Tuesday 3 June 2014

"Spoilers, Sweetie!" (Part 1 of 3)

Do spoilers spoil or do teasers tantalise?

A brand new spoiler-filled discussion between Generation Star Wars' John Hood and Taking the Short View's Andrew Lewin...

The return of Game of Thrones for season 4 has once again made the Internet a minefield for those of us who aren't able to watch the show in real time because of not having the right satellite, cable channel or streaming service to see the show before it makes its way to DVD and Blu-ray in 11 months time. How on earth do we manage to stay pure and spoiler-free for that amount of time without accidentally finding out something devastatingly pertinent in the meantime?

Does finding out about some major plot twist or dramatic event in advance of seeing the show in question end up ruining it beyond repair? Or is it no big deal really and everyone should just get over it? To put it simply: are you a spoilerphobe or a spoilerphile?

Andrew: Since it was mentioned in the introduction, I should confess that I am - as you know - very far behind in my viewing of Game of Thrones. Despite absolutely loving the first season, I've yet to even get cracking on the second box set. While it might be vaguely reasonable to insist that no one spoils the current season now airing on television for at least a few weeks or months, it's clearly ridiculous to expect them not to speak freely of events that happened a year ago or further back still.

As result, even before I watched a single episode of Game of Thrones I knew that the person who was the evident star of the show - Sean Bean playing Eddard Stark - didn't make it to the end of the season without a sudden reduction of about a foot in height. This is, as you can image, a rather huge spoiler - arguably it's the shocking pivotal point of the entire first year. Knowing that, you would think, would irretrievably wreck the viewing experience.

But actually, it really didn't. It certainly changed the viewing experience, I'm sure, and given a free choice then I'd have preferred not to have known in advance, but I'm not sure it did any major damage - party because the key moment came so much earlier than I'd expected, a sudden twist in fortune that still caught me off-guard when it happened. While I knew Stark's ultimate fate in the show I had managed to stop myself from knowing the details of how we got there and that made all the difference, it seems to me. In the same way I know in a general way about events such as Blackwater and the Red Wedding and now the Purple Wedding, but it doesn't impact my eagerness to get to those points in the box sets, or lessen my enjoyment of the show or the effect of those shocks when they happen anyway.

So while I don't tend to seek out spoilers, I also don't fly into a rage when one lands in my lap, and I wouldn't declare the whole show ruined for me for all time if and inevitably when it happens. Does that make me an unusually forgiving and forbearing sort of person, or are you the same?

John: I'm of the same mind, Andrew!

Inadvertent spoilers don't phase me per se, but I try to be discreet in how I disseminate information. For example my enjoyment of Captain America: The Winter Soldier was distilled in a spoiler-free review, which made no reference to the titular character, nor identity. It piqued friends interest in a movie they were otherwise disinterested in. Perhaps Marvel should appoint me to the company's social media division?

I've been guilty of very rare, and unintended, spoilers, myself! The most infamous pertained to the appearance of a 'Red Supreme Dalek' in a teaser trailer for The Stolen Earth. This was at a time when BBC America wasn't showing the series day and date with the UK. Twitter replies lit up, aptly, like the Fourth of July and I hastily apologised. Losing a few followers in the process...

Of course there's an omnipresent issue that friends can post spoilers on perfectly innocuous status updates on Facebook. I've received disgruntled direct messages from friends complaining about this. It's exhausting policing my own timeline for fear someone will reveal to the world that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father. D'oh!

Andrew: Yes, the international aspect of social media these days makes it very difficult to know what is and is not a spoiler in people's minds - what might have been open knowledge in the UK for months might still be a shock waiting to happen in another country, but how can you police that? And should you? And the nature of what constitutes a spoiler is different for people as well: like your incident with the Red Supreme Dalek, I know a number of people who regard even the official 'next week' trailers at the end of shows like Doctor Who as spoilers and have been reprimanded for mentioning something seen in them even though the network/show producers themselves have chosen to reveal it. Once I was angrily rebuked for a contribution to a conversation about who was to replace Matt Smith as the Doctor, since they regarded the international headline news that Smith had officially quit as a 'spoiler' until the very moment itself came for Smith to depart in the TV series. I think it's safe to say that was a bit of a rogue outlier when it comes to spoiler sensitivity, though. At least - I hope so!

John: Way back in 2003 I was banned from a Star Wars forum for suggesting the original Death Star would be seen in Episode III! The fact this was a 'spoiler zone' made it all the more ironic; seemingly the irony was lost on forum members too eager to protest. The Death Star did appear in Revenge of the Sith and I was vindicated!

Andrew: Okay, so maybe my guy wasn't such a rogue outlier in that case! Anyway, like you I don't mind spoilers myself but I am very aware of not wanting to inadvertently spoil something for anyone more sensitive than I am - which can make writing reviews for Taking The Short View really very tricky at times. On the whole I end up saying very little about the plot of a film or show and stick to just a couple of lines about the set-up and then outline the main characters/actors, but it's very rare for me to go into more detail than that because it's instantly spoiler territory as far as someone out there is concerned. For example, I was keenly aware that in the piece I did on Gravity I had to write it in a very specific way so as not to give a major plot twist halfway through that most other reviews seemed to me to have implicitly done.

John: There's an art to crafting reviews that capture the essence of something, whilst preserving enigma and creating a need in the reader to see it. Wish more critics would aspire to that philosophy.

Andrew: I can aspire with the best of them, but everyone slips up now and again. And it's really not easy to pull off sometimes: one review I recall as being particularly difficult in this regard was the one of Oblivion. A good rule of thumb for spoilers is "If it's in the trailer and adverts then it's fair game to talk about it" and that's what I normally go with, but in the case of Oblivion, the PR campaign was disastrous and I felt it seriously harmed a lot of the film by being too explicit: you could accurately predict the final twist from what they divulged. So when I came to writing it up I pretty much only used what was introduced in the first five minutes of the film, and didn't even credit half the cast/characters in the film because simply knowing they existed (let alone who they were or who was playing them) gave too much away. Another problem was that the thrust of the review was about the film being too derivative of a number of other science fiction films, but to start naming these influences too specifically also risked giving away and spoiling the plot twists. What's a reviewer to do in a situation like that with both hands now tied behind their back?

John: Somehow I managed to avoid the major plot twist in Oblivion almost a year after its theatrical release! Bizarre, but true.

Andrew: I remember seeing the trailer in the cinema and on the spot I thought, "Oh, then this means X, Y and Z will happen" - and it did. I think that's why so many people were disappointed when they saw it. Fortunately I didn't watch it until it was out on Blu-ray and by then some of the memories had faded.

Going back to the perils of reviewing without giving things away, there are also definitely times when it's impossible to adequately review something unless you wade headlong into full-blown spoiler territory. That's very much the case with series (film or TV) where events in a new instalment may well hang on the shock reveal from the previous one - your example of Darth Vader's declaration being very much a case in point! Or on a lesser note in the classic Doctor Who serial "Destiny of the Daleks" that I recently reviewed, where I couldn't talk about it without revealing that the story includes a) Daleks, b) Davros and c) robot android adversaries. Key criticisms I needed to make of the serial stem from these points but they're all nominally spoilers. At that point I just have to slap on a spoiler warning and dive in anyway; the fact that the show in question is 35 years old also insulates it from some criticism, hopefully!

John: Mentioning Daleks in the title precludes a shock entrance from Doctor Who's most famous foes. However, it does guarantee eyeballs. That was the brilliance of "Earthshock"! A title that gave nothing away and the return of the Cybermen was all the more memorable for it. Surprise is an elusive commodity in an era of instant gratification.

Andrew: It does make me laugh that there are about a dozen classic Who serials where the big dramatic episode one cliffhanger reveal is the Daleks crashing in, and we're all meant to be shocked - despite having already been told that the title is "... of the Daleks"! By comparison, "Earthshock" had one of the best episode 1 cliffhangers of all time (and indeed, also has the most shocking episode 4 ending as well.) Producer John Nathan-Turner was offered a Radio Times cover by the BBC to promote the return of the Cybermen and he actually refused because he wanted to retain the impact! I know JNT is a divisive figure in fandom but he also did the show a lot of good, and his handling of "Earthshock" is a prime example as far as I'm concerned.

John: JNT has my eternal gratitude for that at least.

Andrew: Of course, no one could hope to retain that sort of shock in this day and age thanks to the all-pervading Internet - or could they? I had certainly managed to completely miss all the spoilers that were apparently swirling ahead of the 2006 story "The Army of Ghosts" and consequently literally fell off my chair when the Daleks suddenly sprang into shot at the climax of what I'd completely assumed was a Cyberman story. I was obviously such a big Classic Who fan that the possibility that the Daleks and Cybermen could ever appear and interact in the same episode was just something my brain had already been pre-programmed not to accept even when all the signs had been there.

John: Shame it descended into a puerile battle between two of the Doctor's most famous adversaries. The televised Dalek vs Cybermen battle had nothing on Junior School playtime! Imagine yours truly as Earthshock-era Cyberleader coldly crushing Dalek casing. Ahem! Please, continue...

Andrew: A bit of a lost opportunity, I agree, but I'm still rather fond of it. And no one does build up quite like Russell T Davies.

Case in point: the show also caught me out in 2008's "The Stolen Earth" when the Doctor is exterminated by a Dalek (them again!) and starts to regenerate. This was at the time when we knew David Tennant was leaving, but no successor had been announced and there was still a year of feature-length specials ahead of us before the handover - or so we thought. The possibility that the show had pulled off the ultimate trick and was about to change its leading man 18 months early and without us having a clue who would be stepping into the part had me yelling delightedly "No ... no .. this can't be happening!" at the screen. Alas in the end it really was just one of Russell T Davies little writing tricks - but so very well played nonetheless.

John: Those so-called specials were anything but.

Andrew: Definitely a mixed bag, but I've revisited a few of them since and they bear up better than I'd remembered.

John: Vivid memory of savagely deconstructing "Planet of the Dead" on Twitter with scriptwriting and directing peeps. However, worth revisiting if only to see actress Michelle Ryan in a post Bionic Woman role! Ryan would have been a brilliant companion.

Andrew: Maybe. Anyway, I think it is still possible for the show to continue to surprise us today: when I sat down to watch the pre-50th anniversary online minisode "The Night of the Doctor" I had absolutely no idea who was starring in it. None at all. All the old stars had publicly said online via social media that they weren't returning and I believed them, so I guess that's an example of how you can game the Internet to send out disinformation to help guard against spoilers. I'm glad they did, because that was a terrific surprise and a total shock.

John: Wasn't that joyous? I literally had goosebumps when [REDACTED]. In the midst of last year's Doctor Who 50th celebration, I was fortunate to attend, with friends, the Official Celebration at ExCel and the inevitable spoilers didn't matter a jot. Especially as most of these emanated from the series' showrunner, Steven Moffat, during Matt Smith's final panel as the Doctor.

Andrew: Okay, before this discussion gets too monopolised by Doctor Who, what are the best things from other films/series that you can recall being surprised and unspoilered by in advance? And how much of a difference would it have made to the experience if you had known before seeing it the first time? To pick up on your mention of it before, I'll cite Vader's revelation in The Empire Strikes Back as one I had no idea was coming and which left my jaw on the floor.

John: Vader's paternal revelation turned everything upside down in the wake of Han Solo's capture by Boba Fett! Was Vader trying to trick young Skywalker into either joining the Dark Side or kill Luke as he pulled himself back across the gantry? I literally feared for Luke's life and didn't give it any credence until the months leading up to Return of the Jedi (enacting potential scenarios with new action figures). Foreknowledge would have dampened proceedings irrespective of any ambiguity therein.

Spock's death at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is another. That scene gets me every time.

I have a habit of trying to decode major plots twists, but Unbreakable alluded me.

How about yourself, Andrew? Has there been a spoiler, which enhanced your enjoyment or even piqued your interest in something you might have otherwise overlooked?

Andrew: I guess the 'spoiler' of knowing in advance about what happens to Sean Bean in Game of Thrones was ironically the thing that made me think, "Oh - maybe this isn't going to be what I thought it was. That sounds interesting, I'm going to give that a try" when previously I'd been dismissing the whole thing as a Lord of the Rings wannabe that I had very little interest in. And of course, now it's my current choice of all-time favourite TV show, so thank goodness for that change of heart!

John: High praise for Game of Thrones and understandable given how deftly the multiple subplots are threaded together! In less assured hands it could so easily unravel and become incomprehensible to even the most ardent fans. Such was the success of Sky Atlantic's promotion for the S4 premiere: NOW TV crashed (mimicking HBO Go in the US) due to a high level of demand during the live stream on Monday evening. Sky quickly compensated affected users (myself included) without any prompting. Commendable, but poses questions regarding the pitfalls of cable-cutting too soon.

Andrew: Yes, people pushing for putting everything online and doing away with broadcast channels have little idea about the reality of the network infrastructure and what it can and can't do. No surprise it was Game of Thrones that keeps exposing the problems - I'm so in awe of that show.

Like you, I have an annoying habit of 'reading' a film and working out the plot twists - even when I'd actually rather not. Unfortunately I'm rather good at it, so therefore any film or TV show that can catch me out and blindside me immediately goes up in my estimation. The trouble is that even knowing that there is a 'twist' in a film almost counts as a spoiler in its own right because then I go in looking for it and more often than not figure it out in advance.

The biggest example would be The Sixth Sense which was hugely promoted on its shock twist: I went to see the film and absolutely nailed it from the very first scene and was then rather bored of watching the mechanics of how it was followed through. Again, it was the trailers headlining the "I see dead people" quote that made it possible - damn publicists! On the other hand, The Usual Suspects is another famous 'shock twist ending' and I confess that I only narrowed it down to about five possible outcomes by the end - one of which was the right one, but that doesn't count! So high marks there for Bryan Singer's first big screen outing.

John: Have a soft spot for M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense! If only for James Newton Howard's haunting evocation of celebrated composers Bernard Herrmann and John Williams.

Andrew: Herrmann being possibly my all-time favourite movie soundtrack composer of all time, too. But that's a subject for another blog post I suspect!

John: A future post on soundtracks! What's not to like?

Andrew: My most profound shock in a cinema has to be David Fincher's Fight Club. I'm not even sure I why I went to see that film - on the face of it, it wasn't my sort of film at all as I'm totally averse to films about fighting and boxing, even classics like Raging Bull. I certainly didn't know there was any twist in it. I spent the first half thinking "This is dreadful, the plot, characters and acting are all over the place" - and then came the revelation ("Ladies and Gentlemen, please return your seats to the full, upright position...") and for a moment I literally felt physically off-balance because it changed absolutely everything I thought I'd known up to that point. I had to go back and see the film again a couple of days later, and it was a totally transformed experience seeing how it really fitted together rather beautifully yet without tipping its hand like most films would have done. As a result, I have to put Fight Club in my all-time top ten movies.

What about you - any others you've seen where you've felt, "I wish I hadn't known X before seeing that"?

John: A friend suggested Jacob's Ladder on rental DVD and the twist was revealed, accidentally, by his dad only minutes into the movie. Wholly unintentional, but there was an awkward silence thereafter.

Andrew: Oh dear! Did he already know what was going to happen in the film, or was it a lucky guess that inadvertently ruined what unfolded?

John: "This is the one where..." Pinter pause. "Yes, dad! John hasn't seen it before."

Andrew: Hard for me to ask "And in what way did knowing this spoil things for you?" when I haven't seen the film myself and don't actually want to know!

John: It would be remiss of me to answer!

Andrew: Sometimes people can just blurt out a guess that happens to be right, or because it's basically obvious. For example, it's pretty easy to say at the start of a film like Titanic that the ship sinks and pretty much everyone dies, or that in Pompeii the volcano is about to get a little active any moment; is that a spoiler? Hardly, no more than "revealing" that Noah features a big flood that wipes everyone out except the people on the ark. If someone blurts that information out at the start of a film then I guess it's enough of a spoiler to really ruin the film for some people, but to be honest they'd have to be pretty clueless about the subject matter if it does.

Actually that raises another question about spoilers: can they actually be a good thing? After all, it's the audience knowing that the boat is going to sink or that the flood's going to wipe out every living thing on earth that drives a lot of the suspense of the film. In fact filmmakers often 'spoiler' what's going on in order to achieve the dramatic effect they're after: Hitchcock always said that the difference between shock and suspense was that the former might feature a bomb suddenly going off, which would leave the audience reeling for maybe ten seconds; but if we know there is a bomb ticking down to zero in little Timmy's hands on a packed bus, the suspense of that knowledge can be stretched out to an unbearable degree over five or ten minutes. Hitch of course was a master of the latter.

John: JJ Abrams is a master of mystery and this will serve him (and Disney) well where events "in a galaxy far, far away..." are concerned. Just imagine if Karen Gillan is cast as a Mara Jade? Oops! There I go again.

Andrew: I've just finished watching reruns of Babylon 5, and what's interesting here is that the writer/creator of the show actively gives away what's going to happen through various means such as the use of time travel, premonitions and 'flash forwards.' And yet in each case, what we think we're seeing is completely turned around by subsequent developments, so by the time we see the scene actually happen in "real time" it's telling a completely different story from the one we thought it was. I guess I should say that Steven Moffat is now the modern master of that art with his timey-wimey, head-scrambling work for Doctor Who which often does the same thing.

It's probably this approach that worked for me on Game of Thrones: although I knew the twist about Sean Bean, I had no idea how exactly it happened, when or why. So in the end it worked perfectly, setting up the anticipation but not giving away so much detail that it ruined the journey. When the moment came, it was fully a whole episode ahead of when I had expected and so I was still open-mouthed and aghast at what was transpiring.

John: Babylon 5! J. Michael Straczynski's ambitious retelling of The Lord of the Rings. Loved the series and imagine how it would look today on HBO sans the spectre of cancellation every season.

Andrew: What a wonderful thought! If only ...

Think that's it? We've hardly scratched the surface of spoilers! Join us next time for the second part of our discussion, in which we wonder whether falling foul of spoilers stops us from watching programmes, which current shows are the most spoilered, and the question of whether novels are spoilers for the TV and film adaptations made from them. Join us then...

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