Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Blink

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Don’t blink. Blink and you’re dead.

This is a difficult episode to review.

Most immediately, that’s because it’s a bit of a non-standard episode of Doctor Who, in that the Doctor isn’t really in it very much. It picks up on the same basic premise as Love & Monsters, being the episode without the Doctor, essentially a necessity of the shooting schedule required to film thirteen episodes. It’s in a bit of an odd position though because the last time they tried that Doctor-lite episode, it wasn’t very well received at all: the large majority of people seemed to hate it. I would contend, of course, that the large majority of people were wrong, but it’s difficult not to imagine that at some point in the development of Blink the successes and failures of Love & Monsters were discussed.

So, there’s an episode which is about as far removed from the Doctor Who standard as any one episode could be considered to be. That’s already one that’s quite difficult to talk about and to review, particularly if you’re trying to rank it against other episodes.

But then, of course, there’s another aspect to contend with. Rather unlike its predecessor, Blink is in fact widely loved. Arguably, indeed, one of the most loved episodes of Doctor Who ever – it’s quite routinely cited as The Best Episode. It’s won a couple of Doctor Who Magazine polls to that effect, regularly finishing within the top 5 episodes of all time, and routinely being positioned as the best episode of the 2000s.

This is in turn invites any review of Blink to grapple with that truism – there’s almost an obligation to comment on that idea, either to dispute it or to affirm it. (That is, I suspect, in part why there’s been a bit of a turn on it in recent years – it’s a nice lynchpin to base critique of Moffat around, in terms of displaying a lot of his early ideas and stylistic tics.) That of course again makes it difficult to review the episode, because there’s a huge weight of critical consensus to work against (or to keep in step with) when you’re writing about the episode.

Personally speaking? I don’t think it’s the best episode ever. I don’t even think it’s Moffat’s best episode ever – I’d be inclined to select quite a few of his other scripts ahead of this one. In turn, I’ve spent a lot of time over the years… not disparaging Blink, per se, but certainly I’ve considered it to be quite overrated, with a reputation and stature not entirely befitting of its actual quality. So watching it now, I was interested to see whether or not I was actually right – or if it was, actually, the best ever episode of Doctor Who.

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What immediately struck me is that this is, quite simply, just a very well-made piece of television.

Credit, obviously, is due to Steven Moffat in this regard. It’s a particularly intricate script – perhaps one of his most – and it has to be, to make the timey-wimey aspect work. But that’s threaded through the script remarkably well; I’m always impressed by how the earlier excerpts of the Doctor as an easter egg come to make sense when Sally eventually has the final conversation with him. However, it’s also worth remarking on the actual heart of the script, which I suspect sometimes gets lost underneath all the wibbly wobbly sleight of hand. There’s some real weight to this script in places, which is in no small part down to how well characterised each individual is – obviously there’s a greater space to do this when you don’t also have the Doctor to shift the focus, but that also speaks to just how important it was to put forward some well-rounded and nuanced characters. We needed to believe in Sally Sparrow, because this week it’s her programme – and Steven Moffat did an excellent job with writing the character. I suspect that no small part of the episode’s popularity is down to that character, who genuinely is a fantastic creation.

(Of course, that’s also largely to do with Carey Mulligan’s performance – she’s absolutely exceptional here, and you can see why she went straight to Hollywood not long after this episode. It’s rare for me to remark on the work of Andy Pryor, the casting director on Doctor Who, so I think it’s worth taking a moment to pay heed to him here – he’s clearly abundantly talented at his job, and it was a brilliant choice to cast Carey in the role. It’s difficult to believe the episode would have worked even half as well as it did without her.)

It’s also worth remarking on the work of Hettie MacDonald, the director of this episode. Blink is remarkably well-directed and edited – a huge amount of the tension comes from the direction of the episode, as well as the wonderfully clever choice to position the camera as an observer of the Angels. MacDonald invites the audience to read the scene as though they’re there, having a genuine diegetic influence on the story – which does, of course, only make it all the more involving and all the more frightening. Certainly, this is one area in which the material does live up to its reputation – Blink is scary. There’s a proper tension throughout; yes, it comes from Moffat’s writing, but MacDonald does a great job to realise this with some wonderfully claustrophobic shots. It’s clear why people found Blink so scary, and indeed why they still do.

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The other big thing that this episode is remembered for is the Weeping Angels – possibly the most iconic monster of new Who, even today. (Really, nothing can supersede them – the Weeping Angels are up there with the Daleks and the Cybermen, undoubtedly. They’re the most meaningful impact on the popular zeitgeist of the 21st Century that Doctor Who can lay claim to; certainly, not as many people remember the Slitheen, the Krillitane, or the Jagrafess.)

And, yes, they’re brilliant. How could they not be? They’re the one Doctor Who monster you can’t hide from behind the sofa. It’s a fantastic central conceit, one which is – as already mentioned – really emphasised by Hettie MacDonald’s fantastic direction. That the Angels don’t move if we’re not looking at them includes us further, invests us – that they can move when the camera isn’t on them only makes them scarier. The threat they pose is, in a sense, real.

There’s something wonderfully simplistic about that central conceit. In a way, it’s almost a shame that there’s been more autonomic monsters in years past – almost as though they’re encroaching on Weeping Angel territory, diminishing them in a sense. Certainly, it almost feels like they lost their mystique in a way – there’s something powerful about presenting the Weeping Angels as “creatures of the abstract”, as the Doctor puts it here. Did further stories diminish them? Perhaps in their ubiquity. I’m quite fond of the idea that the image of an Angel becomes itself an Angel, and I remember little of Angels Take Manhattan. (Though, if we’re raising the issue of diminishing the Angels, I suspect Class likely would have – Patrick Ness intended to show an Angel civil war, as well as the planet of the Angels. Tantalising ideas, perhaps, but I’m not sure they’re worth pursuing; quite apart from reducing the mystique of the Angels, I can’t help but feel that would lead to too much introspection, robbing them of that isolation and loneliness that helps make them so interesting.)

Ultimately, though, I’ve still not quite answered the question. Yes, there’s a great monster. And, yes, there’s an absolutely fantastic premise, in a really well directed, polished episode. While I’ve never quite agreed with recommending Blink as someone’s first Doctor Who episode, you can see the logic behind it.

And yet… well, it’s still not actually the best episode of Doctor Who ever. It’s very good. I have no particular complaints. But it’s not the best.

9/10

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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Doctor Who Review: The Witch’s Familiar

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I didn’t come because I was ashamed. I came because you were sick and you asked. 

To be entirely fair, I don’t think anyone really expected the episode to open the way it did. We’d all believed that we’d see a linear progression from the cliffhanger on to the start of the next episode – I even spent some time proselytising about the morality of it all, and whether or not you really should steal Davros’ favourite teddy.

It was a classic piece of misdirection though, which we really should expect by now, and it allowed Moffat to present us with something that was a little bit different. Rather than a parable about changing time (I was entirely expecting them to just do away with the Daleks completely, to be honest) of the sort we’ve seen before, we saw something that has been rather unique thus far.

A proper conversation between Davros and the Doctor.

That was, I’ve read, the starting point for the episode, when Moffat was working on the idea; we’ve had so many stories with the Doctor and Davros, and their interactions are always stellar, but often so fleeting as well. Here, then, was a chance for us to really examine the relationship between the pair of them, getting to the heart of it, and showing us something we’ve never seen before.

Julian Bleach and Peter Capaldi sell it, of course. It’s their performance that captures the essence of the thing, and provides the true highlights of the episode. This is likely to be remembered as the best interaction between the Doctor and Davros ever, and will no doubt inform all future ones as well.

It’s some genuinely compelling writing in those scenes – I’d be prepared to say this is Moffat’s best rendering of a returning villain, but Missy was in this episode too – which gives us a fresh outlook on things, whilst still remaining faithful to what’s gone before. Take, for example, the conversation about Gallifrey; Davros congratulates the Doctor, says that he’s happy for him, and you can believe it, because that’s based on everything we already know about Davros. It builds upon his own jingoism and passion for Skaro, and examines it in a different light.

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Another thing that stood out to me were the moments where Davros was almost like a friend of the Doctor’s; sharing a joke with him, watching a sunset together, and speaking of the admiration he felt for the Doctor. It forms a wonderful set of parallels with Missy, another staple of the programme, who’s both an enemy and a friend to the Doctor.

The difference, of course, was that it was ultimately just a lie – where Missy genuinely does consider the Doctor a friend, albeit it in a complicated fashion, Davros is simply manipulating the Doctor, taking advantage of his compassion. It’s a testament to the strength of both the writing and the acting that Davros’ about turn really did feel like a betrayal; I’d totally bought into the idea that they were going to kill off Davros, because this felt like the absolute right way to handle it. When he did then start to laugh maniacally… well, everything changed.

Something that worked quite well about the Davros and the Doctor scenes were how perverse they were, in a way. A lot of the imagery relied upon twisting what we already knew so well, and presenting it in a very different, much more disturbing light. Davros laughing, for one thing, as well as Davros’ real eyes – there’s a strange, almost uncanny valley effect to it, which really heightens the tension to the scene. Davros quoting the Doctor’s own question – “Am I a good man?” – only added to this, really heightening the intrigue, and investing us in the interaction between the pair.

On the topic of the imagery, and disturbing ideas, it’s worth discussing the Dalek sewers. That was a fantastically macabre concept (that set up a similarly fantastic pun!) which was used quite effectively I think. It’s another aspect to the horror of the Daleks; the screaming sound remains chilling, and the concept of Daleks living on, even after “death”, is one that has a lot of potential, and I really hope it gets mined further.

Director Hettie MacDonald did a wonderful job of bringing it all to life. I must admit, I am typically not inclined to comment on direction, because I don’t really know a huge amount about it, and usually can’t distinguish between any particular flourishes or mistakes, but it must be said, this episode was quite well done. The Dalek city is very stylish, the sewers are atmospheric, and the whole episode is wonderfully evocative. So, great job there.

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Admittedly, though, the episode was not perfect. I think it’s probably fair to say that, as with last week, the plot was not necessarily the most substantial. Obviously, the sheer quality of the Davros/Doctor scenes more than makes up for a lot of this, but the episode does feel a little empty, in some ways.

Similarly, the subplot with Clara and Missy was lacking too. Lots to appreciate; both Michelle Gomez and Jenna Coleman are exceptionally skilled actresses playing well written characters delivering witty dialogue, and seeing the two play off of one another works very well, but… Clara was disappointingly easily manipulated. She fell for the same tricks just a few too many times, and I feel like she should have been a little more guarded around Missy – particularly given what happened with Danny.

Something that was interesting that came up: all this talk of hybrids and confession dials and why the Doctor left Gallifrey. It looks (though I’m not certain) like they’re trying to set up something of a series arc here. I’m not entirely certain how I feel about that, really – the reason why the Doctor left Gallifrey is something that I’m always cautious about them getting too close to. It’s one of those pieces of the mythos that should really always remain largely open to interpretation; add in bits and bobs, develop certain aspects, but shy away from any explicitly writing big prophecies into the canon. That’s the sort of divisive element that should really remain in headcanon.

But, talking about the character of the Doctor, this lets me swing back round to the start of the episode – and to the end of the episode – to comment on something I really enjoyed: the character of the Doctor put forward.

I loved that line, “I’m here because you’re sick and you asked.” I loved how Capaldi delivered it, and spoke of how ‘the Doctor’ is, essentially, an ideal he aspired towards. The Doctor is someone who’s just passing through, trying his best to help people.

He doesn’t kill Davros, because why would he? If presented with the opportunity to kill Davros, the answer is in fact to try and teach him something better. To help him. To let compassion win out.

And that was brilliant. So, no, the episode wasn’t quite perfect. I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as last week (which I was perhaps a bit kind to), but it’s still a very, very good episode. 9/10

Related:

Doctor Who series 9 reviews

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Doctor Who Review: The Magician’s Apprentice

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If someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?

Doctor Who is back! And it’s back with a blast.

I’ve really missed the show, I realised. That wasn’t something I’d been aware of, exactly, in the run up – obviously I was keeping on top of the news about the episodes, watching all the trailers, and blogging about it all… so I suppose that’s why, actually. I didn’t miss the presence of the show because I didn’t feel like it had ever gone away – I’m on the message boards, I entered the Mission Dalek competition (didn’t win, sadly) and I am essentially a massive nerd, I realise, as I type this sentence. Hmm. (But, you know, I am reviewing Doctor Who, so I guess that can be taken as read.)

But, yes. There’s nothing quite like new Doctor Who, is there? And that’s the experience that I missed. That of watching brand new Doctor Who.

Steven Moffat has, I think, explicitly tailored this episode towards capturing that feeling – the sheer excitement of watching new Doctor Who. That’s what The Magician’s Apprentice is all about – it’s buzzing with energy, and there’s a real vibrancy and bombast to all the spectacle involved.

The episode begins with pure, unadulterated, unashamed and unabashed continuity references, which is the sort of thing I love. First, we’re on Skaro, then the Maldovarium; next it’s the Shadow Proclamation, and finally Karn itself, complete with cameos from Ood, Judoon, Sycorax and Hath. Gotta admit, I wonder how that went down with more casual fans – I’d assume that it’d be fine, because they simply see cool looking aliens, but perhaps it was a little… alienating. (Haha, pun!)

We go from there to Missy and Clara, and there’s yet more spectacle on display – not just in terms of the frozen planes (an excellent hook, which was a great way of establishing both Clara and Missy in their element) but also the spectacular acting on display. (Another pun!) It carries forth throughout, really – both Jenna Coleman and Michelle Gomez are excellent in this episode, and it’s brilliant to see the pair of them together, with Missy essentially in the role of the Doctor. Lots of excellent dialogue there; very fond of the references to the Doctor’s friendship with the Master. Like I said in my review of Death in Heaven, way back when, I really do like the Doctor and the Master being depicted as friends – albeit ones with a rather complicated relationship!

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But, in all fairness, the moment of the most impressive spectacle is the entrance of the Doctor. Steven Moffat gave a bit of a talk about it, in this YouTube video here, and you can see that a lot of thought went into the execution of it – it wasn’t just (great) puns! The overall effect, mind, was that the Doctor was acting out of character and over the top because he was ashamed. Self loathing. Off kilter. This is actually subtly different from how death was invoked during the Matt Smith years – the point is not “the Doctor has to face his death”, but rather “the Doctor owes it to Davros to meet him, even though it will likely cause his death, because he is ashamed of what he has done”. Peter Capaldi absolutely sells this, of course, in the same way he does with everything – he’s a fantastic actor, and a really magnificent screen presence. Entering into the second year, I have to say, I’m really hoping he sticks around for a good long while yet.

And of course, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t want to, is there? This must be his childhood dream, because he’s really ticking off all the big icons! Daleks, Cybermen, the Master… and now Davros. That’s the crux of the episode, really. The re-appearance of Davros. Julian Bleach was back again, reprising the role from 2008′s The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, and he really is a brilliant actor. His performance is noticeably pitched differently, and we get a really compelling depiction of a dying Davros. It’s very well done – and it was really, wonderfully exciting to see Davros again. I admit, I’d heard rumours of the appearance of young Davros, but never of the return of Davros as we know him.

The interaction between the Doctor and Davros was, as you’d expect, remarkably well done. Moffat wrote some excellent confrontations between the pair – something I thought was rather effective was the Doctor begging with Davros to save Clara – and he’s managed to tell a story which not only references old canon, but builds upon it, and leads us to view the older episodes in a new light. That, I think, is the best approach to take to continuity, and Moffat very clearly has an excellent handle on that.

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As ever, there’s a lot of things I’ve not really been able to mention and deal with. One day there’s going to be a review that’s just a list of bullet points, in all likelihood, because that’s the only way I can get through all of these things.

Colony Sarff was a wonderful concept, as were the hand mines. (Were they inspired by a typo, do you think?) I think Sarff is one of Moffat’s best original concepts in a while, actually – the eventual reveal, where the layers of his face split into the different snakes, worked excellently, and it was really well directed – Hettie MacDonald did great work throughout. Set design was fantastic throughout, from 1198 Essex to the Dalek City on Skaro. Really excellent stuff. The stopping of the planes was a really nice concept, which fulfilled just as much of a plot requirement as it needed to, and the appearance of UNIT was a nice touch too. (As was, by the way, Moffat’s repositioning of UNIT as being lead by a team of female scientists. That’s not really something he gets enough credit for, I think.)

The episode worked, then, to do exactly what it needed to do: to provide a spectacle and vibrancy, and remind everyone of the sheer joy of watching Doctor Who. It was, admittedly, very much a “part one” episode; it was doing a lot of heavy lifting for next week, and if The Witch’s Familiar falters at all, then this is retroactively going to suffer, I think.

But so far? I honestly, really enjoyed this episode, and it put me in such a good mood after having watched it. Certainly, I thought it was superior to Deep Breath last year, which, whilst wonderful, felt somewhat lacking. The Magician’s Apprentice was such a confident and strong episode that I’m actually inclined to give it…

… well, I’m inclined to give it a 10/10 actually. (That’s based on two watches, for the record.) Perhaps that one is entirely contextual; maybe it’s simply the buzz of having new Doctor Who on the TV. But for now, I am actually pleased enough with the episode to give it that sort of ranking.

Related:

Doctor Who series 9 reviews

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