Jan 27 2010 2:34pm

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.

Ian Tregillis
1. ITregillis
This is a great analysis of Sally Sparrow. She is hands-down my all-time favorite one-off character on Doctor Who. And one of my all-round favorites, too. I'd give my left arm for more Sally Sparrow on Doctor Who.

I think a lot of the success of this episode lends itself to the incredible performance by Carey Mulligan. She's a very talented performer, imho. When I first watched Blink, I assumed that she was already well known in her home country, based on her acting chops. But Blink came relatively early in her screen career, if I understand correctly, though I'm convinced she has the potential for a huge career. She got rave reviews for her performance in An Education, which I saw entirely for Ms. Mulligan.

(Errr, "owes itself", not, "lends itself." Or something.)
Eugene Myers
2. ecmyers
I'm really enjoying these posts! Thanks for the link to the great song (but it's slightly off, if you can correct it in the post). I'll have to try to find a copy of that short story.
Megan Messinger
3. thumbelinablues
Link fixed! Damn Apple tablet has my head in a tizzy today....

Teresa, you really said it when you called out Scully; I love the X Files but I was always uneasy with her. Twelve-year-old me wanted to be as smart and confident as she was, but she was also cold, and I never have been. I thought that if I couldn't control my goofiness it meant I couldn't be a real grown up. Sounds like I should watch Fringe... right after I get to the rest of Doctor Who! Starting with Blink again.
Sierra Dragon
4. Sierra Dragon
Great reveiw...

"Blink" is by far one of the best epsiodes ever shown on television for any series of any genere. and the character Sally Sparrow was a big part of that.
I've shown my copy to many people most not Dr. Who or even Science fiction fans and have not yet found anyone who hasn't loved it. Including my Mother
Teresa Jusino
5. TeresaJusino
@iTregillis - I completely agree w/you. Carey Mulligan is incredibly talented. I haven't yet seen "An Education," but when I heard she was in it, I knew I needed to. I'll be renting that VERY soon! And thanks for the compliment on the piece! :)

@ecmyers - I'm so glad you're digging the posts! :) They're fun to write, and I love getting into the nitty-gritty of these characters. I'm not sure exactly what trouble you were having with the link to the song. The link worked fine for me...unless it was fixed by the magical Tor webelves...? Thumbelinablues? :)

@Thumbelinablues - Yes! Sometimes I think that's a difficulty particularly w/female characters in sci-fi shows. Because science is so typically a male-dominated world in real life, I guess writers still have some trouble creating characters who are both good at science while also being very much womanly? I guess? But the thing is, those women DO exist in real life, so they should exist just as easily on television. Dana Scully was the BEGINNINGS of a great role model for young girls, but she did the same thing to me that she did to you - made me feel inadequate for being emotional. But being so close to our emotions is part of what makes women wonderful and interesting. It's not ALL we do, but it's also not a flaw, and shouldn't be portrayed as such.

@Sierra Dragon - Totally! My friends and I use this episode to introduce people to Doctor Who a LOT. It's great for that.
Sierra Dragon
6. TrishB
I viewed Dana Scully very differently. For me, it was wonderful to see a portrayal of a woman as a rational,logical being who did not have to wear her heart or her sexuality on her sleeve. It was refreshing to see a character who analyzed her thoughts, as well as her emotions. If that makes her less than womanly somehow, I don't see it.
Teresa Jusino
7. TeresaJusino
@Trish - I guess the difference in how you view Scully and how I view Scully is that I didn't think that Scully wore her heart or her sexuality very much at all, never mind on her sleeve. Rationality and being analytical doesn't make a woman less than a woman, however, being one-note makes a character less of a character. Perhaps it was refreshing to see a mostly rational, analytical woman on television at the time...but it just worries me when I see similar characters appear over and over again, all of which are basically demonstrating that in order to be a "strong woman" you have to check your emotions at the door.

To be fair, that also bothers me with regard to male characters (and men who aren't comfortable crying in real life). But there so many more male characters that balance rationality and their emotions really well in sci-fi. I would just like to see the same be the case for the women.
Teresa Jusino
8. TeresaJusino
PS - Zoe on "Firefly" is a GREAT example of the kind of balanced portrayal of a woman I'm talking about! She just popped into my head, so I thought I'd mention it. :)
Alex Brown
9. AlexBrown
Sally Sparrow (and Rose and Donna) I always loved just for the reasons you said: clever, witty, risky, willing, and brave. When I was growing up, I didn't want to be Britney Spears or Joey from Dawson's Creek; I wanted to be Lois Lane and Buffy and they remind me a lot of the aforementioned characters. (And in college I wanted to be Zoe from Firefly, but mostly so I could have Tudyk all to myself. Tudyk! *dreamy sigh*)
Sierra Dragon
10. a-j
Like to add my thanks for these posts.
Agreed that this is 'gateway' Dr Who. On its first showing friends who disliked the series were asking me about it. The original story is well worth chasing up, you used to be able to find it on the BBC Dr Who website.
Ms Mulligan's other major role in British TV was in a series called 'The Amazing Mrs Pritchard', a sort of English version of 'The West Wing' in which a supermarker manageress, appalled by the cynicism of contemporary politics, sets up a new political party and somewhat surprisingly becomes prime minister. Cory Mulligan played her daughter, and played her well. A thankless role that she was able to make sympathetic.
Sierra Dragon
11. James Lovette-Black PhD
I agree with previous commentators: Blink was by far one of the most excellent Doctor Who episodes to date and I've been watching since 1975. Great post and keep it up!
Sierra Dragon
12. gregcox
Nice essay. My girlfriend and I both fell in love with Sally Sparrow, and were crushed when she didn't become the Doctor's next Companion.

Little did we know that Carey Mulligan was on her way to bigger pastures . . . .
David Spiller
13. scifidavid
This a great series of posts. At the time I saw Blink I knew that the actress playing Sally had a huge future. But then I guess the name slipped my mind. It wasn't until this post that I realized why the name Carey Mulligan seemed familiar. Now 'An Education' is a must see.

I knew that Mr. Moffat had written many of my favorite Dr. Who episodes, but it wasn't until this series of posts that I thought about what a fantastic series of women he had greated. I dont yet know what to think of Matt Smith or Karen Gillan but with Mr. Moffat running the show, I think we are all in for some great adventures with some terrific women.

PS - I am also a huge fan of Olivia Dunham. I also like Dana Scully but I think you comparsion of the two is right on the money. Olivia is a much more fully developed, complete chacter.
Teresa Jusino
14. TeresaJusino
First of all, thanks so much to everyone for your compliments on this series! It's nice to be able to write CELEBRATORY articles about women in sci-fi and not be COMPLAINING for once! :)

@Milo1313 - you can have Wash, I'll take Alpha. Deal? ;)
Sierra Dragon
15. pajh
I was linked here from a comment on my own blog and would just like to thank you for these incisive analyses. Your enthusiasm for the characters is infectious.

Moffat's original comment about Amy rubbed me up the wrong way too, but so far it seems to be working out pretty well.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment