The joy of not knowing

I watched “The End of Time” again last night, only my second viewing of that episode ever. I have a tendency to avoid the heavy episodes, since they require a lot more attention and emotional investment, but I had wanted to review the return of the Time Lords. And I cried. The Tenth Doctor is such a tragic figure. And I love the Master. I think I like complex enemies (which is probably why I also like Dalek Sec and Dalek Caan).

Afterwards, I got to thinking. I’m watching this series long after it aired, and I already knew at the outset that Matt Smith is the current Doctor. In order to watch the episodes in order, I had to first figure out the order in which they were aired, and thus, I knew that this was going to be David Tennant’s last episode. However, even if I had been watching the series as it was aired, I still would have known that it was David Tennant’s last episode, because there’s no way that I would have not heard about his retiring from the role and Matt Smith starting up. I am sure that at the very least, my Facebook feed (which I’m sure would have had the Doctor Who page on it) would have been filled with “Tonight is the last episode of the Tenth Doctor!”

As a fan, I want to know everything about the show, and I’m certainly checking the news every day to find out if anything else has been released about “The Day of the Doctor,” but on the other hand, it’s kind of sad. Watching “The End of Time,” either when it was first shown or years after the fact, you’re watching to find out how the Doctor ends up regenerating, instead of watching all these horrible events unfold without knowing if the Doctor is going to be able to survive it. The Woman tells Wilfred that the Doctor may still survive, and you hope he does, but you already know he’s not going to.

Can you imagine watching “The End of Time” without the foreknowledge that it was David Tennant’s last episode? You start the episode with all of these prophecies that the Tenth Doctor is going to die, then ride through all of the ups and downs of the episode: the Master directly attacking the Doctor with lightning, the Doctor falling through the skylight, the Doctor holding the Master and Rassilon at bay with the gun and Rassilon taunting him that the last act of his life would be to kill. Then, after the Master and the Time Lords are swept back into the Time War, you breathe a sigh of relief as the Doctor rises from the floor, still alive and having evaded the prophecy, as the Woman had suggested he could.

Knock, knock, knock, knock.

Your heart falls into your stomach as you realize what that means. Wilfred offers to die for the Doctor, and the Doctor rails against the injustice of his fate, then realizes that he’s again falling into the corruption that threatens every powerful being, and accepts what he must do. You hope that maybe Wilfred will punch a button to force the radiation to kill him before the Doctor can take his place in the chamber, but realize that that action would be even worse than death to the Doctor, that someone would sacrifice for him. And while the Doctor claims his reward, you keep hoping that he’ll be saved, thinking that David Tennant couldn’t possibly be leaving the show.  He says, “I don’t want to go…” but in a few moments, Matt Smith goes sauntering away.

“The End of Time” is an emotional rollercoaster, but it is robbed of its potential by our demand to know what’s going on behind the scenes. This could also be said of any episode in this show, in which the main conflict usually consists of not knowing how the Doctor is going to solve the problem and if he can do it before being killed. We already know that there’s going to be another episode next week, and so we aren’t actually afraid for the Doctor or his companion: something in the back of our mind is always saying, “Well, we know at least that they must survive.”

This is a weakness in modern storytelling that writers try very hard to overcome. For example, the film Star Trek: Into Darkness had a big secret that they tried to conceal: the identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. The fans – who, incidentally, were the people the secret was aimed at, since a casual moviegoer would not have known the character – demanded to know who it was and did tons of research and conjecture, and came up with the most probably theory. If I remember correctly, the character was leaked shortly before the premiere, and the fans were going, “Oh yeah, we already knew.”

Personally, I forgot the movie was coming out and didn’t know anything about it, other than Benedict Cumberbatch was in it. I saw the film soon after opening day, and the reveal hit me like a ton of bricks: the knowledge of who the character was in the old Star Trek universe and the realization of the horrors he could unleash in this new film completely charged the movie with tension. And then I saw what people, who had known about it before seeing the movie, posted on the Internet: that the whole John Harrison thing was lame and that there was no reason to make it such a big secret, etc. Because they spoiled themselves before the movie came out, it lost its impact on them. They cheated themselves out of a fantastic experience, because they felt entitled to know the secrets beforehand.

Another fine example of this is The Game of Thrones. I have not read the books, but going into watching the first season, I knew one thing, that the heir to house Targaryen was going to die from angering Khal Drogo and having molten gold poured on his head. When the event happened, it was not surprising or horrifying; I had been expecting it. But when Ned was executed, something I didn’t know was going to happen, I cried. Since then, I’ve heard of many instances of outcry when characters die on that show, and I am willing to bet that the outcry comes from the fact that we, as the audience, don’t have information about which actors have been dismissed from the show. We go into each episode expecting that everyone survives to the end, but we honestly don’t know that it’s true. The only ones who do know are those who have read the books, and they already went through the surprise while reading.

I do wish that we, as a fan base, would not demand so much information about the inner workings of the show, but I know that will never happen. All I can do is try very hard not to search for every little tidbit of “The Day of the Doctor,” so that it is completely new to me when I get to see it. Honestly, I think it’s the best way to experience any new story.

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