10 Years Later, “Blink” is Still Doctor Who’s Finest Hour
As the relaunched time-traveling adventures of Doctor Who continue into the now ongoing 10th season, and with veteran actor Peter Capaldi ready to pass the baton to a new Doctor at Christmas, it’s worth noting that 10 years ago, the continued success of the rebooted Doctor Who was hardly a guarantee. While Christopher Ecceleston led the charge for the first season of “Nu Who” in 2005, followed shortly thereafter by David Tennant for the second, the show was certainly enjoying newfound fame and a new, modern aesthetic that included special effects far beyond what the show could have achieved in its original 1963–1989 run. But in re-watching those early 2 seasons, there are noticeable weaknesses. The show hadn’t found its voice yet, and even some of the great episodes of that era, like “The Girl in the Fireplace,” are overshadowed by an abundance of other episodes that are overly corny, suffer from weak plots and weaker antagonists (the Slitheens, the shape-shifting fart-aliens from Eccleston’s season, are the poster child of this), and relied primarily on cool special effects and nice set pieces rather than story.
However, we now are at an important 10-year anniversary, one that Whovians everywhere should celebrate. “Blink,” the breakout episode for writer Steven Moffat (who would eventually take over as showrunner, in part because of the success of this episode) and starring a young Carey Mulligan in a lead role as Sally Sparrow, celebrates its anniversary on June 9th. For me, as a die-hard Whovian and as an avid TV watcher, “Blink” is one of the most solid hours of television that I’ve ever seen.
In many ways, “Blink” set up what came afterwards. While David Tennant’s silly, confident Doctor was certainly part of the character’s dynamic before then, never is it on better display than in “Blink.” It introduced us to the Weeping Angels, which have made returns to the Doctor Who-universe, most notably during Matt Smith’s tenure as the Doctor. But most importantly, it is one of the few Doctor Who episodes to take the show’s time-honored time-travel premise and elevate it to its full potential.
10 years on, “Blink” remains the high point for the series. What makes it stand out? What makes it so good? Here are a few reasons to consider:
It’s a Doctor-lite episode (that knows exactly what that means)
One of the things that has helped differentiate the newer Doctor Who from the campy exploits of its predecessors is that it isn’t afraid to take risks for the sake of good storytelling. Thus, we got the idea of a “Doctor-lite” episode: an episode where the Doctor himself isn’t a pivotal character, but nevertheless helps to set up the context and premise of the episode. And while there have been plenty of “Doctor-lite” episodes released before and after “Blink,” none of them have come close to replicating the episode’s considerable success. The Doctor, while always in the background (particularly on the DVD Easter eggs that play a considerable role in the climax), is only on screen for mere minutes, allowing the focus to shift almost entirely onto Carey Mulligan’s Sally Sparrow. (More on her in a minute.) Having an episode of Doctor Who for whom the vast majority of its run-time does not feature the titular character was a pretty radical move, and 10 years later, stands as a testament to the power of the episode.
It’s self-contained (and that’s a good thing)
The X-Files found out long ago that you have to switch it up between the grand mythology episodes and the more self-contained “monster of the week” episodes. With a 50+ year history and countless stories not just on television, but also books, comics, radio, etc, Doctor Who’s mythos can be intimidating for even the most loyal fan. However, the genius of “Blink” is that it’s a one-off. Sally Sparrow is never mentioned on the show again (which admittedly is a shame). It follows a standard rising action-climax-resolution plot, but doesn’t end on a cliffhanger. It feels complete on its own, which was a rare occurrence for not just Doctor Who, but indeed, for television as a whole. When the episode aired, shows like Heroes and 24 let you know from the get-go that you couldn’t miss a single episode without being pretty lost. That has not slowed down at all in the era of shows of Game of Thrones or any of Netflix’s binge-worthy original content. The fact that “Blink” is only moderately tied to the series’ mythos doesn’t just seem revelatory for 2007, it still feels that way in 2017.
The way it uses time travel is inherently intriguing
Having just finished James Gleick’s recent book Time Travel: A History (worth a read, BTW), I know that time travel has been used by different writers to convey different concepts almost from the get-go. Yet, there is this sort of dualism of time travel: can the present/future be changed, or is even attempting to change the past futile? Some, most famously like Back to the Future, just seem to go with the idea that yes, you can change the past. Others, like Terminator, seem a bit more deliberate, like there’s an order to it all. However, “Blink” combines these two together. There is a sense of inevitability to the episode as once all of Sally’s friends begin disappearing one-by-one, there’s no hope of going back to the past to get them. They’ve already lived their (admittedly happy, basically normal) lives in the past, and to dwell too much on that would rob the story of its momentum. The Doctor’s message to Sally is prerecorded (and based on actual notes her friend Larry was taking when the Doctor was talking), further emphasizing just how firm the past is. “Blink” even borrows the “guy delivering a note at the exact time and spot where someone else was sent back in time” thing from Back to the Future, Part II, further emphasizing just how immutable time itself feels in this episode. This ultimately sets it apart from not just other episodes of Doctor Who (which are a little bit more wibbly-wobbly about whether or not you can change the past), but other depictions of time travel generally.
The Weeping Angels are legitimately terrifying
Doctor Who has always traditionally thrived on a variety of sci-fi monsters and creatures throughout its 50+-year history. While the Daleks are the most iconic, their usage nowadays is embedded with the knowledge and nostalgia that they USED to be frightening, rather than actually being such. But the Weeping Angels, introduced in “Blink” and later brought back for a few of Matt Smith’s episodes (none of which make the Angels stand out the way they do in this one), unlike the Daleks, are legitimately terrifying. First of all, the conceit that they blend in as statues will cause you to never look at statues twice the same way again. The idea that the Angels can move closer and closer to you as you take blinks is also a really scary, but effective idea. Finally, the fact that their own powers and feeding habits are themselves related to time travel was a very useful concept, and one that feels earned. The Weeping Angels are one of the few species on Doctor Who that can play on the same time-travel field as the Doctor himself, and realizing that fact about them only makes them more menacing.
The writing is easily Moffat’s best
First, let me get this out of the way: I’m aware of the complaints hurled at Moffat throughout his about-to-be-completed tenure as showrunner for the series. Some of them are completely valid, while others just seem to be nitpicky and getting on a bandwagon of hate. (And honestly, Moffat hasn’t done nearly the amount of damage to the Doctor Who brand as he has to his other hit TV show, Sherlock.) But when Moffat does work as a writer, he not only works well, he excels. I think Moffat’s strength as a writer comes from ideas, playing with those ideas and developing intriguing storylines utilizing them. For another writer, the concepts at play in “Blink” might prove to be too much for one writer. (Surely, even episodes without as much going on suffer quite a bit because of a lack of deliberation and forethought during the writing process.) But for Moffat, he strikes a perfect balance: good story, good monsters, good characters, and good use of time travel. While Moffat’s dialogue can be a little on the nose, I for one really appreciate the smaller, more intimate moments in “Blink,” like when Mulligan’s Sally first discovers Larry walking around in the buff. There isn’t a grand comedic punchline, or a big monologue about the dangers of not checking if anyone else is in the house before strolling around in the nude. It’s a silly enough scene, but Moffat’s writing allows it to just be a simple scene that explains the context of these characters. Admittedly, later-era Moffat wasn’t as good with this simple character development, but here, it works in perfect harmony with the other aspects of the episode to produce an hour of television that easily ranks among Moffat’s best ever.
Plus, it gave us the “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey” quote, and that’s just magical.
Carey Mulligan as Sally Sparrow
Full disclosure: for a long time, I thought Carey Mulligan was a pretty overrated actress. An Education, her big film breakout role, is little more than a retelling of The Graduate from a female perspective in swinging London, with Mulligan’s Jenny in the Benjamin Braddock role. Despite Mulligan’s Academy Award nomination for the role, Jenny’s constant whining about how she has to go to Oxford got to be a little grating by the end.
However, I’ve subsequently seen and been impressed by Mulligan in films as varied as Drive, The Great Gatsby, Far from the Madding Crowd and Inside Llewyn Davis (the latter of which is my favorite film work she’s ever done). That being said, perhaps I’m biased, but to me, Mulligan’s top performance is still in the lead role of Sally Sparrow in “Blink.”
Her task was enormous: she was the lead in an episode where the titular character that the entire series revolves around gets mere seconds of screen-time. But she pulls it off with poise, elevating what would have been another performance from another rising British actress into something grander, displaying to the entire world the star-power which she was capable of.
In the hands of another actress, the scene where Sally is reunited with Billy Shipton, a handsome young police detective who flirted with Sally before being sent back in time by the Angels, as he is dying of old age in a hospital bed would have been overly corny or manipulative. But Mulligan strikes a perfect balance, conveying the emotionality of the scene without chewing scenery. Her performance is intimate, and because of that, it’s also powerful.
In 1982, a second Star Trek movie debuted after a mixed reception to the first. Star Trek was back and in some ways more popular than ever, but creatively the first movie seemed in a rut. The success of the second movie, The Wrath of Khan, set up the series for a trajectory of success it is still running on to this very day. I once read that without the financial and creative success of TWoK, there is no Next Gen, no Deep Space Nine or Voyager, and certainly no big-budget Hollywood reboot.
I’ve always thought that despite the fact that people love to compare and contrast Star Wars and Star Trek (so much so it has its own Wikipedia article about it), the franchise I think that has the most in common with Star Trek is actually Doctor Who. From their origins on TV to their respective influence on science fiction in their respective homelands to their intense fandoms, Trek and Doctor Who typically have a lot more in common than is typically believed. (A topic I’ve written about before, actually.) And what makes “Blink” so compelling is that, despite being the best episode of the relaunched series and a strong contender for one of the best episodes of anything in television history, “Blink” is, in many ways, Doctor Who’s Wrath of Khan moment. Right as the series was returning for a new generation to a mixed reception, much the way Star Trek did 25 years earlier, “Blink,” like Wrath of Khan before it set the high bar for future stories in the franchise. It set up the creative success that made much of what followed possible. It proved definitively that this new-and-improved version of a beloved retro sci-fi show was worth investing time and energy into. And now, 10 years later, nothing has come close to replicating or even emulating that success.
So, Whovians worldwide, I ask you to raise a glass to this classic episode, without which we might not be able to enjoy some of the best of what came after it. Whether this is your first time watching “Blink” or, like me, you’ve seen it so many times you’ve lost count, this is an anniversary worth celebrating, and I hope you spend yours the way I’ll be spending mine: watching this amazing episode. Just remember: don’t blink.