Doctor Who: Father's Day
By Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 327
"Father's Day", like "Dalek", is a story which demonstrates that, if done well and sensitively, it is no bad thing for a writer to revisit their past efforts. The eighth episode of the new series draws strongly on ideas from writer Paul Cornell's earlier work to develop a powerful and emotionally affecting story.
In Cornell's second Doctor Who novel for Virgin Books, Love and War, there is a sequence where the Doctor's new companion, Benny Summerfield, shows the Doctor her diary and talks about how, when something painful happens, she records the truth in her diary but frequently also writes a "revised," less painful, version of events on a stick-note over the original. When she is ready to face the truth, she removes the note and destroys it. This idea, of rewriting painful events and eventually having to come to terms with them, imbues "Father's Day": Jackie Tyler has maintained the fiction for years that her husband Pete was successful, but ultimately, Rose comes to discover the reality that her father was, as she puts it, something of "a Del Boy,"-- even though she attempts to maintain the fiction through her description of him as the perfect Dad (reading bedtime stories and organising picnics) when her father asks what he is like in the future, in the end she has to acknowledge that Pete was imperfect: a man who loves his daughter and is willing to die for her sake, and who does, against all expectation, hope that he and Jackie can build a successful relationship, but, even if he had lived, would probably have seen Rose mostly on child-access weekends. When Rose presents her unrealistic portrait of Pete as the ideal parent, it could be a case of wishful thinking, or a template for what he could do now that he is going to survive, or perhaps a case of giving him the answer that she thinks he wants to hear. But in the end, both he and Rose have to acknowledge that this is simply Rose's fantasy, and have to accept the reality, warts and all.
The explanation for the presence of the Reapers begs the question of why the creatures haven't been seen pursuing the Doctor before, given the number of cases in the series of a historical person dying, or having their lives changed, due to the presence of time-travellers of whatever species (e.g. Ixta in "The Aztecs"). The explanation given in the story is that the Time Lords used to regulate this sort of thing, but, in their absence, nature is now taking its course again. However, there may be an additional explanation for their presence in this particular situation. The second time that Rose goes to watch her father's death, the Doctor refers to the presence of two Doctor/Rose pairs in the situation as being dangerous, saying that "this is the last time we can be here"; a further paradox emerges when, despite the Doctor's warning that they must not be seen by their earlier selves, the present Rose runs out into the street right in front of the Doctor and herself in the past. Considering that the paradox created when Rose touches her infant self gives the Reapers the power to invade the church, and that they only become physically present in the first place after Rose sees herself, it seems likely that a defining factor in bringing about the presence of the Reapers is the existence of multiple time paradoxes in the way in which Rose saves her father as much as in the fact that he survives at all. Certainly, they do not appear to be creatures with a direction or a sense of purpose, acting randomly and seemingly attacking people just because they run or move at the wrong moment; the fact that they will cause a worse paradox by consuming all the humans on Earth than simply the survival or death of one man creates a sense of events spiralling out of control from a single rash action. The Reapers seem to have contradictory elements, being initially described by the Doctor as opportunistic bacteria and then as sterilising agents cleaning a wound; however, this may be a reflection either of a change in the Doctor's attitude to the situation, or of the creatures having, appropriately enough under the circumstances, contradictory elements to their natures.
The key drama in the story revolves around the figures of Rose's parents. Pete, despite Jackie's subsequent description of him as a brilliant man who would have been successful had he lived, is actually worse off than the Only Fools and Horses ne'e'r-do-well Rose compares him to, as Del Boy at least was given a degree of respect by his friends and family. Rose's father is also not intellectually bright or gifted with foresight; he is a gadfly who has embraced the 1980s entrepreneurial ethos, but is not particularly well suited to it, trying all sorts of schemes because the media and the culture are all full of rags-to-riches success stories, when, like many people at the time, he would have been better off in a steady job (which, admittedly, were in distinctly short supply in 1987). Maritally, Pete is also none too successful; he can't remember his fiancée's name at their wedding (Jackie's response to this- "good enough for Lady Di"- strikes an ominous note for present-day observers) and has had at least one documented affair (his flirtation with Rose suggests that he isn't above chatting up random attractive young women, particularly blondes). In the end, though, Pete is redeemed because of his love for his daughter and, despite their difficulties, his wife; the kiss he gives Jackie speaks of deep affection, and, whether he understands the wider significance of his actions, he gives up his life to save the world.
Pete's sacrifice also brings out the Christian themes of the episode, which is, after all, a story about an ordinary man sacrificing himself to save the universe, in a church. At the same time, though, Pete is no saintly or Christlike figure; his very ordinariness exemplifies the doctrine that the meek and the humble, performing small and secret acts of self-sacrifice, are the most important of all. This is further brought out in the Doctor's own sacrifice of his life to save the people in the church (evidently in the hope that, being the oldest one there, it will take the Reapers longer to consume him and give the others a chance to escape), and the Doctor's two remarks about the importance of ordinary men and women to the universe. In particular, the second iteration of this message, to the young couple about to be married, stands in explicit contrast to the more pessimistic one given by the groom's father earlier in the story; where he grimly opines that the marriage won't last and is for all the wrong reasons, the Doctor sees it as the story of a miracle, with a baby and a loving relationship stemming from a random act of charity outside a nightclub. In the end, the story says, what matters is not whether you are a politician or world leader, but how you live your life and what you do with it.
We also gain some insight into Jackie Tyler, and how she became the spiteful, selfish and clinging person she seems to be in 2005. Although she probably had a nasty streak to begin with, it can't have been improved by the life she has led: in a time and place where most women were still expected to, ideally, marry a man who would provide for the family, and become a full-time mother, she has married a man who is a failure as both a provider and a romantic partner. She seems to feel trapped, raging impotently at her husband without being able to change his behaviour; it also seems, from the fact that she obeys instantly when the Doctor orders her to shut up and do what she's told, that she has been looking for someone who will take control and direct her life, but Pete is unable to do that. Jackie's present-day behaviour thus appears to be affected by her feelings that she failed in her marriage, and of being afraid to take charge but forced by circumstances to do so.
Pete's sudden death, also, does little to improve the situation. This loss would no doubt, as such events do, inspire in her simultaneous feelings of guilt at not having treated him better during his life, and also resentment at him for having left her with all the responsibility of raising their child on her own. This not only explains her obsession with her appearance and sex life in the present (stemming from the feeling that, having been forced to raise a child on her own for seventeen-odd years, she has missed out on life), but also why she clings so strongly to Rose to the point where she would accuse Mickey of her murder; having lost a husband, she's afraid of losing her daughter as well. The stories she later tells the young Rose about her father would seem to have multiple motivations: firstly, as a kind of fantasy on her part, that she married a man who was, in fact, a success; secondly, as self-justification, so that she doesn't have to acknowledge that her choice of husbands was a poor one; third, a possible sense of guilt and regret that she never made her peace with him before he died; and, finally and most importantly, that she wants to give her daughter a positive image of her father, and not have her grow up thinking ill of the dead. Ironically, this may be why Rose has turned out as good a person as she did, despite having been raised in difficult circumstances by a mother who comes across as spiteful, selfish and ignorant; through trying to live up to the ideal held up to her in the form of her dead father. Jackie and Pete thus have both succeeded in a sense, in that they have produced a good, optimistic and intelligent daughter.
The presence of the child-Mickey (who, to judge by the child's apparent age, must be around 25 in the present day) raises the question of why he runs to Rose when he cannot recognise her and, if he knows her at all in the present, would be unlikely to connect the grown woman with the infant. The reason probably stems from the same impulse that causes Pete Tyler to give Rose the car keys automatically; more than just vaguely recognise her, Pete feels an instinct to trust her, but later wonders where the impulse came from, and even Jackie later recognises Rose as her own daughter when she stops letting her anger and suspicion get in the way of her instincts. Similarly, Mickey feels affection and trust for the woman he will go out with in the future, even though he neither recognises her nor understands why he feels that way. Considering that the story features telephones echoing Alexander Graham Bell's first phone message, and a car trapped in an endless loop, Mickey's trust of Rose may be another of the future echoes and strange understandings unleashed by Rose's interference with time.
The Doctor once again shows his truly alien side here, in that it does not seem to occur to him that someone going back in time to see their father's death wouldn't at least consider the possibility of stopping it happening, and doesn't question Rose's motives until the worst happens, whereupon he accuses her of having planned it from the first. Effectively, he draws a parallel with Adam in the previous story, "The Long Game", in calling her a "stupid ape" and taking back her TARDIS key, effectively threatening to strand her in the 1980s for her misbehaviour (although he later says that he would not really have followed through). The key difference between Adam and Rose, however, is that, while both commit a thoughtless act for selfish reasons, Adam did so for personal gain and greed, and was not interested in the consequences of his actions beyond profit for himself, whereas Rose is acting from sorrow and love, genuinely doesn't realise that her actions will have as serious an effect as they do, and is trying to save another person's life. Ultimately, though, the Doctor seems to recognise this difference, in that, for all he rages at her (even managing a snide reference when baby-talking to her infant self), he- and, significantly, without saying so until he has to- tries to keep her father alive, even though he knows that this action is wrong.
As noted above, the antecedents of this story lie most strongly with Cornell's earlier work (just to give a few examples: babies, churches, weddings, wanting to go back in time to see someone who is dead, searches for absent fathers, rewriting history, and going back to your childhood to change your past). Elsewhere in sci-fi and telefantasy, although we have no Brazil references this week, we do have Sapphire and Steel (time paradoxes, significant buildings, strange events resulting from tampering with time which include a car continually repeating the same action- like the traffic outside the petrol station in the final story- and a telephone giving strange messages), Star Trek's "City on the Edge of Forever", and even the Guardian TV reviewer noted the links to Stephen King's "The Langoliers". Rose's long, confused ramble when she suspects her father of fancying her is very Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The antecedents from the classic Doctor Who series include "Mawdryn Undead" "The Curse of Fenric", "Day of the Daleks" and "Ghost Light". The story also picks up on the theme in "The Unquiet Dead" of ordinary people being important, even if their importance is not known to any but a few.
Finally, it is worth noting once again that the effects and makeup are brilliant, particularly the Reapers (although we remain more impressed by the fact that, despite one or two 21st-century cars infiltrating the background, the BBC were able to source a D-registration Ford Escort for Pete to drive). One slightly off note is, however, that the infant Rose seems to have blue eyes, but Billie Piper's eyes are brown. There have been no significant world events on the Saturday that this story was broadcast; however, given "Father's Day"'s theme of the importance of the ordinary, this is not entirely inappropriate.
At the end of the story, then, Rose does not get her father back, but she does get closure, changing her mother's bitter story of her husband dying alone after a hit-and-run incident to a more positive one, in which the driver stopped to make amends and an unknown young woman held Pete's hand as he died. The final message of "Father's Day" is thus that, perhaps one cannot change history, but one can come to terms with events and, thereby, achieve a kind of peace with them.