My good friend Cameron writes to me, about the latest episode of Doctor Who, entitled Blink:
Let me know when you’ve seen it, ‘cause I noticed something about the music at the end…
Couldn’t tell you about the music at the end. Too busy screaming.
Be warned that this review contains lots and lots of spoilers, m’kay?
Are we all seated comfortably? Good.
Steven Moffat is, beyond doubt, the best writer of the Doctor Who canon. He may be the BBC’s best writer, full stop. The man, perhaps best known as the showrunner of the classic BBC comedy Coupling has already demonstrated an incredible range in the revival. He creeped us out with a gas-masked boy in The Empty Child, he had us laughing with Captain Jack Harkness in The Doctor Dances and he broke our hearts with The Girl in the Fireplace. Now, with Blink, he turns his attention to scaring the crap out of us, and succeeds hands down.
Blink follows in the tradition, possibly established by Love and Monsters, of being the one episode of the season which features the Doctor only peripherally. But whereas Love and Monsters investigates the effects that the Doctor leaves in his wake, Blink is a traditional Doctor Who story, but told from the point of view of Sally Sparrow.
Sally is an aspiring photographer who sneaks into a derelict mansion named Westa Drumlins one night only to find a message written on a wall especially for her. Dear Sally Sparrow: Duck. No, really, duck now! With love, the Doctor (1969).
The Doctor’s presence continues to haunt Sally as she visits a friend’s house, where she sees his image plastered across a number of television screens. As the story goes on, it’s revealed that these are all a DVD Easter egg, that have mysteriously appeared in seventeen random movie releases, and they’re all a single message for her.
The message: watch out! The weeping stone angels haunting the gardens of Westa Drumlins are not as statuesque as they look. They freeze when they’re observed, but when nobody is looking, they move like lightning. They can zap people into the past, and they hunger for the Doctor’s TARDIS. They’re after you now, Sally, so if you see them, don’t turn around, don’t look away, and don’t blink.
Complementing Steven Moffat’s writing is newcomer director Hettie MacDonald, who makes an impressive debut with a remarkably understated effort. Quiet moments abound in Blink, with soft fade-ins to scenes and a gentle pace to the proceedings complementing Moffat’s light humour and little character touches — all the better, perhaps, to lull us into a false sense of security until the angels really start to move. MacDonald knows not to blow her whole wad, here, and saves the big scares for the climax, including an incredible scene where one of the characters is forced to test the Doctor’s admonition not to blink. Well, of course he does. And so marked the first time, ever, that Doctor Who made me scream.
This is old school horror, performed with slight-of-hand tricks and reliant on the agonizing suspense that builds and builds until a cathartic release, and it’s played to such perfection that it puts to shame every horror offering currently playing in our movie theatres. Nobody dies, here (violently). There is no blood spilled. Nobody even gets roughed up. And yet this is one of the most terrifying things I have ever seen.
Credit must go to the actors on this. Carey Mulligan shines as Sally Sparrow, carrying the bulk of the action as a feisty young heroine swept up by events. Her one scene with Tennant is a highlight, where she talks to a DVD recording with complete conviction.
Mulligan is ably helped by Lucy Gaskell as her friend Kathy Nightingale, whose rapport with Sally provides critical pathos as the angels’ cruel abilities are revealed. Michael Obiora and Louis Mahoney team up as young and old Detective Inspector Billy Shipton, who show Sally the terrible tragedy of possibilities unfulfilled, but it’s Finlay Robertson playing Kathy’s brother Larry that proves to be an excellent foil for Sally. And he’s the individual that provides us with the big scare of this story.
One thing that I really like about Steven Moffat’s story, here, which I think may be a trait of his writing, is that his characters get involved in extraordinary things, but they remain ordinary people. They may panic or freak as ordinary people would, but then they bear up and do extraordinary things, showing off a resilience that many of us just hope we have. Steven Moffat’s characters are fundamentally at peace with themselves; this may be partly the result of Moffat’s willingness to play with the fourth wall, but it still makes these characters quite compelling indeed. Take the case of Detective Inspector Billy Shipton, who took the task of waiting 38 years to get a critical message to Sally (and, incidentally, imbue those 17 DVDs with Easter Eggs). True, he may not have had any choice, but he did it anyway, and that makes him remarkable.
Steven Moffat may have set about to write a thriller, but it’s the elegance of his writing that leaves me flabbergasted. Doctor Who may be a show with a time machine in it, but Moffat is one of the few writers to write a real story about time travel. It is effortless, but carefully measured. Moffat’s humour balances the moments of fright and it makes the characters human. All of the plot developments confound Sally, and the viewer, but with the resolution you can see Moffat in the background, guiding all of the elements with the precision of a choreographer. And for all of the scares, this is a story about a young woman triumphing against adversary, surrounded by sympathetic ordinary people that help her along the way.
It’s also the best episode of this season so far. Quite possibly the best episode of Doctor Who, ever.
Doctor Who Notes
- I thought I recognized some of this story. Apparently, a fair chunk of Blink was adapted from a short story entitled What I Did on My Christmas Holidays by Sally Sparrow, also by Steven Moffat. The time travel elements, mostly, are what gets reused. The weeping angels did not feature.
- Steven Moffat loves to play with the fourth wall, but the little references and in-jokes are not extraneous, and build the plot. The cashier’s off-hand comment to the television screen of “why don’t you go to the police, you stupid woman!” actually pushes the story in a different direction, and the line from Larry that Sally “lives in a Scooby Doo” house says a lot about his character; not all of it complimentary.
- When Kathy Nightingale is transported to 1920, she marries and her youngest daughter is named Sally. When Detective Inspector Billy Shipton is transported to 1969, he marries a young woman named Sally. Coincidence, do you think? Or the same person as Time wraps all of its loose ends into a tight knot of timely wimely… things?
- Cameron notes: “the real point I wanted to make is: Sally Sparrow gives the Doctor a message that will come in useful in his future, which is her past. I don’t know exactly what part of this paradox we’re supposed to be paying attention to here, but when she gives him the package, the music playing is the theme that Murray Gold used for the Face of Boe.” As for your reservations — I don’t know; the fact that Kathy and Billy didn’t die wasn’t a comfort for me. Neither would being forced to emigrate to Australia, I think.
- Read more of Moffat’s juicy dialogue!
I’ll leave you with an exchange Erin and I had near the end of the story (second viewing) after the Doctor (SPOILER WARNING) tricked the weeping angels into looking at each other and Larry says that they’ll never be able to move again, ever.