On the blink.
When Moffat took over Doctor Who, I had seen nothing of his that wasn’t Doctor Who. And on the strength of his Who-writing… most particularly, Blink… I was excited about it.
So, what did he do that was so very right in Blink?
First of all, it’s a time travel story and a darn good one. Doctor Who doesn’t usually do time travel stories. It does stories set in the future and it does stories set in the past, but the mechanics of time travel rarely come up except to explain why a thing can or can’t be changed. Blink is an episode where our viewpoint character, our protagonist, never leaves the present, but it’s a story that’s about time travel.
Steven Moffat has consistently shown more interest in using the TARDIS’s capabilities within an episode than is otherwise common in Who, though he’s never done time travel as effectively as it was done in this episode, where the TARDIS was effectively out of commission.
The angels. Oh my gosh, the angels. So chilling. So effective. So brand new. The rules that govern them are laid out and then obeyed. The only arguable exception for dramatic effect is that they freeze when our eyes are on them, even if nobody in their world is watching, but that just (probably unintentionally) creates the chilling implication that what we’re seeing is real and that our apprehension of the angels on our screens transcends realities.
These aren’t the pointlessly malevolent angels we see later. These are creatures who are acting entirely according to their nature. They’re ruled by hunger. This just makes them scarier. They don’t want to take over the world, they just want to feed… on people, on the TARDIS, on whatever.
Then, Sally Sparrow. She feels like a real person. She’s a bit of a phony (“Sad is happy for deep people.”), but in the words of Truman Capote, she’s a real phony. She comes off as an actual human being.
Because of the nature of the story, her actions are being somewhat predetermined by the grandfather paradox she’s trapped in. But here’s the thing: the Doctor is locked into the same sequence of events, following instructions that she wrote. Because it’s a grandfather paradox, there’s no ultimate origin for some of the information she passes off to him… the message he writes on the wall, the lines he says in his half of the video conversation, it’s all beyond either of them. She has the moment at the end where it all makes sense, but every time we see him he’s in the dark.
The episode is less about the Doctor saving her from the angels as it is about them saving each other. (And the world, because of the TARDIS subplot).
And she’s the active agent. Crucially, the last link in the chain… when the Doctor gets the transcript (and other relevant information) from her… comes from her. Nobody says “You have to make sure the Doctor gets all this.” There’s the moment when she sees him, and the revelation comes to her and she makes the decision that sets the paradox in motion, or rather, prevents it from becoming an open paradox. Yes, it’s a bit predetermined because grandfather paradox, but I’m of the opinion that predestination doesn’t preclude free will. That was still her. The universe didn’t force her hand. The Doctor didn’t put the information in her head. There was no phlebotinum. Just dawning realization and then action.
And from that moment on, her life is her own. The thing around which her whole life pivoted turned out to be herself, and then the loop was closed and her fate becomes hers to decide.
There’s some magnificent nonsense from the Doctor (“timey-wimey”, “goes ding when there’s stuff”, “it can boil an egg at thirty paces, whether you want it to or not. I’ve learned to stay away from chickens”), and it works well, better than normal even because we’re seeing him through the eyes of people who only make glancing contact with him.
While Martha’s role in the episode is another exhibit in the litany of evidence against the Doctor’s (and the writers’) treatment of her, we do get a rare and blessed case of her having it up to here with him. This bit was probably intended to sound like sitcom hijinks rather than being a revelatory moment, but taken as it is, it’s still nice to see that she’s not just silently enduring.
Here’s the thing: I don’t think Moffat is a bad writer. I just don’t think he has a good idea of his weaknesses, which also means he doesn’t understand his strengths.
He knows this was a great episode, that Sally Sparrow was a great character and the angels were great enemies. But he doesn’t know why.
His next angel outing had a lot of promise with the army of deteriorated angels all around, slowly waking up, but then they quickly became regular angels and the rules governing them were just as quickly jettisoned. The next one after that was “more angels, bigger angels” and contained the single most obvious time when story logic was sacrificed to create a Crowning Moment of HOLY CRAP.
And his other female characters are all missing that crucial moment that Sally Sparrow had… the closest thing is River and Amy sacrificing themselves for their husbands and then going on to their own peculiar form of afterlives.
I feel like Moffat would argue that these characters were making their own decisions, but the way the story emphasizes that it’s their choice is to have the Doctor forbid them to do it, which… well, it’s hard to articulate why this bothers me, exactly, aside from “the Doctor trying to tell women and only women how to live their lives”.
When Rory wants to go on what the Doctor is sure will be a centuries-long suicide mission to marginally increase Amy’s already high probability of survival in stasis, the Doctor tells him the downsides and makes sure he knows what he’s signing up for, but Rory doesn’t have to knock the Doctor out and handcuff him or throw himself into an angel’s arms. The Doctor recognizes that Rory has made up his mind.
And all this is sufficient reason not to like it, but I feel like there’s something ookier underlying it that I can’t put my finger on it.
The bottom line is that I don’t think Moffat is a terrible writer. I just don’t think he’s been a very good showrunner. I’ve said this before, but I think what Donna said to the Doctor in The Runaway Bride is true of Moffat: sometimes, he needs someone to stop him. There needs to be someone with their foot on the brakes, there needs to be someone ready to say “no”, there needs to be someone who can tell him “This is a great idea and this can be a brilliant episode, but this part doesn’t make sense.”
And there needs to be women on the writing staff. I love the characters he comes up with. I love Amy. I love River. I love (Clara) (Oswin) Oswald. I love the cool moments he gives them, I love the cool lines he gives them, but there needs to be someone at the table for whom grasping their essential personhood does not require an intuitive leap.