On my intro page, it says I’m not going to instantly assume that the stories everyone loves are automatically brilliant. And the example I chose was Blink, an episode consistently voted as one of the best, if not the best episode, of New Who. And while it might be diverting to argue that Blink is not the all-conquering classic it’s reputed to be, I couldn’t keep it up. Truth is, Blink is an outstanding example of Doctor Who. At the time of writing it has a rating of 9.8/10 on imdb.com, based on 10,582 votes. That’s a lot of 9s and 10s.
Radio Times readers recently voted it their favourite episode since the series’ return in 2005. Writer Steven Moffat was gracious about the honour:
You know, when I wrote it, I thought Blink was a perfectly serviceable script. Nothing special, did the job – which, back then, was to have a Doctor Who story needing only two days’ shooting from David Tennant… What made it a little bit magical was, of course, the work of others…Some days everything just works.
Moffat is right to point out that this was a team effort, but he downplays his own role in its success a little too modestly. His script is the tightest ever written for the series; there’s barely a word out of place. It’s not perfect of course – you have to accept the central paradox that no one wrote the Doctor’s half of his conversation with heroine Sally Sparrow for the story to work (the bootstrap paradox, recently tutorialised for us by Before the Flood) and Martha has no useful role to play, criminally underusing the terrific Freema Agyeman, and why would a Weeping Angel which can move like quicksilver need to disable its victim by bunging a rock at ’em? – but these are quibbles. Overall, it’s a beautifully crafted piece of work.
Each scene moves effortlessly, logically but never predictably into the next. The dialogue is smart and subtle and often poignant. The stakes are gradually raised throughout each act, till we reach a truly riveting finale, with the Angels stalking our heroes in order to gain access to the TARDIS. The resolution with the TARDIS departing leaving the Angels tricked into paralyzing each other, is novel and satisfying, and there’s a cute little postscript to wrap up the loose ends. Honestly, film schools will be using this as a set text.
As for “the work of others” as Moff puts it, foremost there’s director Hettie MacDonald, who not only tells the story with pace and endows it with slick, spooky style, she creates the visual grammar for the Weeping Angels – sudden cuts, unnerving shot choices, big close ups on those blank faces – which many after her have taken up. She’s recently returned for The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar, and it’s a mystery why it’s taken so long. Ernie Vinzce’s photography is flawless, adding a noirish sheen to it all. Millennium FX’s designs for the Weeping Angels make them modern day Ray Cusicks. And in the middle of it all Carey Mulligan, five minutes away from superstardom, being beautiful and strong and holding our attention as well as any Doctor could.
No wonder then, that Doctor Who has never really recovered from Blink. Every episode since exists in its shadow.
Ah, the heady days of 2007. As I mentioned when talking about Voyage of the Damned, Doctor Who was flying high that year. Two spin off shows, two companion factual show and Kylie Minogue for Christmas. But Steven Moffat’s expectations for Blink, that poor Doctor-lite, mid-season filler were not high. “I doubt Blink will top any polls, because of the simple fact that Doctor Who should do what it says on the tin,” said Moffat in DWM 383, “which is provide you with David Tennant popping out of his TARDIS and kicking the crap out of alien nasties,”
These days it’s a surprise when Blink doesn’t top a poll. When the Moff was presented with an award from DWM in 2014 for writing the most popular story of all time, he was challenged to predict which story earned him this honour. “Is it Blink? It’s always Blink,” he warily guessed. (Not on this occasion. Perhaps it was just the 50th anniversary afterglow talking, but this time it was The Day of the Doctor. Blink came second.) Even the Moff seems slightly worried that Blink is going to be the height of his Who career; years of showrunning and he’s never quite put that lightning back in the bottle.
But that’s not stopped him from trying. The Angels have made numerous reappearances, although it’s not those that feel so much like an attempt to recapture that old Blinky magic. I think it’s first noticeable in the creation of the Silence, monsters which, like the Angels, are tricksy when viewed. Then there’s Deep Breath, named like Blink after an reflexive bodily function which you have to suppress the urge to do to stay alive. And then there’s Listen, again named after something we all do, but which features a briefly features a ‘monster’ you mustn’t look at. (I look forward to Sneeze and less so to Fart. Featuring the Slitheen.) There’s also the tendency for things to happen to the Doctor out of order, as seen in many a tale – The Big Bang, The Impossible Astronaut and so on, but it starts here, in the timey wimey Blink.
This hero worship of a story has happened before. There’s 1960s thriller The Web of Fear, which spawned the near-identical The Invasion and led to a whole string of stories with the military protecting the Earth from alien incursion. As late as Invasion of the Dinosaurs, there are still monsters lurking in the London Underground. Then there’s 1980s crash wallop Earthshock, which brought about no end of stories featuring returning monsters and downbeat endings. We might also add City of Death to that list, because its Parisian exteriors inspired later trips to Amsterdam, Lanzarote and Seville.
None of this is a bad thing. Doctor Who should seek to emulate its best episodes. Its producers would be mad not to. And if it feels like things are a little familiar from time to time, it’s hardly the worst crime. But here’s to the day when an even better episode than Blink comes along. That will truly be something to not take your eyes off.
LINK to The End of the World. Both feature characters communicating across time (Rose & Jackie and Sally & the Doctor).
NEXT TIME. It’s The Curse of Peladon and that’s a solid hairy fact.