One of the things I’ve been doing every evening during my current vacation break is revisiting older episodes of DOCTOR WHO. The entirety of the revived 2005 series is available on HBO MAX, which makes it entirely too easy to pull up an episode and sit through it again. I’ve mainly been confining my viewing to the relatively recent Peter Capaldi-led seasons. I was a big fan of Capaldi as the Doctor, and even though his era had some episodes that misfire badly, it also had installments that were incredible. I wish I felt so strongly about more episodes of the current Jodie Whittaker seasons. Regardless, I watched World Enough And Time again last night, and I was struck by a few key observations that I thought were worth talking about, because they apply not only to this series but to all series, and in fact to all media.
For those not familiar with the episode, let me begin with a quick recap. World Enough and Time is the first half of the two-part season finale that was to be Peter Capaldi’s swansong in the lead role. During the course of the season, the Doctor has been attempting to reform his long-standing enemy the Master, now reincarnated in a female form and traveling under the name Missy. As a test of how well Missy can walk the straight and narrow, the Doctor contrives to drop her and his two other companions Bill Potts and Nardole into a situation and see how she reacts to events in real time. This is unspeakably dangerous, but that’s the kind of life the Doctor leads. So the TARDIS crew finds itself on board a 400 mile long spaceship that’s attempting to pull itself away from the gravity well of a nearby Black Hole. Things go badly almost immediately when Bill is gunned down by one of the inhabitants of the ship and then spirited away to the lower portions of the craft where the weirdly masked inhabitants promise that they can fix her. An additional wrinkle becomes known at this time: because of the gravity distortion, time is passing differently for different parts of the ship: while only minutes go by for the Doctor, Missy and Nardole on the flight deck at the top of the ship, months pass for Bill in her recovery at the bottom of the ship, time she spends in the company of Razor, a demented and elvish sort of a handyman in the hospital in which she’s recuperating. By the time the end of the episode is reached, the Doctor and his friends have made their way down to the lower portion of the ship–but just as this is happening, Razor hands Bill over to the administers of the Hospital to complete her conversion. The climax turns on two key reveals: the survivors of the original crew who have been living under horrific conditions at the bottom of the ship come from Mondas, and they are being turned into the very first Cybermen in order to survive, a fate that Bill now shares. And secondly, that Razor isn’t who he appears to be at all. When he is alone with Missy, he removes his disguise, revealing himself as the Master, an earlier version of him. It’s a tremendously effective one-two punch. Or at least, it would have been.
In watching World Enough And Time again, I became keenly aware of how well it was done. It was genuinely creepy and terrifying in the way only a dimly-lit hospital ward full of seeming burn victims can be. The central conceit of the time differential was cool and well executed. And while I’m sure that I would have pegged the Cybermen before their presence was revealed, I’m am absolutely certain that Razor’s disguise would have fooled me completely–actor John Simm plays him so differently and the make-up is so concealing (despite not making him look like any sort of an alien) that I’m sure I wouldn’t have been looking at him closely enough–my attention would have been diverted by the emerging Cybermen. So the ingredients for the magic trick were all there.
The problem is that, in promoting both the series and the episode, the production team had made it known ahead of time that the Cybermen would be coming back, and that John Simm would be returning in the role of the Master. And so watching the episode for the first time when it initially aired, I found myself a bit annoyed. I was able to suss out both the Cybermen and the Master well ahead of time, pretty much the moment those characters walked on screen, which meant that I was worlds ahead of everybody else in the cast. I can recall thinking to myself at a certain point, “It’s the Cybermen, get on with it!”, so the fact that the episode makes the two reveals its bit one-two punch meant that neither one laid a glove on me, and my viewing experience was thus compromised.
And I get it. If you promote the Cybermen, more people are likely to tune in to watch the episode. And if you promote John Simm’s return, the viewing figures are going to go up, and that’s what the game is all about. But this is an instance where an honestly great episode was ruined by advance promotional spoilers. This sort of thing happens a great deal, and I think it’s detrimental to the success of entertainment in any media. And I speak from personal experience here when I say that I understand the twin push and pull of wanting to preserve story secrets and also wanting to attract audiences to the work. I’ve often had to make decisions about what would and would not be revealed about certain comic book stories I’ve worked on in the promotional campaigns–and then remain on guard to defend those points when either somebody felt that the initial sales numbers for the book weren’t high enough and needed a goose, or when somebody hadn’t gotten the memo and went to reveal some key bit of concealed story information accidentally. It’s a constant problem.
I’ve heard the argument that revealing spoilers in movie trailers actually leads to better business–that prospective audiences are more likely to go to a picture when they know the outcome of the story. That may be true, but it’s the death of the story that’s at the heart of the work, and the act of experiencing that story. And for all of the focus group evidence that exists because assorted executives are afraid about the skills of their storytellers and the intelligence of their audiences, I think that idea–that revealing the mysteries ahead of time makes a story more enjoyable–is pure crap. This is why people don’t reveal the identity of the killer in the back cover copy of murder mysteries. The stories that inevitably make the greatest impact on people are those whose story-twists surprise and delight audiences. That sense of surprise is something that we need to get back to more often.