thereon – the first two words were abbreviated, so all over the internet you can find lists of titles like ‘TOW Ross is increasingly whiny’, ‘TOW you can see Matthew Perry’s eating disorder’, ‘TOW the inappropriate product placement’ , or my personal favourite, ‘TOW Joey’s rampant stupidity devolves into an even bigger parody of itself’.

Other shows aren’t so lucky. 24, for example, has nothing but the hour as an identification marker, meaning episodes are titled ‘Day 7, 12:00-13:00’ and so on. This is fine if you possess an encyclopaedic knowledge of the show, or a smartphone with the Wiki page bookmarked, but unless you’re as obsessed as I was you’d have no way of knowing purely from the title that this was the episode where [CHRONIC SPOILER], [SPOILER] gets [SPOILER] by [SPOILER] just before revealing the location of the [SPOILER], or [SPOILER] suddenly reveals that they’ve really been [SPOILER].

But what about Doctor Who? Well, there are ways and means. A surefire way to get a Doctor Who title that sounds like a Doctor Who title is to call it ‘The adjective of villain’, or ‘The object of planet’. Or, if that sounds too much like hard work, you could start with ‘The object’, although that sounds a little less Who. But that’s how it’s done, or at least more often than not, and particularly during the Tom Baker run, where almost every story seemed to fit that criteria.

Some numbers will help here, and so I’ll reveal that I did a little counting. There have been 229 titled Doctor Who stories since 1963 (a healthy mixture of pre-2005 serials and post-2005 one-shots), including the five that are currently being broadcast. Of all these, 93 were prefixed with a ‘The’, and 75 used the ‘X of Y’ format. (I haven’t touched the BF stuff or the spin-off media; there’s just too much of it. In the meantime, I do the stats so you don’t have to. You may thank me later.)

Parodies of Who exist, of course – The Curse of Fatal Death’ is one of the more famous ones, although Big Finish have done some of their own – and they tend to stick to the formula. And a few years ago, a BBS bulletin board of which I am still a member hosted a user-generated discussion where members were invited to submit their own Doctor Who titles, the sillier the better, using words from existing Who titles as a starting point. Gareth kindly dragged out the file from the archives, and we can confirm the submissions ran as follows:

  • The Of of the Of
  • An Unearthly Earth
  • The Daleks of the Daleks
  • The Green Polo
  • Mission to Time
  • The Five Four Three Two Ones
  • Revenge of Vengeance
  • The Faceless Face
  • The Tenth Greatest Seeds Meddler
  • The Green Mutants Within the Daleks
  • Happiness in Paradise
  • Doom, Death and Destruction
  • The Evil Face Operation
  • Survival of the Monsters
  • The Galaxy Galaxy
  • Four of the Daleks
  • The Horns of Smugglers
  • Marco Trial
  • The Evil Abominable Curse of Horror Death and Terror Doom
  • The Greatest Snowman in Paradise
  • From Genesis in Eden, to the Ark in the Sea, to Revelation in Armageddon

And then, only yesterday, the BBC added a new one:

Cheers Gareth.

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Events occur in real timey-wimey

My knowledge of American drama series is, for the most part, very patchy. I get by with a mixture of self-proclaimed ignorance and bluffing. I’ve got no ideological hang-ups with any of it; I accept that the first series of Heroes was great and that Desperate Housewives was like Blue Velvet for teenage girls. I just don’t have the time. There is also a part of me that is, I admit, quite proud of the fact that I’ve only ever seen one episode of The West Wing. It feels deliciously subversive. There is one exception: the only contemporary drama I feel able to talk about with any real authority (seasons one to six of The X-Files aside) is 24.

This is an unpopular view, but I’m of the conviction that 24 never jumped the shark. In eight seasons, largely due to its capacity to endlessly reinvent itself, it dazzled and confounded us with a thousand twists, betrayals and feints. Its political sensibilities are ambiguous and there is, I’ll admit, a part of me that feels ashamed of the glee I experience when Jack Bauer is twisting the knife (metaphorically or, sometimes, quite literally) into the spine of a scheming terrorist bastard. I have been told that I cannot enjoy this show and call myself a liberal. I answer that it satisfies a certain morbid testosterone drive possessed by most men of my age.

Key to the success of 24 is its merciless attitude towards its cast: no one – apart from Bauer himself – is safe, and regular and beloved characters are shamelessly gunned down / blown up / poisoned without a moment’s thought. Sometimes these deaths are signposted, but the most effective are the ones you don’t see coming (the opening of season five, for example, was particularly memorable – if you’ve seen it you’ll know why). In playing with our expectations, of course, the show was also guilty of setting up certain conventions, so that by the end of its run we knew how things worked. For example, a seemingly-deceased character was never actually dead unless you saw the corpse (and even then, that wasn’t always enough to keep them from popping back).

Other conventions were the behavioural patterns of unexpected turncoats after they’re unmasked. We usually learn about them at least one episode before the CTU chief does, and it’s generally accepted that as soon as we find out, their previously impeccable mask of respectability will slip completely, and they’ll suddenly find it incredibly difficult to keep up the pretence. This is usually because one a turncoat has been unmasked to the audience it’s not long before everyone else finds out as well, if only because it keeps the show moving. Indeed, such rapid narrative progression is something 24 does particularly well: seasons are rarely about the stuff we think they’re about, and apparent main antagonists are dispatched with gleeful abandon quite early on in a season, revealing layers of conspiracy that usually go right to the top, and someone with considerable political clout.

So Emily and I devoured it. I can still remember the look on her face the night she discovered the identity of the mole at the end of the first season; she spent the rest of the evening wandering round the house, occasionally muttering “I can’t believe it was them!”. But part of the show’s appeal is rooted in its sometimes unintentional humour. We know, for example, that the beloved Chloe is supposed to be funny, and that her Asperger’s renders her prone to bouts of tactlessness (“I just think we need to be really nice to Michelle, you know, because of Tony getting shot in the neck”). But it’s hard not to chuckle when you hear presidential advisor Lynn Kresge announce that “I just got off with the Secretary of Defence”, at least if you’re British. And how am I supposed to take an assassin seriously when, at the beginning of season eight episode three, we get this?

I know they don’t have a monopoly on the name, but honestly.

All of which set me thinking. A Who / 24 mashup would be difficult, purely in terms of how you’d reconcile the very human political / terrorist threats of Fox’s drama with Doctor Who’s extraterrestrial sensibilities, but perhaps a more telling problem might be how the two protagonists would get on – or rather wouldn’t. Jack Bauer gets the job done, but he kills people. You might as well team the Doctor up with Frank Castle. But if it did happen, and if it was, say, the Tenth Doctor because I find his inanities easiest to write, it might go a little like this…

—-

EXT. INDUSTRIAL AREA. NIGHT.

[A large patch of grass and sand, surrounded by a chain link perimeter fence. Clusters of bushes, shrubs, the occasional oak. The sun is going down in the distance, and the autumn breeze rustles. Six or seven GUARDS patrol, machine guns cocked. There’s no indication of what they’re guarding. Nearby, just behind a tree, a familiar-looking blue box. Floodlights illuminate the area, but their reach only partially extends to the tree and TARDIS.

JACK BAUER is lying flat at the crest of a nearby hillock, a couple of hundred yards away. He surveys the scene through binoculars.]

Jack [into cell phone]: Chloe? It’s Jack. I’m at the rendezvous. I don’t see any sign of Curtis or his team yet.

Chloe [over phone]: I just spoke to him. He’s about twenty minutes out.

Jack: Dammit. That doesn’t give us enough time. We need to intercept now, before they move the nuke.

Chloe: I’ve tracked the energy readings to somewhere in this area. Look for anything unusual. They don’t know we’re coming, so you should be able to see it.

[Jack scans with his binoculars. He stops when he notices the TARDIS.]

Jack: Chloe, I think I have a visual. Moving in but I need a hostile count.

Chloe: I’ve got seven.

Jack: Roger that.

Chloe: Jack? Please be careful.

[One of the guards is standing at his post, surveying the area, when he flinches as he is grabbed from behind. It’s Jack, with a knife at his throat.]

Jack: Now listen carefully. Do exactly as I say and I won’t have to hurt you. I am going to move away from you a short distance, and when I do, I want you to lie down on the ground, face down.

[He carefully disengages and the guard begins to crouch, but in the process of doing so grabs his gun and makes to shoot Jack. Jack swiftly plunges the knife into his neck. The guard can’t help screaming as he goes down.]

Jack: Stupid.

[All of a sudden, there are shouts as the other guards come running. The air is awash with yelled instructions in Russian, and gunfire. Jack swiftly drops to his knees and pulls out a pistol. He fires once, twice. He empties the chamber. He ducks and rolls. He uses the shrubs and trees as cover. One by one, the guards buy the farm.

After thirty breathless seconds it’s all over. Jack gets up, catching his breath, recovering.]

Jack [into phone]: Chloe, it’s Jack. All hostiles are down. Repeat, all hostiles are down. I’m moving in on the energy reading.

[With his gun still drawn, Jack moves across the grass towards the oak where the TARDIS is hidden. Suddenly, he stops. He points the handgun straight. He can see someone, standing, unseen. Reflexively, Jack points his gun at the figure in the shadows.]

Jack: HANDS WHERE I CAN SEE ‘EM!

[The figure raises its hands.]

Jack: Now I want you to walk slowly towards me. One false move, one sign that you’re not following my instructions, and I will put you down.

[Slowly, the figure emerges into the light. It is, of course, the TENTH DOCTOR, in trademark brown suit and coat.]

Jack: Who are you?

The Doctor: I’m the Doctor.

Jack: I don’t have time to play around. What’s your name?

The Doctor: Just the Doctor.

[Jack fires a warning shot that zips past the Doctor’s shoulder. The Doctor flinches, but not much.]

Jack: GIVE ME A NAME!

The Doctor: Just…the Doctor. [He starts to wander forwards.]

Jack: Don’t move.

The Doctor: I’m just getting a little closer, that’s all. I don’t have any names except the Doctor. Not an alias, not a nom de plume, that’s just what everyone calls me. The Doctor. That’s all you need to know. Now tell me your name.

Jack: My name is Jack Bauer. I’m a federal agent on an assignment to locate a nucular weapon in this vicinity. That’s all you need to know. I don’t want to have to kill you, but I will not hesitate to pull the trigger if you can’t give me what I want.

The Doctor: God, what is it with people I know called Jack? You’re the second one I’ve met with a trigger-happy disposition. Mind you, you’re not as bad as the last one. He couldn’t wait to get his gun off. Preferably with everyone he met.

Jack: What are you talking about?

The Doctor: Oh, nothing, really, I suppose I’m just sidetracked. But I’ll tell you something, Jack. You put the gun down…I can help you.

Jack [cocks]: Why should I believe you?

The Doctor: Oh, I think you already do. I’ve met your type before, Jack. You’re the shoot-first type, not because you like it, but because it’s the only way you’ve stayed alive so long. You could count the number of people you really trust, I mean *really* trust, on the fingers of one hand, am I right? And everyone close to you, or at least nearly everyone, has died. You walk through this world and you do good, but you leave a trail of fire and devastation behind you, and there are days you can barely look at yourself in the mirror.

[He is still walking slowly forwards. Jack keeps the pistol trained, but he’s clearly thinking this through.]

The Doctor: The life you’ve lived has made it hard for you to really trust anyone. But the real reason you’ve stayed alive so long, Jack Bauer, is because you’ve learned to rely on your gut. You react purely on instinct. So tell me, Jack. What does your gut tell you…right now?

[Jack stares. There is a long, considered pause. Then he lowers and holsters the gun.]

The Doctor: Now, that’s more like it.

Jack: We don’t have a lot of time.

The Doctor: Yeah, I gathered. Tell me about this bomb.

—-

INT. TARDIS.

[The door opens, and Jack and the Doctor step in. Jack stares around him, in amazement, or as amazed as we ever see Jack get about anything.]

The Doctor: Welcome to the TARDIS!

Jack: How are you doing this?

The Doctor: It’s complicated. I’d explain, but I don’t really think you’d –

[The monitor starts to beep.]

The Doctor: Hello, what’s this? [He starts flipping switches.] Looks like a signal, some sort of video conference, but it’s no one I recognise, and I don’t know – hang on.

[He punches a button, and Chloe’s face appears on the monitor.]

The Doctor: Hello.

Chloe: Is Jack with you?

Jack: I’m here, Chloe, and I’m unharmed.

The Doctor: Sorry, who are you?

Chloe: I’m Chloe O’Brian. CTU.

The Doctor: Chloe! Good to meet you, Chloe. [pauses, reflects] I knew a Chloe once. No, Zoe, that was it. She had her memory wiped in the end. Sad day, that one.

Chloe [wearing her I’ve-just-crapped-in-my-pants look]: OK.

The Doctor: Anyway, never mind that. What on earth are you doing on my monitor?

Chloe: I used Jack’s cellphone to run a GPS trace. Then I narrowed down the electrical signals to find a match for nearby closed circuit displays. Then I isolated the feed and managed to broadcast on the same frequency to find you.

The Doctor: …OK.

Chloe: Jack, you look like you’re inside a chamber or something, but according to my readouts the only building within two hundred yards of your current position is a public phone booth. Is there some kind of underground thing that’s not on the blueprints?

The Doctor: Ah. No, that’d be me. It’s my ship. It’s kind of – well, bigger on the inside.

Chloe: Bigger on the inside?

The Doctor: In a manner of speaking, yeah.

Chloe: How is that even possible?

The Doctor: It’s a sort of wibbly-wobbly…timey-wimey…thing.

Chloe: Fine. Whatever…

The Doctor: Anyway. Seeing as you’re here, Chloe, you can help us find this bomb.

Chloe: That’s kind of what I was doing.

Jack: Chloe, we don’t have time for this. Where did you get to on the Geiger emissions?

Chloe: I’ve isolated them and come up with a likely match. The only problem is they’ve already moved the bomb, so you’re going to have to follow the trail.

Jack: Fine. Send it to my screen.

The Doctor: No, wait. Send it to mine.

Chloe: Which one? There’s like seven of them.

The Doctor: The chrono-analysis LED tracker.

Chloe: That doesn’t help me.

The Doctor [exasperated]: Oh, the yellow one.

Chloe: On its way.

The Doctor [dashing over to the yellow screen, takes 3D glasses out of his pocket, puts them on, stares, takes them off]: Right. According to this the emissions were tracking south by southwest at a latitude of seven degrees, so all I should need to do is –

[All of a sudden, the TARDIS shakes violently. Jack and the Doctor are practically knocked off their feet.]

Jack: Doctor? What’s going on?

The Doctor [tapping buttons, running from one screen to another with his ‘concerned’ look]: Some kind of heat signature. It’s ruptured the TARDIS’s readouts and started a small fire in the engine core. For some reason I can’t access the controls, unless I can patch it from here – [he points his screwdriver into the circuitry of an open panel, and it fizzes in a most alarming fashion] – aaaargh! [The Doctor withdraws, clutching his hand] No good. I’ll have to get down to the main circuit room. Probably die in the process. Still, there’s always regeneration. Probably.

Chloe: Give me the details. Maybe I can help remotely.

The Doctor: No, it’s complicated, it’s Gallifreyan and you wouldn’t understand! I haven’t got time to explain it in layman’s terms!

Chloe: I’d appreciate it if you please wouldn’t patronise me like this. It makes it very hard to do my job effectively.

The Doctor [seething, mostly to himself]: Oh, you humans are so awkward! Fine, it’s a basic algorithm from the expanded Fibonnaci sequence, and you have to embed a crossover into the subroutine that’s based on an ASCII array. Then you have to patch the new source code on top of the original binary.

Chloe: Well, why didn’t you say so? I’ve been handling that sort of coding since I was twelve. Hold on.

[She taps rapidly. The TARDIS is lurching and shaking.]

The Doctor: Chloe! You’re going to have to hurry!

Chloe: Working on it!

[Steam is pouring from the vents now, and the vibrations are louder. The cloister bell can be heard in the next room.]

Jack: Chloe, we’re running out of time!

Chloe: I know, Jack! Stop interrupting!

[Her fingers punch the keys with increasing intensity and the sweat pours off her brow. All of a sudden, the TARDIS comes to an abrupt stop, the systems returning to normal. Jack gets to his feet and dusts himself off; the Doctor is leaning on a panel, steadying himself upright, breathing in and out.]

Jack: Chloe, you did it. We’re back in control.

The Doctor: Chloe, I don’t know what to say.

Chloe: Well, ‘thank you for saving my ship’ would probably be a start. Along with ‘I’m sorry for assuming you were a moron’.

The Doctor: Mnyeah, I suppose we could start with the thank you. But no, I mean it, you’re – brilliant. I’ve never seen that sort of technical wizardry in any human. You don’t have a fob watch, do you?

Chloe: Actually yes. It was my grandmother’s.

The Doctor: Yeah? Does it work?

Chloe: Well yeah, of course it does. Why on earth would I keep it if it didn’t?

The Doctor: …Right. Forget I asked.

Jack: Doctor. Now that we’ve fixed things, I need you to use your vehicle to help me track the nucular bomb.

The Doctor: Oh, Jack Bauer, federal agent, I can do better than that. I can take you right there! [He does the hop-around-the-TARDIS dance, twisting dials, pulling levers, holding on to things and pretending it’s a plan.]

Jack [above the TARDIS noise]: What are you doing?

The Doctor: The TARDIS is zeroing in on the Geiger emissions from the bomb. We should be able to get pretty close. Well, within a few yards. Hopefully not right on top, or it’ll be in here. I still remember the last time that happened. Took weeks to clean up.

[The TARDIS comes to a lurching halt.]

Jack: Where are we?

The Doctor [all serious]: It should be just outside.

—-

INT. HANGAR

[The TARDIS door opens. Jack and the Doctor step out into a dimly lit hangar. Jack draws his revolver.]

The Doctor: You’re not gonna use that, are you?

Jack: Only if I have to.

The Doctor: How did your lot ever survive this long?

[Warily, Jack stalks through the hangar. The Doctor follows. A large, coffin-shaped object lies at the side, hidden between a pile of crates.]

Jack: I think we have a visual. Chloe, are you getting this?

Chloe: Yeah. The readings are through the roof. I think it’s the bomb. But I don’t understand why it’s unguarded.

[Jack and the Doctor lean over the edge of the device. The display is marked with complicated, unfamiliar symbols marked out in red.]

Jack: Chloe, we’ve found it. But I don’t recognise the design.

The Doctor: I think I do.

Jack: What can you tell me?

The Doctor: It’s alien. It comes from the Peradon Cluster. They used to use them for mining. You dump the bomb, it explodes, it’s quick radiation dispersal so you can go back in a week, collect the gold, get rich. Devastated the local area, of course. They were outlawed eventually. Obviously a few slipped the net. But that’s not the worst of it, Jack.

Jack: What?

The Doctor: It’s armed. That’s why it’s unguarded. And I don’t know how to stop it.

Jack: What’s the detonation time?

The Doctor: I’d say….within the hour.

Jack: DAMMIT!

—-

"KHAAAAAAAAANNNNN!!!!"

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Spoilers, sweetie

I annoyed Joshua yesterday morning. Having promised him the night before that we’d spend the first part of strike day watching Doctor Who, we did just that – and then I promptly jumped up and switched off the TV before the ‘next time’ reveal.

From his armchair, Joshua blinked. “Isn’t there a bit about the next episode?”.

What I should have done at this point is lied to him. It would have saved an argument. It would have been a white lie, conscious of his feelings. But like a sleep-deprived idiot I told him the truth, figuring this might be a chance to teach an important lesson.

“Yes, there is. And we’re not watching it.”
“Oh, but why?”
“Because, just this once, I think it’ll be more fun for you if you don’t know.”
“But I just want to know what it’s about.”
“I know you do, Josh, but you’re going to have to trust me on this. I know what’s coming next, and I knew what was coming before the first time I watched it, and I think I would have enjoyed it far more if I hadn’t known. I think it’ll be the same for you.”

The trailered episode in question is ‘Army of Ghosts’ – which, as anyone familiar with 2006 Who will tell you, is the first part of the fanboy pleasing (but utterly third-rate) Daleks / Cybermen grudge match. There are three twists in this episode: the first is that the eponymous and supposedly benevolent ghosts are actually Cybermen punching through holes in the universe; the second is the unexpected return of Mickey Smith; the third is the revelation of the Daleks (no pun intended), who are discovered inside a huge sphere in the basement.

As I said before, it’s a rubbish episode, and the corresponding second part features an excruciating ‘reunion’ between a woman who is mourning her dead husband and a man who is mourning his dead wife – as well as the long and drawn-out departure of Billie Piper, and a needlessly overwrought farewell on a beach (Glamorgan, doubling for Norway). But none of that is going to matter to Josh, who is six years old, and who I’m convinced will get more out of it if he doesn’t know about the Cybermen / Daleks / Mickey return (and I know that even if he only sees the first of these, I’m going to get pressed for information until I give in, or put two and two together and twig that this is the Daleks / Cyberman match-up of which he’s heard me speak in the past).

The notion of controlled leaking is something that’s infuriated me about Doctor Who ever since its return. The newspapers are spoon-fed information by the BBC in order to keep anticipation levels up and enthusiasm tangible, but it means any element of surprise is gone. Stories abound about the return of the Master, the on-screen demise of Kylie Minogue and, in the last series, “the death of a major character” (yes, I know how that came out, but I’d rather not have known at all). Even if you don’t actively look for these stories they’re still run as front page news and thus the only way to avoid them is to engage in a total media blackout during a show’s run, or learn how to avert your gaze. What irritates me the most is that Moffatt then has the audacity to complain about the revelation of spoilers. His anger is palpable and completely unjustified given the revelation-heavy direction the show has taken over the years. You can’t court the press and then expect the fans to play ball.

I’m ambivalent when it comes to spoilers. It depends on the show. If it’s a programme I watch, I don’t want to know about it. It is a miracle that I managed to get through to the end of the final series of 24 having no idea, for the first time in years, as to how it ended, right down to the fate of the main character. I’d sworn that I’d stay dark, and by some miracle (given how much media I read over the course of the average day) I managed it. Conversely, I also know the ending of the final instalments of Lost and Prison Break without having watched a single episode of either. When it came to The X-Files, I simply got bored, giving up after series 7 and reading about the rest, as is customary, on Wikipedia.

Lawrence Miles has pointed out that if you allow a spoiler to define a show, you’re making bad television. “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 up to a point he’s right – certainly with regard to the Moffatt-led era where the twist is of paramount importance, and the logic of stories is seemingly reliant on obscure details that were planted earlier in the season, obvious to no one but the writer. At the same time, I still want Joshua to experience things properly. There’s a difference between producing television where the twists are basically the whole point, and television where they add a certain oomph without taking over. I knew about the father / son revelation at the end of The Empire Strikes Back from playground chatter almost a decade before I finally saw the film, but I can’t help thinking that the emotional impact of this moment would have been far more powerful if I’d seen it as it’s supposed to be seen. When you actually get to that moment, even if you know what’s coming, it’s overwhelmingly powerful, simply because it’s the last thing you expect.

Terminator 2 is another example. Its script was wasted on the audiences who flocked to packed cinemas in the summer of 1991, because the publicity for the film gave away its direction months before it was released. The first half hour has a clever, ambiguous narrative featuring the arrival of two Terminators (including one that we don’t even know is a machine), and the assumption of an audience familiar with the first film would be that Schwarzenegger’s character is once more the villain. It is not until the crucial first encounter between the two, and a two-way standoff that concludes with Arnold’s recommendation that John Connor should “get down”, that the Terminator’s allegiances are revealed – but by then, of course, we all knew anyway. When my wife first watched the film with me some fifteen years later, having missed out on the media hype the first time round, she was oblivious, and thus experienced this revelation with genuine and pleasing surprise, the way it’s meant to be.

I was thus determined that Josh should find out about Luke Skywalker’s parental lineage the proper, old-fashioned way, and despite several close calls we managed it (“It just goes to show,” he sagely commented afterwards, “that you should never trust strangers. Or Darth Vader”). I’m overreacting, but sometimes it’s just nice to keep something back, and it’s a joy when you experience something genuinely unexpected. I can remember the jaw-dropping twist at the end of ‘The Stolen Earth’, where the Doctor appears for a moment to be regenerating – an ending that was kept completely under wraps and that led to an explosion of online and offline debate and speculation in the week leading up to its utterly underwhelming denouement (when Tennant channels the regenerative energy into his spare hand, which conversely grows into a ‘human’ Doctor, or at least half-human on his mother’s side). In a way, we ought to have seen it coming: the fact that such an apparent bombshell was kept so beautifully hidden from the press and the viewing public at large should, given the show’s normal processes, have served as a sure fire indicator that this wasn’t going to be a regeneration at all, and that Davies would come up with a pathetic get-out clause. As, indeed, he did.

This stuff isn’t really a big deal, I know, but we’re so saturated with media now – trailers, adverts, previews, webcasts, magazine articles – and all the best stuff is played to death online and on previews a matter of days, and sometimes weeks before it’s screened. The X-Factor is a prime example of this, showing all its audition highlights in the ‘coming up’ segments that precede the many tedious commercial breaks, as well as leaking them to The Sun a couple of days before transmission, and therefore removing any sense of surprise and ensuring that you’re thoroughly sick of them. (I can remember a one-hour special starring Martine McCutcheon at the turn of the millennium when she spent most of her time between songs bigging up the duet she was going to do with Andrea Bocelli later in the show, with the net result that by the time it arrived, I no longer cared.) So I want to keep some things secret. And this is all well and good, but of scant comfort to the cross little person who, while all this was running through my head, was still sitting a few feet away from me.

“I understand,” I said, “that you’re probably quite cross with me right now, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am.” (He went on to prove it, too, when during an unrelated encounter later that morning he informed me that the only two things wrong in his life were me and his mother.)
“This is one of those situations where you’re going to have to trust me. You will thank me for this later.”
“At least give me some clues.”
“All right,” I said. “I’ll give you the name, and that’s it. The next episode is ‘Army of Ghosts’.”
He wrinkled his nose. “But how are ghosts scary?”

He’s probably too young for The Woman In Black. I will think about it.

(The episode that precedes ‘Army of Ghosts’, by the way, and the one we’d been watching, was ‘Fear Her’. But that’s shit.)

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