Doctor Who is a television series that understands the danger of plot spoilers. Throughout the series’ fifty-year duration, the Doctor has discouraged all of his time- travelling companions from visiting their past or future selves. To do so is called ‘crossing your own time stream,’ and is very, very bad. Discovering ‘spoilers’ about your future life (or spoiling the future by talking to your past self ) causes a time paradox, creates a rift in both time and space and can actually lead to the destruction of the universe (or of all universes – yes, there are many). The word ‘spoilers’ became somewhat of a catchcry during the series’ most recent seasons, as the character River Song said it to the Doctor every time he inquired about his own future.
Of course, characters in Doctor Who end up crossing their own time streams regularly and generating all sorts of catastrophes from which they then need to save the world. The series demonstrates again and again the hunger people have to discover their future or change the past. It also demonstrates that this knowledge is dangerous, because it has such disastrous consequences in every case. At the end of the recent seventh series (or the 33rd series, if you’re counting from the show’s beginning in 1963) one character pulled off a manoeuvre which meant they crossed their own time stream at every point in their entire life an infinite number of times, so fans can only imagine what depths of darkness, destruction and universe-saving await the Twelfth Doctor, Peter Capaldi, in the next season.
Over the past two years, much of Doctor Who fan culture has been dominated by a similar hunger: the hunger for spoilers. I say the past two years in particular, because it was in early 2011 when the series’ current producer, writer and showrunner, Steven Moffat, started talking about the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary special. For Doctor Who fans (or Whovians, as they refer to themselves), ten-year anniversaries are a big deal. Usually, anniversary celebrations take the form of a special-length episode featuring all incarnations of the Doctor to date. The 20th anniversary also included an enormous Doctor Who convention, featuring stars and sets from the show; the 30th anniversary included a televised documentary about the history of the series, a separate radio documentary and a four-part radio drama, The Paradise of Death.
So when Moffat began proclaiming things about the 50th anniversary like ‘I’ve got various plans, but all I can say emphatically is it will be huge,’ (TVLine) and ‘Doctor Who fans and kids will think it’s the best thing ever,’ (The Scotsman) Whovians entered a type of prolonged, slavering frenzy. Would previous Doctors make a comeback? How long would the episode be? Or will it comprise multiple episodes? Will it be a movie? Fans asked anyone and everyone who would speak to them. Questions from fans at Doctor Who promotional events focused primarily on the contents of the 50th anniversary special rather than other aspects of the series. Blogs, fansites and comment sections became (and still are) consumed with what the special’s storyline would contain, drawing upon a range of evidence (such as comments made by cast and crew in interviews, and so-called ‘clues’ gleaned from previous episodes) to support their ideas.
The media also went haywire after Moffat’s initial comments. British newspapers have been featuring articles almost daily which report on some aspect of the 50th anniversary, including interviews with Doctor Who cast and crew members and reports on the special’s filming in Wales earlier this year. Even actors who had played the most obscure and minor roles were grilled for titbits about the special’s plot, though of course nobody knew anything. Many articles about the special still contain titles that are actually questions, like: ‘Past Doctors to Appear Digitally in 50th?’ (Doctor Who TV) and ‘Will Doctor Who Have a Very Special Surprise for Us in November 2013?’ (Bleeding Cool), because the reports are largely pure guesswork.
Many of the guesses, though, became concerted rumours. Reports ‘confirmed’ that Tom Baker, who played the Fourth Doctor from 1974 to 1981, would reprise his role in the special. David Tennant, the beloved Tenth Doctor, would also return. Then both actors were unconfirmed… and then David Tennant was confirmed again, along with Billy Piper, who played Rose, his companion in 2005–06. By the time the BBC wanted to officially announce Tennant’s and Piper’s return earlier this year, the news had already been leaked through the accidental release of Doctor Who Magazine (the series’ official magazine) four days early.
Other stars have since been confirmed – Matt Smith will remain the Doctor (Smith will feature in both the 50th anniversary and Christmas specials, before regenerating into Capaldi for next year’s Season 8) and Jenna-Louise Coleman as his companion. John Hurt, who was briefly introduced at the end of the seventh season, will also appear as the Doctor in some fashion – exactly how, newspapers and fans are still guessing. The BBC has also announced that the episode will appear in 3D on channel BBC HD, and will be screened simultaneously in cinemas around the UK. BBC Worldwide have even made a rather vague suggestion that the special will be screened simultaneously around the world, to avoid spoilers! Even though filming of the episode wrapped in May this year, this is all we know so far, but this hasn’t stopped the frenzy. During July and August, the BBC heightened fans’ anticipation about the future of Doctor Who when it announced that Peter Capaldi would play the Twelfth Doctor. A thirty-minute live-to-air TV special was screened to announce Capaldi’s appointment, though host Zoe Ball spent the first twenty-five minutes of the program working fans into a whirl of excitement before announcing Capaldi at the last minute.
Bringing up the 50th anniversary special more than two years ahead of its screening in such a generic yet grandiose way was actually a masterstroke by Moffat, and demonstrates how well he understands both his series and people in general. Moffat knew he had to release only the tiniest amount of information about the future to send the British media and Doctor Who fandom into meltdown, with the BBC spending almost no money on official advertising. Total spoilers, on the other hand, would have removed all elements of surprise and have bored fans by the time the special actually screened, resulting in far less publicity and, potentially, lower viewer ratings. Furthermore, in announcing the new Doctor while the tumult about the 50th was at its peak – that is, combining the excitement about the two biggest Doctor Who events in years – Moffat has ensured that Whovians will be tuning in to all Doctor Who episodes for at least the next year.
I should note that not all fans are interested in spoilers: just the most vocal, perhaps. Personally, I have no desire to discover what the 50th anniversary special will contain until the moment it screens. This is partly because I love Doctor Who so much – some of my earliest childhood memories include playing with my Dad’s toy Dalek, which he himself had as a young child, and Dad explaining the pun concerning K9, the name of the Doctor’s robot dog. Mostly, though, I just agree with the Doctor’s premise that spoilers are catastrophic. Information about future plotlines not only wrecks the element of surprise for me, but also ruins the sensation of actually participating in the narrative. I prefer to journey alongside characters, not watch them enact what I already know. Spoilers reduce me to a spectator.
There are still thousands of Whovians interested in other types of writing and discussion, such as fan fiction and episode analysis. The quest for spoilers is also quite different to the way Whovians have appreciated their series in the past. Doctor Who fandom and discussion were not always consumed with finding out ‘what happened next’. In fact, prior to the internet and the mass-production of television shows on DVD, Whovians were far more concerned with discussing episodes that had already screened, or simply locating existing episodes, rather than deducing what Doctor Who’s future would bring.
During the 1960s, Doctor Who episodes screened once a week for about forty weeks of the year. Since there were no episode repeats until the 1970s and video recording technology was rare and very expensive, children and adults who wanted to watch Doctor Who needed to prioritise being home on Saturday nights for the show’s time slot or the episode was potentially lost forever. Some fans have reported being able to record the audio from the episodes during the 1960s, which they could then listen to again and again, but this seems to be a privilege that most fans did without.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Whovians began banding together, partly to form a social network that could bond over a shared love of Doctor Who, but also to generate ways of accessing previously screened episodes. From 1973 onwards, the primary way of experiencing the old adventures was through a series of novels produced by Target, who had translated all Doctor Who episodes to date into books. But fans wanted more. Hence the beginning of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society (DWAS), formed in the mid-1970s by a group of British fans to foster the sharing of old audio recordings between members. Through DWAS, fans would also gather together in groups to listen to the old sound recordings. During the 1980s, the same types of sharing and gathering occurred around private video recordings of the old episodes.
Scholar Andrew O’Day explores the consumption of Doctor Who from the 1960s until today in his recent essay, ‘Event TV’. In the essay he documents how the regular DWAS conventions always contained a special segment for screening past episodes, and that these screenings were often the feature or hook around which advertising for the convention was built. Particularly interesting is O’Day’s discussion of the ways in which fans’ excitement about viewing older episodes often eclipsed the experience of meeting Doctor Who stars in person. In 1983, BBC Enterprises held a Doctor Who convention at Longleat to mark the series’ 20th anniversary. All surviving Doctors were present (William Hartnell, the First Doctor, had died in 1975) and 60,000 fans attended – three times the estimated number. Though the wait for autographs with the stars was over four and half hours due to the length of the queues, one of the most popular exhibits at the convention was a tent that screened an episode about each Doctor during the event. The queues for the episode screenings were so long and the theatre so small (it housed about two hundred seats) that thousands of fans missed out and left the convention disappointed – especially since many had come especially for the screenings.
The hunger for old episodes continued right up until Doctor Who went on hiatus in 1989. Even though certain cable channels repeated episodes from time to time, no one channel had re-screened the series in its entirety. A black market of sorts ensued, with different DWAS groups bargaining with one another for episodes that other groups didn’t have. The market even went across countries, as Australians traded with the British for episodes that had never been repeated here, often charging each other for the tapes at obscenely inflated prices.
In 1989 the show went into a semi-permanent hiatus, apparently due to falling viewer ratings, and no further episodes were filmed till the 2005 re-launch. However, fans were no less ardent during the following years. Conventions were still held, model Daleks were collected, most episodes were eventually officially released by the BBC on video cassette, and fanzines, featuring interviews, reviews and fan fiction, were still regularly produced. The 30th anniversary episode, documentary and audio drama still screened in 1993, and a poorly received television movie featuring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor was released in 1996. Radio dramas and novels about the Doctor and his companions proliferated. But Doctor Who fan and media discussion was still focused on analysing and nostalgically discussing what already existed, rather than desperately trying to determine the future.
With the advent of the internet, viewers no longer needed to gather together to find and view older Doctor Who episodes. I myself am particularly grateful that old episodes are now available on DVD or to download, since I am too young to have watched them growing up.
And yet – it is as though in gaining access to everything at once, some Whovians have lost something. Some fans have mourned the loss of the real-life fan communities of the 70s and 80s, but to me, it seems that many fans are not able to simply enjoy the series for what it is. The future must always be determined. This is the most excited I’ve been about a TV show since Buffy was screening. However, I just want to know what the Doctor knows when he knows it, and not before. Besides, I half suspect that everything ‘confirmed’ about the 50th anniversary could be just another series of red herrings, and the Doctor – as usual – will surprise us all once more, and will hopefully continue to do so for another fifty years.