A Special Look at: Father’s Day

I was never quite the big fan of Father’s Day, another pseudo-historical. The episode isn’t that bad actually, in term of how women are depicted, according to Simon’s incoherent blog post, “How sexist is Doctor Who?–Part Eight“:

Welcome to Part Eight of my attempt to analyse the sexism in every Doctor Who story ever, using the Bechdel Test – and my wits. For a reminder of the rules, check the Intro here.

A quick reminder of the Test:

  1. It has to have two named female characters
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man.

Having now covered all of the classic series (and the Paul McGann interlude), it’s time to get up to date as we start to look at “Nu-Who”. This is where the idea for this series really began, with Rebecca Moore’s determined attempt to prove that Russell T Davies was more inclusive than arch-sexist Steven Moffat, as mentioned in the Intro.

Father’s Day

 

  1. Yes – Rose Tyler, Jackie Tyler, Sarah, Bev, Suzie
  2. Yes – Jackie, Bev and Suzie outside the church; Jackie and Rose
  3. Yes – Jackie, Bev and Suzie talk about the ‘missing’ guests, Jackie and Rose talk about Jackie’s hair

Notes – Paul Cornell’s typically emotive script does very well by its female characters, all of whom are given depth and sympathy, however minor. And once again, it’s Rose who saves the day, after the Doctor has been deleted from time (though to be fair, she caused the whole situation in the first place).

I’m just not particular towards this episode. According to The A.V. Club review:

“The past is another country. 1987’s just the Isle of Wight.”

There’s an art to taking the drab and mundane and turning them into something interesting, and that’s what director Joe Ahearne and the rest of the Doctor Whocreative team do with the setting of “Father’s Day.” As Rose observes in the line directly before the one above, the day her father died is just any other day, a dull autumn Saturday that seems ill-suited to anything exciting or tragic. After making a single Dalek seem like the scariest thing in the world in his previous directorial effort, Ahearne frames and shoots this episode so as to emphasize the crushing normalcy of the script. He’s ably assisted in that endeavor by Paul Cornell’s script, which places Pete Tyler’s death in the context of Stuart Hoskins and Sarah Clark’s wedding. This is very much a working-class London occasion, one in which the father of the groom constantly grumbles about the rushed, pregnancy-related circumstances behind the nuptials; one in which the attendees wear their best clothes, which, if Pete’s suit is anything to go by, fall somewhere between snazzy and cheap; and one in which depressingly few people show up, though that may have something to do with the time-devouring monsters flying overhead.

That gap between the larger-than-life and the heartbreakingly mundane is where so much of the power of “Father’s Day” lies, as Rose discovers when she finally meets the man she only knows as “the most wonderful man in the world.” Far from the brilliant businessman and devoted family man that Jackie described him as, Pete is a failed entrepreneur constantly chasing get-rich schemes, and he onlyprobably isn’t a philanderer. Even so, he’s clever enough to realize who Rose really is—even given the hints of the paradox-sterilizing Reapers and her generally bizarre behavior, it’s an impressive leap—and to realize who he really is or, more accurately, who he isn’t.  The scene where he asks Rose to describe what he will be like as a father is full of conflicting subtext. For all her disillusionment, Rose still paints a picture of the world’s most perfect father; it’s such an obvious lie, one that she tells to herself far more than she does to Pete. Her father already suspects that he was meant to be hit by that car, and his daughter’s impossible story is sad confirmation.

That’s the real paradox of “Father’s Day,” and it has nothing to do with time. After Pete’s death in 1987, Jackie and Rose spent the subsequent 18 years building him up as the most wonderful man in the world, someone who always came through when they needed him. It’s Rose’s belief in that romanticized view of history that leads Pete to work out the truth, because, as he puts it, “That’s not me.” But the mere fact that he’s willing to throw himself in front of that car to save the world—or, more accurately, to save the women he loves—is proof that he really was all the things his wife and daughter always said about him. This season of Doctor Who has been defined by its ordinary heroes, those who take inspiration from the Doctor and do the right thing when the Time Lord is unable to. In some instances, that has made the Doctor look a tad inept, but not here. This is Rose and Pete’s story, driven by the beautiful writing of Paul Cornell and the nuanced performances of Billie Piper and Shaun Dingwall.

Indeed, the Doctor is frequently at his most alien and imperious in how he seizes control of a situation that even he may not be able to put right. For all his apparent coldness—and he has reason to be brusque, given Rose’s betrayal of his trust—the Doctor is ultimately as compassionate here as we have yet seen him be in this incarnation. Christopher Eccleston is given a particularly lovely scene when the would-be newlyweds ask if he can save them, and he asks who they are. The question sounds brusque, but it’s clear that he really does want to understand, if only for a moment, the workings of such achingly human lives. As he observes, “I’ve travelled to all sorts of places, done things you couldn’t even imagine, but you two. Street corner, two in the morning, getting a taxi home. I’ve never had a life like that.” That little moment is a poignant reminder that, no matter how much the Doctor might look like us, he is not human, and so many tiny aspects of the human experience that we take for granted lie forever beyond his reach. The scene works because Eccleston plays it with just the right degree of wistfulness; he would fight to save anyone’s life, but he considers especially important those that assume their simple, ordinary lives aren’t important at all.

At the very beginning of the story, the Doctor is presented in the most magical possible terms. When Rose asks if it would be possible to see her father, he assures her that he can do anything, and he even invokes a genie as he declares, “Your wish is my command, but be careful what you wish for.” On some level, these lines turn the Doctor into an all-powerful plot device, as it doesn’t really matter precisely how the Doctor manages to fly the TARDIS to Jackie and Pete’s wedding or that fateful day in 1987. More than any previous story, “Father’s Day” is concerned with a clear what-if question, and so it aims to get straight to the point by bringing Rose face-to-face with her doomed father. The opening scene is just the first of several instances in which Paul Cornell emphasizes the emotional stakes over more plot-based concerns, which proves crucial to making the story as a whole work. It’s not that “Father’s Day” is any more illogical than any of this season’s other episodes, but its story works more because it feels right than because the morass of paradoxes is explained in exacting detail.

The Doctor’s lines also establish a parallel between his relationship with Rose and the one that she forges with her dad. Cornell presents multiple possible ways of thinking about the Doctor and Rose; Pete himself assumes that the pair had had a lover’s quarrel when the Doctor storms off, but the Doctor’s own words—“I picked another stupid ape!”—suggests the Time Lord sees Rose as a glorified and highly disappointing pet. The Doctor’s paranoia in that scene is heartbreaking, as he coolly points out that Rose refused his invitation when she only knew the TARDIS could travel in space, but she agreed when she learned it could also travel through time. The implication is such a brutal inversion of the joyous emotions on display at the end of “Rose,” and the Doctor quickly accepts her denial and moves on, but the damage has been done.

And yet, the Doctor does later admit that he was never really going to abandon Rose. He needs Rose to say that she’s sorry, and it’s fitting that it’s only once they reconcile that the Doctor realizes his TARDIS might be recoverable after all. It’s an open question whether the Doctor could really hope to undo all the damage caused by the paradox-sterilizing Reapers, as he claims; I tend to think that was wishful thinking on his part, a desperate attempt to avoid the inevitable solution of Rose watching her father die once more. But Pete’s words ring true here when he says that it’s his job for it to be his fault, which is an apt description of how the Doctor has always seen his relationship with his companions and, really, the universe at large. When the Doctor places himself between the humans and a Reaper, declaring “I’m the oldest thing in here,” his sacrifice is not necessarily a logical one, considering he’s humanity’s last best chance. But logic doesn’t enter into it when his surrogate children—whether you define that as just Rose or the entire human race—are in danger, and he instinctively sacrifices himself just to buy them some extra time. Pete Tyler’s subsequent decision to resolve the paradox at the cost of his own life simply proves that the Doctor’s faith—his love, even—was not misplaced.

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One thought on “A Special Look at: Father’s Day

  1. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Doctor Who: Series 9 | The Progressive Democrat

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