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The Covers & The Pictures: Why You Knew About the Doctor's Death

First, a warning: this post will contain vital plot details for the Doctor Who episode "The Impossible Astronaut," as well as utterly uninformed, though potentially spoilerish speculation for the rest of Season 6, including "Day of the Moon," which I have not seen.

Second, I'm not going to engage in the on-going debate about whether or not officially released promo materials can be considered spoilers, per se--I generally subscribe to the school that holds that no deliberately released material can be considered a "spoiler," but I hope that people who totally disagree with me on that point will be able to see what I'm trying to suggest.

Now that that's out of the way, let's get on with the show...

This is a story of two "official spoilers," to use a term that's been floating about: The Cover & The Pictures. You know the ones. Doctor Who Magazine did four special covers, one with each of the 4 leads, with the headline "Marked for Death?: One of them WILL die in the amazing season opener*" that came out a few weeks before the premier. Then, released on the day of the UK, US, and Canadian airings, came the pictures released by the BBC, two of which showed what seemed to be impossible--the Eleventh Doctor regenerating.

These two pieces of promotional material led to much sturm and drang in fandom, and I would grant understandably so. Taken together, they led many fans to the stark conclusion that the Doctor would die in the first episode of Season 6. Sure enough, not even 10 minutes in to "The Impossible Astronaut," the Doctor dies. Not just regenerates--dies. Dead. Cremated in a weird version of a Viking funeral on a lake in the American West in 2011. End of story, right? Well, timey-wimeyness rears its head again, and the episode quickly shifts focus to DC and the Silence--but a major plot twist had been ruined for many fans. But you don't destroy a major plot twist like that with released information unless you want it to be known.

Now, here's where I start trying to divine the mind of Moffat--always a dangerous business, so bear with me if NONE of this turns out to have been the case.

I would postulate that Steven Moffat deliberately orchestrated the release of information leading many fans, and I'd imagine not a small number of more causal viewers, to arrive at the conclusion that the Doctor died in the opening episode. Why would he want to ruin the biggest surprise of the opening episode? Why lessen, perhaps even negate, what could have been a tremendously powerful emotional beat in the story? Indeed, an emotional beat that could have been the story?

Because the Doctor's death isn't the point of the story. Watching the episode, I was struck by how quickly the plot moved on from the emotional beat of the Doctor's death. The Moff also gave us a clear indication that his death was not imminent by having the future Doctor be 200 years older than our Doctor. By "spoiling" the Doctor's death with promotional materials, placing it near the very beginning of the story, and stressing that the 11th Doctor still has a few centuries before he had to pack it in, Moffat was telling us, in ways large and small, that the story of the season opener wasn't about the Doctor's death.

It was, rather, essentially a MacGuffin to gather the team together and propel them into their adventure. Sure, it spurs their actions and creates dramatic tension and irony, but it is not what the story is actually about. If the Doctor's death had come as a total surprise, it would have utterly overshadowed everything else about the episode. Rather, I think Moffat wanted to set up the Doctor's death as (and here I speculate) a season-long arc right from the get go, and then quickly shift our focus to the real plot of the episode--a little girl astronaut and some creepy-ass aliens. The Doctor's death is the crack of Season 6--more dramatic and more confusing, hanging like a ghost over the whole series, but it shouldn't be our immediate focus unless Moffat wants it to be. Everything he's done so far has let us know that now is not the time to focus on an event that, given the vagaries of Doctor Who, may never "actually" happen.


*Random thought: generally, British English uses "series" where Americans would use "season," yet DWM here uses "season." I didn't say it was an interesting thought.

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