When it comes to writing, less is so often more. Whenever I look at a piece and think, “Right, that’s done,” I force myself to try and cut a tenth of the word count. It makes me evaluate what’s really needed, and what’s sticking behind as self-indulgent fluff. I was told once that adding constraints can really help your writing, and I believe that’s true.
With that in mind, let’s look at Doctor Who‘s “Blink.”
Writing a story is a lot like solving a puzzle. Having extra problems to solve such as losing a set, difficult actor schedules and—most relevant here—budget constraints can lead to some very creative and interesting solutions. And some very creative and interesting stories.
Doctor Who was bred on a shoestring budget. From day one they were trying to work out how to tell stories with very little money in the bank. In the early days of Who, background Daleks were cardboard cutouts, and having only enough film for one take led to more than a few flubbed lines in the finished product.
Even when it was restored in 2005, Who had a small budget. It was known for creating episodes with a story focused on saving money, as well as having very little Doctor and companion presence so that multiple episodes could be filmed at once. Stories like “Love and Monsters” are examples of this. But perhaps the best shoestring story is “Blink.”
Don’t blink. Don’t even blink. Blink and you’re dead. They are fast. Faster than you can believe. Don’t turn your back, don’t look away, and don’t blink.
— The Doctor (Blink)
“Blink” follows Sally Sparrow, a woman who has grown infatuated with an old house populated with angel statues. As it turns out, these angels are alive, and if they touch someone that person is sent back in time. The angels—known as the Weeping Angels—feed off the time energy of the life that person would have lived. With the help of a video recorded by the Doctor, Sally and the brother of Sally’s back-in-time friend trick the angels, and they end up never able to move again.
This is always going to be one of my favourite episodes of the show. The lower budget created the need for limited sets, meaning that much of the episode is limited to the old house. And that house really has an excellent atmosphere.
The whole episode has an excellent atmosphere. It’s largely quiet, poignant, with music that adds to every scene perfectly.
One of the things that most strikes me about “Blink” is how bittersweet it is. Sally’s best friend is sent back in time, as is a police officer that Sally meets. They both live a full life after this happens, but they’ve been sent out of their own times and forced to start again. The scenes about those sent back in time are emotional. Heartbreaking. And yet, the people lived.
There’s a lot to be said for a situation that can make living a full life heartbreaking, and for writing that can make us feel so much for characters that we’ve known for such a short time.
The episode also has just wonderful suspense. As Sally peels back the layers of the mystery, the feeling of threat builds and it just doesn’t seem clear how Sally is going to defeat the Angels.
And ah, yes. The Angels.
The Weeping Angels are time and time again listed as the best enemy of Doctor Who. (Though I, personally, will probably always favour the Daleks.) The key aspect of the Weeping Angels is that they can only move when they aren’t being looked at. Once your eyes are on them, they turn to stone.
But they’re also fast. In only the blink of an eye, you’re done.
This all might be due to having to create a monster that wouldn’t cost much (I mean, the things don’t even move) but it works perfectly. The suspense builds as, suddenly, a statue moves. And statues continue to move. But we don’t see it. We just see them standing there. Slowly advancing. The only hint of movement is the sound of wings flapping as the camera is on Sally.
“Blink” masterfully builds on the suspense of these impossibly fast creatures that we never see move. We grow to be terrified of what we thought at first to be an inanimate object. In one scene, the light starts to flicker as the Angels advance. Every time the light comes on they’re just a little closer and it’s bloodcurdling.
This episode also contains the best jump scare in the history of Who. Real proof that they can work if executed properly. That jump scare is the only scare that’s ever actually made me scream. I remember my sister and I jumping behind the sofa, finally, like the continuity announcements always warned that we would before Who.
The Angels were wronged by being brought back. As I’ve said before, when it comes to frightening us, less works best.
There’s something else that I think really works in the favour of “Blink”, and that’s that it’s a self-contained story. The Doctor and companion Martha appear only briefly in the episode, while the characters who do star have completed arcs in the forty-five minutes. The episode also, as Nee Who mostly does, wraps everything up in a bow at the end.
It’s actually a great strength of “Blink” that you can follow it all without having seen Who before. For those who haven’t seen the show yet but are thinking of giving it a try, “Blink” gave me a new recommendation.
As is so often the case, New Who struggled to find its feet in the early days. For that reason, some find it hard to get through the first couple of episodes, though what lies beyond is a pretty awesome show. “Blink”, though, can be enjoyed on its own without watching more of Doctor Who, so you can go ahead and watch it first to get a feel for Who at its best. If you’re interested in seeing more after that, then go ahead and do it. The show has managed to give me this seemingly undying obsession, at least
— The Doctor (Blink)