“Whatever you do, don’t blink!”
We are indeed spoiled this season, as an episode by the obscenely talented Steven Moffat follows straight after the excellent Paul Cornell two-parter. And what an episode! Tasked with writing this year’s “Doctor-lite” story so the stars can film another episode simultaneously, Moffat has used the Doctor’s near-absence to exploit the full potential of the series’ main idea – time travel. Blink more fully realises the possibilities of the concept than any Doctor Who story ever before, all laced with Moffat’s trademark acid wit, and with one of the most unnerving monsters the new series has created.
Like the episode before it, Blink is based on a previously published bit of fiction – in this case a short story Moffat wrote for the 2006 Doctor Who Annual. That story showed a schoolgirl named Sally Sparrow discovering hidden messages from the trapped Doctor, beginning with scrawls under ancient wallpaper. This opening, lifted straight from the original, is a spooky bit of business, as a now somewhat older Sally Sparrow creeps into the local haunted house after dark (why do they always go after dark?).
The construction of the story was masterly, gradually revealing little clues to allow the viewer to piece together the tortuous temporal puzzle the author had created. The Doctor’s depiction of causality’s non-linear nature – “a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey…stuff” – was a hoot, but actually had a point. I’m not much of a quantum physicist, and I suspect neither is Steve Moffat, but there were some genuinely intriguing sci-fi concepts here.
In the near-absence of the Doctor and Martha, it was up to Sally Sparrow and Larry Nightingale to serve as the episode’s leads, and they did this superbly. Well-served by some excellent writing, Carey Mulligan made Sally a likeable, sympathetic heroine, with brains and a strong streak of determination. Finlay Robertson too was fun as Larry, a more rounded version of the internet-dwelling slacker stereotype than sci-fi normally offers. The two sparked off each other really well; I loved the introduction of Larry as he wandered unsuspectingly naked past Sally, inquiring as to whether he was actually wearing pants.
The rest of the characters were similarly well-realised. Sally’s friend Cathy, going from present day London to 1920 Hull, was a gutsy back-up, but the one that really made a mark was the flirtatious Detective Inspector Shipton, with his determined efforts to get Sally on a date. He also got one of the most emotionally affecting scenes in the episode, as he turned up again in his aged form to pass the Doctor’s message on to Sally just before he died. Normally, we might have expected the Doctor to turn up and whisk these people back to their proper place and time. The fact that he literally couldn’t without unravelling the complex web of causality that would lead to his rescue really hammered home the point about being unstuck in time, and how it could take people’s lives without killing them.
Which brings us to the Angels. How bloody scary were they?! Moffat, the man who gave us the gas-masked Empty Child and the unstoppable clockwork droids, has yet again come up with a concept spooky enough to give children a few nightmares. The idea of devouring potential energy by taking people out of their rightful time is unnerving enough, but then to make them “quantum” creatures who cannot move when observed is a masterstroke that also drives the story’s narrative in every regard. The sequence of Larry trying desperately not to take his eyes off one as it lunged for him was one of the tensest bits of telly I’ve seen in a long while, and the strobe lit climax perfectly exploited the concept, the creatures frozen in a new position with each flash. The scariness of the idea was augmented by some superb design work; the Angels were both convincing as placid statues and as lunging, sharp-toothed monstrosities. It did occur to me that there’s some very similar business with a stone angel in Stephen King’s haunted house epic Rose Red, but that was just a minor detail; here they were central to the plot.
Scary though it all undoubtedly was, still the script served up some choice Moffat quips. When Sally’s friend remarked that they should set up an investigative agency called Sparrow and Nightingale, Sally commented that it was “a bit ITV”, which had me laughing out loud as I remembered ITV shows like Rosemary and Thyme, where they seemed to think of the title first and the plot second. The one-sided conversation the Doctor was carrying on in the DVDs was also a hoot, the writing seeming to perfectly grasp the inherent goofiness of Tennant’s Doctor while still being deadly serious.
I loved the idea of the Doctor hiding messages as DVD easter eggs, which was both witty and intriguing. It also gave us a sequence set in a “DVD shop”, which curiously had posters for non-existent films like Acid Burn all over it. It’s an odd choice, given that fictitious video emporia normally advertise real films, but in one sense it’s a good idea; the episode will date far less noticeably than, say, Fear Her with its “Shayne Warde Greatest Hits” gag. Anyone remember him now? Thought not.
So, a genuinely interesting and complex story with a real human element; thrills, character and emotion throughout. I imagine this one will be a more universally popular Doctorless episode than last year’s love-it-or-hate-it Love and Monsters, being actually a far more trad Who story. Though the final “they’re all around you” scary montage of statues seemed a little hokey, I thought. All in all, though, another winner from Mr Moffat. Damn the man, he really is as talented as he thinks he is!
One final thing – like probably many others, I hated the BBC’s new presentation style, that resulted in the end credits being shoved into a tiny corner of the screen. It was the first time I’d seen this in action, though I knew it was coming. The final indignity, though, was having the screen then taken over by Graham Norton – the same man who’d already ruined a really suspenseful scene in the very first episode by talking all over it!