Don't blink. How many times have I heard that during a near-lifetime of regular optician visits? Those hazy early days of getting to grips with contact lenses must have yielded more cries of “Don't blink” from the optician than the Doctor Who story called – er, I think, it's called, Blink.
You know – Blink. Also known as the one with the creepy statues. Or the one with the companion that never was. Or the one in which the Doctor Who team produce a Doctor-lite story that's to practically everyone's tastes, fans and casual viewers alike.
It's another award winner for author Steven Moffat, who's back on form after the so-so Girl In The Fireplace. Unlike the tale of the Fireplace Man, there's very little that's wrong with Blink. The smugness has been toned down. The story's a lot more gripping and a lot scarier than Fireplace. It's also crafted with such intricate skill and detail, making it one of the most tightly plotted stories in the entire Doctor Who canon. That it's also wrapped up in a matter of 45 minutes is also something of an achievement, considering how Moffat normally likes to take about 78 years to wrap up unsolved plot strands.
Looking back at Blink and comparing it with Moffat-produced tales, you can see how both this story and his other RTD-produced stories effectively act as dummy runs for the future.
There are two notable aspects of Blink that Moffat would slavishly depend on during his time as producer. The first is the deadly child's game. Moffat likes to take an innocent kid's game and turn it into something altogether more threatening. In this case, it's that old chestnut of statues, the game that you'd play at kiddie birthday parties in order to win the gaudy goodie bag.
In Blink, this is turned on its head by the dreaded Weeping Angels, one of the finest alien races to grace 21st century Doctor Who. The Angels are a masterpiece of design, with those hellish, tongue-waggling demon faces. What makes them stand out is the way in which they are shot. Director Hettie McDonald uses fast, jerky cuts to indicate movement. Note that we never see the Angels move of their own volition – but the short, sharp camera switches convey that sense of fast movement very well, and what's more, they add to the horror, especially when there's a sudden close-up of a leering Angel face.
McDonald makes the most of Moffat's script, and goes to town with a creepy, off-kilter look for the episode. The shots of Wester Drumlins are all low camera angles and moody lighting, resulting in one of the most convincing haunted houses seen in Doctor Who. Not only that, but McDonald has assembled a pretty impressive cast to bring the story to life – more on the dramatis personae later, but altogether McDonald's contribution is just as important as Moffat's in making this story such a success.
Let's get back to the other notable Moffat staple, which is what's known as the Timey Wimey bit. Incidentally, the Timey Wimey phrase is about the only thing wrong with this story, since it's one of those irritating catchphrases that Moffat delights in using over and over again to the point of head-knocking annoyance. It's one of those meaningless turns of phrase that battle it out with “Spoilers!” or “Hello Sweetie” as the smuggest Moffat phrase ever.
That aside, Blink does at least deal with the concept of time travel very well. It's done so in an intelligent, original and well thought out way. What I like about this is the way in which clues are slowly dotted throughout the story. At the time, they seem like random, throwaway ideas, but they are in fact, key elements of the story: The Doctor talking to Sally on a TV. Sally's DVD list. Billy's occupation. Larry scribbling notes for a transcript of the Doctor's apparently random burblings. They all come together and make sense at the end when Sally hands a passing Doctor all the notes that he'll need for when he lands in 1969. All very clever stuff – just like a tricky crossword puzzle, the solution of Blink isn't completed until the very end. Those vital gaps are missing along the way, but it's fun trying to piece it all together. By the story's end, it's satisfying that all the loose ends are tied up in a way that makes logical sense and in a manner that doesn't feel too contrived.
Perhaps the only downside of this is the way in which Moffat would repeat this complicated time travel theme in his own time as producer – and with variable results. At least in Blink, the time travel idea is used well and imaginatively, but it's a shame that Moffat would plunder this concept just a bit too much in the future.
Another notable point about the solution of Blink is how it's all achieved with such mundane, everyday objects and gadgets. One of the best of these is the use of the DVD Easter Eggs, surely a sly nod to the Doctor Who range of DVDs, which is packed to the gills with sock puppets, continuity announcements and blank title sequences. Even the bumbling Larry, it could be argued, is the stereotypical geeky Doctor Who fan, although thankfully, it's a step-up from the Whizzkid of The Greatest Show In The Galaxy. With that in mind, there's also the transcript of what the Doctor says, and his handy timey wimey detector which is made from what looks like a Fisher Price egg making machine for kids.
It's a refreshing change from the usual Deux Ex Machina get-out clauses that sometimes hamper NuWho stories. This time around, it's all down to a considerable amount of brainpower and smart thinking – not to mention a machine that can boil an egg at only a few paces.
With the Doctor and Martha stuck in 1969, it's left to other characters to drive this episode forward. Blink is mainly carried by Sally Sparrow, a one-time character that's been touted so many times as a possible future companion by the fans. It's unlikely that this will happen, given that actress Carey Mulligan is a bit too busy these days with countless film projects on the go.
If Sally Sparrow's popularity has been overstated, then it's only by a little. On paper, she's nothing that we haven't seen before – a tough but sensitive girl who's prone to making sly wisecracks when the fancy takes her. Carey Mulligan, however, adds a lot of charm to Sally, adding the required pathos when needed, such as when she reads the goodbye letter from Kathy or when she's saying goodbye to old Billy in the hospital. She also gets a lot of great lines as well, such as “I'm clever and I'm listening. And don't patronise me because people have died and I'm not happy” or my own personal favourite “I love old things – they make me feel sad” to which she replies to Kathy's bemused question of what's good about sad: “It's happy for deep people”. I think that Sally would have made quite a good companion. She's clever and independent without being too smug - a miracle.
Sally gels well with the geeky Larry – Finlay Robertson turns in a good performance, and he conveys the shy nerdiness of the character well. Elsewhere in the story we get two Billy Shiptons for the price of one. It's odd – the Billy character doesn't take up that much screen time, but despite this, he becomes one of the most effective characters of the story. Billy's story is a sad one. He starts out all super-confident when trying to snag a date off Sally (“See, you're missing the big question... will you have a drink with me?”). But in only a matter of minutes, he's no longer the cool dude, but an elderly dying man, sadly contemplating his last few moments in a hospital on a rainy day (“Oh look at my hands,” says the old Billy wistfully. “They're old man hands. How did that happen?”). The character of Billy shows that Moffat can actually do emotion well. Far from the sometime overblown histrionics, Billy's final scene is just a quiet chinwag with his former hot girl, full of regret at the passing of time. The subtlety makes this final farewell to Billy quite moving, even if he's been on the screen for about five minutes.
It also helps that both actors do a sterling job. Michael Obiora (better known at the time for his work on Hotel Babylon as receptionist Ben) is excellent as the younger version, making for a character who's both confident and likeable. Just as good is Louis Mahoney who makes a welcome return to the show after two cameos in Frontier In Space and Planet Of Evil. Neither of his earlier roles as the newscaster or Ponti really showcased what Mahoney could really do, but in this instance, he delivers a belter of a performance, full of understated charm and mournful sadness at his coming demise.
In fact, all of the actors do very well, even though most of the characters get limited screen time. Richard “Son Of Brian” Cant delivers a quietly subtle turn as the enigmatic Malcolm. It's a nice twist that at first, we think he's the creepy alien mastermind, when in fact, he's just an ordinary guy delivering a message on behalf of his granny, Kathy Nightingale. Lucy Gaskell does well as Kathy, and there's a nice turnaround in the fact that Kathy isn't going to be a central character. At the beginning, there's every reason to think that Sally and Kathy will solve the mystery of Wester Drumlins, but in fact, she becomes the first victim of the Weeping Angels.
Creepy, memorable monsters. Well-drawn characters. An ingenious and tightly plotted script. This is everything that you could ask for in a Doctor Who script, and the fact that the Doctor's hardly around much seems like an irrelevance (even in his cameo role, David Tennant turns in another strong performance). Blink showcases the very best of Moffat's skills as a scriptwriter, and keeps the smugness and tortuous over-complexity to a minimum. It's beautifully shot, superbly acted, and boasts a fantastic refined score from Murray Gold, which also reins in the over-indulgence. It deserves its reputation as one of the modern classics of Doctor Who.
* Don't blink. Don't forget to look up John Bensalhia on Amazon. Don't miss his excellent value ebook guides to Pertwee, Baker and Davison-style Doctor Who!
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