Doctor Who: leaks, secrecy and publicity

The balance of secrecy and publicity is a tricky one for Doctor Who to keep, but spoilers are simply a question of manners...

This article contains no spoilers for the forthcoming tenth series of Doctor Who. However, the comments section may discuss recently revealed plot details.

“Patrick Troughton, the character actor, has been chosen by the BBC to replace William Hartnell as Doctor Who in the children’s television serial.”

This is how the Manchester Guardian reported the first ever regeneration of Doctor Who‘s lead character, in a news in brief column published back in 1966. There’s no way of overstating how media coverage of the show has changed in the last 50 years, but the last two casting announcements for this role have been greeted with massive media attention and half-hour announcement shows on BBC One.

Doctor Who now exists in a peak TV climate, and since its return to screens in 2005, it has courted publicity as soaps like Coronation Street and EastEnders would, complete with magazine covers and countless newspaper articles speculating about casting and future storylines. In fact, just last week, a certain tabloid published details about a major returning actor in the forthcoming series 10, which had been specifically marked as a surprise at press screenings, even though it was revealed in a trailer at the end of the first episode.

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From a marketing standpoint, the problem lies in balancing secrecy with publicity. To the umbrage of spoiler-averse fans, Russell T. Davies once approved a Radio Times cover that featured the humanoid form of Dalek Sec, the week before he was revealed at the cliffhanger ending of Daleks In Manhattan.

“You want to give away a certain amount, to draw people in,” Davies clarified in his Doctor Who Magazine column in 2007. “But you don’t want people watching and thinking they’ve seen it before. What we try to protect are the endings of plots – that’s the important thing. It always mystifies me when soaps give away plots in advance.”

“I read a billing for Coronation Street: ‘Tracy disowns her mother’. And you watch it, and it’s the last scene! You sit there going, ‘Why did you tell me that?’ Which makes me wonder – is the monster that appears on the cover quite as big a give away as we might think? Or is it actually a red herring, to distract us from a bigger, more shocking revelation? Come Saturday, we’ll find out…”

This controlled release of information for publicity is part and parcel of making popular TV in today’s news cycle. Davies’ first series arrived on a wave of promotion, but was still dogged by leaks – Christopher Eccleston’s departure from the show was revealed by the tabloids on the Monday after his first episode was broadcast, and several newspapers published screencaps of his regeneration into David Tennant in the days before The Parting Of The Ways aired. They couldn’t do a surprise regeneration nowadays if they wanted to.

Davies always appreciated the difference between publicity and leaks though. Spoiler-hunters on certain fan forums will fondly remember the rumours that one of the 2009 specials would feature Paul McGann in flashback, as the Eighth Doctor tangled with Genghis Khan and an elephant sat on the TARDIS – a fake story apparently circulated to flush out leakers within the production office.

But still, there were leaks that year. A wrap video of the cast and crew of The End Of Time revealed that John Simm, Timothy Dalton and most of the former companions would be appearing in David Tennant’s final episodes, when a screencap appeared online in June 2009, a full six months before they were broadcast. The image was then picked up by tabloids, which left Davies understandably pissed off, as detailed in The Writer’s Tale, the transcript of his behind-the-scenes correspondence with DWM‘s Benjamin Cook.

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“The sad thing about that leak is, it wasn’t for the money, because it was sent to a website first, no cash involved,” Davies wrote. “But that sort of makes it worse. That means someone didn’t do it for money; they did it simply to spoil.”

These leaks have persisted along with the new series’ continuing popularity, but just as things changed from the 1960s to the 2000s, things have escalated considerably since Steven Moffat took over as executive producer and head writer. Moffat’s season arcs are, without exception, intricate and twisty affairs that hinge on the build-up to a big reveal, which means they’re more easily blown by leaks. Even the characters have warned against spoilers, but the leaks have kept coming.

For instance, 210 lucky fans in the United States received their Blu-ray copies boxset of the second half of series 7 early. Specifically, one whole week before The Name Of The Doctor aired, with its “HEY KIDS IT’S MARK HAMILL” style ending, revealing John Hurt as a secret previous incarnation of the Doctor. The information was out there online if you went looking, but thanks to a request for secrecy, it wasn’t widely reported.

A few weeks later, a BBC Worldwide memo leaked the news that there would be a new Doctor in 2014. The imminent arrival of the Twelfth Doctor was apparently meant to be a surprise reveal when Peter Capaldi made a cameo in The Day Of The Doctor. Instead, the BBC had to announce that Matt Smith was leaving on 1st June 2013, and Capaldi’s casting was announced on a live television event in August.

BBC Worldwide had another doozy in the following year. The first five scripts of Capaldi’s first series leaked online in summer 2014, along with black-and-white rough cuts of the episodes Deep Breath and Robot Of Sherwood. This massive error was down to Worldwide’s Latin American headquarters storing the files on a publicly accessible server, meaning that they showed up in Google searches.

To his credit, Moffat’s approach to secrecy throughout his tenure as showrunner has been to politely ask the press and members of the public not to publicise twists in the news or on the internet in advance. It’s heartening to know that more often than not, this has paid off. It doesn’t stop people on forums, but that’s not the same as having spoilers emblazoned across the internet.

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“Now you might be thinking, what does all this matter?” Moffat said in a BBC statement thanking the proud owners of series 7 part 2 for their discretion. “It’s a plot development in the mad old fantasy world of Doctor Who, why is that important? Well of course, it’s not important, and in the scheme of things, it doesn’t matter at all. Just as it doesn’t matter when you’re telling a joke, and some idiot shouts out the punchline before you finish. It’s irritating, that’s all. It’s bad manners.”

There’s a good point there. The showrunners have obviously taken a dim view of spoilers that leak outside of that controlled release of publicity materials, but when they do manage to keep a secret, it pays off for all of us. Personally speaking, I’ve enjoyed watching recent episodes on their original broadcast without knowing in advance that a series would start with a young Davros, or that Michelle Gomez was the latest incarnation of the Master, or that Paul McGann really was coming back for another turn, with or without an elephant.

Davies and Moffat both had varying degrees of success in keeping a veil over certain parts of upcoming episodes. Given that incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall has famously maintained secrecy around his ITV whodunnit series Broadchurch for the last few years, it will be interesting to see if the leaks dry up from next year onwards. Doctor Who doesn’t have the same mystery element, but it feels as if the identity of the next Doctor, and whether it’s announced or leaked, will be the first indicator of what’s to come.

The good news is, the level of reportage on that most recent spoiler means the show is popular – it would almost be worse if thoughtless tabloid reporters thought it wasn’t even worth writing about. That popularity has spread around the world too and under Moffat, it’s become bigger than it ever has been in its 50 year history. In this day and age, we’ll only really be in trouble if the casting of a new Doctor is relegated to a few inches in the Manchester Guardian again.

But where the show has had trouble controlling these leaks in the past is in consistently punching at a higher level than most every other show on the BBC, without necessarily having the enhanced security that usually surrounds the plot particulars of a Star Wars movie or a new Harry Potter book. The balance of secrecy and publicity is a tricky one, but it feels like bad manners to spoil for spoilers’ sake.