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To recap, in early July 2014 it emerged that a server at a BBC Worldwide had been improperly secured, and that scripts for the first five episodes of Season Eight had leaked. A few days later it became clear that the leak was worse than it had initially appeared as a workprint of Deep Breath also appeared on torrent sites, followed, over the course of the next month and a half, by workprints of Into the Dalek, Robot of Sherwood, Listen, and Time Heist. The files had been prepared for a Brazil-based subtitling company called Drei Marc, and specifically for a gentleman named Marcelo Camargo who, despite having absolutely nothing to do with the leak itself, became the name most associated with it.
The first thing to say is both obvious and controversial: it was fine. For all the talk of the leak being “embarrassing” for both Doctor Who and the BBC, there were no meaningful negative consequences. All five leaked episodes performed just fine, both critically and in the ratings. Just like the leak of Rose didn’t hurt anything (and indeed probably helped the series, as the diehard fans hashed out all their arguments over it in advance). Indeed, the truth is that it’s tough to think of any instance where a pre-release leak to torrent sites actually caused any damage. It’s to the point where it’s widely believed that the recent leak of the Supergirl pilot was deliberate on CBS’s part.
No, that’s not the same as saying that leaks can’t hurt shows. Certainly it helps that the five leaked episodes were actually good. It’s hard to hurt good material by letting people see it. Had Capaldi completely bombed in the part such that the buzz around the screener copies was negative it would have been a very different situation. But these were five episodes of television that ranged from the quite good to the excellent, and even with unfinished effects and dodgy musical cues their basic quality was evident.
And yes, I suppose at this point I may as well admit that I watched them at the time, especially as Moffat has admitted that he would have watched them. I don’t mean this revelation to indicate some larger ethical principle, to be clear. I just couldn’t resist. My wife and I were nearly a year into a running joke of saying “guess what” with the answer being a very emphatic and happy “Peter Capaldi,” with every syllable emphasized. I was dying to see the new Doctor. So I caved. Lasted a solid week or two after Deep Breath leaked, and avoided the scripts entirely, as what I was interested in was the performance, not the plot, but I caved eventually.
What was most interesting, as they came out, was the way in which the release felt carefully managed, starting with the scripts and the belief that the episodes themselves hadn’t leaked, then Deep Breath and (fascinatingly) a withheld Into the Dalek – a torrent for the episode went up, but nobody seeded it for a solid month after the torrent came out. Then Robot of Sherwood and Time Heist came pretty soon after Into the Dalek, but, in perhaps the most interesting detail of all of this, Listen got held for last.
Yes, that’s right. The pirates who hacked a BBC Worldwide server and leaked five episodes of Doctor Who stage-managed the release and deliberately saved the best for last, releasing it on the same day that Deep Breath aired, so that the screener leaks were as effective a piece of publicity as possible. Really, were it that all Doctor Who fans were as nice as the pirates.
But what is more interesting than the question “do leaks like this cause damage” (a question that, more than anything, seems pointless the more it becomes clear that leaks like this are not actually preventable) is, I think, “how do leaks like this affect our understanding of how television works?” Because they do, in many ways, feel like they belong to a contemporary age of television. Obviously this is true on a very basic level – the technological means by which a workprint can be obtained and mass distributed is a relatively recent invention. John Nathan-Turner didn’t have to lose sleep about Attack of the Cybermen leaking.
But there’s also a level of televisual literacy that’s involved in watching a workprint. I remarked to a friend at the time that watching the workrprints felt not unlike watching a reconstruction of a missing episode. You’re not so much watching the episode as you are watching a rough guide of how it’s going to fit together. It’s not just the enormously distracting presence of a timecode, huge captions declaring it property of the BBC and something prepared for Marcelo Camargo, and occasional captions explaining what you’re supposed to be looking at or hearing either. It’s the lack of color, of visual effects, and of music, all of which are genuinely important parts of the storytelling.
And this is evident in the fact that the workprints were misleading about the respective qualities of the episodes. They all looked pretty good, and in practice were. But from the workprints, at least, Time Heist seemed rather more promising than it ended up being. In black and white the corridors of the vault looked moody and brutalist, as opposed to like Douglas Mackinnon relying way too heavily on lighting gels in an attempt to make the same room look different. There’s also a line that was, as of the workprint, meant to be ADRed in that would have had the Doctor proclaiming his hatred of the architect at about the 9:30 mark, as opposed to first mentioning it when Sabra appears to die, which did a better job of setting up the ending.
It’s not, to be clear, that the workprint of Time Heist is better. There are sequences that are barely followable with the effects missing, and the lack of music really does make sequences drag in ways they don’t in the finished episode. (Although the placeholder music is in other places oddly delightful – the sequence in which the Doctor and the prisoners fight back against the robots has a very drum-heavy musical cue overlaid that was tremendously compelling just because it gave the scene a texture unlike any other action sequence in Doctor Who.) Rather, it’s that, judging by the workprints, one would have guessed that Time Heist would be a stronger episode than it was.
And it’s not the only one to change. Into the Dalek looked much weaker in the workprint. Part of that is that it was by far the most effects heavy episode and many of its ultimate pleasures came from the very, very good Dalek action sequences at the end, which have next to no impact in black and white. It was by some margin the one requiring the most reconstruction.
There are also things that come into oddly different focus on the workprints. In black and white, for instance, Ben Wheatley’s direction of Deep Breath jumps out considerably more, especially if you’ve seen A Field in England, as the black and white helps highlight the similarities. And there is, I think, a fair case to be made that both Deep Breath and Time Heist are simply better suited to black and white.
And it is this, I think, that gets at the strange appeal of these, even separate from the basic thrill of getting to see Doctor Who early. That, after all, is generally what discussions of the leaks focus on, and it’s a significant issue within television as an art form in the mid-2010s. In doing my same-day reviews of Season Eight, I focused on television as a pop medium, with episodes being roughly akin to singles, with the moment of transmission serving as a distinct intervention in the cultural zeitgeist with measurable, traceable effects. And there are, in Season Eight, at least three moments where the specific circumstances of transmission matter to how the episodes are read: Deep Breath’s engagement with the dwindling summer light, Kill the Moon’s meticulous and magical use of the night, and Death in Heaven’s potent juxtaposition with Remembrance Sunday. The idea of event television matters.
But there’s a growing vision of television as something more akin to an album medium than a single medium, spearheaded by Netflix’s “whole season at once” model. It’s one that I suspect Doctor Who is particularly poorly suited to, as the rapid juxtapositions that animate it are something that came out of a structure and logic of serialization. And so a lot of the supposed danger of leaks came from this. The BBC’s initial reaction to the script leaks, tellingly, was asking people not to spread spoilers.
And as someone who has seen, at this point, a half-dozen Doctor Who episodes early through completely legitimate means (a mix of preview screenings and BBC-issued review copies), there’s something to this. I remember walking out of the Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon screening simultaneously thrilled by the cliffhanger on Day of the Moon and gutted that I was now two weeks further away from new Doctor Who than the rest of the world. When television is operating in a pop mode, the loss of the idea of transmission is significant.
But what was most interesting about the Marcelo Camargo leaks was precisely that they weren’t quite violations of this. Every episode still crackled when it aired. Yes, sure, you knew about the Matt Smith cameo in Deep Breath (but then, so did people who had paid attention to filming reports) and the final twist in Listen, but it didn’t really matter. Seeing the episodes finished, as what they were instead of as half-finished possibilities, was still genuinely thrilling.
I think, in the end, that’s because the Marcelo Camargo leaks offered something more than just sneak peeks. They let us see, while certainly not the whole of the creative process, at least part of it. Yes, some of that was artificial – it’s not as though the episodes were ever really looked at in black and white, after all. But it was still a demonstration of something that, watching television, one knows but never gets to experience: the fact that the finished product that explodes forth into the world upon transmission is the endpoint of a process. The Marcelo Camargo leaks let us watch Doctor Who be finished. It was, to be sure, a strange pleasure, and one only experienceable in the summer of 2014, when these episodes were, in point of fact, still unfinished. But for my part, at least, and I suspect I am speaking at least in part as someone who has done creative work, the experience of watching someone else’s ideas make that final transformation into art, and especially of watching it happen on something I love and care about was amazing, and a wonderful start to what would prove, for my money, the most satisfying year of watching Doctor Who of my life.