Posts Tagged With: the stolen earth

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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“I think we’d better be going home now, dear…”

Today’s entry starts with an If-Then statement, that occurs as a result of this question: Are you, dear reader, familiar with The Fast Show?

To some of you that’s going to seem like a dumb question, because you know every Ted and Ralph gag and have been impersonating Jazz Club’s Louis Balfour for nearly two decades. But I’m aware that there’s a whole new generation growing up online who’ve never seen it – and I’m never sure how well it did in America (where it was in any case known as Brilliant). Anyway, if the answer is yes, then you may skip the first of the embedded clips I’ve posted here (unless, of course, you’d like a quick reminder of how funny that lot could be with the right material). If the answer is no, then I strongly recommend you watch both, in order, because otherwise you’re going to get very confused.

 

Done? Right.

I can’t work out why no one’s thought to do this one already. It seems like such an obvious joke. Actually, it is an obvious joke, because we were making it back in 2008. As soon as ‘The Stolen Earth’ had aired, complete with its view of the multi-tentacled, one-eyed ‘insane’ Dalek Caan (resembling the lovechild of Cthulhu and TMNT’s Krang), the internet forums were on fire trying to work out whether the Tenth Doctor might actually be regenerating next week. But sandwiched between all the remarks about Billie Piper’s teeth and whether David Morissey’s Christmas role was going to get an early showing, there was another thread of discussion doing the rounds – doesn’t Dalek Caan sound incredibly like Johny, the manic-depressed artist?

Higson and Whitehouse’s oft-imitated sketch show always was a little patchy, of course. On the one hand, it gave us the likes of Denzil Dexter, Ted and Ralph, the Offroaders, Jesse the country bumpkin and Rowley Birkin QC. On the other hand, Chris the Crafty Cockney was irritating to a point, and that Suit You gag wore out its welcome in episode two. It was also far too reliant on catchphrase humour, and spawned a wave of paler imitations. Without The Fast Show there would arguably be no Little Britain, and the world would be a nicer place.

But Johnny the Nice Painter was one of my favourites. The payoff to his trigger word – the cry of “Black! Black! Black like a SOUL!” – was wonderful even when you knew it was coming (and in later episodes his wife Katie apparently did, and it was always fun trying to watch her desperately circumnavigate). Higson times his rants to perfection, and Arabella Weir is always nicely understated. We live in sensitive times as far as portrayals of mental health are concerned – recent headlines are testament to that – and it would be interesting to see whether something like this would get the green light today, but even bearing that in mind, Johnny’s condition is too ambiguous to really cause offence.

I put this together over three or four evenings – time I really should have spent tidying the house, but if it took longer than usual it’s because I was experimenting a bit. The first thing you’ll note is the ring modulator on Johnny’s voice. It didn’t really work without it, the artist’s tones being slightly too squeaky to really compete with the other layers of sound. Results (thanks to Audacity and a bit of help online) were reasonable, although the modulated laugh track sounded ghastly, so – with unavoidable exceptions – I’ve kept its use to a minimum, splicing in the equivalent spots from the unaltered original. Then I worked with some isolated audio tracks, which enabled me to dip in and out of the dialogue from Davros, the Doctor and the Supreme Dalek without having to worry about score – which I added in later, using cues from earlier series. The result is one of the cleanest edits I’ve produced in a while, certainly the cleanest from anything in the New Who canon.

Structuring the thing was a bit of a bind. I still worry that it starts too slowly, but the expository conversation between Davros and the Supreme Dalek felt like the only logical point at which to begin. You needed to have the other characters interjecting, so I isolated as many instances of ‘Dalek Caan’ as I could and then spliced them between Higson’s rambling. I then had no idea of how to finish the thing, so I blew them all up, because that usually seems to work.

When I showed it to Emily, she said “So, now you have these audio tracks, are you going to be going back through the other stuff you’ve made and redoing them?”

I looked around at the cluttered hallway, the unhoovered carpet and the pile of ironing.

“I might,” I said, “but today is not that day.”

Tomorrow doesn’t look good either.

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Four have fun on a Sunday

Walking the Ridgeway with Joshua.”So Daddy, why can’t the Doctor just go back in time and stop that Dalek from shooting him?”
“Because he can’t travel back over his own timeline. Just not done. Ever.”
“I see.”
“Besides, if he hadn’t been shot, he wouldn’t have had the near-regeneration that eventually created the second Doctor. Donna would then have died in the fire when the TARDIS fell into the core. And they wouldn’t have saved the Earth.”
“That’s right!”
“So that’s why – ”
“And then there would have just been a blank screen and a lot of  screaming and wailing as everyone in the whole universe got killed.”
“…Yes.”

 
 

“WOTAN!”

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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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