Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Knowing What's to Come: The Fascination with, and Fear of Spoilers

Note: There are no actual spoilers in this article.

A few weeks ago, the Doctor Who world was rocked with the news that the scripts for the first five episodes of the new series had leaked online. Not long afterwards came the news that an unfinished version of the first episode had also leaked (through the same source as the leaked scripts). Indeed, it turned out that it wasn't only the first episode, but the first six! (Note: The preceding links go to news articles, not places where you can download the leaked items.) This isn't the first time that mess-ups like this have happened with Doctor Who. Just last year, many people who had preordered the DVD release of the second half of Series 7 received their copies before the final episode had aired on television, and way back in 2005, the very first episode of the rebooted series, “Rose”, leaked online in advance of airing. However, I don't think there's ever been a Doctor Who leak of this magnitude before.

Following the news of the leaks, fandom responded in a couple of ways. Many people immediately guarded themselves against the possibility of spoilers, informing people through social media not to give away anything or face the penalty of unfollowing or defriending. On the other side of the table were those who immediately sought out copies of the leaked material or, failing that, knowledge of what was in them. In short, some people absolutely did not want spoilers, and some people absolutely did.

Of course, the search for spoilers (and the avoidance of them) is nothing new. Spoilers can show up all over the place, sometimes where you least expect them. Messageboards like Gallifrey Base have entire sections devoted to people discussing spoilers, but they also require that spoilers stay limited to those locations and that they not spread into other sections so that those who don't want to be spoiled won't suddenly find themselves spoiled. I, myself, am very much on the side of those who don't want spoilers. I want to be surprised by new episodes when they first air. Yet the events of the last couple of weeks have led me to question myself about exactly why I don't like spoilers. Exactly what harm do they do? Do they really “spoil” my or other people's enjoyment? I haven't asked these questions in order to convince myself or anyone else to seek out and embrace spoilers. Rather, I simply seek understanding. And this goes well beyond just Doctor Who spoilers. It includes spoilers for anything and everything.

Not surprisingly, exactly what constitutes a spoiler can vary from person to person. I'm quite happy to know the name of an upcoming episode or even a brief plot summary, and I'll look at occasional official press releases that might reveal a returning monster. Yet I have a few friends who won't even watch trailers for fear of learning too much (and perhaps for good reason—there are movie trailers out there that give away the movie's ending after all). A couple years ago, before Torchwood: Miracle Day came out, I happened to casually mention in the company of a few friends that the story involved everyone in the world becoming immortal. It didn't seem a spoiler to me and was something I thought anyone interested would already know (it was a major part of the advertising for the series, after all). One friend was quite put out that I had spoiled it for her.

Yet there are many people who couldn't care less about knowing what's going to happen in advance. Some even want or need to know what is going to happen in advance and seek such information out. I know of people who will read the last couple pages of a novel before reading the beginning simply so they can know the outcome before becoming involved in the events. They want to know if certain characters will live or die so that they can avoid the tension created by not knowing. Sometimes, when my wife and I are watching something together that I've seen before but she hasn't, she'll ask me to reveal the resolution of some tense moment or other. My instincts always want to avoid answering her because I know that I wouldn't want to know the answer if I were in her situation. I have to fight those instincts, though, because I'm also aware that, for her, the tension of not knowing actually lessens her enjoyment of the programme. Revealing the answer allows her to more fully enjoy what she's watching.

This kind of response from my wife and people like her is certainly supported by at least one study that suggests that spoilers don't ruin people's enjoyment of stories, but in fact enhance their enjoyment. This, of course, completely contradicts my own instincts, but my own instincts do not a scientific study make, and as much as I want to think that spoilers do, in fact, ruin my own personal enjoyment of a story, when I look back at my own experiences, I'm forced to admit my instincts might just be wrong.

To take Doctor Who as an example, in my childhood, growing up in Canada, my only option for watching the show was TVOntario, but until the late 80's, TVO was generally at least two years behind Britain airing it. Even in those pre-internet years, that was more than enough time for information to spread. By the time I saw the episodes, I had generally heard quite a bit about them, through sources such as Doctor Who Magazine or other publications. In many cases, I had already read the novelization. I went into most of the stories knowing what to expect. I didn't always know the exact details about every little point, but I did generally know who the villains were and how the stories were resolved. Yet I still enjoyed them. Indeed, there's a certain indescribable thrill I get from watching Doctor Who stories (and sometimes other programmes that I really like) for the first time. While I can still immensely enjoy a story on second viewing, that thrill is usually gone (although not always). As such, I tend to associate the thrill with not knowing in advance what's going to happen. Yet that's not the case at all. I very much experienced that thrill watching Doctor Who all through my childhood despite having most of the episodes spoiled well in advance.

More recently, in 2006, CBC delayed airing the second series of the new Doctor Who for half a year. I did my very best that year to avoid spoilers, but it was an immensely difficult task. I stayed away from all Doctor Who websites and avoided reading anything about the programme. Yet spoilers have a way of showing up where you least expect them. I could be reading sites that had nothing to do with Doctor Who and there, suddenly, would be a spoiler for the second series. Well before CBC actually aired the series, I had learnt the significant details about most of the episodes—and that had been while trying my best not to. When I finally watched them, I knew what was going to happen, but it didn't spoil my enjoyment. That old thrill was still there.

Conversely, over the last couple years, I have gone into each series completely unspoiled, knowing virtually nothing in advance. Yet that thrill I speak of has been mostly absent—presumably due to my general dissatisfaction with the direction the show has taken over the last couple series. As much as I want that thrill to be associated with not knowing, it's really something quite different, probably more the anticipation of excitement, of something new (and new isn't the same as not knowing).

So then, what does not knowing do for me? I claim that I want to be surprised (as do most people who don't like spoilers when asked why they don't like them). Those stories I loved as a child: Would I have loved them more if I hadn't known what was going to happen in advance, if I had been surprised? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. The ones I did get to see without being spoiled didn't seem to excite me any more or any less than the others. The same is true of more recent years. Being surprised doesn't seem to provide me with any more enjoyment, as much as I want to believe that it does. And if I move away from Doctor Who, I have to admit, I'm much less bothered by spoilers. In fact, for things I know little or nothing about, I sometimes find myself wanting to know a few spoilers before deciding whether it's something I want to watch (or read). So in those cases, the spoilers really do enhance my enjoyment in that they allow me to enjoy something I might have otherwise skipped entirely.

But let's move beyond just the first viewing. It's impossible to go into a second viewing unspoiled. If you've already seen it, then you know what's going to happen. Yet I can rewatch my favourite television programmes or movies, or reread my favourite novels and still enjoy them just as much as the first time—sometimes more. I can rewatch the best of the best numerous times and still love and enjoy them. And so can most people, even those who don't like spoilers. Of course, it's always possible to notice things you didn't notice the first time—the best stories will have you noticing new things after numerous viewings—but that's not exactly the same thing. So why is it so important that the first time be unspoiled? Is it really all that different?

As I've said, I want to believe that there is a difference, but in my own personal case, I'm not sure there is. Maybe for some people, the difference is there and is more quantifiable, but in my case, I may just be fooling myself. I don't actually intend to change my habits. I intend to go into Series 8 of Doctor Who as unspoiled as I can manage (whilst not considering trailers spoilers). I may not actually enjoy it any more than I would if had copies of all the scripts to read in advance, but just the impression that I might is fun in itself. If I'm fooling myself, I'll just keep on fooling myself (albeit while being minutely disturbed that fooling myself is quite so easy).


  1. There are two ways to experience a story. The first way, the "spoiler free" one, is to come into it with as little expectations as possible, and enjoy the enfolding of a new story. When you experience a story this way, there's a lot of tension and fun in finding out what comes next, and in getting to know the people, places and events that compose the story. When you walk into a brand new story, you get to feel it in a very emotional level - you go through this whole experience that the story teller designed for you. If the story is good, you will be hopeful when the story wants you to be, frightened when it wants you to be, happy when it wants you to be.

    When you experience a familiar story, or one where you know where the story is headed, the experience, at least to me, is for more intellectual. As you go through the various parts, you see them in a different way given the information you already have. You acquire a whole new context for the story. Things that didn't make sense before make sense now. Perhaps you become more aware of the motivation of each character because now you know the characters better. Some stories are built in such a way that you can experience them over and over again, and find something new every time.

    So to sum up, I think that while the first time experience of a story is a very emotional one, the second and third and later times become increasingly intellectual. Is one of the ways better than the other? I would say it really depends on the story and the way it's being told. There are many movies that I enjoyed way more in my second viewing, when I knew what kind of movie this was and what I should be looking out for. However, other movies (for example, summer action movies) are only fun on their first viewing, because intellectually there's not much going there.

    However, I firmly believe in keeping my options open for having *both* kinds of enjoyment out of every story - which is why I dread stories. See, spoilers only "spoil" that first time experience, the emotional one. However, the thing with first times is that you only ever get one of them. I'd much rather my first time experiencing an awesome story will be through reading/watching/hearing it, then over a careless comment someone made in some massage board post. That is why spoilers are widely feared, while things that "spoil" second and third viewing (like written essays that analyse a movie) are not feared nearly as much.

    So, to actually sum up - first viewing is emotional and unique. Each further viewing becomes more intellectual and less emotional, and non of the further viewings can ever come close to the emotional experience of the first time. Which is why I dislike spoilers.

    1. Very interesting. I actually approach things somewhat the opposite way around. My first viewing tends to be the more "intellectual" one, as you put it, which is probably why I utterly despise most summer action movies. I tend to view everything quite analytically (which is something I actually really quite enjoy doing). I remain somewhat analytical on future viewings as well, but since a large portion of the analysis has already been done, I'm more open to the emotional side of things.

      That's not to say I'm never emotionally affected the first time--I quite frequently am, especially if the movie or programme is good enough. However, those good ones will generally affect me even more on the second or third viewing.

      At any rate, thanks so much for the alternative look at this!