Do spoilers spoil or do teasers tantalise?
Our epic spoiler-filled discussion between Generation Star Wars' John Hood and Taking The Short View's Andrew Lewin reaches its dramatic conclusion!
In part one of our discussion on spoilers we looked at whether they were all bad, and in part two we dived deeper to investigate the nature of different potential spoilers. Finally we reach the end of our journey which looks back to the 70s, takes in a tour of movie trailers and historical disasters, before touching on how long a 'spoiler' lasts for and finally getting around to drawing some conclusions...
Andrew: So have you had any examples of where you've deliberately sought to puncture the suspense of something that you are actually intending on seeing? The only thing I can remember off hand is an old season of NCIS which ended with a cliffhanger in which a key character appeared to resign and leave for good. They were so important to the success of the show that frankly if they had exited then that would have been it for me, and I wanted to know sooner rather than later whether the actor was quitting the show so that I wouldn't waste any more time or effort on it in the meantime. (To be honest, it was a pretty lame cliffhanger in any case so it didn't feel like spoiling something so much as it was just taking care of an irritation!)
John: The Best of Both Worlds Pt I intimated a new direction for the Star Trek franchise with a psychologically damaged Captain at the helm, which was never properly explored until the movie First Contact.
Andrew: Have you ever had a situation where you've accidentally 'spoilered' yourself by thinking about a show too hard? I remember watching and rewatching the cliffhanger to the first season of The West Wing in which there's an attempt to assassinate President Bartlet, trying to work out who might have been hit and what was going to happen next. Unfortunately it was too well directed and that analysis offered up nothing, so I had to wait for the next season to come along like a good boy after all!
But I also remember getting equally obsessed with an early episode of Twin Peaks which featured a nightmarish dream sequence in which we first meet 'Killer Bob', and there are some typically Lynchian oblique clues in the visuals and dialogue as to who killed Laura Palmer. Again, I watched and rewatched this sequence intently and even wrote out all the dialogue in an attempt to figure it out; eventually something happened a couple of episodes later than seemed to chime in with what I thought I'd figured out, and I was convinced I knew whodunit. And although I had to wait the better part of a year for the big reveal, it turned out I was right! There was a great sense of "Aha!" when that happened but I wonder if I managed to spoil the moment for myself thanks to my certainty, so perhaps all I really achieved with it all was to be a rather smug smart arse!
John: One's enjoyment of film or television can cease under the microscope of hyper-analysis. Twin Peaks is a prime example! As previously mentioned, exhaustive debates with college peers, combined with academic deconstruction, culminated in an anticlimax. This in no way diminishes the series' profound impact on television leading to our beloved The X-Files. The soap noir genre is here to stay as evidenced by the rise of Nordic Noir and its English-language remakes.
Andrew: The ripple effect of the Nordic Noir dramas is just astounding, isn't it? I had no idea when I settled down to watch the first bought-in Swedish episodes of Wallander on BBC4 back in November 2008 that it would end up with such an explosive effect across the TV industry, not only here but in the US as well. Happily, my enjoyment of the various Scandi-dramas has never been affected by unwanted spoilerage.
John: Note to self: add Forbrydelsen to Netflix's My List.
Andrew: Excellent, my work here is nearly done in that case!
To come back to your point about Twin Peaks though, I'd have to say that despite my own successful hyper-analysis in this case the show was never ruined for me. In fact once again I rather think it was enhanced in this case - that simply gave me some "skin in the game" as the Americans put it. And I never found the show an anti-climax at all because it was so rich in so many other ways.
John: It may appear I've given the seminal series short thrift! However, it's more to do with Twin Peaks being mined by college tutors and fickle teenage sensibilities. Plus, I was still smarting from Doctor Who's cancellation.
Andrew: I confess I'd already bailed on Doctor Who by that point - the Colin Baker years had convinced me the show was in terminal decline. Wasn't till years later that I discovered it was actually going through a strong renaissance under McCoy when it was finally axed. But, I digress from the subject in hand...
Possibly the only time I'm truly disappointed is when a show or a film is just too simplistic and you can see through it without even trying. Maybe that's why I so took against The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug because it seemed that every plot point in the script was so mechanically obvious to anyone paying attention. I also get annoyed by shows that give away whodunit simply on the basis of casting ("Well, they wouldn't have cast a star name in a small walk-on part, now would they?") and films which blow everything in their trailer. I can forgive everything it seems except self-harming spoilerage by show/filmmakers and their PR departments.
John: Clearly they haven't paid attention to Hitchcock's Psycho. Ridley Scott did and setup Alien to suggest the would-be hero only to see characters killed off without remorse. I wonder what audiences would have made of Scott's original ending? Ripley beheaded and her voice emanating from the triumphant xenomorph.
Andrew: Yikes! I'd not heard that before. That's just a bit too dark, I reckon - I'm relieved Scott went the way he eventually did with it.
John: Trailers should serve as a tease and not a greatest hits package. The first teaser trailer for the new Star Wars movie will be greeted with a zeal reserved for a premiere and I hope it'll be as enigmatic as JJ Abrams' Star Trek and Super 8.
Andrew: I completely agree. And it's usually a clueless PR department at fault; notably, the examples you give of films that have 'done it right' come from directors with sufficient industry clout (Scott, Spielberg, Abrams) to also have control how their film is marketed. Unfortunately most directors are 'hired guns' without that same sort of authority over the whole product.
John: Have you ever avoided comic book adaptations? A primary school friend lent me a copy of Marvel's Star Wars novel, but I waited until I'd seen the movie before reading it from cover to cover. Even at the age of five, I was mindful of spoilers (especially around Christmas).
Andrew: I certainly remember having that Marvel adaptation of the first Star Wars film. In the days before in-home VCRs and video stores it was one of the few ways of being able to relive a film after seeing it in the cinema; I also had The Black Hole and Star Trek: The Motion Picture comic book versions too. However if memory serves, I think Marvel's version of Star Wars (like the Alan Dean Foster novelisation) was based on an earlier draft of the script and therefore had significant differences from the finished film that greatly irked me at the time, perfectionist about such things as I was. Now of course I see such discrepancies as Easter eggs.
John: It was rewarding to discover Easter eggs in the pages of a novelisation! Alan Dean Foster's Alien tie-in contained a scene in which Ash appears to communicate with the titular creature. Always wondered if it was shot and ended up on the cutting room floor? Ripley's discovery of the 'Dallas cocoon', detailed in Foster's prose, was restored in the director's cut.
Andrew: I was a very well behaved young lad and respected the '18' age certificate on Alien and so didn't read the book or see the film until years later. In fact I think I saw the sequel Aliens first at a university film club before finally seeing the original, since this was in the very early days of films being made available via video rentals and before films were rushed onto TV.
John: Thanks to an awesome mum; I watched Aliens on rental video; suffered from nightmares for weeks.
Andrew: I'm not surprised! Although for me it's the original that's still the most nightmarish of the franchise.
In the case of Star Wars, I'm pretty sure I only got the Marvel adaptation and the novelisation after seeing the film in the cinema. I don't think it would have occurred to me to 'read ahead' and I'm not sure it would have made a great sense to me at that age if I had read them before seeing the film; you really needed to have the movie in your mind's eye and know the characters first, surely? All that is something I miss about the modern day: you no longer get comic book versions produced or even film novelisations written, because the DVD will be along in three months anyway so why bother? Feels like something has been lost from the magic of it all.
John: Absolutely! Apps are a charmless substitute for the tactile experience of printed ephemera. I'm reminded of a giant poster of the "Space Jockey" from Alien adorning my childhood bedroom wall and being blissfully unaware of the nightmare cargo aboard the derelict spacecraft. What fun!
Andrew: Nightmare cargo - definitely not Easter eggs in this case!
John: Were the dramatic events in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. lessened by not seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier? The latter reignited my interest in a television series that quickly waned and then delivered a phenomenal payoff due to paradigm-shifting events in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. S2 could see the series uttered in the same breath as Arrow and Game of Thrones.
Andrew: I'd actually stuck with the show throughout the first season, and thought the story evolved naturally within its own context. I was aware that some events weren't being fully explained and it was clear that they had been happening elsewhere 'off-stage' as it were, but since I knew upfront that there was a close tie-in with Captain America: The Winter Soldier I wasn't surprised or too perturbed by it. However I might not be a typical 'test case' in this instance, because a lot of the potential holes in the story were plugged by my having been a big fan of the S.H.I.E.L.D. and Captain America comics when I was a kid so I was already well up on the new enemies. Hail Hydra!
But does that mean I managed to be spoilered by 40-year-old comic books?! Considering we started off from the position of thinking that it was the Internet and social media that made avoiding spoilers so difficult today, it seems that we're doing a good job of reminding ourselves what a minefield of spoilerage we had to navigate even as children of the pre-World Wide Web 70s!
John: We've reached an epiphany as we near the end of this journey! Is there going to be one final twist to this tale?
Andrew: Okay, I'll give it a go. One last question on the subject: what's the lifespan of a spoiler anyway? When is a spoiler no longer a spoiler, in other words? It's a consideration I come up with often when writing Take The Short View reviews of classic films, where I nonetheless do everything I can not to divulge too much of the movie's plot.
Game of Thrones has come up a lot in this conversation, so I'll use it again here: presumably the events of the Purple Wedding are still too new to give away without posting spoiler warnings, yes? But what about the Red Wedding - is that still a spoiler? Or going even further back, what happens in season one with Eddard Stark? I've said already that I don't personally expect people to keep schtum about something that aired three years ago just on the off chance that someone hasn't got around to the box set yet, but it's still a massive twist to give away - just as your friend's dad inadvertently did with you for Jacob's Ladder despite that film being a "too old for spoilers" 20-plus years old.
John: This can (and does) prevent any form of substantive discourse pertaining to a series such as Game of Thrones, which is unrealistic. I mean, one can only go so far with "It's such an awesome show…". We discussed this very issue, at length, within the context of binge-viewing entire series on Netflix in A brave new (media) world.
Andrew: Yes, I think that with a long-running TV show it's impossible, if not downright ridiculous, to think one mustn't cover anything that happens after the first half hour of the pilot episode. And increasingly that's becoming true of films too where they're part of a long-running series that rely on the events of the film before. It's surely impossible for someone to review Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows without talking about the "unfortunate event" at the end of The Half Blood Prince for example, or tackle any of the Star Wars prequels without referencing Darth Vader's shock reveal in The Empire Strikes Back.
But what about stand-alone single movies? Maybe the rules are different there. When does the moratorium of keeping a film's secrets expire in this case? Should we still respect the surprise shocks of The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense? The fate of Marion Crane and the murderer in Psycho? Or just what 'Rosebud' means in Citizen Kane?
John: The spoilers in and of themselves may be enough to provoke someone's curiosity as we've discussed. I knew the outcome of Alien, but that didn't dilute the movie's shock factor. I say that and still delight in the memory of introducing unsuspecting relatives to John Carpenter's The Thing during a fright season: BOOM!
Andrew: Knowing some of the scenes in that film that you're knowingly subjecting them to for your personal entertainment, I have to say you are one cruel, sick and twisted man, Mr Hood! I know there was some reason I liked you!
John: Too kind.
Andrew: Heh! I was thinking about this because of another incidence in Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo's BBC 5 Live review show where they reviewed Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet and The Great Gatsby. The former story is over 400 years old and the latter nearly 90, they're both widely read and have inspired many adaptations - and yet Kermode and Mayo got complaints from listeners for giving away what happens in the end! Even though surely everyone at least already knows that Romeo and Juliet die in the end?! (Ooops.)
Were those complaints fair? Should we never consider something to be out of spoiler range? Or perhaps each new version of a story generates its own new 'spoiler-free zone' that perpetuates/regenerates that of the original for a further period?
John: Didn't something similar happen with James Cameron's Titanic? Sigh.
Andrew: I'm not sure there was ever a serious "Don't spoil me by telling me what happens" backlash against Titanic, it was more the standard smart arse response of people quipping "I don't need to see that because I know the ship sinks in the end." Of course the point was never that the ship sinks per se, it's which of the (fictional) characters lived or died - although I have to say that with its modern day framing sequence it pretty much gave that away in the first ten minutes all by itself. But once again, it was never really about the end of the film so much it was about the journey of getting there. Teen girls wanted to spend three hours in the company of Leonardo di Caprio (and I confess I wasn't entirely averse to hanging out with Kate Winslet for the duration) but for me as an avid student of the Titanic story from years back it was just the prospect of finally getting to be 'on board' the great, doomed liner that got me to the box office.
John: Good thing there wasn't a sequel!
Andrew: And why ever not - they could have remade Lord Lew Grade's lost gem, Raise The Titanic!
John: An excellent excuse for James Cameron to pursue his love of deep sea exploration. Not that he needs any encouragement from me.
Andrew: No, when it comes to famous real life events then I don't think a gaping hole in one's general knowledge is ever sufficient to cry "Spoiler!" when someone educates you about it. In most cases such events are knowingly used by filmmakers as narrative shortcuts precisely because they assume everyone knows them: when the Titanic crashes through the Tardis wall at the end of "Last of the Time Lords" we're supposed to immediately know the significance of the name, and probably meant to assume that the Tardis itself is the iceberg that sinks her. That's the whole joy of that brief sequence after all. Similarly when the 'next episode' caption slams in at the end of "A Good Man Goes to War" we absolutely have to know who the 'Hitler' referred to is - it's the very reason it's a laugh out loud moment. These simply can't be spoilers.
So you go and see Titanic knowing that the ship sinks, or that the airship blows up at the end of The Hindenberg. Audiences going to see Oliver Stone's JFK would have been completely assumed to know who JFK was and what happened to him. These are basic bits of knowledge. And that extends to fictional subjects as well: whoever went to see The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake or The Towering Inferno without knowing they were going to see a disaster film and that the ship flips/Los Angeles crumbles/the building burns? Only the most hardline of purists could surely argue otherwise.
John: A movie entitled Moon isn't inherently spoiled for being set, literally, on the moon.
Andrew: Indeed, although there's all sorts of things in that terrific movie that you really wouldn't appreciate knowing before seeing it.
It really is quite hard to work out what is and is not supposed to be a spoiler in any given case, isn't it? There has to be a basic knowledge about what you're going to see or else you wouldn't be watching in the first place. But that doesn't always hold: given that the early part of Jaws is all about a conflict over whether there is or is not a great white shark in the waters off Amity Island, isn't it a spoiler to give it away by referring to it as a 'shark movie'?
Ye gods, this stuff gets complicated when you start really thinking about it, doesn't it? Should we just shut up about anything that's even possibly a spoiler, or else be more laid back and relaxed and know that spoilers will happen and not get too worked about them?
John: Tantamount to Alice in Wonderland and falling down the rabbit hole.
Andrew: Actually that gives rise to a follow-up final final question after all: whose responsibility is it to avoid spoilers? Is it the person talking (or writing, etc.) or is the burden on the person who doesn't want to know to avoid them?
John: "The circle is complete," to quote Darth Vader. Subjectively, I abstain from major spoilers in reviews for Generation Star Wars in hopes it'll evoke a sense of wonder and discovery if the reader decides to see the movie, television series or play the game. Ultimately, the onus is on the individual.
Andrew: Yes, I am very much of the same mind. If I do find the need to stray into things that I think are spoilers in the course of the discussion then I'l l endeavour to post a clear spoiler warning at the top and often even during the text just before it appears.
But at the same time, like you I'm firmly of the view that the onus is on the reader to avoid reading things that might reasonably contain spoilers. If someone reads a review about a show/film that they haven't yet seen then they're pretty much asking to fall over information that they don't want to know so they have to be very careful about the sources that they trust not to do this. Hopefully both Taking The Short View and Generation Star Wars are among that group of review/news sites that earn that trust so that people who want to answer the basic question "Should I go and see this?" can get some sort of an answer without having it ruined for them in the process, but as we've already said what counts as one person's spoiler might not occur as one to another - no one's infallible. And at the same time, I don't blame those reviewers that do a 'warts and all' review that tells every detail - you just have to know to stay away from such reviews until it's safe to do so.
Which brings me to Twitter and the number of times I see people talking about a film, TV show or sporting event and saying "Oh, don't post a tweet saying what happens/what the result is! Don't spoil it for me!" Which is just rather exasperating, that people think the whole of Twitter is going to stop talking about something purely on their account. Twitter is very much a live, 'of the moment' platform and if anyone wants to avoid spoilers then they need to stay off it for the duration or else try using some of the new 'mute' tools that are around - unless they're very confident that the people they are following can be trusted to their timeline free from spoilage for an arbitrary length of time. (Tip: it won't happen.) Personally I'd rather keep my access to Twitter open. If there's something that I think might be a spoiler then I'll try to avert my eyes and skip over it, but occasionally accidents do happen (as I said, I found out the twist in "The Lion and the Rose" about five minutes after the episode aired in the UK) and that's just a fact of life. It's either learning to cope with spoilers or else sealing yourself in the world's most anti-social plastic bubble for the rest of one's life.
John: Twitter recently added a 'mute' option to its mobile app.
Andrew: I haven't used it yet, but the iOS Twitter client I use (Echofon) has had a similar feature for ages.
I do have some sympathy for people tripping over 'out of the blue' spoilers though, where someone is talking or writing about something completely unrelated and without warning they throw in a spoiler for something else. "I cut my finger and it was like the shower scene in Psycho where X slashes Y, blood everywhere!" would be a top-of-the-head example. And mean-spirited intentional spoilers rile me as much as the next person - such as people who bounded out of The Sixth Sense at the cinema and reportedly went down the line of people waiting for the next showing shouting the big twist at them.
John: Really? Thankfully never experienced that at the cinema. My worst cinema going experience to date was at a premiere of The Phantom Menace! Not so much Jar Jar Binks, but an intoxicated audience member who took it upon themselves to loudly read out the opening crawl and continued to comment until a member of staff expelled them (to applause). However, the cinema chain was unable to give us free tickets to see The Phantom Menace a second time due to the distributor's money-grabbing stipulations.
Andrew: These examples aside, though, for me it's mostly a case of 'buyer beware' when it comes to spoilers. And I absolutely apply that to myself as well: when I stumbled across that spoiler for "The Lion and the Rose" I wasn't angry with the person who posted it, just annoyed with myself for putting myself in that exposed position in the first place.
John: Agreed, unless they write for The Culture section of The Sunday Times.
Andrew: So I guess we've reached the end of our travels through spoilerdom. And what are our conclusions, I wonder?
For me it's that spoilers are a fact of life, and unless you're going to take some pretty extreme anti-social measures to avoid them it's better just to chill out and relax, and simply see it as an alternate way of experiencing the show/book/film/sporting event - and not even necessarily an inferior or 'spoiled' way of doing so, just different. I'm not one for seeking out spoilers, but only because so many find their way to my door unbidden as it is without going looking for more. I try and avoid them but then embrace spoilers when they (inevitably) happen as adding more to the experience than they detract.
And all that said: I'd still reserve a special circle in hell for any fiend who wantonly sets about ruining other people's enjoyment by intentionally telling them things they'd rather not know. Accidents and unintentional slips are one thing, but actually doing it on purpose is another matter entirely.
What about yourself, John?
John: Spoilers aren't the end of the world by any means are they? I've yet to encounter a spoiler that culminated in curtailing my enjoyment; especially if the media in question is open to interpretation such as Inception or BioShock Infinite.
This may be the perfect juncture to finish and post something speculative regarding Star Wars: Episode VII on a spoiler forum… Oh, hold on!
Andrew: Heh! Let's be careful out there, everyone.