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?

43 Responses to “Doctor Who: Fifty Stories For Fifty Years: 2007”

  1. Tilt Araiza Says:

    If I can be “that guy” isn’t the phrase “You can’t *rewrite* history, not one line”. I’ve been thinking about that recently. That you interpret that not as saying that you can’t change history but you can’t plot history. You can ensure that the Aztecs Cortez finds are different from the ones he did find in the original version of history, that’s a change. But you can’t guarantee a version of history were Cortez finds Aztecs who are exactly the same minus human sacrifice and Cortez will be thus impressed with their civilization and not kill them. That’s rewriting and you can’t do that.

  2. Andrew Hickey Says:

    You’re entirely right, of course (I’ll fix it for the book). And this also ties in to The Kingmaker and its “the story changes, the ending remains the same” refrain.
    I did get your email, BTW, and I love the idea in it, but I haven’t the brain to correspond properly at the moment. Not ignoring you.

  3. Tilt Araiza Says:

    That’s fine. By the way, I think The Sitcom Club enjoyed Chalk (I didn’t take part in the discussion).

  4. Andrew Hickey Says:

    I must listen to more of the Sitcom Club stuff. I’ve downloaded loads of them, but only got round to a few, because my concentration’s been too shot to listen to podcasts recently…

  5. Iain Coleman Says:

    I’m not sure I buy your argument about directed acyclic graphs. These forbid looping-back by definition, and while they are often used to represent causal structures, you can’t use that application to infer that looping-back is impossible: rather, a prior criterion that looping-back is impossible is what leads to using a DAG in this context.

    What really makes this a knotty problem is that the laws of physics are expressed as differential equations. This means that whatever physical effect happens at a spacetime event P depend only on the conditions infinitesimally close to P. The gun you use to shoot your grandfather will operate according to the laws of mechanics and chemistry regardless of its date of manufacture or the route it travelled to the point a metre away from your poor old grandad’s head.

    Lots of very smart people, not least Stephen Hawking, believe there must be some global law of physics that prevents such things, but so far no one has been able to establish one, and all the indications are that this kind of time travel (the closed timelike curve) is consistent with all the known laws of physics.

  6. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Iain, I’m going from Judea Pearl’s Bayesian reformulation of the idea of causality, which says that when we talk about something being a cause of something else it’s a parent node in a Bayesian network.

    As for the Grandfather paradox, Seth Lloyd seems to have shown that if you send something in a closed timelike curve, it can only act in ways consistent with its own previous history — . Which, of course, makes no sense at all when combined with either the Bayesian network view of causality or the many-worlds formulation of quantum mechanics, so I suspect there’s a flaw in his experiment…

  7. Tim O'Neil Says:

    Aside from the physics, I still think “Blink” is generally a good episode – on initial viewing, it was one of the best, but it hasn’t aged so well. I can understand why it is rated so highly. The problem is that instead of being a creepy one-off, the Angels came back. And came back. And came back again. And because the Angels are so reliant on gimmicky storytelling, they don’t hold up to repeated usage: once and the gimmick holds, twice and all the plot holes start to pile up.

    So: since the Angels turn to statues when you’re looking at them, why not just smash the statues with a hammer or a wrecking ball? The Doctor doesn’t have the same compunctions regarding killing when it comes to unrepentant monsters with whom you can’t negotiate. They’re a terrible villain for the same reason they are such creepy monsters: they don’t talk, they can’t explain their motivations – hell, they don’t really have motivations. One of NuWho’s greatest weaknesses is its inability to create lasting villains, and the Angels are a great example of how the creators don’t understand the difference between an effective monster and a memorable villain.

    And, like you say, the idea of time being concrete is . . . well, problematic. The best usage of the idea in the new series was “Father’s Day” – but the purpose of that story was also less about reinforcing the idea of strict causality than to show that without the Time Lords the universe was suddenly dangerous in ways it hadn’t been before. Maybe that’s one of the ways we can reconcile it – time was a lot more malleable when the Time Lords were around to keep everything moving on an even keel, but without them, it’s extremely dangerous to risk important changes. Sure, makes sense, give me a No-Prize.

    I just hate the fact that subsequent overusage made the Angels not only less cool, but (in a violation of causality) actually made “Blink” worse in hindsight. Don’t get me started about “The Angels Take Manhattan” – one of the worst examples in Who history of good characters (and actors!) being thrown under the bus to service a terrible script. I honestly think the way the Ponds were written off was as bad, maybe even worse, than Peri. Considered how likeable and beloved the characters were, being shuffled off unceremoniously without the benefit of a happy ending (like, you know, EVERY OTHER companion of the modern era has received) was pretty shitty. And all thanks to those goddamned Angels.

    But that said: like many people, “Blink” was my first exposure to Carey Mulligan, and that’s a fantastic thing. Also, plot aside, it was beautifully directed, and it is a damn shame that Hettie MacDonald only ever directed this one episode. But I guess if you have to go, you should go out on top having directed one of the most visually memorable episode of Who in history.

  8. Gavin R Says:

    Hartnell’s “can’t change history” is confused and confusing for two reasons. First, as you say, it mixes up “can’t” with “shouldn’t” or “mustn’t”. If it was really physically impossible for Barbara to change anything, then the Doctor wouldn’t need to tell her off.

    Second, the double meaning of “history”, and the way “rewriting” can be literal or metaphorical, confuses changing what historians have written about the past with actually changing the reality of the past. Historians are always rewriting history in the sense of writing different things about the past, otherwise there would be nothing for us to do, but we can’t change what really happened, only find more accurate facts, interpret them differently, or admit that we can’t know something.

    Both of these misconceptions can easily serve conservative purposes. It suits oppressors if the oppressed believe that they literally can’t do the things the oppressors don’t want them to do. And it suits oppressors if they can close down more radical interpretations of history by dismissing them as “anachronistic”. This has been a particular problem for women’s and gender history.

    But I’m sure you and/or someone else already pointed out that the human sacrifice issue is a red herring. The Spanish are going to kill the Aztecs and steal their resources anyway, because that’s what colonisers do. To refine Tilt’s point, Barbara might well be able to “guarantee a version of history were Cortez finds Aztecs who are exactly the same minus human sacrifice”, but it won’t follow that “Cortez will be thus impressed with their civilization and not kill them”. He has to find some excuse to kill them, partly because of religious and cultural reasons, but mainly because he wants the gold and silver. If someone saves Franz Ferdinand, the Austro-Hungarian empire will still be looking for an excuse to invade Serbia. Hitler didn’t have an excuse to invade Poland so he made one up. It turns out that Barbara can’t change what she wants to because the TARDIS turned up in the wrong place. She really needs to be persuading European governments to give up imperialism instead of blaming the victims. As it is, her argument against human sacrifice is quite similar to David Blunkett’s argument that porn caused the Nazis.

  9. Tam Says:

    Good point about the stories becoming boringly obsessed with free will / time travel paradoxes, although to be fair I think that’s become a recurring trope over popular culture as a whole.

    It’s hard to remember just how ‘mind blowing’ the paradoxes of the original Terminator film were to most viewers, (especially the ones who didn’t read much science fiction!) when it first came out but it’s been recycled and reused so many times it’s now become a complete cliche. Although of course it’s worth remembering that stuff’s still going to be awesome for the show’s sizable younger (and, I’d argue most important) audience who ARE going to be encountering it for the first time.

    On the subject of Moffat, I think the episode The Empty Child is probably my favourite Doctor Who episode ever on account of being a homage / rip-off of one of my favourite ever comics, the wonderful and very moving Neil Gaiman Hellblazer story ‘Hold Me’. It’s no coincidence there’s a Dr Constantine in that story…

  10. Gavin Burrows Says:

    ”It turns out that Barbara can’t change what she wants to because the TARDIS turned up in the wrong place. She really needs to be persuading European governments to give up imperialism”

    While of course that’s a perfectly valid way to read ‘The Aztecs’, I think there is another one. One in which the Tardis crew are the Europeans. Barbara comes to embody that hackneyed tabloid phrase the “do-gooder.” She thinks she can make the Aztecs into better people essentially by ordering them to. Read that way, it’s a cautionary tale against liberal interventionism.

    Interesting stuff going on here about predestination, free will and all. There’s several sections where the only word I am able to recognise is ‘graph.’ But interesting, nonetheless.

  11. Gavin R Says:

    Gavin B: “She thinks she can make the Aztecs into better people essentially by ordering them to. Read that way, it’s a cautionary tale against liberal interventionism.”

    Yes, she’s taking on “the white man’s burden”. British imperialism presents itself as more benign than Spanish, German, French, Belgian etc imperialism but is still very harmful. The Aztecs was made in the era of the Wind of Change, so whichever way we read it, it’s probably intended to say that MacMillan was right and Churchill was wrong. But this might only have encouraged British people to feel good about the Empire: at least we’re not being as bad as the French in Algeria.

    It seems to me that the Doctor’s position isn’t set out very clearly so has to be defined in opposition to Barbara. In your reading he’s being more liberal by letting the Aztecs make their own decisions, but in mine he’s being more conservative by effectively saying “it’s just how it was”.

  12. Gavin Burrows Says:

    Yes, I think the time when ‘The Aztecs’ went out is significant. Some significant colonies actually only became independent in the early Sixties. What follows is a kind of looking back and sorting out over the Empire. It’s in that context that Barbara’s self-appointed mission is shown to be an abject failure. It’s a valid point that they chose to set this story in a Spanish not a British subject. But it’s Barbara’s failure that is most central to the narrative.

    Also in that context, the Doctor’s “not one line” quote – I think it needs the ambiguity of “can’t”. He’s saying both “you shouldn’t” and “if you try, it will not turn out as you intended.”

    Yet, for all that I’m setting them apart here, inevitably what actually happens on the screen is a mash-up of the two theories. Inasmuch as it’s critical of the British Empire, it’s based on the assumption we always tried our best for the fuzzy wuzzies even if it didn’t consistently work out well. Not an assumption I’m entirely sure I share. [/sarcasm]

  13. Matthew Craig Says:

    “[Pondicide] without the benefit of a happy ending”

    That’s the screwed-up thing, though. They got a great goodbye – the house, the modelling job (!), etc.. But for some reason, the show had to go back to them, and ended up wasting half a series murdering(/hyperbole) characters that were done – including introducing Rory’s Dad just to traumatise him (in a deleted scene!).

    I mean, Schrodinger’s Paradox be damned, that was a horrible ending (assuming it is, indeed, over – see who wrote the damn novel with Clara on the cover?)


  14. Tim O'Neil Says:

    I could not agree more, since, as you point out, the Ponds had already had a perfectly fine exit – they were going to get the kind of wonderful ending Jo Grant had, where they actually grow up and move past the Doctor and his adventures, bid him a fond farewell and move off into their adulthood, maybe to see him again at holidays but no more risking their lives. They were going to have a child – another child, somehow – and the last scene would be something along the lines of the Doctor holding the baby and realizing he won’t be putting these peoples’ lives in danger any more.

    But no. Instead we got that shit.

  15. Thrills Says:

    I loved ‘Blink’, thought it was a great example of ‘Who’ as a perfect after-Newsround sort of horror for brave kids. I’d always used it as an example of what I think the show can do well (one-off solid bit of genre writing with a uniquely ‘Who’ atmosphere), but, as other people have mentioned, it’s been pretty much diminished by repeated use of the Angels.

    When they showed up for a second time, my heart sank, and not for the reasons the programme makers intended.

  16. Ryk E. Spoor Says:

    I’ll note that I am, myself, one of the exceptions to the general love for “Blink”. I *detest* “Blink”, but not really for the reasons Miles gives.

    My main problem is that it makes no sense at all. The Weeping Angels are simultaneously one of the most frightening, and most stupid, creations in all of Doctor Who, and I really, really dislike every episode with them.

    Consider their appearance in “Blink”. Apparently, when not observed, the Weeping Angels can move like a bat out of hell. When observed by anything, they’re immobile statues.

    This implies that the entire episode should end within seconds. Either the protagonists figure out how to permanently neutralize the Angels by one of two obvious means, or the Angels manage to touch one of the protagonists.

    The second Angel sequence was worse, handing ridiculous additional superpowers to the Angels, as though they needed any: apparent invulnerability to weapons (stone is not ordinarily that resistant to being shot up by military firepower; statues come apart under that kind of fire), ability to transfer through IMAGES, etc.

    The third one passed from that to the pure ridiculous. First, suddenly the Angels became physically vulnerable (someone using 1930s technology can damage one badly enough to see? Then why not just sledgehammer all of them to pieces?), and second, we have Angels in the city of New York, the City that Doesn’t Sleep… and you want me to believe that the frickin’ *Statue of Liberty* can get up and walk into the middle of town and NO ONE HAPPENS TO BE LOOKING AT IT?

    I hated Blink because it was, simply put, a badly conceived and written story with an unbelievable plot device that made the usual Doctor Who technobabble and handwaving look like heavily researched hard science fiction by comparison.

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