Moffat’s Women #3 – Sally

For the previous article in the Moffat’s Women series, CLICK HERE.

The Doctor Who Series 3 episode “Blink” is Steven Moffat’s first episode set in the present day. It’s also another New Who first. It’s the only episode to focus on a contemporary young woman who isn’t somehow enthralled by or beholden to the Doctor. She’s not a companion, and she’s not someone who needs saving. In fact, it is she who ends up saving The Doctor. Her name is Sally Sparrow.

We first encounter Sally as she is photographing an old house. She doesn’t seem to be taking pictures for artistic reasons, merely to record impressions for herself. As she says later when she brings her best friend, Cathy Nightingale, back to the house to examine a mysterious message from the Doctor written on the wall, she loves old things. Here is where I first fell in love with her. She loves old things because they make her sad.


Cathy: “What’s good about sad?”
Sally: “It’s happy for deep people.”

I want to get that on a T-shirt.

Anyway, it is then that the incident that will change her life forever happens. Sally answers the door in the old house to find Cathy’s grandson standing there with a letter for her from Cathy written twenty years earlier. Which should be impossible, as Cathy is there with her now, and is nowhere near old enough to have a grandson. But that is when Cathy mysteriously disappears, and Sally discovers in the letter that Cathy has somehow ended up in the 1920s, started a new life, and had a family. The audience goes on to discover that the Doctor and Martha are trapped in 1969 because of a race of beings called the Weeping Angels, who live off of potential energy. They “kill you” by throwing you into the past and letting you “live to death”, all while they feed off of the potential energy of your present: the life you would have lived, the relationships you would have had. The Doctor and Martha were sent into the past by the Angels, and the TARDIS was left behind at the old house. In order for he and Martha to be able to get back to their usual travels, The Doctor formulates an elaborate plan to get the TARDIS back to him, all of it revolving around Sally Sparrow.

What’s interesting about the plan, though, is that it is entirely dependent on the personality and choices of one person. This plan didn’t require any one person in particular. Technically, it could have been anyone. Yet there was something special about this one. So, what’s so special about Sally?

She is someone who, despite seeming tough and jaded, is sensitive, intuitive, and always willing to say yes when opportunities arise. Sally succeeds in getting the TARDIS back to The Doctor because she is willing to listen to Cathy’s grandson. She is healthily skeptical, but she listens. She takes the letter, reads it, and does what Cathy asks; she goes to Cathy’s brother, Larry, to explain his sister’s disappearance. When leaving Larry’s video store, she heeds the advice the cashier screams at the TV to “go to the police!” When she does that, she meets Detective Billy Shipton, and accepts a date with him, even though she puts on a show of it not really being an acceptance. “Just a number. It’s not a promise. It’s not a guarantee. It’s not an I.O.U. It’s just a number.” Sally is constantly accepting the messages the world (or in this case, The Doctor) sends, and moving forward positively because of them.

She is also clever, and has a mind that is constantly calculating and figuring things out. She is observant in a way that many people aren’t. When she goes to Cathy’s grave in the beginning of the episode, she looks at the dates, stops to do the math and quips, “You told him you were 18, you lying cow!” When she leaves the police station after giving Billy her number, she remembers what he said to her about no key being able to open the TARDIS, and remembers the key she took from one of the statues at the old house. After seeing Old Billy, listening to his message from The Doctor reminding her of the list of DVDs Larry gave her, she realizes that it’s a list of the 17 DVDs she owns, that she is the common denominator, and that the Easter eggs that Larry has been obsessing over were meant for her.

The problem of many female characters on television is that they are either completely driven by their emotions, or they are brilliant and ambitious, but are asexual and inept at dealing with people. It’s as if women are allowed to be either emotional, intuitive, and loving, OR intelligent, ambitious and competent. God forbid a female character be all those things. It’s the difference between Dana Scully on X-Files and Olivia Dunham on Fringe. As much as I love Dana Scully, she was the stereotypical “career woman.” She was never allowed a sex life, she had a short haircut and wore mannish suits most of the time, she was the “cynical one” save her occasional references to religion, and she seemed cold even when dealing with her family. She doesn’t have friends, and her deep friendship with Mulder is entirely dependent on sexual tension. Olivia Dunham, on the other hand, began the show in a loving and very sexual relationship. She runs after criminals with her long, blond locks flowing behind her, and her uniforms are flattering. She is clearly brilliant, and there is no doubt she is a competent FBI agent, but she just as clearly cares about and for people. Olivia exhibits believable warmth with her family, while also maintaining deep friendships with men, like Peter or Charlie, without sex being an issue. She is capable of being beautiful and being friends with a man without there being anything else to it. That balance between head and heart is key to a successful female character, and it is why Olivia succeeds where Scully falters.

Sally Sparrow, too, is successful because of this balance. She is intelligent and intuitive. She exudes sexual energy, but it is not her only asset. She is someone who accidentally puts her crush’s last name after hers when introducing herself and leaves awkwardly (“Don’t look at me! Don’t look at me!” She probably wished she could be quantum-locked so that if Billy looked away she could disappear in her embarrassment!), but who also has the fortitude to tell The Doctor, “I’m clever, and I’m listening, and don’t patronize me, OK? Because people have died, and I’m not happy.” She is outwardly cynical, but she will cry over her friend while reading her letter, and sit with Old Billy until he dies.

Once again, we have a brilliant female performance from Carey Mulligan in the role. We also have the added bonus of a female director on the episode, Hettie MacDonald, who was the first female director on Doctor Who since the Sixth Doctor! These ladies contributed so much to the success of Sally Sparrow. However, the character was originally Moffat’s, and existed before the episode “Blink.” Sally Sparrow originally appeared in a Moffat short story that appeared in Doctor Who Annual 2006 called “What I Did on My Christmas Holidays by Sally Sparrow.” He skillfully incorporated that character into “Blink” and managed to create, in only one episode, the perfect contemporary female television character.

ADDED BONUS:  If you haven’t heard it already, check out Chameleon Circuit’s awesome song, “Blink“, based on this episode.  Then, you should immediately run to iTunes and download their entire Trock (Time Lord Rock, get it?) album.  It is ROCKSAUCE.

Teresa Jusino was born on the same day that Skylab fell. Coincidence? She doesn’t think so.  She is a contributor to, a webzine examining geekery from a feminine perspective. Her work has also been seen on, on the sadly-defunct literary site, edited by Kevin Smokler, and in the Elmont Life community newspaper. She is currently writing a web series for Pareidolia Films called The Pack, which is set to debut Summer 2010! Get Twitterpated with Teresa, Follow The Pack or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.


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