October 12th, 2013
Blink is, in many ways, the most Steven Moffat script imaginable.
Moffat was, until 2005, best known as a comedy writer. He’d written series such as Press Gang and Coupling, which had both had huge critical success, and Chalk, which I liked even if no-one else did.
But he’d also been at least a semi-detached part of Doctor Who fandom. He’d taken part in a rather drunk round-table discussion with Paul Cornell and a couple of other big name fans in the early 90s (which all involved seem desperately embarassed about), written the Comic Relief Doctor Who sketch The Curse Of Fatal Death, and written a short Seventh Doctor story, Continuity Errors, for an anthology in 1996.
So when the series had come back, he’d been a natural choice to write for it, and his two previous stories, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances and The Girl In The Fireplace, had both won the Hugo award.
Blink was rather different from those two stories. While they’d been big-budget epics, Blink was the ‘Doctor-lite’ episode for the 2007 series.
This was something that the series did most years starting in 2006. Given constraints of time and budget, it was thought useful to free up the main actors by having episodes in which they hardly appeared, focussing on the effect the Doctor and his companions had on other people rather than on their actions, and involving few or no effects.
These small-scale stories were inevitably the highlights of their respective seasons. Love And Monsters, the episode from 2006, had been practically the only story of that year to involve any real imagination or sense of joy, although it had been slightly marred by Russel Davies’ digs at Ian Levine.
Blink was, if anything, even better. It’s a quite astounding piece of television, using the medium to do a proper science fiction story — one that explores the consequences of a simple idea. It’s also a proper horror story — something genuinely scary to chill the bones of all the little children watching (although nothing that terrible happens to anyone — the victims of the Weeping Angels, the monsters in this story, all go on to live out their natural lifespans, having very happy lives with fulfilling personal relationships).
In the Doctor Who Magazine “Mighty 200” fan ranking of all the stories up to 2009, Blink was ranked second, between Caves Of Androzani and Genesis Of The Daleks. It won Moffat his third Hugo award. Everyone loved it.
Everyone, that is, except Lawrence Miles.
Miles has, more or less, left our story now — we won’t be looking at any more of his work, and he’s written no fiction even tangentially connected with Doctor Who since 2009. But he’s continued to blog about the series, and he’s been less and less impressed with it as Steven Moffat’s influence has become greater.
There are a number of reasons for this, many to do with the two men’s personal relationship and the influence Miles’ books have had on Moffat’s writing (in this story there’s a semi-sympathetic character called Lawrence, a geek who posts about the Doctor on the internet and misinterprets remarks to have a political significance that was never intended. Some have suggested, not unreasonably, that this character is partly based on Miles) but fundamentally, Miles’ critique boils down to Moffat’s writing not being right for Doctor Who.
And I think Miles does have a point, and Blink shows it up rather well. Most of Miles’ criticisms of the script as lazy (his initial comment was “I could piss a better script than Blink in my sleep”, though he later expanded upon this somewhat) aren’t exactly true — it’s a well-constructed example of its type — but Miles has a tendency to conflate laziness and predictability, and Blink is a very predictable story.
And that word ‘predictable’ gets to the core of the real problem. There’s a philosophical break between the pre-2005 series and Moffat’s view, and one which is important to Miles.
It goes back to Steven Moffat being principally a comedy writer. More precisely, Moffat is naturally a writer of farce (the critics who hated his series Chalk criticised it for being “too like Fawlty Towers” which is possibly the most wrong-headed criticism possible).
In a farce in the classic mode, one has a handful of archetypal characters, none of whom have much depth, who are all made to undertake actions, each of which appears sensible in isolation, but which when put together lead to a gigantic catastrophe, with hilarious results. Farces are driven by complexity and a kind of clockwork-like precision — character A will leave on the left while character B, his identical double, enters from the right, to meet character C who is dating character D, who unbeknownst to all has the same name as character E who is dating character A. A good farce will involve all these different areas of confusion coming together in a precise, controlled, manner, with all of the characters trapped in a web of connections whose full shape they can’t see until the climax.
Moffat’s writing for Doctor Who has always attempted (with wildly varying degrees of success) to bring this style of plotting to science fiction. And the type of science fiction that is most suited to this type of plotting is the time travel story.
It may seem odd to some, but up until Moffat Doctor Who had mostly shyed away from stories about time travel, as opposed to stories where time travel was merely a mechanic. This is largely because, though, most science fiction writers seem able to come up with only two stories about time travel — someone goes back in time and changes their own time ( The Sound Of Thunder), or someone discovers that inexplicable things happening to them now are caused by their own future actions ( By His Bootstraps).
Moffat tends to prefer the second type, the ‘predestination paradox’ style story, and Blink is one of those. The Doctor says the words he says because he has a transcript of them. He has the transcript because Sally Sparrow copied them down. Sally Sparrow copied them down because he said them.
Like all predestination paradoxes, this doesn’t actually hold together (causality is, if you look at it mathematically, best represented as a directed acyclic graph, and DAGs can’t loop back on themselves. Without input from outside the loop, there’s no reason for the Doctor’s words to be causally entangled with reality. Yes, I do think about simple science fiction stories this much, and no I’m no fun at all at parties), but while watching the story it works. It falls apart upon analysis, but so does every Doctor Who story sooner or later, and with the same reasonable allowances that can be made for any other story it stands up OK.
But in Doctor Who stories in the past, the implication had always been (to quote the Third Doctor in Inferno) “an infinite number of choices. So free will is not an illusion after all. The pattern can be changed.”
The past may seem fixed to us, but to those living in the past, their actions, their decisions, have consequences, every bit as important as ours do for our own futures. “You can’t change history, not one line”, but that’s as much about respecting the choices of those in the past as anything else — there’s no implication in The Time Meddler that the Meddling Monk couldn’t change the past, he just shouldn’t. Possibly the worst thing you could do is to rob people of their free will, whether by mind control or, more insidiously, by informing them of their own future.
(And this is why, in the last essay, I chose to focus on a Big Finish story rather than any of the more popular TV shows from that year).
This hasn’t been absolutely consistent, of course — given the sheer vastness of Doctor Who, and the number of people who’ve worked on it, consistency would be impossible — but it’s a reasonable summary of the series’ attitude as a whole, prior to the 2005 series.
Moffat’s introduction of the predestination paradox into the show’s standard repertoire changed that. In a predestination paradox, nobody can have free will. Every character is a puppet being controlled by her own future self, who in turn is being constrained by what she knows of her own past. In a predestination paradox story, it’s impossible for the characters’ actions to have consequences, since the consequences themselves caused the actions.
Now look back at all Lawrence Miles’ work. Over and over in his work he’s advocated free will. and along with it a version of time travel where the past is as malleable as the future, where everyone’s choices matter, and where the highest ambition a puppet can have is to cut its own strings.
Is it any wonder he doesn’t get on with Moffat’s vision of the series?