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Keeping Secrets

In 1980, the cliffhanger of the third season of Dallas was "Who shot J.R.?" The world went into frenzy, trying to find out who had tried to kill the man that everyone "loved to hate" (and if he survived). When questioned, Larry Hagman admitted that neither he, nor anyone in the cast, knew who had shot his on-screen character. Months of speculation followed.

We were living in Brussels at the time and Dallas was one of the few English programmes that was broadcast on Belgian TV, but it was running several months behind the American and British broadcasts. By the time that J.R. was shot, we knew who the shooter was (Kristin Sheppard, Sue Ellen's sister), and my brother observed how she was becoming angrier with J.R. prior to the shooting.

A couple of years later, the "big reveal" in The Empire Strikes Back was that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father. We were still living in Brussels and the Flemish name for Vader was "Dark Vader" – which translates as “Dark Father”. So, no great surprise when it was revealed. I wonder if the Flemish translators realised that they had given away a major plot secret!

It's the same with the football results. There was a time that they announced the football scores before Match of the Day was broadcast. These days the presenters say "if you don't want to know the score look away now". Is it enough time to look away? And it seems that this year both the X Factor finalists and the winner of the Great British Bake Off have already been revealed.

I like the idea of keeping secrets, so that the audience are kept in suspense until the final pages of the story. The twist in the tale. Robert Goddard's first novels, like In Pale Battalions, had that twist: the last page would change the reader's perception of the story. And like many readers I was surprised (although not terribly so) when Dumbledore was killed at the end of The Half-Blood Prince, although when I spoke to a young girl who lived across the road I asked if she had read book six and she replied "yes, Dumbledore dies". Most of us, when we recommend a book or a film, don't reveal what's to come!

Just recently, I've noticed that there's a cult of secret-keeping. Some of this starts with the producers: Russell T. Davies labelled the Master Tapes of Doctor Who "Torchwood" long before the spin-off series (I wonder if he labelled to Torchwood Master tapes "Doctor Who" in return?!) while Karen Gillan auditioned for a role in "Panic Moon" (companion) and Jenna Coleman for "Men on Waves" (Woman Seven). In one episode the "Big Reveal" was that Rose Tyler had returned. According to Who-legend, an alternative version of this episode (which missed out the appearance of Rose at the end) was sent to the TV Reviewers. Two different versions of the episode circulating at the same time: what could possibly go wrong? Likewise the final scene was omitted from the preview DVDs of “The Stolen Earth” (and the title wasn’t revealed until 16 days before broadcast). At the end of this episode, it wasn't known if the Doctor being shot by a dalek would trigger a new incarnation.

As it is, with the fanfare surrounding the unmasking of the actor who would play the Twelfth Doctor, a change in the principal actor would have attracted more media attention. Unfortunately I'd read on the BBC Doctor Who website that the "big reveal" at the end of "the Name of the Doctor" was John Hurt "playing a previously unknown incarnation of the doctor". There have also been Radio Times covers that revealed Dalek Sec “Half Dalek, half human. Total Monster”, As River Song would say ... "Spoilers". That said, when I watched the minisode "The Night of the Doctor", I didn't know that Paul McGann was in it, and sat bolt-upright in my seat. Total nerdgasm!

I don’t read articles about a series while it’s being shown, even though, most of the time, the interviewees have been primed on what they can and can’t say. I try not to find out too much about a film before I see it (imagine seeing The Matrix without knowing anything about it!). I must have wandered around with blinkers in 1999 so I didn't have any spoilers for Star Wars Episode I. For most people it had been overhyped and they already knew too much about it. I knew nothing, so I had no expectations to be disappointed.

There’s been a change in viewers' mentality too. We don't gather round the TV at a certain time to watch a programme. We record it, or watch it "On Demand" or through online streaming. Interestingly, programmes can be broadcast simultaneously across the globe so that all viewers can witness the 'event' of a television programme at the same time. But there's also a certain respect for other viewers. There almost appears to be a 'news blackout' on certain programmes. At the end of the second season of Sherlock, for example, where Holmes is apparently seen falling to his death, the camera panned away from Holmes's grave to reveal ... Sherlock! Alive! But there was something that seemed like a week's grave where radio programmes wouldn't talk about this revelation.

It's this same code of respect that's followed by then fans of the Game of Thrones series. If you're just starting to watch, then what can you know? There will, eventually be seven massive books written by George RR Martin. At present only five have been published, although the sixth is due any time soon. And basically, no character is safe. Well loved characters are written out at a moment's notice.

Game of Thrones is interesting because there are those who have read the books and those who have seen the TV series and those who do both. I'm in the position at the moment that I'm about to embark on Season 5 having watched the first four series over the last six weeks. I've also just finished reading the first book. So, I’ve see events that happen in season 3 and then read the trigger moment in the first book, knowing "that'll come back and haunt them". But fans of Game of Thrones appear to want to avoid spoiling the twists. Something happens at the end of Season 5. I know about the body double. I THINK a well-known character is killed, but two names have appeared on social media. I don't know which is correct. I don't want to know until I reach this part in the series. I also know that the TV series and the books part company at the end of season three, so I may well find myself totally surprised by events in the book.

Of course, the information is out there if you want it. There's a wiki fan page that gives any details that anyone should wish to find. I know because I did a Google search on one of the characters and was told when and how he died and who killed him. Spoilers. I was just looking for a bit of information as I recognised the actor, but couldn't put a face to a name. But all the spoiler information was in the first paragraph of the article.

I like being surprised by the events in a story. I like the fact that there are certain plot devices that you can't see coming, although it's annoying when it's used as a hook - something's going to happen in Series 9 of Doctor Who that's going to change our perception of him. Secrets, yes. Teasers are annoying! Secrets are better because the story hinges on their eventual revelation.

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