Doctor Who #718: Father's Day

"There's a man alive in the world who wasn't alive before. An ordinary man. That's the most important thing in creation. The whole world's different because he's alive."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired May 14 2005.

IN THIS ONE... Rose saves her dad, destroys the world.

REVIEW: Rose puts her secret plan into effect and finally asks the Doctor if she can go see her dead father in the prime of his life. Ok, she didn't plan to break the temporal prime directive exactly, but hints dropped across the previous six episodes do seem to indicate she'd at least thought about the various possibilities. So on a surface level, it's an introduction to paradoxes and the dangers of fiddling with one's own timeline (in the larger sense, why doesn't the Doctor go back an undo the Time War?), for the noobs and rubes in the new audience. For aficionados of time travel stories, what happens as a result of Rose's intervention is an absurd collage of ideas that don't logically play out either across the series (classic or new) or even across Father's Day itself. It DOES all make emotional sense, and thus TV sense. Every phone getting the first phone call ever, or anachronistic rap on the radio in 1987 are recognizable symbols of time being out of whack, and really, the same kind of idea as the killer car being presented over and over, like a record player needle looking for the right groove (Pete Tyler). As history collapses onto this point, you also get anachronistic feelings, and so young Mickey running to Rose or Pete trusting her with his keys. The Reapers are said to be repelled by old walls, but seem attracted to older people, which has been highlighted as another flaw, but why should living things and objects be subject to the same rules? (As for why Reapers never appear before or again where time is "wounded", see Theories.) Re-edited history has problems because Jackie's telling of it doesn't quite match what she saw on that day (perhaps she's lied to herself after initially thinking Pete ran out of the church to meet a blond mistress). And of course, Rose touching Rose doesn't cause the flash of energy we see in Mawdryn Undead when Brig touches Brig. Rationally, the show's ideas about time are probably rubbish, though no more so than the weirdness that happens in some classic serials, but as part of a televisual experience, they keep things exciting. When the Doctor finds the TARDIS empty, or when he himself is devoured, don't tell me you didn't go WHAT. That's exciting television.

And if all the episode had going for it was spectacle and weirdness, I would agree with its detractors. But that's all background. What Paul Cornell has written here is really a character piece, and a showcase for the actors. Those elements transcend the plot. We learn a heck of a lot about Rose in the episode, not least of which why she's drawn to the Doctor. It's not just the possibility of changing her family history, but the fact the father she constructed in her mind from Jackie's rose-colored (pun not intended) accounts - clever clogs reliable Pete Tyler - sounds a lot like the Doctor. The PTSD Doctor, desperate to connect with someone after the loss of his entire race, is blind to Rose's agenda (this is in character, the obvious often escapes him, the London Eye, etc.) and feels consequently betrayed by her. That's a great scene, where Rose chatters on trying to avoid the elephant in the room, and she really shouldn't be surprised people think they're a couple if they're going to have fights like that. As before, Rose is selfish, manipulative and a little bit cruel in that moment (note also how she later says she no longer has a boyfriend, though she's failed to inform Mickey of that). Because we're otherwise with her emotionally, we tend to forgive her, though the universe does not. Karma delights in showing her a Pete Tyler that's a far cry from her idealized image of him, although he IS clever enough and open-minded enough to figure out and accept what's going on, a real contrast to Jackie who's obtuseness is, for once, not played for laughs, but for drama. Jackie is the kind of person who doesn't actively listen and filters everything through her own world view and opinion.

As with every other episode of the season, the Doctor isn't allowed to be the hero in the climax. This time, it's Pete Tyler, and as sometimes happens, the hero must be sacrificed. It's all very touching and very well acted by all concerned. No matter how extreme the situation is, the characters' reactions to it feel real. I love every scene between Rose and Pete unconditionally. The notion that Pete, an ordinary man, is as important to the web of time as any world leader is a metaphor made literal in this apocalyptic scenario. To Rose, he is central. It's her world at stake. While the notion is either undercut or strengthened (I can't decide which) by an alternate Pete Tyler being very important indeed in the development of the parallel world in Rise of the Cybermen, it's a theme repeated in Father's Day by the also touching reaction the Doctor has to the married couple. Their story, a chance meeting, is the stuff of ordinary life, but shows just how everything hinges on the smallest things, how pulling at any thread (as Rose has done here) can make everything fall apart. Perhaps not on the macro scale - the Whoniverse's history has often shown its resilience and does so here as well with the result being only slightly different, Pete still dead, etc. - but on the personal level. How many lives have the Doctor's adventures changed, ever so slightly, or in fact, for the people involved, much more dramatically? And make no mistake, no matter how epic in scope New Who's stories can be (especially at finale time), the show is about the personal FIRST.

THEORIES: The Reapers (their official name, though never named in the episode) detect a wound in time and swoop in to sterilize it, gobbling up every one in sight, apparently across the whole of Earth on Nov.7th 1987. The Doctor says his people would normally have stopped this from happening, by which he could either mean the wound itself or the Reapers' feeding frenzy, that's not clear, but though we've had a lot of broken time stories since Father's Day, the monsters were never seen again. Now, these are probably some time of chronovore like the one in The Time Monster, or the one kept as a pet by the 8th Doctor in his early audio stories. Different types of creatures that evolved in the time vortex, have wings, and consume time in some fashion. Despite evidence that there's a richer vortex ecosystem than just these particular creatures, there's no such evidence that they are at all common. Think about it. No only do we never see swarms of them in the vortex when the TARDIS is flying around, but if the Time Lords used to prevent temporal mishaps from happening, it would have starved any larger chronovore population into near extinction. Attracted to the paradox of doubled Doctors and Roses, they were in the vicinity when history broke apart by Pete's survival (specifically, Rose would not have gone back to save him if he'd never died, which is a major paradox), an event that let them breach the normal universe. If time is a local phenomenon, and travel through it does seem slaved to some kind of geography or else it would be instantaneous for the time travelers, then a small number of Reapers have to be at the right "place" at the right "time" for them to get any kind of action. And all those planets that have apparently gone missing in the wake of the Time War? The Nestene homeworld, the Gelth's... Could they have been Reaper feeding grounds? Now that the War is over, it's possible the Reapers are quickly dying out, and be extinct (or in the wrong part of the vortex) by the time we see another paradox.

REWATCHABILITY: High - Deeply emotional, beautifully acted... I'm willing to forgive it any temporal nonsense that doesn't connect intellectually with temporal physics either real or fictional. Definitely one of the high points of the season.


Anonymous said...

I love the part where after the Doctor has berated Rose, she's duly contrite, and he tells her that he can bring everything back "and don't worry, the thing that you changed will stay changed". It's a small point, but it shows that the writers were thinking things through: the Doctor was going to come through for Rose (because the Doctor rocks out loud), but he was also mindful of not letting the wrong word slip.

Why oldest people are tasty to Reapers: because old people make a lot of history? Why oldest places are resistant to Reapers: because old places are where a lot of history collects, and a lot of history has to be undone to get past them? In other words, old places don't actually make history, but they are tied up in a lot of history.

It's also possible that the writers were just pulling this out of their butts, the same way I am.

Anonymous said...

Also, a lot of speculation here:

The Doctor was speaking imprecisely when he was talking about the importance of a single person. Not every person causes history to go in one direction or the other, but in theory any person could be that indispensable person -- and in Pete's case, because his absence is what caused his daughter to travel with the Doctor. You don't get temporal paradoxes until time travel gets affected, so Pete's survival caused a paradox, while most peoples' wouldn't.

This is not to say that history can't be changed; after all, the Doctor was going to keep Pete around. The Doctor just needed to make sure there was another reason for Rose to hanker for time travel -- say, a red bicycle when she was 12 with the words "time machine" written on it -- and things would line up again.

There was an unfired Chekov's gun in this episode, the driver of the car ... his life changed as well, he stuck around for the police this time. Oh well, not everyone is all that important I guess.

Siskoid said...

All great theories/explanations! Well done!

F. Douglas Wall said...

Yeah, my prevailing theory on all the "fixed points in time" is that they tend to involve time travel. Here, Rose tries to mess with her own timeline. Then on Mount Vesuvius, the fixed point was the Doctor's intervention. Lake Silencio was the focal point of two time loops, one involving Canton Delaware that plays out over that story, and the other involving the Doctor that is the story arc for the season.

Siskoid said...

That's a great point, it's all tied up in paradoxes. How do The Waters of Mars fit in?

Martin Léger said...

Maybe instead of eating potential life energy like the Weeping Angels do, the reapers consume non-potential energy, which is why they'd like old people.

Siskoid said...

They eat your past instead of your future. Nice one Marty.

Martin Léger said...

Which also could explain why they weren't fond of the church walls. Not because it was old, but because the church still had a lot potential time energy. Churches have a tendencies to stay standing for long periods of time. In its temporal entirety the church could be relatively young.

Some time paradoxes are kind of an excess of temporal energy that isn't supposed to be there in the first place. The Reapers gobble up that tasty newly created past.

MOCK! said...

This was the first episode I ever rewatched. We are about a season and a half behind real time and all vowed to watch together so one afternoon I was home alone and had nothing to do. This was very emotional and worth watching again.


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