The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Angels On The Balcony

Back in 2009 I wrote an appreciation of the Doctor Who story Blink for the DWM Mighty 200 poll-winners special. Having recently rediscovered the article scrawled beneath some wallpaper, I thought I’d stick it up on my blog.


Back when the return of Doctor Who was first announced, one of the great controversies of fan debate was whether or not the show should try to be ‘fan-pleasing’. The argument being that, on the one hand, the show should prioritize ‘casual viewers’, children in particular, and that getting bogged down in its own mythology had been one of the reasons why audiences had fallen out of love with it during the 1980s. On the other hand, Doctor Who wouldn’t be Doctor Who if it didn’t occasionally bring back old monsters, if the TARDIS wasn’t a Police Box, if the Doctor wasn’t a Time Lord; that pleasing the fans needn’t preclude appealing to a wider audience, because on the whole, fans tend to enjoy exactly the same things about the show as everyone else.

Which is why Blink, one of the series most acclaimed episodes, also happens to be the one which does the most to please the fans. This isn’t a coincidence.

What do Doctor Who fans want? I think, at heart, we all want the same thing. We want to be swept out of our normal lives and into the universe of Doctor Who. That’s the most fundamental fan wish-fulfilment fantasy there is. That’s what we’ve spent long afternoons during Geography lessons dreaming about; that one day we might see a certain familiar Police Box at the end of the road.

It’s why there are so many Doctor Who stories written about young boys and girls getting caught up in one of the Doctor’s adventures. It’s the basis of What I Did On My Christmas Holidays By Sally Sparrow, the story that inspired Blink which first appeared in the 2006 Doctor Who Annual. And yet, despite its obvious potential, it’s an idea that had never really been explored in the TV series; before Blink, Rose and Love & Monsters were about as close as it had got.

All female fans watching want to be Sally Sparrow. She’s intelligent, artistic, confident and extremely pretty. She talks in witty one-liners that would give CJ out of The West Wing a run for her money. She doesn’t scream, she doesn’t twist her ankle, and wherever she goes, men fall hopelessly in love with her.

For the male fans, there’s Larry Nightingale. The geek’s geek. He spends his time either on the internet or watching DVDs a little bit too intently. He looks remarkably like Shaggy from Scooby Doo. He’s not good with girls, frequently embarrassing himself, and whilst he’s quite intelligent, he has devoted far too much of his brain to pointless film and television trivia. Yet at the end of the story he has Sally Sparrow for a girlfriend.

That’s one way in which Blink is ‘fan-pleasing’. It’s a story that hinges on fan obsessions – conspiracy theories, DVD easter eggs - where Larry’s nerdiness proves invaluable in revealing the truth. It makes us feel proud to be nerds like him. It almost makes being a science-fiction anorak seem romantic.

Another key part of this episode’s appeal is that although the Doctor is largely absent, the story is all about him - about asking the question “Doctor Who?” What little we see of him is strange and unsettling; a sinister face on a flickering television screen, a name scrawled on a wall, or mentioned in passing by Billy Shipton on his death bed. It’s building on the idea of the Doctor as a shadowy, mythic figure lurking in the background of history, as introduced in the scenes with Clive in Rose and Elton in Love & Monsters. The Doctor is made to seem mysterious again, and there’s nothing fans enjoy more than the Doctor being mysterious. That’s what made us first fall in love with the character, after all. It’s something most of these poll-topping stories have in common – they all seek to re-emphasize the mystery of the character in some way, making him seem more enigmatic, more extraordinary, more fascinating than before.

Another fan-pleasing element of this story is its use of time. For a show about time travel, Doctor Who has rarely used time travel itself as a plot point (time travel usually being simply a device used to move from one story to the next). There’s Mawdryn Undead, The Space Museum, Day Of The Daleks  and that bit in Battlefield where a future Doctor leaves a note for his former self, but that’s about it for shenanigans in the fourth dimension.

Yet the possibilities of time travel have always been a source of fascination to fans, having been thoroughly explored in the spin-off books, audios and short stories – not least Steven Moffat’s first Doctor Who story, Continuity Errors, in which the Doctor changes someone’s past in order to persuade them to allow him to borrow a library book, or his second story, The Curse Of Fatal Death, where the Doctor and the Master both travel ever further back in time to bribe the castle architect.

But Blink takes the idea of ‘timey-wimey’ storytelling to the next level, as the whole plot is effectively the slow reveal of an ontological paradox (i.e. the idea that you could send a note back through time telling yourself to send the same note back through time). It’s like watching a well-oiled jigsaw fall into place like a badly-chosen mixed metaphor... sorry, that sentence got away from me. It’s a Howdunnit, where the puzzle is in trying to figure out how all the chains of cause-and-effect fit together; a puzzle which can only be completed with a satisfying ‘thunk’ as we’re presented with the final piece of the jigsaw – Sally handing the Doctor the instructions on what the Doctor should say to her – at which point suddenly the big picture becomes clear.

It’s extremely well-done, with the sort of ingenuity that particularly appeals to those types who like things to Make Sense and who tend to notice when they don’t. The audience feel that their intelligence is being flattered (in the same way that we are made to feel clever with the ‘quantum locked’ explanation of observation affecting the Weeping Angels – it doesn’t actually make sense but because we’ve been made to feel clever we don’t mind). It’s a great feeling, the same rush you get from having solved a crossword or understood a tricky piece of maths.

But on top of that, the story uses time travel on an emotional level, using it to create explore ideas about nostalgia, of lost opportunities; most potently in the scene where Billy Shipton muses on having grown old (in what, for us and Sally Sparrow, has been the Blink of an eye) – “Look at my hands. They’re old man’s hands. How did that happen?” As Sally observes, there’s something inexorably sad about old things (“It’s happy for deep people”) – an observation which comes back to haunt her as her friend Kathy becomes an image in a sepia photograph. Most heartbreaking of all is the beautiful, poetic moment when Sally observes that “It’s the same rain” – a life foreshortened in the time taken for a raindrop to stumble and slither down a window pane.

(That said, there’s also something very fan-pleasing about the notion of being transported back in time. It’s another wish-fulfilment fantasy; to suddenly find yourself transported back to the early 1960s, with nothing to do except win money betting on future events which you could then use to bribe BBC staff to give you access to the original videotapes of Fury From The Deep. If Weeping Angels really did exist, Doctor Who fans would be forming a queue outside Wester Drumlins clutching portable DVD recorders and autograph books.)

There’s one other way in which Blink is fan-pleasing; it’s scary. As scary for grown-ups as it is for children. Fans like nothing better than when Doctor Who frightens them and Blink is about as scary as Doctor Who can get; playing on the primal fear of things shifting out of sight (and the playground game ‘Grandmother’s footsteps’) and the horror movie staple that someone is in the room behind you right now as you’re reading this article in DWM. Like a horror movie, the viewer’s eye is spent constantly scanning the background of each shot in anticipation of a glimpse of the monster – only to be ‘rewarded’ as one Weeping Angel covers its eyes as Sally picks up the TARDIS key. It’s a terrifying moment; of course, it’s all in the script, but you have to give credit to Hettie Macdonald for her perfectly-judged direction and Murray Gold for his music, especially his unnerving scratchy-violins Weeping Angels theme.

So that’s why it’s a fan favourite; because it’s an episode doing all the things that fans like. It also has far too many fantastic, oh-so-quotable jokes, and has hardly any special effects (because if there’s one thing Doctor Who fans don’t like, it’s When Special Effects Go Bad.)

And on top of all that, there’s even an in-joke about the TARDIS windows being the wrong shape.