Freeze frame: “If the wind changes – or you press pause – my face’ll stay like this… oh pants”
Yes, peeps, we’re less than two weeks away from the big day itself now, ‘The Day Of The Doctor’, the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who (1963-present). Actually, to be precise, we’re 10 days away from it, so what better post to, er, post today than a tribute to the Tenth Doctor’s era of NuWho – combining with this blog‘s latest in its countdown to the half-century date by way of close-ups/ reviews of great Who stories of lore?
And, dare I say it, you’ve got to be fast with this one – real fast. For Blink and you’ll miss it. Geddit? Geddit? All right, I’ll get my full-length, suede Tenth Doctor coat…
Doctor: David Tennant (The Tenth Doctor)
Companion: Freema Agyeman (Martha Jones)
Villains: The Weeping Angels (Aga Blonska and Elen Thomas)
Allies: Carey Mulligan (Sally Sparrow); Finlay Robertson (Larry Nightingale); Lucy Gaskell (Kathy Nightingale); Michael Obiora (DI Billy Shipton); Louis Mahoney (Old Billy)
Writer: Steven Moffat
Producer: Phil Collinson
Executive Producers: Russel T Davies and Julie Gardner
Director: Hettie McDonald
Season: New Season 3 (10th of 13 episodes – 45-minutes-long)
Original broadcast date: June 9 2007
Total viewers: 6.6 million
Previous episode: The Family Of Blood
Next episode: Utopia
Sally Sparrow, a young woman with lashings of curiosity and a love of ‘old things’, can’t help investigating an old house (named Wester Drumlins) in the area of London in which she lives. In one of the rooms she discovers writing on a wall, the edge of which is just viewable from behind peeling wallpaper. She peels off the old wallpaper in random strips to find, each time, complete messages, which taken all together, warn her (addressing her by name) to beware the ‘Weeping Angels’ – she looks out the window to see a stone statue of an angel that seems to be crying into its hands – and the messages are signed of with ‘love from The Doctor’.
Shaken but more curious than ever, Sally goes round to her friend Kathy Nightingale’s flat – at 1.00am in the morning. And, while there, discovers Kathy shares the flat with her brother Larry, as the latter walks out of the bathroom not wearing any clothes, much to Sally’s amusement. Having persuaded Kathy to do so, Sally and her friend visit Wester Drumlins the following day (Kathy joking they could be professional investigators named ‘Sparrow and Nightingale – it so works’, to which Sally replies ‘Yeah, for ITV’). While snooping around the house, they hear a knock on the front door; scared, Kathy hides in the back of the house, while Sally opens it on a man whom admits he has a strange assignment to carry out. He must hand over to her at exactly this location and at exactly this time on exactly this day an envelope addressed to her from his grandmother, whose maiden name was Kathy Costello Nightingale.
Sally is angry at this, assuming it’s a joke and Kathy’s responsible, but just as a door slams shut in the house (the door Kathy had been hiding and listening behind), she takes the envelope from the man and, opening it, discovers photographs of Kathy on her own and others seemingly with family members dressed in old-fashioned garb, as well as a letter that explains at exactly this point Kathy inexplicably had been transported to Hull back in the year 1920 and, no doubt, would be dead by the time Sally read the letter. True to the letter’s explanation, Kathy seems to have vanished without a trace, yet there’s several angel statues standing in a room and clasped in the hand of one of them is a Yale lock on a string; Sally pulls the key free and pockets it. Visiting Kathy’s grave nearby, Sally learns she happily lived out the rest of her life in the past, dying in the year 1987.
Fulfilling a request in Kathy’s letter, she then visits the DVD store where Larry works to somehow explain to him his sister’s gone away and won’t be coming back. This she manages to do and observes Larry is watching on a TV screen a bespectacled, intelligent-looking if eccentric-sounding chap conversing with someone who isn’t there. Larry explains this is an ‘easter egg’ (a hidden bonus offering on a DVD), which while being a strange thing itself is even stranger as it’s only to be found on 17 random DVDs. Entire topics of discussions on Internet forums have sprouted up around this phenomenon, he explains to – again – an amused Sally; he’s even transcribed the man’s ‘conversation’. Then, just as he disappears to fetch her the list of 17 DVDs, Sally finds herself bizarrely interacting with the man on the screen, as if in conversation with him. Becoming more than a little concerned by what’s going on now, she decides enough is enough and visits the local police station.
Larry Nightingale: Me and the guys are trying to work out the other half
Sally Sparrow: When you say ‘you and the guys’, you mean the Internet, don’t you?
Larry Nightingale: How’d you know?
Sally Sparrow: Spooky, isn’t it?
Struggling to convince the desk sergeant that all she’s experienced isn’t fanciful cobblers, Sally eventually is passed on to young and handsome Detective Inspector Billy Shipton, whom leads her down to a garage. The cars that fill the space, Billy explains, have all relatively recently been found outside Wester Drumlins, their owners having seemingly disappeared into thin air. It’s a mystery that’s totally unsolvable. The prize of the collection, however, is an old-fashioned blue police telephone box, but this one is a ‘fake’; the windows in its door are too large and there’s no telephone to be found in the space where it should be in the door. Plus, although the door’s keyhole looks like it should take an ordinary Yale key, no such key can open it. Billy, clearly enamoured with Sally, asks her out on a date, but Sally merely gives him her phone number.
After she leaves, Billy notices from out of nowhere a group of stone angels have suddenly been positioned in front of the telephone box. A surreal and impossible thing, he goes up to the scene to investigate and, while looking into the face of one statue, blinks… and finds himself instantly transported to an entirely different location. He’s soon joined by a spiky-haired, fast-talking chap dressed in a pin-stripe suit and sneakers, along with an attractive young woman.
This man we recognise as The Doctor and the girl introduces herself as his traveling companion Martha Jones. The Doctor explains that, like has happened to Billy (and we assume Kathy), they’ve been sent back into the past by ‘The Weeping Angels’, whom by waiting for a victim to close their eyes in front of them (or merely blink) are able to move towards them, touch them and transport them back in time. The Angels, according to the Doc, are ‘the only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely’; they are time-locked when anybody or anything is looking at them (ensuring they can’t look at each other), so move and incredibly quickly when not looked at. Creatures of the abstract, they feed off potential energy – the days a person would have lived having been sent back in time by an Angel. Billy then, like the Doc and Martha, has been sent back to 1969. And for Billy unfortunately there’s no way back; for the Doc and Martha though (who’ve been sent back without the TARDIS, which in the present the Angels want to get their hands on for all the time energy they sense it contains) there may be a way back to the TARDIS, so long as Billy can pass on a message, but he’s going to have to wait a long time to deliver it…
Back in the present, Sally gets a phone call asking her to visit the local hospital at once. In a bed at the end of a ward, she discovers lying in it a very old Billy, whom has been waiting until this point on this day to pass on to her his message from The Doctor (having known he had to ever since meeting the latter in 1969, he couldn’t do so before though, because he had to wait until he’d met Sally in the present). The Doc’s message is for Sally to look at the list of 17 DVDs. Billy, dying within moments (The Doctor had told him he would die immediately after meeting Sally again), explains too that it was him, as a DVD engineer, whom put the ‘easter eggs’ on the DVDs. Sally looks at the list and immediately knows what she must do… she phones Larry and tells him to bring one of the ‘easter egg’-featuring DVDs and a portable DVD player – what connects all 17 DVDs on the list is that they’re the 17 she owns herself.
The Doctor: People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… stuff
Rendezvousing at Wester Drumlins then (which Larry refers to as ‘Scooby-Doo’s house’), the two sit down and watch the entire ‘easter egg’. As Larry looks on, Sally suddenly properly interacts with the Doc, perfectly filling in the gaps in his half-conversation; all along then the half-conversation the Doc was having on the ‘easter egg’ is actually a conversation he’s ‘having with her’ right now (see video clip above). Sally asks him how this could be possible, to which he tells her to look to her left – Larry is writing in her bits of the conversation in his transcript. The conversation comes to an end, though, before the Doc’s told Sally and Larry how to escape from the Angels – him having told them they can’t take their eyes off them – because Larry’s doing just that, staring at an Angel in the garden and has stopped transcribing (ergo the conversation can’t carry on). It’s up to Sally and Larry now.
As Larry struggles to remain staring at the Angel, Sally finds a door leading into a cellar, which may lead to a way out of the house. She descends into the cellar, Larry behind her, and there they find the group of Angels around the TARDIS (which they’ve brought here). Sally goes up to the TARDIS – Larry still maintaining all the Angels’ stares – and is about to put in the door’s lock the Yale key she earlier pulled from an Angel’s grasp, but the Angels somehow switch off the cellar’s lights.
Fumbling in the dark to find the lock and turn the key, Sally – followed by Larry – finally tumbles into the amazingly bigger-on-the-inside TARDIS and, immediately, a hologram of the Doc appears, telling them to insert into a slot in the time console an ‘easter egg’-featuring DVD that the TARDIS recognises one of them has. This Larry does, the result of which is that the TARDIS begins frighteningly to dematerialise around them – it’s returning to The Doctor and Martha in ’69 and leaving them behind. Sally and Larry cower to the floor surrounded by the Angels. However, swiftly they realise the Doc has tricked their foe because right before the TARDIS dematerialised all the Angels were staring at the blue box, therefore when it disappeared they ended up staring at each other; now they can neither look away or move ever again. The pair get up and leave.
One year later, Sally and Larry are running a rare DVDs and book shop together (named ‘Sparrow and Nightingale’), but Sally’s still hung up on the fantastic and unbelievable adventure that brought them together; all the documents and notes of which she keeps in a file. Larry admonishes her, asking whether it’s ‘getting in the way of other things’ between them. As he goes out to buy some milk, Sally rushes out of the shop; she’s just seen the Doc and Martha getting out of a taxi in the street. She goes up to him and introduces herself (see bottom video clip). The Doctor apologises, saying he has no idea who she is and that things for him sometimes don’t happen in the right order. And then it hits her – the reason why the Doc was able to warn her of the Angels and record the half-conversation with Billy as an ‘easter egg’ for her was because she is going to give him the file (containing Larry’s transcript) right now. The mystery solved and this chapter of her life closed, she bids the Doc and Martha goodbye just as Larry returns, whose hand she takes in hers and holds.
There’s no doubt Blink is one of the greatest episodes of ‘NuWho’ – actually, it’s so good it has to be one of the very best of Who‘s entire 50-year canon. And, like pretty much all the show’s outstanding stories, its greatness starts with one thing – its writing. Blink wasn’t the first episode of Who that Steven Moffat had written (he’d also scripted the very good and very well received double-header The Empty Child/ The Doctor Dances from 2005’s New Season 1 and 2006’s Madame de Pompadour-toting The Girl In The Fireplace from the following season), but owing to its unadulteratedly marvelous time-twisty-fixated and head-scratchy script, it was arguably the first that made casual – as well as utter die-hard – Who fans really sit up and take notice of his abilities. The intelligent complexity of its writing – it bears similarity with time-paradox-like efforts of the big-screen such as Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2001) and Back To The Future Part II (1989) – was really unlike anything consumed before by a Saturday tea-time audience watching a BBC family drama, even Doctor Who.
Blink then broke new ground; the following year Moffat would deliver his similarly complicated but excellently plotted double-header Silence In The Library/ Forest Of The Dead (2008), then when he became show-runner himself we got the likes of The Pandorica Opens/ The Big Bang (2010) to conclude New Season 5 and The Impossible Astronaut/ Day Of The Moon (2011) to kick-off the next one. Yet, unlike these often epic two-part stories, Blink has something else – a terrific tightness of plotting and smaller scale/ running time that makes it arguably even more of a polished diamond than they are. It may be a 45-minute-long adventure that’s so clever-clever it asks much of its audience, but never too much to turn it off – it’s perhaps the perfect combination of smarty-pants plotting and dramatic duration.
The other significant area where Blink excels is in its characters. And perhaps what makes this so emphatic is that both David Tennant‘s hugely Tenth Doctor and Freema Agyeman’s companion Martha Jones feature in it so little (more on that below). Specifically, this episode offers us a couple of doozies in terms of protagonist and villain/ monster – Carey Mulligan’s Sally Sparrow and the never-seen-before Weeping Angels. No question, in addition to Moffat’s writing, Sally Sparrow is such a fine heroine because of Mulligan’s terrific thesping; once viewed, it’s utterly unthinkable anyone else could have played her. She imbues Sally with not just intelligence, resourcefulness and gutsiness (per any of today’s adventure heroines), but also a lovely blend of melancholia (sad is ‘happy for deep people’) and an appealing charm and humour (a perfect example being her in the DVD shop waiting for Larry to remember where he recognises her from: ‘There it is…’).
Sally Sparrow is often cited as the greatest companion-that-never-was in NuWho (if not of all Who) – a sentiment with which this blogger isn’t about to disagree. Frankly, if she’d have appeared opposite Tennant’s Doc throughout this season instead of the lovely yet underwritten Martha Jones – and been realised somewhere near as well as she was here – well, it could have transformed the season into an utter stonker. Still, in the words of Doris Day, que sera sera; she remains an exquisite, wonderful one-off addition to the ‘Whoniverse’.
As for the Angels, they’re surely the finest villain/ monster devised for NuWho. Truly, they’re up there with the very best (the Daleks, the Cybermen and The Master). Properly scary owing to a brilliant conceit – if you merely blink in their presence, you’re done for – they’re the stuff of psychological horror at its finest, while also being aesthetically perfect in their gothic appearance; all hard yet beautifully dignified like characters frozen in stone from The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe (1950), but baring fangs as soon as they suddenly move. I was in my late 20s when Blink was originally broadcast and, I’m not afraid to admit, they were the first monsters of NuWho that unnerved me in the manner others did in the Classic series. Lord knows how scary I’d have found them if I were younger or they’d debuted in the show 20 years earlier.
In many ways, Blink is rather a slight episode of Who. It doesn’t feature many characters (as mentioned, there’s little of the Doc himself), doesn’t take place across a broad or fantastic canvas of a setting and features a simple but utterly brilliant foe. Its pay-load then, is undoubtedly its smarts-heavy writing. Yet, Carey Mulligan’s heroine, the perfect realisation of the Angels and (let’s not overlook it) the pitch-perfect direction from the first woman to helm NuWho, Hettie McDonald, are all crucial contributors too. Small but perfectly formed then – and Who at pretty much its perfect best.
Very few episodes of Doctor Who can claim to have originated as stories from other Who media, but Blink certainly can. Effectively it began as the short story What I Did On My Christmas Holidays By Sally Sparrow, written by Steven Moffat for the 2006 Doctor Who Annual. Moffat took the basic premise of his story (the Doc – Christopher Eccleston’s in this instance – communicating to Sally Sparrow – here a child – via a video message from another time and place) and altered it (Sally became an adult because, maybe oddly, Moffat decreed that children don’t like watching other children acting, and the Weeping Angels were introduced as major foes) and adapted it into the episode’s script. In fact, two further NuWho episodes have also been adapted from other media: New Season 1’s Dalek (2005) by Robert Shearsmith from his audio drama Jubilee (2003) and New Season 3’s Human Nature/ The Family Of Blood (2007) by Paul Cornell from his novel Human Nature (1995).
The notion for the Weeping Angels as Who monsters came to Moffat when he observed such an angel statue while on a family holiday, while also thinking back to the playground game ‘statues’ (participants can only move towards a chosen person when theat person’s back’s turned and must freeze when they turn round), which apparently he’d always found scary. Portrayed rather marvelously by only two actresses (Aga Blonska and Elen Thomas), the Angels’ costumes featured masks and outfits of a fabric soaked in fibreglass resin so they looked firm and like stone. CGI was used in post-production to ensure they remained genuinely frozen when standing still.
Moffat had first intended the Angels to debut in his double-header Silence In The Library/ The Forest Of The Dead (in which later favourite River Song actually did debut), but these stories had originally been planned for New Season 3 and eventually Moffat was unable to commit to writing them at that point, so instead agreed to take on that season’s ‘Doctor-lite’ episode which would become Blink, introduced the Angels then and substituted the invisible Vashta Nerada as monsters for the next season’s double-header. The Angels have, of course, highly successfully appeared twice more in the show – New Season 5’s The Time Of Angels/Flesh And Stone (2010) and as the cause of companions Amy Pond and Rory Williams’ swansong in last season’s The Angels Take Manhattan (2012).
The fact Blink‘s a ‘Doctor-lite’ episode (an episode that features little of The Doctor so the main actor could film another episode at the same time) may be a little ironic as it’s generally seen as the greatest episode from the tenure of David Tennant, the most popular Doctor incarnation since (if not including) Tom Baker‘s. What isn’t ironic, though – and in hindsight certainly not surprising – is how good Carey Mulligan is as protagonist Sally Sparrow.
Mulligan was just 21 when the episode was filmed, but afterwards swiftly went on to become a film star. She was rightly nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for An Education (2009) and added the likes of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), Drive (2011) and The Great Gatsby (2013) to her CV, as well as an acclaimed performance in the Royal Court and then transferred-to-Broadway production of Chekov’s The Seagull. In his present role as show-runner, Moffat has said it would be wonderful to get Mulligan back as Sally Sparrow but that she’s now ‘gone on to bigger and better things’. I’m not sure I’d necessarily say she’s gone to ‘better’ things myself, but she’s certainly gone deservedly stratospheric following her brush with Who.
Mind you, her award wins actually began with Blink, as her efforts here saw her receive 2007’s Constellation Award for Best Female Performance in a Sci-Fi TV Episode. The story too won that year’s Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) – the winning of which NuWho has made a speciality over the years – and two years after its initial broadcast it was voted by readers of the beloved Doctor Who Magazine the second greatest Who episode of all-time – behind the equally awesome The Caves Of Androzani (1984). To sum up then, any which way you close your eyes and think about it, Blink‘s a blinkin’ stone-cold, immovable Who classic.
Next time: The Pandorica Opens/ The Big Bang (New Season 5/ 2010)
Previous close-ups/ reviews:
Rose (New Season 1/ 2005/ Doctor: Christopher Eccleston)
Doctor Who: The Movie (1996/ Main Doctor: Paul McGann)
The Caves Of Androzani (Season 21/ 1984/ Doctor: Peter Davison)
The Five Doctors (Special/ 1983/ Main Doctor: Peter Davison)
City Of Death (Season 17/ 1979/ Doctor: Tom Baker)
The Talons Of Weng-Chiang (Season 15/ 1977/ Doctor: Tom Baker)
The Deadly Assassin (Season 14/ 1976/ Doctor: Tom Baker)
Pyramids Of Mars (Season 13/ 1975/ Doctor: Tom Baker)
Genesis Of The Daleks (Season 12/ 1975/ Doctor: Tom Baker)
The Ark In Space (Season 12/ 1975/ Doctor: Tom Baker)
The Dæmons (Season 8/ 1971/ Doctor: Jon Pertwee)
Inferno (Season 7/ 1970/ Doctor: Jon Pertwee)
The War Games (Season 6/ 1969/ Doctor: Patrick Troughton)
An Unearthly Child (Season 1/ 1963/ Doctor: William Hartnell)