No more surprises?

As can hardly have failed to escape your notice, this week saw the leak of the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who onto the net, some three weeks before its first official broadcast. I’ve not seen it yet, but it’s not that I don’t want to, rather that, hampered as I am by only being on Dial-up, the size of the download is prohibitively big (as well as the fact it's illegal to download, ahem). Of course, that’s not been the case for hundreds if not thousands of others who have already settled down and watched the first new “proper” Who for nine years and for me, this is extremely frustrating – like every other fan on the planet, it’s been an incredibly exciting eighteen months since it was announced the show was coming back, and the thought that it's now out there and can be seen, and I haven't yet, is very annoying. It’s been interesting watching the reaction to the leak on Doctor Who forums – a quite intense discussion has broken out about whether it should be watched or not, with passions on both sides running fairly high. And it’s one that’s made me think, and reflect rather sadly on the wider issues that leaks like this create.

Up until now the production team on the new Who have done a fairly remarkable job in keeping spoilers down to a minimum. Although plot details have leaked out for some of the episodes, they have not been all-encompassing, and there are at least five episodes of the new series of which I haven’t a clue what the story is about. Admittedly out of thirteen this doesn’t sound a lot, but in this day and age of internet spies it’s quite a feat. Even more impressively, given the level of interest surrounding it, no official pictures of the interior of the TARDIS, one of the big points of interest, appeared anywhere, at least not up until this weekend’s leak, something for which the team should be complimented on, as well as congratulate those who could have done released pictures but didn’t want to spoil the fun.

And that’s just what it would have done, spoiled the fun. We all want to know everything about what is coming up on our favourite shows or films, but the not-knowing is a huge part of it. Sadly nowadays the internet makes it extremely hard work to avoid learning every last plot point of everything that is coming up. Temptation lies everywhere, only one click away (and not even that, if you’re a regular visitor to forums and someone has been careless with a thread title), a temptation that acts like a drug, giving the reader who gives in to it a short high, followed by a lengthy coming down period or downer. It’s an addiction that more and more succumb to, a problem for which there are no drying out clinics, and no chance of redemption.

Think back over the last ten years to the films that have most settled in the public’s consciousness. Films like The Usual Suspects, Seven, Memento. These are all films that had killer last moments in them, moments that ensured they were rightly hailed, moments that gave audiences that same relevatory high, but without the coming down afterwards as that high has been backed up by the whole narrative journey that came before it. The most obvious example is The Sixth Sense, a film whose reputation these days is a little tarnished but at the time created a buzz that hadn’t been felt by audiences for many a year. Although by the time it reached Britain people knew there was a twist to it (it was even sold as such) in America no one knew, which ensured it delivered a sucker punch and, in the process, practically ensured the lasting career of its director. Imagine, though, if the film had been put under scrutiny before its release, and the spoiler had been revealed before the film's premiere. The impact would not, could not have been the same, and the film wouldn’t have entered the general consciousness in the way it did, and M Night Shyamalan wouldn't have won the virtual carte blanche he has now to make his movies. The same with The Usual Suspects - although it’s a fine piece of work, it was that ending that made people sit up and take notice. If people had known going in what the ending was to be I would bet now it wouldn’t be held in such high affection. For many, it is those moments, those jaw-dropping, gob-smacking moments, that allow a film to enter their hearts, forever to be held high on a pedestal, the memory of seeing the ending ingrained within them. I certainly know that’s how I feel about the ending of The Shawshank Redemption.

I hate the fact we now live in a world that has made that kind of experience exceptionally rare. I hate the fact moments like the end of Carrie exist only occasionally now, the odd lucky film slipping under the radar. It is still possible to avoid spoilers for films, but it is so much hard work, and is getting ever more so, and that is only to the detriment of story-telling in general. I imagine film makers who have a trick up their sleeve must curse the internet and her agents, having a constant fear that their moment will be ruined weeks or months before a single frame of their story is even seen. Surprise is one of the fundamental facets of good storytelling, one of its major weapons in its arsenal. Put bluntly, who’d watch a murder mystery if they knew whodunit already? People pour their souls into telling interesting, surprising stories, stories that come from their heart that they want to shock, surprise and delight their audiences with. They want to inspire in their viewers the same emotions that they have regarding the work, and that’s something that is slipping away from film and television these days. Reading blandly from a net site that a character dies, for example, immediately destroys any emotional investment people might otherwise have had in that character. People spend years working on their stories, putting so much of themselves into them and crafting their twists and turns so exactly, and to have their effect nullified just like that must be beart-breaking at times.

The other thing, and this was something I was particularly looking forward to in regards to Doctor Who, is that the communal watching experience is all-but-gone. In the old days, millions of people experienced the same emotions to seeing a story at the same time, whether it be on television or on the week of a movie. Doctor Who is a prime example – at its height it had seventeen million people watching – but nowadays we hardly ever get that. When Revenge of the Sith is released this May, I have no doubt that many people going to see it will already have snuck a glance at the inevitable pirate copies that will be popping up on the net. Others will have read every detail about the film, written by those people that have watched their grainy, low quality version. As such, the experience will be much diminished as a result, that shared watching experience will be gone. There is nothing quite like going to a theatre production and experiencing something wonderful (as rare as that is with the theatre these days) with hundreds of other people in the same room. There’s a shared electricity between them, an intangible moment that can remain with you for days, weeks or even years afterwards. It’s something I imagine those who saw Star Wars in its first few weeks experienced. That shared collective discovery. Because the world has speeded up so much these days with the net, that isn't possible anymore - if you haven't seen it in the first twenty-four hours, then you're lost. We are split into those Who Have Seen It and Those Who Haven’t, two opposing camps (much like on the Doctor Who forums at the moment), and the viewing experience becomes something that has split us rather than united us. I couldn’t wait to sit down with my fellow fans on March 26th and watch Rose together, before discussing it through the night and on. That’s not going to happen now. Fandom, once again, is divided.

This also has the side effect that general critical opinion on something can already be effectively decided by the time a film opens. The earliest example of this was probably Batman and Robin, an admittedly dire film but one which we knew was dire before having a chance to decide it for ourselves. In the old days, opinion could take weeks, months, even years to filter through – think about how long it took It’s a Wonderful Life to make the transition from flop to favourite – but that isn’t the case now. We go into things knowing there are things that the general consensus, usually decided by a not-large group of people, have stated, a consensus it would be great to ignore but which is increasingly difficult to do so. In the Doctor Who episode I’m already aware what is deemed to be good – Chris, Billie, the TARDIS interior – and what is deemed to be bad – the music, the burping bin and so on. It may be that I agree totally with this summary, or that I disagree completely, but already I am going in with expectations as opposed to the thrill of discovery, which is what I really wanted.

The internet is a wonderful thing but I do wish this whole area would just go away. It does nothing but harm to people and makes an odd, divided culture, one of which I can’t help but be a part of. I wish I could say I was going to wait until March 26th to watch Rose but now I know I won’t. I can’t stand the fact I haven’t seen it. I can’t stand the fact it’s out there, that others have seen it and I haven’t. I know someone who has a copy and over the next couple of days I’ll be sitting down and seeing it. I have no doubt I will enjoy the episode (I really hope I do, anyway) but I know for a fact I won’t enjoy it nearly as much as if I’d watched it at first, with everyone else, on March 26th, and, after eighteen months' waiting, that really is a shame.

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