Doctor Who: “Blink”/“Utopia”

Doctor Who: “Blink”/“Utopia”

“I. Am. The Master!”

So then. “Blink.” Honestly, what more is there to say about this one? This is often touted as the best episode of the new series, and there’s some data to back up that assertion; “Blink” did place second behind only “The Caves Of Androzani” in a 2009 fan poll ranking all Doctor Who stories, although the episode likely benefited from the fact that it had only aired a couple years before. Whether or not it’s actually the “best,” however you might choose to define that, it’s safe to say that this is the most universally beloved episode of the new series. Doctor Who is a show whose constant creative turnover—and the attendant changes in storytelling formats, thematic preoccupations, and production styles—invites such a massive spectrum of opinion. Pretty much every story is proof of either the show’s enduring genius or its inevitable decline, depending on who you ask, yet just about everybody loves “Blink,” and even those who are left somewhat cold by certain aspects of the story generally acknowledge its greatness. Hell, I’d put myself in the category of those who don’t absolutely love this episode—perhaps an enduring bit of prejudice against the Doctor-lite episodes—and even I can’t deny this one the “A.”

The point is that this episode’s exalted status means it’s also one of the most-discussed stories in the show’s history. I’m at a particular disadvantage because this is the one story in this retrospective coverage that has already been given in-depth analysis, as not one, not two, not three, but four of my colleagues broke down this episode six months ago in an edition of TV Roundtable. I’m tempted to take it easy this week and just tell you to go read what Todd, Carrie, Zack, and Genevieve already wrote. I’m not going to do that, but seriously: Go read their piece, because it’s great, and it’s particularly insightful in why the Weeping Angels became such instantly iconic monsters. But honestly, the scariest bit of “Blink” for me isn’t its lonely assassins, even if I will happily admit that Hettie McDonald’s brilliant direction wrings every last horror movie jolt and thrill out of the Angels’ unseen movements. Still, here goes my foolhardy attempt to say something new about “Blink.” Be warned: This could get a bit weird…

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

(Available on Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Instant Video.)

“What did you come here for anyway?” “I love old things. They make me feel sad.” “What’s good about sad?” “It’s happy for deep people.”

It’s such a small thing, but the scene that most unsettles me comes when Malcolm Wainwright shows up at the house to deliver his grandmother’s letter to Sally Sparrow. The obvious comparison for this scene is the end of Back To The Future: Part II—the film, not the novelization—in which Marty McFly receives a 70-year-old letter from Doc Brown about 30 seconds after the DeLorean vanishes; that actually might have been the precise moment of narrative twistiness that made my childhood self fall in love with time travel stories forever. But “Blink” ups the ante by having Malcolm show up at the door 30 seconds before the Weeping Angels zap Kathy Nightingale back to Hull in 1920. As soon as Kathy hears that knock at the door and volunteers to hang back “in case of… incidents,” she has sealed her fate. The Weeping Angel that gets her moments later is the immediate cause of her temporal displacement, but it’s really just an agent of time itself.

But to say Kathy seals her fate a mere 30 seconds before her disappearance is insufficient. After all, it would be awfully solipsistic to presume that Malcolm Wainwright and his entire family history sprang into existence with that knock at the door. Malcolm had his own independent existence for decades before showing up in Wester Drumlins, as did his parent, as did his grandparent, who is Kathy herself. In “Blink,” time is suddenly presented as fixed and predetermined, and the Weeping Angels are just a manifestation of a more elusive, more cosmic horror. From the moment that Kathy is born—which we damn well know is more than 18 years ago, thanks to Sally—she is living in the aftermath of her own death, even if the earlier and later strands of her life don’t intersect until Malcolm shows up in Wester Drumlins.

Both Back To The Future and Doctor Who play fast and loose with the precise mechanics of time travel— just to heighten the parallels between the two, both Part II and “Blink” specifically mention that a paradox could blow up the entire universe, or at least a decent chunk of it—but we can say that both take a fundamentally adventurous view toward the subject. Yes, there are dangers to messing about with history, and potentially cataclysmic ones at that, but it’s still possible to mess around in the first place; time is not an immutable, unbending foe, defeating all attempts to reshape its course. To quote a line that “Blink” writer Steven Moffat enshrined once be became showrunner, “Time can be rewritten.” The Doctor’s presence means that the show can invite the audience to treat all that as a given, as the Doctor (and, by extension, his companion) stands outside the normal sweep of history. Unless a story has very specifically decided to examine the consequences of the Doctor’s interference, he is free to get involved in any past, present, or future event as though it were his native time period. But “Blink” is different, and Kathy Nightingale’s fate is only the most immediately obvious example, as Moffat’s script and McDonald’s direction expertly cross-cut between Kathy’s arrival in 1920 and Sally’s dawning realization of her friend’s fate. The sequence hammers home the notion that everything in all of time and space really is just happening all at once, with cause and effect so hopelessly muddled so as to restrict whatever freedom of choice we might imagine we have.

On my initial rewatch, I thought Steven Moffat might have missed a trick in the reveal of Billy Shipton’s fate: What if it had been a phone call from the older Billy that had pulled Sally out of the garage, leaving the younger man alone to be taken by the Weeping Angels? In the absence of such an obvious causal overlap, it can at first appear cruel that the stranded Doctor cannot offer that lift home. After all, he does get his TARDIS back eventually, so all that appears to be stopping him is the fact that he forced Billy onto the slow path so that he could spend multiple decades running a glorified errand with those DVD Easter eggs. At first glance, the Doctor appears to be using Billy, but he really has no choice: As the final scene reveals, the Doctor is always just following the script Sally gave him, even when he’s not specifically recording the message to her.

Indeed, it’s amusing to imagine what this story must look like from the Doctor’s perspective, as it probably involves an inordinate amount of painstaking, seemingly random busywork, like spending hours putting precisely the right messages behind precisely the right bits of peeling wallpaper. The new series has often been interested in exploring who truly has control in a Doctor Who story, and how much the chaos that unfolds in a typically story can ultimately be traced back to the Doctor’s mere presence; last week’s “Human Nature”/“The Family Of Blood” offered a particularly damning assessment. But here, nobody—the Doctor and the Weeping Angels included—is really responsible for what unfolds here, as each individual acts just as the circular timeline has always demanded that they do.

When discussing fiction, we tend to talk a lot about the agency of the characters, the notion these fictional beings have some measure of control over the direction that their lives take. This isn’t meant to detract from the importance of this subject, but it’s worth acknowledging that all such agency is an illusion, that any decision we attribute to a fictional individual is really an expression of the will of someone else—often the writer, but also the actor or the director. Part of the reason that Sally Sparrow is such a singularly compelling hero is that she is the one character who most clearly resists the determinism at the heart of “Blink,” even if that resistance is just as much a preordained part of the time loop as the Doctor’s easygoing fatalism is. In one of the episode’s best lines, Sally pushes back against the Doctor’s glib explanation and asserts her personhood in the face of time’s grim machinations—“I’m clever and I’m listening, and don’t patronize me because people have died, and I’m not happy”—but the sentiment of that line doesn’t alter the fact that she says it to a recording, completing her half of a conversation that must happen simply because it always has. Doctor Who is a show that so boldly and proudly promises infinite adventure, yet “Blink” is an episode in which all that the characters can really hope to do is hit their marks and hope they don’t flub their lines.  

So then, what begins as a time travel story becomes, perhaps inadvertently, a commentary on the very nature of fiction. Again, Sally hangs onto the illusion that she is free to act, that her own personal motivations behind her actions are somehow more meaningful than the fact that the timeline demands that she act in such ways in order to maintain its integrity. That last sentence is true of every Doctor Who story—hell, pretty much every story ever told—as long as you sub out “the timeline” in favor of “the writer.” This story is fundamentally a translation into science fiction of what all storytelling is: Characters play their predetermined parts, and things happen because the universe demands it. Indeed, Moffat’s script and McDonald’s direction blur the lines between the story’s internal reality and the more basic fact that it’s all just a bit of make-believe that we’re watching at home. The fact that the Angels only move when the audience isn’t watching is the most commonly noted example of this, but there’s also the moment where Banto the video store owner yells at the TV screen, telling both the movie character and Sally to just go to the police; I might even argue that the line quoted up top is a knowing wink to the flimsiness of so many characters’ motivations. When you push too hard on most Doctor Who stories, all that happens is that their internal logic falls apart. Here, if you push too hard on “Blink,” the most fundamental logic of storytelling collapses into a singularity. That’s not bad, considering Steven Moffat wrote the thing on incredibly short notice, only taking on the dreaded “Doctor-lite” story as a way of apologizing to the production team for not being available to write the Daleks two-parter earlier in the series.

Still, “Blink” doesn’t have to be appreciated on any of these self-referential levels; indeed, I doubt any of what I have just discussed is anyone’s primary takeaway from this story, and I very much include myself in that statement. But the episode enables such deep dives because everything else about it—the acting, the writing, the direction, and always, always, the monsters—are so brilliant. If you want “Blink” to be a mini-horror movie about living statues, it can be that. If you want the episode to be a mind-bending consideration of the nature of time travel at its most tangled, it can be that. If you want the episode to be just a slice of Steven Moffat-penned stylishness, full of quotable lines and narrative niftiness à la “The Empty Child”/“The Doctor Dances” and “The Girl In The Fireplace,” it can be that. And, on this occasion, if I want “Blink” to be a meta-commentary on the very nature of fiction, it can be that. I always struggle with calling this the best episode of the new Doctor Who, if only because I can’t shake the feeling that the best Doctor Who episode really ought to have more of the Doctor in it. But it’s damn hard to find a more brilliant, endlessly engaging hour of television that just happens to have the words “Doctor Who” in the opening credits. 

Stray observations:

  • Just to reiterate, if you’d like a wider look at all that “Blink” accomplishes, do check out the TV Roundtable, as I pretty much agree with everything said there. (Yes, even the bits that contradict the other bits.) At this distance, it doesn’t really seem worth being the 10,000th person to point out how brilliant Carey Mulligan here is, but, my goodness, she really is fantastic, and it’s about the least surprising thing ever that she’s gone on to such international success. (Andrew Garfield, on the other hand, was a bit more of a surprise.) 
  • If there’s one thing that wasn’t pointed out in that article that is worth pointing out here, it’s that David Tennant is quietly crucial to this episode’s success, and his two days’ worth of work features some terrific work. He hits a nice balance between really conversing and just reading an auto-cue in his conversation with Sally, and there’s a reason that the episode circles back to his chilling delivery of the “Don’t even blink” warning at the episode’s end. (That reason, just to be clear, is that this show sometimes likes to scare children just for the hell of it.) But I like even better his appearance right at the end; his accepting nod and shrug when Sally tells him he will someday get stranded in 1969 somehow makes all the lunacy of this episode feel perfectly reasonable. His big smile when he tells Sally that it’s nice to meet her is also a much-needed reminder of why Doctor Who is indeed about the Doctor; it’s been fun to follow another character for an episode, but it’ll be nice to get back to the Doctor’s adventures in the next adventure.
  • The one major flaw of “Blink” is that it kind of elides a seemingly necessary emotional beat, as the story never really has Laurence recognize and come to terms with the reality that he will never see his sister Kathy again. Kathy’s letter bends over backwards to make it sound like this won’t be that big a deal, but, from Laurence’s perspective, his sister has just died, effectively, and this is never really dealt with in a meaningful way. This doesn’t really bother me when I consider the episode as a whole, but that little section where Sally first meets (a now clothed) Laurence and breaks the news to him rings a bit false.
  • “Well, it's a special kind of phone box for policemen. They used to have them all over. But this isn't a real one. The phone's just a dummy, and the windows are the wrong size.” That last bit, for the record, was the show acknowledging a very real controversy about the incorrect dimensions of the Davies-era TARDIS. I believe this has since been corrected in the Moffat era.
  • Also, Laurence Nightingale? I can never quite work out if that’s meant as a very subtle gag or if Steven Moffat just wrote the story so quickly that he didn’t notice the name’s similarity to the legendary nurse.

“Utopia” (season 3, episode 11; originally aired 6/16/2007)

(Available on Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Instant Video.)

“Time Lord, last of. Heard of them? Legend or anything? Not even a myth? Blimey, end of the universe is a bit humbling.”

There was a time that I considered “Utopia” to be the best episode that Russell T. Davies ever wrote for Doctor Who. It can’t have held that title for very long, roughly spanning a period from this episode’s initial broadcast right up to, oh, I’m going to say June 14, 2008. Either way, “Utopia” was an odd choice for such esteemed status; while there are some subtler depths to this episode, it mostly works as a rousing bit of setup elevated by a guest turn from an acting legend. After all, this isn’t so much a complete story as it is a prologue for next week’s two-parter; this and the subsequent two episodes are sometimes called a three-parter, but I’ve always considered “Utopia” its own, distinct entry. That’s not to say it can stand apart from what comes after, as none of this episode’s huge plot threads—Captain Jack Harkness’ reunion with the Doctor, the Master’s reemergence, and the last humans’ quest for Utopia—are even remotely resolved. But what makes “Utopia” special is that it doesn’t need to resolve any of those elements, because Davies’ script locates the quiet, contemplative stories that so perfectly fit the existential melancholy of the end of the universe. Then, just to be on the safe side, Davies and director Graeme Harper blow it all up, piling action upon action and revelation upon revelation, all as Murray Gold’s music keeps upping the tension for about 15 minutes straight. And it’s not hard to see why: The presence of one Time Lord is enough to alter forever the lives and dreams of the people of Malcassairo. The presence of two is enough to plunge the entire universe—what’s left of it, at least—into utter chaos.

This episode is positively drenched in Doctor Who lore both old and new, all of which requires some seriously impressive maneuvering to incorporate into the story. Before we get to the Master, let’s consider Captain Jack. By letting him back into—or at least onto—the TARDIS, the show is forced to acknowledge the somewhat flimsy reasoning behind his initial departure. It’s generally agreed that Jack was left behind in “The Parting Of The Ways” because the Doctor was about to regenerate, and a 51st century Time Agent would likely be so unfazed by such an event as to rob it of its mystery and power. I don’t know if it’s ever been revealed what would have happened if Christopher Eccleston had elected to stay on for another year—conceivably, Jack could have survived and left in the TARDIS or been left permanently dead on the Game Station—but the decision to abandon Jack, one that was fundamentally a creative decision made for the good of the show at large, now has to be given in-universe justification. “Utopia” must also thread a needle here in terms of its viewership, only some of whom will be familiar with the now immortal Captain’s adventures in the adult-centric spin-off Torchwood, which concluded its first season with a final scene that segues into Jack’s arrival here. Theoretically, this means that part of the audience will know exactly what Jack has been up to, while others won’t know what has happened to him since the TARDIS left the year 200,100.

Davies’ script attempts to split the difference here by having the Doctor refuse to engage with the topic until he absolutely has to. He dismisses the abandonment as the byproduct of leading a busy life, and he needles Jack about his inability to freeze to death as though the Captain himself is to blame for his immortality; considering the alternative is to hold Rose responsible, it’s actually quite possible that that is precisely how the Doctor feels. Indeed, the return of Jack allows this season to offer some much-needed definition for the Doctor’s pining for Rose, not to mention Martha’s understandable frustration with yet another implicit comparison to her predecessor. What’s oddly sweet about “Utopia” is how it lets its main characters fumble towards greater understanding of one another. That can simply mean acknowledging each other’s most remarkable qualities, as when Martha can’t quite process the fact that the Doctor regrew his hand, but it can also take deeper, more personal forms.

Martha quite rightly gives the Doctor some guff about Rose—“Oh, she was blonde, what a surprise!”—but her talk later of companions as stray dogs suggests her growing understanding of what it really means to travel with the Time Lord. Both Freema Agyeman and John Barrowman nicely portray the frustrations of dealing with a man who is both obviously well-intentioned and so utterly unknowable, with Martha increasingly resigning herself to the latter fact and Jack righteously pushing back; no line more perfectly recaptures the dynamic on display in their three adventures together in the first season than his quiet, pointed reminder that “You’re supposed to say sorry” when an alien reveals it is the last of its kind. The Doctor and Jack’s hearts-to-heart chat as the latter braves the stet radiation could just be a big load of backstory and foreshadowing, and it inarguably is, but Davies’ script, along with Barrowman and David Tennant’s performances, keep sight of the character dynamics underneath. The Doctor was always suspicious of Jack even before he became immortal, but it’s also clear that the two have shared such singular experiences that the Doctor can talk to the Captain like he would with nobody else.

Still, what I really love about “Utopia” is its portrayal of the year 100 trillion. I realize that may seem like an odd statement, considering the goofiness of so much of what we see on Malcassairo. The Futurekind are rather silly villains; we never really get a sense of their motivations beyond a kind of general, cannibalistic madness, but any attempt at explaining them further likely would have just made them appear even dafter. Moreover, “Utopia” runs into the basic problem of portraying something so incomprehensibly far into our future; Doctor Who kind of gets away with its excursions to the year five billion by adopting a knowing absurdity akin to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy or Futurama, in which everyone is so used to the incredible wonders of the future that they’re all vaguely bored with it. This episode demands a rather more serious tone in portraying the last remnants of humanity as they stare down the end of the universe, and it’s fair to say that this unimaginably distant future probably won’t feature suspiciously 20th century-looking guns and trucks. Such aspects really have to be understood as a kind of visual shorthand, a way of making more relatable the last humans’ situation. The whole point of “Utopia” is that everything has long since fallen apart, stripping humanity of its many achievements and leaving only the most rudimentary of technology. The fact that most of said rudimentary technology looks so familiar to our eyes can be most charitably understood as a necessary concession to the props department.

Yet “Utopia” needs no visuals, because it has Derek Jacobi. Professor Yana’s words paint the most remarkable, evocative portrait of this impossible time period. One line suggests that there is so little left in the universe that its denizens now speak of it like a world, not a cosmos: “[The Utopia signal is] far beyond the Condensate Wilderness, out towards the Wildlands and the Dark Matter reefs, calling us in.” He mentions that he lives in a time long past the existence of galaxies and universities alike. Then there’s the episode’s most poignant line, elevated by Jacobi’s heartbroken delivery: “They say there was time travel back in the old days. I never believed. But what would I know? Stupid old man. Never could keep time. Always late, always lost.” Yes, that line is designed to lead into the episode’s big revelation, but that misses the real poetry of the line. Jacobi’s performance as Professor Yana captures the gnawing sadness of realizing that he was born long after it made any sense to exist, long after anything tangible and lasting ceased to be. There are times when Yana articulates this sense in more relatable terms, as when he idly says it would be nice just once to get a bit of credit or when he protests that it’s better to let his fellow humans live in a bit of hope, but it’s also all too apparent that this good, brilliant man is holding back a despair deeper than any that we could hope to comprehend.

But then, the Professor isn’t real, and that’s the great heartbreak of this episode; the one last beacon of hope in this story—leaving aside the literal interstellar beacon, that is—has an unimaginable evil lurking inside him: the Master. I’ll have far more to say about the Doctor’s arch-enemy in next week’s review, but suffice it to say that Jacobi, for the three or so minutes he gets to play the Master, is every bit as good as he is as Professor Yana. As with David Tennant in “Human Nature”/“The Family Of Blood,” Jacobi is able to convey a complete transformation without altering anything about his appearance, and he is terrifying. And, even in the short space of time that the Master is in the episode, Davies’ script gets a couple of things absolutely right about the character. As anyone who has seen any of his classic series appearances can attest, it’s just perfect that one of the first things the Master does is compliment the brilliance of the Yana disguise, because this is a man who really, really loves his over-the-top disguises.

And then there’s the line, “Ah, now I can say I was provoked.” It’s hard to imagine precisely who he would ever need to offer that justification to—the Doctor, theoretically, but I can’t imagine he would excuse Chantho’s murder on such grounds—but the Master of old was always defined by his ability to cram gambits inside schemes inside stratagems inside master plans; as one story so eloquently put it, this is a man who would get dizzy attempting to walk in a straight line. After three years’ worth of monsters alternately deadly serious and theatrically over-the-top, we at last meet a villain who is both of these things at once. The look on the Doctor’s face when he first sees the restored Master says all you need to know about the peril that lies ahead.

Stray observations:

  • Again, certain aspects of this story can’t really be discussed properly until we get to next week; if you think I left out something important about this episode, it’s possible that I’m purposefully saving it for next week. (It’s also entirely possible that I just didn’t have time to get to it.) In any event, I ask that everyone be extra careful with the spoilers this week, but I realize it can be difficult to talk about “Utopia” without inadvertently tipping something about the next two episodes. But hey, we can all talk about Derek Jacobi’s brilliance without any fear of future spoilers!
  • My sense is that Chantho is a bit of a divisive character, in that a good chunk of fans share the Master’s assessment: “You, with your chan’ and your ‘tho’ driving me insane!” It’s a bit of a silly affectation, maybe, but I really like the attempt to portray what I might call a casually alien character; there’s nothing about Chantho that demands she be alien, but the presence of such an unearthly character—and such a convincing prosthetic—helps sell the idea that we are a long, long way from home. Her presence also ties in nicely with the discussion of her otherwise extinct people’s conglomeration, one of the story’s coolest visuals and yet another indication of the far future setting.
  • It’s interesting coming back to this story several years later without having rewatched Torchwood as well. When “Utopia” first aired, I had recently watched the spin-off’s first season, but now I only have vague memories of what went on. (Lots of sex, country cannibals, unconvincingly brooding John Barrowman, coworkers who shoot each other to resolve disputes, and a bad guy who looked a lot like William Hartnell, if I recall correctly. Oh, and a couple of rather sweet if vaguely preposterous time travel love stories.) To its credit, “Utopia” holds up very well as a reintroduction for Jack in both instances I watched it.
  • Somehow, this review ended up making two entirely unrelated references to the Colin Baker story “The Mark Of The Rani.” At the risk of starting a fight, I’m going to come right out and say I really like that story, even if the tree person is completely embarrassing.
  • This Week in Mythos: While Elisabeth Sladen and John Leeson were the first actors to reprise their classic series roles when they showed up in “School Reunion” as Sarah Jane Smith and K9, I believe this episode marks the first time that actual clips from the original run are used, as we hear audio of two previous incarnations of the Master. The sinister chuckle belongs to ‘80s-era Master Anthony Ainley, while we get a line from “The Daemons” said by original incarnation Roger Delgado: “Destroy him, and you will give your power to me.” It’s a tribute to Delgado’s enduring brilliance that that recycled line feels so completely perfect in this new context. Elsewhere, the Doctor’s declaration that humans are “indomitable” recalls one of the 4th Doctor’s most famous speeches in “The Ark In Space.” And there are so, so many references to other new series episodes, though I’m going to single out my favorite nod to the show’s recent past. In an episode where the shadow of the 9th Doctor necessarily looms large, it’s telling that Jack describe’s humanity’s survival as “Fantastic!”

Next week: We reach the end of the third season, and I break out the A.V. Club’s rarest grade in a futile attempt to classify the insanity that is “The Sound Of Drums”/“Last Of The Time Lords.” (No, not the now mythical “A+.”) Also, we’ll have some fun with the multi-Doctor short “Time Crash.” And remember we’ll be tackling the entire fourth season in abbreviated fashion in the following week’s review, so be ready for that, as well.

Filed Under: TV, Doctor Who

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