Here’s a pair of quotes from online stuff I read recently. First, Kevin Fanning on the Buffy musical episode:

“I asked Twitter people to send me their recommendations for the best episodes and the response was overwhelmingly in favor of Once More With Feeling. Which is interesting! An important Buffy episode? Sure. A very memorable episode? Uh-Doy! One of the best? Hmmm!…. I don’t want to fight about it. I just thought it was interesting. Does “memorable” equal “good,” the way “skinny” came to mean “pretty,” or “famous” came to mean “important”?

And here’s Alex Macpherson on the new Jazmine Sullivan album:

R&B artists tend to receive most critical praise when they ostentatiously bust out of their genre – when they make a point of removing themselves from its formalism. Sullivan, though, proves how much more mileage there is in letting your ideas run riot while staying true to genre values – and has made the most creative R&B album of the year to prove it.

I have never seen the Buffy episode, and I haven’t (yet) heard the Sullivan album. But I recognise the dynamics these snippets outline – the privileging of the memorable over the merely good. Doesn’t sound so unreasonable when you put it like that, but Lex has a point too – doesn’t giving too much attention to mutations and boundary-pushers risk missing out on the core qualities something delivers? If the thing you like best breaks the rules of its genre, doesn’t that suggest a basic dissatisfaction with that genre?

Instead of an executive stress reliever this year I had a series of polls on the Livejournal Doctor Who community Diggerdydum, asking members which – of the 200+ stories broadcast since 1963 – was the best one? We’ve done it over a series of rounds and today I’m putting up the final poll, which unless there’s been a late turnaround in fortunes looks set to put two “new series” stories against one another, both written by current showrunner Steven Moffat. One is 2005’s The Empty Child two-parter (the one with the scary gas-mask kid). The other is 2007’s Blink (the one with the scary statues). Or I should say, the one with the scary statues and without much actual Doctor in it.

Which is kind of why I related to the Fanning quote! Blink is a lot of people’s favourite Doctor Who episode but, as one of the commenters on the polls put it, he’s a bit suspicious of the idea that the best episode of all time is one where the Doctor himself hardly turns up. I’m innately a bit suspicious of that too. But on the other hand I think Blink is an absolutely terrific episode (as is the Empty Child) – and this is also a poll of fans, not critics. Lex’s complaint re. R&B is that critics – implicitly outsiders – distort the genre by getting excited about what it usually isn’t rather than what it is. But as Fanning points out, fans often get excited by that stuff too. Some fans are conservative about their genre boundaries, but I’d guess many more are playful, and the main difference between them and the critics is that fans have more ability to recognise which experiments are really happening.

The Empty Child feels “trad” – at the time it felt the closest to ‘old Who’ that the new series had come, though its plotting was considerably tighter. And Blink feels “rad”, because the Doctor’s main role in it is as a MacGuffin, a DVD-trapped sphinx whose riddle the protagonists have to solve. But both these initial feelings aren’t really borne out. The Empty Child is part of the first revival season, and so it’s inevitably part of a season-long interrogation of what exactly Doctor Who does and doesn’t do – one aided by casting Chris Eccleston, the least “Doctorish” Doctor of them all, in the lead role. Every episode that year was also a coded question about the show, and in The Empty Child the question is: why isn’t this a show about a time-travelling action hero? And it’s answered by introducing a time travelling action guy who turns out to be the unwitting source of the trouble. So to do this it needs to take other risks with the format: the monsters aren’t monsters and there’s no villain.

Blink, on the other hand, does have a monster, and the monster is the main antagonist, and it has a plan and the plan is entirely tied to Doctor Who and its universe and the rules of that universe. It is also very scary, in the way Doctor Who is meant to be. Blink, in other words, is a traditional Doctor Who story from soup to nuts except with the Doctor removed from it, able to only indirectly affect events. It wears this single experimental element on its sleeve, whereas the Empty Child tries to look as traditional as it can in order to hide the clever stuff it’s actually doing – so when the plot coheres in the final third of the two-parter it works superbly, and the famous happy-Doctor payoff is genuinely satisfying.

What was interesting across the Who poll, incidentally, is that the fans polled were keener on new series experimentation than the risk-taking stories from the old series. This mirrors the opinions of fandom in general. Unusual, boundary-breaking stories from the original run – the Davison pacifist fable Kinda; Troughton’s excursion into metafiction in The Mind Robber; and my personal favourite, the late-period Tom Baker Cocteau pastiche Warrior’s Gate – all did well, but they’re second tier stories, not accepted classics like Blink, and given the choice fans en masse go for more solid old-series excursions like Pyramids Of Mars, the very definition of trad Who done well. Doctor Who is in an unusual position here, of course – the 16 year gap between McCoy and Eccleston was plenty of time for fans (and the public) to settle on an idea of what the show was and did, whereas there’s more of a sense of flux around the new series, even after 6 years of it.

One possible test for the sturdiness of boundary-breaking experiments is: could you imagine a whole series based around this? (I dunno if there’s a musical equivalent). With Blink I think the answer is yes: like fellow new-series experiment Love And Monsters – also designed to create schedule space after filming a Christmas special – they’re glimpses of a parallel world version of Doctor Who, a show about ordinary people whose lives are touched by a mysterious time traveller who flits in and out of the storyline. This show wouldn’t necessarily be very good, though Blink shows that at least it could be. But this idea is also a big theme in the revived show as a whole, which I think is the reason Blink was immediately accepted as a classic: it not only found an elegant way of telling a Doctor Who story without the Doctor, it found a way of telling a new series Who story without rubbing our face in its themes.