Do Spoilers Really Spoil Doctor Who?

One of the major themes of Doctor Who during the Steven Moffat era has been that of ‘Spoilers’. River Song was fond of insisting she could not tell the Doctor certain things for the sake of ‘spoilers’. This has tied over into the show itself where the creators have been trying their absolute hardest to avoid any spoilers getting out.

But, ultimately, is this good for the show?

I have noticed a certain pattern emerging in Doctor Who for the last couple of years – and, to be fair, in television at large. Keeping back as much about the story as humanly possible for fear of spoiling the experience. This has even gone so far as to more or less misdirect the audience into thinking an episode will be about one thing, only for it to be about something else entirely.

This isn’t what I ordered

Take, for example, The Pilot, the series opener for series 10. If you watched the promotional videos, interviews, and articles, you might have come away with the impression it was going to be a Dalek story. It would introduce Bill, and have them face off against the Daleks, the Radio Times said.

While technically true, the episode itself featured probably less than 3 minutes of Dalek screen time. It was, instead, a tale of a lost alien creature using a human host to find its way home through a puddle. The episode was good, don’t get me wrong, but I remember coming away feeling it was not what had been billed. (Pardon the pun).

Another example might be Deep Breath from series 9. Again, the trailers, promotional material and so forth heavily focused on the T-Rex in London, Madame Vastra and Co, as well as Capaldi’s entrance. Many of us expected the episode to focus on the T-Rex, and on how Vastra, Jenny and Co would help the newly regenerated Doctor deal with it. Instead, we got a sort-of sequel to The Girl in the Fireplace, a T-Rex quickly dealt with (and never mentioned again) and what seemed like an entirely different story to what we’d expected.

Now, this doesn’t make the episode bad. But does it raise the risk of people feeling disappointed?

Spoiler Corner

River Song

When episodes rely heavily on twists and unexpected turns, can this diminish their re-watch value? Ultimately, that depends on how well it is written. A good heist story often relies on keeping vital information secret until the big reveal, but upon re-watching or reading, you can spot the clues. This can be enjoyable in and of itself.

But does it work in Doctor Who? Certainly there are times when it does and times when it doesn’t.

Broadchurch, Chris Chibnall’s infamous murder mystery series, went to great lengths to keep the ending a secret. After all, learning the identity of the killer is the main point of a lot of murder mystery stories. So the tension and speculation built until the final episode with everyone exchanging theories and ideas. It certainly increased viewer engagement.

But that’s not really what I’m talking about.

The Moffat Legacy

I’ve made this point before but I think it bears repeating. Steven Moffat’s biggest hinderance is his success. The popularity and critical acclaim of episodes like Blink gained him a reputation as a writer who was different.

He did the unexpected, and he had twists that you’d never see coming. When you’re a writer of the odd episode, that works very well. When your episodes are a departure from the norm, they stand out. But when they become the norm…

I suspect that this reputation has led Moffat to try and surprise the audience as often as possible. Pull out unexpected (and often unexplained) plot twists, and shock endings. Anything to keep up the reputation, anything to maintain the brand image he’s cultivated.

Perhaps this has been irksome for me because I personally prefer a good story well told even if it’s predictable. I don’t particularly care about spoilers because, if a story is good enough, it’ll still be enjoyable if you know what’s coming.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a good twist endings and surprises now and again. But I do fear that if your show becomes so married to these things that you can’t even bring yourself to tell us what an episode is about, then things may be less good than you think they are.

What do you think? Is our general fear over spoilers both as audiences and creators actually harming storytelling?

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Joel Cornah
Joel Cornah is an author, journalist, and blogger. He is the author of a number of novels and novellas including; The Sea-Stone Sword, The Spire of Frozen Fire and The Silent Helm, with the upcoming novel The Sky Slayer, expected some time in 2016. He is an editor for The Science-Fiction and Fantasy Network, head of the Doctor Who department, and member of the Tolkien Society. He is a frequent blogger for the Pack of Aces blog, focussing on issues of Asexuality in media, specialising in sci-fi and fantasy.