Dec 10

Why Blink?

FT13 comments • 1,411 views

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.


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    swanstep on 24 Dec 2010 #

    Interesting discussion. Lots and lots of variables here, I’d say, so you’d need lots of data points to have a hope of reaching any serious general conclusions. The Onion’s avclub has a bunch of such data points with their A Very Special Episode series, of which the MASH instance is a personal fave. One vague thought I have in the tv case is that drama on tv sets itself up for ultra-possibly-overpraised-memorable-one-off-itis: drama has a beginning and ending and an arc, all of which fights with the basic round-and-round-unendingness of a tv series. One consequence of this is that all long-running tv drama series become at bottom comedies (e.g., all soaps are really comedies), but another is that there’s always a potential for long-running dramas to have ‘special episodes’ that in a way renew contact with the original premise of dramaticness for the series. So for one episode or whatever we actually get a complete, virtually stand-alone dramatic arc. Genuinely rule-bending episodes of long-running (official) dramas are part of that phenomenon I believe and I believe the (relatively) self-contained drama-test is a better guide to the underlying phenomenon than your suggestion of ‘could this be the beginning of a whole new series’ is.

    Compare: Sitcoms on tv are perfect for the underlying medium – ‘no learning no change’ as Seinfeld’s mantra was, the characters just go round and round and… – and the whole nature of comedy is timing and flow, so in that case ‘special episodes’ can be v. important but there’s almost no way that they can ever be anyone’s fave episode, precisely because there’s no way that that self-contained interruption can ever be a return to anything underlying about the show’s basic conception in the medium (normally they either are or register as completely dramatic interludes). But one would need to have at least 100 or so solid data points to be close to being sure. [One big sort of exception in the comedy case is flash-back episodes: everything from the Simpsons to Friends (at its peak)contains a parallel poignant drama which it gradually unfurls about how the goofballs of the perennial present of the show got to be here. Those flash-back eps or partial eps can be enormously powerful and indeed regularly become audience faves, but, well, I think you can guess how I’d analyze them….]Lastly, there are so many (and v. diff. from tv) variables in the music case it’s hard to know where to begin. A lot of the greatest musicians are genuinely protean figures so it’s not obvious that any tension between being memorable and being best or favorite can exist.

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    Pete on 25 Dec 2010 #

    The issue with very long running shows is the fact that it is difficult to single out the episodes which do the formula very well (if it is a good long running show, they most all do the formula very well). The episodes which make an effort to almost “show their working” to become that special episode can be considered best because they show that the producers not only know intimately why the show works, they can also comment upon it.

    Once More With Feeling was also pre-trailed as “the musical episode”, and so all knew it was special (ask fans of Angel about the puppet episode and you get a similar if less reverential response). OMWF also uses its conceit to get the characters to openly state their internal monologue, clearly one for the fans who are obsessed by what drives their characters. Blink is great as Doctor Who, but it is also great as a one off sci-fi drama, the type you’ll never see on TV any more. And we cannot in any way do down the immense efforts of Carey Mulligan in making Blink work.

    If part of TV’s work is the communal experience, then the episodes which are memorable will always win out, they provide the easily grasped shared experience because they are easily describes. Seinfeld has the Soup Nazi, for me the Simpson’s has Gummi Di Milo (Homer Badman). Community has Modern Warfare. Its a way into fandom; the interesting thing about the special episodes of Doctor Who is that they sometimes miss out having the character in them. However the Doctor is not strictly the premise of Doctor Who, and Blink uses the premise (adventures in time and space) to its fullest.

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    koganbot on 25 Dec 2010 #

    Some very incomplete thoughts here.

    First, I don’t think “form” is the right word for what holds a genre together. E.g., some variant on verse-chorus, verse-chorus, middle eight, break, chorus is a form used by songs in many genres, but no genre requires this form. And I’m certain that no one can come up with a list of forms, features (involving timbre and instrumentation and singing style and playing style, for instance), lyrical content, etc., for any genre popular in America today that won’t exclude some music that many people feel definitely is in the genre and will include music that many people feel isn’t in the genre. (And I’m not even bringing in the fact that genre titles are Superwords [go here and type ctrl-F “superword” if you want to know about the concept], which means not only that what deserves to be called by the genre name is contested, but that the genre mutates so as to jettison as not being good enough what formerly had been included in the genre.) Also – and this is a point Tom is sort of making – some genres tend to reward risk and rule-breaking or at least the appearance of risk and rule-breaking. This doesn’t mean that I necessarily disagree with what Lex is saying, or that I don’t think genre terms function very well. In fact, I think they’re doing fine, but what they’re doing fine at is to be useful in a world where dance and house and pop and r&b and reggae and hip-hop (not to mention everything from country to reggaeton) cross-pollinate, with few performers being simply in a genre, while conversely you can be in a genre and pilfer from other genres. Which is one thing that Jazmine Sullivan, for instance, does, being in relation to both reggae and r&b. One thing that struck me about Fearless was that she was using full-bodied soul stylings on material where you’d normally expect thinner or more precise vocalizations. This was both strikingly good and strikingly bad at times, but also out of the norm. I haven’t heard the new album but I look forward to it because I liked the single quite a bit and Fearless, which I thought was only partly a success, seemed to open a lot of possibilities.

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    koganbot on 25 Dec 2010 #

    Second, what you guys are talking about in TV shows isn’t about how the shows hew to genre conventions but rather how they hew to or occasionally run counter to or beyond the conventions, expectations, habits, and markers that the show itself has established. And “memorable” seems to mean “different” rather than just “especially good.”

    By the way, similar discussions were taking place in the Forties and Fifties about movies like The Ox-Bow Incident and My Darling Clementine and Shane and High Noon, about whether they were especially good or especially bad compared to the standard oater. (I love My Darling Clementine and hate Shane, neither of which I’ve seen in decades, haven’t seen The Ox-Bow Incident, and I think I only saw the last half of High Noon. I did see Outland, however. Thought it was clumsy but still liked the leads, the premise, the sets, and some of the dialogue and action. More thumbs up than thumbs down on it. Haven’t seen it in decades either, however.)

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    xyzzzz__ on 25 Dec 2010 #

    Just skimming through this at the mo but I’ll just note that in classical music most crits are actively hostile to crossover type experiments. The basis for dismissal is that they are one-offs to attract other people who perhaps wouldn’t give classical a listening space.

    The few crits that might like that kind of thing – Alex Ross – are disliked.

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    sean on 25 Dec 2010 #

    Having some incomplete thoughts here, but I think the reason OMWF works so well and is so memorable is that it perfectly encapsulates all the things Buffy did so well, despite the gimmick aspect. Even though the singing element is different and certainly somewhat unique in the series (and certainly very entertaining on its own merits) it’s not really important when compared to the emotional journey the character’s take in that episode. Or possibly only important because the core concept carried through despite the unusual way it was presented. I’m not sure.

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    Lex on 25 Dec 2010 #

    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.

    ^^this seems key. Among R&B (and hip-hop) fans you’ll often see a desire to hear “something new on the radio” as well as praise for “real” R&B/hip-hop – ie wanting to hear innovation and tradition at the same time. Which goes back to a truism that I often found myself bringing out when discussing the ways in which Timbaland and the Neptunes were innovative – to break the rules in a satisfying way, you have to be steeped in them first.

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    Mark M on 26 Dec 2010 #

    A recent atypical episode I thought was madly overpraised was the Don-Peggy two-hander in Mad Men. Perhaps that was because, from a British point of view, this approach looks less like a radical bit of TV and more an echo of assorted EastEnders (Christmas etc) episodes of the past. But also in the attempt to do something different, they seemed to jettisoning much of what make Mad Men enjoyable – the next, seemingly more conventional, episode was much better from my point of view.
    And surely the worst ever episode of ER (even taking into account the terrible final three seasons) is the Mark goes to Hawaii to die one.
    But equally, I have enjoyed format-suspending episodes – to pick a couple of obvious ones, The Sopranos’ Pine Barrens and the silent, German expressionist Buffy.

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    Pete on 28 Dec 2010 #

    Often these kind of episodes are seen to stretch the abilities of the form to do that kind of show (see various live episodes of soaps / ER / 30 Rock) – to prove that the actors/writers/directors are indeed great and not talentless hacks saved in the edit. As such they often play to the inferiority complex TV has. The classic of this is the Dot / Ethel two hander of Eastenders which won awards, everyone reminded themselves what great classical actors the leads were, made the same old sniggering Little Willy jokes anyway.

    Most successful shows create their own form (the same could be said to be true of musicians) which often slowly mutates over time, which may sit in a larger genre format but the shows individual form us usually what is more shocking to see broken.

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    swanstep on 28 Dec 2010 #

    @Mark M., 8. Agree that that Mad Men episode The Suitcase has received too much positive attention relative to later eps. such as The Beautiful Girls (about which I wrote a little about at the time here if anyone’s interested). The structure of the Emmy awards in the US – which is always for performances in or writing of etc. particular episodes seems to create incentives to produce these exaggerated one-off episodes that sacrifice a lot of the (hard-to-define but instantly recognizable) assured flow that’s the hallmark of a good/great series in its prime. In other words, sadly, I tend to think that teeing up Emmies for Jon Hamm and Elizabeth Moss drove that The Suitcase ep. a little.

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    DietMondrian on 29 Dec 2010 #

    It occurs to me that in the best known and probably most popular Sherlock Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes is missing for a large part of the story – not dissimilar to the Doctor in Blink.

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    […] And Tom at Freaky Trigger wonders about the popularity of the nuWho episode Blink […]

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    Elisha on 30 Dec 2010 #

    A few new American shows are succeeding at the staggering task of producing seemingly formatless series – that is, every episode is a one-off. The most extreme of these is probably “Louis”, the Louis C.K. comedy series (the same actors can even play different roles from one episode to the next). “Breaking Bad” also fits here. Its creator said he wanted to make a series where the main character actually changes over the course of the show. Whoa!

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