Do Doctor Who’s Weeping Angels still terrify?

Do Doctor Who’s Weeping Angels still terrify?

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. The next five installments focus on “scary episodes.”

Doctor Who (2005), “Blink” (season 3, episode 10; originally aired 6/9/2007)

(Available on Netflix.)

In which the Angels are always watching…

Todd VanDerWerff: What makes “Blink” so darn scary is how it turns the rules of the horror movie against us. The idea for us as viewers of scary media is to look away. When things get too intense, we’re supposed to focus on something—anything—else, whether by covering our eyes, hiding behind something, or just looking away for a brief instant, if you’re an adult who just can’t handle the sight of somebody being stabbed (not that I speak from experience or anything). And so many horror movies are shot in this way, keeping the truly awful stuff offscreen.

“Blink” explicitly tells you not to do all of the above. Don’t look away. Don’t even blink. That’s what The Doctor says, from his 1969 prison on a DVD extra aimed directly at Sally Sparrow (a young, fresh-faced Carey Mulligan, who’s so obviously going to go on to do better things here that I looked her up when this episode first aired to make note of someone worth keeping an eye on). Surely we wouldn’t disobey The Doctor, right? And I like the way the episode keeps this contract with the audience, by sheer budgetary necessity. We never see the Weeping Angels move, because we’re always watching them. Even when the other characters aren’t looking, we are, so they remain statues. But then the camera cuts away or the lights fade or something else happens, and oh dear God, that statue just shifted position.

The Weeping Angels have come to dominate discussion of this episode so much—and they’re Who villains that this episode’s writer, Steven Moffat, would run into the ground—that it’s easy to forget just how much fun it is on the sheer level of sci-fi invention and time travel trickery. The Doctor has to plant numerous clues throughout the year 2007, so that Sally will be able to get to the TARDIS and reunite it with him in 1969, and what’s fun to puzzle out is how all of these pieces will fit together, how Moffat and director Hettie MacDonald will make everything fit. The episode announces its intentions from the get-go, when Sally pulls off the wallpaper in the moldering old house to reveal a message directed at her: Duck. And she does, just as a rock flies through the window, presumably thrown by one of the Angels.

What’s interesting about the Angels is that they’re not really that scary in terms of what they do to you. Sure, they displace you in time, so that you end up living out a life that shouldn’t have been, the better to let them gobble up all of your original possibility, but you’re still alive. The two characters we see get tossed into the past—Kathy Nightingale and Billy Shipton—both meet soul mates relatively quickly and end up getting married (and in the case of the former, having kids). In terms of the fate that awaits you if you happen to meet the Weeping Angels, you’re not in enormous existential danger. The Doctor even describes them in terms of being kind assassins, with the sort of poignancy this show can often summon up for its monsters. Because they freeze in position when being watched, they can never look at each other, and that’s a rather sad and lonely notion when you think about it.

No, the reason “Blink” is so terrifying is because it comes up with an ingenious way to do a riff on the old “things that shouldn’t move are moving,” bit which doesn’t get used nearly often enough. Then it has the good sense to keep the movement off-screen. Statues, in and of themselves, are already a little unsettling (there’s an “unknown fisherman” down by the beach in my town that I have my suspicions about). They’re trapped forever on the other side of the uncanny valley from us. But we also know they’re not supposed to move, so when these statues start moving, mostly in quick shots designed to emphasize just how close they come to grabbing our heroine and her friends, then in shots designed to show their full, razor-sharp-teeth-filled faces, it’s marvelously unnerving and unsettling. Never mind what the Weeping Angels can do to you. A ghost that only raps on the walls and rattles chains is still incredibly creepy.

I still remember watching “Blink” the first time, late at night, with all the lights off and the curtains drawn to block out the California street light. It was, perhaps, the perfect introduction to this episode. This time around, I was less frightened by it than I was impressed by how it turns the audience into a willing participant in The Doctor’s instructions. “Blink” succeeds insofar as it can make us not blink, so that we’re staring at those terrifying visages as they slowly unfurl into even more terrifying ones. It’s a clever bit of screencraft, but I don’t know that I found it particularly scary this time around.

Tell me I’m wrong, folks. Tell me this is still blood-curdling terror.

Genevieve: I’m afraid I can’t do that, Todd. I agree with you that “Blink” is unsettling, and a prime example of getting a lot out of a little, visually speaking, but I found myself waiting the whole episode for a jolt that never came—the sort of “mirror scare” that’s become so closely associated with modern horror. (And that I personally hate, so I’m actually really glad it never came to that here.) But perhaps that sense of anticipation, whether or not it’s ever fulfilled, is where the real terror lays, hence the ultimate effectiveness of this episode.

The statues are at their most unsettling in the early going, before we know exactly what their deal is, and before we see their fanged faces, which reminded me far too much of a Halloween-store latex mask spray-painted gray. I’m no Whovian, but I’ve seen enough of the show (and read more than enough about it) to know that its low-budget cheesiness is a big part of its charm, so I don’t mean this as a criticism; but even for a scaredy-cat like me, who does not do horror most of the time, it’s going to take a little more than some papier-mâché and a strobe light to get me cowering. But, again, I don’t like to cower, so that’s totally fine by me. It allowed me the mental energy to enjoy how the mystery of “Blink” unfolds, and to puzzle whether its time-travel narrative holds water. (I didn’t think it did until the last scene, where Sally meets a pre-Weeping Angels-encounter Doctor.) 

But I’m glad you point out that the fate of Weeping Angels’ victims isn’t all that horrifying, Todd. Most horror revolves around the fear of death (or of pain, which usually leads to death), which is at its core a capital-e Ending. But what the Weeping Angels do isn’t an ending, not exactly. Or if it is an ending—to their victims’ current lives—it comes with the promise of an afterlife, if you will. Both examples of which we see turn out pretty well, generally speaking, for the afflicted. Sure, you’ll never get to see certain family and friends again—or perhaps you will, depending what year you get zapped to—but you also get to undertake a great adventure. That’s a little scary, but it’s also a little thrilling, isn’t it?

Carrie Raisler: Perhaps I’m the true scaredy-cat of this group, because the Weeping Angels still scare the pants off me. It’s such an effective and fantastic distillation of psychological terror, forcing the audience to consider and analyze a purely biological function your body normally performs several times a minute without even thinking about it. Don’t blink! Easy, right? But once you do start thinking about it, blinking goes from an afterthought to a sudden necessity, overtaking your thoughts just as the increasing tension on the screen is urging you to ignore your biological needs. It’s this ability to infect the thoughts of the audience that makes the Weeping Angels far more effectively scary to me than a more traditional horror villain.

Also, am I the only one who thinks what the Angels do is completely terrifying? The episode attempts to make getting unexpectedly sent back in time seem akin to the fun little timey-wimey romps The Doctor goes on every week, but being ripped from your life without the chance to see your loved ones again—not even to say one last goodbye—sounds more like a nightmare to me. Especially if you think about it from a loved one’s perspective: Do you just disappear? It seems like the beginning of a sad missing persons case, not a fun time travel adventure.

What’s most interesting to me about “Blink” is how it uses The Doctor himself as one of the main delivery systems of the impending doom, first with the hastily scrawled message on the wall, and then increasing in intensity with the messages on the television. When the episode ends, The Doctor moves the terror beyond the confines of the episode and into the audience’s own life, implying that the Weeping Angels aren’t in the television; they’re all around us, and waiting to attack. Sure, this sets up their return within the world of Doctor Who, but it also sets the audience on edge to be wary of whatever strange statue they may find in their own everyday lives.

Or maybe the warning at the end is just a fun bit of cheese.

Zack Handlen: Yeah, this really is more “spooky” than “scary,” and while I actually thought the makeup effects were pretty effective (something about ridiculous monsters always gets under my skin), the music kept distracting me. Every time a fright effect was about to kick in, somebody kicked on a synthesizer to underline the moment, which mostly just served to highlight how, well, artificial this all was. As you guys have noted, the Weeping Angels have a lot more bark than bite. Moffat tries to get around this by having Sally spend some time with dying Billy, but it really just points out that as monsters go, the Angels have nothing on Time itself. The Doctor’s big expository speech about “potentialities” and what not is a fine bit of hand-waving, but it doesn’t even make the kind of vague, fantastical sense that most of explanations on this show manage. If reality is just a big blob of “timey-wimey” stuff, why does it matter that the Angels’ victims are transported into the past? It’s not even the past; the Angels aren’t destroying potentialities so much as recycling them. 

So the lack of stakes makes this one less terrifying than it might have been, but what interested me this time around is, I think, what made Moffat keep the stakes so low to begin with. I don’t know which came first in the conception of the plot, but the fact that Martha and the Doctor are trapped in the past, and can only communicate to Sally through graffiti and DVD Easter eggs, feels a bit like a reverse engineered moment, the sort of clever twist that forces a writer to work back from the ending to make it all fit. The scariest thing about the Weeping Angels—the way they move—has nothing to do with what they do to their victims, which makes the whole thing feel smushed together if you stop and think about it. Moffat wanted to tell a story with The Doctor on the sidelines, and he had the Angels kicking around, so mix it up and you have a nifty bit of story. 

There’s another reason why this isn’t too scary either, I think, and it happens in the very first scene. Sally comes into an old house, she starts poking around, and as anyone who has ever watched a horror movie before knows, this is a bad business to be on. But before any serious catastrophes can arrive, she starts peeling off wallpaper and sees the message from The Doctor. It’s a great hook, raising all sorts of questions about what’s going on that absolutely pull the viewer in, but it also effectively breaks any real horror because now we know that The Doctor has things under control. Even as other people disappear around her, Sally has The Doctor guiding her from afar. Sure, he’s not actually there, but part of what makes this so enjoyable to watch is that everything is planned out. We don’t know the twist until the end—Sally gives The Doctor all her notes, which is one of those Terminator-style paradoxes that always makes my head hurt—but there’s maybe three minutes in the entire episode when it seems like things might get out of hand. Great horror relies on creating the impression that a situation has passed beyond anyone’s control and that the guardrails have broken off and the monsters are inside. (I think a more effective example of Doctor Who horror is probably “Midnight” or “Water Of Mars,” but those are on the grim side, and the horror is less “jump out of your seat.”) “Blink” plays more like a ride in the Haunted Mansion. Sometimes you jump, but none of the ghosts ever make actual contact.

I should stress, any of my criticisms are done with full admiration for what “Blink” accomplishes; it’s still a delightful, entertaining hour, and I had a lot of fun re-watching it. Carey Mulligan is more than charming enough to make it possible to overlook the usual Moffat tropes (beautiful woman, great name, not a lot of character, ends up with the scruffy guy), and after watching Broadchurch, it’s a relief to see David Tennant grinning again. Really, while it’s possible for a script to be overly clever, sometimes it’s just as satisfying to watch something in which nobody really suffers too badly, all the questions are answered, and the monsters defeat themselves. I love horror, but I’ll always have a place for spooky on my TV. 

TV: Something I’ve never considered that Carrie made me think about: Does Sally giving The Doctor the messages that lead him to leave the bread crumb trail she ends up following put him in the path of the Angels? I don’t see why the TARDIS would necessarily have been at the old mansion otherwise, and he obviously has to write that message behind the wallpaper. Maybe his presence in the mansion is caused by the fact that he needs to leave Sally a message that will eventually save him. It’s a weird causal loop (at least I think that’s what it’s called by time travel experts), and it’s kind of fun to contemplate within the episode’s “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey” concept.

But what Zack mentioned—about how this is two different stories smushed together—made me realize that the love story here is really tacked on. I had completely forgotten about it until he brought it up, but it feels almost obligatory here, as if Moffat is trying to tell Sally not to get so worked up by all of this craziness that she forgets to fall in love. Which is a little reductive, admittedly, and I’m probably reading my current frustrations with Moffat’s run on Who into what happens here. But the connection that forms between Sally and Larry feels so, so tenuous and pointless. I don’t hold this against the episode—it’s still a lot of fun either way—but why couldn’t the thwarted relationship with Billy have been Sally’s main connection?

GK: Or why did Sally need to have a romantic connection at all? I, too, pretty much forgot about Sally and Larry’s “connection” until you guys brought it back up, and now I remember raising an eyebrow at the final scene, where they make that connection literal by holding hands after Sally gets closure from (gives closure to?) The Doctor. Call me naïve or unobservant, but the supposed chemistry between those two never even pinged my radar until the epilogue, and the stuff with Billy felt more like a manifestation of potential energy than an actual connection. 

Todd, you allude to this being somewhat of a habit of Moffat recently, of forcing female characters into romantic connections just because. I haven’t watched a fraction of enough Who to know if that’s accurate, but it frustrates me enough in this single instance. Frankly, I saw much more potential in the relationship between Sally and her friend Kathy Nightingale, the first Weeping Angels’ victim we see get zapped back to the past. I liked their early rapport a lot, and their plucky-girl-detective-duo shtick was appealing enough that I was pretty bummed Kathy got taken out of it so quickly, and her brother Larry got subbed in instead as Sally’s investigative partner-turned-inexplicable love interest. But that’s a pretty minor complaint/what-if exercise, and a testament to “Blink”’s success as a narrative that it offers so many other intriguing potentialities.

CR: Yeah, there’s something very pat and simplistic about Moffat’s need to wrap up not only Sally’s story with a lovey-dovey happy ending, but also the stories of the other people affected by the Angels. But I think to a certain extent this is driven by the format of Doctor Who itself, in that it must tell the complete story of a character in only one episode. That Moffat relies on such an easy device as romantic connection to effectively end the story—no matter how tenuous it turns out to be—is disappointing, but I certainly understand the impulse to give Sally something good to look forward to in light of losing her friend, even if her ending up strong and alone is potentially a more interesting, nuanced way to say goodbye.

I’ve been tiptoeing around the time travel aspects of the story because just thinking about the causal loop Todd mentions makes my brain start to smoke, but “Blink” (along with Moffat’s other early work on Who) was definitely my introduction to his love of story construction and building story arcs like they are little puzzles to be solved. This love of the pieces can at times cause the whole to feel a bit emotionally hollow, which may be what happened here, at least in regards to the ending. Still, I can’t deny the power of the Weeping Angels, who are such an iconic force that the complicated (and yes, great) story construction and iffy ending are really the last things you tend remember when considering the episode’s legacy.

ZH: The more you think about that last gasp of character development at the end, the sillier it gets. Why was Sally running the shop with Scruffy Guy? Why did Moffat make her very natural and understandable curiosity about time travel and crazy moving statues and a magical learned figure who seems to know everything into some kind of Zodiac-killer obsession? And why wouldn’t a guy who spent hours tracking down and transcribing clues on DVD Easter eggs suddenly decide it was important to be all mature about letting go? Really, the only reason for that last conversation was to set-up the sudden arrival of The Doctor and Martha outside the shop front door; oh, and give some forced uplift when Sally takes Scruffy Guy’s hand. (I know he has a name. I don’t care.) Sure, there are stabs at an emotional arc here and there, most obviously in the scene where Sally spends time with the old man version of Billy. Danger is everywhere, find happiness where you can. Hell, The Doctor’s whole warning almost doubles as a theme for the whole series: keep your eyes open. You don’t know what’s out there, and if the Weeping Angels catch you, you never will. 

But while the hospital room scene is pretty good, the character work never coheres into anything more than decent filler; Carey Mulligan is so good at her job that it’s almost, but not quite, possible to ignore that Sally might as well be a blank space with word “heroine” written on it (and “pretty” underneath in parentheses). What makes “Blink” work is not its heart, but its marvelous, playful construction. It’s a puzzle, and the soul comes not from the pieces inside it, but the way they come together. And it captures a fear that’s nearly universal: I think my favorite moment in the episode is when Scruffy Guy faces down a Weeping Angel while Sally runs around trying to find a way out of the house. He knows exactly what he has to do, and the monster is right there in front of him, and it’s all so simple: don’t blink. And that is very easy. At first.  

Next time: Another group of writers thrills to the sounds of silence with Buffy The Vampire Slayer's “Hush.”

After that: Our third group takes on murderous, incestuous hillbillies with the infamous X-Files episode “Home.” Find it on Amazon, and Hulu

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