The Joy of Not Knowing Beforehand

River Song in “Doctor Who” (various episodes)

How often are you confronted with information about movies or series before you actually watch them? Some great scenes or quotes? A rough outline of the story? A few key elements?

It’s really hard to avoid some information about the story. Trailers are not only made to inform you about a movie/series, they try to convince you that it is worth watching. But in trying to convince you, they do show you part of what you are going to watch — the plot, the characters. Likewise, movie posters convey some information about the story and its characters and the adversaries. So do criticism on websites.

Oftentimes, even a tiny piece of information is all that it takes to extrapolate the relevant parts of the story. And knowing the story, the plot — I think it does irreparable damage to the enjoyment of that movie/episode. You go through the movie on rails. Local surprises may happen, but the direction and goal is known.

I noticed this effect when I was watching the second half of the seventh season of Doctor Who. I love this series. It might look like rubbish or completely ridiculous, but it’s a celebration of the joy of exploration, of discovery, of being surprised. And frankly, I got surprised. Not because of the stories, but because I did not see a single trailer for the episodes, nor did read anything online about them. Sure, I knew that at least two characters would have to reappear, but other than that I had no idea what an episode was about before I watched it. I did not even know in which time period the next story would take place. And there were no scenes in my mind — from a trailer or preview — that I knew were still to come. No information about the plot from reading about it.

And somehow that made all the difference.

Watching an episode not knowing how it might turn out … I had forgotten how that feels.

Preview of the next episode after an episode of “Doctor Who” ends.

Frankly, I would love to have the same experience with movies and other series. Just watch it without getting an advance organizer via a trailer or a comment. And sure, some movies/series you have figured out within the first five minutes. They are just that predictable. But others are not. And those should allow you to retain that joy of surprise. Unfortunately, some series seem to actively try to destroy it. These series (including Doctor Who) have a “Next Time” segment after each show (see right). Seriously? That’s the quickest way to destroy the effect this series has. The only advantage is that the “Next Time” transition takes long enough to quit the movie then and there.

Because not knowing what happens in an episode, being taken for a ride … that’s just what makes watching movies and series worthwhile.

It’s hard to achieve this effect as we are bombarded with information about what to see, but if you haven’t tried it and can pull it off, try it out sometimes. Perhaps you know someone who knows an old(er) movie you don’t know anything about. Watch it without being told the story or the plot.

And enjoy the difference.

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