|In this scene, Clara is cleverly disguised as a bit of crown|
It’s June 9th, 2007. Rihanna (and Jay-Z) are at number one with “Umbrella,” while Beyonce and Shakira, Maroon 5, Timbaland, Akon, and Twang also chart. In news, Scooter Libby is sentenced to thirty months in prison, although the sentence will be commuted by President Bush, and immigration reform fails in the US Senate due to failing to pass a cloture vote.
On television, meanwhile, it’s Blink. As we’ve already discussed, Blink is not the reason that Steven Moffat is now showrunner of Doctor Who. Just writing good episodes is insufficient, or else Paul Cornell, who in 2007 had almost as many and as brilliant Doctor Who episodes under his belt as Moffat did, would have been a sincere contender. And he wasn’t, not because he’s not one of the most brilliant and influential Doctor Who writers ever (Moffat’s been open about how much his take on Doctor Who owes to Cornell), but because he’s not a television showrunner and entrusting him a brand as big of Doctor Who would be absurdly risky. Moffat was the heir apparent because he was the only safe choice.
This is distinct from why he was the popular choice, though, which did mostly have to do with the fact that he wrote very, very good episodes of Doctor Who. And Blink was very good – good enough that the period in which Human Nature/Family of Blood was the obvious Hugo contender for Doctor Who lasted about a week. Its general reputation is as the holy grail of Doctor Who episodes. And fair play, as everything about it is, in fact, absolutely brilliant. It belongs on lists of the best Doctor Who episodes ever, its reputation is wholly deserved, and it’s one of those rare pieces that are so good that the hype of their reputation doesn’t actually diminish their impact. Jekyll may be why Moffat got the job, but Blink is the story that defined expectations of the job. And so it is worth looking at in that context – as the fantasy of what the Moffat era could achieve if (as was always impossible) he could hit these heights with rock-solid reliability.
First, of course, are the Weeping Angels. With two more stories featuring them, I’ll minimize my comments here, since later stories embrace the alchemical/mystical themes involving them more readily. For now let’s look at them as what they are within the context of Blink, which is a terribly clever monster. All monsters, of course, are systems of rules. This is why the Daleks, with their absolute and single-minded fixity, are the ur-monsters of Doctor Who – because they represent a single and absolute rule. But it’s true of any monster – they’re defined by the narrative role that they can never move past. The Silurians are defined by presenting a reasonable moral case for their own villainy. The Cybermen by their unrelenting nature. When the new series has revamped monsters, it’s often as much about revamping their rules as anything; the Sontarans are now eternally conquering warriors, the Ice Warriors are caught in the subtle distinction between honor and morality. Even single story monsters are ultimately just a system of rules that get sketched out quickly – consider the Judoon, or the Family of Blood.
The Weeping Angels work brilliantly because they’re both a very simple system of rules (if you don’t look at them, they kill you) and a very clever one. The fact that they function along the lines of the medium they’re built in is particularly good. The Weeping Angels are structured around the act of watching, as is television. And notably, they’re made to work along with the camera. We never see them moving, even when there’s no reason why they shouldn’t (as in cases where the camera pans to show one that’s seemingly unobserved). And so the Angels become woven into the fabric of the episode in a strange and compelling way. Even though they’re just fictional representations, they’re scary in a way no other monster is simply because their televisually represented forms are indistinguishable from their real ones. In this regard the later declaration that the image of an Angel becomes an Angel is self-evident, because the image of an Angel is indistinguishable from a real one in that the act of appearing makes it appear harmless.
In many ways, of course, this is trademark Moffat. Not just his “let’s make an ordinary object like a statue scary” move, but his embrace of glitchy media. This is the single most common Moffat trope in existence – the idea that glitches in media might contain some unnerving content. This is not a surprise – his background is in comedy, with a specialty in farce. Farces trade on comical misunderstanding. And since Joking Apart Moffat has favored farces in which communications technology exacerbates the misunderstanding.
So in his Doctor Who work he just turns farce into horror, making the misunderstanding not an occasion for wacky hijinks but an occasion for terrifying things to creep into the world. In this case, the Angels are an accident of televisual representation. They exist as threats because of narrative object permanence. Already Moffat is setting up his future moves in this regard, making the Angels threats that exist primarily as narrative consequences. (And note that both subsequent Weeping Angels stories are as metafictional as this one is.)
In particular, note that the Doctor spends the bulk of the story trapped in his medium as well. He’s stuck on television, being watched. And more to the point, he’s a glitch – an inexplicable bug stuck on a bunch of DVDs. But instead of using Patrick Troughton’s occasional trick of appearing to be able to look out of the television screen, the Doctor is actually able to look out of it. He really does know what’s going on off of the screen, and in fact carries on a conversation with Sally Sparrow from inside the television. The difference is one of levels – the Doctor looks out of the diegetic television and into the diegetic world, while the Angels look out of the diegetic world and into the real world (or, rather, are looked at from the real world).
But, of course, there’s an entire second level to the conceit that’s visible to Doctor Who fans. The Weeping Angels are, in point of fact, a gleefully dark Doctor Who joke: they’re monsters that make hiding behind the sofa pointless. No, worse than pointless; hiding behind the sofa is the single stupidest thing you could possibly do in the face of a Weeping Angel. This is, of course, terribly inside baseball. But so is much of Blink. A key part of its premise is that it’s about obsessive reading of Doctor Who. Key clues are buried in DVD extras, and through the obsessive stewardship of Internet fandom. There’s even an acknowledged shout-out to Outpost Gallifrey. This is the second Doctor-lite episode to foreground fandom, but there’s a significant difference in how it does, and the difference is terribly revealing about Moffat and Davies.
When Davies wrote his story about fandom, it was at the end of the day about love. The entire point of Love and Monsters is that Doctor Who itself is irrelevant to its own fandom, and that the real benefit and joy of it is the communal bond. But Moffat takes a different approach. In Blink it actually is the basic textual pleasure of Doctor Who that is valorized. The community of obsessives who are pouring over the Doctor’s DVD clip are not really focused on as a community. Instead the DVD clip is part of the episode’s own puzzle box structure, looked at by Larry in the same way that the audience is looking at Blink itself. Sure, the episode mocks bad readings such as Larry’s mistaking “look to your left” as a political statement, but ultimately Blink is about the fetishization of obsessive textuality, whereas Davies generally eschews that, and is indeed usually a bit paranoid in avoiding the obsessively textual within his episodes. Even when he plays with it – Bad Wolf, for instance – the mystery is usually structured to be unsolvable, whereas up until Clara all of Moffat’s puzzle boxes had been solvable. (The only exception, for Davies, is actually Mr. Saxon, which is perfectly guessable.)
There’s a fannish closure involved in this that Moffat has always traded on. Where Davies has always taken a perverse glee in pissing off Internet fandom, Moffat is more ambivalent, swerving wildly between deliberately tweaking fandom and pandering to them. Moffat has never seemed comfortable with the prospect of being hated by fandom (hence his retreat from Twitter), and has always inserted content designed to appeal to them. Blink is a prime example, structured as it is to pat its audience on the back for figuring out what’s going on a moment before they’re told. That’s part of the appeal of the puzzle box structure: it compliments the audience for their cleverness. And textual referentiality is another component of that. Insider references and jokes are used to reward fans for being savvy enough to catch them.
But what’s interesting about Blink – and to be fair about a lot of Moffat’s work – is that it’s in no way exclusively for fans. Indeed, Blink is the one Tennant-era episode that really works as an introduction to the premises of the series, because the puzzle box of the episode is presented as Sally Sparrow figuring out what show she’s on. And so there are in fact two puzzle boxes being assembled here – the timey wimey one, and the one about who this man on the DVD extra is. The result is an episode that makes long-term fans feel terribly clever, but that is actually also an outstanding introduction to the series.
The timey wimeyness is also worth commenting on. Another one of Moffat’s standard tricks has always been non-linear storytelling; from Press Gang on he’s liked moving the events of a story out of chronological order. But notably, he’s never really done that with Doctor Who, save for an occasional flash forward or back from the cold open. All of Moffat’s Doctor Who scripts are told in a strictly linear progression from somebody’s point of view. It’s just that they portray nonlinear events. It’s a subtle difference, but ultimately an important one, and it ties in with the larger themes of Blink. From the linear perspective what is crucial about a timey wimey event is that it is not an event to experience but a story to unravel – a puzzle box. So this allows Moffat to embed stories within his stories. Again, this is why the Weeping Angels are one of two quintessential Moffat monsters (the other, of course, being their inversion, the Silence) – because they are threats that emerge out of the act of televisual storytelling, and Moffat’s stories are, from this point on, all about stories.
So what we have is a Doctor Who story that on the one hand is about explaining the nature of Doctor Who, but is on the other hand about a threat that emerges out of itself. This produces a wonderful sense of the uncanny that accounts for why Blink is so scary despite the threat the Weeping Angels pose being relatively innocuous. (I mean, they don’t even kill you, really.) What’s scary about them is that they threaten the idea that there’s a line between the events of the story and the representation of those events. The timey wimey loop is ultimately closed, such that everything within the story is simultaneously cause and effect save for the Weeping Angels themselves. And so even without the final sequence that cheekily suggests that any given statue could be a Weeping Angel waiting to quasi-kill you the story makes the Weeping Angels an unsettling remnant. The closed timey wimey loop leaves Blink as a pleasant bit of self-contained storytelling seemingly unconnected to the rest of the series. But it also leaves the Angels as the remainder – what’s left after the closed loop cancels itself out.
Moffat will manage this level of intricateness again, but never outside the context of a larger plot arc. This is the one time he manages it on this minute a scale; the one time he does it in forty-five minutes instead of weeks, months, and years. And that’s the key thing about Blink – between it and Jekyll, it became possible to imagine the sweeping puzzle boxes of the Moffat era. And for wholly understandable reasons, we liked what we saw.
And so the future became clear. After that, all that had to happen was that it had to murder the present.