Don’t blink! Jodie Whittaker and friends tangle with the Weeping Angels in the new series of Doctor Who, but what makes Steven Moffat’s creations so scary?.
Offering up a serialised narrative in six instalments, Doctor Who: Flux has so far brought back iconic monsters like the Daleks, the Cybermen, and the Sontarans in its first half. After one or two cameos to hype them up, this Sunday’s episode features the new series’ greatest original monster, the Weeping Angels, to menace the Thirteenth Doctor and friends.
Created by writer-turned-showrunner Steven Moffat, the Angels first appeared in the acclaimed 2007 episode Blink. For the unacquainted, they’re aliens that feed on potential energy, sending their victims back in time and living off the energy release from changing their future. They’ve also developed the ultimate defence mechanism – they turn to stone whenever observed by another living thing. But as soon as you look away or even blink, they’ll get you.
As Moffat and other writers have both noted with just a little bitterness, the nature of Doctor Who will eat up idea that could have been multi-film franchises within a 45-minute episode. The Weeping Angels seem like the biggest example of that, and unsurprisingly, they’ve returned for sequels in later series. Their suitability for both jump scares and psychological horror has scarcely worn off at all over time, because the enduring terror of Moffat’s creation goes back to their first appearance.
“Fascinating race, the Weeping Angels. The only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely.”
Doctor Who is a show in which our hero’s spaceship looks like a nice, affordable police box, and perhaps it’s in that tradition that New Who’s biggest monster originated in “the cheap episode” of its season. Blink was commissioned after Moffat withdrew from writing a two-part story for Series 3 of the revived show and, by way of apology, volunteered to write the “Doctor-lite” episode instead.
With the addition of a Christmas special to the 13-episode production from Series 2 onward, the idea was to have one lower-budget episode that could be shot simultaneously with less screentime for the leads. The first of these experiments was Russell T. Davies’ Love & Monsters, an episode that’s better than its reputation (just throwing that in for those of you in the comments section who see this feature as my side of an argument you haven’t had yet) but Blink proved somewhat more ambitious.
It’s saying something that David Tennant, unquestionably the most popular Doctor ever, barely features in the episode that is widely considered to be the finest of his tenure in the TARDIS, but that’s just how good Blink is.
Moffat originally came up with the Weeping Angels for his two-parter, which eventually evolved into Series 4’s Silence In The Library and Forest Of The Dead. They were first inspired by his sighting of a single angel statue behind chained-up cemetery gates on a family holiday, as well as his memories of the playground game of Statues, aka Grandma’s Footsteps, aka Red Light Green Light to you crazy Squid Game kids.
The more timey-wimey side of things was a reimagining of ‘What I Did on My Christmas Holidays’ by Sally Sparrow, a short story Moffat wrote for the 2006 Doctor Who annual. In the story, 12-year-old Sally helps the Ninth Doctor get his TARDIS back after he’s stranded in the past. Played by Carey Mulligan before she was famous, Blink’s grown-up version of Sally chances across a conspiracy theory involving Easter eggs of the Tenth Doctor on all of the DVDs she owns and winds up helping him get back to the present.
Directed by Hettie MacDonald, the episode is frequently counted among the scariest of the revived series. The editing brilliantly makes scares out of monster performers Aga Blonska and Elen Thomas standing still between shots, and in an instant they’ve moved, or the prosthetics have morphed into angrier, more frightening expressions – the scary atmosphere has arguably never been bettered in all of Doctor Who.
A lot of Moffat’s subsequent monster creations have had sight-based quirks, whether it’s the Library two-parter’s replacement monsters the Vashta Narada, “piranhas of the air” that dwell in the dark, or the Silence, spooky influencers who are forgotten the moment the beholder looks away. Few are more visually effective than the Angels – when you’re told not to blink, or even not to look away from a scary thing, or the statue will move, the explanations can come later.
The script also zeroes in on the existential terror of the Angels’ “nice”-ness, not killing its victims but effectively ending their lives as they know it, as in the scene where Sally reunites with doomed police officer Billy Shipton, minutes later for her and decades later for him. Among all the set-ups and pay-offs entailed in the episode’s timey-wimey puzzle box, the emotional components remain bittersweet and tragic.
Paradoxically, it’s both the best and worst episode of Doctor Who to show to a new viewer. It’s an almost unimprovable capsule of the show at its most creative and scariest, but it’s also so unlike every other episode that it’s hard to know what you watch second.
Originally broadcast in June 2007, Blink received the lowest audience figures of the third series upon its debut, but the most acclaim. By now, it’s considered a modern classic and that’s at least in part due to the fully formed realisation of the Angels. You can’t do a thing to change them, but then you revisit them, then you bring them back, and oh yes, you can…
In space, no-one can hear you blink
“Have you ever tried not blinking!?”
Moffat has often said that Blink is probably the script that got him the job of showrunner when Davies announced he was moving on in 2008. And for his first series in charge, he gave the Angels an encore.
In a BBC blog written ahead of 2010’s The Time Of Angels, Moffat explained: “The best way to explain the difference between Blink and these two episodes would be to say that I think the best conceived movie sequel ever was Aliens following Alien.
“It took the same monster into an entirely different type of film. That is very roughly the model for this. Blink was a small, low-key one and this is the highly coloured, loud, action-movie one.”
That Aliens influence is very clear in The Time Of Angels, which sees a gaggle of marines (well, militarised clerics) venture into a spaceship that has crash-landed with an Angel on board. Over the course of the two-parter, the Angels come out in much greater numbers than we saw in Blink, and we learn a little more about how they work en masse.
For one thing, the lonely assassin “killing with kindness” thing is out the window, as they’re snapping necks rather than sending people back in time. At full strength, they’re not scavenging, but devouring and even psychopathically taunting people – the use of the deceased Cleric Bob’s voice plays into a recurring Moffat predilection about the dead made alien that runs from his first episode in 2005 to his last episode as showrunner, but brings a nastier, more personal edge to a quite unknowable monster.
Still, the most effectively spooky addition to the mythology this time around is that even an image of a Weeping Angel can be used as a doorway for a real one to come and get you. That’s a hell of a wrinkle to introduce into a show that children watch on televisions, especially with Karen Gillan’s Amy having to stare at one on screen to stop it from killing her.
There are those who think the Angels would have been left better as a one-and-done, but as a sequel in the Aliens mode, The Time Of Angels and Flesh And Stone establish them as credible returning threats outside of Blink’s timey-wimey structure. It’s their next appearance, sending off regulars Gillan and Arthur Darvill in 2012’s The Angels Take Manhattan that puts them on Doctor Who’s A-list of monsters.
It’s not because the episode is any scarier – by the similarity of its name and its baby versions of the title characters, the Series 7 episode has more in common with the Muppets threequel than it does with Alien3. However, at this point, previous new-series companions had exited fighting Big Bads like Daleks, Cybermen, and/or the Master, and this outing puts the Angels on that level. Plus, the Angels’ displacement of Amy and Rory is treated the same as killing them off, writing their deaths into the Doctor’s timeline so that he can’t see ever them again.
Nevertheless, the Angels haven’t appeared much outside of cameos since that pivotal episode in 2012. They did also appear in the final episode of the BBC Three spin-off series Class, as a tease for a second season that never came. Series creator Patrick Ness has since said we’d have seen a Weeping Angel civil war and seen their home planet, which sounds a bit more in line with Prometheus than Alien, if we’re keeping that comparison going.
Meanwhile, they’re already featuring in Doctor Who videogame spin-offs like LEGO Dimensions and (welp!) the VR game The Edge Of Time, so that’s the Alien: Isolation end of things covered. That’s even crossed into the show too, with an Angel crashing Yaz and Sonia’s gaming sesh in last week’s episode.
After a brief appearance in the New Year’s special and occasional interventions in the first half of Flux, they’ll be back in force for this weekend’s fourth chapter, Village Of The Angels. Showrunner Chris Chibnall has hinted that the titular temporal event that’s overshadowed this season gives them a different role to play than they usually do, and maybe there’ll be some more additions to their mythology on top of that.
Whatever happens in their next outing, the Angels’ ascent to the monster A-list has been, as promised, “faster than you can believe”. It’s not just that they’re a scary-looking monster, but they’re also a quintessential Doctor Who creation, turning the everyday into something that sends kids scrambling behind the sofa.
But telly is a visual medium, and for all the talk that the Angels peaked with Blink, it’s that later image thing that always gives us the wiggins. It’s not uncommon for younger viewers and the most nit-picky fans to see a frozen Angel on screen with no other characters in sight and wonder aloud “who’s looking at them now?”
Well, next time that happens, remember – it’s usually you. Try not to blink. Good luck.
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