...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Day 2351: DOCTOR WHO: Blink


This proves it: I am SAVIOUR OF THE WORLD! I can beat Cuddly Cthulhu in a staring contest – stone angels hold NO FEARS for me!

So that's three weeks running and the Doctor's barely been in it…

In fact, that's only the third way in which "Blink" resembled Paul Cornell’s "Human Nature" two-parter. Firstly, it's a story adapted from a written work ("Blink" was previously "What I did on my Christmas Holidays by Sally Sparrow" from The Doctor Who Annual 2006) and secondly, there's more than a slight odour of Doctor number seven about this tale of angels and devils…

There are two ways of looking at the events of this week's Doctor Who.

It could be that the Doctor is trapped, not so much trapped in 1969 – he has an easy and obvious way of getting out of that – but trapped by the quirk of the time loop that (for him) begins when Sally Sparrow hands him a folder containing information about his future actions.

(The obvious solution to being stuck in 1969 is to ask to borrow Martha's TARDIS key and then just nip round the corner. From Martha's point of view, the TARDIS then materialises two seconds later and the Doctor steps out in a different suit; from the Doctor's point of view, he just lives through the next thirty-eight years and collects the TARDIS from outside the angels' haunted house. Doctor number seven does something similar when he accidentally strands Sherlock Holmes in 1906 San Francisco at the end of "All-Consuming Fire".)

Since the Doctor warns Billy Shipton that it might blow up two-thirds of the Universe if he contacts Sally at a point before they first met, we might understand that the Doctor is duly cautious of the consequences of altering previously established events. Since he knows what his actions are going to be then he has no choice but to go through with them. Or get eaten by the Reapers. Again.

On the other hand, you might think: he's a Time Lord; he can do any damn thing he likes with a time loop.

So, the other possibility is that it's a trap not for the Doctor but set by him for the angels. The TARDIS is the bait and having it dematerialise so that the angels are caught in each other's gorgon stares is what he does to render them harmless. It's a very seventh Doctor sort of a trap, of course – i.e. over-complicated and without bothering to explain the details to the people caught at the sharp end.

This would certainly be in keeping with the dangerous, pro-active Doctor that we saw at the end of "Human Nature", or the guy with the arrows looking like he's wandered off the set of an early "Angel" episode.

Though surely it would be easier to turn up with a supply of mirrors and a chisel?

The Doctor's near absence from the story plays well into this Doctor as demi-god conceit that is running through the series, just as it did in "Love & Monsters" in fact – by reducing him to glimpses, the story emphasises his power and authority.

And the way time is sliced up differently to our usual Doctor-following perspective also works very well, reminding us of the Doctor's crazy paving lifestyle, and also his cleverness in being able to fit it all together. The conversation with Sally over forty years and via a DVD extra is the perfect metaphor for just how well he does this; he actually manages to have two conversations with her using the same words at one point.

It does mean that the episode rests on the talents of Carey Mulligan as Sally Sparrow, and she is well up to the task. You may remember her as pretty little cousin Ada from "Bleak House" a year or so back, or from last year's "Amazing Mrs Pritchard" – she's a bright young talent and it shows the pull of Doctor Who now that they were able to get her. And she's great. It's one of the minor disappointments of this being just a straight remake of Steven Moffat's contribution to the 2006 Annual (published 2005, obviously(!)), rather than being a sequel, that we don't get the ongoing adventures of Sally Sparrow, the Doctor's non-travelling companion, because she would be great as an occasional on-off person with whom he has adventures. His agent in the 21st Century; his very own Lady Penelope. (Or was that Sophia Miles?) And the Annual promised her a rather more exciting future than opening a DVD store with Larry.

If you're familiar with the rest of Steven's earlier work, you can recognise a lot of "Press Gang's" Linda Day in Sally: she's got Linda's sharpness and wit, though with perhaps less of the acid and insecurities. Similarly, a lot of the more everyday scenes also owed a debt to "Coupling" – I'm thinking of Larry without his pants of course, but also DCI Billy Shipton's swerve to dealing with Sally's inquiry when he clocks how she looks.

(And did anyone else think – just for a minute – that the desk sergeant was being played by Nicholas Briggs in non-Dalek mufti?)

And then the episode steps instantly and without losing its footing from comic chat-up badinage to terrifyingly sinister angels, to tragic outcome as Billy lies dying in hospital.

What could be more moving than that scene between old Billy and young Sally? It's the tragedy of a lifetime summed up in two short scenes, and as good an exposition of how the twists of time travel can screw you up as anything since "Aliens of London".

There were though, I have to admit, some niggles with this episode of grandmother's footsteps.

First, these angels that freeze into stone by the power of quantum mechanics whenever someone is looking at them. Quantum arch angels, you might call them. Right…

First up, "observation" in quantum mechanics means more like "perception" than "looking at", so rather than trying (impossibly) not to blink, you would be better off using your sense of touch to observe them.

And doesn't the TARDIS count as alive anymore? Or else how can they move when they're in the perception field of the TARDIS scanner?

Then there's the idea that if you don't blink that you are continuously observing an object. Obviously, you aren't – the retina of your eye is made up of light sensitive nerves that respond as either on or off (with variation for intensity). It might seem as though you are seeing continuous pictures, but actually, like a television set, it's really a pattern of dots that refresh after a short time. And in fact, that's exactly why a television set works, because your brain is already used to filling in the gaps. The angels should be able to just vanish into your blind spot.

And it's picky, I know, to complain that something that is essentially magical is being passed off as having a basis in physics – Lawrence Miles (again) is fond of asking: "how does a disintegrator gun know to remove the soldier and his weapon and clothes but not the grass he's standing on?" – but that is what is being done here, and done in a way that spreads common misconceptions.

In short form: the angel cannot possibly know that it has to turn to stone.

It's a violation of relativity: for the angel know whether the light from any given pattern of photons striking its surface will reach an observer, the information about where those photons are going to go would have to travel faster than light. Those photons won't, can't reach an observer until some (admittedly very, very small – distance divided by the speed of light, obviously) amount of time later. But the information that they will reach an observer has to arrive back at the angel instantly. Essentially, it would have to make the decision that it is going to be observed before it is observed.

Okay, you say, these angels have timey-wimey powers so they can do that. Fine, but don't try and pretend that it's part of quantum mechanics then, because it's not.

The idea that we change things by observing them is really a conflation of two slightly different QM concepts, anyway.

Firstly, you have to think about how you do the observing. In most cases this is by looking, which is more complicated than you think, because it involves light bouncing off the object you are looking at and travelling to a detector – in the simplest of cases, your eye. The smaller the object the more intense the light you need in order to see anything. (Strictly speaking, the smaller the object the smaller/shorter the wavelength of light you want to use; and shorter wavelengths have higher energy.) In a microscope, you have a light source that shines on the sample and that reflects off and into the focusing lenses; for something really small, you need a tool like a scanning electron microscope that fires a very high energy stream of electrons at a surface and picks up where they bounce back to. In the case of molecules, this is a bit like firing peas at a beach-ball and picking out the pattern of where they land in the sand. And that's quite an apt metaphor, because that stream of electrons hitting the molecules is like tap-tapping away at that ball with tiny peas: each hit does move the ball every so ever so slightly.

Now, if you want to look at anything that's much smaller than a molecule, you are going to run into the problem that whatever you use to look at it with – whether it's photons of light or more likely x- or gamma rays, or electrons – it's going to be similar in scale, like firing a pea at another pea and trying to work something out from the result.

So for really small, quantum level events, we do have to take into account that observing them changes them.

But that's not something that scales to the macroscopic level: the energy involved in observation is indescribably tiny in comparison to the thing being observed.

The other effect is wave/particle duality. That's the trick whereby quantum scale objects like electrons can behave either like a light wave (showing properties like refraction and diffraction) or like a miniature snooker ball (showing them bounce off atoms). This sounds very similar to the angels being fast-moving when you're not looking and stone when you are.

Except it's not similar at all – we've detected the electron at one instant and that (in the jargon) collapses its wave function so that it looks like a particle. But it hasn't stopped – we might be studying the reading of where we observed it but that electron has rattled off somewhere else by that point and is still doing wave/particle duality all over.

So if the angel was really exhibiting that sort of duality, then it could look like a statue in the instant when you observe it but still be the slathering great beastie that devours you at the same time.

Then there's this business of them feeding off the "potential future" that you lose when they send you back in time. It seems to me that by sending you back in time they give you a greater ability to affect the future – Cathy Nightingale, for example, has at least one grandchild alive (and quite possibly more) in the time zone that she was taken from, clearly each with at least as much potential to change the future as she had, never mind the potential changes to the future she could make by exploiting any historical fore-knowledge that she (or perhaps a more unscrupulous victim) might possess.

Plus, how exactly does this work in the case of the Doctor? Given that we appear to be running on "immortal barring accidents/act of Time War" in the new series, why would they think that a short jaunt back in time would be more than an irritation to him? And shouldn't the angels just blow up if they try to absorb all the energy of his potential future?

And of course it's just inviting retrospective retribution – "oh, I've been got by the weeping angels, I know, I'll just plant this atom bomb in the place where I know for a fact they're going to get me…"

And why displace their victims 38 or 87 years? As opposed to, say, 40,000 which would stand a much better chance of killing them. In fact 38 years only just works to kill Billy as he actually dies after the time from which he was displaced, if only by hours. You might guess that the angels send you backwards in time by the amount of potential life that you have in you, which would at least make a sort of sense (and be a bit ominous for Martha!)… except that the Doctor implies that in fact the time displacement is angel-specific – i.e. he Martha and Billy all get touched by Our Lady of -38 Years, whereas unlucky Cathy was graced by Our Lady of -87 years.

From a magical point of view, though, the angels were a marvellous touch. Like the scarecrows last week, in another echo of "Human Nature", they take something everyday and make it bizarre and terrifying.

Trapping them in their own gaze is, obviously, the perfect fairy tale solution to the monster; in fact more than that, it is positively mythological. I've already mentioned the Gorgons, but Alex reminds me that the angels were actually Gorgons in reverse: they kill you if you don't look at them, and it's the angel that turns to stone, not the victim.

Better hope that dodgy light-bulb in the cellar holds out, though.

I was frankly astonished by the revelation in Doctor Who Confidential (and also the Radio Time, but watchful for spoilers, we don't read that until post-Saturday!) that the statues were played by performers. They are incredible at holding their poses, especially when you consider all the latex glued to them and the stone body paint and the contact lenses!

Those prosthetics, though, were perfectly designed; both the "innocent" angel faces and then the shocking full-on fanged version when they attack.

The final montage, to suggest that this is not the end of this monster, was nice but maybe just slightly too long for a sequence that was nothing but ordinary statues. Personally, I think that if you're going to leave the kids having nightmares, you should go for the full cheese and in the last shot have something pass in front of the camera and afterwards the last statue has moved to face full stare into the lens.

"Don't blink" indeed.

A quick addendum about the accompanying "Doctor Who: Confidential" – a forty-four-minute love letter to the series from its star, written and directed by one David Tennant. Half way through there is a cursory five minutes of the obligatory behind-the-scenes on "Blink" which, we both assumed, was there for the "Confidential Cut Down" and the DVD box. How wrong we were; imagine our surprise when the "Cut Down" is thirteen minutes of Sea Devils, Zygons and the Kandy Man. (All right, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss and Gareth Roberts.)

It's long been known that David Tennant has decided how long he wants to remain as the Doctor. On the basis of this show, it's forever.

1 comment:

Joe Otten said...

Would he even have to live through the intervening 38 years? The tardis has been on earth so many times during those 38 years he could borrow it during any previous adventure to take him to 2007 and send it back on autopilot.

Or is that the sort of thing that would make the timey wimey vewy angwy?